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Dealing With The Lazy Horse
The Myth About Lazy Horses
I hopefully don't have to explain what a lazy horse is. Lazy horses exist everywhere, and they are often found in riding schools.
Because a lazy horse generally can't be bothered to do anything if it gets upset, they are commonly relegated to carrying beginners. Because of this, many riders grow up wanting to graduate from the lazy horses to the hot, excitable and 'forward' ones. There develops the feeling that lazy horses are easy. In some cases, I have even seen people choose the most forward and excitable horse they can find because they honestly think it makes them look like a better rider.
The truth is, though, that although lazy horses are indeed perfect for the inexperienced, actually getting a good performance out of one is often harder than from a more lively animal.
Why is a horse 'lazy'?
Horses end up classed as lazy for four basic reasons:
1. They are really that laid back in terms of personality. Draft horses and draft crosses are often very laid back and less inclined to move forward. This is part of why draft horses are referred to as 'cold bloods' whilst more active breeds such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians are 'hot bloods'.
2. They have been ridden by beginners or 'loud' riders for so long that they no longer respond to lighter cues.
3. They are being called that by a rider who has not developed an effective seat and leg and thus cannot handle anything that doesn't go forward on its own.
4. They are in pain and as such unwilling or afraid to go forward.
A horse that is in pain may be mistakenly thought to be lazy. The most common cause of this is back problems. I have also witnessed lazy behavior caused by the memory of pain. For example, a horse that had been treated for back problems by means of chiropractic treatment, acupressure and a saddle change nonetheless still reacted as if it was in pain the first time somebody got on it afterwards. The reaction manifested itself as a refusal to go forward and lasted for between five and ten minutes. At that point, the horse realized that 'Hey, this doesn't actually hurt' and began to go forward normally.
If a normally forward going horse is lazy that day, pain should be considered. Obviously, horses may also act 'lazy' because they are simply tired. Most horses, too, will slow down in hot weather and speed up when the temperature drops. On a very hot day, even the most forward going horse may not feel like doing very much - and this desire should be respected.
It's The Rider
Always consider the fact that apparent laziness may be the result of unclear cues. Horses vary in how willing they are to go forward without being asked.
Some riders become so used to riding an animal that wants to go forward or even that they have to focus entirely on slowing down that when they get on a slower mount, they have forgotten how to make it go forward. Or perhaps they never really knew.
In any case, working with a trainer can help resolve all of the causes of a horse being a plod.
There are two simple exercises that can help strengthen the right muscles to make your leg more effective. The first is to stand on a step and allow your heels to hang off it. This stretches the back of the calf. The second...believe me, this does work...is to walk backwards for short stretches, being sure to put the heel down first. This second exercise is really painful to start with, but I've found it makes a huge difference in the strength and effectiveness of the leg.
Blame The Beginners
Beginner riders are not quiet. They tend to move around a lot, grip with their legs out of nervousness, yank on the horse's mouth, etc.
Because of this, horses that are used to being ridden by beginners and are ridden by beginners a lot learn to ignore anything but the most clear and direct cues. A beginner horse will often ignore a normal leg aid and wait to be kicked.
As a result, when a more experienced rider gets on such a horse, they may well complain that it is lazy. Of course, it is probably a laid back animal to start with, or it wouldn't be carrying beginners.
Beginner horses really benefit from a tune-up from an experienced rider at least once a month to prevent them from becoming too desensitized to quieter aids.
Whips and Spurs
When a horse is lazy, the temptation is obviously to go get the whip and/or the spurs.
Spurs should only be used by competent riders who have a quiet leg and there is no need to use sharp spurs or narrow rowels. They are, however, quite useful for resensitizing a horse that has become dull to the leg.
I personally prefer to use a whip when necessary. The whip should come into play immediately when the lazy or sour horse ignores a normal, gentle leg aid - many people resort to kicking, but that just emphasizes a horse's tendency to wait until it is kicked. However, whip use should be restricted to one sharp tap behind the leg, normally on the inside, per incident. It should be squeeze, tap, squeeze again, tap, stopping immediately when the horse responds. It is never appropriate to turn the whip over and use it in a backhand manner that can easily raise welts. The whip is not an instrument of punishment, it's a clarification of the command. It often helps to use a sharp verbal command as well.
A lazy horse often responds to more interesting work. It's well known that some horses can be lazy in the arena and perk up on the trails - in this case, the horse may simply not like arena work and find it boring. I've found that some horses will wake up if asked to do lateral work.
Some lazy horses will immediately cease to be so when they realize their rider knows what he or she is doing. I used to know an Appendix Quarter Horse who had laziness off to a fine art - he would do whatever he was asked, but use as little energy as possible. But if an experienced rider got on him, he would go forward right away - he knew when he could and could not get away with it. Beginners were often fooled by his antics. In England, there is a saying about such horses, that they 'act according to the experience of the rider'. A horse that does that is usually inherently lazy but smart enough to realize when somebody has his number.
Green horses are often lazy because they lack confidence under saddle. They may slow down or refuse to go forward because they are anxious about their balance carrying the extra weight. This kind of laziness will eventually go away, but it can take as long as ninety days with more anxious and sensitive horses.
Finally, there is one thing always worth trying which is counterproductive, but works with a surprising number of English trained horses. Some lazy horses actually go faster and more forward if a stronger contact is used with the rein.