Retraining a lesson horse

I recently purchased a beautiful 10-year-old QH. He was bred for Western Pleasure and then put into a lesson program to teach kids and beginners to ride, primarily English. He is sound and has no medical issues. I find that in the arena is super lazy and slow but when I take him outside he has no problem moving his feet and even galloping. I really like him and I want to ride Dressage, nothing competitive. My question is how do I get him to be forward and have impulsion? I ride with a whip and sometimes he is still slow and doesn’t hold his gaits. Any advice will be highly appreciated.

He’s been taught his job in the arena is to go on autopilot, so he’s doing what he’s been shown is his responsibility.

Your number one job in teaching him that the new expectation is he move out with a bit more energy is NOT TO NAG. Do not taptaptap with the whip, spurs or even your calf with every stride. This will only encourage him to ignore your requests for more energy if he’s expecting you’ll ride him every. single. stride.

I’d be forgetting about asking for softness/contact/carriage for a while. I’ve retrained a few horses who got used to moving behind the aids/crawling like turtles/got stuffed up when asked to go forward. You need to work on moving off with energy first, then help him shape it. From the halt, bring both your legs off his sides - like REALLY off, so he can see them. Wiggle your feet around in the stirrups so he can see you’re out there. He’ll probably cock his head back, see your legs and think “huh, that’s weird” and go back to snoozing. When he doesn’t respond, you bring your legs down on his ribs as hard as you can.

Chances are, with a horse this dull, he’ll barely spurt forward. If he really moves off, fantastic, you got the point across. Then you’ll stop him and do it again. You won’t need to do this but two or three times before he starts to notice when you begin to roll your knees open in preparation to ask him to move off, and he’ll be sure to be getting ready to go. Give him lots of praise for his efforts - he’s used to having to go on autopilot in the ring, from the sounds of it, and it’s unfortunate that you sometimes have to do the equivalent of sounding an airhorn in their ear for them to say “gosh, I guess I need to pay attention!”, but it is far better to do a lot at first, get the response you need and refine it than continue to encourage the horse to ignore you by nagging him every time he slows or breaks gait.

I would also slightly exaggerate your body position/aids when you’re asking him to move off: make it obvious to him what he should be looking for as far as changes in your seat/when you bring your energy up so he cues in on them. Then start to make your aids smaller when he shows he understands.

1 Like

Ride him on the trails for 6 months. Ride him forward big canter and big trot. Ride with no whip and light contact. You can practice transition between gaits and speed within gaits. When he is happy moving forward and light off your leg, take him into the arena for ten minutes in the middle of a trail ride. Trot him in, get his big trot happening for a few laps, then back out.

At the same time, teach him flexions and lateral moves on the ground in hand, and then you can start doing shoulder in and leg yield at the walk on the trails.


Thank you. This is very helpful. I know he has a BIG motor, he can keep up with my wife’s ex-race horse on the trail. He is just dull in the arena. I checked his back, teeth, and saddle and like you pointed out, he seems to be trained to just be safe and dull for beginners.

I have been riding him outside and letting him extend his trot and canter, even galloping. The issue now is that I am on the east coast and it is getting really cold to ride out.

I’ve dealt with a horse that went ring sour and no amount of fighting in the arena helps. You need to change how he feels about the arena.

You could try longeing him until he is warmed up and forward, then just riding him at canter and big trot for 15 minutes.

Don’t start any “dressage schooling” until he has impulsion. You can’t do anything with a sucked back horse.


If he has been a lesson horse, particularly for beginners, his physical conditioning may be less than you think

I agree with allowing him to find himself out and about. New forward movement is going to open up and stress new tissue . That tissue is being asked to stretch and reach and reacting in a fashion unlike what he is use to.

There is no reason he cannot go to shows and be competitive.

My last Dressage horse was a nifty QH and I will always consider him my favorite and most honest friend.

I would not overdo the lunging, it does not really serve any purpose to learning how to respond to you and stresses the joints in an needless fashion.


I don’t have a ton of advice, just excited to hear there’s another QH out there doing dressage!! I recently bought an 11 yo QH mare to be my future eventing partner, and I love her reasonable brain more than anything.

My horse was actually rejected as a kid’s lesson pony because she was too quick, but she was probably pretty much equally dead to the leg - just defaulted to a fast, unbalanced, falling forward pace rather than slow and ambling. I am doing lot of turns on the forehand / haunches with her, not aiming for perfection just teaching her to move away from my leg. I think the order/timing in which you do things is super important - i.e., leg, if no response, whip tap, if no response, whip smack. I also incorporate a lot of trot poles and cavalettis to keep things interesting, sometimes switch between rings during one ride, and hack her out as much as possible!

Also, one thing to consider might be your ring footing - mine gets really deep in the corners which makes a huge difference in her way of going. Not always something we can control but maybe if you can get off property into a ring with really good footing it will at least tell you whether or not that is playing a role!

1 Like

I’m not sure what response you would expect the horse to have when you take your legs off. But punishing him for not knowing what you want, by smashing down on his ribs, would be patently unfair.

Taking the legs off, however, is the first step. It’s counterintuitive, but with a dull horse you want to keep your legs off until you need them. Then use them quickly and clearly, then take them off. But you need to teach him what you want.

I would start at the walk, put my leg on quickly and clearly, then take it off. No response? A bit sharper clear, quick leg. Still no response? Clear, encouraging – not punishing – tap with the whip. Continue to up the request until you get a response. At first, any forward response is correct, and worthy of praise and peace for the horse. It will take a little time, but he will learn that leg on means go.


It may worth adding pole work or Western trail obstacles or pylons to the arena. A lot of the pole work and trail course work requires basic dressage - lots of opportunities to have them move off the leg, for example, doing a side pass over a pole or turns on the forehand or haunches.
I often find my horse is engaged more when we have something like that to play with. The free app equisense has some ideas as well there is a facebook group or


Quick update. I have been riding him outside more and using a whip and he seems to be responding to that by being more forward. One curious thing that happened this past weekend… I rode him western, with a western bit (short shank bit) and western tack and suddenly he was a lot more forward. I know he was an English lesson horse but he was broke Western. I am not sure what to make of it. Maybe he likes being ridden Western instead of English? Any ideas?

Could be the saddle fit or you could be sitting differently in it.
My horse also enjoys doing different things - I rarely school the same way two days in a row. Perhaps his mind is more engaged.


He doesn’t like or understand English contact and goes forward when you stay off his face in Western. So stay off his face in English.

He might also find his English saddle uncomfortable. I would ride him Western for a few months and get the forward back that way.


ahhh that makes perfect sense.