Difficult Horses

When I asked for suggestions for the next Facebook Live Event (in German), I received a surprising number of requests for how to deal with horses conformational issues and temperament issues. There seems to be a certain need for this kind of information, which is slightly surprising given the fact that the overall quality of horse breeding has greatly improved during the last hundred years. However, it is very interesting to study this subject.

What Makes A Horse Difficult?

In most cases the difficulty probably consists of the horse “not sticking to any rules” that the rider has learned. None of the standard recipes of the riding instruction manuals seem to work on a horse like that. He hasn’t read a single book and obviously doesn’t know how to behave as a proper horse. In addition, difficult horses are usually too sensitive and explosive, or too phlegmatic and sucked back. So, their disposition is problematic.

These horses very quickly show the narrow limitations of the procedural riding methods that want to proceed the same way with all horses, prescribing the same exercises in the same sequence executed in the same manner for all horses, in the same way that cooking recipes indicate which ingredients have to be used in which quantities and in which succession.  

By contrast, a method that is principle driven juggles a multitude of variables and biomechanical causalities. It observes how the individual body parts of the horse are shaped, how they work together, how they influence each other, which parts of the body are strong, which ones are weak, which ones are mobile, which ones are stiff, which connections are easy to establish, and which joint and muscular connections impede the flow of energy. This makes much greater mental demands of the rider, but in return the chances for success are much higher because you can design a customized training program together with the horse that takes all his needs and challenges into consideration.

Why Is A Horse Difficult?

Classical authors from Ernst Friedrich Seidler (1846) and Otto von Monteton (1877) to Nuno Oliveira have repeatedly stated that easy to ride horses with good disposition usually have good conformation, whereas difficult horses often have major conformation faults that make the rider’s weight uncomfortable or even painful to carry. That is quite logical. A strong horse with good conformation will be able to carry the rider relatively easily, and the demands the rider makes of him will not be too uncomfortable. Horses with a weak back or weak hindquarters, as well as horses whose hind legs or poll are conformationally stiff and rigid will quickly find the work under saddleunpleasant or painful.

Other factors that can make a horse difficult are poor body awareness, poor balance, poor coordination, a low pain threshold, and a traumatic training history.

How Do I Proceed?

Even more important than with “regular” horses is a good relationship between the difficult horse and his human. You can often observe that riders who are technically not very far advanced achieve much greater success with a difficult horse than upper level riders. The reason is chemistry. If horse and rider have a good relationship, the cooperation will succeed. If the chemistry is missing, the greatest technical skill and knowledge will be useless. So this is where you have to start: by building a good, solid relationship.

Difficult horses require an especially high degree of sensitivity and mental flexibility. You have to study the horse closely and try to understand the conformation, not only at a halt, but in motion. Observe how the individual parts of the body are connected with each other, how they work together how the energy flows through the body, how the impulses of the hind legs are transmitted by the spine from back to front.

  • Can you see any abnormalities or idiosyncrasies in the gait?
  • Are there irregularities in the movements of the front legs or hind legs?
  • Do the front legs and hind legs seem to work together, or do they seem to move separately?
  • Are there any joints that appear hyper mobile?
  • Are there any joints that seem to be moving too little?
  • Are there muscles that look hard and stiff or that feel hard to the touch when you run your hand over them?
  • How does the horse react to the rider’s questions? Does he appear willing or unwilling? Does he seem confused by the question? Does he respond fearfully or nervously? Does he respond angrily?
  • Are there especially heated reactions in certain situations? What are the specific circumstances?
  • How well developed is his body awareness?
  • How well developed is his balance?
  • How well developed is his coordination?

Some of these things can be observed when the horse is moving at liberty or at the longe line. Others can be better observed when you are riding the horse or watching someone else ride him. Incidentally, with difficult horses you can often be most effective when you have a team of one rider on the horse and an experienced trainer on the ground who can observe what is happening with a certain objective distance. This way you combine the feel in the saddle with the visual impression and two brains, which often allows to find the cause of a problem and to come up with a solution faster than if one rider is all alone.

You can explore the questions above through specific gymnastic exercises and come up with a diagnosis based on the horse’s reaction. Once you have made a diagnosis, you can work on the weak areas that have surfaced in order to test whether your diagnosis was correct, and then continue to help the horse with a selection of further suitable gymnastic exercises.

All exercises have diagnostic properties, i.e. they show the rider where the horse is inflexible or sensitive. At the same time they possess therapeutic properties, i.e. they mobilise the stiff areas and strengthen the weak areas.

As a part of the diagnostic procedure you can check with specific exercises whether there are body parts that are especially sensitive to pain, causing sharp reactions when the rider tries to “touch” them with her aids. Quite often the poll, the throat latch, the back, or the hindquarters are among those.

You can test the poll and throat latch with flexions in the saddle or in hand. You can test the sensitivity of the back very easily by changing your seat. For instance, you can spread your weight out over a larger or smaller area. If you rest your weight on the entire area between the seat bones and the insides of the knees, the back is less burdened. The weight then flows more around the sides of the rib cage and there are fewer lbs/sq.in. on the horse’s back. If you concentrate your weight on your seat bones, the supporting area is much smaller so that there are a lot more lbs/sq.in. on the horse’s back. The horse’s reaction will show you clearly which variation of the seat is most comfortable for him.

The mobility and sensitivity of the hindquarters can be tested very effectively through lateral movements, turns on the forehand in motion, full passes, reinback, half halts, and full halts.

Especially strong negative reactions are often an indication of pain. If you suspect a pain issue, consult a veterinarian, a chiropractic, or physical therapist to narrow down the issue and discuss therapy options as a team. Checking saddle fit and teeth helps to at least eliminate these factors as possible causes.

It is very important to find the right structure for the work. With especially difficult horses it is usually not a good idea to climb on cold and start riding. You make work easier for the horse and yourself by finding the optimal structure. I would experiment with free longeing, longeing, double longeing, long reining, and work in hand. With some horses it helps to warm up with one of these options. For others, there is a specific combination that prepares the horse especially well for the rider’s weight. The goal of the warmup is to create a certain physical and psychological balance and mental collection, and to warm up the muscles before adding the weight of the rider. This is often recommendable for “normal” horses, too, but with especially difficult horses it is almost required.


So, these were a few thoughts on working with difficult horses. What is very important is that you don’t proceed dogmatically according to some instruction manual, but approach each horse sensitively and thoughtfully as an individual. Intuition in particular is often a more reliable guide than technical knowledge. Asking questions of the horse, observing his reactions, testing for specific skills and testing individual body parts will bring new information to the surface that helps the trainer to choose the next steps. You won’t be able to avoid going on detours, and pursuing some dead ends until you have found the right solution. That’s par for the course. Even if an exercise wasn’t successful you can gain important insights and learn from it. You also have to expect relatively regular setbacks, especially with traumatised horses, who experience panic attacks and flashbacks just like humans suffering from PTSD. These panic attacks and flashbacks may come as a complete surprise for the new rider. The frequency and intensity of these incidents should decrease over time. But they require much patience and confidence in your own ability, since these setbacks don’t necessarily mean that you have made a mistake. In these cases, the rider is not only a physical therapist for the horse, but also a psychotherapist.

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