Every time I saddle my horse, I start each ride with a clear goal in mind. I visualize my ride going well. I plan patterns and activities that keep my horse’s mind active. However, sometimes despite my best intentions, my ride goes wrong. How you respond sets the tone for future rides and teaches your horse what to expect from you.
Why Rides Go Wrong
Horses are living, breathing creatures with their own minds, and sometimes they do not respond the way I expect, or show resistance where I expected willingness. This is especially true with mares, who have hormonal ups and downs. I track my mare’s heat cycles in my riding journal (see what else I track in How to Achieve Your Goals With a Riding Journal) but sometimes they cycle a day earlier or later than expected, and this affects my ride. Some horses, especially those prone to anxiety, are not quite their usual selves before a cold front moves through. Sometimes a feed change or a new stablemate throws them off.
Sometimes the problem is me, as a rider. Maybe my mind is elsewhere, and this is affecting my horse’s response. Maybe my body is fatigued and my ride is not as strong as usual. Maybe my hormones are out of whack and I am not responding appropriately to my horse’s signals.
Rides go wrong for many reasons, but your ride does not have to end on a bad note. These are ways you can get your ride back on track and end in a positive mindset.
Change the Activity
What were you and your horse doing when your ride went wrong? If you were working on a new skill, maybe your ride went wrong because you missed a step and your horse is confused and frustrated. Your horse might be just a little bit sore or stiff and the movement hurts – not enough for you to notice that he is lame, but just enough that he is uncomfortable.
Sometimes changing the activity distracts your horse’s mind enough that your ride goes better. You can often teach the same skill through several different activities. Try using poles and cones to keep your horse’s mind busy. If you are training in the arena, try moving out to the pasture or the trail. If you were going straight, start circles. If you were working on circles, go straight.
If you need ideas, one of my favorite books is 101 Arena Exercises for Horse and Rider by Cherry Hill (buy it here). I often take my copy to the arena with me so I can find a new activity when I find myself in a rut.
I learned this trick from a trainer when I was a kid, and I have used it many times over the years, with everything from colts to Grand Prix jumpers.
When your ride starts to go bad, put your horse into a long trot and just let him move forward. The only rule is he must maintain a long trot. Do not worry about being on the bit or which direction he goes, just long trot. Your equitation should flow with his movements. I prefer to post, but you can sit if you wish. Just keep moving forward.
A long trot is rhythmic and consistent, and this quiets your horse’s mind and gets him focused on forward motion. Without you interfering too much, he can move freely in harmony with you. Do this for as long as you need. My average is around 10 minutes, but with some high-energy horses I have had to long trot for almost an hour to get their mindset back.
As a bonus, this is a great fat-burning cardio workout for you!
Go Back to the Ground
If my horse’s mindset – or even my own – is really not in the right place and my ride is going wrong, sometimes I get off and go back to groundwork. My goal is to end my ride on a positive note, but that does not mean that I have to end it in the saddle.
What I do with my horse on the ground really depends on what he needs. If I suspect my ride went wrong because he is stiff or sore, I do some stretching (see Three Front End Stretches to Reduce Your Horse’s Shoulder Stiffness and Increase Performance for three of my go-to stretches). If our ride went bad while we were doing transitions, I put him on the lunge line and practice transitions there. If he wants to spook and snort in one part of the arena, we lunge there. Whatever I was doing under saddle, I take to the ground. This gives me a new perspective on the problem.
For more ideas, I love 101 Ground Training Exercises for Every Horse and Handler by Cherry Hill (buy it here).
Take a Time Out
While I am a big believer in ending rides with something positive, sometimes a ride goes so wrong that the best option is to end it then. If my mare is in heat and she just is not working through it, we end our ride. If my own mindset is not right and I am becoming increasingly more frustrated with my horse, we end our ride. If my horse is in a downward spiral and my ride is deteriorating, I end it.
With an older, broke horse, this does not teach him that bad behavior wins. Your frustration and inappropriate responses would teach him far worse. Sometimes you just have to take the saddle off and start again tomorrow. This is okay. This is not admitting defeat. This is doing what is best for you and your horse. Start again when both of you are in a better mindset.
With colts, I take extra time to work through why our ride went bad, more than I do with broke horses. Colts are still learning correct and incorrect responses. Admitting defeat too soon can reinforce wrong responses rather than getting both of you in the right mindset. Even with colts, it is okay to say, “This is enough,” and ride again later.
Every time you put your foot in the stirrup is a chance to have an incredible ride. When your ride starts to go wrong, you have the opportunity to work through it and end on a positive note. Redirect, change location, and keep your ride interesting for your horse. If you need to go back to the ground, go back to the ground. If you need to end your ride early, then end it. None of these options are admitting defeat. You need to do what is best for you and your horse at that moment, and that is how you build a foundation of positive rides.
What do you do when your ride starts to go wrong? Let me know in the comments below!
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.