Friday, August 27, 2010

Relaxed Cantering and Fixing Balking

Dawn and I had a very productive work session today. I went into this session with two objectives - to work on cantering in a relaxed and sustained manner and to work on her balking issues where she doesn't want to head out on the trail at the end of our work sessions.

We started out with some walk and trot work, and the softening was pretty much there in both directions. Then we moved up into canter - all I wanted was several laps of relaxed canter - we were doing big circles - I didn't worried about her head position, or anything else, other than that she sustain the canter in a reasonably relaxed manner. So I thought the new rhythm, breathed out and away we went! She did very well; I just sat there and kept a very light contact to direct her and urged her forward if she wanted to break out of the canter. We only worked to the right today; next session we'll work to the left, and then once we've got a nice relaxed canter we'll work on our softening. We also worked on her being able to relax again after cantering - she got the idea after a bit and wasn't wanting to leap forward into canter at the slightest leg contact. We did a number of canter sets, interspersed with walk and trot work with some halts and backing thrown in. I was really pleased - she didn't race, was able to sustain the canter with a little help, and was able to relax between canter sets. I was delighted with her and told her so.

Then we worked on the balking issue. As I've pointed her towards the trail, she's been wanting to balk and avoid going that way - I think she's tired and ready to be done but the reason doesn't really matter - she clearly isn't frightened - I'd deal a bit differently with a frightened horse. Now when a horse balks, trying to force them forward is often counterproductive - it tends to lock up the forward motion, particularly if you start pushing and forcing and working to get the horse to move forwards. And there's a particular issue with Dawn - she used to be a terrible rearer - which is very definitely not a good thing and dangerous to boot - and one of the easiest ways to get a horse that's prone to rear to rear is to push when the horse is balking and refusing to go forwards. Yesterday when she balked I got off and led her - sometimes that is enough to do the trick. And with some horses (like Maisie) just keeping the horse's head pointed where you want to go, without pushing, is enough to get them moving. It was pretty clear that wasn't going to work with Dawn.

So here's what I did. As we walked towards the trail, she would balk, refuse to go forwards and want to turn back towards the barn, say to the left. Instead of keeping her head towards the trail, I actively redirected her in a small circle to the left, and kept circling, making sure I had no pressure on the outside rein. If she stopped moving, I used a bit of outside leg to keep her moving. This had the advantage of keeping her bent enough that rearing was unlikely, particularly without pressuring her to go forwards, and just directed her energy in the way she had chosen to go already. As we came around the circle and were facing the trail again, I asked her to move forwards. When she balked again, we just circled again in one direction or the other - if she chose a direction, that's the way we went. I didn't put much energy into this - I didn't jerk, or kick or get after her, we just turned in a small circle. The circles were pretty small - it's important to pick a place to do this exercise where there's adequate room to turn in both directions. When we were facing the trail, I would ask her to move forwards with a chirp. If she balked, we circled again. Pretty soon, she walked down the trail, although we had a couple more spots where circling was required. Once "unstuck" she moved out pretty well.

Then the test was to come back towards the barn on our small loop and try again. This time there was a little balking, but less, and pretty soon when she was facing the trail again after a circle, if I chirped, she would think for a second and then step out down the trail - I could feel her considering her options, and deciding that going down the trail was a good choice. It was much better this round - there were a few circles, but that's all and she mostly moved out willingly. I praised her extravagantly and jumped off when we were part way down the trail and led her back to untack. It'll be interesting to see how she does the next time we ride - I expect the balking problem will go away pretty quickly - it may already be gone.


  1. Sounds like Dawn is doing really well. I use the same method for loping Brandy, I don't worry about her headset, all I want right now is a slow, relaxed lope (although she is pretty good about setting her head while loping, I don't worry if she puts her head up.) Fritzy, well that will come soon, hopefully!

    Your using the exact same method with Dawn's balking that I use when Brandy balks going down the hill to the stream where we go trail riding. She won't go forward, so we do circles, then she'll walk a couple steps, do circles, walk a couple steps, it might take us 5 minutes to get to the stream, but once we get there, she realizes it is okay, and we continue on with no other major issues.

    Sounds like you are making progress with Dawn's balking, and can't wait to hear how the next few days go!

  2. Kate - I found this post very helpful. I have balking issues with Pie and Sovey and slight rear worries with Pie. Mostly, Pie is truly frightened. Sovey, on the other hand, is often just done working and wants to quit. Your small circles are the perfect thing. I have used circles in the past, but I haven't thought of keeping them small and without too much urging. My larger circles often require enough squeezing to be much good. I love that Dawn was able to choose what she wanted. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. I've done the same thing with Dusty and balking. My idea was you can go any direction you want but it will be in circle. She finally worked out of her single mindedness in one afternoon. We don't have a problem anymore. Nice work at the canter too.

  4. Balking is one of those horsey things that makes me really nervous! Dee is terrified of crossing puddles, discolored spots in the dirt, dark shadows, light spots...well, about anything that isn't absolutely normal so I'm sure it won't be long before I'll have a chance to test out your method! Thanks for sharing!

  5. The Dreadful Balk!! Circles.. smaller ones... I'm going to have to try that with Bonnie. if we had down the trail first thing she's great, but I do some work first she has no desire to go anywhere that is not en-route to the barn!

    I am going to try the calm small circles soon I'm betting!

  6. I admire your dedication to working so hard with your horses. You are committed to it! I know that working in the ring with my mare is such a good idea, but so often I just would rather be out on the trail and so out on the trail I go. Then, sometimes in the ring, I can't get focused like you are. I need to be more like you in the ring and in my concentration. How do you motivate, I wonder? How do you say, I'm going to work for X amount of minutes in the ring with Dawn today, as opposed to this: Oh, it's a beautiful day for a trail ride, it's not every day the weather is so gorgeous, I better get out there!

  7. baystatebrumby - part of the reason Dawn and i work in the ring is that there are issues riding her on the trail - her nervousness and tendency to spook and bolt - that mean we have foundation work to do in the ring. If I neglect the foundation work, we'll be in trouble!

  8. Kate, I'm catching up on the weekend blog set and wanted to comment on your balking strategies. Great idea and I'm totally stealing it! I've not done much trail riding and want to introduce it as a reward at the end of ring work or as a fun ride in and of itself. I was taught to growl and get after the horse to go forward, but have had a few go up on me and am very nervous to set up that situation outside a ring. Love your approach for redirecting the energy to avoid a rear. Thanks!


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