The Myth of the Lazy Horse
By Karen Nelson
Horses have changed in many ways over the centuries; in general they have gotten taller, more refined, and have been
bred to specialize in particular events. The average competition horse of today would bear little resemblance to their
forefathers of 2000 years ago, with mankind working to produce horses better suited to meet our needs and wants.
Despite all the efforts of specialized breeding and generations of domestication, horses still remain horses, and are still
creatures of instincts instilled thousands of years ago. Specialized breeding has done little to curb the inborn reactions,
basic fears, and natural tendencies of our equine partners, and so training programs and interpretations of a horse’s
reaction to stimulus should be considered from a evolutionary point of view: how would that behaviour make sense as
horses evolved? How would the behaviour give a horse an advantage over other horses ensuring that this trait/reaction
would be passed on to future generations?
The complaint that a horse is lazy is one I often hear when teaching or training. Riders get frustrated that their horse is
making them work so hard to keep it going, or that they need spurs and/or a whip to elicit any sort of forward reaction.
These riders often feel even more frustrated when they then see this same “lazy” horse out running and playing with its
friends in the field, proving it had oodles of energy available.
If you consider the trait of laziness from an evolutionary point of view, it would be difficult to see it as having any
advantage for a horse. Unlike humans and some other animals, horses do not bring food to others in their unit; they
must procure their own food by foraging for it on a regular basis. A horse that is unmotivated or unable to find its own
food and water will soon starve. Similarly, horses are animals whose preferred method of surviving attack is flight. The
slow or “lazy” horse would be the first animals caught and eaten by predators, and therefore those traits would be less
likely to be passed on to future generations.
In warmer climates, where hot blooded breeds would have evolved such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds, the predators
would have been lone hunters who relied on speed and agility to catch their prey. Horses that were quick to react and
fast on their feet would have had the best chance to survive. They just had to outrun and outlast the one hunter (or their
herd mates) in order to survive to breed and pass on the physical ability to run, and the instinctive reaction to bolt at the
first signs of predator attack.
In cooler northern climates, where draft and pony type breeds evolved, the predators would have been slower pack type
animals such as wolves. These animals hunt in well organized groups, with the members of the group spreading out to
send the prey in a large circle, so that different members of the pack can pick up the hunt as the prey goes by, allowing
the other members to rest. Horses that reacted simply by bolting off would wear out far too quickly, and would be caught
by the patient predators. The horses that would best survive this type of attack in order to produce offspring of their
own, would be the healthy ones that conserved their energy; just staying one step ahead of the attacker, trying to
outlast the predators, or at least outlast the other members of their herd.
Given this foundation, we should be able to accept that horses are not fundamentally and instinctively lazy creatures.
From this we should be able to infer that it must be something in the environment or in our handling that gives the horse
the apparent trait of laziness. It should be considered that they may be a medical reason for lethargy, such as
malnutrition, anaemia, or chronic pain, and a vet should be consulted should the horse be at risk of these possibilities,
or if the horse is uncharacteristically tired at all times, including out in the field or at feeding time.
We will first consider the apparent laziness in a hot blooded breed such as a thoroughbred or an Arabian. These breeds
are typically very sensitive, reactive and very alert. Often these traits can come across as worrisome to the rider, who
works to contain and subdue the reactions that are inherent to these breeds. Training techniques often involve training
gadgets such as training yokes, running martingales, severe bits and so on. These items restrict the freedom of the
horse’s head, the theory being that this will help keep their head in a position where they can be controlled or
maintained in a subdued state.
Unintentional cues to slow down such as poorly fitting saddles that restrict shoulder and back motion, tense riders that
pinch the horse’s shoulders with their knees, and cause a tense back with their seat, and riders that ride with a heavy
hand can further restrict the horse’s ability to move freely forward.
At the same time though, the rider is using their leg, seat, voice or other cues to send the horse forward in a conflicting
medley of signals.
Some hot blooded horses will react to this type of constraint by becoming fearful and therefore prone to bolting or
running off. This tends to be the case if the rider triggers the same primal fear that would be triggered by the presence
of a predator.
If, however, the trainer is able to constrain the horse in this manner without triggering the fear reaction, then they will
likely succeed in putting the horse into a state of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is the same state a
mouse is put into when a cat “plays” with it, or that an abuse victim goes into when approached by their attacker when
subjected to repeated attacks. Basically, certain aspects of the brain numb or shut down to allow the subject to cope
with the attack.
In a horse, this would come across as laziness. The response to aids becomes dull; the horse treads heavily on its front
end, and may even trip. The horse may appear to be in a trance. Horses in a state of learned helplessness are more
likely to want to follow another horse in the ring.
If whipped harshly for the apparent laziness, such a horse is likely to overreact by bolting, bucking or rearing. This is
because the rider has now triggered the horse’s survival/fear instinct, and as the horse feels trapped by the rider, it
feels the need to flee or fight.
In contrast, we have the horses descended from the cold blooded horses of the north. Certain warmblood breeds,
drafts, and many pony breeds would fall under this category. These breeds evolved to be laid back, and knowing to
conserve their energy when threatened. They tend to be slow maturing breeds and are regularly started under saddle
before they are physical or mentally mature. As such, they may come across as slow and unmotivated right from the
start. Here in North America, training practices have evolved more from working with hot blooded breeds and breeds
descended from hot blooded breeds, so most of our training programs are not as well suited to this type of horse.
As these types of horses tend not to react as quickly as hot blooded breeds, trainers are often quicker to use force such
as a whip or spurs to produce forward movement. As these breeds tend to react in a more calculated manner than hot
blooded breeds, they don’t offer the same obviously fearful reactions and riders tend to be more heavy handed when
using the whip looking for a similar reaction. In this type of horse however, the more ongoing pressure or threat they
feel, the more likely they are to feel the need to conserve energy as they would if faced with a predator. Riders that nag,
whip and spur their horse incessantly will reinforce the horse’s need to conserve energy, while at the same time
desensitize the horse to those cues. If the rider kicks and pulls with each step, the horse will consider it “background
noise” and will tune it out, thereby making those cues useless, and leaving the rider to find stronger and stronger cues
to get their point across.
Conflicting signals given to the cold/warmblooded horse may also put it in a state of learned helplessness, and explains
the “lazy” horse that is still prone to bolting, bucking or spooking on occasion. In warmbloods, the spook is the most
common outlet for their frustration, and often the spook is a reasonable indicator that the horse is frustrated and
confused by the rider’s signals. Over time the spook may become an ingrained habit.
With either type of horse, repetitive arena work and inattentiveness by the rider is also sometimes attributed to a lazy
and unmindful horse. Riders often go round and round the ring focusing on a subtle nuance in their position, while the
horse plods along. As the horse doesn’t have the same attention to detail and the same ability to remain focused when
there is little to focus on, it is easy to understand that the horse’s attention may stray from the rider. If the rides are
regularly repetitive and boring, then riding will no longer be a welcome distraction for the horse, and he may become a
sour and unwilling partner. This type of situation will often lead to the rider then “getting after” the horse for its lack of
attention (when really, it had nothing to pay attention to), which then leads to conflicting signals and we are back to the
previously mentioned problems.
For both types of horses, the fix is similar. The first consideration should be the health, soundness, age and fitness of
the horse. The trainer should check the muscles and back in particular for soreness. The tack should be checked
carefully. It is important that saddle fit be considered when the horse is in motion and not just at rest. An easy way to do
that, is to have an assistant stretch a front leg forward while the trainers checks if the saddle interferes with the freedom
of the shoulder, as well as cue the horse to lift its back (and drop its head) as it would when being ridden properly, and
consider if the saddle still fits.
The bit being used should be considered as well; is this a bit that the horse understands? Does it sit comfortably in its
mouth? Different horses have different preferences for bits, and have different mouth conformations. These factors
should be considered when selecting a bit.
Next consider the age, type, and conformation of the horse. Is what you are asking of the horse reasonable given those
factors? If the horse is not built for, or old enough to, extend, collect, spin and such, and you are punishing it for its
inability to perform these actions, they you need to reassess your goals for this horse. It is not hard to understand the
frustration that a horse must feel if asked to perform beyond its readiness.
Holes in the training program that lead to confusion in the horse are another large factor to consider. The horse should
be taken back to basics, to ensure it understands the most basic of cues for forward, stop, move the shoulders, and
move the haunches. The horse should also be willing to give softly to the bit when asked from the ground. If the horse’s
reaction is to pull back against the bit, then bit selection should be reconsidered, and basic training for rein aids should
Remember, even the most laid back horse can feel a fly on its skin. The goal needs to be to reawaken the horses
response to reasonable aids, not to continually escalate to stronger tactics.
Case #1:Franz, a 6 year old QH gelding
Franz came to me as his owner had fallen off him the year before and as she had been injured, she hadn’t done much
with him since. Although she didn’t attribute the fall as being the horses fault, she did feel that it was a wake up call that
the horse needed more training to help her regain her confidence in riding him. Her main problems with the horse were:
- He was “lazy” and would regularly slow down or even stop while he was being ridden. It took considerable effort to
get him going and to keep him going, particularly in the arena.
- He did not have a consistent lope/canter.
- When he heard the word “whoa” or similar, he would slam on the brakes, to the point of unseating riders in the
As always when I take in a horse for training, the first thing I did with him was to assess his soundness. I immediately
found stiffness in his neck that would need to be addressed before he would be able to be ridden successfully. I also
assessed his personality, which showed him to be a horse that was highly social and wanted to please, but at the same
time he was a horse that worried easily if taken out of his comfort zone.
When riding, I started out at just walk and jog for the first while so he could build his fitness before working on his lope –
asking too much of an unfit horse is an easy way to discourage it. I found that he was very sensitive to seat pressure,
and that he would stop if I tensed my lower back and stiffened my hips. When later I watched his owner ride, it became
apparent that this was part of why his owner thought him to be lazy; her hips were blocking his back, and was
responding by slowing or stopping. As she had trained Franz herself, I knew that this was not a trained response, but
rather one that was natural for him, and is in fact natural for many horses. As she was an able enough rider to be able
to use her seat once she knew what Franz was responding to, I did not retrain his response, rather I retrained his owner.
When he felt ready to work on loping, I found he would lope one or two strides, then stop dead, heavy on the front end.
It became apparent that stopping was his default action when he got nervous. This makes sense for a couple reasons;
1) when first training a horse, the horse usually receives much praise for halting, so the horse associates stopping with
the good feeling of being praised. The horse may then try to retrieve that good feeling when it gets tense during another
activity and so will stop. 2) He was shutting down when he felt pressure and uncertainty, and his reaction was to
stop…other horses may face the same feelings of pressure and react by bucking, bolting or rearing.
Had I sent him forward with the sting of a crop, I feel he may have lost significant confidence and established dangerous
avoidance habits. I base this on the fact that this horse showed me during ground work that he was eager to please, but
at the same time was quick to worry and that he did not respond well to perceived pressure.
The next day he again offered me a few steps of lope before I ended the session. By day three I had higher
expectations and wanted a full circle. I needed to let him know I wanted more without making him feel overly pressured.
To accomplish this I carried a short jumping crop which I tapped on my thigh to make a popping sound to cue him to
keep the lope once we got going. This is the same sound I used to help him lope on the lunge, so I felt confident he
would not over react to it. This worked to help him maintain the lope. As the lope was fairly new to him, I asked him to
come back to the jog as soon as I felt him start to loose rhythm and balance. I wanted to make sure I was the one to ask
for the downward transition.
I also worked on the sharp whoa response. When I would say whoa, or ask for the whoa with the reins, he would slam on
the brakes and drop his head. It was a similar feeling to that of stopping a bike with the front brakes when going down
hill. Although people sometimes take pride in their horse’s ability to stop on a dime, I want the horses I train to stop with
their hind quarters under them and with their shoulders light and elevated. Stopping hard on the front end is hard on the
horse and the rider, and is not usually conducive to having a relaxed horse.
To correct the overly enthusiastic whoa response, I asked him lightly to whoa from the jog with my voice. When he
slammed on the brakes, I made sure my hands and seat were not restricting him and I asked him to walk forward with
light leg aids. I then praised him with my voice and a scratch on the withers. I would then ask for the whoa from the walk
using my seat and hands; making sure to ask for the whoa to start in the hindquarters, and allowing the front legs to
each take one additional step for proper balance. With consistent work, he gained an understanding that “whoa” didn’t
mean instant freeze frame, and he began to balance himself up for a properly balanced halt from lope, jog or walk. This
new understanding of whoa helped make it easier to teach Franz how to half halt and rebalance himself without getting
confused and tense. This also helped him learn to slow when he got worried, rather than jam on the breaks!
Case 2: 5 Year old Friesian, Walter.
Walter came with the instructions to further his training, with the end goal dressage. The horse was certainly built and
suited to that end. He was a big, heavily built gelding, with a very methodical manner. Walking him from the barn to the
outdoor arena would take a long time, as he would slow and stop every few steps. Riding him was similarly slow, as he
would stop or slow down every few strides for no apparent reason.
Walter was overweight, but did not seem to have any soreness or stiffness.
Upon observing him closely during ground work exercises, I noticed that he would raise his head slightly before slowing
and stopping. I then deduced that this was his spook. It would have been an easy response to simple send the big horse
forward with the whip or other means; however this would have reinforced his fear in the object that was causing the
spook. Rather than punish him for being fearful, I worked on teaching him to lower his head and focus on me. While
walking him, I paid closer attention to his head and neck, and when I saw them start to lift, I would regain his focus and
ask him to drop his head. We were soon able to walk confidently past spooky objects without his coming to a stop.
When ridden, Walter was a slow horse. His walk was lacking any momentum, and his trot was slow and shuffled. His
head however remained nice and low, so I did not feel that this was a fear response. I noticed that my own reaction was
to want to prod him with my legs incessantly…and he would go faster for a few steps, but then revert back to a slower
speed. Unlike Franz, Walter was not particularly attentive to my seat, or to my hands, and overall just seemed tuned out
to my cues.
As I did not want Walter to become desensitized to leg pressure, or to require spurs at such an early stage of his
training, I played the “Set it and Forget it” Game.
Day 1: I asked Walter to walk off of leg pressure. I then was careful to NOT engage my legs to keep him going. I used my
leg to ask for bend, and to steer, but otherwise I left my leg to hand loosely at his side. I made sure my seat and hands
moved with his motion and were not restrictive. As long as he kept walking, I stayed passive, regardless of the quality of
walk. I made sure not to bore him, by doing patterns and changes of direction. If he decided on his own to halt, I tapped
him with the dressage whip behind my leg to send him forward, changing little else about my position. (With other horses
I may have used a short crop against my boot, but while doing ground work I learned that the sound of the crop had no
effect on Walter.)
Once Walter seemed to get the idea at the walk, we proceeded to trot. Once again, I did not worry about the quality of
trot; as long as he was trotting, I remained a quiet and passive rider, using light aids to manoeuvre patterns to keep his
interest. If he slowed to a walk or to a halt, I tapped him with the dressage whip.
Day 2: Walter walked out with more energy and I did not have to correct him for stopping without being asked. When we
moved to the trot, he trotted out with more energy as well, and again needed no correction.
Day 3: I advanced the exercise, so now he not only needed to maintain the gait, he also had to maintain the tempo I had
set him at. I made sure I was reasonable in my demands; for example I asked him to slow and rebalance before smaller
circles and tight corners, and let him catch his breath if he became winded. If I felt him slow on his own however, I first
added leg, and if he did not respond to the leg, I asked with a flick of the dressage whip.
As my leg had been for the most part quiet on his sides for the past couple days, he paid much more attention to its
action, and tended to respond to it and so the whip was barely needed. His gaits became more expressive, and his back
and neck more relaxed and fluid.
Case 3: Billy the lesson horse
Lesson horses are often known for being lazy. A common complaint when people inquire about lessons, is that they don’
t want to have to ride a slow and boring horse! What students need to realize is that the lesson horse became that way
after years spent going around and around the ring, being ridden by riders who kick each time they go down in their
post and who grip with their knees to stay on. These horses also have to deal with the conflicting signals of beginners
who tend to pull on the reins as they kick. Is it any wonder these horses become less responsive and dull? A fresh and
keen horse will soon join the ranks of the dreary nags over time. To add to the problem, is that these horses are rarely
ridden by riders who are able to put them in a proper frame, so these horses travel on their forehand with hollow backs,
further making their lives difficult and uncomfortable.
Often that same horse will perk up when ridden by an experienced rider, and the novice student will get frustrated that
the horse is not that way for them.
Billy had been used for years as a lesson horse, but was now privately owned, and his owner wanted him to be more
responsive and pleasant to ride.
To help Billy regain his enthusiasm for being ridden, I first worked on any body soreness and stiffness through massage.
I paid particular attention to his top line in order to help awaken the muscles that would allow him to better carry his
We did ground work exercises over poles and obstacles to get him to think about his feet.
Riding wise, I did the same “Set it and Forget it” exercise with Billy that I did with Franz, to help re-sensitize him to leg
pressure. I was also very careful to not just follow the edges of the ring with Billy; rather we did gentle loops, shallow
serpentines, poles, and transitions to keep his attention and focus. My goal was to make sure he knew I was with him
every step of the way, not because I was nagging him, but because I was giving him directional cues, and cues to help
him balance. I retrained Billy on lateral work so that he could start developing the proper back muscles for ridden work.
I also took Billy out of the arena on trails. This was something Billy had not done much of, so I was careful to give him
time to get used to new sights, uneven ground, and being away from other horses.
Billy soon became rejuvenated and interested in being ridden, and began to carry himself better. It is interesting to note
though, that if a stiff or beginner rider got on him he would revert to his old ways for their ride.