Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Jigging Horse

by Ryan Gingerich

How many of you have cursed under your breath, or sworn so loudly that the next county can hear you - when your horse starts jigging and it feels like you're riding a rocket that's about ready to explode? Here's an explanation of that behavior and how you can change it.

Jigging is a "yellow zone" response from the horse. There are three zones: green, yellow, red. The Green Zone is when the horse is responsive and compliant; he listens to you and does what you ask him to do. The Yellow Zone is when the horse's eyes are wide, nostrils flaring, and his feet tend to move really fast. He's starting to prepare for what I call the "pre-flight mode." The Red Zone horse is extreme - he bucks, bolts, runs away - all those evasive tactics.

The reason I developed the green/yellow/red system of assessing and categorizing horses is that people can understand those three color progressions: Green means go, yellow means slow down, and red means stop. If you understand that process, you'll know what to do when your horse is in one of these zones.

When your horse starts to jig (he's gone into the Yellow Zone), he's telling you that you've taken him out of his "green" comfort zone and he's no longer comfortable with the situation. The behavior of a Yellow Zone horse is typically based on a miscommunication of the rider's cueing language or an error in judgment of the horse's current abilities. This usually happens because the rider doesn't have a complete understanding of the program he/she is trying to teach or has not completed the OEPA (Observation, Evaluation, Plan, Action) portion of my program.

Why the horse is jigging is far more important than the fact that he is. Don't get me wrong; I understand jigging can be a dangerous pre-behavior to one heck of a wreck. However, the fact still remains, once the behavior has started you're a little behind the eight ball. The difference is being pro-active rather than re-active.

Jigging is always tied to a root behavioral problem. Jigging is not the problem - it is a symptom of a larger problem. The fact that the horse is jigging is good… in a way. He is communicating with you. He is trying to tell you that you have done something wrong. It's up to you to figure out what and to correct it immediately.

How do you regain control of the horse that jigs on the trail or in the arena? You ask yourself a simple question: "What's my horse not doing that I want him to do?" The usual answer is, "Stopping when I want him to stop." Or, "walk the speed that I want." The horse is usually charging toward where he's most comfortable - barn, other horses, etc.

What is the next step to take when this behavior arises? Get off the horse! Being on his back is no place to be and is an inappropriate place to train the potential bolting horse (jigging is a pre-behavior to bolting). Go back to the arena, farm, barn - wherever your horse feels comfortable, and it’s more safe and secure for you. Keeping yourself safe is of utmost importance.

Then you can start the process of going through Basic Control (in hand first) - the six basic things that your horse must know how to do: Go, stop, turn right, turn left, back up and stand still. If your horse doesn't understand even one of those six things, you'll have problems with everything you ask him to do - at home or on the trail.

Once you have Basic Control really solid with your horse, then you'll move onto Lightness (the second DVD in the Connective Horsemanship series of five DVDs) - he's relaxed, he's comfortable with the shoulder exercises, he has flexion in his neck and hips - all those things that are critical parts of the foundation of my program. Then we'll work on Rhythm (the third DVD in the series). Rhythm is where the jigging problem comes into play.

When the horse is jigging, you literally have no speed control over the animal. We begin the lessons in Rhythm on the ground first before we climb into the saddle. There are three spots we use on the horse's body to teach these lessons. Spot #1 is on the girth, spot #2 is where your leg would hang on the horse's rib cage if you were in the saddle, and spot #3 is where the rear cinch would hang from the Western saddle or if you drew a line from the back of the cantle on an English saddle.

Spot #1 says "go," spot #2 says "go faster," and spot #3 says "move your hips." For Rhythm lessons with the jigging horse, we'll work on spots #1 and #2. Essentially you'll be working on asking the horse to go forward and to slow down. As you've learned in Basic Control, I always ask the horse to go forward with my left leg cueing his left front foot, or if I'm on the ground, I'll tap the #1 spot (left side of the horse) with a dressage whip to ask the horse to move forward with the left front foot (the opposite applies to the right side).

From the saddle or from the ground, I'll add pressure with the rein (I use a full cheek snaffle bit and bridle even with the lessons on the ground) to slow the horse's forward movement or to take smaller steps. When I add pressure and ask the horse to slow or take smaller steps, the horse should respond within three strides.

If after three strides he still hasn't responded to my cue - he's pushy or just refusing to acknowledge the pressure - then I'll increase the pressure. I'll increase the pressure each second until the horse responds correctly or until I get an acknowledgment of the pressure from the horse, which may be a smaller step, or even a hesitation from the horse.

The pressure scale I use goes from one to ten. "One" is light contact and is the least pressure you can use, and "ten" is the most pressure it takes to get the job done. If I have to go to ten, it's by the horse's choosing, not mine. The horse decides where I stop by responding to the pressure, whether it's at one or at ten.

The main thing we want the jigging horse to do in these lessons is to respond to our cue to slow down. We won't ask him to slow down for forever - maybe just one or two strides. Start on the rail, ask him to slow using your left and right reins equally and in rhythm with the foot falls. I'll ask him to slow his right front foot, then his left front foot - and then I'll speed him back up. Once he is doing this well along the rail, take him out into the middle of the arena and work on circles and figure eights with lots of transitions from stop to go and from left to right. I am not focusing on the quality of the turn, rather that he slows immediately each time I pick up the rein. I'll repeat that hundreds of times in sets of five to seven repetitions first left then right.

Again, I will start on the ground and then progress to the under-saddle work. I will continue this process until the horse gets to the point where he’s responding correctly to the slowing cues every time. If I ask him to go fast, he'll go fast; if I ask him to slow down, he'll slow down; if I ask him to stand, he stands. When and only when my horse has responded to my requests at least 80% of the time correctly, will I bring him back to the trail and begin the process all over. Never spending more than forty-five minutes on any lesson.

Remember it's all about basic control - it's never because the horse is an idiot or he's too dumb to understand. It's about how much understanding the horse has of what I ask him to do when it's needed.

Don't get mad at your horse when he jigs. Just realize that it is your horse's way of expressing his misunderstandings to you, and that he is missing some part or all of his basic controls, lightness, or rhythm. By following a basic and sequential lesson plan and building a foundation of understanding, you and your horse can have fun and carefree rides, with no jigging or frustration.

For more information on Ryan Gingerich and his Connective Horsemanship program, visit or call 800.359.4090.

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