Old habits die hard!

How to quick-fix a horse’s bad habits in the show pen


I am always on about repetition when training your horses. This is the quickest way to instill into your horse something you want to teach them – repetition! Until repetition of a certain kind backfires on you.

Nothing worse is there, you’re in the class, the announcer calls for a jog, however, it’s out of sequence to what your horse is used to, he hears the mic “assumes” it’s time to lope, suddenly your whole world collapses at your feet, your pulling the reins, he’s lifting his head and trying to lope off, did the judge see it? Most likely, yes.

This is only one scenario that could lose you a place in the lineup.

Horses are incredibly smart animals. They learn to listen to the announcer for transitions instead of to their rider’s cues. They can become anxious and want to move up into what they think is coming next!

Wait for it…

The simplest way to nip this in the bud is to make your horse wait for your cue.

From the very beginning you never want to cue your horse at the same time as the announcer says it. You should wait it out a few seconds then cue your horse into the gait that is required. I think initially your horse waits until they hear the announcers voice, then they begin to anticipate, next thing you know, as soon as your horse hears the click of the mic they begin to anticipate the next gait. If you always cue your horse the second the announcer clicks on the mic or speaks, your horse learns that. This can also be exacerbated by the riders nerves, the stiffness throughout their body.

A really good fix for this is to take your horse to an A or B class show, have it in your mind that today the Blue ribbon means nothing to you. Now, you have to respect the other competitors in the class and of course the judge so it is best to not go overboard by behaving negatively toward the other riders by standing out like the proverbial dog’s b#lls that you are “training” on your horse.

Depending on the severity of your horse trying to run off in anticipation, you basically just need to hold your horse back for a few seconds after the announcer has given the gait cue. It may require that you go two handed at that moment to gain full control of your senior horse or it may be as subtle as holding both reins on the snaffle firmer than what you would normally ride at. I would also give my outside rein a few short subtle bumps then go back to keeping the brakes on with my legs and my hands on the reins slightly firmer than usual then repeat with a few short subtle bumps on the outside rein again. Note that these bumps on the outside rein will also help you keep your horses frame in tact. If say for example the lope was called for and you are holding a firm hold on your reins your horse would more than likely flick his head up to escape the firm hold which would cause him to jump into the lope. If you were controlling your horses frame with these bumps that are subtle, he will be ready to lope, he will be in the correct frame so won’t be as noticeable to the judge that you are working on something.

A big mistake a lot of amateur riders make in the show pen is to be as still and as frozen as humanly possible! You are allowed to subtly keep control of your horse in the pen, the worst thing you could do in the pen is to ignore your horse when he takes the class into his own hands or hooves, by sitting still thinking you are not allowed to move a muscle under the eye of the judge. Horses catch on really quickly to this and will in no time be a real pain in the backside to get shown. Don’t be afraid to subtly come in and fix your horse then get back out again and show.

Meantime, always make certain you are not disturbing anyone else’s go round. If you are in the mindset of you don’t care about winning today, you are there to get control of your horse’s mind and body for the day, you won’t mind looking around you making certain you are not going to get in the way of other riders, you can take your time and you can keep an eye on the judge as well and use the judges position to your advantage. If, however, your horse begins to hip in and/or jig-jog on the spot, taking up a bit more room than he should be it may mean that you are in “overkill”, holding your horse back longer than you should, it would be best if you abort your plan and move off, there will be other opportunities for you to fix your horse. Not all horse’s are the same, not all horses will be as bad as that but it is good to know this scenario all the same.

The middle of the pen is the place to be!

Not by a long shot! How about that horse that anticipates the middle of the pen is coming up? They go around the first way, reverse and repeat. Once they are brought back down to the walk, they are on their way into the middle of the pen whether you like it or not.

The Fix…

The best way I know of to fix this is to do most of your training OFF the rail. Sure enough, most people begin their training in the middle but before too long they gravitate to the rail and complete their training session on the rail, which admittedly, some things do need fixed while you are on the rail but the majority of your training time should be done in the middle of the pen or away from the rail.

For those special horses that want to come in on their own accord in the class I will make sure I’m on the rail at home so that I can fix it because you can’t fix it if you are already in the centre of the pen.

I get them on the rail, I will walk along the rail on a draped rein. Sometimes it’s different at home and you find that your horse is fine, he doesn’t show any signs of sneaking off into the centre. So what I do next is “coax” my horse to go into the middle by sticking a finger under the inside rein about midway down the neck and giving it a little, short pull toward the middle of the pen, enough that you bring the face with the pull. Quickly release that pull and continue on along the rail if nothing happens. If your horse takes the bait and starts heading into the centre of the pen allow him to keep heading to the centre for around 15 or 20 feet. Here I will do one of two things:-

  1. Take the inside rein, bring it up into a counter arc and push the horse back to the rail in a business like manner with my inside leg. Once positioned back on the rail again, I will drape the reins and walk on as if nothing happened OR
  2. Take the outside rein, bring it up into a counter arc and push the horse away from the rail and work on the counter arc in the middle of the pen for a good 8 to 10 minutes. When I am sure I got through to him, I hold that frame and push him back to a spot on the rail, drape the reins and continue on along the rail.

After a short spell of just walking along the rail and being left alone I will stick my finger under the inside rein again and give it a slight pull in the direction of the centre of the pen again, see if he takes the bait and I will repeat one of the two steps above, (I don’t go through 1 and 2 together, I pick one or the other and work on that one alone, always changing it up).

If I find the horse wants to move off into the centre of the pen on his own accord, naturally I won’t coax him with my finger under the rein, I will go straight into the counter arc push into the rail after I have let him get from a distance of about 15 to 20 feet away or I will counter arc and side pass them into the middle and work on that in the centre for a bit then push them back on the rail.

No thanks, I’ll stay here!

You should find that after you have coaxed them 4 or 5 (or less) times in toward the centre, they will feel like they are “clinging” to the rail. You can put your finger under the rein, give it a guiding pull but no…that horse absolutely wants to stay on that rail. Whether your horse sneaks off to the middle or whether you have to coax them a little – they won’t fall for it, they stay put on the rail.

Once they get it you only really need to check in on this exercise a couple of times in the week leading up to show day. You have to make sure though that they know it’s a reprimand and not just another one of those nice little warm up counter arcs you do in a warm up, it has to be in a business like manner but controlled. If they are smart enough to pick up on the click of the microphone or the announcers voice, they are smart enough to know what you are doing and they should answer you with a definite No Thanks, I’ll stay here!

The Drag Racer

You might be having difficulty with your horse in traffic. You may be coasting along as good as gold until your horse hears a horse or horses coming up from behind him to overtake him and his awesome, slow lope which soon disappears into thin air when the horse or horses come alongside you, your horse begins to speed up to stay with them as if it’s some kind of a race. You are now gathering up your reins, losing that lovely drape trying to slow your horse down. In this situation it is very difficult to try and control your horses speed with just your leg aids, most times you find yourself having to resort to shortening the reins and losing that kodak moment.

The fix for the drag racer…

I know some people may find this difficult to do if they only own the one horse but if you can arrange for a friend or a neighbour to lend you their horse for some free exercising you can pony your horse from another horse, this gets them used to being beside other horses at all gaits. It really isn’t something that can be fixed overnight though so it can be difficult for some riders to fix. It really is a great way to get your horse used to travelling with other horses. This is also a good fix for nervous horses that tend to get a bit claustrophobic when other horses move in beside them.

I will also hobble a horse in the arena whilst I am working another horse, that way I can ride around them and get them used to traffic coming and going.

Also try and ride out with a group of riders, they soon get used to traffic coming and going.

From Go to Whoa

Training your own horse. Book by Pam Neal


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I am a retired professional horse trainer, active Certified rider coach, I coach riders and their horses throughout Australia and New Zealand, I am the author of the book From Go To Whoa - Training Your Own Horse, I am also a Certified Nutritionist and a professional Keto Coach. I am a keen fisher woman and I love the gym where I weight train 4 days a week. I travel Australia full time now with my husband and our Jack Russell Doug, booking and holding clinics and lessons throughout the country for many remote horse riders as well as not so remote. I love coaching riders and their horses along with helping people with nutrition and the ketogenic diet.

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