Even though you’re kicking like mad, your horse just won’t pick up the canter. Or maybe every time you try to jump, he refuses the first fence two or three times. Or perhaps he walks so slowly when you go trail riding that you always seem to be 10 yards behind your friends.
Worse, your horse happily cruises along on trail rides, but every time you try to do flat work in the ring, he pins his ears, wrings his tail, and even kicks out at your legs. These are all exasperating, but common, problems.
The most common reason for sluggish behavior is personality — a quiet horse who doesn’t have a whole lot of get up and go. Honestly, he’s kind of a couch potato and would prefer to watch other horses work than actually use his muscles. This isn’t generally a bad problem to have because this personality tends to produce safe, bombproof mounts. After all, it’s a lot of work to misbehave.
Fitness or, more likely, lack of fitness often contributes to sluggishness, especially in large, quiet breeds, like draft crosses or old-school warmbloods. An overweight horse is like an overweight human — not really keen on activity because it’s just plain hard and tiring.
But your horse might not be overweight, especially if you’re careful about the amount or type of feed he gets. He could be like a naturally skinny teenager or adult, one who’s never built the muscles he needs to actually do a sport. Consequently, he’s so easily tired by exertion that he’s disinclined to go anywhere.
Poor riding or training can also sour a horse and make him sluggish. The horse may have been ridden in a way that didn’t encourage him to go forward, perhaps because whoever was riding him was afraid of his size or stride. Or perhaps the rider couldn’t sit the canter or trot unless they were just mincing along. Consequently, the horse hasn’t been taught to move forward or away from the leg aids; they’ve never been taught that rule No. 1 is ”go forward.”
Sometimes horses become sluggish because they’ve spent time being jarred by a novice rider or perhaps even by a rider with poor body control, making them sore. Poor riding could also make them mentally sour, forcing them to sort of retreat inward, seeking to protect themselves.
And some horses just plain have a sour attitude. They don’t want to work. These are the toughest.
Forward State Of Being
Horses, especially young horses, who are very relaxed, happy-go-lucky sorts, are the best kind of sluggish horses to train and improve. For the most part, all you have to do is give them the tools they need to go forward.
The two most misunderstood words in the horse-training lingo are ”forward” and ”fit.” Forward doesn’t mean ”fast,” and fit doesn’t necessarily mean he’s ready to start a 100-mile endurance ride. And neither concept should ever have any negative connotations.
Forward is more than a speed or level of activity — although each can indicate a lack of a forward attitude and energy. Forward means that a horse is using his hindquarters and his back to propel himself toward a destination — a jump, a cow to be cut, a hill to climb, or to collection (the ultimate expression of forwardness). Remember, a horse performing piaffe is not moving ahead but is extremely forward.
Forward means the horse is attentive to the rider’s aids and is ready to accomplish whatever task is before him.
It’s accomplished by a rider using his driving aids (legs, seat and voice) energetically, as much as necessary, but as lightly as possible. Ideally young horses learn to go forward from the outset of their training, but it’s possible to teach horses to go forward later in their lives.
Heavy-boned horses are often characterized as slow or clunky. But they don’t have to be that way if you ride them energetically and forwardly, teaching them to carry themselves so you don’t have to.
Forward is an attitude or a state of mind in both horse and rider. In fact, the horse develops a forward attitude because of his rider or trainer.
However, a key ingredient is fitness. You can’t expect a horse to be obedient, willing and energetic if you only ride him one or two days a week. It’s like trying to walk for five miles, play 18 holes of golf or play three sets of tennis on the weekend if you never get out of your chair during the week.
Go Find Hills
Step No. 1 toward overcoming a sluggish horse is to get him (and perhaps yourself, too) fitter. Simply riding three or four days a week, for 30 to 60 minutes, is a step in the right direction. And if you make it count by doing useful, beneficial exercises, it’s even better.
Start by just walking. It’s as beneficial a gait for horses as it is for humans. But really walk. Don’t just amble around the ring. Walk around fields or go for a trail ride once or twice a week. And be sure to get somewhere by using your legs, seat, spurs, whip or voice to make your horse stride out.
Just getting your horse out of the ring will do wonders for improving his eagerness and attitude, and the low-stress conditioning effect of walking is guaranteed to improve everything else you do with your horse.
But there’s even more. Trot and canter around the field or on the trails, working up to five, 10, even 20 minutes of trotting at a time. If you can trot eagerly for 15 or 20 minutes, then performing a two-minute jumping course or a five-minute dressage won’t feel much like work.
Another excellent exercise is to find a good hill to trot or canter up. Quiet horses will particularly benefit from walking and trotting up hills by building the muscles in their hindquarters and backs.
Sluggish horses are often simply too weak to do what you’re asking, whether it’s to jump, to hunt, or just to canter. It takes a long time (we’re talking months or years, depending on the size and age of the horse) to develop the muscles they need. The bigger the horse, the longer it takes.
The most straightforward — and highly effective — exercises to overcome a sluggish or lazy horse are transitions, transitions and more transitions. They keep horses awake, thinking and listening to their riders. They force riders to use their aids effectively without endlessly (and ineffectually) nagging the horse. They build strength much more effectively than just trotting around the ring.
Transitions can be as simple and basic as walk-to-halt and halt-to-walk. They can also be as mentally and physically demanding as making a transition every three strides. And they don’t have to be from gait to gait — lengthening the stride at the trot or the canter and shortening the stride to the working gait is a transition.
Jumping exercises are often extremely useful to increase a horse’s enthusiasm and mental speed. Some horses don’t naturally think, or react, quickly, but there is no shortage of exercises you can create using poles, cavaletti or jumps. These footwork exercises teach young or inexperienced horses to pick up their feet quickly and correctly to avoid hitting the rails. (If your riding instructor is unfamiliar with footwork exercises, we recommend international course designer Linda Allen’s excellent book 101 Jumping Exercises For Horse And Rider .)
Even dressage horses and riders can benefit from an occasional school over footwork or gymnastic exercises. They make both horse and rider use their bodies in new ways, encourage both to go truly forward, and they develop confidence in both parties.
Find The Cause
A tougher nut to crack is a horse who’s sluggish because of a physical problem, a problem that isn’t serious enough to make him lame but does make him uncomfortable.
Just as with an obvious lameness, the first step is to isolate the problem, a challenging task that may take weeks or months, especially if the horse has been uncomfortable and compensating for it for a long time.
Start with the feet. Are they sore’ Does he have one or more old abscesses that have caused bruising’ Is there a shoeing or trimming problem, or does he just need new shoes and a trim’ You could also check for physical conditions like navicular disease or sidebone, although they generally cause lameness.
If your horse will move forward from your leg aids but won’t accept the bit (he tosses his head or stiffens his jaw and poll instead of relaxing and bending his neck), it never hurts to have a horse dentist or veterinarian float your horse’s teeth. Most horses only need annual dental examinations.
The back is often a culprit in horses who aren’t lame but aren’t moving right. Saddle fit is a place to start, but we’ve found it’s not the cause of quite as many problems as some would like you to believe. Often sore backs are caused by other problems, most often in the hocks, stifles or sacrum. Treating these issues will often require you to consult with your veterinarian and farrier.
If you’re fortunate enough to identify the problem and to solve it, the next step is performing a type of physical therapy through your riding. You’ll want to exaggerate your forward aids and attitude: Make him go ”super forward,” almost fast, to get your horse physically and mentally working, to convince him that he really can use his body parts again.
Remember, improving a sluggish or lazy horse is a slow process. And it could even be never-ending throughout the time you ride the horse, especially if he’s a laid-back sort.