Trainer Tuesday: For a horse who has trouble relaxing at the walk, how do you help them learn to relax?

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Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: For a horse who has trouble relaxing at the walk and jigs or anticipates when you shorten your reins, how do you help them learn to relax in their walk, through their back, and in their mind?

Here are their answers: 

“I would say probably one of the most important things to remember is, almost anything that you want your horse to do and do well, you have to practice and build a foundation with them. I do lots of transitions, walk/trot, posting trot/sitting trot, canter/sitting trot. Practicing lots of upward and downward transitions can teach your horse to be more accepting in different situations.

I think quite often once we get our horses up into cantering and jumping we tend to forget to do transitions to the walk with contact. I believe practicing transitions, especially to the walk after you’ve gotten into full work, can be very valuable not only as a reset for the horse but to teach them not to always anticipate. Practice, practice, practice.” -Carl Weeden

“When it’s a habit that’s already established, this can be a hard pattern of behavior to overcome. It often has its root in the natural quality of the horse’s walk. Horses which tend toward a more lateral walk, naturally have a bit more tension in the muscles they use for locomotion. So when stress from anticipation or freshness is added, trotting is an easier gait for them to transition to. I like to warm up and observe each horse on the lunge line to notice what they do without a rider. For this, I always snap the lunge to the inside bit ring or well fitted cavesson if available — never use any ancillary equipment to restrict the head/neck position of the horse.

Once the horse is relaxed on the lunge and able to spiral in and out on smaller and larger circles in all three gaits and also show the forward seeking reflexes to stretch forward and downward while maintaining inside flexion, I know it is at least physically possible for them to remain calm while changing from a longer frame to a more collected one — then I have to ensure my position, coordination, and tack fit is excellent in order to carry over the relaxation learned on the lunge to when I shorten the reins while mounted.” -McKrell Baier
Read McKrell’s article here.

“When I am trying to relax the horse at the walk and stop any jigging or prancing, I first make sure the bit I am using is comfortable to the horse and soft. I begin by asking the horse to slowly accept the contact of my hand and then ask the horse to move laterally. Once I make some progress laterally I will add some smaller circles and serpentine patterns changing the bend and working on the horse accepting the contact and learning how to change the bend. This takes time and patience and should be more playful in nature rather than drilling.” -Maria Takacs
Listen to Maria on the Plaidcast here.

“The key is to not just grab at their mouth and get tense in your seat. When a rider has a horse that jigs, they tend to subconsciously tense their glute muscles which in turn ‘lifts’ their seat up off the saddle. Riders also tend to shorten their reins in one big grab which in turn makes the horse tense. Instead, think about softening your glute muscles and allow the seat to be soft and supple and follow the horse’s movement. Then gradually shorten the reins inch by inch until you have enough contact to proceed safely into the trot. I suggest you practice this in a small, enclosed area first and only move into a larger space once your horse no longer jigs.” -Sally Batton
Read Sally’s book The Athletic Equestrian: Over 40 Exercises for Good Hands, Power Legs, and Superior Seat Awareness.