If a horse is excitable when it comes out to work, riders tend to work the animal for long periods of time in an effort to wear it out to achieve compliance. The initial excitability of the animal causes an adrenaline rush, just as though the horse were fearing for its life and needed adrenaline to enable it to run fast for a long period of time to escape a predator. If the rider (or even someone longeing a horse) doesn’t give the animal frequent breaks, the horse’s emotional state remains frenzied, which keeps the adrenaline flowing.
If a horse is very nervous at the start of work, it’s fine to give it short spurts of canter with the rider’s seat off the saddle in two-point position—no more than three times around the arena—followed by a break of about five minutes so that the horse’s level of both adrenaline and oxygen can decline in intensity. As you know, adrenaline and oxygen can cause humans to accomplish what seem to be super-human feats of physicality, and the same is true of an animal; so it is important to get the horse back to a more normal physical and emotional state before you start to work again, or else you’ll find yourself fighting a battle you cannot possibly win.
The oxygen and adrenaline levels are very important, but the horse’s mental state and its ability to realize it is tired are equally important. A walk on a long rein (or at least as long as you can have and still control the nervous horse) provides the animal an opportunity to relax; and once it has relaxed a little, it will realize it is tired. Just as you come to a point in a hard day that you think, “I’m worn out,” and start finding ways to take it a little easier, the horse will do the same. Instead of looking for things to spook at, it will just mind its business and cooperate.
This principle is true in all training of the horse. You don’t want to exhaust the animal, for this can be dangerous if your horse doesn’t have what it needs physically and mentally to do what you’re asking of it—for example, jumping a course of fences. What you’re really looking for is a relaxed horse that is willingly submissive. You’ll get this when you offer frequent breaks in your work routine.
If you’re longeing the horse, change directions about every five minutes, and take plenty of time while you’re switching the equipment to the other side, so the horse has a little time to settle. Also, don’t longe more than 20 minutes. After this time, when you get on the horse, walk it for at least five minutes on a long rein and let it relax. If you have time, you can even take the horse back to the barn, cool it out, then tack it up later for your ride. You’ll be amazed at how much more successful your work session will be if you’ll give your horse time to calm down, relax, and feel that it is a little tired.
If you’ve taken the route of short periods of canter in two-point, go three times around the ring, take a five-minute break, then do the same thing one more time. If this doesn’t sufficiently calm the horse, you can do the same thing twice more; but again, concentrate as much on a lengthy break time as you do on the cantering, so that the horse can become more calm, relaxed, and aware of the fact that its body is tired.
The people who constantly resort to lengthy gallops or an hour of longeing end up with a horse so fit that the initial problem of the horse being at a physical advantage is greatly increased. Also, overwork can cause lameness and other physical problems, so it’s not a wise thing to do. The next time your horse is keyed up, use short periods of work, interspersed with frequent breaks, to make the horse’s mind and body more manageable, rather than taking the lengthy and less-successful route of working your horse nearly to death or attempting to muscle it into submission.
Talk to you later! — AJ