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grumpy cat

Setting the Tone

When I first bought Miles, I knew he was grumpy — it’s just part of his personality. I don’t love it, but in my price range if that’s the sacrifice I have to make, I’m pretty damn lucky. But lately, he’s turned more from the cute, Grumpy Dwarf in Snow White, into the evil wizard Saruman, from Lord of the Rings.

And I don’t like it.

grumpy cat

So I went into my hack on Friday with a very simple goal: ask for more forward and not tolerate severe resistance. I borrowed a heaver whip, mounted up and set to work. Through the walk and trot, Miles was good. I only corrected his behavior once. I usually begin my canter to the left, so on Friday I switched it up and started with the right lead. At first, Miles declined to go forward so he received a quick correction. He did a small buck, but after that every upward transition to the canter was more prompt and without any big resistance. I did notice, however, that in order to pick up his left lead, Miles seemed to “throw” his hip to the outside. This got me wondering… is he bucking because he’s hurting? Maybe he needs to see the chiropractor.

On Saturday, I had scheduled a private lesson, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I told my trainer I had a few goals for our lesson:

  1. Work on standing still at the mounting block
  2. Evaluate Miles’ movement to see if the chiropractor needed to come out
  3. Work on a more appropriate and prompt response to forward aids

So I walked into the ring as usual, and stopped to finish tightening my girth, lowering my stirrups, etc. When I asked Miles to move forward to the mounting block, he refused. This is typical, and right then and there trainer said “Stop.” And while of course I didn’t think to address the whole “forward when I ask” from the ground, she did. So she got a lunge whip and when I asked him to walk forward again and he declined, she raised it behind him. And he shot forward like a rocket! I’ve never seen his eyes so big, it was actually kind of funny.

But boy, did it work! I stopped and started a few times and he promptly walked off. And as soon as I got on, he was already more forward. We spent the first five or ten minutes discussing the basics of groundwork. Then we warmed-up at the trot, doing some circles and turns down the centerline. Each time I asked for more forward, Miles responded promptly. We got in some fabulous trot, with Miles stretching over his topline and really tracking up underneath himself all the way through the bridle. It felt fabulous!!

black jumper

Then we moved on to cantering and jumping. The exercise was simple: we re-created what occurs in lessons and corrected Miles’ response to forward. So we started out standing in the middle for a minute, and then I went directly to the rail and asked for a left lead canter. Of course, Miles did his usual “thanks, but no thanks” routine. The next time, trainer retrieved her lunge whip and when I asked for the canter, she waved it behind him — and of course Miles shot forward! We did this exercise a few times in each direction, and finally I did one left lead canter depart without the lunge whip and Miles was much improved; still a bit grumpy, but he at least respected my leg and moved forward.

As I cooled down, trainer and I discussed Miles’ movement. Yes, he isn’t as fluid to the left as he is to the right. But the cause? Who the fuck knows. It could be a combination of several things, so our steps moving forward include finding a new saddle (because we KNOW this one doesn’t fit), add him to the list for the chiropractor to evaluate in the spring and continue to monitor. But my big take-away from this lesson was simple: set the tone from the very beginning. So Miles will now be led around with a dressage whip, so that he respects my aids from the ground all the way through to the time he goes back in his stall.


Fly On Over is an equestrian lifestyle blog devoted to connecting horse lovers around the world. By providing equestrians with practical tips and tricks related to horse ownership, discussing training techniques for horse and rider, as well as covering industry news.

16 thoughts on “Setting the Tone

  1. Sounds like Miles and my mare have something in common here. She can be very unmotivated, and I sadly get sucked into her bad attitude. I moved up to a dressage whip lately and found it makes a much bigger statement! Hopefully it does the same for you!!

    P.S. Grumpy was definitely my favorite dwarf.

    1. I suppose I would rather have unmotivated than running away with me, so I don’t mind too much. But we were at the point that an attitude adjustment was needed!

  2. He sounds like my mare. Naturally a grumper, and needs a little “motivation” when she gets into a mood! I carry a dressage whip too, and it’s made a big difference. Good luck!

  3. As a fellow owner of a grumpy, lazy equine, I second your trainer’s suggestion of groundwork! If I sense that Dino’s going to be in a “mood,” I’ll start by doing some work in-hand before I get on. Walk, trot, halt, back, turn on haunches, turn on forehand, soften in the bridle. It helps him get his “work brain” going without us having to get in a fight about anything.

  4. Proper training involves an immediate response and accepting nothing less – whether that be moving forward, stopping, moving sideways, etc. Sounds like you have the idea now!

    1. Sometimes I am too forgiving and easy-going, but I think we at least have some more tools in the toolbox to work with moving forward 🙂

  5. That was my thought in the first top of your post- is he hurting? But it sounds like you and your trainer are on the right track. Teach him to respect aids immediately and you’ll have a much clearer idea if anything else is bugging him!
    I use a dressage whip with Polly (and big spurs) but keep hoping to move toward the goal of having her respect my aids!

  6. Good for you for getting after him about it, and also for looking into it from a pain standpoint. When Connor’s saddle didn’t fit, it manifested itself in some really uncharacteristic behaviors for him, like taking off at a gallop upon landing from an 18″ XC fence. Respect for the aids is key!

  7. My trainer calls it the race horse game. When I ask, you better GO like it is the starting gate. And if there is no GO, we go all cowboy and whomp him hard with legs and spurs. It doesn’t need to be a pretty departure, it had just better be a departure FORWARD. It is amazing how much better they are after this “game.”

  8. Yep, that was O when I got her…. I laid down some law on day 1, and every day she gets reminded of her manners if she chooses to try and toe the line. 95% of the time, she’s pretty darn docile now, but once in awhile I have to really get after her and put her back in her beta position!

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