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Getting the most out of a lazy horse

Updated: May 20, 2021

In this training article we are going to be taking a look at horses that come under the term 'lazy' or 'slow'. A little secret is that I love a horse that is slightly behind the leg or slightly lazy because as a rider my strengths are definitely getting a horse in front of the leg and swinging and moving through their whole body. All horses have their strengths and weaknesses and the difference once a horse learns to move forwards over their backs can be amazing. In this article, we are going to look at the reasons why some horses are lazy and what we can do in our training to improve this or completely transform it!


I come across a lot of riders that say their horse is lazy or too slow and that they can never get them in front of the leg or can never get them forward. It is an incredibly common problem and i think we've all been on a horse where we've thought 'if i take my leg off and stop kicking i am definitely going to be skidding to a stop'. So this episode is for all of you that feel like keeping your horse forward is hard work for you.

When it comes to a lazy or slow horse we need to look at multiple things. The first is how much they enjoy their training, the second is how we approach their training and how we reward them and the third is some exercises we can do to actually get them forward.

Why is the problem there in the first place?

So lets start with the first, a rider or a lazy or slow horse will sometimes say 'my horse doesn't enjoy dressage' and this is a big bug bear of mind to which i normally respond 'horses enjoy dressage its the riders who don't'. I think a lot of riders see a horse being lazy as them not wanting to do the job. And yes sometimes a horse may be lazy when they are uncomfortable but if you have checked this all out there are only 2 possible reasons why your horse is lazy.

  1. Its a training issue: They/you need to work on their impulsion

  2. Its a confidence issue: They are confused about what they are supposed to do

For some reason we see laziness not as a training issue but as a behavioural issue or emotional issue. We see a hot horse and say 'they look excited' or 'they look like they love their work' and when we see a lazy horse we say 'they look like they're not enjoying it' or 'he looks uncomfortable'. For both these types of horses the problem, isn't the horses enjoyment, it is a training issue, in other words, both these horses have an issue with their impulsion, one struggles to turn the impulsion up and one struggles to turn the impulsion down, and in dressage we need both.

So, it could be a training issue. The other option would be that your horse is confused about what you are expecting of them in your training. For this we need an aid for them to go (our leg on) and we need a reward for when this happens and we need a plan B for if we don't get the reaction we want from the leg that shows the horse the reaction that we want. And, most importantly, that we are consistent with this.

I say all this, but I am also going to add an extra one on which is that sometime I do notice horses get bored In a training session. It’s more a case of the horse switches off to the rider and so they doesn’t respond or react to the riders aids as quickly or as effectively. So just a little side note to make sure that you are keeping your riding different and varied. I’m a big advocate that ever horse should hack or do polework or something that gets them out of the arena but you’re also not doing the same thing every training session or the same thing over and over again within your training session. Mix things up and break your session down into sections to make sure that you are not just trotting round on a circle for 40 minutes. A great way to keep your horse on his toes and listening to you is by doing transitions and movements where you keep changing direction like serpentines. We’ll get to all this later though.

i feel like I’ve gone back on myself a bit because I said horses dont enjoy it but they can switch off. And I think it’s important to notice that its two very different things. A horse switching off means they’re not paying attention to the rider and this can present itself in a hotter horse by being overeactive, looky and spooky or in a lazier horse ignoring the rider can present as not reacting to aids and being generally being less reactive. But I think it’s really important to take the emotion out of it and make sure we don’t say ‘my horse doesn’t enjoy dressage‘. it ends up being used as an excuse or a self fulfilling protecy because you as the rider expect them to react in a negative way because they “don’t enjoy dressage’ so really by assuming this at the beginning of your session you don’t give your horse a chance to actually enjoy it. iBecause every horse will work happily in the school when they are focussed on the rider, when they understand what’s is expected of them and are able to do the work asked of them. So perhaps more what I’m saying is every horse can and will enjoy schooling as long as you follow these things. The training issue (impulsion)

So, we have already said that a cause of the laziness could be that it is a training issue: specifically, that our horse struggles to turn the impulsion up. Think of impulsion as the horses energy. A horses energy comes from their hindlegs, it is the thing that propels them forward, like the engine of a car.

When we look at a horse’s impulsion there are a few things we look at:

First, is their ability to create energy in their hindlegs, this is also about the rider’s ability to be able to turn the energy up and down.

The second is where this energy goes; some horses take the rider forward, whilst others like to push the energy up to avoid having to push into the contact.

As the rider, you need to have control of this impulsion, the ability to turn your horse’s energy up or down, like a volume dial you should be able to create more energy with your leg as well as being able to ask for less energy. Similarly, you should be able to decide where this energy goes, does it push more forward (for your medium and extended paces) or does it get controlled underneath you and on the hindlegs (for collected paces, canter pirouettes, piaffe/passage etc)

The training approach

Like i say to all my clients, dressage is just about getting your horse to understand how to respond to different aids. For more impulsion, we use our leg to say go. And for less impulsion we use our rein and seat to say stop or wait. For lazy horses, the problem is that we cannot get more impulsion easily and this can be because our leg aid doesn't mean 'go forward'.

How has this happened?: Remember back at the beginning of this episode we talked about lazy horses and feeling the need to keep kicking to keep that horse going. When this happens, our horse responds to the leg by keeping going at the same speed and tempo, not by going more forward. And we do nothing about it. When we put our leg on and we dont get the reaction we want we take it off and think 'well that didnt work'. Instead, we need to give them a harder kick to create the reaction we want. That way it tells the horse very clearly that the reaction they gave us or staying at the same tempo is not what we want. And what we do actually want is this reaction they give you from the bigger kick.

It all comes down to consistency, if sometimes you let them get away with not reacting to your leg and sometimes you have a go at them this is only going to add to the confusion. Its like letting your child have a messy room for a year and then suddenly shouting at them one day because its messy, Its not clear what your expectations are and that is exactly how your horse feels too, confused.

So, when we look at how we approach training our horses to react to an aid; when it comes to all horses not just lazy ones, we need to think about 3 things.

1. What is our aid ?

2. What reaction do we actually want from

this aid ?

3. What is our reward when they get it right ?

4. What is our Plan B if they don’t get it right ?

So firstly, we need to think about the aid that we are going to use, and for turning the impulsion or energy up, its a kick.

We then need to think about the response that we want, and for this it is that our horse speeds up, covers more ground and increases the tempo.

Then we need a plan B. What is going to happen when we use the aid and we dont get the reaction that we want (and this is the point where most riders say 'that aid didn't work and try to look at an alternative method). You should always, always have a plan B of what will happen when your aid or your exercise doesnt work, this is going to stop you having that moment of 'i dont know what to do now'. So for us, it is our bigger kick. Remember that this is your last resort, so this kick needs to be big, think pony club style, we want our horse to shoot forward and give us a really big reaction. Dont worry if it looks messy!

The final thing we haven’t talked about is the reward that we will give our horse when they get it right. A lot of people use a pat or scratch on the neck. The give of the rein works as a great release of pressure. But I like to use a walk break for lazy horses and a trot stretch for the hotter horses. When it comes to lazy horses the thing I have found that works the best is to keep going and repeating until they give you the right reaction and then reward with the walk break. In that sense, if they don’t get it or don’t give you the reaction that you want they have to keep working and as soon as they give you the right reaction they get to stop.

Exercises to add to your training

One thing that I (and I think a lot of trainers) will say to anyone with a lazy or slow horse is that transitions need to become your best friend. Whether that’s basic transitions like walk-trot or transitions within the paces like Collected trot to working trot.

But you can’t just wizz around the arena throw in some transitions and expect your horse to suddenly be firing off all cylinders.

Going back to what we said before, we need to know the aid we’re going to use, the reaction we expect, what the reward is when they react correctly and our plan B to show them the reaction we need when they don’t react correctly. The main thing that you need to take from this podcast is that every bad transition that you are not happy with must always be repeated, a good transition you can carry on with or have a walk break but every bad transition must be repeated. Again, it’s the consistency again, if you repeat every bad transition and reward every good one your horse will understand what they are supposed to do and how they should react.

so our aid to ask for our transition up is one quick squeeze with our leg. And we are expecting a reaction forward and up into trot or canter. if that reaction doesn’t happen our plan B is to give the horse one big kick to create that reaction forward. Once we have the reaction we want; we pat and take our leg off (this is a release of pressure) and then we have a walk break.

Especially with a lazy horse you should be aiming for lots of transitions (id say around 50 in one training session) now that might sound like a lot by youve got to think every time you change up or down into walk trot or canter that is a transition in itself as well as the more intentional transitions you do like a walk-trot-walk transition where you’re really paying attention to the way of going and the reaction to your leg. From now on every single transition you do needs to have the focus from you on making sure that transition is good, and if it’s not that you do something about it. And that is, to bring In that plan B, create the reaction with the big kick and then repeat the transition again until you’re happy with it.

A final note about whips and spurs

I want to add one last thing. If you struggle with your horse’s laziness I would strongly advise taking off your spurs and dropping your whip for now. My reason is that you are using your whip and spurs because your leg does not work. It is covering the problem rather than solving it. What you need to do is fix the problem by getting your horse to react to your leg, and yes this might be a task. But if your horse has learnt not to react to your leg aids, this can easily progress to them not reacting to other aids, like your whip or Spurs. Eventually, it will only exacerbate the problem rather than solve it. So take them away, work on getting your horse to react forward to your leg and you will be on your way!

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