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Balking in Young Horse When Ridden

Topic_Info:    Balking
Website_Info:  google
Location:      Bulverde TX
Date:          May 02, 2011

Question:  I have been working with a young horse for the past year (Just turned 4 last week).  I feel like I have moved very slowly with him.  I worked for approximately 6 months in the round pen before mounting him.  I started riding him about 4-5 month ago.  I was still lounging 2 to 3 days a week and riding him on the weekends after about a 10-15 minute lounge.  I was at my trainers about 2 weeks ago and we had moved from the round pen to riding in the large arena.  He did wonderfully and we had just finished up and I was walking him out when he suddenly stopped.  He just would not move.  The trainer even came over and tried to hand walk him and nothing.  I dismounted and walked him out of the arena not thinking much about it.  A few days later, I lounged for about 10 minutes and mounted and he would not move.  He drops his head to the ground and would not move a muscle.  You can pull his head from side to side but the hooves do not move.  I took him back to the trainers this past weekend and same thing.  He lounged beautifully and once mounted, he just feels like the life has been sucked out of him.  I can not imagine that he was pushed too far...I must have worked basic walk/trot skills, spiraling in and out on the lounge line for over 3-4 months before even asking for the canter.  The first time mounted, he was wonderful.  The trainer was there to hand walk him.  We gradually proceeded to to a lounge line while mounted and within about 2 weeks~ we started riding in the round pen on our own. I am complete lost!  I have put him up and thought maybe I need to give him a break and see what happens in about a month.  I have never run across this before and really don't know what to do.  I thought I had built up the respect with all the lounge work.  He listens to all my verbal skills and is really well mannered.  He is such a sweet horse but I fear that I have really gone wrong and am fearful of creating a habit so I am at a stand still.  I would appreciate any help or suggestions that you might have.  Brandi

Many times horses are willing to do something the first time or two that we ask them, but then when they realize what something is going to be like, they learn if they are defensive and prevent a rider from asking they can then "protect" themselves from an unwanted experience.

I'm glad to hear of someone who really took their time with their young horse.  But from what you've said, I'm gathering that your horse has become "patternized."  He has learned to expect the routine of what will be asked of him in the round pen, with the lounge line, etc. and has learned to offer a conditioned response to your verbal cues.  The problem with this is when you change what you are asking, such as when you are trying to ride, your horse is not mentally available to hear, think, or offer a physical try.  Now that you've changed the pattern and want to ride him, he is saying "This isn't how we do it..." and therefor has become both mentally and physically unwilling to participate and address the "new" scenarios you are presenting.

Here are a few thoughts:
Lounging typically teaches the horse a conditioned behavior and winds up being a physical exercise as oppose to a mental one. In my opinion the point of the round pen is not to physically exert the horse, but rather it is a safe place to teach a horse to become mentally available as if he were saying, "What would you like?" 

Horse's physical actions are a direct reflection of their mental and emotional state.  If a horse is feeling warm and fuzzy he'll be physically relaxed on the outside.  If he is stressed, worried, insecure, etc. you'll see dramatic or resistant physical behavior.

Your horse is not being stubborn, dull, or disobedient.  Rather he is asking for help.  Somewhere along the way, your aids in teaching him how to yield and respond to both your energy and physical pressure on the ground were unclear, therefor by the time you mounted him, his understanding decreased even more.

A horse can feel a fly land on him, but what you do has to MEAN something to your horse.  Right now it seems there is a lack of clear communication and so when your horse is unsure, he is "doing nothing" (by physically balking and not moving forward) because he is mentally unclear.

Also keep in mind people's timing in how, when and what aids they use rarely make clear to the horse when he is "getting it right," (it being what ever you are asking of him,) and when the horse is offering the wrong behavior or action.  Too many times people don't assess what they are doing (how, when, why and with what level of energy,) and therefor cannot make a change in themselves which then prevents them from getting a change in their horse.

Also keep in mind the physical resistance you are feeling is a direct reflection of a mental lack of understanding, it is not your horse being bad.  He is trying his "options" when unclear, and his "balking" is the result.

watch" you when you are on the ground, what happens when you are in the saddle trying to communicate with him?  These are all scenarios that allow you to assess the true quality of your relationship before you ride.

The good news is you haven't "wrecked your horse," you just need to review the quality and clarity of the basics in how you are communicating. A consistent concern I find with those horse people who try to "go slow" for the horse's sake is they wind up becoming hypersensitive and too "nice" in how they interact with their horse, causing their communication to drift into the "gray" area, rather than what I call the black and white.  Horses are herd animals, they are used to "rules" in the herd.  They need to know the "boundaries" of what behaviors work, and those that do not,  in order to "operate" successfully within the herd.  With people, when we get too polite with our horse, which in our mind is being "nice" or patient, we tend to accidentally let our lack of clear communication cause our horse's understanding to drift into the gray area.  When the horse isn't sure, he has to start guessing at what we want.  The more he has to guess, the more he "takes over" mentally and then physically, which leads to unwanted behavior towards the rider.

So as much as you are interacting with your horse slowly, there may not be the level of quality that you need to establish in order to build confidence for when you ride him.  You'll need to start assessing you first, experiment with whatever you're asking of your horse from the ground and watch for a change in your horse's behavior.  If he ignores your changes in energy, he's telling you he's unclear.  If he is "helpful" by doing a task "ahead of time" (or before you have asked him to) he is taking over and making the decisions, which can lead to trouble later.  If he is "slow" in his response, he is lacking understanding.

Your horse will tell you when "you're doing it right" by the softness and lightness of his response to your aid.  Too many people are "going for the ride" and are "waiting to see" what they horse offers, then they try to convey to the horse if they like it or they don't.  But this is "after the fact" and too late.  I want to "take my horse for the ride" by offering and influencing the ride ahead of time with my communication.  But this requires me to mentally and physically ride every step.  Most riders mentally check out until "all of a sudden" their horse is displaying unwanted or dangerous behavior.  Nothing happens with horses all of a sudden, most riders just tend to miss the initial calm and slow display of mental and then physical resistance.

By creating clear communication you'll build confidence in your horse that will encourage him to want to participate mentally and physically and will make a rewarding ride for both of you.  In the beginning you may be riding only a few quality steps and then leave your horse alone.  Each time he realizes that you are acknowledging a quality effort from him, the more effort he'll offer your when you present something new.  Instead too many people tend to take "advantage" of a young horse's efforts and cause the horse to feel like no matter how much they try they can't "get it right" and therefor the horse mentally and physically checks out.

One last comment which again is a personal opinion is voice commands.  I don't like to teach my horses conditioned responses because it creates a level of anticipation and mental "shut down."  With a green horse, I'm looking that the horse is responding to my energy (if he will not address your changes of energy from the ground first, it will be even more difficult to get a change from when you're in the saddle.)  Until my horse's brain is saying, "What would you like?" he is mentally unavailable.  If he is mentally unavailable to address what I'm offering, he will be physical resistant and offer unwanted behavior.

Good Luck,
Samantha Harvey
The Equestrian Center, LLC


  1. Hi I have a 4 year OTTB filly that up until a month ago was doing well with her transtion to a dressage horse. I was only working on walk trot and halt keeping it simple and relaxed for her. Now all of a sudden she refuses to move forward.. she had reared on me a couple of times and when I do get her walking she will not trot. What am I doing wrong?? thks

    1. Although you may have taken your time slowly helping your mare adjust in her new career, perhaps the focus has been more on her physical movement rather than her brain. Depending on how confident she is mentally and emotionally, she may have been "quietly" going through the motions, all the while building up an insecurity in her until she has reached the point of thinking that she literally cannot move forward or faster with a rider.
      Remember that a horse's ears are "blinkers" into their brain, if you watch the left ear turned out to the left, she is think left, and vice versa with the right one. A lot of time if the ears are straight back (but not tight like she were defensive)she may be thinking more about behind her, rather than on where she is going to.
      Whether you use your lead rope from the ground or a rein while sitting in the saddle, you'll want to be able to literally ask her to look and turn her head towards a specific point without moving. If she cannot look without moving, I would gather most of her current movement is done "brainlessly" because there is a lack of clear communication between you and her.
      If you cannot influence her brain, trying to "make" 1,000 lbs of horse move can be very frustrating. But if you can get her brain to think about what you want, you have a better chance of getting her body to comply.
      The rearing is probably a continuing evolution of resistance because of some internal stress that she is fealing. The signs of stress probably appeared at first in other more minor forms, such as a random halt, or a lethargic in response to your leg and seat energy, etc. When her initial signs of "having a problem" were ignored, she has to literally get "bigger" until she can no longer be ignored and her issues addressed.
      Sensitive horses such as TBs can have light switch emotions, meaning, once you play detective and are able to sort out what exactly is causing her the current stress (you'll have to back track and look for any level of stress starting with when you catch her) to narrow down what could be bothering her. Once you figure it out, you can then address it and show her how to deal with it in a different manner. By helping her face her issues "head on" AND helping her get to a better spot mentally and emotionally, she'll start to trust you and learn how to "handle" problems in a more reasonable manner.
      It can be a long, ongoing process, but in the end worth it!
      Good Luck


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