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Jigging
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Jigging

In my opinion, one of the most annoying vices a horse can develop is jigging. It can be very frustrating trying to get a horse to flat walk once he has started doing this. The best thing to do is to stop this vice before it gets started. There are several things you can do to discourage your horse from starting to jig. If you're on trail, never go home at a gait faster than a walk. Trotting, cantering, or worse- galloping a horse toward home will not only predispose him to jigging, but to bolting as well. Besides avoiding bad habits, walking your horse home gives him a cool-down period. A cool-down period will keep him from stiffening up, which can lead to lameness. It also insures he is completely cooled out when he eats, making colic and/or ulcers much less likely. If you're doing arena work, making sure the horse isn't too high is a big plus. Turning out or lunging the horse before you ride will help with this. You can also make walking the last thing you do in your session. Besides giving your horse the important cool-down, this will make him associate walking calmly with being finished, which will make success much more likely. When going somewhere new with your horse, you should also make sure he's not too fresh. Exercising him before you leave, even if it's the day before will be helpful.

 Okay, that's all well and good, but what if your horse is already jigging? What do you do then? The key to stopping your horse from jigging is to fully understand the problem. There are three aspects to this key: 1) mental, 2) physical, and 3) practical. Let's look at the first aspect.

 Jigging is due to nerves. The horse isn't being disobedient. He isn't challenging you. He's not being stupid. This is very important. JIGGING IS ALWAYS ANXIETY-DRIVEN. So your job  as a rider is to get him to relax. Regardless of the method you use with an anxious horse, he's not going to relax until you do. If you get aggravated at him, he's going to sense it and this will only heighten his anxiety. If you get angry, impatient, or tense it's only going to add to the problem. So YOUR attitude is a big part of the cure.

 The key to the physical aspect is this: A RELAXED HORSE WILL ALWAYS CARRY HIS HEAD DOWN AND HIS NECK STRETCHED OUT PARALLEL TO THE GROUND. When I use the term "relaxed", I mean completely at ease. A horse can be calm and on his toes, but a relaxed horse is fully let down. Picture a western pleasure horse or an English horse on a free rein. So to get a horse to stop jigging you must encourage him to drop his head. I'm not talking about forcing his head down. A tie-down or similar equipment will only cause resistance in an anxious horse, which completely defeats the purpose. If you can get him to drop his head through asking, this will help him relax. There have been scientific studies done which prove if a person smiles, even when he or she isn't happy, their body will release feel-good chemicals that actually make the person feel more like smiling. I firmly believe that this same type of thing happens with the horse. If he feels relaxed, he drops his head; If you can get him to drop his head, he will feel more relaxed.

 Another thing to keep in mind is that to go from a walk to a trot or a canter, a horse has to raise his head, at least at the beginning of the stride. Even a western pleasure horse's head comes up at the beginning of the canter. So if you raise your horse's head, he is more likely to want to break out of a walk. Even a very well trained horse will go from relaxed to calm if you pick up his head.

 So with these things in mind, let's look at what generally happens when a  horse starts jigging. Jigging is usually caused (at least in the beginning) with the horse walking faster than the rider wishes. Since the rider wants to slow down, he pulls back on the reins, right? That's all well and good, but if the rider pulls hard enough or long enough, the horse is going to raise his head. Raising the horse's head will make him more on his toes, and if he's already anxious, will only heighten this anxiety. Raising his head also shortens his stride. The combination of heightened anxiety and shortened stride will create a bouncy, uncomfortable walk. If the rein pressure continues, the horse will usually try to break into a short-striding, bouncy trot or canter, and may start to go sideways, or even backwards if the rider continues pulling on the reins. It becomes a vicious cycle; the more the horse wants to go, the more the rider pulls on him and the more anxious the horse becomes. The more anxious the horse becomes, the more he wants to speed up. The more he tries to speed up, the more frustrated the rider gets and the more he pulls on the reins. And on and on.

 To see how to avoid this, let's go back to the beginning. Your horse wants to go faster than you do. How do you slow him down without picking up his head?  There are several methods you can use to achieve this. These methods are the practical aspect of our key. The first method to try is "check and release". Pull back until you feel the horse BEGIN to slow, then release your rein pressure. Since your horse still wants to go faster, he will try to speed up again. This is okay. Simply check his forward movement with the reins until you feel him begin to slow, and release. If you keep repeating this in a calm and easy manner, many horses will give in. The keys to this method are timing and lightness. Check the horse as soon as he BEGINS to speed up. Release the pressure as soon as he BEGINS to slow down. To start with, use the lightest pressure possible, gradually increasing it until your horse BEGINS to slow, and release. If the horse's head comes up, you're using too much pressure.

 If your horse's head comes up with even the slightest amount of pressure, several things may be going on. Your horse's teeth may need to be floated. If he has sharp points on his teeth, pressure from the bit may cause them to dig into his mouth or cheeks, which will cause him pain and anxiety. Your bit may be too severe. Try using a lighter version of it. Your bit may just not be suited to your horse. For example, even though snaffle bits are thought to be less severe than curb bits, if your horse is used to a straight bar curb bit, he may not like a snaffle mouthpiece. If the horse's bit and/or teeth aren't bothering him, his problem may be anticipation. He's been held back so much that he anticipates that this is what's going to happen this time (even if it isn't) and this raises his anxiety. With anticipation, even the slightest pressure on the reins will trigger jigging. There's a couple of things you can try here. One thing that I've had big success with is to check the horse using one rein only and alternating reins. I try to time this with his feet. When his right foot comes forward, I check with the right rein. With the left foot coming forward, I use the left rein. Remember, as soon as you feel the horse begin to slow, release the pressure on both reins until you feel him begin to speed up again, and repeat the sequence.

 If alternating your reins doesn't work, you can try circling. The most effective method of circling is using a "lead rein". A lead rein is similar to the direct rein of an English horse, but in the direct English rein you pull back on the rein while in a lead rein you pull to the side, moving your hand out away from your body, as if you're leading the horse around the circle. Again, use the lightest pressure possible, and keep your hand as low as possible to encourage your horse to drop his head. As soon as your horse relaxes, let him walk forward out of the circle. If he speeds up again, no big deal. Just calmly repeat the process. Try experimenting with different size circles to see which size works best for your horse. If you don't have room to circle (like on a narrow trail), turn your horse one way (using either a neck rein or a lead rein), and when he responds, turn him the other way, alternating back and forth until he slows down.

 In all these methods, remember that you're trying to get your horse's head to drop. When using one rein (alternating reins or lead rein), be sure you are not tightening your opposite hand and inadvertently raising your horse's head. Unless you are actively engaging a rein, there should be a little slack between his mouth and your hand. This is true even with English horses. These exercises have to be done on a free rein. With an English horse, you can work to reestablish contact with his mouth once the jigging problem is solved. Remember: your main goal in all these exercises is NOT to get your horse to walk. Your main goal is to get the horse to drop his head and relax. He will walk automatically as a result of this.

 Now that we have a good understanding of the mental and physical dynamics of jigging, along with some practical tools, we need to put them into practice to achieve success. The first thing to keep in mind is that your initial session may take quite a while. You need to be prepared for this, because the first lesson is by far the most important. It is vital that you establish: that you're not going to get mad; that  you're not going to get rough; but that you will continue to ask your horse to drop his head and walk over and over and over until he gives in or until the end of time, whichever comes first. (Don't worry, it won't take near that long.) If you've been consistent and persistent in your dealings with your horse in the past, the second session should go much more quickly than the first. If you've been wishy-washy with him in the past, it may take a little longer to convince him you're serious this time. But even so, the second session should take less time than the first to reach success.

 It's important to understand what I mean by "success". Our ultimate goal is to get the horse to walk calmly and quietly in all situations, but that's not going to happen in one session. This whole thing is a process and will require multiple sessions. If the "check and release" method works well for your horse, you just have to be consistent with your cues, making sure you ALWAYS use them when needed. If your horse is too anxious for this simple method to work, then you need to think of "success" in a different way. To keep you (and your horse) from getting frustrated, you need to meet small, doable goals each session. Throughout this process, but especially in the initial sessions, you need to live by the motto: LESS IS MORE. Let me explain what I mean.

 When I start with a horse that jigs, I consider getting one or two walk steps as success. Even if I think he will give me a few more steps before his nerves come back up, after two steps, I quit right there. I get off him, I praise him to the skies, and I put him up. The psychology behind this is that he gets a big reward for very little effort. It's easy. This will tend to lower his anxiety and make him more relaxed going into our next session. It will also make him more motivated to give in. Horses are practical. A horse will quickly understand that it's much easier to walk a couple of steps and be done than to jig around the ring with his rider pestering him to walk until the end of time.

 What we're aiming for here is to make small, easy successes for the horse which sets the stage for the final success of our goal. After a few sessions where the horse easily gives us a couple of walk steps, it's time to up the ante. We ask for a few more steps. Once your horse walks two steps, ask for 3. If he gives you 3 easily, then ask for 4, and so on. Be sure to reward him instantly and largely for any success. If you get stuck on a certain number of steps, or if you can feel him tightening up after a certain amount, you can try a series instead of increasing the number of steps at one time. Ask for a slightly smaller amount of steps than you've been getting (say, three), and then reward him by ceasing your cues, and by verbal praise, a treat, letting him stop if he wants, or even letting him resume jigging without interference for a short period. Then ask for another series of 3 steps and repeat the reward when he complies. You can gradually increase the number of times you ask for a walk in your sessions. You can also ask for a shorter and shorter interval between each bout of walking in your session. Once he relaxes into this, you can try gradually increasing the number of steps again. If your horse has been progressing right along, and suddenly hits a plateau or even starts backsliding, you may be progressing too fast for him. Go back to an earlier goal, even if it's the first one, and start over. Take your time, and he will soon be back to his former level.

 Every horse is different, so you will have to experiment with the different methods and steps listed here to see what works best for your horse. You will have to find the reward that works best for your individual horse as well. But if you are calm, persistent, and consistent in asking the horse to drop his head and walk, and if you make each session's goal easy for him, you should soon have a horse that walks calmly.

 As always, if anything is not clear, or if you have any questions about what I've written, please feel free to ask. I have always been very successful in getting a horse to drop his head and walk, but I found it extremely difficult to write about how to achieve this in a general manner. If I know the particulars about a certain horse (where he jigs most, what sets him off, etc.), I can be much more specific about what might help. So if you have any questions about a particular horse, please feel free to ask, and I may be able to offer further assistance.     

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I have been riding horses since I was two years old, and started earning money for riding while in my teens. After high school, I went to an accredited riding academy, and have done nothing but work with horses ever since I graduated (in 1973). I have moved all over the country with my jobs, worked with all kinds of different horses, and learned many different styles of riding. Currently, I am working as a pony girl (hence the pen name) on the racetrack in Louisiana. So, as you can imagine, I have had a very well rounded (still ongoing) education in horsemanship. I consider myself very lucky to have met so many knowledgeable people in so many different disciplines over the years. And now, I would like to share some of the things I've learned, with the readers of Of Horse.

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  1. Margaret B
    Very interesing - I really learned a lot.
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    1. PonyGirl
      PonyGirl
      Thanks, Margaret!
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  2. autumnap
    autumnap
    Great post with loads of really useful information. Voted
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    1. PonyGirl
      PonyGirl
      Thanks, autumnap!
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  3. Teresacalgary
    Hi I have just signed up and read your article about jigging. I have been looking online for some information as to how to stop it, but jigging mostly relates to trail riders and so it is not addressed for other situations. I greatly enjoyed your article and it was very informative. However, I am not clear on one aspect. To give some background, I do ride English and my mare was trained Western Pleasure. Over the course of 2 years I have gotten her used to leg and contact. Her teeth have been done, I use a mild, thick snaffle and I have been working hard to get her to accept both leg and bit contact. BTW, I have been told by several instructors that I have kind hands, just so that is clear on the onset. I do desperately want her to respond to me under saddle as she is wonderful on the ground and very responsive. But running through the aids, jigging and resorting to a canter (BTW I have not cantered her very much as I feel I have no control sometimes, I am 59, not timid but not overly brave) I have found it very difficult to progress because each time I ask for some transition or something new, she tenses up the jigging commences and then I tense up. So on to my question; Am I to understand that I saddle her up and perform the exercise, praise her if she walks with her head down and then off of her and try again the next day. Don't ask for any bit contact at all and just try and get her to relax. What happens when she is relatively calm, after having done this for however long it takes, then do I ask for some contact? I do expect the jigging will be back again, so do I revisit the exercise a bit in the hopes that she will calm and then ask for contact. I know it will be different for every horse, but do want this to work. Thank you for your help.
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    1. PonyGirl
      PonyGirl
      Hi. Sorry it's taken so long for me to get back to you, but the race meet has started and I work 10+ hour days Wednesday through Saturday. To answer your question: yes, at first I would get off the mare as soon as she relaxes and walks. The first day I would unsaddle her and quit. After that, since she is happy with you on the ground, you can dismount, give her a break and then remount and do the exercise again. The main thing is to make it easy for her. Ask little and reward big. The reward should be determined by your horse's individual preferences- such as a treat, a favorite scratch spot, etc. Your main goal should be making the ride pleasant for her and you. At this point you should not be worrying about correct leg aids, contact, etc. Relaxation for both her and you should be your only goal. Since I haven't seen you or your mare I don't know the specifics of the problem, but I can make some educated guesses from what you've written that may give you a starting point. My first thought is that your mare may be uncomfortable with her bit. If she is used to an unbroken mouthpiece, the nutcracker effect of the snaffle may be very unpleasant to her. Even a curb with a snaffle mouth will not work on the sides of her mouth the way a regular snaffle bit will. The fact that you are asking her to have contact with the bit only exaggerates the problem. If her bit is thicker than she's used to, this can also make her uncomfortable. Western horses who are light mouthed work off the curb chain for cues rather than the bit itself. So transitioning to English from western is a big change on many levels. I would suggest borrowing a Kimberwick bit with a mullen mouth to see if your mare prefers that. Try it with the curb chain attached very loosely and also without to see if she likes one way or the other. Since your mare and you have a good relationship on the ground, I believe the jigging is caused by a communication problem. There is a big difference between English and western cues. Good western riders do use leg, but it is a passive leg unless we wish our horse to move quickly. The absence of fenders on the English saddle will make her feel like you are using more leg than she's been used to just from sitting on her. So just the leg cues alone, are a big transition from what she was used to to what you are asking of her. Light cues for a good western horse and light cues for an English horse are two different things. What you and even your English teacher consider light may seem to your mare as a strong cue asking her to go forward (or turn) strongly and quickly. Contact is also a big change for a western horse, especially if she's light. A good western horse will respond off the slightest change in curb chain pressure before the bit ever pulls on the mouth. Pulling even lightly on the mouth usually calls for a drastic stop, change in gait, or turn. So you can see how leg aids she perceives as asking to go forward strongly combined with contact she perceives as asking to stop or change strongly can greatly confuse and rattle her. There's something else to consider as well. Even if she is not rattled by it, contact is not truly familiar to her. Most horses will either raise their head or bow their neck to try and avoid it until they get used to this. In an older horse, this can cause muscle discomfort even when ridden with light hands. To understand this, spread your hand as wide as it will go and hold it there. At first it is comfortable. But since it is a position you are unaccustomed to the muscles will soon start to feel strained and tight. This position will get progressively more and more uncomfortable until eventually your hand will begin to cramp. If you keep contact too long on a horse who is not used to it, the same thing will happen to their neck muscles. It takes a lot of short duration conditioning for a horse to be able to hold a new head set for any length of time. So any or all these things may be going on with your mare to cause her nerves and her jigging. Horses can transition from western to English, but it will take longer than simply starting them English. Knowing how your mare probably perceives the changes will make it easier for you to help her transition successfully. I believe the only real problem you have with your mare is miscommunication. She speaks western, while you speak English. You have been asking her to speak your language. It might be helpful for you to learn a little of hers. If there is a western instructor in your area (or a western rider you feel is accomplished), let them ride your mare western once and see how she acts. They should be able to tell your what she likes and needs under saddle. It might also be helpful for you to take a few western lessons with your mare to understand the cues she's traditionally been used to. Asking her to learn your language has not been completely successful. Learning to speak hers may help you both make a successful transition to enjoyable riding. One benefit for you that comes to mind is the stop. Many western horses will stop using just the rider's weight and position for a cue. The bridle isn't even necessary. If you were confident that your mare would easily stop for you, even if she was nervous, it might help you be less nervous- which will of course help her. (Even working professionally with horses my entire life, the first thing I want to be sure of with a horse is that I can get him to stop). That's just a few thoughts I had on what might be going on. The fact that you and your mare do well on the ground is very encouraging. I believe you can transition her successfully, you just need to find the right path to take. I hope some of this has been of use to you, and I wish you good luck with your mare. Again, if anything is confusing or if you have further questions, just let me know and I will be glad to answer.
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      1. Teresacalgary
        Hi, thank you so much for getting back to me and providing additional information. I did try your exercise on her and it worked beautifully. I asked for a relaxed walk and when she did start jigging I immediately asked with seat and rein, very lightly to stop and she responded right away and I immediately threw away the reins and she stopped jigging right away and we were down again to a relaxed walk. I did not ask for much more and than praised her right away and made it a very pleasant experience.. I will be riding again tomorrow (the wind has been horrible here) and will do the same thing and we will improve. I think I was hoping that she would accept leg and contact as I have been working with her for some time now and have been extremely patient with her as the person who owned her before had not used leg with her, nor seat and used direct rein. When I first owned her I did try Western Pleasure with her, but she was on the forehand much of the time and so I decided to go English with her and get her hind engaged. I am not experienced in Western Pleasure and it was easier to go English as I am more experienced and could help more in that discipline. I did do Western Pleasure for a few years but without benefit of training or help so it was not done correctly. Of course when I did engage her with leg and bit there was a lot of ear pinning and tail swishing as she did not like the additional contact. In fact, I did have a girl, who was considered a "trainer" ride her for 3 month when I first owned her and asked that she use leg and contact on her. The "trainer" was a little intimidated by her and did not engage her and simple made her look "pretty". I have a friend who trained with Walter Zettl for years and she is 4th level dressage. She rode her and said she was very, very sensitive. Because she was not responding to the contact of bit and leg, I did take a step back and thought to spend time ground training her and she is very responsive to that and also to correct any "holes" in her training. I have exercise balls bouncing over her back as she stands untied, she will side pass on the ground away and towards me, etc etc. I have watched a lot of Clinton Anderson DVD's for ground training and incorporated that into my routine with her. I do believe that respect on the ground translates into respect in the saddle and I am a great believer in both Clinton Anderson and Buck Branaman. They are not English, but a good rider is a good rider and you can always learn from someone with that type of experience. I am so impressed with your understanding and your insight into what might work with my mare even given the slight amount of information you were given. Thank you again for your help.
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        1. PonyGirl
          PonyGirl
          I'm glad I could be of some help to you. It sounds like you are going to do fine with her. I find my voice helps tremendously with the race horses I work with as well as my own horses. Since you do so well together on the ground, you might teach her word commands on the ground that you can incorporate in your work under saddle. If you use your word command before applying your leg or asking for contact, she will realize you're doing it for a reason and not just annoying her. :D For example, when I want my horse to side pass or move his hip or shoulder over when I'm on the ground, I touch the body part I want to move, and tell him, "Get over." I use the same words when I want him to move laterally away from my leg. Also, the same mind set you're using to get her to stop jigging can be used to get her to accept your leg and contact as well. Just remember that less is always more, especially in the beginning. It sounds like you have a very good relationship with your mare and I believe you and she will achieve success. Good luck on your journey! If I can be of further assistance, please let me know. Thanks for your kind comments.
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