My riding career has been filled with horses across the energy spectrum, ranging from high-energy Arabians who can go all day and into the night, to quiet draft horses who just want to poke down the trail. High-energy horses have their challenges, but I find riding lazy horses the most difficult. Unfortunately for me, my two current horses fall firmly in the “lazy” category.
Riding a lazy horse can be frustrating. You kick, you click, you drive with your seat. You try to make stopping undesirable with a series of forehand turns and leg yields. Perhaps you even resort to trying to inspire forward motion with spurs and a crop. Despite all this, your horse just meanders around the arena, while your frustration slowly simmers into anger.
I have owned Okie for 15 years, and she has been lazy every day since our first ride. Over the years, I have had a lot of practice creating forward motion. These are the eight steps I took with Okie to create a willing, perky partner.
Rule Out Health Problems
I started Okie in the fall of her three-year-old year, and even then she was lazy. Just getting her to walk under saddle was a challenge, never mind trotting or cantering. After her first few weeks under saddle and endless frustration on my part, I called the vet to get her examined. He did blood work and checked her for any soreness or lameness. His official diagnosis was that she is just lazy, and this is in part due to her genetics. Okie is halter and foundation bred, and she is just not going to be a peppy horse.
Whether you have just purchased a new horse with lazy tendencies or if your horse suddenly slows down, I recommend calling your vet. Laziness can be a sign of bigger health problems, especially if the onset is sudden. Blood work is a good place to start, but your vet can recommend other diagnostic techniques as well.
Adjust Your Feed
Your horse may be lazy because his feed is not giving him the energy he needs. I started Okie on Red Cell as a three-year-old. The feed store owner promised it would make her buck and snort. It did not work quite that well, but it did perk her up.
I currently feed my lazy horses straight alfalfa and Omolene 200. Alfalfa provides slow release energy while the fat content in Omolene 200 provides energy faster. If your horse needs even more boost, consider adding Red Cell (buy it here) or flax seed oil (buy it here) to their feed.
Start with Liberty Work
Is your horse really lazy, or is he unwilling under saddle? The difference can be hard to pinpoint. Basic liberty work will show you if your horse is lazy, or if you, as the rider, are doing something to block his forward motion, making him unwilling.
Liberty work occurs in a large arena or an open pasture without a halter or lead rope. I introduce liberty work to my horses with a nylon halter and cotton lead rope and gradually decrease the amount that I use it to control the horse’s movements until she works with me willingly and freely. If my horse works willingly at liberty and is lazy under saddle, the problem could be me as a rider. If my horse is lazy at liberty work too, and a vet has ruled out medical problems, then she is likely just lazy.
Use Your Seat
One reason a horse appears lazy under saddle is because the rider is inadvertently blocking forward motion with her seat. Your hips should fluidly move with the horse’s motion. Any tension in the rider’s hips creates a bouncing motion, and some horses find this very uncomfortable, so they slow their gait to reduce the impact.
How do you know if your hips are tense? Pay attention to your upper body. If your upper body “pumps” as the horse moves, you are holding tension in your hips.
To solve this, put your horse into a trot or canter, and start taking slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Visualize a solid board running from your naval through the top of your head, keeping your upper body steady. Continue with the deep breaths while you feel your upper body steady and your hips move with your horse. It will take time to build the proper muscle reaction, so start each training session with this visualization to get you on the right track.
Check Your Bit
Are you unintentionally blocking your horse’s forward motion with the wrong bit? My horses are both very particular about their bits, so choosing the wrong one impacts their forward motion. This can vary day to day, especially because they are mares and have very obvious heat cycles.
I know exactly when my mares are in heat. For three days each cycle, they seem to be sensitive all over their bodies, so I downgrade my bit to a rubber snaffle or ride with my bitless bridle (I use this cross over/under bridle). This keeps me from blocking their forward motion with the wrong bit. Even geldings may have distinct bit preferences, so spend the time finding one that gives you control of your lazy horse’s body without blocking his forward motion.
Change Your Surroundings
Laziness can be a sign that your horse is tired of doing the same old routine around the arena. Take your training out on the trail or around the pasture. Practice your sidepass over a natural log. Ride circles around a cactus or a tree. Practice extension and collection on a straight section of a county dirt road. The possibilities are endless, and the change of scene may perk up your lazy horse.
Ride with a Friend
Because I started both my horses in group situations, neither likes riding in the arena by themselves. Ideally, I prefer to ride with someone who owns a peppy horse because that perks mine up, but I do not always have someone around. My solution has been to ride one of mine while ponying the other. This works perfectly for most of the training that I do, except for jumping or practicing trail obstacles. My horses like to move together, and they keep each other’s energy up. Some days I just ride one and pony the other, and other days I saddle both horses and switch mounts halfway through my training session so they both get some time under saddle.
Do What Your Horse Loves
Late in Okie’s four-year-old year, I introduced her to jumping. I did not have high hopes for her, since she is lazy and her breeding suggested that she would be more of a western riding horse. To my surprise, she took to jumping right away and LOVED it! Over the next few years we progressed from crossrails to four-foot fences, and she carried me confidently over each one. She was still lazy during our flatwork warmup, but as soon as we started jumping, she turned into a different horse. A peppy horse. A horse with willing forward motion.
It may take some trial-and-error to find what inspires forward motion in your horse. Knowing your horse’s breeding is a good place to start. If he is foundation or cutting bred, he may enjoy cattle work. If he has pleasure or hunter under saddle bloodlines he may perk up when he navigates trail obstacles. Breeding will only tell you so much, though. Some horses find enjoyment in events well outside the scope of their breeding, like Okie did with jumping. Try different events with your horse to see where his interests lie.
Some Horses Are Just Lazy
The harsh truth is that some horses are just lazy, no matter what you do. These horses hold a special spot in the equestrian world – these are our kid horses, school masters, and quiet trail partners. Give your horse the chance to perk up with high-energy nutrition, variety in your training sessions, and finding what he loves. If none of these techniques work and your horse falls in the “just lazy” category, know that your horse has a great future with someone who sees “lazy” as an asset.
Welcome! I've been a freelance writer since 2002 and have numerous horse-related articles published in print and online publications. I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Rocky Mountain College with a major in Equestrian Studies and a minor in Business Management. My current business ventures include High Plains Arena and real estate investing.