Episode 180: Help, my horse started laying down while riding
What would you do if your horse started to lie down while you were riding?
Here are some reasons a horse might try to lay down when riding:
Horse is interested in rolling in water, mud or sand.
Horse is itchy from sweat or bugs.
Horse is colicky.
Horse has discovered that laying down is rewarded.
In this episode, I cover these and a few more possibilities and I share the cue that both discourages, redirects…and is the ‘end’ cue for horses that are trained to lie down on purpose.
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Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] If you look at it like he’s very observant, can you be more observant? And so you can then interrupt that pattern of thinking.
Announcer: [00:00:13] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill. This is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:33] Hi. I’m Stacey Westfall and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast is all question and answer. Today’s question is about a horse who has started laying down while being ridden. Let’s listen to the question.
Caller: [00:00:56] Hey, I have a unique issue with my horse. I got him as a rescue horse a couple of years ago. He was broke out by a cowboy kind of guy. He’s been really great as a performance horse. We’ve been playing polo off of him, and he’s been really good. Except the spring he decided to start possibly a new habit? Because he has started laying down and it’s the third time he’s done it. And I’m starting to get a little concerned that it’s a new trick he’s trying to play to get out of work or to play games. He’s very like active, gelding. He definitely does play games. He does a lot of things to try to intimidate his rider or to get out of work. Even, you know, he doesn’t do it as much during performance, but he definitely will try to see what he can do to not do arena work. I guess if you have any feedback on how to get him to stop laying down. It’s a big safety concern. At least if I ride English, I can get out. But when he did it Western, I was stuck for a second and couldn’t get out of the saddle and there was like an actual fear he was going to impale me with the horn. So I’m starting to get a little concerned about that. I do want to be able to just relax and enjoy him, but if he gets bored and starts rolling, I’m–that’s going to be a problem. Thank you for your time. Love your podcast.
Stacy Westfall: [00:02:23] Thanks for the question. And I have to put a disclaimer at the beginning of this, because I promise that if you hear me and it sounds like I’m laughing or I’m really humored, it’s because I’m reliving my past through this question. Even just this week, I gave baths to my minis and the three miniature horses, they’ve got some training, but I haven’t spent as much time with them. And two out of the three, when I was leading them from where I washed them into where I wanted to tie them, we had to walk through a corner of our indoor arena that has nice fluffy sand in it. And two out of the three I could barely–actually one, two did get down on their side and then I got them up because they really wanted to go down and roll. And growing up, my pony that I got when I was six, her name was Misty. She would want to lay down and roll in water. And that could be a very large mud puddle or a water crossing, stream crossing, plain old mud that was just some standing water, she wanted to roll. And then even when my kids, the first pony that we got our kids, her name was Paige. But apparently, we said, Paige the Pony a lot. So they always called her Paige the Pony. It was like a very full name. And I remember one day they were riding her around and she just plopped down. So I think it’s it’s an interesting trip down memory lane because those are the beginning memories I have of this happening. And then I have some more advanced ones that we’re going to talk about that maybe fit your situation a little bit better. But I just wanted to say that if I sound like I’m slightly humored, I promise it’s because of all of my memories around this that came up to the surface when I heard your question. Now, before I jump in and–and go more directly the angle that I want to go with answering this particular question, I do want to pause for just a moment and say for everybody who’s listening that if you have a horse that wants to lay down, you know, leading, riding, or whatever. A very common thing to go to is wondering if it’s health-related. Is it colic, for example? And what I think is very interesting about that idea is that if you go there in your mind, it’s not wrong to think, Oh no, something could be wrong. However, let’s just hold on to the idea of colic. Even with colic, you don’t want the horse to go down and roll. So either way, whether it’s leading a horse like I was with the minis and they want to lay down and roll or whether it is, you know, you think the horse could be colic and that’s the first thing that pops into your mind. Just know that unless you are trying to train it on purpose, it’s okay to keep them moving.
Stacy Westfall: [00:05:29] I’m going to accept the description that the caller left and just kind of summarize it as, it sounds like a very creative gelding. And with that in mind, as I’m answering the question, I want to just discuss how a horse could possibly come up with this as a question. I’m going to give you some examples of it and then also discuss a couple of the other things that were left specifically in the message. So I already mentioned all the small horses in my life that have had me thinking about horses laying down. But the first time I truly saw this as a accidentally trained response, or let’s put it a different way, a response that the horse had that was then accidentally rewarded and became problematic was actually when I was in college. And if you remember, I went to an equine college. And so not only was I training horses, I was also seeing lots of other students train horses. And the first horse that I saw accidentally trained to lay down was a horse that was learning to spin. So we’re talking about a reining horse, and it was being trained by a student. It was actually owned by this same student. And for those of you who don’t know when you’re training a training horse to spin, there is a stage when the horses start getting really good with their footwork and they start carrying a lot of the responsibility. Meaning, don’t picture in your head somebody rushing a horse into a spin. Picture that the horse is committed itself, like the horse is like, yes, I know the answer. And when they get to that stage, that’s the stage when they are more likely to get dizzy. It’s like they haven’t quite learned how to spot or whatever it is that the horses do, because eventually, they don’t get dizzy at all. And so when the horses go through this stage where they do get dizzy, a lot of times they’re spinning and you don’t know they’re dizzy until you say, whoa, because it’s sort of like you standing in the middle of your living room just spinning around at a moderate speed. Typically, they’re not even going super fast yet, but you just stay at that moderate speed for, let’s say six, seven, eight revolutions, whatever it takes. And you might be aware of getting a little bit dizzy, but a lot of times you don’t fully know it until you stop. And then when you stop, that’s a lot of times when you realize that you’re dizzy because you’ve just been going at this, just medium speed. And this what happened with this horse was that this horse was spinning at that moderate speed, carrying itself nicely. And the rider said, Whoa! And the horse stopped. And a lot of times they’ll just kind of like, you know, do what you would do, kind of like wobble left and right and that’s it. But this one kind of did that, and then it just kind of buckled its knees and laid down. And it just laid down nice and peacefully, just like if you watch one lay down to lay in the sun. And then the student stepped off and started laughing and all the students that were around started laughing. And I was watching and I can’t remember, I was probably laughing too, I’m not sure. But I remember thinking this is a unique situation and my brain has always been wired to kind of watch how these horses are processing things. And so this horse was laying there and everyone’s standing there laughing. And this goes on for maybe, I don’t know, five, 10 minutes? Like the horse, he just stayed there. He was just like, Hey, I’m chill. Which is another clue, by the way. I’m going to tell you about another horse and you’ll hear where this fits in. So this horse is just there, no big deal. And eventually, the horse stands up and life goes on. Until the next day. And the next day the rider was spinning the horse around and this horse offered to lay down. And because the horse had gotten dizzy the day before and had laid down the day before, when the student felt the horse get that funny feeling, they backed off like a question, like, like opened up the aids kind of went like, what’s happening? And the horse laid down and the student stepped off and everybody laughed. And then it happened again. And this very quickly, I mean, literally from the first time when the horse accidentally, you know, went down, like got dizzy, decided to lay down, which I’ve seen a lot of horses and they don’t typically do that. And so this one laid down and everybody laughed. And it was just amazing to me to see how fast that horse held on to that concept. So if they discover this really fun trick of laying down and it is bringing joy to everyone around, then a lot of times it’s very easy to see where the horse could get the idea that this is a good idea.
Stacy Westfall: [00:10:53] Now I’m going to switch around and talk about one of my own personal horses, Newt. And I’ve talked a little bit about him before, and I’m going to go back to the first time that I kind of ran into a little bit of something like this with him. And I was teaching him to hobble for the first time. And I had already taught him to lead by putting a rope around each leg. And I taught him to lead. And so I could lead him with his right front and lead him with his left front, lead him with his left hind and lead him with his right hind. Forward, backward, sideways, so he knew how to give to pressure, which is what I do before I hobble them. And then I went ahead and I hobbled him and when I went to walk away, he went to take a step to follow me. He went to take a step and he lost his balance just a little bit. Not hard or anything. He kind of, like, wobbled and then he just laid down. Now, keep in mind what I said about the other horse. What I already knew about Newt because I raised him was that he was very mellow. And he just kind of was like, Oh, I’m kind of–I think I’ll just lay down. And he laid down. And I didn’t think it was that big a deal. And I unhobbled him and he stood up after I asked him to get up because he was that kind of horse. He just kind of laid there. He was very chill. Never happened again. No big deal. Had no side effects. Didn’t look like anything. But if you think about it, I already knew that he was very calm. So like when he was laying down, it was like he literally, like kind of lost his balance and then was like, oh, look. And I remember him as a baby. I remember him running around and falling down and then being one that would just kind of lay there for a little bit and like, play with the dirt, nibble some grass, and just really chill. And so when I think about the horses that are even more prone to this, they’ve got this confidence about them. They’ve got–sometimes–like Newt had kind of this confident and this chill. But again, these are actually the ideal horses, if you want to teach them to lay down. And they can actually be the horses that will accidentally learn it a little bit faster. If I go over to a totally different horse like Popcorn, Popcorn was a much more high-energy horse. And even when I was teaching him to lay down, I would tap him under the belly and I’d try him to bring all of his legs together and–and taught him to lay down. He was very like, no. And he would even go down like onto his front knees and then not commit all the way down because he didn’t necessarily love the idea where Newt was like, not a problem at all. So we’ve got a little bit of mindset and then we’ve got this opportunity, whatever it is. Like with my pony, it was mud. With the horse in college he got a little bit off balance and just kind of laid down nice and pretty. Newt did that when I had the hobbles on him. And then later on with Newt, much later on, years later, I had actually taught him to lay down from a cue on the ground, and I had committed to not teaching that as a cue when riding, which is why I chose to put the cue as a tap under the middle of the belly. And so I taught my horses to do that. And then when I was riding him, I just never did it. And I committed to not doing it because I knew that down the road I might sell him. At any time you kind of install one of these buttons if you want to look at it that way, it’s another opportunity for them to be able to ask a different question. And so I was thinking that I might sell him down the road and didn’t necessarily know whether or not I wanted all these different buttons installed. And so I was like, I just won’t ask him when I’m riding him, it’ll be fine. And then one day I was riding him, getting ready to do a lead departure from a standstill. And to do a lead departure from a standstill I actually want to cue them to kind of pull their feet together so that they’re very prepared for this movement to go forward into–from a standstill to a–a lope. And I was messing around with either very loose rein or bridleless. I can’t remember right now. I remember where I was sitting on him in Texas, but I can’t remember whether or not. But I had a really loose rein because he dropped his head down really low when I asked him to move over. And it was like in a split second, before I could even register that it had happened, in a split second he kind of calculated, Oh, my feet are together, my head is down. Another option that we do in this case is lay down. And so right about the time I was getting ready to do the cue for the lead departure, he was like, This is the same position we do right before I lay down on the ground, let me try that. And he just buckled. And he buckled down onto his knees and as he was going to his knees, this is when I realized this was happening and I squeezed him. But at that point, he was on his knees and he’s not–he wasn’t a really energetic horse. So I thought. Uh, he’s not one of those horses that’s going to kind of jump up from his knees, because this is also one of the reasons why he’s prone to laying down. So I stepped off him, meaning I dismounted while he was bowing on both knees, basically, and immediately asked him to trot forward. Because I was like, I don’t want this to be something that he thinks over and over again and yet we were kind of stuck in the middle of it. And so I stepped off and immediately moved him forward and then got back on and put him in the same situation. But as soon as I put him in that same situation, I was more prepared the second time. So this is becoming part of the answer. So listen to how this goes. So I moved his hip over, same spot in the arena, same everything, same loose rein, moved his hip over same way. And this time I felt the thought go through his body because I felt the beginning of that buckle. And I went. Bah bah bah bah bah bah bah bump, and sent him forward into a trot. But this time again, I was ready. The first time I wasn’t ready for it. The next time I was. And he hesitated about the trot because he kind of really thought, I kind of like the idea of laying down. If laying down is an option–and he’s like, lay down looks like a pretty good option. And so at the end of the day, when I look at the question that you sent in, the answer to me is that the true problem is a lack of forward motion on cue.
Stacy Westfall: [00:17:47] When I look at all the scenarios that I’ve laid out for you, beginning with leading my minis across the indoor, the first thing they did when they were thinking about laying down was they started to lag behind. They weren’t truly leading up with me. And depending on how quick it happens, you know, they’re kind of leading and then you feel a little bit of tug and then boom, they’re down. But it’s the lack of forward motion. Or look at it the other way. If I was able to keep them moving, they wouldn’t go down. And when I look back at my six-year-old self, my mom was asking me to keep my pony moving. But I was more likely to just start crying. Now, this is also interesting. I was like six, seven, eight, maybe years old, you know, depending on it happened way more than once. Even at that young age, I was able to identify what my pony felt like before she would lay down. For example, with her, she would always stop and pour the ground. Unfortunately, even though my mom is telling me what to do, I would just start crying because I was already going to like this is a problem and this isn’t going to end well. And then I was making that happen because I wasn’t actually trying to get her to go forward. So if you look at the minis laying down, lack of forward motion. I look at my pony laying down when I was younger, lack of forward motion. I look at the pony my kids were–my son Joshua was sitting on when she laid down that he wasn’t even trying to get her to move. She was standing there, she was sweaty, it was hot, laid down. I look at Newt as soon as he started that thought process, which literally didn’t end with him laying down, it just ended up with him going down to his knees. But then because I had done all the training, I could see the thought process. Your horse has already laid down. You don’t need to know where it came from to be able to unpack it backwards. You’ve experienced it three times. Your job now is to recall everything that was going on as that was about to happen. Because if you add a trot cue as you start to feel that motion because there’s a very distinct motion before they drop, there’s a very distinct feeling because they have to prepare their body, they have to bring that together. They have to do certain things to be able to go down into that. That’s when you need to know if the trot cue will work right then that’s what you need to work on. In the spinning horse. It was kind of interesting because even when we’re working on spinning the horses, we can still ask the horses to move forward. But the biggest problem, and I think the story about the spinning horse illustrates it the best, is that it was very accidental because the horse laid down and we’re even going to say for let’s just say for a legitimate reason, kind of like Newt with the hobbles. It was like, lost the balance, chose laying down, there we go. It’s not a problem. Unless we start leaving it there as almost a rewarded situation, which is very much what happened in the spin horse. And it happened over and over and over again. It wasn’t even just that the first time was like, that’s funny. Like, look at–he chose this. It was more that the horse was like, this really, really works. And then the second time again, it was very much this really, really works and it just doesn’t take very much for them to get the idea, some of them to get this idea in their head, that this is a very good place to be.
Stacy Westfall: [00:21:18] So if you can feel for what the horse is doing right before it goes down, that’s going to be when you can begin the forward cue. Some horses, like Newt, the first time I didn’t catch it because I wasn’t feeling for it, but the second time I felt him asking it and I was very insistent that he go up to the trot. I’m going to pretend that you for a moment did ask him to go forward. So first of all, full disclosure, maybe you didn’t even think to ask him to go forward because you could have defaulted more to like the shocked version of like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe he’s offering this or doing this. But I want you to think, do you believe that you could ask him to go forward into, let’s just say, into a trot? It can just be forward into a bigger walk. But just ask yourself the question. Would he respond in that moment to a trot? So I’m going to pretend for just a moment that you did ask him and he said no. Ignored you and laid down anyway. This is more typically the spot where people get stuck. Like right after that first shocking, like, what-is-happening?-moment, the first time. Where people sometimes get stuck is like, Well, what do I do if they’re starting to lay down and I’m asking them to go forward and they won’t go forward? That’s when you really need to review and look at whether or not this horse has good forward motion. And you left me the information that he’s a polo horse. And I don’t have a lot of experience with polo. Have watched it. Understand the idea. I’m going to guess that it might seem like he has good forward motion when he’s doing his job. I’m doing air quotes around job. So it might look like he has good forward motion when he’s doing his job but I also want you to look for all the places, any place where he might question going forward. And it’s possible that it’s only in this one moment. And you–I’m just going to pretend that you ask him to go forward and he says no, and he tries to lay down anyway and he just says no to you. But typically it is much more common that if the horse says no to going forward right there, it’s much more common that you’ll be able to find other places where the horse says no to that, like crossing mud, like crossing a tarp, like even not wanting to lead into a horse trailer. Like, kind of like a refusal to go forward it doesn’t even have to be ridden. But a lot of times when we have these horses that have very forward careers–like Polo seems like a very forward career like barrel racing. And I grew up doing a lot of barrel racing. And most people with barrel horses, if you ask them if their horse has good forward motion, they’re going to say, obviously. I just ran a blank, blank, however many seconds run. But the question isn’t whether the horse can go fast, it’s whether the horse will move forward on cue in 100% of the situations you’ve come up with. And where I consistently, even back then and now, have seen barrel horses fail that is entering the arena. If you go watch 50 barrel horses run, it would not be uncommon to have horses that are saying no to entering the arena. And just because they run fast when they do go, it’s that moment when they’re saying no to the aid that is the tell that they don’t truly go forward on cue. And so a lot of times when people look around, they start being able to find these little moments. A totally different way to look at it that’s the same thing is like if your horse is hesitant to go from the walk to the trot or from the trot to the lope. There can be spots like that. But I’m just curious about this horse because he’s kind of going to fall into one of two camps. Either you just didn’t occur to you to ask him to go, go, go when you felt that coming, or it’s also that he said no. Now also think back and again. It’s there’s nothing wrong like if the first time that they go to lay down, you know, everybody’s, like, shocked and you kind of laugh and whatever happens, that–it–none of this has to be a problem. It’s just that the more times they get rewarded for it, the stronger the urge for them to try it will be. And so if they do go all the way down or even like my example with Newt getting down on his knees, the answer is as soon as I do get like–I dismounted and it was like, go, go, go, go, go. Like I’m like, get up and trot right now. Trot a circle around me. And, you know, it’s like the answer just has to be, get up quickly and go. Because that’s going to make it less enticing to go down because it’s actually kind of work to get down and get back up again. So these are some of the things that I want you to double-check with your horse.
Stacy Westfall: [00:26:29] The last thing I want to talk about for just a minute is that you left in your message the idea that–you said, I’m starting to get a little concerned that it’s a new trick. And I want to introduce the idea of observation. I think you might get along with him even better if you say, Oh, he has made a new observation. He has observed that when he does this, when he offers to lay down, people respond like this. And the reason I’m going to encourage you to think that way is because your horse sounds very creative and creative horses have really active, curious minds and they notice things. They notice little things, they notice patterns. Creative people are very much like this. Creative people take different ideas and combine them together. And so when we have a creative horse, he’s noticing the little things, and creative horses oftentimes become the best people trainers because they notice our patterns and they notice how to interrupt our patterns and they notice how to get us to do different things. And so this observation skill that your horse has can either be a superpower if you harness it and you start to see how he’s seeing things so that you can change some of the things that are going on. You can be like, Oh, I see what you’re doing there. I see that. You see that. You know, when I back off right here, you think that you’re allowed to lay down. When we’re going in this spot and this is happening, you start to see it through his eyes, but then you start to say, Aha, you see all this? And now how about if I ask you to trot right now? So you can start playing around with it if you look at it like he’s very observant. Can you be more observant? And so you can then interrupt that pattern of thinking. Because if you don’t start taking control and interrupting that pattern of thinking, a lot of times these are the horses that get labeled a total nuisance because they are very good at detecting patterns in people. They’re very good at detecting the ways that they can, you know, let’s just say trigger us like so if the laydown is triggering something and you’re not sure how to handle it, a lot of times that question, when you leave them on hand, they’re like, Oh, look, I found an opening. And they’re just observing you and they’re just asking a lot of questions. You just happen to have a very creative horse. And again, I just want to say that it is possible, and some people really get concerned that if the horse offers to lay down, that it could be something physical like colic or some kind of a health thing. Just remember if this is truly colic, asking the horse to get up and continue moving is the better thing you can do and it will prevent any accidental training. It doesn’t stop you from still collecting more information and deciding whether this horse is in pain or not. It just prevents the accidental training from letting the horse stop and lay down while you wonder if he needs a vet because we need to keep him up anyway so that we don’t get him rolling over so we don’t get twisted problems.
Stacy Westfall: [00:29:55] And one last thing that you might find interesting. Remember I said that I had decided not to ask my horse Newt to lay down when mounted because I didn’t want him to offer that in case I sold him? After he offered it spontaneously because he connected the dots on his own after he offered that on his own, and I said, No, that’s not allowed. Go ahead and go forward. After I had already dealt with the “problem” happening when I was riding him, I then turned around and changed my stance on it. And I thought since you offered to lay down and I already had to address, No, don’t do that. It’s totally allowable for me to now ask you to lay down and then also install the not now cue. So follow this line of thinking. I turned around and instead of avoiding the lay down when riding him, I decided to ask him to lay down when I wanted to and just be very clear about my No, not now. Don’t lay down unless I ask you cue. So whether you were leading a horse and it offers to lay down and you don’t want it to, or whether you’re riding a horse and it offers to lay down and you don’t want it to. And even if you train the horse to lay down during groundwork or ridden work, you still can teach these horses, No, not now. Especially if you think of it, if you taught a horse to back up, you don’t just accept them choosing to back up any time that they want to. You say, I know I taught you to back up, but this is the go-forward cue. That’s the same thing that you do for the horse who’s offering to lay down. Thanks again for the question and the trip down memory lane. Thanks to everyone for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.
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