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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