Thursday, May 16, 2013


I've been watching my horse trainer mount and ride Gabbrielle for the past couple of months, and the only problems she mentioned having with her involved getting her light on the bit, getting her to back up, and she said that Gabbrielle has some coordination issues and is a bit resistant about cantering.  So, when I rode her this morning, I expected to be able to mount, do some lateral flexation, and walk off.

I did mount with no issues.  I did the lateral flexation with no issues, but as soon as I loosened the reins and cued her forward with my legs and a cluck, she backed up.  I tried again, and this time she backed up and stepped sideways so that the mounting stool was slightly underneath her.  Memories came flooding back of the time she maneuvered herself over the metal step stool, knocked it over, and the entire stool folded up on her front leg like crocodile jaws.  She reared repeatedly to shake that metal stool off her leg.  I instinctively let go of the reins, stood in the stirrups and leaned forward onto her neck to avoid flipping over backwards.  Neither of us got hurt, but I did not want a repeat performance of that, so I asked P.S. to remove the mounting stool from underneath the horse.

I tried again to cue her forward, but this time while turning her head.  She still backed up, and was headed for a railing.  I didn't want her to hit the railing, get startled and jump forward or take off, so I asked P.S. to grab the lead rope and get me out of that pickle.  Literally, every cue I gave her resulted in her backing up.  It was as if she had regressed back to the very first day I rode her ever.  All that training she got from both the dressage trainer and the Clinton Anderson trainer went right out the window the second I climbed into the saddle.

It was so disappointing to find myself having to be led around the arena like a kindergartner, but at the same time I knew I had to get used to the feel of riding her and she had to get used to the feel of me on her back.  Both my horse trainer and P.S. are very small, slim women.  I probably weigh the same as both their weights combined.  When I mounted, Gabbrielle had to step out to the side to catch her balance.

Though I adore her, I don't think I am an appropriate rider for her since she is so petite with tiny bones.  No one slimmer than me in my family is interested in riding her, so I may sell her to a smaller rider.  I bought her as a yearling, and it was predicted that she would grow to be 15 hands high.  She's just shy of that at 14.3, but I never expected her to be so fragile and bird-like.  Of course, I could always lose weight, but I suspect that by the time I shed the number of pounds necessary, Gabbrielle will be an old woman.  I'm convinced that I simply can't lose the weight until I go through menopause, because I'm terminally bloated.  I'd swear that my uterus is responsible for 80% of my body weight.  Okay, not that much, but you get the idea.

We practiced stopping and moving off at the walk.  She knows how to do that when someone is leading her.  We praised her each time she moved forward.  Then I had P.S. not step forward until after Gabbrielle stepped forward.  That confused Gabbrielle and she regressed to backing up again.  Eventually, we got her to move forward on the lead rope without P.S. walking forward first, mainly through praising the correct behavior.

I was quite baffled over why she struggled so much with this.  I thought maybe the problem was that the last thing the trainer worked with her on was backing up.  Or maybe Gabbrielle isn't transferring information between riders.  She learns to do one thing with one rider and another thing with another rider, and the last thing she remembers with me is those first few weeks under saddle when all she could do was back up.  Who knows?

I asked P.S. if she wanted to ride while I led her, because I was curious if Gabbrielle would behave the same or differently for her.  She did walk forward for her, but didn't stop as well, because I actually say the word whoa, while P.S. just sits back and exhales audibly.  The dressage trainer did train Gabbrielle to halt on an audible exhale while the rider sits back, but Gabbrielle had the tendency to take two more steps after those cues.  She would halt immediately with the word whoa.  When I gave her all the lead rope and walked further away from her, P.S. did have some trouble with Gabbrielle backing up on her when she was cuing her forward.

So, we decided to end the lesson when P.S. got a good halt out of her since we weren't making any consistent progress with the forward movement.  I just can't figure out how the horse trainer was able to ride Gabbrielle out on the trails so easily.  I couldn't even get her to walk forward or follow my steering cues in the arena.  She's very heavy on the bit, constantly pulling.  I'm supposed to practice pulling back just enough on the reins to cause some tension, hold the reins there and wait for Gabbrielle to tuck her nose in, then release the reins, praise and pet her.  However, I couldn't hold the reins steady because she was pulling and jerking so hard.

Afterwards, I showed some videos to P.S. of the dressage trainer riding Gabbrielle two years ago, and that trainer her her collected with her face vertical and her back rounded nicely.  Gabbrielle did stop several times and back up, but once she got the forward momentum, she trotted forward beautifully.  Now I can't get her moving forward or collected.  It's like starting a horse all over again.

P.S. wanted me to lunge her while she rode, but I discouraged that mainly because when I lunge Gabbrielle on the long rope, she likes to take off at a gallop and gets so out of control that she sometimes slips and falls down.  If that happened with P.S in the saddle, I really wouldn't be able to do much to help at that distance.  I told her we need to get Gabbrielle under better control during ground work on the long rope before trying that.  I think P.S. would have been safer riding without any rope than to use the long rope just because Gabbrielle associates the long rope with going as fast as she can.

We decided that we will just keep on riding her as much as possible and try to work out a way to communicate better with her.  She's such a sensitive horse that it doesn't take much to confuse her.  She doesn't just take cues into consideration, but memories, the rider's position, balance, nerves, confidence level, thoughts, heart rate, breath...  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if she was backing up simply because were were looking down at her head instead of looking forward to where we wanted to go.  That's how sensitive she is.

While picking out Gabbrielle's feet, P.S. said, "That's funny how they put this screw in here."

"Screw?  There shouldn't be any screw in her hoof."

Sure enough, there was a screw embedded in Gabbrielle's front hoof.  I felt terrible.  We had been riding her all that time with that thing stuck in there.  Never again will I ride a horse without first looking at all four hooves.  I got out a pair of pliers and wiggled the screw back and forth until it came out, and then I poured Betadine solution in the hole.  It was embedded in the hoof wall, so I'm sure she will be okay, but I'll keep  eye on it just in case it did pierce something it shouldn't have.  She's not limping.

P.S. rode Bombay after that and I looked out the window to see him playing with an orange construction cone in his mouth while she was riding him.  I grabbed my camera and took pictures.  I said, "It would be great if you could train him to set up the cones for an obstacle course."

The next time I looked out the window, she had Bombay carrying a cone out of the arena, down the barn aisle, and then she put it away in the storage shed.  These horses may earn their keep yet.


Nuzzling Muzzles said...

I've been studying forward movement advice since this happened and so far haven't found anything that talks about a horse that backs up while being cued forward. Most talk about getting the horse to move forward from a standstill. Everyone assumes that the bit is too harsh, the reins are too tight, the saddle doesn't fit, or the horse is in pain, and that's why it won't move forward. My horse moves forward just fine for horse trainers.

So, she is reacting differently depending on who is present. I also realized that part of the problem is the environment. She starts backing into the barn, the fence, the step stool... and I immediately release the pressure because I am trying to avoid a wreck. That's training her that when I am on her back, backing up is the right answer to the forward cues. I may have to start her in an unenclosed area where I can keep clucking and squeezing gently until she makes the right choice of going forward, and only release the cues then. I'm not wild about the idea of riding a horse backwards through gopher holes, though. If I could get better steering, I could steer her backwards in circles in the arena before she starts crashing into things.

She's had a ton of ground work, so I doubt any more of that is going to make a difference. There's just something going on in her head that happens when I am in the saddle and a horse trainer is not around to lead the session, because she did walk forward with me in the saddle when the trainer was here directing things, and I used the exact same cues when the trainer was not here, but the horse had a different reaction.

achieve1dream said...

Okay I am no expert, but I'm going to share something I think might help. You need to teach her a new go forward cue on the ground so you can use it under saddle. Since she is confused about legs try something like tapping her on the haunches with a whip or using a vocal cue walk on. Start on the ground and say walk on or tap her with a whip, then walk her forward. Soon she will associate it and will walk forward off of just the new cue (vocal cue or whip). Then when you get on her back gently squeeze with your legs and immediately use the new cue and she should walk forward if your timing is right. Praise her. :) That should work, but I can't promise anything obviously because I don't know Gabrielle. All you're doing is teaching a new cue that isn't confusing and hasn't been diluted, then you're pairing the old cue with the new cue to reteach her what the original cue means. Does that make sense? I'm not good at explaining thing. :)

SheMovedtoTexas said...

That's a frustrating problem. Sometimes I think it's as simple as every horse was not meant for every rider!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

achieve1dream - I like it. I have used the word "walk" as a command, but it sounds too much like "back", which I also use as a verbal command. I thought about keeping the word "back" since all the horses respond to that, and start using the word "forward". I'm also thinking about tapping her sides with my heels instead of squeezing with my lower leg.

My last trainer will not let me use riding crops or whips from the saddle because she thinks they are crutches, but I think this is the exception. I'll try a dressage whip and tap from behind while tapping with my heels. When the tapping doesn't stop, she'll have to figure out another move besides going backwards.

Cut-N-Jump said...

Just remeber that every action will get a reaction. The other moves she figures out, may not be one you want or expected. Sometimes this leads to bigger issues and more problems.

And judging from the picture- the saddle doesn't look like it fits her. Sitting too high up front and almost like the skirts are jsbbing her in the kidneys. That can't be comfortable.

achieve1dream said...

:) Whips aren't always a crutch lol. They are a training tool like any other and can be misused like any other. For my forward cue I use "walk on" so it doesn't sound like back. But forward works too. Anything that comes to mind easily for you and is easy to say will work. Horses don't care. You could say hot dog for all Gabrielle cares lol. :)

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

CNJ - The picture was taken after the saddle rode up over her withers after the trainer rode her in it. The trainer never tightened the cinch enough before she mounted, so the saddle would slide all over the place when she trotted. Then she'd tighten the cinch after it rode up over her withers while she was sitting on it without getting off and sliding it back. She also used the wrong pad. As soon as I took that picture I thought, "I better not post this or someone will comment that the saddle doesn't fit her." Then I forgot and posted it anyway.

That saddle fits the best of the three I've got. The only way I will get a saddle to fit and stay perfectly on her is to have one custom made, which I don't want to do since I'll probably sell her, or to put together a custom pad that has more padding on one side than the other, since one of her withers is several inches lower than the other. It's on my To Do List along with 50,000 other things. I know I can just stick something between her pad and saddle in the meantime.

The saddle that's on her leaves really nice, even sweat marks. It leaves no sores or pinch marks. I've been researching saddle fit for years and know all the tests one needs to do. The main problem, when it is positioned correctly on her back, is that it lists to the side of the lower wither. It's the same saddle the trainers have been riding her in, and they don't have any problems riding her. The only difference is our weight, and I already consider that a problem.

achieve1dream - Yeah, I'm rejecting "walk on" because I also say "back up". Those still sound too much alike. If I was just in the habit of saying "back" without the "up", I might try "walk on" and hope that the "on" would be the differentiating sound. I've been told that I slide my jaw while I speak, so it is hard for people to hear my words clearly. If people can't figure me out, I'm sure horses have trouble too, so the word just has to be completely different from any other words I use... and I have to form a new habit of using it.

redhorse said...

Backing up is a resistance to the cue. A horse can put you at a disadvantage by backing up when you cue forward with the leg. I like to ask them to circle when they do this. It seems to work better than fighting over going forward. I prefer to ride with a dressage whip because you can reach behind the saddle.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

redhorse - Do you mean circle them while they are backing up? Or do you mean get off and lunge them? The reason why I ask is because she still doesn't bend at the ribcage well and if I pull her head to the side, she'll just back up straight with her head turned. I suppose I can try repeatedly moving the hindquarters over when she's backing up?

achieve1dream said...

Got you! I say just back so that's why walk on works for me lol. I think forward should work just fine. :D Let us know if any of the suggestions help! I love hearing about your horses' training. :)