Often when dealing with lazy or resistant horses people tend to resort to force. Spurs, whips, and harder kicks. Their response to a horse with lack luster responses is to force better performance and faster responses through pain and increased pressure. A lot of times this will get a response, and you'll eventually make the horse "sensitive" to cues.. but it usually doesn't last long and the horse typically learns who's scary enough to make them work (sometimes through excruciating pain) and who is not.
These "dull" and "disobedient" horses have, in all honesty, been trained poorly, gradually desensitized to the wrong things, forced to work through pain in some situations, and worked without regards to the type of motivation being used during training... and sometimes they are just being expected to do something they are not suited for. Gradually they become unresponsive and unmotivated, preferring to get away with the least amount of effort possible. It's really no wonder they are "lazy".
I'm here to tell you though, if you're ready to change the way you do things and really listen to your horse, there is a lot you can do to help motivate and engage your horse to want to work with you; to repair your horse's mentality towards humans. You may not change your relaxed trail horse into the next all star barrel racer, but you can encourage motivation and improve your relationship. It's going to take patience and consistency, but it can be done. I've seen it happen.
So now that we've addressed the differences between a resistant horse and a lazy horse (click here), and we've also addressed the causes for resistance (click here), it's time to talk about how to approach working with a horse that is just plain unmotivated; either from a past history of poor training and care, or due to low drive.
So first, let's consider what you're asking your horse to do. If you really really do have a naturally relaxed and lazy horse you may have unrealistic expectations of it if you're wanting to go out and run barrels or cross country. Some horses are actually bred to be more mellow and laid back in their actions. These horses are excellent beginner horses, trail horses, or even do well in more physically demanding but not high drive disciplines like hunter/jumper or western pleasure. You might be setting yourself up for disappointment if you're expecting this kind of easy-going horse to be a speed horse.
In many cases though, even horses in a discipline suited to their personality, are in a state of mind called "learned helplessness" or "shut-down". This is a mental and emotional response that stems from poor training and handling over the years, and sometimes it's from long term pain that was most likely aggravated by training (human interaction). Over time the horse learned to dislike working and may require a lot of "repair" work mentally to re-engage a horse in this state.
There are also many horses that haven't quite reached the damaged mental state of being "shut down", but still prefer not to engage with enthusiasm in their work due to similar causes. However, as long as any causes for reluctance (click here) have been remedied, the solution is going to be the same.
What's The Motivation
negative vs positive reinforcement, what's in it for them?
All horse training involves some sort of motivation for the horse in order to cause the horse to learn or to obey. There is literally not a single form of horse training that doesn't base itself on a type of motivation. Horses are not born thinking "Today I would like to make a human happy and learn how to trot nice circles". It's the reality of our relationship with horses, it is up to us to give them the motivation to want to work with us. Otherwise, a horse is perfectly content to eat, sleep, and socialize without interference from humans.
That being said, it's also up to us to choose which kind of motivation we want to use in our training. There's negative and positive reinforcement, as well as negative and positive punishment. In my article about corrections in horse training I go more in-depth about the two forms of punishments (click here), but today we are going to discuss negative and positive reinforcement since they are the predominant methods used during horse training. However, I'm going to try and be relatively brief as I could go on all day about the pros and cons of these two different approaches.
The most common forms of horse training are done with negative reinforcement, negative reinforcement (-R) involves applying pressure until the horse performs the desired response and then a release of pressure as the reward for the horse. With excellent timing, patience, and realistic expectations -R can be extremely effective and can develop a well trained horse that is responsive. However, -R relies on there first to be pressure for there to be a reward/release. Without a form of pressure the horse is not motivated to do anything and often is corrected for doing something when not asked, with +P (positive punishment). Over time the horse learns specific cues means to perform specific behaviors, but they only learn to respond to these cues to avoid increased pressure. They also learn not to offer any behaviors that aren't cued or they may be corrected.
A lot of horses are able to tolerate an exclusively -R training approach and do relatively well without becoming shut down. However, exclusively -R training doesn't develop a sense of "drive" in a horse for any other reason than to avoid pressure or consequences and it can easily become more pressure than release or outweigh any positive impact the human has in the horse's life (from the horse's perspective).
If you start looking at the big picture, this easily explains why horses can be difficult and lazy, or a challenge to catch from the pasture. They have no answer to the question "Why should I?" except for to avoid conflict or consequences. The incentive is very much based on a man made control situation... as soon as the horse is "free and clear" of the human they don't have to worry about pressure, they don't have to work.. they can be just a horse.
To remedy this mentality in a horse we need a positive form of incentive. Instead of the motivation only coming from wanting to "avoid", we need a motivation that will encourage the horse to seek and to try. A motivation that will inspire willingness and spark a drive within the horse, trigger curiosity and a desire to learn. To do this though, there has to be "something in it for the horse" other than a release of pressure. There has to be a reward, something worth earning, something worth getting. This is where 'positive reinforcement" comes in, or +R.
Positive reinforcement is based on a reward system. You're creating incentive for the horse to want to try harder, to do more. I'm not going to go deep into the science behind it, but if you're curious about learning more there are plenty of articles and studies out there to provide it. Plus, I'll be doing a more in-depth article in the future. But for now, the basic understanding is that +R is all about creating drive in the horse to want to try, to want to work for a reason other than pressure or consequences. This explains exactly why it's so effective at rehabilitating a shut down horse or motivating the lazy horse.
I'm not saying that all your training from this point on has to be exclusively +R, though in severe cases this may be necessary, but when working with a horse that feels no desire to cooperate or to put forth energy you're going to need to change up the way you've been doing things. Continuing to apply pressure and do the same thing you've always been doing isn't going to get you any new results. If you're really ready to tap into a horse's willingness and drive to learn then you're going to have to be willing to tap into the science behind how horses learn and change the form of motivation you're using.
Switching Things Up
Play time, Change of scenery, Irregular routines, Just relax
Horses like routine and consistency, they are creatures of habit that prefer familiarity to the unknown, but they can also become bored or unenthusiastic about life without mental stimulation and change. Engaging your horse's mind is critical to keeping a horse interested in it's work or in you. Preferably, through things like changes of scenery, changes in routine, active play time (or free shaping) with the human, and even just spending time relaxing with your horse. You don't have to ride your horse ever time you go to the barn, and you don't have to prepare for your training session or lesson in the same order every time. Mixing it up and keeping things positive will help encourage curiosity in your horse.
One of my favorite ways to "mix things up" and to encourage my horse to engage with me is through free shaping at liberty. Free shaping is like this giant guessing game that activates the horse's brain because they are earning something they perceive as valuable for guessing the right answers. They also have the choice to not participate though, which can in itself be the most valuable part of this "game". By giving your horse the choice to learn or not to learn you've changed things up and that will likely really get your horse excited about participating with you.
At first it may take awhile, since the horse is probably going to choose freedom to choosing what it perceives as "work", but with short practices and valuable rewards that will all begin to change. Soon I'll be doing an in-depth article about how to begin at liberty work as well as how to teach your horse some free shaping games to really get their mind going. In the meantime, if you read my article about getting started with clicker training (click here) it explains the first steps on being able to use free shaping (target training), this concept carries over to all kinds of training using positive reinforcement. I would like to also say that there is a big difference between engaging a horse's willing mind through positive reinforcement and what I so often hear people call "getting the horse to use it's thinking brain" when using negative reinforcement. I won't go into the difference in great depth here, but a clear difference is the use of pressure without the option of freedom when using negative reinforcement. When "getting a horse to think" using pressure and release it's more of the same type of training that likely has your horse uninterested in participating with you when given the option not to. They are left with no choice in the matter and like I expressed before, would probably rather not be forced to work.
Other options to consider when attempting to change up your routine with your horse are things like working in new environments instead of always in the same arena, or same round pen, or even the same paddock. Switch it up, go on an adventure together. Trail rides, lunging in an open field, going on a short trailer ride to a neighbors arena, just find someplace new! Also, consider getting out of the saddle and going on foot, there is no rule that you have to hit the trails in the saddle. Going on a hike with your horse by your side is a great way to change the environment and the type of training you're doing. This is also a great way to relax and just enjoy your horse's company without expecting much from him.
Continuing on the previous thoughts, consider just relaxing with your horse. No expectations, no pressure, no schedules, no demands.. just be with your horse. Go into the pasture, find a nice tree, and sit yourself down with a good book. Or, go on a nice walk with your horse like I suggested earlier. Being able to spend time with your horse without expecting anything from it can be an extremely helpful tool in the process of rehabilitating the resistant or lazy horse.
Are you dull and uninteresting to interact with? Are you stressed or impatient?
"Horses are the mirror to your soul..
and sometimes you may not like what you see in the mirror."
- Buck Brannaman
When problem solving horse behavior issues we forget to consider ourselves. Horses that are unresponsive, show a lack of interest, or are unmotivated to work for their human may be reflecting their human or responding to their human's negative emotions and personality. To put it simply, a horse doesn't want to be around someone that is demanding, stressed, angry, or dull more than any human would want to. The handler may also be unknowingly training the horse to reflect those feelings of stress, anxiety, dullness, or resistance simply by expressing them on a daily basis during training sessions. It's important to first feel what you want your horse to feel before ever expecting the horse to be able to.
One trick I like to use for my students is to ask them to mentally visualize the outcome they want to achieve, versus worrying about the outcome they don't want or the outcome that usually happens. If you can mentally create the calm, willing, enthusiasm you desire from your horse your body will reflect those feelings and gradually your horse will begin to mirror you.
Basically, the long and short of it is... why should your horse want to try for you? Is it because you pay for their pasture and food? Is it because you bathe them, blanket them, and buy them occasional cookies?
I'm going to be honest with you here for a moment...
Best case scenario.. your horse knows you bring the food out at dinner time, but to the horse this has no direct link to being ridden or trained. Or maybe the horse knows it gets occasional pats and cookies, but again this has no direct link to being ridden or trained usually. Maybe you give amazingly timed releases during training, but if the horse wasn't having to work it wouldn't care about the release. Perhaps you even give a few pats with that great release, but are pats really worth the seemingly pointless energy expenditure in the mind of the horse? Probably not.
Worst case scenario... your horse experiences nothing positive it can directly link to your presence and therefore would prefer not to work for you. It may even experience great negativity linked to your presence! Even some of these loving and caring actions we do for our horses, like blanketing or bathing, are in all reality not wanted or liked by the horse in most cases.. even if done with the long term well being of the horse in mind. Unless the horse experiences some sort of short term satisfaction in relation to the action, or has been conditioned to consider it positive, it will not be considered positive in the mind of the horse.
Horses are very simple creatures that live in the moment. They can easily become conditioned to respond this way or that to certain stimulus (whether it be human action or environment), but they don't have the conscious ability to think big picture or think into the future. The training you are doing this very moment, the life they are living this very second, the surroundings and stimuli they are experiencing right here.. right now.. is what a horse knows, but they also carry with them history. They each have "baggage" from previous training and previous lives. They may not consciously remember the past, but their current responses are dictated by the past.
Sometimes this baggage takes a long time to unload, depending on the damage done and your individual horse... and sometimes there's not very much baggage but the horse has never been shown the positives to interacting with humans... and still other times a horse will be genetically very hard to motivate.. but with consistency, patience, and a desire to motivate your horse through a positive new relationship you will see amazing change in you and your horse.
I really hope some of this information can help you on your journey with your equine partner. Because every horse is different with a different background and every handler is different there is not going to be a "one solution for all", but with patience and dedication every horse can be inspired and motivated to work willingly with their handler. For some horses this may never look like jumping over ditches and running barrels, but for others it may! It's going to be up to you, the handler, to find a balance between expectations and reality as well as inspiring your horse's willingness.
In some cases it's going to take longer than others, but don't loose hope. Try new things, stay motivated, and find other like minded equestrians to help support you on your path!