Working with a Sensitive or Dull Horse

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the February 1996 issue of The Trail Less Traveled


How is Your Horse Radar?

We know that each horse is an individual, but horses do not differ very much in their basic mechanical structure. They all balance and chance leads according to the principles of nature. However, there is a difference I look for in the horses I ride and that concerns the "bubble" of space that horses maintain around themselves.

Is it a large bubble (is the horse sensitive) or does he make do with a small one (is he dull)? Before I get on, I hope to know if I'm riding a horse that moved away when I came near the fence because I invaded his safe zone or whether I had to slap his rump to move him along.

I pay attention to this because each horse's "space requirement" on the ground affects the way he is able to feel of you from his back when you offer him (from your seat and the position of your legs) new feel for a lead change.

hrs10 4aRachael Schwindt, 10, loping across the left diagonal base of support onto the right front, or leading leg.         
hrs10 4bWill Wyckoff, at 11, loping on a left lead. The horse is transferring his weight from his right diagonal pair of legs on the left front, or leading, leg.

How Do You Adjust to Fit Your Horse?

There are many different ways that a horse can be. When it comes to these "tough-to-grasp" and "even-tougher to-apply" concepts of what to feel for and how to feel for it, it helps me to generalize about the horses I'm going to ride that day. Is this horse dull or sensitive? Is he somewhere in between? Ride each horse accordingly.

A sensitive or "light" horse will respond with more energy or "life" to less pressure from the rider or handler than a dull horse. On a super-sensitive horse, just thinking about an adjustment in speed and direction can drastically change the course of events before you even know what took place. A rider might never know what occurred to get those results. A sensitive horse requires finesse, clear direction and a subtle type of support from the rider's legs and reins.

A dull horse is quite the opposite. He might sprint several laps around a three-acre lot after he finds the energy to run. It's not uncommon for a so-called "dead-tired" horse to break into a "dead run." So, it all depends--on so much!

How Can You Know What to Expect?

You'll have an idea what to expect from your horse after you're mounted if you recall what it took to get a response from him before you got on. That means a response to really simple, everyday stuff. This includes his response to a pat on the neck and the accidental toe-jab in his guts while mounting. It also includes his response to a change in pressure on the reins and his response to the force you'd apply to his shoulder when he mashes your foot into the pavement.

A horse's response to you in normal situations is good to think about while you're still on the ground.

A person might ask, "Is there one good reason why I should go to the trouble to learn this groundwork stuff? All I want to do is ride the horse for crying out loud." Because it's very important! Groundwork has about everything to do with riding. Says who? The best horsemen swear they first heard about the importance of groundwork from the horse.

How Can You Change Leads on a "Hot Seat"?

On the sensitive, touchy, "big-bubble" horse, I think of releasing the inside shoulder to the new lead. I position my inside leg at the girth to secure the inside ribs before opening it up for the shoulder to follow. Just like my groundwork (where I draw the horse off the rail and he faces up), I want to draw the lead out from this type of horse toward my inside leg. Open the door and wait for him to come through, so to speak.

The reason this works is that to the horse, whether I'm on the ground or on his back, draw is not a different function or use of space and energy. Draw is draw.

How Can You Change Leads on a Dullard?

On the duller, slap-his-rump kind of horse the same footwork will need to occur for him to change leads, but he'll only be able to understand my meaning from his own point of reference. A horse like this will need to feel more from the rider to feel the rider more accurately and feel what the rider presents when the rider asks for a new lead. To change leads, the horse must begin to travel across the new diagonal (or secondary balance) from back to front. Just releasing him to his lead side, as one could with a sensitive horse, won't be enough. He'll be thinking, "What's this?"

So that the dull horse understands what I want him to do, I will have to work quite a bit harder to get his attention than with a sensitive horse. To engage his new driving leg (see "Lead Changes: Moving On to the Next Step" for a description of the "drive-or-break-support-push leg"), there will need to be more physical contact. I may even need to bump him a time two with my outside leg behind the girth. Then I will wait for him to get onto his new secondary balance point and feel for that new lead to come across it.

This approach would not fit the more sensitive horse because he might not be able to stand it. Instead of changing leads he might need to buck or run hard.

Big bubble needs a little message -- a suggestion. Little bubble may need a louder message. This louder message should not be confused with a forceful or impatient message, just a very clear one that may need to be repeated. As always, praise the horse.

Some Things to Think About While Loping Along

1. Keep track of the hindquarters.

Keep the hindquarters from drifting too far to the inside of your circle or you'll lose the efficiency of the horse's footwork. For example, displacing the hindquarters too far to the inside when he's on the left lead will leave him without his left hind leg for that much needed support.

If that support is lost, he must bear his weight on his opposite front leg, the right front, which is the second half of the diagonal, or secondary balance point. Also, to make the best use of his hindquarters when the rider wants him to change leads, the horse needs to carry his weight on the inside hind leg or he will have difficulty.

2. Keep track of the inside ribs and belly.

If you've been having trouble with smooth lead changes, be aware of the horse's inside rib and his belly -- just at the girth area (about where your calf falls on the horse if you're riding with your heel and hip in approximate alignment).

As long as his hindquarters are engaged and he carries his neck naturally, with the poll slightly above the withers, the base of his neck and belly should be carried well up under him where they need to be so that the horse can maintain straightness and impulsion.

3. Keep the shoulders upright so that the legs can do their job.

Often, on very short notice, either of the front legs must be "free and available" to serve the horse when sudden changes in direction and increased locomotion are needed. The rider can help the horse by avoiding any abrupt requests for unnatural elevation in the head and neck, since this causes the shoulder to drop down.

If this occurs, the lead leg usually falls to the inside and forward. In this posture the "lead leg " quits "leading freely" at the lope to become a front-weight-bearing and balance leg as it adjusts to serve the essential role of primary support. When a horse lopes under optimum mounted or natural circumstances, this job of primary-front-end support is best served by the outside front leg.