Start Your Engines: 4 Tips for Working With Lazy Horses

Start Your Engines: 4 Tips for Working With Lazy Horses

If horses exist on a spectrum, hot horses live on one end and kick rides are on the other. Lazy horses require a surprising amount of strategy on the rider’s part to get the most out of them. The kick ride can be difficult, and no one knows that better than five-star eventer Sydney Conley Elliott. Her current Advanced event horse QC Diamantaire or “Q” as he’s called in the barn, is the poster child for a lazy ride.

“Q is so lazy and running at the highest level,” Sydney said. “I feel like horses like him are much harder rides than a hot horse - mentally, too, because you’re trying to get every step out of them and it just requires a lot of brain power and a lot of physical work on the rider’s part.”

Lethargic horses come with a unique set of challenges, so Sydney shares her favorite tips for making the most of your less reactive ride.

Want to know more about what motivates a lazy horse? Check out Tik Maynard's Masterclass on common training problems. 

1. Use the Smallest Amount of Pressure Possible

With a lazy horse, it’s all about being as effective as possible in you riding. “It’s so hard not to nag the lazy horse with your leg,” Sydney said. “Ideally, you should be able to move the air around them and they move forward, not necessarily having to make contact with them. It’s training your horse to be more sensitive.”

When you ask your horse to move off the leg, start with the least amount of pressure necessary, but intensify when appropriate. It might seem kind to only apply a gentle squeeze several times around the area, but if they aren’t reacting to that, you’re only encouraging a dull reaction.

“You might ask them nicely once time and if they won’t go, you might go to the whip. Then, you go a few steps and try it again, so the horse knows when you start to put your leg on, they need to react to it.”

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The key here is to ask with the appropriate amount of aids until you get a response, then stop. “Do your best to let the leg hang and don’t use it unless you absolutely have to. Hopefully we’re all trying to teach the horse to go off of our seat and a little bit of leg, but it should be a touch and they go. Hot horses keep the leg on, lazy horses keep it off unless you need to use it,” Sydney said.

2. "Cruise Control" Doesn't Exist

When you ride a quieter horse, your job begins the moment you swing your leg over the saddle. Instead of letting your horse move away from the mounting block at their own pace, consider this the first trainable moment of that ride. “I think it’s our job from the moment we get on at the mounting block. We pick up those reins and we make them work,” she said.

"Their brain has to be engaged – rider and horse – from the very beginning.”

“It’s our rider responsibility – we’re either helping them improve every step of the way or we’re not. When the horse is lazy to move away from the mounting block, that’s where we as riders are to be held accountable for our actions – we have to make them go forward that moment. Their brain has to be engaged – rider and horse – from the very beginning.”

“Come out and have a good ride and if you can just think, ‘OK I’ve got to make it count.’ It’s one hour. If you can get on and do the best you can that day and make every step count, and hopefully the next day will be easier,” Sydney said. “Hopefully tomorrow they’ll come out a little bit more in front of your leg. Yes, it might be hard work and some days will be harder than others, but it should get better if you are doing the work you should be every single ride. If you don’t stay on top of the lazy horse, they will take a little bit from you each ride.”

 3. Change Things Constantly

Getting the less reactive horse in front of your leg means you need to keep them engaged both physically and mentally. Only traveling around the arena on the rail won’t help keep them sharp. Instead, you’ll want to keep them interested with frequent transitions, circles, and changes of direction. This can be amended to suit your level of riding, too, and can also include transitions within the gaits and movements like shoulder in and flying changes.

“You want the most you can get in the ring. With Q, we always, always run through so many transitions. He never does one movement too long – were always changing it up,” Sydney said. “Every few steps were changing what we’re doing. Forward, back haunches in, shoulder fore, half pass. There’s never a moment when you’re just traveling around the ring.”

Cavaletti and gridwork is another way to spice up your ride. “Even at home, [Q] doesn’t jump a ton, but we do a lot of grid work -- a lot of poles to make his footwork faster. I always compare it to football players doing agility work,” Sydney explained. 

“Be creative! Just throw poles out there everywhere. I am such a believer in changing it up and make them think about their feet and not necessarily us getting them there at the perfect distance every single time. They’ve got to learn how to move their feet fast and help us out when we need it because we don’t always get it right”

4. The Lazy Horse Needs Extra Fitness

The stronger and more aerobically conditioned your horse is, the more you can ask of them. Keeping your horse fit makes your job of keeping them reactive that much easier.

“The lazy horse has to be extra fit,” Sydney said. “Many of us are riding warmbloods now, so fitness is such a huge part of your riding. Without it, you really don’t have a horse leaving the start box." 

As an event rider, Sydney also uses creativity to assess Q’s fitness level throughout the season as well because she knows just how important it is. “We may get a trot set in before or after a dressage ride,” she said. “Leading up to our three-days I’ll actually do a jump session after a gallop to prepare for show jumping on the last day of a long format. That’s a creative way to test the fitness out.”

5. Don’t Forget to Have Fun

While it can be frustrating when you can’t get your horse in front of the leg, remember, every horse comes with their own set of talents and challenges.

“It’s a lot of work, don’t forget to keep it fun. Don’t nag them too much and stress about it too much. Their character is who they are whether they are hot or lazy,” she said. “You bought the horse for a reason, so be prepared to work with what God gave them. Even if they are a bit lazy, enjoy that some days. There’s good qualities and bad qualities for the lazy horse, so enjoy both sides!”

Read this next: Three Truths About Riding that Caroline Martin Learned from Anne Kursinski

Photos by Shelby Allen.