Dr. Weiss, I'm looking for a fresh set of eyes. My ten-year-old Saddlebred gelding is an angel in his stall and gets along well with the other horses in the barn. However, he is quite spirited. When we ride with other horses (at our barn or at a competition), he seems to think it's his mission to catch up to and surpass them. As we approach other riders, he wants to bolt across the arena, even when the trainer is on him.
We have tried rewarding him for good behavior, but he isn't making much progress. It is having an effect on my confidence. Once I lose control of him, it is extremely difficult to get it back even though he wears a full bridle. Do you have any suggestions for working with and around other horses and riders? He has been looked at by a vet and is healthy.
It sounds as if your horse may be having some confidence issues himself! Pushing to the “head of the pack” is often a bullying behavior. Your horse is driven to make his presence known, just as a human bully would. The fact that this is happening only when he is under saddle leads me to think that he has some potential insecurities or fears when being ridden.
It sounds like you have been trying to reward the correct behavior with a bit of success, so continue doing that.
To modify his behavior, you will need to enlist the help of some friends and their horses. There is a good chance that you are tensing up when other riders are nearby. Spend some time focusing on your body awareness to be sure you are not changing your posture in the saddle or adding tension to the reins. Let’s also up the ante for staying focused. I suggest teaching him a food delivery sound (this is clicker training without the clicker). Simply pair a sound, like a whistle sound you make with your lips, with a small treat. Once he begins to look for the food to be delivered when he hears the whistle, you are ready to begin training him.
Have a friend on horseback walk his horse a little bit behind you. We are assuming that the trigger is “horse in front,” and that the horse behind him will not cause him to bolt forward. If he remains soft, whistle and treat. Next, have your friend ride so that the horses are walking side by side. If he speeds up, simply apply a bit of soft pressure on the reins, say "Whoa!" and wait him out. Be sure your friend keeps her horse’s nose even with your horse’s nose. Once he relaxes, whistle and treat. Repeat this exercise with more than one horse/rider combo. Finally, have the other horses ahead of himagain, you may need to wait him out. Be sure the other horse always remains ahead. When he relaxes, whistle and treat.
The more situations you can set up, the more likely he will generalize the behavior. It would be ideal if you could perform the exercise in the warm-up ring at horse shows, on the trails and in the training ring.