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Guest Blog: My Top 3 Lessons From The Julie Goodnight Yoga & Riding Retreat

By Amy Herdy

I’m going to be brutally honest here: I was a fan of clinician Julie Goodnight before attending her  ”Women’s Riding and Yoga Retreats and Ranch Riding Weekend at C Lazy U Ranch” in Granby, Colorado.
But after four days of riding with Julie, that’s changed.
Now I’m a groupie.
I learned so much at this clinic that my brain is still buzzing, and you’re going to be reading about all the different lessons for a while. But today, I’m going to narrow down my favorite three, in the order in which they appeared:
  1. Golden Moments
  2. Headlamps
  3. Ba-Boom
More on those in a moment. But first…
Scrambling, or, Why It’s Not a Good Idea to be Late to a Horse Clinic
I was lucky enough to have a ride to the clinic with Bernadette Pflug, a horse owner and dog trainer in Louisville, and we made plans for her to pick up me and Yukon, my husband’s colt, at my barn at 9 a.m.
My new colt, who I have dubbed Freddie (after Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of  ”Queen,”) is still too green for something like this (for those who are following his progress, I’ll give a quick update on Freddie at the bottom of this).
But a meeting with some dog clients ran long, and Bernadette didn’t arrive until after 10:30 a.m., her mare Serena in the trailer.
It didn’t help that Yukon at first didn’t want to load next to Serena, although I really couldn’t blame him. She’s a 16.2 hand Percheron/Thoroughbred mare, who snorted and stamped her massive hooves as he started to load, craning her neck as far as she could to glare at him. Once he loaded, we gave them both enormous amounts of hay to keep them happy and took off.
The three-hour drive from Boulder to Granby is a lovely one through the mountains, but it still snows during the month of May, which of course it did just as we began climbing Berthoud Pass. Neither of us had driven a horse trailer through the mountains before, and it was loaded with two 1,300 pound horses.
We crept along.
We had no sooner pulled into the C Lazy U Ranch Guest Ranch & Resort than we realized just how late we were: Not only had we missed lunch, but dozens of women were already mounting up to ride.
My heart sank. My plan of doing lots of groundwork with Yukon–I’ve been poring over 101 Ground Training Exercises For Every Horse & Handlerwith all its great instruction– to get us both in the frame of mind to ride together went out the window. I hadn’t ridden in the six months since my mare became lame, and although Yukon is a pretty mellow horse, he’s not familiar to me. Of course I meant to ride him before the trip but since my leaving town for any length of time requires efforts equivalent to a full-scale military maneuver, I hadn’t had time.
To round out the scenario, a thunderstorm rolled in.
So as we unloaded two huge and restless horses from the trailer and hurriedly threw saddles on their backs, it began to rain, and then thunder, and then flash lightning. I was in such a hurry to join the rest of the group inside the large (heated, yay!) indoor arena that I didn’t have time to be nervous about how Yukon and I would do together. I tacked up, hopped on and fell in line.
Julie Goodnight was in the middle of the arena, her voice from a wireless mic coming through loud and clear from several speakers positioned around the arena. The first time we passed a speaker and Julie’s voice boomed out of it, Yukon bolted sideways–Spook #1.
But that’s also when I learned Lesson #1.
Golden Moments, or, “Horse, This is Your Captain Speaking”
Most of the 30 women were riding horses that belonged to the ranch, known as “stable horses.” A handful of us were riding “private horses,” but no matter if you were riding a horse familiar to you or not, Julie told us, you needed to take control, especially during the “Golden Moments.” Here’s how Julie puts it:
“I like to teach students to observe the “Golden Moments” of each ride—the first 10 minutes, when the horse is forming an opinion about how this ride will go and who is in charge.
Here are the important principles to follow: 1) the rider dictates the exact path of the horse, no argument, discussion or compromise (take your horse into the corners, come down the centerline, guide your horse over a specific piece of dirt in the arena);
2) rider controls speed (immediately correct any unauthorized change of speed, either up or down);
3) put your horse to work so he starts complying with the rider’s directives (doing turns, circles and transitions);
4) keep your horse isolated from other horses (there is a magnetic field around each horse and once you get close enough, you get sucked into it; your horse no longer listens to you, instead he takes his cues from the horse he’s being drawn into).
By spending 10 minutes focusing on independent control at the start of each lesson, the horses will be better, the riders will have more control and it will help you identify potential problems in the lesson.”
At the start of every ride, Julie told us, you should have a conversation with your horse, and it should start like this:
“Horse, this is your Captain speaking.” In other words, you’re the boss–no negotiation.
I guiltily thought of all the times I’d ridden my mare and let her meander where she wanted, which no doubt reinforced her “I’m the Queen Bee” attitude. Never again!
Seeing Light Through the Tunnel
trail riding on the gelding

Yukon and I pause during a trail ride on the second day of the four-day Julie Goodnight clinic. | Photo by Bernadette Pflug
The next day, Saturday, we did yoga in the morning and then went for a two-hour trail ride, where Yukon delivered Spooks #2 and #3: at a mud puddle (I’m not kidding), and a tree stump. The following day he spooked at some llamas and a long-horned steer, and after that, he adjusted to his new environment and didn’t spook anymore.
Our next clinic with Julie Goodnight was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and since we had split into two groups, it looked promising for individual attention. I vowed to tack up early and be ready. Instead, tired from the yoga and the trail ride and a pre-yoga run that morning at elevation that’s 2,500 feet higher than what I’m used to, I collapsed on my bed in our cabin after lunch, falling sound asleep while still wearing my jacket, hat, boots and half chaps.
Scooting late into the clinic once again, I joined the rest of the riders as Julie offered us tips on how to improve our seat.
Then Julie called everyone to a halt, and that’s when I learned Lesson #2:Headlamps.
“I heard this when I was about 16,” Julie said, “and it’s advice that has been around forever. I want you to imagine you’re riding through a tunnel that is created by all your aids—seat, legs, hands. As you ride, you reshape this tunnel to guide your horse where he needs to go.
“But this next part is something I came up with: I want you to visualize that you have headlights on your hips—they shine down the tunnel and illuminate the curves in the tunnel.”
She demonstrated by hopping off her new Quarter Horse colt, Eddie (more on him at a later date, he’s adorable), and standing in the arena with her knees bent, twisting from her torso.
“So with a headlamp on each hip, you turn your body to shine a light on where you want to go. The horse will feel a shift in your weight, and if you’re turning right, your weight will be on your left seat bones, and if you’re turning left, your weight will be on your right seat bones. This is using your seat to help guide your horse. Try to to turn your horse using just your seat.”
Whoa Means You Don’t Go
We kept our reins loose and our hands forward on our horse’s necks while Julie asked us to practice increasing or decreasing our horse’s speed by livening our leg or weighting our seat.
And then she asked us to stop our horses without using our reins. That didn’t work with Yukon, who is very sweet but who I’ve nicknamed “Doe-di-doe.” We would trot along, I’d say, “Whoa,” flop my weight back, and…he’d continue to trot merrily along. So I’d end up pulling on the reins every time to get him to stop.
Julie Goodnight rides the gelding

Julie Goodnight rides Yukon, my husband’s gelding, during day two of her clinic. | Photo by Amy Herdy
After three or four repeats of that, Julie (who seems to notice EVERYTHING), asked me to hop off the gelding so she could demonstrate how it’s supposed to be done (and I shot a video of it that will be onMyHorse Daily on Tuesday, so be sure to check for it).
“I’m going to use my voice, then I’m gonna sit down hard, and then I’m gonna use my reins,” Julie told us as guided Yukon around the arena at a slow jog. “So it’s going to be in this rhythm: Voice, sit, reins.”
And that’s when I learned Lesson Number 3: Ba-Boom.
Yukon wasn’t listening to my voice and seat because there was no incentive for him to do so–in other words, no meaningful correction when he ignored me.
“So here we go,” Julie said as she trotted around on Yukon. “Whoa (he continued to trot), sit (still he trotted as she flopped back), reins.” And with that, she pulled back on the reins in quick right-left succession-Ba-Boom!–in such a way that the gelding got the message. I could see his eyes widen in surprise.
Julie Goodnight corrects the gelding

Julie Goodnight corrects the gelding when he doesn’t stop after being asked. | Photo by Amy Herdy
“Make him uncomfortable,” Julie said as she backed him several steps. “Make him back up. Make it so he says, ‘What can I do to avoid that rein stuff?’ ”
You’d have thought the gelding would learn it the first time, but it actually took several corrections until Yukon hit the brakes before she used the reins.
“The cue is my voice and my seat,” Julie told the class. “The reins are the reinforcement–it’s a correction for him not listening to my voice and seat.”
Julie handed Yukon back to me and for the rest of the time, when I said “Whoa” he’d skid to a halt. “I’m bringing you back a better-trained horse,” I told my husband on the phone that night.
C Lazy U Ranch menu

One of the dinner menus for the Julie Goodnight clinic at the C U Lazy Ranch. | Photo by Amy Herdy
By the end of the weekend, we’d been on three trail rides and had four clinics with Julie, in addition to yoga, hot tubbing and fantastic meals that included items such as grilled New York Strip with Gorganzola cream sauce  or Black Bass with Sun-Dried Tomatoes (for the carnivores) and Romaine with Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette and Midwest Rice Blend and Herb-Roasted Baby Squash (for the vegans like me), as well as desserts like Cayenne-Infused Chocolate Lava Cake or chocolate-covered strawberries.
two cowgirls

Bernadette Pflug, left, and I get ready to go to dinner at the C Lazy U Ranch. | Photo courtesy of Amy Herdy
I’ve already made plans to attend next year, and this time, I’m bringing my own colt.
Please visit Goodnight’s sites for more information and training tips:
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