Getting a Stubborn, Stiff Fjord to Soften and Go Forward Willingly

I’ve started riding at this therapeutic riding place (I have cerebral palsy) and after seeing me ride a finished dressage horse, the instructor has decided I’m good enough to have me work with an eight year old, never-done-dressage Fjord.

A bit of background on this pony. As said, he’s eight years old, and since he was broke at three he’s only been a driving and therapy pony; meaning that when he’s been ridden, it’s been people sort of steering, with the person leading the horse doing most of the work (I’m one of the two most advanced riders and I’m only grade 1A and doing dressage for five years, to give you some perspective). This lack of hard work has made breed traits of the Fjord (stiffer in the body, stubborn in mind) even more prominent. Thus; this pony is rather surprised that he’s been suddenly asked to go forward, stop and start quickly when asked, actually turn properly, and not put his head down and use all his might to drag the rider around. :smiley: :lol:

My question is, does anyone know any good exercises (in the walk) to get him more responsive and flexible? We’re doing lots of walk-halt and halt-walk transitions, halt halts, circles of different sizes, and switching directions. Anything else you would add? Would there be anything to help him learn to quit dropping his head and plowing through my hands? A tap with the whip seems to do it, but is there anything else? Finally, what experiences have you had training Fjords, or any stiff and/or stubborn breed in dressage? We don’t want too much out of him, just about First, maybe Second level… I feel totally confident I can work with him (have worked with this type two or three times), just maybe need some more input. I do have video I can link if anyone would like it.

If you can - Lots of trail riding with somewhere to go (not forgetting half halts as you go). Let him relax (whilst carrying himself)and be an adventurous horse, then ask him for bending etc.

Well, as soon as you work it out, please come tell me.

Also, please come visit Life with Oden. That’s where I’ll post the magical solution as soon as I figure it out.

First, not all Fjords are as you say “stiff in the body, stubborn in the mind.” Is physical flexibility a bit more challenging for them, maybe yes and some can be opinionated, but when you develop a good relationship with one they will try their heart out for you and keep going like the energizer bunny.

We’ve had our Fjord, now 19, for the last 12+ of those years. His first 9 years with us he was the kids 4-H and more recently he is my dressage pony. Some things we learned over that time.

  1. Keep his mind active and on you. He is more likely to come up with his own “program” and ignore you when he is bored. Drilling the same thing over and over bores him. I like to throw ground poles, cavaletti, and other trail class type obstacles in with the walk exercises you are doing (and yes those are great exercises, especially when you ask him to respond to your seat and leg rather than allowing him to hang on your hands.)
  2. At the same time, work at his mental pace. If you throw too much at him too fast, he gets tense trying to please you. He is smart mind you, sometimes too smart for his own good. He learns quickly and tries very (too) hard to anticipate what you want. Mix up what you ask just enough so that he comes to the realization that he just needs to wait for you to tell him what you want.
  3. Try to be as soft in your own body as you want him to be in his. Don’t set your hands, seat, or back so that he can brace against them. He will take the bait, stiffen up, and let you do his work for him.
  4. Be firm, swift, and fair with corrections, but even quicker to praise generously when he does what you ask. Fjords can be real “people oriented” and love praise and attention. I use lots of verbal “good”, wither scritches, and pats. Fjords can become treat hogs if you are not careful. I expect impeccable manners when if comes to treats; he stands and waits. I offer. He gets pushy and treats are GONE. Be utterly consistent about this. They are smart and learn quickly what they need to do.

As for exercises to do, you have a good start.
I like two sets of ground poles, one set close so he has to shorten his stride the other set long so he has to lengthen his stride. Put one set on each quarter line and you can create many patterns to use one or both sets. I start with three poles, work up to adding additional poles over time up to six. Varying the stride length will help him loosen his body longitudinally.
I also like exercises such as leg yield, shoulder-fore (eventually shoulder-in), haunches-in, spiraling in/out circles.
Also to get him listening to your leg a square with turn on the forehand in each corner. Mix it up occasionally to that you turn away form the current square and start a new one in the other direction (if you understand what I mean.) Keep him listening, not anticipating.

101 Dressage Exercises has lots of other ideas. The nice thing about this book is the exercises are grouped by “skill” e.g. looseness, straightness, rhythm, etc… I highly suggest it.

Feel free to PM me if you want more. I could go on for way too long here. It took a long time for your Fjord to learn his habits. Give him time to unlearn, learn something better, and develop the proper muscles. It took me maybe 3 months of working very correctly and consistently mainly at the walk before the light bulb really lit up. Once it did, boy did he become fun!

Ride that Fjord with the attitude that he will work to please you and he will! Have fun.

My Oden is exactly as you describe. He will carry his head below his shins if he can. He will push, pull, duck under, and shove with his head if he can. His head and mouth are not sensitive. His neck is very strong and not cooperative.

I let someone else ride him for a few minutes last week, and she told me he has a hard mouth. I told her, no, it’s not his mouth, and it’s not hard. It’s his neck. His neck isn’t cooperative. You have to ride him with your whole body, not just your reins.

For myself, I am trying to really push Oden forward in a fast walk. I am using the reins to prevent him from diving his head down; but I’m not making any effort to “round him up” or “put him in a frame” for a long time.
Fjords can collect. But it’s a very long-term project.

I just really want photos/vidoes because he sounds adorable :smiley:

I just want to offer a gentle reminder that the way he goes is how he has been “trained”, from having imbalanced and clumsy riders who kick when they don’t mean go forward, pull when they don’t mean turn, cluck when they don’t want faster, lean, bounce, etc. Rider says one thing and leader says another, all while having a person hanging off one or both sides. Good therapeutic riding horses learn to tune out all kinds of stuff, to keep their riders safe. :slight_smile:

And unless his job is going to change once you start working with him, you may have limited “success” at tuning him up when he just goes right back to his usual job in between.

I also question just how fair it is to him to be “corrected” for ignoring that which he needs to ignore at other times?

Not that he can’t learn when he needs to be more responsive and when he should ignore, but for his sake everyone needs to be aware that he’s being put between a rock and hard place, and every effort should to be made to make sure he’s not being corrected for the same behaviors that others are encouraging.

That said, I have a Halfinger mule who can be just about as physically insensitive as equids get (with the exception of donkeys), and he’s been able to learn to be responsive, not because he cares all that much about avoiding pressure but because he wants to earn treats.

Is he going to continue to be a therapy horse?