When I was a kid, we used to call it “parade gait”…the bouncy jig our ponies performed when we all lined up in an open field before racing each other madly from one end to the other. We also thought all the prancing was great fun—our usually stoic four-legged babysitters showing a verve for life we didn’t often experience during our endless circles of the riding ring.
A couple of years down the road though, and dancing sideways—head tossing and rooting at the bit as you head out on a trail ride or out to the warm-up ring—isn’t exactly what most riders are looking for. Such behavior can be due to a hyper, nervous, or insecure personality—in either horse or rider! The bad habit may also develop because the horse has too much energy or because the rider always lets him get away with jigging instead of consistently insisting on a calm, forward walk.
It can be the rider’s instinct to try to “hold” the horse down to a walk, which usually only compounds the issue. Even worse, when the prancing and bit snatching annoys and frustrates the rider so much that she loses her temper and punishes the horse, the situation can quickly become a training and riding disaster.
How to Change This Habit
In her book “Good Horse, Bad Habits“, lifelong rancher and horsewoman Heather Smith Thomas provides solutions for over 130 common horse behavior and training problems, including jigging. Here are a few of her time-tested suggestions:
1. Some horses have too much nervous energy because of the way they are managed. When the horse is fed grain or other high energy, concentrated feed, and confined in a stall or small paddock without room to burn off all that extra energy, he’s like a coiled spring, bursting at the seams and ready to explode every time you ride him. Often the best way to take the edge off his exuberance is to feed less (or no) grain and more forage. If he is confined, give him more room to self-exercise so he can burn off some of that energy on his own. The best solution is 24-hour-a-day turnout.
2. Take some lessons and otherwise educate yourself to become a better rider. The horse that jigs and prances is not paying enough attention to your cues and body language, and you are not getting through to him properly. Most riders dealing with a prancing horse make the mistake of pulling on the reins and trying to control the horse through the bit. Constant pulling on the reins simply inspires the hyper-energetic horse to pull back or root at the reins, and it becomes a contest of wills and a tug of war.
When your horse won’t relax and stop prancing, rethink your tactics—especially your hands and body language. You need a lighter touch on the reins and finer-tuned cues. If you punish his mouth by pulling on him, he will become even more fretful and insecure. “Checking” with the reins should be a gentle give and take. The horse will respond better to a bit that is vibrating with subtle cues and communication.
3. Stay calm yourself (and relax). Make a continual conscious effort to be patient, and don’t let yourself get angry. The hyper horse that can’t relax and walk is often made worse by your emotions and corresponding physical actions: Your tenseness and frustration aggravate the horse’s feeling of worry, nervousness, or panic. This type of horse needs understanding and reassurance, not punishment. Your role is to communicate confidence and a sense of calm so the horse can start to trust your judgment and calm down himself. If you let yourself get frustrated or angry, the horse may construe your attitude as threatening, confrontational, or even frightening—and he’ll just be harder to control.
4. When you are tense and stiff you inadvertently punish the horse’s mouth with the bit and also tend to drive him forward with your body language because your seat and legs are rigid. Loosen up. Lean back a little and try to become as relaxed as a rag doll. If you lean back a little instead of forward, your body weight acts as an anchor, dragging a little behind the horse’s center of gravity, and he’ll tend to slow down. Be careful not to hang on the reins for balance.
5. Start a riding session by having the horse work at an extended trot for a while, but do not let him canter or lope. When you sense that he’s ready to relax a bit, ask him to slow to a walk. Try to keep him walking calmly on a loose rein. If he starts prancing again, push him back into an extended trot and keep him trotting until you again sense he might be ready to slow down, and ask him gently to come to a walk. If every time he starts prancing he is made to trot and work harder, he will usually start to rethink his need to hurry and be more content to stay at a walk.
End the lesson as soon as the horse responds by walking nicely for a good distance—once all the way around the arena, for example. Dismount and lead him back to his stall or paddock so he doesn’t have a chance to prance again, and you can end the training session on a good, calm, positive note.
After a few days of this type of work, in which he is rewarded by being able to walk calmly with no pressure, he most likely will begin to jig less and walk more. It may be hard to believe, but if you let him go more and more on a loose rein, the horse’s nervous, charge-forward compulsion will ease and disappear. Slowly you’ll be able to extend those calm walking moments.
6. Another way to communicate with (and calm) the horse that’s always trying to prance and jig is to keep your rein actions and body language at “walking rhythm.” This means that when the horse is trying to trot, make your body and rein cues stay in “walking mode”: your hands giving and taking as they would with the horse’s head movement at the walk (rather than still and steady), and your seat bones moving vigorously in time with a walking rhythm. It’s harder for the horse to trot if your body is moving in different time than his.
7. Defuse the prancing, excited horse by asking him to work at a variety of tasks and maneuvers. Request lots of turns and circles, and make continual changes of direction. Have him put his energy into serpentines and figure eights to take his mind off rushing around the arena or hurrying down the trail. If necessary, turn him around and head in the other direction. He will soon realize that all this extra stuff is a lot of work—and it is easier to settle down and walk.
This excerpt from “Good Horse, Bad Habits”, by Heather Smith Thomas, was reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.