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Looking for tips w/sensitive mare

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  • Looking for tips w/sensitive mare

    So I've been visiting the forums for the past couple months, finding some great tips and information in your posts, and I finally registered as a user

    Then a short but pleasant ride yesterday left me wanting "more" from my mare and our rides b/c we seem to be stuck in our progression. So I thought I'd ask for some suggestions here!

    I'll try to be brief, mare is a pleasant OTTB, raced til 4 yrs, then turned out to pasture to have 2 foals. I apparently underestimated the re-training necessary for an aged former racehorse pasture potato!

    Here's what we've been through so far:
    First few months- Could barely touch her mouth, she would just toss and shake her head. Had her teeth done and it improved some. Basically trotted around with no contact, which left me without much control.

    Middle of the first year- Trailered her for lessons to my old H/J trainer and spent the whole hour plus trying to get her to soften to my hand. I worked on it more at home in a Pelham, had her teeth checked and done again, and eventually was getting the headset I wanted, but not a true frame b/c I was afraid to put too much leg on since she was still very sensitive to it and had a big enough trot already.

    End of first year- our trotting in a fake frame eventually led us into a habit of tug o war. She would lean on my hand and get quick, I'd lean on her mouth to slow down, and I felt we were getting worse instead of better.

    Beginning of second year- brought in local trainer good with OTTB's for the main purpose of "slowing her down", which new trainer quickly realized went much deeper than that. We started back at square one to get her to accept leg pressure better (several weeks of just walking), then balancing at the trot through proper half halts, more circles & serpentines, and lots of transitions.

    Where we are 3 months later- Mare will go in a lovely frame with correct contact and leg pressure AT A WALK. I can trot around the indoor at a pleasant pace, but not in a frame, although I can get a couple decent circles at the sitting trot where I feel she's almost there. Downward transitions are better, but not hunter hack good. The weird thing is now when we're done our ride and she settles, she will walk around in this gorgeous, relaxed, shoulder swinging walk and stretch her head down almost as if I'm asking her to go long & low- but God forbid I actually apply leg and ASK for it or we go right up to a trot again

    So who has suggestions for me on how advance from here and to encourage this SENSITIVE horse to reach down and accept contact at the trot?

    Oh and BTW we did already experiment with cutting grain, more excercise, etc. and none of it made a difference. She's not a HOT horse, just very sensitive (maybe confused) when ridden. Also, saddle fits fine and vet said it's not a pain thing, so we're already cleared on the top three COTH suggestions

  • #2
    With my Selle Francais/TB mare who is also very(!) spicy and sensitive we did quite a lot of work in a round pen and small ring for several months. The entire goal was to drape the leg around her, use it correctly as needed, and stay out of her face. The smaller sizes of the rings made her self-regulate quite a bit more. I didn't worry about "frame" in any way, shape, or form! The key was staying very soft through the seat and lower back to encourage the same softness from her back. After about a month I started slowly adding contact back into the equation. She had (and still does have) a tendency to curl behind the vertical when concerned so she had to learn that putting leg on didn't mean go faster it meant reach out with the topline. Very soft, subtle aids are KEY! Now, two years later she's still a spicy mare and can take quite a bit of work to get loosened up. During the summer it helps to do a bit of canter-work early on to let her burn some energy, then get back down to the trot work. I don't let her do any "yahoo" things while under saddle or on the longe line (very rare) but I also don't require hard work right off the bat. She's no less sensitive than she was before but has learned to accept and prefer soft leg, seat, and hand contact. There's hope!
    "Beware the hobby that eats."
    Benjamin Franklin


    • Original Poster

      Ahhh just what I feared, hope, but 2 or more years down the road! I'm in a smaller indoor for the winter which is helping. And I think based on your description we're about at the point where you started adding contact back in to your ride.
      How would you describe the staying soft through your seat and lower back though? Not sure if I do that or not. I just try to sit deep and calm like a sack of potatoes. Last year I did more of the "perch" thing to leave her alone and it didn't get me very far. But softness in her back is what I would like to encourage if you can elaborate on that.

      I do start with a loose rein walk a few times around to make sure she's relaxed, then do a more collected walk, then a loose rein posting trot to get some energy out, then a sitting trot just allowing her to come onto the bit and collect some as I half halt, but otherwise staying out of her way. If all is good there we get to that great ending walk I described which makes me feel like I'm sooo close, until the next time I ask her to trot and have to start all over at A. Cantering has been nixed for the last few months unless out on a trail or hunter pace, where it's actually quite nice (better than the trot!).
      Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences which sound very similar!


      • #4
        I'dRatherberiding: Where are you in Central PA? I'm up in the souther tier of NYS-about 2 hours or less from Scranton straight up Interstate 81. When the weather breaks trailer her up and I'm more than happy to help you with her here-no charge.

        PM me and we can chat.


        • #5
          Circles, circles, circles, circles, and did I mention circles?

          The reason I say this is because this is what we are working on with my greenie (with less riding time under him because of weather and school it means he starts to ignore me). Basically it gets the horse to bend and become more supple and responsive in your hands. I do hundreds of circles at w/t/c now before I even have intentions of jumping. Usually about 10 minutes into the circles at the trot my horse relaxes and begins to work under himself, use his hind end properly, and when that happens his head drops into a lovely frame.


          • #6
            You aren't going to like me with what I have to say!!!

            First you need to get off her, you need to go back to ground work with her, she needs to be able to do flat work with out the influence of a rider. Through ground driving and lounging she will learn to accept the bit,move through her topline, obey commands and relax. She needs to be bored to death with ground work before you sit on her again...

            You sitting light or reacting to what you think she wants is the exact opposite of what she needs.

            She needs leg before any interaction of the bit. However she needs to learn leg means move away not go forward. Which is what you teach her on the ground, I would touch her side and when she moves away release the pressure, telll her good girl, then do the ther side, pretty soon she'll get it, without you being in the saddle.

            Sensitive really just means too much stimulation, so you have to go backwards and get off her back, she understands you being on the ground, you treat her the same as her jockey did on the ground.

            She does not understand someone riding her, or she understands how jockeys ride and now you are changing things up and she can't figure out what you want, becasue that was not what she was taught before, so surely you are wrong, not her

            IMO, this type of horse, flame suit on, needs medication as a training tool, otherwise she will be 14 yrs old and in the baby greens.


            • #7
              My mare is also very sensitive, especially to leg pressure. My trainer has me warm up by making circles, figure 8s, serpentines, etc around the jumps. The jumps help us keep the figures small and gives us a visual when we do this. As I circle, I add leg and make her move side to side, but the circles keep her slower. When she relaxes and lowers her head, Ill go straight for a few steps and then when she gets too quick, I will head back and circle around another jump. I do this at a walk and a trot on her quick days. Other days I also will leg yield her at both the walk and the trot to help her loosen up and relax- usually when she loosens her back and relaxes, she will lower her head and is easy to get into a nice frame.
              Follow my instagram @snafflesandwellies for all things horses + fashion!


              • #8
                Softness through both horse and rider's backs comes from using one's core muscles. As the rider you can keep your body soft to follow her movement to the extent you desire. I find that keeping the leg steady on my mare's side and using my core muscles to slow her movement does more to get her to move correctly than taking leg off and pulling... as you've already discovered. It's not that you need abs of steel you just need to engage your core and consiously use your body to influence the horse's movement. Sorry, but I don't know how to explain better. Think about absorbing movement and from there you can start to change the movement.

                Using the small indoor and just being patient is your best bet. I know it's frustrating... been there, sometimes I still feel there. Use your best judgement for what works best for your horse's personality. For my mare, doing more groundwork if she was quick or tense just amped her up more. Not riding bored her and she'd look for excuses to be silly if longed. Circle, circle, circle ad naseum also bored her and she'd find excuses. Circling when she got quick then leg yielding out helped her. Lots of serpentines, figure eights, random circles, and changes within gait kept her mind engaged and allowed her to learn. Sometimes they're too smart for the easy, repetitive method of teaching. I'd definitely recommend some good dressage lessons... my dressage background is what I think really helped my mare.
                "Beware the hobby that eats."
                Benjamin Franklin


                • #9
                  You've definitely got to get your leg on her. I'd be riding without spurs or a whip for sure, and if she doesn't respond to your leg - GOOD! Can't stand a horse I can't put my leg on and I'm having this same issue with my OTTB gelding now.

                  Just keep asking, don't get frustrated and kick to get the response - better that you can rest your leg on without a response then be perching and fretting about touching your horses side with a hair.

                  That's just my opinion anyway


                  • #10
                    it is difficult to really comment w/o seeing you and your horse.

                    But here a few general comments,
                    1. do NOT worry about "framing" her up, just accepting contact, which needs to be consistent (maintaining a straight line from bit, hand to elbow - no matter where her head goes - do NOT drop your hand when her head goes up) but not rigid or stiff (this comes from a soft elbow, closed fingers on your rein).
                    2. Use your leg properly and effectively, this will take tact on such a mare, but even a quick horse needs to accept your leg.
                    3. Half turns, half turns in reverse, serpentines, etc are your friend, use the walls of indoor or fence line you.
                    4. do NOT do anything too long, especially collected work. lots of transitions.
                    5. Proper nutrition, turnout and possibly lunging before hand can help your training time be more effective.

                    It may be time to send her off to a trainer for 60-90 days in order to get thru some of this, as you can't "avoid" contact with your leg and hand due to how a horse "reacts". You need to apply them tactfully and properly no matter what.

                    Good luck!
                    www.brydellefarm.com ....developing riders, NOT passengers!
                    Member of LNHorsemanshipT & Proud of It Clique
                    "What gets me up every morning is realizing how much more there is still to learn." -GHM


                    • #11
                      I agree with all suggestions here, but also wanted to add when I got my gelding, he was super sensitive to my leg. So, when I walked around, I would swing it against his sides to intentionally deaden his sides a little bit. That way I could use my leg without him scooting off. This really worked for him. It didn't make him unresponsive, but rather allowed me to use my leg correctly on him. I first started with my legs in the stirrups, but eventually would walk around without them swinging my legs from the knee down. I would do this until he would relax and then move on with our work.

                      It wasn't pretty at first, but he got over it and it helped a lot.
                      I love cats, I love every single cat....
                      So anyway I am a cat lover
                      And I love to run.


                      • #12
                        Agree with others. Go back to ground work and roundpen. Your horse doesn't know how to accept the contact and doesn't know what is an appropriate reaction to pressure.

                        Figure out if she gets anxious because the ride is predictable or unpredictable. If she gets anxious because of unpredictability, then make your ride very predictable. If she anticipates, then change your ride a lot.

                        But I'd start in the roundpen. Oh and don't worry about contact. Thoroughbreds are taught to run when they get pulled on, so you'll have to teach her to slow down with your seat (and circles ).


                        • #13
                          sounds like my mare.

                          people underestimate the power of lunging. it will make her stronger and she wont be worrying about you on her. and it will teach her to soften into the bridle without objecting to leg.

                          also keep the same consistent contact no matter what frame, speed, tempo. if you half make sure they are very quick (but soft), and from your seat more than your hand. she cant pull if you dont pull back.

                          like you said you were doing transitions, serpintines, circles. Leg yielding in the walk along the wall can help her with the away not forward conecpt. she probably wont like it at first but it has been a huge help with my mare.

                          and LOTS of patience and time.

                          with this kind of horse you have to learn how to do things a little more technique. This horse will make you a better rider for it.
                          "Let the fence be the bit." - Phillip Dutton


                          • #14
                            If you're still using a pelham, I'd go with a softer bit yesterday.

                            I've never known a truly sensitive horse who was anything but more tense and nervous at a harsh bit.

                            Beyond that, you've gotten lots of great advice. Stop worrying about her head and get the rest of her working right - then just rein length will get her head where you want. This is one of the pluses of sensitive horses.
                            Originally posted by Silverbridge
                            If you get anything on your Facebook feed about who is going to the Olympics in 2012 or guessing the outcome of Bush v Gore please start threads about those, too.


                            • Original Poster

                              Thank you everyone for the suggestions! Helps to hear of others who have worked throuh the same issues and made it to the other side I will definitely be working more of these things into our program this winter to continue to de-sensitize her to my leg pressure and just continue to take it very slow. I think I'll do a yoga or pilates class to to build up that "core" because the new trainer already mentioned that as well.
                              Believe me I had considered sending her away for training, and am willing to spend the money, but thought I would try bringing in a trainer to do a couple rides and a lesson each week instead so I can learn the process myself. With the weather & other obligations the pro rides haven't been consistent lately though and I didn't want to let everything go by the wayside when I feel like we are actually improving.

                              Bit note: We are using a plain full cheek snaffle completely wrapped in latex so it barely has that "nutcracker" effect at all. Pelham was a short lived tool suggested by a trainer that I don't think understood the level the horse was actually at.
                              Last edited by I'dRatherBRiding; Dec. 28, 2010, 11:19 AM. Reason: Added note about bit.


                              • #16
                                Sounds like my one mare - 4 year old TB that I broke this spring.

                                She HATES your leg. I can ride her bareback, with her blanket on, IN THE DARK, and she will be completely quiet because my leg just hangs. Pick up your leg as if you had irons and get contact through the inside of the leg, she gets tense and hollow.

                                I have been riding her bareback, low key, swinging my legs, etc. Loose leg, proper leg on until she relaxes, fluctuate between the two.

                                I have my horses at home with no indoor, so walking is all we are up to at the moment anyway.


                                • Original Poster

                                  Haha Personal Champ, I hopped on and walked around bareback with a dress sheet a couple weeks ago on a coold windy day. And just did some figure 8's and spirals at a walk with my legs long but wrapped around and she was great! You couldn't have paid me to get on her bareback last year Especially with the wind howling at the door.


                                  • #18
                                    Originally posted by Summit Springs Farm View Post
                                    You aren't going to like me with what I have to say!!!

                                    First you need to get off her, you need to go back to ground work with her, she needs to be able to do flat work with out the influence of a rider. Through ground driving and lounging she will learn to accept the bit,move through her topline, obey commands and relax. She needs to be bored to death with ground work before you sit on her again...

                                    You sitting light or reacting to what you think she wants is the exact opposite of what she needs.

                                    She needs leg before any interaction of the bit. However she needs to learn leg means move away not go forward. Which is what you teach her on the ground, I would touch her side and when she moves away release the pressure, telll her good girl, then do the ther side, pretty soon she'll get it, without you being in the saddle.

                                    Sensitive really just means too much stimulation, so you have to go backwards and get off her back, she understands you being on the ground, you treat her the same as her jockey did on the ground.

                                    She does not understand someone riding her, or she understands how jockeys ride and now you are changing things up and she can't figure out what you want, becasue that was not what she was taught before, so surely you are wrong, not her

                                    IMO, this type of horse, flame suit on, needs medication as a training tool, otherwise she will be 14 yrs old and in the baby greens.
                                    echo this big time

                                    when a horse has been raced they are not schooled in dressage they are schooled to run
                                    everything is new to this horse from her tack ie saddle as much heavier than a racinf saddle and also lays completely different oon her back, to her bridle/bit
                                    to her rider as a rider is again often heavier than a jockey
                                    to her feed her rountine her freinds her enviroement, sure she might lunge well depedning if they tuagh her to on ahorse walker or tred mill,
                                    or rode her at canter a few times around an areana or gallops
                                    the mare is also using different mussles than she would have done whilse racing

                                    dont despair with your mare but treat her as an unbroke horse and go right back to basics and teach her aids of your leg seat and hand

                                    this mare should be able to do anything from dressage to jumping and she will be bold at jumping to, but before one can jump one has to go back and do the falt work

                                    so flat work flat work flat work teach the mare hh movement which informs a horse your going from afaster pace to a slower one and visa versa via direct signal
                                    any new movements should alwyas be done in wlak to halt then walk then trot then canter never ask the horse to do something it doesnt know as you will confuse it then that in a horses mind creates a fear factor and theres only 2 1st is to flee the 2nd is to advade you
                                    so dont give the option of one fear but give the option of one of working the hrose properly and re educating it

                                    take the laytex out of her mouth and the bit used and use a kimblewick this si a tad more than a snaffle but not as strong as pelham and works very well with ottb as well as strong ponies
                                    i have retrianed more tb than i can count so this to me is not something new also you need to be aware than tb are senstivies creatures and respond quicker than you think so the objective is to be a smart rider
                                    and by being quicker and smarter with your aids


                                    • #19
                                      A Patient Dressage Trainer...

                                      is probably your best bet.

                                      My make is also quite sensitive. She gets upset easily and avoiding the contacting and going faster is her number one evasion. She doesn't do this to be bad; she is truly nervous. The key is to not to let her get to this place. A lot of trainers thought I could push her past this behavior, but it only resulted in her becoming more and more nervous. Sometimes we got what they wanted her to do (shoulder-in, etc.) but it was always with a lot of tension and I never felt good about how upset she got.

                                      Luckily I found a very patient dressage trainer, who is working with us very carefully to teach her relaxation, stretch and bend. As soon as my mare begins to get that nervous energy going, we stop and get her back to a relaxed place. This trainer never raises her voice, explains things very clearly and keeps my relaxation level in place, too. It is slow going, but very rewarding.

                                      We also use sugar cubes as rewards throughout the lesson and used these at the beginning to teach her to stretch and give to the rein.


                                      • #20
                                        I have a gelding that I'm bringing along who is difficult. He's also pretty big & long, so my fitness is a big part of things.

                                        I echo ground work. Put the horse on the lunge line, teaching up & down aids with voice. Teach yielding in hand, rub her with a crop, and drop those stirrups while lunging. I f you loose a stirrup & it hits her side, the last thing you need is to be bolted off with. I used vienna side-reins with mine, I was advised to use these vs regular side reins as they are much more difficult for the horse to evade & really loosen him through the wither which makes riding him u/s much easier.

                                        Then, a good dressage person, or a competent trainer in general, who can help you keep the leg on and learn to manipulate the shoulders. Circles are also your friend, bending around the inside leg, enough rein to see the inside eye, using the outside rein to support...eventually they stop fighting it all...consistency is key, because these ones are so in-tune with your aids, if you are sending mixed signals it can create quite the cicrle of frustration for all involved.

                                        And as Summit Springs mentioned, if she's unable to walk & trot without exploding, then medicine might be worth considering. These horses are in overdrive & sometimes that needs to be delt with before progress is able to be made. Is she on Depo or Regumate?