This is a horse I am familiar with – his motivation level is very low. Because of an unusual upbringing on “the reservation,” he has been desensitized to almost everything. That includes gunshots, fireworks, and less fortuitously his rider’s legs.
I should note that all the possible physical causations of his behavior have been explored. He’s not anemic. He doesn’t have a thyroid problem. His teeth don’t bother him. His back doesn’t hurt. He is shod correctly. And while it would be nice to have found such a simple solution, we have ruled them out, and that leaves us with his relationship to the aids.
Especially because he’s not a young horse, he should have a long period of free walk to begin when he comes out of his stall. But even on loose reins, he shows absolutely no motivation, preferring to plod lazily around the ring. Zumi does get around to moving forward, but as his rider states, it takes forever. The question is how can this aggravatingly and seemingly unproductive time be shortened–the time when his rider works a lot harder than he does?
The first task is to get him past his threshold of laziness. Like pushing a boulder up a hill, if every time you stop to rest it rolls backwards, you’re not gaining anything. At the very least, Zumi the Boulder must agreed to rest on a plateau and not backslide any time you take your leg off. This concept is so vital that until he grasps it, I would not even bother to try to ride him on contact, much less try to get him on the bit.
Olympic Three-Day rider Karen O’Connor speaks of four general gradations of driving aid strength that can be applied. In escalating order they are aids which penetrate to hair, hide, muscle, and bone! A bit dramatic, yes, but an unanswered aid which isn’t followed up by one that demands a response is worse than no aid at all.
So while the initial request may be small, you do yourself and your horse no favors if you don’t follow the process through to the correct conclusion. That means understanding the difference between “going” and Going, whether in trot, in canter, or in an extended canter which approaches a gallop. What you’re looking for is an honest response, not necessarily a prolonged one. There is only so much gas in this horse’s tank. There’s no point in using it up putting in extra miles cruising round and round the arena when it’s the repetition of correct response that will make the difference. So number one, he has to be made quick off the leg, even if it looks ugly making it happen. No temper, no unkindness, but it has to happen.
Number two, he has to be displaceable laterally – not necessarily far, but absolutely obediently and instantaneously. Then to bend him and yield him your aids must be quick – not necessarily strong but brief, not giving him anything to set up against.
When you’ve made him active and not been shy about it and you’ve made him care about the inputs described above, you can begin to shape him and ride him like a normal horse. But when he sees you coming, although you certainly don’t want him to worry, he better learn to snap to attention like a willing and respectable servant.