Should you pass or press on when your horse tells you that he’s not comfortable with a gait, surroundings, or maneuver? You must know which option makes the situation more positive and which is an excuse to avoid an issue you don’t want to address.
Sometimes the plan to exclude an exercise when your horse feels a bit “iffy” is a good one and sometimes it’s not. There’s no one right, absolute answer to any question regarding horses so you must know what motivates your decision. In less than an hour, here’s why I went one way and then the other.
After A Wreck
My husband and Copper, his gorgeous dun Quarter Horse gelding, had history. You can’t blame a horse relatively new to mounted shooting from expressing concern when his rider shoots a .45 blank through the space between his ears, something no one does by design and few horses tolerate well. And they wrecked.
A month later, Copper did well warming up at a competition but I decided not to lope for two reasons. First, so he wouldn’t unexpectedly offer it if he misunderstood a cue from my husband who hadn’t loped since the wreck. Second, so I wouldn’t have to take the time to fix it if he didn’t lope softly and maybe blow my husband’s opportunity to ride.
Just When You Think Your Horse is Ready
Copper and I left the arena through a different gate from the one we came in. Tucked in behind a rail fence and paneled gates was an old set of wheels. Each axle had a rusty wheel on one end and the other resting in the dirt. They reminded me of Tinker Toys.
Copper saw the wheels hiding behind the fence fifteen feet away, sucked his body backwards like the tide going out and gave every indication that he was prepared to bolt. I firmly and gently kept him facing the fearsome monsters for a few seconds. I knew they hadn’t moved or made a sound so I didn’t see a reason for Copper’s concern.
This was unusual because Copper wasn’t a spooky horse. I asked him to take one step toward the wheels and stop. Stopping should be your choice 99% of the time, not your horse’s. Remember, whoever controls the feet wins. Always keep your horse in a place of obedience.
Great Trainers Always Go For A Yes
If you think your horse may refuse to go forward, ask him to back up a step and stop. Don’t forget to thank him for saying yes. Then ask for one or two steps forward. Stop. Relax. Pretend you haven’t a care in the world.
Continue forward a step or two at a time. Stop. Relax. Say thank you. Remember, your horse must be moving when you say whoa. If your horse sulls up or won’t go forward, tip his nose in a different direction and try again. You don’t get points for straight, just forward.
Always go for the yes. Ask something you know your horse will do even if it’s totally unrelated. Every yes is gold.
Copper stepped forward and stopped again when asked. Then I turned him toward the out gate and walked past the wheels. He put as much distance between himself and those wheels as the alley fence allowed. I didn’t let him cheat his form and we walked by the wheels a few more times. When he was soft and obedient we left.
Back at the trailer my husband got into the saddle for the first time that day. I told him how Copper reacted to the wheels and what to do it he tried it again. Not surprisingly, Copper walked past the wheels like they didn’t exist even though he acted like they might eat him five minutes earlier.
Horses Test You When They’re Confident, Not Scared
The Lord showed me that the wheel issue was a leadership test. It’s our responsibility to understand horses and not the other way around. Copper needed to know if my leadership was up to his requirements before there was a real problem. His question was, can I trust you?
He pretended to be afraid of the wheels.
God’s Word tells us that if we can’t be trusted with small things, how can we be trusted with important things? As Jesus said in John 3:12, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Copper wanted to know if he could trust me in a simple matter — the wheels. If I failed that small test, there was no way he’d follow my lead in a serious matter, like shooting guns.
After hanging out in the arena for awhile Baber grew less confident and Copper got antsy. It was time for me to ride Copper again and change his brain from drama king to happy obedient pony.
Sometimes Helping Your Horse Means Pressing On
Instead of avoiding the lope, it became the main event.
When I asked Copper to pick up an easy lope he offered a half-hearted crow hop before picking up the lead. Wrong answer. I curled him around like a cat with a snaffle rein and inside leg then sent his hip in a circle around his front end. Once he gave completely to my ask I lined him out and asked for a lope as if nothing had happened.
This time Copper was sweet and light. We toured around at a soft lope before I asked him to pick up his left lead, the one that’s more difficult for him. Copper offered it softly, so I patted his rump and scratched his neck as we loped around the pen.
I decided to run a full shooting pattern on him, gunfire and all. Copper did precisely as I asked and was a happy camper from the time we crossed the timer line at the beginning of the run to the finish.
Copper tried me, I passed the test, and his confidence in my leadership grew.
The Habit of Obedience
I want the same thing from my horses that God wants from me—an offer of obedience. A yes.
Some obstacles appear to redirect our feet and others to teach us to overcome. Being a worthy leader to a horse means you must discern which is the best course in the moment. Pass or press on?
In any event, always put your horse’s needs first and go for the yes!
Read More of Copper's Story and Many Others
The rest of this story is in Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace. For many more stories, lessons, and ways to celebrate your love of horse and Jesus Christ, click on a book and browse.
It’s not nice to tattle, but I’m gonna do it anyway. My horse, Journey, is such a goof that I had to share it with you. For no apparent reason