What causes a horse to rack and how do you correct it?  Very simply stated, racking is a deviant form of the running walk.  Racking is a “steppy” up and down movement which is the opposite of the elongated, sliding forward motion of the running walk.

Standing on the rail at a show you will often hear the remark that a horse is racking because it is not shaking its head.  It is possible for a horse to perform the running walk without a head shake.  Increasing your speed at the running walk will often cause the horse to stop shaking its head.

The difference between the rack and the running walk is the pattern of the footfall.  A horse performing a correct running walk will have three feet on the ground at a time while a horse which is racking will only have one foot on the ground at a time. The most important thing to note on the rack is that it is a very airy movement while the running walk is low to the ground and sliding.

Racking can also be due to physical structure.  If you have a horse which is square bodied, over-collected or flat- crouped, it may rack instead of run walk.  Normal walking horse conformation should possess a sloped pelvis and an open, free shoulder.  If your horse has a lack of forward movement from his hips or shoulder, the result may be that he shortens up his forward movement and racks so that he does not have to expend as much energy pushing his legs forward in an aggressive manner.

Jigging is a rack in its most extreme form.  A barn sour horse will engage in jigging in his perceived desperate need to get back to a safe place where the rider will not make any more demands.  The fear of leaving this safety zone may be environment based or it can be caused by a lack of direction or support coming from the rider.

Horses will rack because they are intimidated or confused.  Racking can also be the result of a horse that is too excited which has caused him to stiffen up in the spine and his neck becomes frozen into an inflexible position.  This tightened ball of nerves produces a staccato racking movement.

Relaxation and proper cueing are necessary to correct the problem. To encourage relaxation, it may be necessary for you, as the rider, to rethink your approach.  Walking the horse periodically will help by allowing him to refocus.  If you find that your horse is over collected, try switching to a bit that draws the nose out like a Springsteen snaffle or a short shank double twisted wire bit.

When you are in the saddle, mentally visualize a long low head; nose out; and long, low to the ground, sweeping strides.  Turn your horse in long sweeping turns, not jerks.  Slow your commands down to four second intervals instead of one second jerks.  Allow the horse to choose to turn or stop before using discipline.  If your horse becomes hyper, use discipline on yourself, as the rider, and lead by example.  Never yell at or hit your horse.  If you grow frustrated, take a break and stand or walk for awhile.  Focus on rewarding correct behavior and ignoring mistakes.  If you find yourself focusing on mistakes, you are contributing to the horse’s lack of confidence and you may frustrate him further. Try to create an environment of total calm.

Horses have a very military mindset.  They expect things to have their place and time.  A horse which is not fed on a regular daily schedule will fret and worry over late feeding and will not calm down for a workout.  The stall is its home and it should be a peaceful place.  Horses can become nervous or hyper if someone is yelling at them or being intolerant of them while cleaning stalls.  If your horse is being boarded away from home, you might want to investigate to assure yourself that a regular feeding schedule is maintained and that those who handle your horse in your absence are doing so in a proper manner.  Be consistent and calm whenever you deal with your horse and you will find that he will reciprocate.

The horse should always be focused on you, the rider.  If you are confronted with a situation where your horse loses his focus and is not confident, you must re-establish control without losing relaxation.  Use rein pressure to guide his movement, retuning to normal riding pressure as soon as his head is in the correct position.  Use your legs to keep him from backing up and to drive him through the difficult situation.  Relax your leg pressure immediately after it has been applied to allow the horse to relax.  You are guiding movement with the reins and supporting that movement with your legs.  Do not permit yourself to lock up your arms and legs into stiffness or the horse will become hyper.  Instead, give the cues and relax.  If the horse needs repetition, repeat the commands until he complies and is relaxed at the same time.  It will not do any good to achieve correct behavior if the horse becomes hyper in the process.  So take your time and relax.

As a reward for calm behavior, at the walk, let your reins go loose and long.  This is the horse’s time when he can express himself.  He should be allowed to sniff and look at anything he wishes to so long as he continues to move forward in the last direction asked of him.  When you wish to move on, come to a complete stop, gather the reins and cue him forward.  By cueing, you have no miscommunication and the horse moves off in a relaxed manner.

Stiffness creates fear.  Being a herd animal, he will follow the leader.  If a horse that he has buddied up with is hyper and dominant, your horse will copy this action.  If the rider has established dominance and is stiff, the horse will interpret this as fear and will become tense.

Try to remain still in the saddle so that the horse can concentrate on his job and will not be distracted away from important cues.  Cue the horse when necessary with distinction and consistency so that the horse is sure of the command.  Be soft and slow with cues so that he will not overreact.  All cues should be given on a four second count, 1-2-3-4.  On one, pressure begins to be put on the reins.  On two, the horse feels the pressure.  On three, the horse may choose to react to the cue.  On four, contact is made in the mouth as a command.  This is gentle and slow.  When the horse obeys, release the pressure in a two second count, 1-2.  This is quicker than the command cue but does not allow the horse to be dropped.  Imagine pressure on your mouth that you are using to balance and then it is gone.  You will fall forward.  A two second cue release allows the horse to rebalance himself and obey.

Another good tip is to never talk from the horse’s back except at the walk.  The walk is the horse’s time and he is probably already ignoring you.  However, when you are moving forward at speed, the horse is responsible to obey all cues, including verbal.  It is best not to confuse the horse with mindless chatter while he is working.  Allow the horse to concentrate on his job while you are moving and allow him to relax and enjoy the ride while he is walking.  This is his reward and will double his focus and he will be quick to relax at the walk knowing that it is his time to enjoy.

When relaxation has been established and you want to start reanimating your horse, concentrate on the pelvis.  The pelvis should be rolled under.  The hocks should slide forward in a slow, long striding motion, not jerking in an upward motion.  To roll the pelvis under, leg pressure must be applied to the horse’s belly directly behind the girth.  You may wish to wear spurs to assist in applying this cue.  If you do use spurs, use them in a pressing motion, not a jabbing one.  Brush the horse’s sides with the spurs first.  Most horse will comply with this softer aid.  Use leg aids to the belly only if the horse remains relaxed.

An alternative method to roll the pelvis is the use of a whip.  Leg aids will lift the belly to roll the pelvis under, while a tap on the rear with the whip directly cues the pelvis.  Also, the horse usually will not associate the whip with the rider.  Using the whip should be a two step process.  First, a light tap on the rear which the horse may respond to; and second, only after the horse ignores the first cue, a swat to remind him what the whip is for.  Always give the horse a chance to obey first, then discipline.  Soon he will obey all cues on the tips of your fingers and the change of your weight.

Remember to repeat all cues perfectly every time.  This is the horse’s language and he will respond to you quicker with clarity.  Whips should always touch the same place for the same reason, as should your legs.  Your body position and rein pressure should also be consistent.  The horse learns when the rider is focused and shows perfect discipline.

It is important to remember that animation is the result of compressing the horse by:  (1) collecting the head and neck; and (2) lifting the belly and rolling the pelvis under.  Putting the horse in this position causes the compression and the release is animation.  If the motion cannot go forward, it will go up and under.  Resist forward movement at the bit and drive the rear end under with the legs.  This will cause the horse to lift its front legs high because of the compression.

With a horse that racks, it is very important to release the cues to a softer pressure when correct behavior has been obtained. Freeing him up to shake his head and relax.  This does not mean that you then allow his rear end to come back up.  The horse must maintain correct body position.  If he loses correct body position, ask again, calmly.  It is a good idea to go slowly and to not repeat this exercise too many times a day.  If the horse gets excited by this exercise, stop, relax him and work on something else.

To me, a good example of relaxed animation is the victory pass at any show.  The rider has already won the class and has nothing to lose.  The rider, being relaxed, allows the horse to move off on a looser rein while remaining collected.  The horse is motivated to animate because he is happy to leave the arena.  The slight restraint used to control speed animates the horse and the relaxed rider flows with the horse’s motion.  By not pulling on the reins and forcing animation, the horse is left to freely shake its head.  What you are watching is a horse being cued and released, directed but free to move at a low stress level.  It is true that the horse is motivated by wanting out of the ring and moves forward because the rest of the herd has already left the ring.  The major change has taken place in the rider.  The rider has relaxed and moves with the motion of the horse.  The horse is focused because he is confined within a ring and relaxed because he knows what is expected of him.  This result can be duplicated anywhere by concentrating on giving perfect cues and remaining calm and relaxed at all times.


Barbara Blue Daicoff
Murfreesboro, TN
Cell. 931-993-9370

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Last Updated: November 22, 2012