Over the years, so many of my coaching clients have struggled with napping in one form or another and it can be a real pain to try and fix. In this article we'll define napping, discuss the potential reasons for it and give you some tips to nip napping in the bud.
What is napping?
Napping, quite simply, is when a horse is reluctant or point-blank refuses to move forward or in the direction he or she is being asked to go. Typically, it presents as falling out through a shoulder towards the gate or towards his friends but it can also include growing anchors while out hacking and refusing to continue down a path or reluctance to go out into an arena in a competition environment. If not stopped and re-trained, napping can develop into rearing, bucking and bolting.
Though, there can be overlaps, napping is commonly confused with spooking or shying but the distinction comes from the stimulus immediately before the behaviour. In napping, a horse can be going around as normal immediately before the occurrence but in spooking or shying, the horse has had a genuine fright perhaps something has moved quickly and unexpectedly, has light shining on it in a strange way or there's been a loud noise and the horse responds with his head up, ears forward, eyes wide open and a reaction to run away from whatever has upset him.
Why do horses nap?
In my opinion, napping is a symptom of one or more of the following causes;
1. They're in some kind of discomfort
2. They're lacking in confidence or confused about what you're asking them to do
3. It's become a learned behaviour due to poor and/or inconsistent training
I hear too often that horses are just being 'naughty' and that the solution is to give them a kick in the ribs and a whack on the bum with a stick. I completely reject the notion that horses are naughty. Horses are, by nature, herd animals that are required to be co-operative with one another in order to survive, and they extend that willingness to be co-operative with us, their owners, handlers and riders.
Once you re-frame the 'problem' of napping in terms of it being a symptom of something else, it allows you to really understand what it is your horse is trying to communicate by behaving in that way, and then of course, strive to help your horse and correct the behaviour.
How to nip napping in the bud
In order to correct the behaviour we need to first understand what is causing it.
1. Is your horse in any discomfort?
How often do you check that your horse is sound? We trot our horses up each and every Monday (as well as check them over daily) to really asses their gate and notice any changes in the way they move. Lots of horses have a low-grade lameness that might be hard to spot but could be caused by a number of issues that could cause your horse to be uncomfortable under saddle.
Horses feet are often a source of pain and discomfort so it's essential you have a good farrier to keep them in balance and supportive of the rest of the horse's body.
Are your horses teeth seen regularly by a vet or equine dentist? Most horses will only need checked and rasped once a year but others may require more frequent treatment. The majority of horse owners will have their horses' teeth looked at but we've had a few in for schooling over the years that have never been seen. Fractured teeth and abscesses can absolutely cause a horse to nap and but uncomfortable in his work.
What about your horses' tack? Have you had your saddle fitted recently? Even if you had your saddle fitted when you bought it, with age and work horses change shape and with use, saddles change too. It's good practice to have your saddle checked annually to ensure it's comfortable for your horse and not restricting him in any way. One item of tack regularly overlooked is the bridle and bit - are you sure it is as comfortable for your horse as possible? Any pinching, rubbing or excessive pressure can cause a horse to be sore when ridden and resist working forward.
If you're horse is in any discomfort of any sort, he has every reason to 'nap' and avoid doing what is causing him more pain. Only by eliminating the pain, will you be able to stop him napping.
If you're confident your horse isn't in any pain, then it's a good bet that he is either lacking in confidence or confused....
2. Does your horse understand what you're asking and confident enough to do it?
So you're happy that you're horse isn't in any pain but yet he's still napping when you're riding - you now need to determine whether he's reluctant to go where you're asking because he's confused or lacking in confidence.
Sometimes horses just don't understand what we're asking of them, maybe you've been down a particular track before, or through a river before, or asked him to hack alone before, maybe he's not used to coming out a line-up and working on his own while others stand a watch. Before you jump to the assumption that your horse is being deliberatively difficult, consider for a moment, does he actually understand what you're asking? Is your aid clear? Has he done it before and developed experience of the task you're asking him to complete? Was the last time he did it a good experience or did he get a fright?
If your horse does not understand what you're asking of him, you have to break the request down, be clear, calm and consistent in your approach and give him time to make sense of what it is he's learning. Can you provide him with an experienced friend to give him a lead and help build his confidence? Pushing him too fast or putting pressure on him when he's confused, will only end up creating anxiety around the particular issue. Be someone your horse can trust, reassure him when he tries, forgive him when he can't and be patient.
3. Has your horse developed a bad habit?
Occasionally, horses have just developed a habit of napping due to poor or inconsistent training. You see it a lot with riding school ponies who can develop a pattern of stopping to do an imaginary pee every 10 mins (if your horse does this, it's well worth getting him checked over by a vet as there may well be a medical reason for this too). They can also be difficult to work independently from 'the ride'. By the nature of a riding school, horses are generally ridden by novice riders and these bad habits can be established when they are not consistently given correct aids by knowledgable and effective riders.
Fixing an established learned behaviour takes time and you have to be prepared to be patient, calm and consistent. Be very clear on the aid for what you're asking then apply the aid and reward with your voice and a pat on the neck when you get the response you're after, even if it's not the finished product and as good as you'd like. If your horse is offering you something resembling what you're asking, let him know you're appreciative. Just like us, horses like it when they are praised and made to feel validated, and this will make it far more likely for your horse to try again. Slowly but surely, you'll start to make progress and be able to start to ask for more. Resist any feeling of frustration, getting angry cannot help you here. The only way to train horses is to be clear, calm and consistent.
Simple things you can do to avoid napping
• Develop a relationship with your horse where he knows you are someone he can trust and take direction from.
• Be clear, calm and consistent in everything you do with your horse.
• Remember that whenever you are on your horse you are either training or un-training him - don't be lazy and decide not to bother insisting on a particular thing one day. Consistency is key.
• Finish your session in the school anywhere other than at the gate and avoid stopping by the gate mid-session for a chat with your friend.
• Remember to praise and reward your horse when you get any response that you ask for - he loves to know he's been good and that's how he knows how you want it done.
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