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Now that we know the most common causes of this behavior, let's take a closer look at how we can determine which category our horse falls under.
If your horse walks off the stirrups in a speedy or bolting manner, more likely than not the cause of the problem is fear or apprehension. When something concerns us enough we often recoil away from it, and that's what the horse is doing. Watch for other outward signs such as tensed muscles, bulging eyes, heavy breathing and any other signs of nervousness.
When your horse walks off with a slow to medium pace you next want to examine its demeanor. Is the horse sharp and attentive to your presence, almost eyeing you to gauge what your reaction will be? If so, chances are your horse is just testing you. He simply doesn't want to work or he wants to confirm whether or not you are indeed still the alpha leader. This can either be a harbinger of things to come or it can be a one-time test depending on your existing relationship with the horse as well as how quickly you establish firm and proper authority.
Does your horse tend to slowly plod forward with his head and neck drooped somewhat? Are his muscles relaxed and loose? If so, clearly your horse is not apprehensive about you or the ride ahead of him, nor is he testing your authority. He's just bored and wants to get the whole ordeal over with, so he's not paying proper attention to your status or your cues.
The fourth example – improper training – is often the most difficult to determine since the behavior can mimic any of the above. Some horses that were improperly trained may bolt on you while others may walk off in a seemingly bored manner. Let me provide a personal example.
I once owned a Quarter Horse who was an absolute gem; he was one of the most gentle and friendly horses a person could have the pleasure of knowing. Although he did not bolt ahead while the rider was trying to mount, the moment the rider's butt hit the saddle he'd surge forward like he was in the midst of a race. While it was possible to slow him down, the moment you dropped your guard he'd naturally kick into high speed again.
The problem? He was a gentle giant (on second thought, being a Quarter Horse perhaps a more accurate term would be "bulky giant") to be sure, but he was also an ex-barrel racer, and it was immediately clear his former owner knew only one speed: GO! Since the horse didn't have proper training, he was actually uncomfortable going at slower speeds because in the past it was clearly discouraged.
The good news is that after a few months of work and retraining he became just as comfortable with slow walks as he did with speedy canters and gallops. Although he didn't walk off the stirrups, exactly, it was almost the same thing since a novice rider wouldn't have been settled in properly and prepared before he took off.
Poor training can even cause nervous behavior (as in my Quarter Horse's case) even though the horse isn't nervous of YOU or the act of riding itself – he's nervous because he's being asked to do something he's never done much of before. This makes diagnosing poor training a little trickier than the aforementioned three causes, but with enough observation you'll eventually be able to get at the root of the problem.
Before you even attempt to take corrective actions to resolve walking off the stirrups, make sure you first understand your horse and his reasons for behaving as he is. I cannot stress that enough, because corrective actions applied incorrectly can do more harm than good.
Now that we have covered the causes for walking off the stirrups, we're ready to apply the necessary corrective actions. We'll cover those in the conclusion: Walking Off The Stirrups: Corrective Actions.