Ben Baldus trains horses at the historic Waggoner Ranch in Electra, Texas. He grew up in Michigan, where he showed pleasure and all-around horses as a youth. He worked for Christian evangelist Lew Sterrett and traveled around the country before moving to Texas several years ago to work with National Reining Horse Hall of Fame member Doug Milholland at the Waggoner Ranch. There, he began training and showing reining horses. He has been a finalist at major NRHA events, including the Futurity and Derby, where he was the 2012 Open Level 1 champion on Dainty Little Step, and the National Reining Breeders Classic.
Q: I can’t determine if my horse is barn-sour, just plain spooky or a combination of both. I sometimes wonder if he spooks just so he can go back home. I never let him go home and I never get off him, but I wonder if perhaps a previous rider might have, which taught him that it works.
I’ve been riding him now for more than a year and it’s never a fun, relaxed ride, which is sad because he’s a beautiful fellow and has a nice nature. He walks through almost any kind of trail and crosses water without any hesitation, and never worries about any type of vehicle. He’s easy to tack up and mount. I can throw ropes or plastic bags all over him and he’s fine (might give a little shiver the first time but settles very quickly), but occasionally he spooks and pulls back when tied up for reasons I can never determine. I always tie him in the same area but it’s as if sometimes he just goes nuts and imagines something scared him. I always leave the rope loose so he doesn’t hurt himself by coming to the end of it and try not to make a big fuss.
When I head out of the barn area, he goes slowly but doesn’t refuse, although it’s obvious he doesn’t want to leave. He starts to get spooky as soon as he’s out of sight of the barn. He never refuses to go forward but it’s almost like he’s watching and waiting for something to scare him. He spooks at every little thing (bugs, birds in trees, deer that he sees daily in his pasture). I’ve taken him back to most of these spots and he’s the same just being led, but once I have lunged him in those areas for a while at a trot or lope he calms down. But as soon as I let him stand in those areas, within minutes he appears to be again looking for scary stuff.
We’ve given him a grain formula that is supposed to calm a horse down, but it had little effect. I know I need to ride him with a fairly loose rein and to stay as relaxed as possible. I’ve seen him get spooky in his own pasture and I’m starting to think he’s a basket case and might need to be committed to an institution (or I might have to be). What can I do to improve his behavior?
A: Hi Sheryl. Thank you for your interesting question. Your horse’s tendencies to be spooky and want to go back to the barn will require some work to fix. Whether natural or learned responses, there are some things you can do to help your horse and make the ride more enjoyable. You mentioned that your horse was better when you lunged him in the areas where he spooked. What I would suggest you do, if you are comfortable, is ride him through those difficult areas and when he spooks, begin to walk and trot small circles to the left and right while drawing your rein to get his face and move his attention off of the things that are scaring him. Again, do these exercises only as you feel confident and safely able to do them. The main goal is that you are getting his focus off of the surroundings and onto you. He will learn that it is more work to look for something scary than to follow your direction along the trail. Consistency is the key; give it about 30 days, and if your horse is older it may take longer. If you are still experiencing trouble with your horse spooking, you may want to consider finding a professional trainer in your area who can watch you and your horse and help with what is going on.
Q: I have been riding my 3-year-old mare in a snaffle bit. She is usually very good in it, but lately has started leaning on the bit and not responding as well. She will give when I ask her, but the longer we ride, the more she seems to pull back instead of giving to it. She’s still pretty good at a walk, but as I ask for a trot or lope, it seems like she is trying to pull the bit out of my hands. She doesn’t speed up or try to run off. She’s just very heavy on the bit. Is there anything I can do to keep her soft in this bit? I would like to keep her in a snaffle as long as possible.
A: Hello Catherine. I also ride my horses in a snaffle for the first year. What I find that can sometimes happen is that they become pushy or heavy on a snaffle if there is inconsistency with your hands. We know that horses learn from the application and release of pressure, so it is very important that as you ride and ask for her to soften to the bit, you don’t release the pressure until she gives. You can also keep your legs on her sides to ensure that she doesn’t slow down. You don’t need to pull hard, but make sure that there is a smooth and definite request. Hold that pressure until she gives and then release to a looser rein. Again, consistency with this is crucial. She will not only become softer at the trot and lope, but also more responsive to your legs and cues.
Q: I have an older gelding that was taught to do a flying lead change, but I’m having trouble getting him to do this. Anytime I ask for a lead change, he wants to break down into a trot and then pick up the lope again. He always picks up the correct lead, but I want to start showing him in some reining and stock horse classes, and I don’t want to do a simple lead change. I know that would cost me points. I think I’m signaling him correctly. When he’s loping, I take my outside leg off of him and then use inside leg pressure to signal him that I want to go in the opposite direction. What can I do to keep my horse loping through a lead change? Am I missing an important cue?
A: Hi Leslie. The lead change can be one of the more challenging and difficult maneuvers. What I would encourage you to do is make sure that you are (a) sitting up straight; and (b) looking up and ahead of yourself as you ride. I would also suggest that you use your voice, a cluck or smooch to tell him to keep loping. You may not need to take your outside leg completely off, but rather use it on his side to continue forward motion through your cue to change. Remember that a change of lead should not be the same as a change of direction. Your leg cue should be for your horse to move his body to accommodate the change of leads. I will often do straight-line lead changes or change to a counter-canter circle (circling on the left lead in a right circle, for example) to keep my horses from anticipating the middle of the pen and be able to change leads whenever and wherever I ask.
View more horsemanship articles HERE.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter HERE.