Longeing the Older Horse

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Q: I found your article on longeing very interesting. I have a 10 year old quarter horse who can't seem to figure out his leads in he arena. He hops back and forth and gets in a tizzy. The thing is he was a team roping horse all his life till about 1 1/2 years ago when he became a trail horse. I don't think he's ever been taught about leads or loping...  Do you think a 10 year old horse would benefit from lessons on a longe line? We also have a round pen but he didn't seem to get the idea. I've only had him a week and I'm going to try it again today.  Mostly I've been doing trail  rides where he's awesome... He'd be happy if he never saw an arena again but I do need to teach him how to canter.  Maybe the longe line is something that would help. What do you think?   Suggestions for reading would be appreciated.  Thanks.

A: Congratulations on your new horse. I hope he works out well for you.

Leads and resistance at the canter in general sometimes are very complex problems that do not have simple answers. To start with, we will assume that your horse simply doesn’t know what is expected of him. If this is the case, work on the longe line or in a round pen would certainly be the logical place to start.  

A horse must learn to balance at a canter (as opposed to a natural gallop), and it is easier for him to do this without a rider on his back. To have a horse pick up the correct lead on the circle he should be relaxed and slightly bent along the arc of his path. If the horse is tense or pulling against the line he will more often than not pick up the outside lead, or at least pick it up in back and will end up “cross cantering”. Your horse should be asked to do frequent transitions from trot to canter until he will do it immediately upon command. Trotting faster and falling into the canter will allow him time to change his balance and to pick up the wrong lead.  

If the horse consistently picks up the wrong lead, sometimes it helps to bring him in onto a slightly smaller circle by shortening the longe line and then letting him drift back out to the larger circle as you ask him to canter. Obviously if he doesn’t go into the canter promptly it is nearly impossible to get the timing to work out right.  

Having a pole or very small jump that the horse must cross just as you ask him to canter will also frequently get the horse on the correct lead. Of course you will have to get him used to going over the obstacle at the walk (pole on the ground) and trot (for a small jump) first.

After the horse will pick up the canter smoothly and on the correct lead with some consistency, you can advance to cantering with a rider. The same techniques can help you with the leads—moving out on a circle (or leg-yielding out) and going over a pole or small jump during the transition.  

The above was written for the sound and sane horse that is just uneducated. You must realize that with a ten year old horse you are buying a lot of history. There are very possibly issues complicating your canter problem.

The first thing that comes to my mind is that your horse was a roping horse. Although team roping is probably less stressful than calf roping, ALL roping is very hard on a horse’s body. Common problems with roping horses are sore backs and shoulders from the saddle being jerked down suddenly, navicular and other front-leg unsoundnesses, and hock problems from the stress of repeatedly starting and stopping so quickly.

Back and hock problems are both very common causes of horses that won’t pick up a particular lead and horses that get upset when asked to canter, even to the point of bucking and running to escape the pain.  

Although I have never competed in roping myself, I have watched ropers warm up many times and they usually lope, and lope, and lope—so most rope horses are very comfortable in the canter. Even though his cue to pick it up may not be what you are using, once in the canter I would expect your horse to settle down if nothing were wrong.

There is the possibility that it is something as simple as him having always been ridden in a short tie-down and not knowing how to balance without it. If so, the longe line work will fix the problem.  

My suggestion would be to try the longe line or round pen for a while. If you make progress then you can start work under saddle. If at any point you get really bogged down again, you should have a good equine vet give your horse a thorough check up. Tell the vet what particular problems you are experiencing so he knows where to focus his examination.

If the vet doesn’t find anything, or if he finds back or other musculo-skeletal problems, then you should have a good experienced equine chiropractor work on your horse. I have seen many horses with major canter problems that were fixed with some good chiropractic adjustments.  

Remember that even if you find physical problems that are remedied it can still take a lot of retraining to get some horses to stop expecting pain every time they canter. You might still have to start at the beginning again with the longe line work.

You may find that some work with a good trainer who is open minded enough to check out the possibility of physical problems would be a very good investment. An experienced trainer can sometimes quickly sort out whether a horse is spoiled, uneducated, in pain, or scared, etc.

It is possible that your horse has enough physical or mental problems that he can’t be retrained to do ring work, at least not in a reasonable timeframe and budget while still being fair to the horse. While this doesn’t come up very often, it does happen. If so, just count your blessings that your horse is a great trail animal and use him as such. If you need a horse that can be more versatile at least you can sell this one with a reasonable expectation that he will have a useful and comfortable life.

Good luck with your horse. Please keep me posted as to his progress!

Mary Bayard

The American Blacksmith
Oakland, Oregon


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This entire web site is copyright © protected.  © 1996-2001 Geronimo & Mary Bayard, © 2001-2008 Mary Fitzpatrick
All rights reserved. Contact Mary for reproduction information & permission.