Everything Else

How much and how long?

So what do you do if you have a horse that just won’t play? How far do you go to “convince” the horse to see things your way and do the things you want it to do? How long do you try? What do you try? Do you draw the line at force? Medication?

A little run in at Fence 1. Katie Frei and Houdini.


Obviously there are no right answers to these questions. Some of it comes down to the situation, much of it comes down to personal ethics. One person’s reasonable aid is another person’s force. Some people have had great success with “chemical restraint”, other people have had train wrecks. Some people have the money and resources to continue almost indefinitely, others do not. Many people say that they do not want a “quick fix” to a reluctant/resistant horse and they are willing to give it “months” . . . when in fact it might take years.

I had a horse with very severe issues, many of them related to competing, that took literally years to sort out. First with me doing all of his “rehab” work, and then with a competition pro who was willing to take him to the shows with him. First not competing, and then only going in the ring on the days that the horse felt good. (And, for the record, in order to keep everyone safe, they did use sedation initially, although not when he was actually competing in recognised classes.) It was a long road!

The first time I got the horse into the ring successfully, we planned the day out with military precision and I had two people to help me. It took us 45 minutes to get him the couple of hundred yards from the collecting ring to the show ring. I was lucky enough to be able to manage the situation; I picked the show specifically, talked to the organisers beforehand, and the show was multi-day so we were able to keep at it over the weekend. This was after doing all of the work at home, going to clinics (one of which we were thrown out of :D), and taking every precaution. It was hardly a case of rocking up and taking a few shots at the problem.

In his case owner was very well off and had bred the horse and made some of the initial bad decisions for him so she was HIGHLY motivated to salvage at least something from the situation. Eventually it worked out that the horse went best in the lower amateur classes with a smaller female rider. The owner (who didn’t ride) paid the bills for that. That horse still makes me sad as he is to this day, the most talented jumper I’ve ever sat on. There was no feeling like it.

In that horse’s case he was okay initially, and then some stuff happened, and then he was not okay, so there had at least been the

2014 FreiHoudini fence-6342

potential for it all to work out. But c’est la vie. I know many horses with similar stories, from racehorses that cost a fortune as yearlings to dressage horses bred in the purple for the job, even kid’s ponies. All of them would have been superstars “except for” . . .

I have also seen horses respond successfully to a level of physical force that I, personally, would not have been comfortable applying. Some of my reluctance is ethical – we all have our limits – and some is practical, because I realise how often horses get permanently damaged by those approaches. I cannot deny that sometimes it works when other methods have failed.

My general approach is “Never teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time and annoys the pig.” But that’s tricky in a situation where there are limited options for a horse. What do you do with a horse that won’t hack, won’t compete, won’t be a safe novice horse? It’s easy to say keep it in a field, but what if the horse is young and could live 20 years? I do understand that a horse is for life, but I also know that in the real world, that’s not always a feasible stance. At what point do you say, “Look horse, you have to do SOME sort of job. Get on with it.” Obviously significant physical damage is a limiter but there are lots of horses that aren’t obviously (and that’s an important point right there . . .) damaged or they are damaged in such a way that limits them in one area but does not preclude another job.

I do a lot of loading work and sometimes horses can be quite violent in their objections. Too bad. You can’t be a horse in the modern age and not travel, it places too many limitations. (Ditto, leading well and other basic skills.) After that, there is some wriggle room – not every horse is going to be a good hack or a successful showjumper, no matter how hard someone works at it. I think there is a point where it’s unfair to keep pushing, but in actual fact we “force” most horses to do things at different times. I can almost guarantee that any horse that comes out of racing knows a bit about force, and the subsequent owners actually benefit from that knowledge as it means they never have to have the conversation.

Sometimes desperate times do respond to desperate measures. There are lots of horses that have had to be “convinced” to do a job and then done it willingly and successfully. I’ve just this week encouraged someone to send a horse off to a specialist trainer with excellent facilities, not because I am incapable of working with the horse, but because he is better positioned to give the horse what it needs right now for the best outcome. It’s not about me and what I want, it’s not even about what the owner wants. It is a (sad) fact of life that horses are “worth” more if they do a job and it behooves us to try and help them find a job they can do. I don’t think every horse WILL be able to do every job, or even the job it seems most suited for, but I can understand the motivation to try.

About the author


TarrSteps is a Citizen of the World (aka Canadian) currently working with young horses and "problem solving" - for both horse and riders - in the Surrey area. She has dabbled in most horsey disciplines but loves eventing because there is always another question to ask and another answer to find.


  • Well said. For me it comes down to individuals, both human and horse. How far do I go on a given day with a given horse depends. An old-timer horse who’s been a faithful servant for years and on a bright frosty morning decides on a bit of high jinks or says No! to a colourful filler. Well I’m more likely to laugh off and let him bronk past sideways and then gallop him in proper hand to leg, no excuses. Because I would know after years of trust building I can push, good a proper for a few seconds and get the respect back that I’ve earned. Meanwhile I would not accept the same reaction from a young green horse, and I would not react the same to the same No! I would apply time and pressure and get a polite reaction before praising and continuing because I wouldn’t push in the same way and I wouldn’t want the same type of result. Jump yes the same, attitude different. I would want to build that trust for him for when I might someday need it. The oldie I’d excuse and shake him up and laugh at him. The youngster I would operate differently and expect a result of polite calmness with no shaking up and more consistent pressure. They would both jump. Because sometimes ‘Life’s not fair’.

    We go to work, commute, are forced to do things we’d rather not such as pay taxes, sit in waiting rooms for bad news. That’s normal. Sometimes I bend over backwards for my horses but then – wait a second – my life isn’t perfect, stop busting a gut to make theirs perfect. If I can make them content 80% of the time then job done. If that other 20% involves them doing something they’d rather not sometimes that’s just too bad. That’s life. I happen to think mammals have an inherent sense of what’s fair (there has been lots of studies of fairness concept in animals https://sites.google.com/site/inequalityaversioninanimals/ or here http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/09/0917_030917_monkeyfairness.html)
    My personal musings is that animals with social hierarchy can have sense of justice or fairness. For me it stands to reason and goes hand in hand with a herd dynamics and a herd hierarchy. How much and how far? Some naturally strong characters will keep challenging and pushing and not take any pushing without pushing back. I’m thinking of certain mares I know that practically relish ‘bringing it’ to the fight. While my own boy is a push-over gelding that goes with just a waggle of a whip and a yes Ma’am, sorry Ma’am. My own personality means I tend to avoid the first type and adore the second type. But I’m an amateur, I can choose my type and enjoy him, I don’t have to pay the bills with my horses and I made a conscious decision to never go down that road. Mostly because as you describe in your article above, sometimes if it’s your job you have to push whether you like it or not. Amateur land is such a safe haven. I love it.

  • Interesting article…however i dnt believe you can make a horse perform….eventers…especially..must love what they do,youd be mad to try and go x country .on a horse that was reluctant to play.Ive had some good horses and its easy to get a little blip here or there as you go through the grades.All these sorts of horses,are intelligent,and apply themselves…these types are worth everything…and especially worth the time…on the other side of this though..ive had a little horse whom appeared great…sailed through sll the trsining x country schooling…sjumping..dressage she was lovely,however she couldnt cut it as a competitive horse…always smthing..a stop here a stop there..all x country…she jumped big as well and bcame too careful to the point of frightwning herself..after 4 intros all of which she had gd sjumping n dressage..x country….wasnt for her…she almost fell asleep in the start box…at her 4th event!.she just wasnt interested…so i called it a day with her and sold her on for a teenager to enjoy hacking n bit of dressage…you just know when their not up to it..and best to leave it.