How to Fix it when your Horse CAN’T do what you ask

Miniature horses should never become pancakes.

Horses fail to properly respond to a cue or display perfect manners for only one of two reasons. Your horse either CAN”T do what you ask or your horse WON’T do what you ask. Before you can take the appropriate action to fix the problem you have to know why you have a problem in the first place. This seems so obvious that you may be rolling your eyes right this very minute.  Not so fast…

Step 1 – Properly Diagnose the Problem

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or Clinton Anderson to tell you that a 32 inch miniature horse CAN’T jump a seven foot fence all by himself regardless of how hard he tries. If you’re silly enough to ask the mini-equine to jump a seven foot fence he will either look at you like you’ve lost your mind or go ahead and give it his best try. SPLAT. Right into the fourth board from the bottom, head first. You’ve just created a squashed pancake of a mini-horse. Your bad.

Your little bitty smashed horse wasn’t unwilling to jump the fence. The pancaked pony was unable to jump the fence. So, how do you fix the problem?

Step 2 – Verify Your Original Diagnosis

If you decide your diminutive horse simply must jump a seven foot fence at least teach him to launch from a trampoline and stack up a whole pile of mattresses on the far side to catch him. Was that another eye roll? Not so fast…

How many times have you witnessed someone asking a horse to do something it absolutely cannot do? Not too long ago reining classes were filled with horses who weren’t too sure what “Whoa” meant much less had the ability to do an about-face on the haunches at full speed. Riders spurred and pulled their horses into the ground and arena walls, then wondered why their horses didn’t perform any better.

Have you ever seen a backyard horse owner borrow a flat saddle to enter a jumping competition at the local boarding stable because her friend was going? Mind you, the tallest thing the horse had ever cleared was a pile of manure in the pasture. I’ve seen horses who never heard gunfire enter the arena to compete in mounted shooting.

Guaranteed Method to Produce Unwilling Horses

How are unwilling horses made? The best way to turn a willing horse into an unwilling horse is to ask it to do what it cannot do and then punish it for failing. Why won’t your horse stop when you ask politely? Either your horse doesn’t connect your little cue with the act of stopping forward motion, or the horse is already afraid, angry, or so pumped with adrenaline that it didn’t hear you. The third option is that your horse really does want to dump you and this is a really good opportunity to “communicate” clearly.

Do you think the little pony pancake will be as eager to jump again once he recovers from his injuries? What about the horse who crashed through a bunch of jump elements before bolting from the local jump competition arena? How about the instant reiner and shooting horses?

What these riders taught their horses is that they are unworthy of trust. Now, let’s get back to the diagnosis and the ways to fix a horse’s inability.

Step 3 – Isolate the Problem

Precisely when and where did your horse first say “No” or “I can’t.”? If your horse comes out of his stall wide-eyed and bouncing off the barn wall it’s a good idea to stop there. Was he this agitated when you went into his stall? When was the last moment he was calm? What happened to change him from calm to less calm? It doesn’t matter what happened ten minutes after he was last calm, that’s not important. What matters is that you isolate the precise moment his demeanor changed so you can determine what the actual problem is.

A gun that explodes in the face of the person who just pulled the trigger isn’t a problem caused by the act of trigger-pulling. There is a problem with the gun or the ammunition. The gun may not have been cleaned since the Civil War or the ammunition may be long on TNT and short on sulfur.

Horses seldom explode because of the last thing that happened, but as a result of a problem left to escalate without resolution. You have to isolate the actual problem not simply identify the remains after a wreck.

Step 4 – Assume Responsibility

Most horses are better people trainers than people are horse trainers, but let’s assume you’re up to the task of becoming a worthy horse leader/trainer. The responsibility to fix your horses’s CAN’T is yours.

When you aren’t 100% certain that your horse is unable rather than unwilling, give him the benefit of your doubt. Apply the fixes outlined here until your horse is able or he looks at you and clearly says, “How lucky are you feeling today, Skippy?”

You probably didn’t meet your horse when you opened the front door one day to find him standing there with a sign around his neck reading, “Hey, teach me to jump.” Horses have very little say in where they live their lives, how they live their lives, and with whom. Both the burden and blessing are yours.

Some horse relationships last a lifetime, some don’t. Even if the horse in your backyard is only there for a short time you are still responsible to be a good steward and caretaker. You’re being graded on how well you steward each of God’s creatures. Horses are no exception.

Step 5 – Select the Appropriate Fix from these 3 Options

There are three reasonable fixes for a horse that cannot do as you ask.

  1. Make the horse able
  2. Motivate the horse
  3. Move On

If your horse isn’t fit enough, doesn’t understand your request, or your request is unfair, fix the problem by making your horse able to give you a resounding “Yes.” Condition your horse, back up to smaller steps so your horse truly knows what you want, or ask for something reasonable.

Make your Horse Able

The only way to get your horse to do what you ask is to build a habit and history of  getting your horse to do what you ask. I knows that sounds like circuitous reasoning but it isn’t. No eye rolling please, just keep reading.

If you ask your horse to circle to the left at a trot and he fails, ask him to circle at a walk. If you already knew he couldn’t circle correctly at a walk before asking for a trot then begin reading this article again – from the beginning. This is just about as silly as fixing the pony pancake created when the fence was three feet tall by raising the fence to seven feet tall. Really?

Congratulations, you are well on the way to creating an unwilling (and very unhappy) horse.

If your horse won’t walk a left circle without falling into the middle or quitting, go back to a simpler step that he can do correctly. Start there. If your horse won’t walk off calmly when you mount up, get off and go back to a step where he was willing to say, “I would be happy to oblige.”  You have to complete Step 3 before moving to Step 4.

Help your horse be successful. You’re in charge.

Motivate your Horse

Most horse owners are guilty of asking their horse to do something it couldn’t do and punished it when it failed. Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. Every single rider in the world has done the same thing. Recognize that you caused part of the problem you’re trying to fix now.

If the offending rider or handler wasn’t you, the horse still operates from the hard lesson he learned that trying is just not worth the effort. If the horse expects to be punished anyway, it’s easier to be punished without exerting any energy than giving all he’s got only to get bashed for his effort.

This kind of horse isn’t truly unwilling to do as you ask, he simply doesn’t see any up side to trying. You have to motivate the horse to try by asking the simplest of questions and rewarding him for paying attention. Start small. Sometimes the first step is asking for the horse to look at you; simply to see and acknowledge you. When he does, reward him by leaving him alone if that is the best motivator you have at the moment, or leave him a cookie in his feeder.

Motivation is as personal for horses as it is for humans. Some horses love to sleep, some to play, and some to solve puzzles. Find something that encourages the horse to want to play with you.

Move On

The habit and history of stringing tiny little victories together to create a chain of success is the solution for creating able, willing, bold, and secure horses. This is how you get your horse to say “yes” by building a habit of him saying “yes.”

In God’s opinion every horse is a perfect creation but not every relationship between horse and human was made in heaven. No trainer is the right trainer for every horse and all horses aren’t the right one for you.

If you aren’t committed to your present horse till death do you part, the time may come to consider moving on. If you are either UNABLE to fix your horse or UNWILLING to fix your horse, give him the opportunity to make a better match. You are required to be a good steward. Sometimes the best way to care for your horse is to find him a new home – a better home.

God Sense: Who Fixes You?

The responsible party for every horse and human relationship is the human. No exceptions.  Who is responsible for the quality of your relationship with God? How do you become a worthy leader, a superior steward, and a blessing to all you meet? The responsible party is still you.

God will never ask you to do something He has not first made you able to do. Your part is to be willing to say, “Yes.” This is the same leadership you promise to your horse.

God never requires you to be willing. The difference between obedience and coerced action is the opportunity to NOT obey. If your experiences have taught you that caring and trying always end badly; if your history of failures has left you hopeless and unable to move forward – God will introduce the concept of hope to you one tiny step at a time. Perhaps all He wants is for you to LOOK at Him and acknowledge His presence.

God makes able. That is exactly the way you fix a horse who can’t do what you ask – you make him able.

 “I delight to do thy will, O Lord.”

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”



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