How To Motivate Low-Energy Horses

Learn how to have a more willing horse without using force.

Riding unmotivated horses can be quite frustrating. Every five strides your instructor tells you to add “more leg”, or every time you try to relax your leg your horse does less. You are stuck squeezing, which then makes it impossible to sit well. Bigger spurs work one time, then you need even bigger ones. Going to the gym to be able to push even more doesn’t help.

Good news: It IS possible to turn things around and have a more willing horse. However, it will be a team effort. You will need to think about what you can do for your horse at least as much as you are thinking about what your horse needs to do for you. Creating a willingness to apply effort comes from the inside out. We need to gain our horse’s trust, win his heart and educate him with fairness.

The first step is to NOT call your horse lazy. Lazy implies there is something your horse “should” be doing, and really, all any horse should be doing is whatever they feel like doing. They didn’t ask for any of this. As soon as we come along and have an expectation, it becomes our responsibility to not only teach them what we would like them to do, but also inspire them to do it.

Courtesy, Karen Rohlf

What’s in it for them?

All low energy horses have one thing in common: They don’t see what’s in it for them. They don’t see any benefit to doing what you are asking. We need to think about what our horse will see as a benefit worth the work.

Immediate benefits for the horse during training sessions are rest and reward. There is also an immediate benefit if what we are asking for is actually fun for them. Does all your dressage have to be done in an arena or could it be done in more naturally inspiring areas? One of my core principles is that the basics of dressage (moving with freedom, relaxation, alignment and balance) should feel good to the horse. It is possible for a horse to feel better because of what you asked him to do. Are you doing dressage for your horse or to your horse?

The ultimate benefit of successful training is that your horse feels more balanced, powerful, agile, willing and proud than he did before your training. Together you have achieved something neither of you could do alone, and it feels good to both of you!

“Because I said so” is one of the least inspiring reasons for a horse to do something. With naturally low-energy horses, don’t make your goal merely obligingness and submissiveness. Make it your goal to help your horse feel like a rock star!

How to start improving

Inspiring unmotivated horses is about:

  • Figuring out why they are not putting in more effort
  • Staying relaxed and light in our bodies and minds
  • Giving them a reason to put in effort

Why isn’t your horse motivated to put in more effort?

If your horse isn’t doing what you ask, the first thing to check is if he really understands what you are asking. Maybe there is something you need to explain to him more clearly. Next, ask yourself whether what you are requesting is fair, reasonable and possible. If there is any doubt, go back to an easier version of your request and see if that helps.

If you are sure he understands, and that what you are asking for is fair, reasonable and possible, try to figure out which of the reasons below may be contributing to his lack of enthusiasm.

Possible reasons a horse may not be putting in effort:

  • Born that way: It’s just his nature.
    • Some horses are more mellow than others. That’s okay. It just means you must be excellent at motivational strategies.
  • Boredom
    • Look at your horse’s whole life. Is it possible he is bored? Does he need some variety? What might your horse like to do besides work all the time?
  • He has wisely learned to save his energy.
    • When your horse puts in effort, do you get greedy and ask for even more? Are his sessions always the same length no matter how hard he works? Do you keep practicing movements just for the sake of practicing them? These patterns will teach your horse to conserve his energy.
  • Desensitization to the aids
    • Is it possible that you have used such strong aids for so long that they have become meaningless to him? If your horse has become desensitized, you have to systematically re-educate him to specific aids.
  • Defensiveness (from pain or mistrust)
    • Is there a reason he should protect himself? Spurs can hurt and cause horses to brace. Bits can hurt and cause jaws, necks and shoulders to brace. Driving seat aids can hurt and cause horses to brace their backs. Always look for physical reasons for lack of effort and take a good honest look at whether you may be the cause of your horse’s physical discomfort. You need to help your unmotivated horse to feel open to suggestion, and you need to be extremely mindful with your aids and attitude towards him.
  • Conflicting/Confusing aids
    • Are you 100% comfortable with energy when it shows up, or are you asking your horse to go while holding him back at the same time? Are you, in any way, asking him to go and not go at the same time? Tight thighs, a braced lower back, pulling arms, gripping hands, clenched jaws, or fear and/or frustration in the rider can conflict with and cancel out any aids meant to increase energy and effort from the horse.
  • Learned Helplessness
    • Has your horse given up? Does he not see any benefit for putting in any effort? If your horse is constantly experiencing any of the one of the reasons listed above, or is experiencing several of them, he is at risk of mentally giving up and shutting down completely.

Taking a moment to think about why your horse may not be putting in maximum effort will help you create an appropriate solution.

Three Questions for Working with Low Energy Horses

To help you problem-solve more independently, below are three questions to ask yourself that will help you find solutions for low-energy horses of any type. Asking yourself these questions will help you be curious, which will dissolve frustration.

Question 1. Where’s the end point?

If horses think they are going to go forever, they would be smart to save their energy. Let them know that there are end points during your sessions. They need to trust that you won’t over-work them. It’s very counter-intuitive but give low-energy horses more time to rest. Prove to your horse that the sooner you feel him put in effort, the sooner he gets to stop. Reward effort more than perfection.

Examples of end points could be: Stopping your shoulder-in on the best step, even if he didn’t go all the way to the letter or transitioning out of the canter if he goes even one stride further without you needing to add leg. He needs to know you felt him try.

Whatever you do, don’t make the two common mistakes so many people make.

  1.  Thinking you can’t let him rest or he will fall asleep.
    Never giving your horse a break will only make him save his energy more. A real break means standing still on a totally loose rein. If your horse is worse after giving him a few moments rest (or a day off), it is a red flag and means he is not learning – he is simply letting you push his body around. Commit to engaging his mind, and he will be better after breaks. Standing still and doing nothing at the right moments helps horses process and understand what you want.
  2. Asking for more when they do give you effort.
    Many people take advantage of their horses when they finally do start working. It takes a lot of self-control to stop when your low-energy horse finally kicks into gear. However, if you teach him that the more he gives, the more you will take, he will start saving his energy again. I promise, if you prove to him that the sooner he puts in effort, the sooner he rests, he will put in more effort for longer.
Courtesy, Karen Rohlf

Question 2. Can you express your intention without tension?

Be a cheerleader for your horse rather than an angry boss. Don’t wait until you are mad or frustrated to get effective and clear. Low energy horses can test our emotional fitness, but we need to put our ego aside. Do your best to become a clear, effective leader who can laugh when things don’t go well and get curious about what your horse needs in that moment. Make sure you clear any tension arising from fears you may have. You can’t expect your horse to put in energy if you are afraid of his energy when it does show up.

Physically, you’ll need to practice the skill of using your leg aids or even your stick without creating tension in your thighs, seat or arms (or jaw, or neck, etc.). Don’t get caught pushing a horse who is not responding. Relax and make sure you are just as good at allowing your horse to move as you are at asking your horse to move.

Question 3. Why should he try?

What would make your horse happy to put in effort? Strive to find what is fun for him and what rewards he likes best. Reward could be a rest break, cookies, scratches or grazing for a moment. It could also be getting up in two-point and cantering out of the arena into a field. Likely, you have techniques for escalating your aids for pressure (stronger leg, taps with a stick, use of spurs, etc.) but how many techniques do you have for bringing your horse pleasure? Instead of always asking your horse to move away from something, what can you give him to move him towards it?

Often, I will get off and sit on the fence for a moment in the middle of a ride. I hide tubs of food near the arena in case I want to surprise my horse with a big treat. You want your horse thinking: “Wow, what did I do to deserve that?!”

Know what your horse likes and pay him well for his efforts. How do you thank your horse for what he does for you?

Courtesy, Karen Rohlf

Replace “Good boy” with “Thank you!”

With horses it seems there is an assumption of obligingness. We think horses should be doing things for us because they should be doing things for us. Personally, I don’t think they owe us anything, and it’s magical that they do anything for us.

Try approaching your next ride with curiosity and gratitude. Replace a few “Good Boys” with “Thank yous”. Your horse will feel the difference.

To learn more, visit https://dressagenaturally.net. You can also take a free quiz to get some advice from me on how your horse can be a happier athlete. You can find that here: https://dressagenaturally.net/quiz.

About Karen Rohlf

Courtesy, Karen Rohlf

Karen Rohlf, author and creator of Dressage Naturally, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She teaches students of all disciplines and levels from around the world in her clinics and virtual programs.

She is well known for training horses with a priority on partnership, a student-empowering approach to teaching and a positive and balanced point of view. She believes in getting to the heart of our mental, emotional, and physical partnership with our horses by bringing together the best of the worlds of dressage and partnership-based training.

Karen’s passion for teaching extends beyond horse training. Her “For The Love Of The Horse: Transform Your Business Seminar and Mastermind/Mentorship” programs are a result of her commitment to helping heart-centered equine professionals thrive so that horses may have a happier life in this industry.

You can learn more about Karen at https://dressagenaturally.net/.