I have not had much practice dealing with a horse who plants his feet and won’t be led forward, but we had issues a few weeks ago going into the indoor school, which were attributed to his being concerned about the doors (which can be difficult to manage if the weather is windy) or the reflections in the mirror. The first time I employed the trick of getting him to move sideways, to un-plant his feet and then circling to the door once he was moving. I assumed it was a one-off issue. The second time, a few days later, was before a lesson so the instructor went behind to drive him in. Obviously not a one-off then, so the next time the indoor school was free we had a training session based on going in and out of that door. At first it took time for him to relax and trust that it was OK to go through the door, which at first I had tied open, but after about 10 minutes we had progressed to the point that we could approach the closed door, stop, open the door, go through as soon as I asked and close the door again on the other side, with no stress, fuss or arguing.
That seemed to have been time well spent. However on Thursday a little resistance crept back in about going into the indoor school. I assumed it was the same issue recurring and made a note to repeat the training when the opportunity presented itself. It being very nice weather we went outside yesterday and I was surprised to find him planting his feet against entering the outdoor school, which he’d never had an issue with. With a little encouragement I got him into the school and rode.
This morning, however, he planted his feet shortly after coming out of his stable. “That’s odd,” I thought, “but perhaps he’s reluctant to walk past the farrier.” I got him moving again but he stopped again within sight of the school. “Somebody is not in the mood for work today,” I thought, getting him moving again.
But outside the school he totally put the brakes on. I tried the sideways and circling maneuver, but he would go no closer. I tried voice (coaxing – no use; cross tone – no use), tapping his girth area, tapping his quarters. I even tried backing him up every time he refused to go forward, hoping he’d end up grateful to be led forward. No dice.
Putting everything together as these approaches failed I came to the conclusion that he might be communicating that the saddle was just too small and too uncomfortable. I now had no intention of getting on board and putting my weight in that saddle, but I wasn’t going to let him learn that he could avoid going places by planting his feet. It’s true that I can’t drag him, but humans use brains and tools to win arguments with horses, not just brawn. So I would win. Little by little I coaxed him close enough that I would grab a lunge whip from the pot by the fence. Armed with that I could lead from in front and tap him on the rear at the same time. Finally I had my horse in the school. Now what?
While I have been toying with the idea of trying my first bareback ride on him one day, my plan for that was to have a neck strap, someone leading him and to be damn sure I would stay in walk. Trying it alone on a fresh and apparently argumentative horse on a windy day did not seem like a good plan, particularly as I couldn’t be sure it was the saddle causing the unusual behaviour. So it would have to be lunging.
After all the fuss to get him in the school I would have to take him back to the stable to get the lunging gear!
So back we went to the stable. Off with the saddle and reins, on with the boots and roller. I didn’t want to use the pessoa because I wanted to be able to see him move as he chose, so I took the side reins with us to put on if he proved he moved normally.
Leading him across the yard past the farrier he moved freely and willingly. He almost seemed eager to get into the school. Removing the saddle had removed the reluctance.
We had a nice little lunging session. Interestingly what I’d been feeling under saddle was confirmed on the lunge – he’s now cantering much better on the previously non-cantering right rein than he is on the left. He’s always been stronger in the left canter, but it’s a stiff strength. The right canter tires quickly but does better with corners and circles than the stiff left.
Although I’d had to pit my wits against his strength to get him into the school I realised, as I put him away, that I was proud of him. He had communicated to me that something was wrong in a way that was completely safe but effective. He had planted his feet and refused, but nothing beyond that. I believe that many horses would communicate saddle fit issues by bucking their rider off or biting, either at girthing or mounting. This was far safer and calmer.
The saddle fitter is coming on Tuesday, so we don’t have long to wait. As long as I go early tomorrow or late in the day we should manage to get somewhere to lunge and, weather permitting, he should be turned out on Monday so he can have a day off from structured exercise. It’s just a shame the saddle fitter didn’t come last week as originally planned, but hey ho!