Having a balanced horse is not only a physical term but also a mental one. Mentally, horses need to be balanced in order for us to ride them correctly and safely. A horse who is not balanced will not be content where he is. Instead, he will be attracted to magnets such as the gate, barn, and other horses. When your horse is balanced mentally, he will be on your aids ready to do anything you ask while staying relaxed.
The barn, pasture, or other horses are the most common places your horse will be attracted to. In the arena the horse will want to go to the gate or the closest part of the arena to his pasture or stall. The reason why horses are so attracted to these places is because they are places of comfort. Horses are always looking for the easiest place to be. When the horse is in his stall or out in the pasture he is relaxed. No pressure is being put on him, he has food and water, and is free to do what he wants in the safety of his herd. The horse’s hierarchy of needs are safety, food, and comfort. Horses feel safe within a herd, in their stall, pasture, or where ever they are kept. Therefore, many horses will want to get back to that place of comfort when any pressure is put on them.
Most of the time a horse will show you that he doesn’t want to be in a particular place especially when riding in the arena by stopping at the gate, in an area closest to where he is kept, or near other horses. He will be ridden away from this place, but will either be slow going away, rush back toward it or both. A horse won’t necessarily stop where is wants to be, especially a hot type horse. Instead, you may have to look for more subtle information as to where you horse wants to be. Some almost invisible cues your horse is giving you include: slowing his speed or cadence slightly in one spot, relaxing in one or multiple spots and not others, looking out over the fence, pushing the shoulders out on a circle or falling in on a circle, stopping, bucking, or rearing when they are tying to go where they want to be and you are preventing them from doing so, lowering the head and taking contact in the place he wants to be and raising his head when he is away, rushing, balking, being more reactive to your leg when he is away, also being insensitive to your leg when he doesn’t want to leave a place.
Horses behave this way because their riders have taught them to. When you get the horse out of the pasture, tack him up, ride in the arena for an hour, then leave the arena, untack, put the horse up, and feed him what are you teaching him? You are teaching him that the pasture is a good place to be because there isn’t pressure being put on him, his friends are there, and he can eat as he pleases. You are also teaching the horse that the arena and being with you is a bad place to be. You only catch him when you want to ride, you then tack him up, which can be uncomfortable if his saddle or other equipment doesn’t fit correctly. You get on him in the arena, start your ride and try to get as much done as possible in the amount of time you have, then you probably stop by the gate, release the contact on the reins and get off. Then you take him back to the barn, untack him and feed him, or put him back out with his buddies. Not every ride goes like this but the majority of them do.
Riding and handling horses in this way teaches the horse is that he should avoid you when you go to catch him because you are only going to send him to work. He learns that the arena is a place of a lot of pressure and that the gate leads to comfort. Also, in the case of riding in a group, the horse will get to stop working and rest near the other horses of the group as the riders talk. Then, when it comes time for them to ride a course or preform a movement the horse is taken away and worked, then brought back and rested next to the other horses again. The worst part is that the riders don’t even realize that they are teaching their horses to have magnets. Once the horse starts rearing or bolts because the rider wouldn’t let him go back to the magnet, the rider punishes the horse. This is only making the situation worse, as the horse is away from his place of comfort, is desperately trying to get back, and the rider is whipping or kicking the horse only teaching him that where he is right now is indeed a bad place to be.
Removing the Horse’s Magnets
To cure this, you will work the horse in the place he wants to be and rest him in the place where he doesn’t want to be. By balancing the horse he will not always associate being with you or in the arena with work. When you start your ride, get on near the gate but not at the gate. That way you aren’t punishing him for being there even though you asked him to be. But then you aren’t so far away from it that the horse won’t stand for mounting or wants to bolt over to the gate as soon as you get on.
Begin balancing the horse by letting him go around the arena on a loose rein allowing him to go wherever he wants. The horse will automatically take you where he wants to be. When he stops or slows down by the gate, or whatever part of the arena he is attracted to, start working him. You must allow the horse to take you where he wants, as he must find out that when he goes over to that particular spot it isn’t as comfortable as he thought it would be. Start making small circles and tapping him with the whip gently behind your leg. The tapping is meant to be more of an annoyance then to get him to go forward, so keep your tapping rhythmical and light. If you don’t feel comfortable tapping you can also bump the horse’s sides in the same way with your legs while making a tight circle. You can even trot or canter tight circles and figure eights, anything that is hard work. I find that circles work best. Sometimes the horse won’t catch on at first to circling at the walk, so you should ask him to circle at a trot instead and make him work a little bit harder. As you advance, start working on contact in that spot or on any other maneuver that needs work. At first you only have contact where the horse wants to be and release when he leaves that place. Eventually you can have contact where ever you want after the horse no longer has any spots he rather be.
Pay attention to the horse’s circles after a few times around he will start to drift away from his magnet. When you notice he is moving away, let the horse do one more circle until his nose is facing the center of the arena then let him straighten out and go forward. It is very important that he starts drifting away from the magnet before you let him get out of the circle. When he starts moving away from the magnet he is trying to find another answer and you want to reward him for that and let him find a release away from the magnet. It’s also important that you don’t let him straighten out of the circle when he is leaning, as this teaches him to drop his shoulder. Instead, you must wait until his nose is facing the center of the arena or away from the magnet. Once you let the horse out of the circle again, let him travel on a loose rein only putting pressure on him when he goes to his magnet. When the horse has traveled away from where he wants to be stop and let him rest. You always want to rest where the horse wants to be the least. End every ride as far away from the horse’s magnet as you can.
When you are at a show do the same thing as you would at home. You may have to get to the arena early as it can be hard to ride circles when there are multiple horses warming up around you. After your ride or class, leave the arena then ride for another 30 minutes. This keeps the horse guessing as to when you will put him up and gets rid of him rushing toward the out gate. Horses of all disciplines have gate sour issues that affect their performance. Hunter/ jumpers will have horses who will refuse a fence going away from the gate. In flat classes horses will rush toward the gate and slow down near it. Barrel racers can’t get their horse into the arena for this reason. It is also why the horses are so much faster on the way home then they are at any other time. Check your horse for these magnets every day. Soon you won’t have to check anymore just like groundwork, do it until you don’t have to any more, then if you start having a problem go back and fix it. By recognizing the horse’s magnets and balancing him to be content with wherever he is, riding will become much more enjoyable.