Balking, sulling, napping. Terminology varies across riding disciplines, yet the behaviour is familiar – your horse’s “go” button is stuck.
As a judge, I see it in the show ring. A horse may dig in his toes at the trail bridge, stall on approach to a jump or refuse to enter the ring altogether. He may plant his feet at the wash stall or be unwilling to exit the pasture gate to leave his herd mates.
The balking horse is a different version of stuck than the spooking horse. It’s important that we recognize the distinctions to handle it appropriately. The balking horse may veer off the direction of travel – his head pointing in your desired direction while his body derails sideways off the track. Or he may lock up altogether, seemingly impervious to your urging. Serious balking is spinning around or even rearing.
Is my horse spooking or balking? Look at the ears. The expression of a spooking horse is high alert – muscles tense and ears pricked forward. A balking horse may have a neutral or unresponsive expression and his ears tend to be back.
Where Does The Balk Begin?
Magnet behind. Disinclined to leave his barn or his buddies, for instance, your horse may dilly-dally, zigzag or plant his feet.
Aversion in front. Such as a mud puddle or the scary far end of the arena. Your horse instinctively hesitates to approach anything threatening.
Past balking success. We can accidentally train horses to balk by missing little unauthorized resistances. Maybe you’ve allowed your horse to turn away from your goal to face new scenery or circle around to re-approach an obstacle. If horses discover that pressure disappears by rearing or ducking sideways, it can quickly become an established behaviour pattern.
Generally tuned out. Do you describe your horse as “needing a lot of leg?” A desensitized horse will always “need” what you’re willing to supply and will tune out anything below that level. Determine not to “babysit” him with nagging aids. If he can feel a fly, he can feel the lightest version of every aid.
What’s the Solution?
Nip the nap in the bud. Notice the first signs of slowing and keep those legs moving. Piano movers know: once you get rolling, keep it rolling! Sometimes the best compromise to straight ahead is forward on a tangent, zigzagging toward your goal. Reward your horse’s focus toward your destination; spinning away starts with looking away.
Define your go-forward cue. We can’t blame a horse for not responding to a cue he doesn’t understand. Deliver your “go” signal in the same manner and location every time.
Change your technique. I’ve found that horses tend to lean on a firm leg squeeze and will lift off a lighter, pulsing action. If you open any conversation with an opinionated or offensive assertion, the hearer is inclined to brace against your viewpoint.
Thoroughly teach and test the “go” button before taking it to a new environment. Do you have the tools in place to persuade your horse’s feet to go where his instinct tells him not to? Is your horse accelerating and yielding laterally to leg pressure – every time, everywhere? As a judge, I wince seeing a competitor enter a show, whose horse isn’t yet past the “head steering” stage. With weak resources to guide over a trail bridge or prevent a jumping run-out, they’re inadvertently rewarding evasion as they’re excused from the ring.
Escalate cautiously. If you press through a tense horse’s comfort bubble, you’ll likely fail. Allow him to settle and process after each step of progress. However, an indifferent stuck horse may need a sharp reminder that balking is NOT an acceptable answer. A timely correction links his resistance to a natural consequence like backing into an electric fence. Appropriate corrections are without emotion, sufficient to grab his attention without triggering his fear/flight response.
Note: By having tools available to supplement my aids, I won’t miss a training opportunity because I’m unable to follow through on my request. A dressage whip is effective, used in taps behind your leg (versus a single wallop), stopping the instant your horse unsticks. I opt for spurs to deliver just the right amount of pressure at the precise moment for motivation.
Reward forward promptly. Picture your balking horse bracing against your leg cue like the butt bar of a trailer. As he unlocks and steps (or even thinks) forward, immediately soften your aids. Timing your “yes” is crucial to make clear that he’ll always go forward into freedom.
Keep yourself safe. In thwarting your horse’s attempt to balk, his response can escalate into rearing and spinning. While you never want to give in to such behaviour, by allowing him to turn away from your destination he’ll conclude that such conduct pays off. On the ground, you’ll be more safely able to prevent evasion and keep him pointing forward. He’s likely to feel calmer and more malleable being led. Even small wins add up!
Equestrian Canada coach, judge and specialist in equine behavior Lindsay Grice helps riders solve their “horse puzzles” from the training ring to the show ring. Learn more at lindsaygriceridingcoach.com.