When a rider complains that his or her horse is resistant, it generally means the horse “refuses” to perform in a certain way. The horse may be called “stubborn” or “bullheaded.” Equine behaviour scientists will tell you that horses do not, in fact, possess the cognitive ability to be stubborn, and instead of labelling the horse as such, it is the rider’s responsibility to uncover the root of the resistance.

“Unfortunately, resistance is often put down to “attitude” and the horse is called things like lazy, uncooperative or spooky because of the “bad” behaviour. In reality, unwanted behaviours and training difficulties are generally caused, initially, by some level of physical, mental or emotional tension,” said Anne Gage, partnership trainer, coach and owner of Confident Horsemanship.

“Tension affects how well your horse performs, moves, thinks and feels, as well as his ability to learn and adapt to new and unfamiliar situations,” Anne explained.

What Does Resistance Look Like?

Anne said, in her experience, resistance tends to be revealed in two ways:

• Avoidance behaviours: Moving away from being touched, groomed, saddled or caught. Refusal to open mouth for bridling. Not moving forward when led or ridden.

• Explosive behaviours: Bucking, rearing, bolting, striking, biting, kicking, spinning.

Lindsay Grice, an Equestrian Canada and AQHA judge and coach added, “resistance is often seen in the form of two opposing reactions: hesitation and hurry.”

She gave some examples of hesitation:

• You shift your leg to give the cue for a lead change and your horse changes, but three strides late.

• You ask your horse to shorten his stride on approach to a jump and, instead, he sets his jaw and keeps on cantering past the distance to an awkward take-off.

• When you ask for the rein back, your horse just stands there, stuck in the line and twisting his head against the bit.

Hurry, on the other hand, can look like:

• Exploding out of the trailer

• Rushing over the jump

• Scrambling into a canter transition

Causes of Resistance

There are many factors which can lead to tension and resistance in horses including:

• Poor or inadequate training

• Badly timed cues from the rider

• Imbalanced, improper rider position

• Ill-fitting tack, particularly saddle and bit

• Pain associated with the musculoskeletal system

• Pain associated with the digestive tract

• Hoof conditions

• Dental problems

• Poor posture and inability to carry himself

Each of these possibilities should be examined and eliminated as a cause when a horse displays so-called “bad” behaviour. Punishing your horse for what you perceive as disobedience will only result in increased tension and anxiety and the initial cause will remain unresolved.

Punishment & Disguise

“Punishing a horse for unwanted behaviour, stopping the behaviour with a gadget or trying to push him through a physical or mental problem increases tension, making the problem worse,” said Anne.

Lindsay agreed, noting that you shouldn’t take your horse’s resistance personally. “Don’t emotionally punish resistance,” she said. “Punishment is often the exclamation point after a rider throws up her hands in frustration, saying things like: ‘You’re making a fool of me!’ or ‘You should know better!’”

Both trainers also agree that disguising resistance issues isn’t the answer either. “The solution for resistance is rarely in the tack box,” said Lindsay. “Tack aids may mask the expression of resistance without addressing the root of the problem.

“For instance, leading equine scientists are highlighting the misuse of restrictive nosebands in competition. Across all disciplines, an open mouth is a sign of resistance and will earn penalties. Now, through fluoroscopic images, we see the inside story. A horse will try to relieve pressure from the bit by trying to reposition it to a more comfortable place with his tongue. Some types of pain, confusion and tension manifest in an active tongue. A relaxed tongue is a responsive tongue.”

Anne also commented on the use of nosebands: “While the horse is prevented from opening his mouth, the cause of the behaviour is not resolved and the tension remains. The horse may then try evading the bit by going behind the vertical, pulling down or sticking his nose up. Even if he does not resort to these other behaviours, tension builds up and the horse develops unhealthy posture, becomes stiff and sore in his poll and neck and cannot perform to his best ability.”

Lindsay underlined this thought saying, “Restraining the expression of resistance fails to address the source of it, and like a weed, resistance will pop out somewhere else!”

Dealing With Resistance

The first step to eliminating resistance is acknowledging it. “Don’t ignore it,” Lindsay said. “Notice the little signs: your horse stiffens to your hand instead of melting into it, or hides behind the vertical to evade pressure. Change your lesson plan right there and address the resistance.”

Watch for Early Signs

Lindsay said it is important to be vigilant, always on the lookout for tension and ways to alleviate it. “Catching a brace when it’s minor will spare you from more work later. As soon as my leg swings over the horse, I’m asking little questions – transitions, lateral work – hunting for hints of brace,” she said. “When my horse sets himself against my aid, I match it with an appropriate suppling exercise.”

Anne pointed out that “Lateral work improves bend and suppleness through the neck and back. Rather than pulling your horse’s head around to the side, encourage more swing through the barrel from your leg and seat – more swing equals more bend.”

Time Your Release

Lindsay noted that timing is key. “Missing the moment to release, at the onset of your horse’s response, leads to anxiety,” she said. “A horse may rush through the turn on the forehand, for example, if he feels he can’t get away from the rider’s leg. Horses naturally seek freedom. Your release confirms: “You found the answer I was looking for!”

Use Appropriate Aids

“At times,” said Lindsay, “assertive resistances, like kicking out or striking out, require assertive responses. Other times, like if your horse is anxious or confused, simply maintaining pressure until he finds the right answer is the best response. If you overreact, your horse will flee. If you under-respond, your horse will become dull.”

Lindsay reminds us to always begin with the lightest signal. “Starting your aid on the low end of the scale will nip a potential fight in the bud,” she said. “If you jerk the reins instead of initiating with firm contact, prepare for a head toss.”

It is a delicate balance, however, and you must be prepared to “use an aid with enough intensity to motivate,” said Lindsay. “If you fail to escalate your leg signal to motivate a lazy trot, for example, your horse will come to be desensitized, and exhausting to ride. By the same token, relentless clucking at your horse on the lunge line without enforcing a response will disappear into background static.”

Check Your Own Tension

Anne noted that a rider’s energy can affect how her horse interprets her aids. “A stiff or tense rider, when asking the horse to go forward or perform an up transition, for example, gives the horse contradictory messages,” she said. “Her leg aid says ‘go,’ but increased tension in other areas of her body, such as her seat, lower back, arms or upper back, says ‘stop.’ If the rider then gives a stronger aid, and perhaps feels frustrated because her horse is slow to respond or doesn’t respond at all, she increases the tension in her body. As a result, the horse’s level of tension – and therefore, resistance – increases. Over time, if the rider is consistently tight or stiff in a certain area, her horse will also become stiff in the same area.”

Anne said riders should work to improve their posture, balance and suppleness in the saddle. “Be aware of where you carry tension or have stiffness in your own body,” she said. “Take steps to improve your posture, supple your joints and lengthen your muscles.”

Consider Physical Causes

Alongside investigating possible training issues, it is important to check your horse thoroughly for areas of pain. “Horses, as prey animals, don’t want to appear vulnerable and can be stoic about pain,” said Anne. “Regular veterinary care, dental exams, foot care, massage and chiropractic therapy can catch problems early or prevent them from happening.”

Proper conditioning is also an important component. “Helping your horse develop a functional posture allows his body to move freely, with relaxation, in better balance and without pain,” said Anne. “It also reduces the risk of injury.” She explained that “functional posture means the horse’s hind legs step well underneath his body, lifting his back and allowing his neck to lengthen. There should be swing through the neck, back and barrel.”

Anne concluded, “Most importantly, pay attention to your horse’s body language and learn the subtle signs of tension and pain. When your horse tells you that something isn’t right, don’t look for a quick fix. Figure out what the cause is and address that. The longer a behaviour exists, the harder it is to change.”

But I Fixed It! The Fallout of Stress and Pain

Lindsay cautioned that resistance can escalate quickly when a horse finds himself in a situation where he is frightened or unsure. Any source of additional pressure and stress from the rider or the environment (busy horse show, moving to a new stable, a scare on the trail, etc.) can result in increased or renewed resistance. A problem may resurface that you thought was resolved. “A horse’s strong flight instinct compels him to escape – running through pressures rather than softening to them,” she said. “Like a snowball picking up mass, rearing, kicking out, rushing and head tossing begin as a natural reflex to pressure.”

Anne echoed this, adding, “Over time, the resistant behaviours become learned as the horse develops an expectation of, or association with, a negative experience, such as pain, punishment or emotional stress, to a particular event or situation. The escalation to extreme behaviours happens when the horse is forced to continue working by increasing pressure and punishment. They can be avoided if the first signs of tension are noticed and addressed.

“For example, a mare I once worked with became resistant to bending right while being ridden. I discovered that she had a sore shoulder and she was subsequently seen by an equine massage therapist. Even after the pain was gone, the mare continued to resist bending to the right. She had an expectation that it would hurt. By encouraging her to bend to reach a treat, first without and then with a rider, she realized that the movement no longer hurt and she willingly gave the right bend.”

Resistance by the Rules

Lindsay noted that “Across the board, competition rule books seek to define and discourage resistance.”

In dressage, for example, Lindsay said resistance is “defined as active, rigid opposition to the connection or to the aids of the rider. For example, being against or above the bit.

“In the description, a distinction is made between mental and physical resistance. The horse can be resistant, yet still obedient [and perform the exercise].

“Disobedience is defined as willful determination to avoid doing what is asked, or determination to do what is not asked.

“Evasion is the avoidance of the difficulty, correctness, or purpose of the movement, or of the influence of the rider, often without active resistance or disobedience. For example, tilted head, open mouth, broken neckline or avoiding correct contact with the bit.”

Lindsay noted that in the reining guidebook, “a resistance-free ride is one in which every movement is controlled. The best reined horse should be willingly guided or controlled with little or no apparent resistance and dictated to completely. Any movement on his own must be considered a lack of control. The idea for the horse here is waiting and responding.”