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Difficulty following other horses - UPDATE: spooking!

I bought a mare this summer - 10 years old, lovely mover, nicely broke in the arena and reasonably brave out on the trails. She’s already a spicy and anxious/super-alert horse with a big walk and a zippy little trot, but she’s happiest in the lead – we run into issues following other horses. At a walk, she can be a little impatient and visibly annoyed, especially if the horse in front of her is going slower than she wants to go, but we can re-set with half halts (sometimes full halts) and reminders to chill.

At any gait faster than a walk, she rushes – it’s not a matter of being left behind, she feels like she would climb straight up the butt of the horse in front of her if I let her. Unlike most horses I’ve ridden, she seems to take no relief or comfort in letting someone else be in front. She becomes a tense, jiggy, sideways, teeth-gnashing mess, and if anyone comes up behind her in this state she will threaten to kick (has never done this in the lead, no matter how close other horses are following). She seems to hate the pressure of having horses simultaneously in front of and behind her, but if I put her last in a line, she rushes and tenses even worse. Everyone else can be doing a leisurely jog and she’ll be sucked-back and cantering at 4mph, flinging her head and grinding her teeth. It happens on our trails at home and when we trailer out.

We’re working on doing some leapfrog when we have willing horse/riders to practice with. In the meantime I’m doing my best to keep her occupied with bending, SI, etc when we’re following to keep her mind otherwise engaged, but it doesn’t slow her down much. (She has a gorgeous travers in the trot going down the trail, LOL). I’ve gotten advice to just let her tire herself out, but that’s not my preferred method - she’s already very athletic and the last thing I need is to have a horse will listen to me, but only after 15 miles of work first. Any other tips for working through this?

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How is your mare when you’re out on the trail alone? Is she forward and curious? Or is she anxious and jiggy? In other words, is her behavior a problem only with other horses, or is she hot all the time?

My horse used to be a lot like this, only he was a little hot all the time and worse with other horses. I could work with him when we were out alone, but it was hard to find other riders to practice leapfrogging so he never got as much practice with that as I would have liked. One suggestion that I have heard but never tried is to let the horse go to the front, but then make her work so that being up front isn’t so much fun (circling other horses, trotting figure 8s, leg yielding, etc.). Then let take her back behind the other horse and let her relax. If she gets jiggy again when she’s following the other horse, let her go to the front and and work some more. Make being in the lead the most uncomfortable place to be.

If your mare gets jiggy when you’re riding alone, try a big WHOA, drop the reins, then tell her to walk forward. If that doesn’t work after a couple of repetitions, add a step back after the stop, and then walk forward. My horse used to get jiggy a lot, and this really helped settle him, although sometimes it took several tries. The key is to make a big whoa (sit back, firm pressure on the reins) and then release all pressure–don’t try to hold her. It took a long time with my guy, but now when he gets jiggy I can just say “walk dammit” and he says “oh yes ma’am, I just forgot for a moment.”

One last thought–you’ve only had your mare for a few months, so you’re still building a bond. When she trusts you more as her leader, she’ll settle down.

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If you have some friends to help, go riding and allow your horse to work her way up to the front of the group. As soon as she gets there have everyone reverse so she is again at the back of the line. Repeat.

My horse prefers being up front and is very good at cutting corners or walking a little faster on side by side sections. We go out with a local club and one ride had a bunch of dead ends. Two or three times he reached the front of the line just before we got to the turn around point and he ended up last. He was content to stay in the middle after that for the rest of the ride.

Another alternative - what happens if you dismount and hand walk? I’ve done that at the first wide point in competition when we got caught behind slower horses in front and faster horses behind on a narrow trail. I let everyone else go by and walked until my horse settled before remounting.

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On the trail alone, she’s forward but still anxious, but it mostly translates into spooking (at campers in the distance, at birds moving in the brush, at me sneezing, at the sound of the pommel pack zipper…) instead of jigging. We’ve spent the last few months working pretty intensively on getting a flat-footed walk instead of a jig, with the exact method you describe: big halt and immediate big give. She’s improved to the point where I can now half-halt and release all pressure, and she will sigh and tone it down.

We’re also doing dressage lessons with a trainer who’s helped me a lot with tuning up the timing for the release. In the ring, I can slow her rushy trot with the half half and release, but out on the trail with other horses in front of her, she just blows right through it and starts fighting against what seems (to me) to be the slightest amount of pressure. Holding her back at all seems to be like winding up a spring. If I slow her in the trot while we’re behind other horses, she’ll compress, and as soon as I give or release at all, she’ll rocket forward at a canter.

I’ll definitely work more on making the lead spot the less comfortable place to be. And you’re right that it’s only been a few months and the relationship is still building - it’s just so hard to be patient sometimes!

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I actually really like the idea of the dead end! I may have to do some recruiting to find some people to do this with but it’s a neat idea.

(My mare is a firebreathing little ArabX and our trail buddies are all pretty easygoing QHs and paints. It’s hilarious watching her power-walk past horses 2 hands taller than she is.)

I’ve done a lot of handwalking from home but I haven’t done any work where I’ve dismounted on the trail and hand walked from there. It wouldn’t be great when she’s already jazzed up (unless I’m practicing my flying dismounts) but I could definitely work with dismounting while she’s still in front and then letting other riders pass.

My 20 yr old Walker gelding always worms his way up front. After an hour or so he tires of it and is happy to hang back. I try to let him pick his speed on the trail, within reason of course. He just starts off raring to go then eventually realizes he needs to conserve his energy. I guess I don’t necessarily see it as a problem unless the horse is just plain unsafe and blowing through you. If just a hit amped, I let him be knowing he will settle.

I love a forward-thinking horse and overall I don’t have a problem with her wanting to be out front - I just want her to be safe and civil in the event that someone else needs to be at the front of the pack! My nightmare scenario is a situation where we’re on technical trail or traveling downhill and she comes unglued seeing another horse trotting in front of her.

So far we haven’t done more than 10 miles in one outing but even at 10 miles, if she sees someone in front of her break into a trot she’ll fight to catch up / pass them.

One other exercise that has worked well for me is LOTS of walk/trot transitions. I do this if my horse is so full of beans he just has to move those feet. The trick is to transition to the trot before the horse breaks into it, let him go a few strides, then walk a stride or two and go right back to the trot. The key is that the speed is always your idea, not his. And frequent transitions are harder than just straight trotting long distances. The longest I’ve had to do this is about a mile before he relaxes.

@RedHorses mentioned dismounting and hand walking. If I ever feel unsafe this is what I do. But, you have to decide what to do when you dismount–should you lunge the horse and make him work, or do you just lead him down the trail a bit and then hop back on? With my horse, dismounting and leading him for a bit helps if he’s genuinely afraid of something. I’ve never had any luck dismounting and lunging my horse if he’s just being ornery–it just winds him up more.

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In my experience, when the trail gets complicated or when picking your way downhill, you won’t have this problem. Because then the horse knows it has to think about where to put its feet. Horses aren’t suicidal! (There are downhills where I’ve had to recite this mantra over and over.)

My gaited horse has a fast-paced long-strided walk, and when younger, our trail rides could turn into battles of him trying to get out front and go at his preferred pace, me wanting him to stay behind another horse and act civilized. I found that circling him helped, as did backing up for about 20 feet. Both of these are ‘harder’ than walking normally, and he would get the idea eventually.

Now that he is 19, he doesn’t much care where he is in the string. But if in front, he picks up his pace and gets quite happy. When riding with mostly quarter-horses, we have to do a fair amount of stopping and waiting for them to catch up.


The Leapfrog Game is good for this. With another rider or two on calm horses, you’re all riding down the trail, and at a safe place to pass, the horse in the lead stops, waits for the other horse/s to pass them, and falls in behind. At the next safe place, repeat with the new lead horse. No horse is in front for more than a few minutes. Keep doing that for long enough, most any horse will get the idea that there’s no point in fighting for the lead.

It is really helpful if the other horses have about the same walking pace as yours. My horse is a smart-walking Morgan who can almost keep up with a gaited horse, and nothing irks her more than being stuck behind a drowsy shuffling Quarter Horse on the trail.


UPDATE - spooking

6+ months later, HUGE improvement! We still have to choose our moments - she won’t follow for an entire 10-mile ride - but we can now walk, trot, and sometimes canter behind another horse without the world ending!

Of course, this has revealed a new issue. If she’s at the back of the line, she becomes incredibly spooky about perceived threats behind her. It almost always happens at a walk, I assume because her brain has disengaged from ‘work’ mode. We will be moseying on a loose rein and seemingly out of nowhere she gives an enormous spook-bolt and rockets forward. It’s like a ghost came up and bit her on the ass.

Yesterday, we did a 13 mile ride with 2 other barnmates - she was up front most of the time, but we traded off - brave, forward, soft, straight. A mile from home, we had drifted to the back of the line and everyone was taking a walk break. I didn’t even hear anything behind us and neither did the other horses, but she spooked and launched herself forward so hard I actually went backward out of the saddle. She nearly bowled the horse in front of us off the trail, almost climbed a sapling in her path, and finally stopped and waited for me about 20 feet into the brush.

How to contend with this? I’m going to do more work desensitizing to things behind her - in-hand work with a drag, maybe - and we’ll just have to keep our walk breaks to a marching working walk so her brain stays too engaged to think about ghosts. As a rider I know I’ll have to avoid the temptation to mentally tune out at the walk. Any other tips/ideas?

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You can ask for a side-pass on the trail, alternating sides. This is both brain work and physical work for the horse. These sound like very serious spooks though, and coming without notice like that…dangerous. One of those situations where ‘there’s a hole in the training somewhere’, possibly, rather than fright-spooks?

Maybe the safest thing would be to keep ‘work mode’ going the whole time, for the time being. I think a mild side-pass alternation might help with that.

Yes, definitely keeping side passes and leg yields in the arsenal.

I really don’t know whether to judge this as a hole in the training issue or a fright spook. Up till now, I’ve been treating it as a fright spook - we laugh it off and go right back to walking. I try to make sure she isn’t self-rewarding by spooking and then getting to move up in line. She’s a very honest pony with a fantastic work ethic.

But maybe it’s not a genuine fear thing? She’s done her share of stop-and-snort when she’s in the front, but these days those have diminished to her barely slowing down and looking at the scary thing as she passes. She crosses bridges, water, ditches without batting an eye. Our home trails include an underpass that crosses beneath an 8-lane highway and she’s one of the few horses at the barn that will march right under it. She’s not bombproof by any means, but she mostly seems to trust that when I ask her to do a thing, we can do the thing together.

I don’t have any reason to think her vision is problematic (she can spot something moving in the woods long before I can!). Maybe I’ll talk to our trainer about it. Pony’s done a couple of these jump-out-of-her-skin spooks in the outdoor ring, early on – probably something rustled in the neighboring lot adjoining the ring. And one time it was one of these end-of-work spooks, where we’d had a great productive lesson, cooled out, I’d hopped out of the saddle and run up my stirrups – and then as trainer and I were standing there chatting, she did a little scoot-and-spook like something had goosed her. At the time trainer joked that whatever spooked her had probably been there the whole time but pony just hadn’t noticed it because she was so focused on working.

Can she spot something in woods behind her yards away? It sounds like its a combination if vision (could be a blind spot and something suddenly appears, or shes just got hawk vision) and fear. Maybe blinkers would keep her from seeing ghosts behind her?

Be cautious with a drag, as spooking with a drag can get dangerous even in an arena.

My dog actually helped my very reactive gelding to diminish some of his spooking. She was an explorer and would pop in/out/ through brush off trail. Yes, he reacted in the beginning but then it became, “oh, it’s just the dog” even if it wasn’t. Don’t know if a dog is even an option for you but in my case, it helped.


I have definitely joked before that she would be close to the perfect horse if she was blind, so there may be something to this. I might try some diy type blinders to test (fleece on bridle cheekpieces?) before shelling out for something purpose-made.

Definitely cautious with the drag – for now we’re just doing in-hand work with a weighted bag, so I’m dragging the bag and it’s pony’s job just to march along next to me without spooking. She’s been suspicious of all the rustling but so far so good!


I wish I had a dog I could do this with!

I like the idea of generating a little white noise in/around the trail though. Pony has gotten much better about ignoring when we stop to break branches and clear trail - before, it used to be a whole snorting production if I even snapped a twig from the saddle. Maybe I’ll start working on tossing the branches a little further off into the woods, or tossing more toward the rear instead of straight out to the side, just to instill the notion that not every rustle in the woods is going to kill her.

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Some horses love to be out front. That is the position they want to be in. My boss mare wants to be in front. The only time she is content to be second is if there’s something scary and then she allows someone else to go past, but immediately wants back out front. She is brave and being boss mare believes she can just push her way through the crowd and they will part for her (which they usually do). I say she’s Queen in my herd and she knows it.

She is not super brave either. She can still spook. Fortunately she’s a freeze in place and you can feel her heart beating through the saddle, type of spook. My thoroughbred would be galloping at 100 mph with that amount of fear, but she is a freeze and prance away type (thank goodness!).Can you tell how much I love her?

My neighbors stallion got out again this week and guess who was going to chase him away? My boss mare. She was at the fence, guarding her herd and trying to attack him over the fence. She is very particular about protecting her herd. Newcomers have to be accepted by her, and once accepted she guards/protects them.

It sounds like your horse is extremely anxious though. My mare isn’t anxious and anxiety is much harder to deal with. I think fear and anxiety are some of the most difficult behaviors to train because it isn’t something you can reason with. You have to find a way to calm them down.

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Ever been cubbing ?

I have not - I’m in northern VA so there’s a decent number of local hunts but I don’t know anyone in those circles so never dipped my toes in the water. Is it something that would help?