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Behavior Bummers

Does your trail horse paw, walk off when you mount up, or go at an inconsistent speed? Correct these behavioral woes with these techniques from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.


Horses behave in the way they’re most motivated to act at the moment. Sometimes, what we might call “bad” behavior is simply what your horse has been trained to do — or what he’s been allowed to get away with.

If your horse thinks he’s in charge or that there’s no penalty for behaving badly, his behavior may turn from annoying to dangerous.

When I’m trail riding, I want to relax and take in the scenery. I want a horse that’s calm in his new environment and isn’t pawing as we get going or taking off too soon when I saddle up.

I also want a horse that goes at the speed I choose. I may want to relax and ride slowly, or pick up speed and have a little fun when the terrain allows.

You have to be a strong leader for your horse to act as your partner, and follow your lead and expectations. You have to teach him what you expect and be consistent with your rules so he knows how you expect him to act on and off the trail.

When your horse knows you’re the leader, you won’t have to micromanage him on the trail. You’ll gain confidence, knowing he’ll be a patient, willing trail partner.

Here, I’ll explain my three top pet peeves when it comes to trail-horse behavior. I’ll tell you what caused the behavior, why it’s annoying, and how to avoid or fix the behavior so that it doesn’t detract from your riding enjoyment.


Before You Begin

Don an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet. Practice these skills at home, on a flat area with good footing. Set up productive training scenarios geared toward success on the trail. When you’re ready to test your horse’s skills on the trail, go alone, without riding buddies, so you can concentrate on reinforcing good behavior.

Behavior Bummer #1: Impatient Pawing

What caused it: Pawing is a gesture that horses use to communicate that they’re frustrated and wish they were moving. Many horses get frustrated when they’re asked to do something that they don’t want to do. Your trail horse might paw when you hold him back from moving on with a big group of horses. He wants to get moving and stay with the herd. He might also paw when he’s bored, and you’re not paying attention to him, such as when he’s tied inside or to your trailer, or during a riding break.

Why it’s annoying: If your trail horse is highlined, his pawing can harm the terrain. Inside the trailer, pawing is loud and distracting. He can injure himself if he’s allowed to continue and throw a fit.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: Using the technique I describe below, teach your horse to stand tied without showing any signs of frustration or impatience. Teach him to stand quietly as you groom him, tie him to a post, and during your designated training time.

Your horse will soon learn that there’s no sense in getting frustrated or showing impatience — pawing doesn’t lead to a release or a reward. He’ll learn not to waste energy if pawing has no reward.

To teach your horse to stand tied, start teaching him to ground-tie every time you work with him. Outfit him with a rope halter and 15-foot training lead. Holding the lead in one hand, turn and face him. Give a verbal cue to “whoa.” If he stands quietly, lay down the middle of the rope. (Maintain your hold on the end of the rope if you must correct your horse often.)

If your horse moves a hoof or turns his head too far to the side, correct him by moving the rope in a snapping motion toward the halter, and return him back where he started.

When your horse knows he must stand still, lay the rope on the ground to test him even more. (Note that this process takes time to develop.)

When your horse understands that you have authority and that he must follow your voice command, the cue to stand still can carry over to any time he’s tied. Tie him, tell him “whoa,” and walk away. If he paws, avoid approaching him to give him any kind of attention. You must expect him to do what he knows how to do — stand still.

If your horse paws often, make sure he spends time tied at home in a safe environment before expecting the behavior to diminish on the trail. He should stand tied for up to an hour (making sure he’s in the shade and has access to water and before and after).

During the time your horse is tied, leave him alone; don’t approach him if he paws. Attention of any kind would reward him for the behavior. If you run back to your pawing horse, and give him attention, he’ll think his pawing caused you to come back.

If your older horse has an ingrained pawing problem while standing tied, ask a professional trainer to help you train your horse to stop pawing by using soft, rebraided cotton hobbles. Use caution, and make sure your horse is monitored by someone who’s done the process many times.

Note: If you’re under saddle and your horse begins to paw, you mustn’t hold him still. He’s having an emotional meltdown and won’t be able to keep his feet still. Instead, move him in turns from right to left to keep him moving but focused on you. When he seems calmer, ask him to stand again. If he doesn’t stand still, turn him to the right and left again — making it a challenge not to listen and easy to stand still and be patient.

Behavior Bummer #2: Walking Off as You Mount Up

What caused it: A horse should learn from the very first time that he’s ridden that mounting doesn’t mean “go.” Most horses that walk off without a cue either never learned the skill as a colt or have been untrained by the rider.

This movement without a cue annoys me, because I want the horse to see me as the leader. If he steps off without a cue, he thinks he’s in charge from the first step of our ride. I don’t want that first interaction to be one of disrespect and disobedience.

Horses constantly look for patterns in your cueing and, if allowed, may come to their own conclusions about what they should do next. If you never require your horse to stand still when you mount up, he’ll quickly learn a new pattern — a person sitting in the saddle means “go.”

Why it’s annoying: Your horse soon learns to step forward as soon as you sit down or put your foot in the stirrup. The trend worsens until you have trouble stepping into the stirrup without your horse walking off.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: This problem is easy to prevent. Don’t allow your horse to step forward at all until you actively give a cue to step forward.

If your once-well-trained horse suddenly decides that he should step off without a cue, go back to ground work, and ask him to stand perfectly still with a rope halter and long training lead (similar to the ground-tying lesson described earlier).

Ask your horse to stand still by pointing your toes toward his shoulder and giving a verbal cue to “whoa.” Then correct him every time he takes a step or moves his nose to the side. Wave the lead rope toward the halter as a correction.

When your horse will stand still on command with a halter and lead, saddle up, and place his bridle under the rope halter with the lead attached. (Never correct your horse by pulling on the bit or bridle reins — the pressure from the halter and lead is enough and prevents you from harming his mouth.)

Keep your expectation that your horse will stand still as you start to mount up. Mount slowly, with the lead line in hand. Watch for the moment he begins to move. If he takes a step, step down, and correct him, requiring him to stand still.

If you get so far as to sit in the saddle, your correction switches to controlling your horse with the reins. Keep your reins short enough so that you can control him immediately if he takes a step. If he does take a step, sit back and pull back on the reins, and require him to stand still.

If your horse is agitated and anxious, and continues to move his feet, put him to work. Circle to the left; circle to the right; circle again to the left. Then allow him to stop and take a break. Reward him if he stands still. If he wants to walk off again, repeat the circling exercise. Show him that standing still is what you asked for and is the easiest option.

Sometimes a horse that won’t stand still may be uncomfortable because of the rider’s static weight (horses are built for strength while moving, not while standing still) or because his saddle doesn’t fit. He may shift from side-to-side and fidget. You might get the impression that he’s attempting to stand still, as he’s otherwise not showing impatience or seeming to want to do something different.

If your horse fidgets from side-to-side rather than walking forward when you ask him to stand, consider checking saddle fit and consulting a veterinary chiropractor.

Behavior Bummer #3: Going Too Slow or Too Fast

What caused it: You’re not in control of your horse’s speed, and therefore, not in control of your horse. In the saddle, there are two things you should control — speed and direction. If you don’t control how slowly or quickly your horse moves, you aren’t the one in charge. If he hasn’t been trained to follow cues to go at the speed you

dictate, you need to train him now.

Why it’s annoying: Riding a trail horse that only moves slowly or takes off at full speed (with no middle gears) is annoying for you and for anyone riding with you. Other horses have to work to keep up so the group can stay together. A horse acting badly can get the whole group amped up to go at a fast speed that no one really wants. If you’re dealing with a speed demon, you might feel frantic and out of control.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: If your horse ignores your speed cues — and takes off at a pace that you don’t want — first make sure you know how to perform the emergency-stop cues. (To learn how to safely use a pulley rein, and perform the one-rein stop, go to

Practice a one-rein  slow-down  technique at home in a flat area with good footing. Turning a horse quickly with the one rein stop on the trail can cause him to lose his balance and fall. Also, not all trails have the space needed for a horse to turn. When you practice this turning technique at home, you’ll soon teach your horse that he can continue to move forward, but at a slower pace.

When your horse speeds up, pick up one rein, and pull it up and back toward your opposite shoulder. This will cause him to turn and disengage the hindquarters.

Any time your horse speeds up without a cue, slide your hand down one rein and start to pull up and back. With enough repetition, you can teach the horse that when you slide your hand down the rein, you’ll be slowing or stopping him, and he should slow down. He doesn’t have to make a full turn. He knows what’s coming next and will learn to slow his gait while moving ahead. Soon, your horse will slow down easily when you pick up slightly on one rein.

You can also  check and release  your horse. Pull up and back on the reins as you sit deep into the saddle, then immediately release when your horse slows. He’ll learn that you want to slow down.

Be very careful not to pull on the reins with constant pressure — that will actually teach the horse to pull against you and continue to move fast. If you don’t release at the first hint that he’s slowed, you’ll cue him to fight against you and cause a tug-of-war.

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  1. My horse is definately wanting to speed up when asked to trot.. He gradually speeds up to wanting to cantor. One rein crossover to shoulder is the most effective training tool? Anything else I can try??

    • Hello Lee, Julie has a library membership on her website: It’s only $9.95 for the monthly membership. She has hundreds of articles, podcasts and videos. Here’s one I found on slowing down your horse.
      Teach Your Horse To Slow Down
      Posted on August 22, 2014Leave a comment
      Speed Demon: Teach your horse to slow down on command

      Dear Julie,
      My 12-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse is always in a hurry—even to get around the arena! I’m always pulling back on her mouth to slow her down, but she speeds up again right away. We’re in a constant battle. My friend suggested I use a stronger bit, but I hate the thought of putting even more pressure on her mouth. What can I do to help her slow down so we can both have a relaxed and peaceful ride?
      Searching for Slow

      Dear Searching,
      Sometimes it seems like there are only two kinds of horses in this world: horses with too much go and horses with too much whoa. In the overall scheme of things, a slow horse is easier to fix than a fast one, but there are some important things to know about slowing down your fast horse.
      Since speediness is related to the horse’s flight response, it’s safe to assume that the speed demons are sensitive horses; they’re often anxious. They just have that wound up temperament—just like a person who’s prone to worrying. If you can show your horse a better way to be—he’ll gladly relax and slow down.

      Because being speedy has to do with his overall temperament, a stronger bit probably won’t help and may make matters worse. When your horse feels the increased pressure on his mouth, he may become even more anxious. And guess what horses do when they become anxious? Speed up! That’s the flight response by definition. In the wild, a horse would flee the scene if he felt insecure or worried. Under saddle, your horse speeds up and attempts to avoid the worrisome experience.

      Many riders don’t know what to do with their speed demons—so they pull back on their horses’ mouths. It sounds like this is the frustration you’re explaining. When your horse is speedy, you ride with the reins tight all of the time—never giving your horse slack. In essence, it’s like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brakes. Your horse is already to accelerate and—although you think you’re telling him to slow down—he hasn’t felt a release (what he needs to experience in order to learn another way) to tell him to do anything but keep going at his current speed. If the release never comes (even if it’s only momentary when he slows down at the tiniest of increments), he’ll never learn the right response. This fear-causing scenario may cause you to pull back more and your horse to speed up even more. You may also be inadvertently cueing your horse to go faster if your body becomes tense and you lean forward to pull harder on the reins. Your body tells your horse to go-go-go while you think you’re telling him to stop. Volume two in my Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD series explains how your weight/center of gravity cues your horse and rates your speed.

      And let’s think about the mechanics of what happens in your horse’s mouth when you get into this pulling fest. Even with no pressure on the reins, it’s not pleasant for your horse to have a metal bar in his mouth. Any pull on the reins brings uncomfortable pressure. I like to empathize with the horse by thinking what it’s like to have x-rays of my teeth taken at the dentist. The slightest pressure on my gums or roof of my mouth with that little cardboard piece of film makes me cringe. Keep in mind that horses have nerves in their lips, gums and palate just like we do and the pressure can be sharp and may come without any warning. Some horses tolerate pressure on their mouths better than others. For a sensitive, anxious horse, more pressure on the mouth makes him more anxious and therefore faster.

      The correction: When I work with “speed demon” horses, I start by placing a milder bit in his mouth and riding with a loose rein. You’d be surprised how many horses will be cured—slowing down immediately—with those two simple steps. If you’ve become fearful of your horse and going fast, you may ask an experienced horse person or local trainer for help during this initial step.

      If a horse is still speedy, I teach him that slow is good. When he slows down, he’ll get the release he’s looking for. Here’s how:

      1. For this exercise, work in an enclosed arena and outfit your horse in a mild snaffle with a nice long rein (a single-loop rope rein works well for this exercise, see for the recreational rein I designed). Keep in mind that the worst thing you can do is pull back with two reins at the same time. That makes a speedy horse brace his neck, lean into the pressure and go faster.

      2. Start by walking your horse on a totally loose rein. There should be a huge loop in the reins and your knuckles should be down on the horse’s neck (there must be a dramatic difference between contact and loose rein so he can figure it out). If he won’t walk with his head down on a loose rein, continue to practice the rest of the exercise at the walk until he lowers his head and shows you that he understands that he’ll get a release when he’s slow and relaxed.
      When your knuckles are in contact with the horse’s neck, he’ll always relax because he knows you can’t pull on his mouth as long as your hands are on his neck. He’ll learn to modify his behavior in any way if it makes you put your knuckles on his neck and give him a loose rein.

      3. Give your horse a gentle, soft cue to trot (some speedy horses you don’t have to cue to trot, but just think trot). If your horse lurches into the trot like he was shot out of a cannon, you’re probably over-cueing him.

      4. Out of habit, he’ll start going too fast. Instead of hauling back on two reins and falling into your same old trap, slowly slide your hand down one rein (either one), then slowly lift that hand up and in just a little, asking the horse to flex his neck to that side. You aren’t trying to slow him down with your hand, just asking him to flex his nose around toward your foot.

      Over-flex his neck, allowing him to turn with the outside rein totally slack. Keep him over-flexed on the turn until you feel him slow a little, then immediately drop that rein dramatically, and put your knuckles on his neck with a totally slack rein. He’ll probably speed up again. Slowly and gently pick up the other rein and over-flex him in the opposite direction, giving him a giant release (allowing slack in the rein) as soon as you feel his rhythm slow. Whenever he speeds up, pick up one rein and flex him (always alternate reins); whenever he slows, give the giant release. You’ll teach him to hold himself in a steady speed, without your constant nagging.

      The outcome: Since going in a small circle with his neck over-flexed is really hard and going straight slowly is really easy, he’ll figure out how to move ahead easily at a slow and rhythmic pace. It’s not the turn that slows him down so much as the flexing his neck from one side to the other.

      Depending on how good your timing is and how quickly your horse learns (those two things are directly related) it may take him a few repetitions or a few weeks to learn. With consistency, your horse will learn that all he has to do is go slowly and he can go straight on a loose rein.

      Good luck with your horse and with a little work, you can teach your horse a better way so that you’re both happier! There’s lots of information on my website, that can help you along the way.

      Enjoy the ride!

  2. How do you get a very mouthy hose to get out of your space when leading
    He wants to constantly turn his nose toward you. He is a 4 year old and just got him from a ranch in Missouri. He was started on heading
    Thanks for any response

    • Hello Betty, Julie Goodnight has a Library Membership with hundreds of training videos, articles and podcasts. Here’s an article I found in her library.
      My Horse Drags Me, Circles Me And Bumps Into Me When Leading
      Posted on August 21, 20141 comment
      Are you dragged, stepped on and rammed each time you lead your horse? Is your horse anxious and eager to get wherever you’re going? Does he circle you, causing you to constantly pull back to “put him in his place?” Have you resorted to a stud chain strung across your horse’s nose in order to gain control and to guarantee you’ll have “brakes?”

      If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to make your horse a willing walking partner. You’re in the lead; you’re in charge.

      The Reason
      Simply put, some horses have never been taught manners. Worse, some humans have never learned an effective method to manage horses from the ground. If you use the push-pull-and drag method of horse leading, it’s time for change. Your horse’s behavior shows that he’s not respectful. If you keep up your ultra-allowing ways, you may risk physical harm—your horse must know his place in the herd and not think he can challenge you, his natural leader.

      No child ever learned table manners on his own. Children need direction and a chance to learn. In the same way, your horse needs you to set boundaries, enforce rules and to act like the herd leader. A horse desperately wants to be accepted into the herd—he needs the herd for his survival. In a natural herd environment, the dominant horse will “teach” the other horses the manners of the group. The leader will be consistent and strong when he corrects the other horses. Once you can demonstrate to the horse that you’ll be a fair and effective leader, he’ll gladly follow you anywhere in a direction and speed dictated by you. But first, he has to learn to follow the rules you establish.

      The Solution
      You must know “proper manners” before you teach them to your horse. Horses are excellent at following rules when they are clearly defined and consistently enforced. When it comes to handling horses, from the ground or the saddle, I have a few crucial rules.

      Rule #1, don’t move your feet unless I tell you too.
      Rule #2, keep your nose in front of your chest at all times
      Rule #3, when I ask you to, move your feet in the exact direction I say and the exact speed I dictate.
      Rule #4, keep doing whatever it’s I asked you to do until I tell you to stop.
      If a horse breaks a rule—whether on purpose or accidentally—he’ll meet with an immediate and judicious correction. For instance, when I lead a horse, I expect him to walk in a very specific place; slightly beside me and slightly behind me, following the rules above. When he’s in that place, I make sure he’s comfortable; at any time he’s not in that place, I put pressure on him that makes him uncomfortable. The horse finds the safe and comfortable place and will pay close attention to you so that he always knows where he should be.

      If I speed up, he speeds up; if I slow down to a snail’s pace, he matches me step for step, always remaining in his designated space to my side and behind my lead hand. To make it easy for my horse, I keep my lead hand up and out in front of me; pointing in the direction we are headed. My hand stays in a consistent place, giving hand signals to my horse as we move from point to point; it’s an easy landmark for the horse to follow.

      If my horse doesn’t stay right with me, I’ll make sure to correct him with quick timing and the appropriate pressure. With immediate and consistent corrections, a horse will learn within a few minutes that he’s not allowed to get in front of me. I pretend that on the end of the fingers on my lead hand, is a solid brick wall. At any time that my horse’s nose comes in contact with the “brick wall,” I immediately turn around aggressively, shank him hard, stomp my feet and hiss and spit at him. The horse pedals backwards quickly. If you’re consistent in your corrections, only getting after him when he crosses a very specific line, he’ll quickly learn to stay within his boundaries.

      Timing and pressure are everything when it comes to training horses. Whether you’re rewarding a horse (by a release of pressure or by praise) or correcting a horse, it must happen within three seconds of the behavior you wish to influence. This quick timing is crucial if your horse is to make an association between his behavior and your actions. The sooner the reward or correction occurs, the more likely the horse is to make the right association. Think three seconds is quick? The optimal time frame is actually one half of one second.

      In addition to your quick timing, you must also know how much pressure to use during your correction. When I make a correction because the horse touched the “brick wall” with his nose, I need to make the horse uncomfortable and bothered so he thinks, “what do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” Depending on the horse, the amount of pressure will vary. The pressure could be just a growl and cross-eyed look or turning around, stomping your feet, swinging the rope and generally having a “hissy fit.” You’ll quickly learn how much you need to do to get the desired uncomfortable reaction from your horse. You’ll know he’s uncomfortable when he tosses his head, runs backwards and looks noticeably uncomfortable. Whatever pressure is required to get that reaction from your horse, use just that amount—no more or no less pressure. You’re simply stating your rules, not causing undue stress.

      Remember, a horse seeks comfort and security above all else. By being an effective leader to your horse, having solid rules that are consistently and fairly enforced, he’ll quickly learn that when he’s following the rules he’s comfortable; when he breaks a rule, he’ll be uncomfortable, thus making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. He’ll have control over his comfort–by simply being Mr. Manners he’ll feel comfortable. When he knows his manners and follows the rules regularly, he’ll be secure in your leadership, wanting only to please you and be a part of your herd.

      To learn how to teach your horse other important ground From the Ground Up, especially Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership. These and other training tools are available on DVD or streaming at

      Sincerely, Diana

  3. The one rain release was a very helpful tip. Thank you.

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