Q: I show my horse at local hunter/jumper shows. When we do the hack class, he behaves beautifully until we have to line up in the center of the ring. He can’t seem to stand still, and it has negatively affected our results. At home, he stands fine. How can I get him to stand still at the end of the class?
JAMIE MANN: Behavior like this is not uncommon, so don’t feel like you’re alone. It can be a tiebreaker in the judge’s mind, but it might not be the primary reason for your disappointing placings. To find out if any other factors are involved, read the U.S. Equestrian rules to learn how to request feedback from the judge through appropriate procedures.
Regardless of the judge’s opinion, this behavior is a sign that your horse’s fundamental training has a hole in it that needs to be fixed. Problems like this can’t be solved with just one movement or one rein; they require diligence and a better overall awareness of how well you and your horse are communicating. The charged atmosphere at shows is simply magnifying a communication problem that is occurring at home, too. Many riders don’t realize that what they’re doing—or not doing—in their daily training can reinforce their horses’ misunderstanding of right and wrong. To teach your horse to behave properly in the show ring, you must insist that he perform everything correctly in response to your aids at home. When you go through the movements on a daily basis, pay attention to exactly how quickly and obediently he responds.
As a rider, you need to be a good storyteller, able to explain to your horse exactly what you want him to do. When you ask him to halt, he should understand that his job is to stand motionless—and relaxed—on a loose rein until you give him a signal to do something else. If he fidgets and you respond by holding on to the contact or pulling on the reins a lot, that gives him mixed signals. He may be thinking, “I already halted. What more do you want me to do?” Because he doesn’t truly understand your aids, he’s responding to what he thinks you’re telling him to do. If you’re anticipating this bad behavior, he’s probably also picking up on your anxiety. The greater his confusion, the more he dances around.
To avoid this vicious cycle and clarify your cues, go back to basics in your flatwork at home. When you walk on a loose rein and then take a feel of his mouth, how does he react? Ideally, your horse should soften in his jaw and poll in response to one or two squeezes of your fingers on the reins—at any gait and even during transitions. If he braces against you and raises his head instead, review my last article about teaching horses to yield to rein pressure (See Practical Horseman, February 2016).
Practice upward and downward transitions between the gaits and within the gaits, always making sure that your aids are clear and that you reward your horse by softening your reins or leg aids each time he responds correctly. Try to use as little rein pressure as necessary. One of the most difficult lessons I learned early in my career was that the harder I pulled a horse to slow down, the faster he would go. The less I pulled him, the slower he would go. Keeping this concept in mind during all of your work, including transitions, will help you build your horse’s confidence in you and improve your communication with him.
Apply these general rules to your halt training as well. Ask for an obedient response to clear, yet minimal, rein aids. As he stops, he should soften in the bridle and lower his head. When he does, immediately relax the reins. This is key. It not only rewards him for doing the right thing but also teaches him to stand quietly without you having to hold him in place with the reins—just as he should carry himself at the walk, trot and canter without leaning on the contact.
Sit still at the halt for several minutes. If he tries to move off, close your fingers on just one rein until he stops. Then release the pressure immediately—almost daring him to move off again. The next time he moves, close your fingers on the other rein to stop him. The next time, close both reins. Play with this a little, always correcting him immediately, then releasing the contact as soon as he obeys.
Practice this lesson over and over again. It may take weeks to sink in. When it does, try moving around in the saddle a little to test him even further. Pat him on the neck, rub his shoulders, reach back to touch his tail, forward to touch his poll and down to the sides to stroke his rib cage. Put both reins in one hand and raise the other in the air, then switch hands. If he moves off at any point, bring him back to a halt as before and soften the reins in reward. Eventually, he should be able to stand quietly for five minutes, then 10, then 20. If your saddle fits well and you’re not slouching in the saddle—using your horse like a couch—he can do this comfortably for an hour or more.
Repeat the same lesson at shows. Sit on him in a quiet corner of the warm-up area or outside the show ring where you can watch rides. Think of this as part of his training. The only time I wouldn’t recommend doing it is at the end of the day after he’s already done his job.
At home, also practice the sequence of events that lead up to the lineup at the end of a hack class. It usually happens after the last canter, so practice cantering around the ring, coming back to the walk, then turning to the center to line up. The more routine this becomes at home, the more relaxed you both will feel in competition.
In the Show Ring
Treat your next five to 10 shows as practice sessions. Instead of trying to win the hack class, focus on reinforcing the new lessons you’ve taught your horse. Stick to your guns and communicate with him exactly the way you do at home. Also use this time to get to know him better. Does he seem more comfortable lining up in the middle of the pack or on the end? Some horses like the support of having other horses on both sides; others feel claustrophobic. In future classes, plan to line up wherever your horse seems most comfortable.
Finally, whenever your horse does get antsy in the lineup, don’t be afraid to make a small circle. This is always preferable to bottling up his energy, which can lead to dangerous behavior, like rearing. In time, as his understanding and trust in you improve, he will learn to relax and stand properly.
Jamie Mann grew up riding ex-racehorses she and her mother bought on the Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico. Primarily self-taught, she rode a 3-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse in the Maclay Finals at the age of 17. She went on to work at an A-circuit East Coast stable for 10 years. During that time, she co-trained the 1981 ASPCA Maclay champion, Lisa Castellucci, and competed the Castelluccis’ legendary show hunter Touch the Sun (featured in the October 2015 issue). Also a successful grand prix jumper, Jamie won a World Cup qualifier in 1981 and was an alternate for the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1982. Her students have included the 1988 USET Medal West Finals champion, Richard Spooner. Jamie is based in Senoia, Georgia.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.