Accepting the Leg

A friend asked me for some help with one of her client`s horses last week, and it`s been really interesting and useful for me to experience.

This horse is only four years old and was backed last year successfully by my friend, but when the mare came back into work after being turned away for six months they`ve had nothing but problems.

When my friend approached me for help they had reached the point where the mare would lunge, and show off her beautiful, extravagant trot, but when ridden she would not move. Everytime the leg was applied she would pin her ears back and threaten to buck. Her teeth, back, and saddle had been checked and the vet had just given her a clean bill of health, concluding that her problems were a behavioural issue.

This was where I came in. My friend needed someone confident on the ground while she rode the mare, who would back up her leg and stand their ground when she gave a buck.

So I went to the house of my dreams – just picture it, brick four bedroom house with a terraced garden, spacious triple garage, small stable block with tack room, plenty of paddocks, and an immaculate arena with mirrors – and my friend lunged the mare to show me how she moved. And boy did she move well! The mare wasn`t afraid of the whip and needed it to be cracked a couple of times for her to respond to it, along with the voice. 

Then my friend got on, and I took her place in the centre of the school, holding the lunge whip. The theory was that we pretended to lunge the mare. After all, she was happy enough to be lunged, so we should utilise that to teach her that she should respect and respond to the leg aids. 

My friend asked her to walk on, with both leg and voice. The ears came back, so I waved the whip at her quarters, backing up my friend. After a moment`s thought, the mare walked on and was rewarded verbally. Once we`d established walking positively, we tried to trot. Again, I had to be assertive as the “lunger”, standing my ground when she kicked out against the leg and whip, and swung her quarters towards me, but she soon cottoned on to the concept. 

It`s surprisingly tricky to work like this as I had to remember not to be the leader in the exercise, as I would if I were lunging the mare because we were trying to build the connection between the rider`s leg and moving forwards. However, as soon as the mare resisted my friend`s leg I had to be quick to back up the leg with my pretend lunging.

We soon got there, and as soon as the mare had trotted without resistance one lap around the arena she was allowed to walk and had a big fuss made of her. Then we did the same on the other rein.

My friend felt she`d had a breakthrough, as the mare was actually responding well to her leg aids, albeit every so often she would try to assert her authority.

A few days later we met again at my dream house. This time, the mare walked straight on from the first leg aid, and I only needed to wave the whip a couple of times when the mare baulked at the leg. But overall there was a huge improvement, so the following day my friend asked the horse`s owner to stand in the middle with the lunge whip. Again, she was barely needed as the mare was accepting of her rider, much as she was before being turned away last year.

This sort of behaviour is not uncommon, and my friend and I both agree that it goes back to the old saying “ask a mare …”. Mares don`t like being told what to do, and things often have to be on their terms, and if you get a dominant mare she can give you some backchat when asked to do something different or new. If as an owner you aren`t quick to push the mare back into her box this backchat can grow into dominant behaviour – barging on the ground, nipping, kicking out, or napping.

Now we`re hoping to completely break this cycle in the next couple of weeks, with my friend gradually riding further away from me in the arena – so she is less dependant on my back up, and then I will be able to leave the arena hopefully, but be ready to step back in if the mare tries to revert to her old habits. I think this mare is quite dominant, so will always be tempted to try and assert her authority over handler or rider, so needs someone who won`t stand any nonsense, yet will work with her to fulfill her potential because she definitely has some talent.

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