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A Solution for the Nappy Horse

Jane Savoie

What's worse than putting your legs on your horse and having him go backwards or even threaten to rear? That behavior can be scary and leaves you feeling helpless and out of control. So what should you do with the nappy horse?

The Problem:
As long as you know your horse is physically comfortable, chances are he's telling you he doesn't want to go forward into contact. (Check the fit of both his bit and his saddle, and have your veterinarian check his teeth and body for possible sources of discomfort.)

Think about how you react when your horse backs up. Do you chuck the reins forward so you lose contact with his mouth? If so, you're reinforcing this behavior. Here's how the cycle unfolds.
1. Your horse backs up or rears.
2. You drop the contact.
3. Your horse gets rewarded for backing up or rearing, and he tries it more often.

The Solution:
First, check the quality of your contact. Is it inviting and sympathetic? Is it the sort of contact he would willingly step into? In other words, it's:
1. Firm-a solid 1 to 2 pounds in each hand
2. Consistent--The reins don't alternately become loose and then tight.
3. Elastic--Your elbows move. In walk and canter, they open and close like you're rowing a boat. In rising trot, they open like a hinge on a door so your hands don't go up and down as you post.
4. Symmetrical-One hand is the mirror image if the other.
5. You have a straight line from your elbow through your hand to the bit.

Since backing up or rearing can be a symptom of not wanting to step into contact, the solution is to keep a firm but gentle contact with your horse's mouth. Let him back up. Let him back up forty steps if that's what he chooses to do. You might even have to turn a corner while he's backing up.

Don't punish him by kicking or hitting him with the whip. Just sit there quietly and let him back up as much as he wants. The cards are stacked in your favor because horses don't like to back up. Eventually, you'll feel him "ask" to go forward.

This is what's going on in your horse's mind.

"I want to get away from contact so I'll back up. Oh! That's not working. Hmmm. I don't like going backwards. I guess I'll go forward."

As soon as he chooses to go forward, praise him with your voice. (Don't drop the contact to pat him!). Your horse has solved the problem. He's learned that he can, indeed, go forward into contact.

The Warning:
This approach works 99% of the time. I do have one warning, however. If you feel that your horse will rear so high that he might flip over, then put your hands forward. Training horses is important. But it's more important to be safe.

So if you must give up contact when your horse rears, as soon as his front feet come back to the ground, take one rein to turn him onto a small circle, and kick vigorously to get him to trot forward very fast. Once he's trotting forward, keep the contact and trot straight out of the circle as you praise him.

Case history:
This past summer, one of my students brought a horse to me that was off the track. This horse was 6 years old and completely uneducated. He didn't accept the legs or accept the contact. When he felt overwhelmed, he'd stop and back up. Instinctively, his rider chucked her reins toward his mouth to "open the door" for him so he could go forward. She didn't realize that by doing so, she was actually rewarding him for stopping and backing up. She needed to teach him to go forward through the contact.

I told her to sit quietly and just keep the contact. The first day, he backed up right out of the arena and down through our field! Eventually, he got sick of backing up and went forward on his own. When he decided to go forward, she praised him a lot.

The next day, he only backed up twice for 3 or 4 steps. By the third day, he never backed up and hasn't used it as an evasion since.

Article Courtesy of Jane Savoie or contact Jane at