When A Horse Refuses To Move

By Terry Golson

In America, when a horse refuses to move, we call it balking. In Great Britain I’ve heard it called napping. The horse is labeled naughty and disobedient. At the least, riding a balky horse is frustrating, and at the worst, the horse can become dangerous, and rear and spin in an effort to avoid going forward. Usually, when the rider gives a light squeeze with their legs, an amenable horse walks on. Press a bit more, and the horse goes faster. But balky horses do the opposite. When you apply your leg, they brake. In response, many trainers will tell you to “get after your horse” – often with a whip. I’ve heard riders say that a way to cure a nappy horse is to force it to get going and then to keep it going (sometimes by riding them in fast, tight circles) and that in this way the horse will learn that balking leads to hard work (harder than what the horse was initially told to do.)

Tonka has become a balky horse, but I am not going to punish him for it.

On August 13, Tonka and I competed at show and came in High Point Open Champion of the day. Tonka was forward and willing. Later that week, during a ride, I felt him stiffen at the trot, but then he loosened up and continued on. A week after that, though, he definitively balked.

Here Tonka is walking, but when I squeeze lightly with my legs, he refuses to trot. This is so unusual for him, especially out in the field where he always happily goes forward when I ask. Here he clearly is saying NO. Notice that when I stop pressuring him, he returns to a relaxed walk. No anger, no grudge.


I called the vet. There wasn’t any obvious lameness in his limbs. His back wasn’t sore. But he certainly looked uncomfortable. Perhaps tummy trouble? We tried ulcer meds, but Tonka remained recalcitrant. We were in the process of scheduling further diagnostic tests when I was laid up with a broken foot. Perhaps a month of rest would cure what ailed my horse?

It didn’t. After four weeks of no riding, I got on. Tonka looked delighted to be about to do something.


Then he took a step and looked miserable. Then he took another step and balked. I got off.

My foot still needed to more time to heal. Maybe he did, too. I tried again two weeks later. Again, Tonka looked pleased that we were going to do something interesting. But after progressing only a few feet, he balked at simply walking. I hadn’t yet asked him to trot. This was worse than it had been a month before.


I got off. I double-checked the saddle (which recently had been custom fit for him) and put a super-soft sheepskin pad under it. This time, Tonka wouldn’t even let me on. This was totally out of character for him. He couldn’t have given me a clearer message if he had suddenly spoken to me in English, Please don’t get on. I hurt. (I do think he was saying please. Look how polite he’s trying to be!)


I scheduled an appointment at the large animal hospital at Tufts. Tomorrow Tonka will be going through a procedure called scintigraphy. It will allow the veterinarian to image his entire body to see where there might be pain and inflammation. I hope that we can diagnose this and find a way to get Tonka comfortable again. We both miss going out together.

17 thoughts on “When A Horse Refuses To Move

  • Tracy

    How frustrating. He’s lucky to have you, as I’m sure you know. As you noted, most people just force the situation and feel entitled to ride their horse despite clear pain indications. Fingers crossed that whatever ails him isn’t chronic. I’ve had a few “lawn ornaments” in my time and kept them because it was the right to do, but it isn’t much fun.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I bought him as a trail horse, and if all we can do are slow strolls, I’d still be happy. Of course, I’d love and keep him as a pasture pet, but we’d both be bored with that.

      • Tracy

        Great attitude and fingers crossed that upcoming tests identify exactly what’s up and that simple extended R & R will result in a rideable Tonka. Lucky he is so beautiful and such a charming boy in the barn…and of course, the fact that you weigh about two pounds is working in your favor for his long term prognosis, too! Hang in there, Terry.

  • Gin

    I know you’ve probably thought of this, but have you tried him bareback, or with a bareback pad, just to see what he does?

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I tried bareback when I first noticed the issue and Tonka said it was worse. His nose shot into the air. I tried again this last time (sorry, didn’t put that bit in the blog) and he said a very clear NO.

  • nikki negrea

    I’m so sorry Tonka is not well. Sometimes the imaging is helpful. Let’s hope it is this time. We all hope for Tonka’s speedy recovery.
    xo April & Nikki

  • nikki negrea

    Looking at the videos it may be his back. April was very tight after competing at Millbrook, and the vet couldn’t find anything definitive with her, including with ultrasound and radiographs. One of the trainers and competitors in my barn recommended I try electromagnetic pulse therapy (which stimulates rejuvenation at the cellular level) and April showed marked improvement the next day and every time afterward treatment. For her it was a muscular issue that responded very well to the treatment. It’s something to consider, if there is someone who does it nearby. I would be glad to give you more information.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Thanks, Nikki. The scintigraphy will tell us if it’s that. My guess is the SI joint. April works hard! It’s great that you have access to that therapy. My vet also has the ability to do that. We’ll see what the images can tell us…

  • Michelle

    Oh Terry, how frustrating and frightening. Sometimes it seems impossible to keep these dynamic, delicate creatures sound and comfortable. I hope the vets find the cause(s) and have good treatment options for your beautiful partner.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      If you check the categories on the right-hand side of this blog, you’ll see “sacroiliac joint.” Click there and you can find all of what we’ve done about this issue. Tonka is doing great!

Comments are closed.