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Is My Horse Lazy, in Pain, or am I to Blame?

Horse playing up with rider

Every rider has been there. You nudge your horse with your legs, expecting a burst of forward energy. Instead, they're rooted to the spot like a majestic equine statue. You ask for a trot, but get a leisurely stroll that wouldn't keep a snail in suspense or you approach a jump and the brakes are slammed on. It's tempting to brand your horse as lazy or stubborn. But before you write them off as a grumpy gelding or a lethargic mare, consider this: there might be a very different explanation for their lack of enthusiasm.

Horses are masters at masking discomfort. In the wild, showing weakness can be dangerous, so they've evolved to be incredibly stoic creatures. That seemingly sluggish horse you're riding could actually be in pain. Here's how to tell the difference between genuine laziness and a horse trying to communicate a problem:

Considering Comfort First:

Pony with ears pinned back

Reluctance to Move Off: If your usually eager horse hesitates to trot or canter after a period of standing, it might be stiffness or pain.

Changes in Gait: Subtle changes in your horse's way of going can be significant clues. Watch for a limp, shortened stride, or unevenness on one side. These could all be signs of pain in a leg, hoof, or back.

Girthiness: Does your horse flinch or act sweaty when you tighten the girth? This could indicate discomfort in the abdomen or back.

Head-tossing or Pinned Ears: These signs of resistance could be due to pain in the head, neck, or back.

Behavioural Shifts: Pay attention to changes in your horse's normal behaviour. Reduced appetite, lethargy, or kicking at the walls of the stable can all be signs of underlying pain.

Facial Expressions as Clues:

Tense Eyes: Horses in pain may squint, have a glazed expression, or keep their eyes partially closed, especially when asked to perform specific movements.

Facial Grimaces: Tightening of the muscles around the eyes or flaring nostrils can indicate pain, particularly if it's a new development.

Physical Signs of Discomfort:

Muscle Tremors: Twitching or trembling muscles, especially in the hindquarters, can be a sign of pain or discomfort.

Abnormal Sweating: Excessive sweating, especially when not in hot weather or after exertion, can indicate pain.

Lying Down More Than Usual: Horses typically lie down for sleep and rest, but if your horse seems to be lying down excessively, it could be a way of coping with pain.

When is it time to call the Vet?

Remember: This list isn't exhaustive. If you notice any of these signs, it's crucial to consult a veterinarian. Early detection and treatment of pain can prevent minor issues from escalating into more serious problems.

Checking Your Tack:

A well fitting saddle

It's also important to ensure your horse's tack fits comfortably. A poorly fitted saddle can cause pinching, rubbing, and back pain. Likewise, a bridle that's too tight can restrict movement and cause discomfort.

Quick Check List:

Saddle: Is the saddle balanced evenly across the horse's back? Does it leave enough wither clearance?

Girth: Is the girth snug but not constricting? Can you easily slip a hand's width under it?

Bridle: Does the bridle fit without restricting movement of the ears or jaw?

A regular check by a qualified saddler can help ensure your horse's tack fits correctly and doesn't contribute to any discomfort.

Bit: Does the bit fit comfortably and are there any sharp areas visible. Read our separate post about Bits

Napping in Horses: More Than Just Laziness:

Horse riders sometimes encounter a frustrating behaviour called "napping." This isn't your horse catching some midday shut-eye. Napping describes a horse's reluctance or outright refusal to move forward in the direction you want. It can manifest in various ways, like:

  1. Planting their feet and refusing to budge

  2. Spinning around

  3. Rearing or bucking

Unlike spooking (frightened reaction), napping is often linked to a lack of trust or communication between horse and rider. Here are some reasons why a horse might nap:

Fear or Uncertainty: An unfamiliar environment or a request they don't understand can make a horse hesitant to move forward.

Discomfort: Pain can cause a horse to resist movement. Check for proper saddle fit and any signs of injury.

Dominance: Some horses might try to test your authority by refusing commands. Consistent training is key.

If your horse naps, stay calm and avoid forceful methods. Seek professional help from a trainer who can address the underlying cause and improve communication with your horse.

Taking a Look at Your Riding:

A woman riding a horse in a sand school

Sometimes, the problem might not be with the horse at all. Here are some ways your riding might be unintentionally confusing your horse:

Unclear Cues: Are your aids confusing or contradictory? If your leg asks for forward movement while your hands hold them back, your horse won't know what to do.

Inconsistent Riding: Does your riding style change depending on your mood? Horses thrive on routine and clear communication.

Fitness Level Mismatch: Are you asking too much of an unfit horse? Gradually increase exercise intensity to avoid fatigue and resistance.

The Mystery Rider Test:

Have you ever noticed how your seemingly sluggish horse transforms when a more experienced rider hops on? This can be a valuable clue. If your horse becomes responsive and energetic with another rider, it suggests the issue might lie with your riding technique, not the horse's temperament. A skilled rider can communicate more effectively with subtle cues, leading to a smoother, more responsive ride. If this transformation happens then it may be possible to rule out any of the above.

Working with Your Horse:

Once you've ruled out physical problems or pain and checked your tack, it's time to address your riding technique.

Groundwork: Consistent groundwork can improve communication and responsiveness. Practice lungeing with clear cues for direction and gait changes.

Lessons with an instructor: A qualified instructor can identify areas for improvement in your riding and help refine your aids.

Positive Reinforcement: Reward your horse for even small efforts. Positive reinforcement builds confidence and encourages them to try.

In Conclusion:

Taking a moment to understand your horse's perspective can transform your relationship from frustration to trust. By considering their comfort, ensuring proper tack fit, and refining your riding skills, you can create a more harmonious partnership. Remember, a sluggish horse might not be lazy – they might be trying to tell you something. Listen closely, address any potential pain issues, and you might just unlock your horse's full potential.


The Confident Rider website was created to help nervous horse riders overcome their anxiety and fear through the use of Self-Hypnosis. See the range HERE

In addition to the Self-Hypnosis audio sessions, we also try to offer advice and resources about all aspects of owning or riding horses and ponies through this Blog. We welcome suggestions for topics that you would like us to cover.

Sharon Shinwell a co-author of the popular book "Ride With Confidence," which was forwarded by Kelly Marks, the well-known Horse Whisperer.

Sharon Shinwell creator of The Confident Rider Series.

Just click the link HERE to go to the main site.

"This article represents the personal views and opinions of the author and should not be taken as representative of the official policy or position of any organization, professional, expert, or individual."

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