While reasons are varied, rehabilitating the soured horse is as much about rekindling his desire to perform as it is his relationship with his rider. The latter is perhaps even more important as it is through developing a “partnership” that we’re more likely to be the person our horse wants to perform for, but when we are called to assert ourselves, he, too, must take the initiative to listen. We remain a positive leader by being consistent – in our technique, behaviour, and emotional balance – and by ensuring rewards for positive feedback.
ie: You can use your whip on a horse to “go” as long as he had fair warning to move off the leg first (but declined), it is not over-used, and is rewarded when a response is given. Oftentimes, one tap’ll do.
That being said, when we have a lazy, sluggish or otherwise obstinate horse, a safe rule of thumb is, rather than forcing a movement or means of carriage, focus always on forward first.
This may be more easily achieved on a trail ride or field hack, and perhaps those “adventures” will help improve the overall state of mind as whole. Consider them “vacations” from ring work, and rest assured knowing better what he is capable of. The difference being how much you have to ask!
While it can feel about as productive as flogging a beached whale, sharpening the aids and inspiring a more forward carriage doesn’t have to feel so hopeless.
Sharpen the Forward Aids
While I use it sparingly and write of it even more gently, the use of the whip can be incredibly helpful and most easily controlled tools to utilize. Spurs can often very easily inadvertently jab and pester the horse, dulling him moreso if care is not given. When used appropriately, the whip is an effective follow-up to an ignored leg aid. A quick tap reinforces the aid with a gentle reminder that yes, I do mean go forward more, and then is easily unused until you need it again.
Ask your horse to move forward, be it an upward transition or a stronger gait within a gait. If there is a positive response, excellent. If there is a response but in a direction other than forward, straighten them out as efficiently and confidently as you can and carry on, half-halt, do what you need to do to channel it appropriately. If the pace sucks back or there is no response to the leg aid, lightly tap the whip behind your inside leg. Hopefully this will illicit a reaction. When it does, soften as reward, balance and channel as required, give them their head enough to not inhibit or detract their movement.
When the pace slackens, always ask with the leg first and if it is ignored, use the whip right away. Do not use the whip if there is a reaction, as we want them sharpened to the leg aid. Using the whip regardless teaches them nothing except that you will hit them anyway. Hardly incentive.
And most of all, until some consistency is achieved, it is sometimes best to do as little as possible to get in the way of their forward momentum. Suppling is good to continue, but if it comes at the expense of forward momentum, they are not ready or another underlying issue, such as saddle/back/neck/dental pain, could be the cause.
With consistent practice, they will learn to move off the leg aid and use of the whip will become less and less necessary.
So your horse baulks at the whip?
Sadly, some horses suck back even more at the feel of the whip. In these cases, use it as sparingly as possible or not at all. It is only meant as an enforcement for a leg aid, never punishment (ex: for spooking or disobedience. Such behaviours should be catered appropriately to address the issue.)
If a horse reacts violently or demonstrates fear of the whip, if it is safe to do so, simply work with them calmly, asking them to approach and sniff it in-hand and work up to stroking them gently with it on the ground and, if possible, under saddle. Overcoming strong fears is an especially big step for developing trust in your partnership.