Patience is Not a Horsy Virtue! by Gincy Self Bucklin
Or anyway, horses rarely seem to think so. When they see their buddies doing something, they want to do it too! And if possible, first! In their efforts to do so they often indulge in such undesirable behavior as bucking, snatching the bit, running up or whatever else they can think of to cow their riders into submission. For no other reason than that of safety it is important to understand why your horse wants to do this and how to train him otherwise.
The reasons he wants to run up with his buddies are probably obvious to most of you. The horse in nature generally doesn’t run unless he is being chased, and if the herd is being chased the horses in the middle or the front are the least likely to get caught. Because his herd instincts are strong the horse has a very demanding need not to get left behind. Unfortunately, he and his rider often get into a ‘lose-lose’ situation. The other horses start to move off, and the rider anticipates that her horse will try to break away and follow, or buck or whatever it is he does. In her efforts to prevent this she holds him in very tightly. She thinks she’s saying, “Don’t buck,” but the horse thinks she’s saying, “You can’t go with them. I’m going to make you stay here so the bear can eat you for lunch!” Naturally he doesn’t care for that idea, so he gets more vigorous in his protests, which she interprets as more threatening, so she buys a bigger bit and so on.
Therefore your goal is to explain to your horse that you are not going to let him get eaten by the bear, even if it seems like it. There are two solutions to this problem, one is short term and the other is long term.
The short term one is used if you are on an unfamiliar horse or haven’t had time to school your horse long term or perhaps if a less experienced rider is along who needs an easy out. This works for most horses. All you do is to ask the people ahead of you to tell you when they are going to increase pace before they do so. Then you start increasing pace with your horse just a little bit before they do. You have to have some distance between you and the horse in front—enough for a couple of steps—so you don’t pile into him before he has a chance to move. If your horse won’t wait back at all you can make a quick little circle and start him trotting as he comes around to face front again. In any case, by starting your horse just before the others he doesn’t begin his usual panic pattern. Unless the horse always misbehaves when he increases pace he will probably just continue in the pace as the other horses start to move.
The long term solution requires the help of at least one other sympathetic rider and horse. After warming the horses up thoroughly at home first, to get rid of any stall or standing-around tension, the two of you go out on a familiar trail. At some point you both halt, with her in the lead. Do whatever is necessary to get the horses standing quietly—TTeam or clicker training is very helpful for this sort of thing. Then have her walk her horse forward just a few strides and halt again while you keep your horse waiting. Next let your horse walk up to hers again. If your horse fusses try to find a moment when he is a little less fussy to let him walk up, or let him walk up a little sooner.
You will have to do some experimenting to find out how to get your horse to accept this first step. The idea is not so much to make him stand there as to get him relaxed about it. Treats may help as well. If he is really concerned start by having him walk away from the other horse a few steps then turn and walk back. Throughout this you should keep your rein aids as light and active as possible—really try to avoid tight reins which not only make him feel threatened emotionally but interfere with his balance as well.
Another method would be to start by using Tteam leading methods and taking him out in hand until he gained a little confidence in you. However, most horses really aren’t all that difficult.
Keep playing around with this first step until your horse will stand with the reins slack and wait for your signal to walk up to the other horse. Once he will do that (and you have kissed him and hugged him and given him a whole bag of treats) then you start increasing the distance. When you get up to about 25 feet (8m) then go to a walk-trot test. The first horse trots away a couple of steps while you keep walking, then you trot up. You may get a little regression here because trotting is more exciting than walking, but if you have laid the groundwork well he will quickly figure it out. Then you gradually increase the distance until she can trot away 75 to 100 feet (20-45m) without your horse doing anything more than yawn.
Then you do trot to canter and then walk to canter and finally halt to canter. Just keep in mind not to go on to the next step until the horse is really confirmed in the previous one. If you try the next step and the horse starts to get upset go back a few steps until he gets calm again.
Another and almost separate problem is number of horses. Many horses will be quite quiet with one or two other horses but get panicky in a larger group, especially if the other horses are strangers. The best way to approach this, once yours and your friend’s horses are comfortable about waiting, is to go out with a small group but stay by yourselves some of the time. You can go along with them, then turn and walk back down the trail, then trot up, or plan to meet them. Gradually accustom them to the larger group, then increase the size of the group. You do have to be cautious with this; I have known horses who just couldn’t deal with a large group of horses at all. (I may say that I think that large trail rides are a very over-rated source of recreation!)
Hunter paces are a great place to introduce horses to groups because they see the other horses but they don’t go with them. Gradual introduction is the key. When my husband was breaking young horses to fox hunt, the first year they went to the meet, looked at all the other horses and the excitement and went home. The second year they went along about three fields behind the others. The third year they hunted at the back and the fourth year they hunted in the middle. Needless to say they were perfectly mannered.
It is well worth spending the time to get your horse to be relaxed with other horses and gait changes on the trail. I can’t tell you how much enjoyment my husband used to get out of sitting on his hunter with the reins hanging loose while he waited his turn to jump, and watching all the other horses plunging and leaping about! Talk about life’s little pleasures!