Looking Back: The Journey of Goodnight Training Stables

Photograph of Pepsea and Julie

Photograph of Pepsea and Julie

It was about 34 years ago that I took the big plunge and started my own business, Goodnight Training Stables. Back then, I simply imagined a fun and active life, training and caring for horses. Little did I know, that a few decades later, I’d be a TV personality and own a media production company. I didn’t really see that coming.

Horses are still our central focus, but my how times have changed! Keep in mind that when I founded my business, the internet had not been invented yet, football-sized cell phones were just coming on the market and most people didn’t even use computers. Business operations were much different back then!

I graduated from college in New Mexico in 1984 and moved to Colorado to chase my other passion—snow skiing.As was always the case with me, I got offered horse jobs as soon as people learned I had experience (there’s no shortage of horses that need help with their humans). I worked as a trail guide and hunting camp wrangler, then as a trainer and barn manager at an Arabian breeding and show barn. All the while, I was trying to figure out what I should do for a living. If not horses, then what?

Eventually, two important thoughts became clear to me: 1) since I am now two years out of college and still working horses, perhaps I should consider a career with horses, and 2) if I am going to last in the horse business, I have to be working for myself—doing things MY way. That is the basis on which Goodnight Training Stables was founded, clear back in 1985.

I was fortunate to find a vacated stables owned by a property owners association and I got a great deal on the lease—all I had to do was provide trail riding to the public and fix up the run down facility. It was a win-win for all of us and in no time the facility was ship-shape and full of happy horses there as boarders, training horses or dude horses.

A few years later, I started a girl’s riding camp—a popular program for horse-crazy little girls (a subject I could relate to), and I knew exactly what they wanted—to eat, sleep and breathe horses. Soon, the moms started asking me to do riding camps for adults, and a new aspect of my business emerged. Eventually I was conducting eleven week-long clinics for adults each summer, managing about 20 school horses and training outside horses on the side.

Photo Credit: Lucy Koehler

As the demand grew, I began traveling more and offering clinics on the road. Soon it became clear that it made more sense for me to travel to the horses than to make them come to me, in this remote little Colorado mountain town. About 15 years ago, I stopped doing clinics at home, re-purposed all of the school horses, and started teaching exclusively on the road. Today, I travel about 130 days a year, teaching people and training horses, both domestically and abroad.

Early in this business game, I learned that developing products to help people ride and manage their horses better, would be important to sustaining and growing a business. Just so you know how long ago that was, my very first product was an audio cassette tape. We thought we were really going high-tech when we switched to CDs. And yes, my first videos, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, were only available in VHS tapes! Fast forward to today, even DVDs are dinosaurs as we all learn to consume our media online and through streaming videos on-demand.

The information and education on horses and riding are just as pertinent today as it was then, it’s the technology and how we consume the information that has changed. My entire career’s worth of work– every article I’ve written, every audio I’ve recorded and TV shows and training videos are available online, by subscription.

Who knew that having a horse business would require you to stay on top of technological advances and the changes in human behavior that result?

In 2008, I had the opportunity to start a TV show, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight, where I took the biggest detour in my business and jumped into broadcast TV with both feet. There was a steep learning curve at first, but fast-forward eleven years and 260 episodes, and we had it down to a science. Horse Master became a super popular, unscripted, how-to horse training show, where I work with a different horse/rider pair in each episode.

The TV show has opened a lot of doors for me and set the stage for bigger things to come. We’ve now begun production of a brand new TV series about the horse lifestyle and how horses have remained relevant in our society, more than a century after the combustion engine rendered them obsolete.

Today, I operate an online retail sales and a media production company, all centered on horses. I train horses and teach people almost every single day, but the engine that drives my business is retail sales and media. We will never lose sight of how important horses are in our lives and in our business. Everyone on my team is a horse lover and a rider.

We all love going to work every day and we’re fortunate to be involved in a business that we’re passionate about. We’ll never lose sight of the fact that our customers are passionate about horses and that this is a labor of love. We focus on products that make your horse life easier and better. Our motto is, “Helping horses, one human at a time.”

Thank you to everyone who has supported my small business for the last 34 years and counting!

Dealing with the Death of a Horse

Eddie and Julie's husband Rich, with his head bowed, black and white photo.

Eddie and Julie's husband Rich, with his head bowed, black and white photo.
It’s never easy to witness. There’s something about their power… their free spirit… the image of running like the wind, that makes it especially hard to watch a horse go down. Seeing a happy and carefree horse suddenly fall ill and struggle to survive or watching an old beloved friend suffer and grow weak… these are some of the hardest issues horse owners face. The death of a horse is not something we like to think about, but death is a part of life and when it comes to horses, it’s best to be prepared.

Recently, we lost our horse Eddie—suddenly and with no warning. He literally dropped in his tracks in the arena, the entire ordeal lasting only a few minutes from start to finish. To say it was unexpected is a gross understatement. A few weeks later, I shared our loss in my newsletter, and I was floored with the response—through emails, texts, posts, phone calls and in person— people were expressing condolences and often sharing stories about losing a beloved horse. It made me realize that death is part of life and that we cannot expect to enjoy the incredible gifts horses give us, without taking on this risk and responsibility.

Sudden death in horses, from causes like stroke or aneurysm, is not common, but not unheard of either. Colic is by far the number one killer of domesticated horses and although it typically comes on fast and hard, in some cases it can be a long slow death, unless the suffering is ended through euthanasia. Many horses live with chronically debilitating and degenerative diseases, until their owners recognize the time has come to end their suffering. On rare occasions horses just lay down and die peacefully of old age. If only it was always that easy!

No matter how, when or where it happens, the death of a horse is tragic and difficult. Having an action plan for end-of-life events, thoughtfully considered ahead of time, will help you navigate this difficult path when it is thrust upon you. Understanding the options in dealing with the aftermath of a dead horse can be quite challenging and unpleasant – don’t wait until you are charged with emotion and tears to know what they are. Finally, moving on to a new horse is a big step for some people, but it is possible to find another connection. I have some advice that may help.

Action Plan
When the time comes and the unthinkable happens—your horse is dying or needs you to consider its quality of life —what will you do? What resources can you bring to the table? Who will you call for help? Is a trip to a veterinary hospital an option? How will you get him there? What if euthanasia is the kindest decision? Will you be able to make responsible decisions, on the spot? Probably not, unless you have thought some things through in advance.

Your available access to mobile veterinary care, as well as access to equine hospitals and surgical centers, will play a large role in the critical-care decisions you make for your horse. For instance, it would be a three-hour haul through the mountains for me to get a horse to a hospital that could perform colic surgery. Horses sick enough to need colic surgery may die in-route or be too exhausted to survive the difficult and expensive surgery.

Emergency veterinary care for horses can run north of $10,000 in just a few days, so it is an unfortunate fact of life that financial resources will also have a bearing on the decisions you make. Consider setting up an emergency fund and write down what your wishes are for your horse in the event of illness, or injury. These kinds of decisions are best thought about in advance and not in the heat of the moment. Be realistic about your budget and what makes sense. Make sure friends who may end up in charge of your horse’s life, if you are suddenly out of the picture, know what you would want done for your horses. Of course, medical and mortality insurance are readily available for horses, which is a good idea if you have a large financial investment in your horse.

Euthanasia decisions are required to be made by most horse owners eventually – we tend to outlive our horses, for the most part. In the case of old age, crippling lameness, chronical illness or degenerative disease, we sometimes have months or years to make the decision to “pull the trigger.” One of the biggest fears for horse owners is, “How will I know when it’s time?” You’ll know when the horse’s suffering is too great, when he’s depressed and has lost the will to live. When he can no longer lay down or get up. When movement stops because it’s too painful. The worst mistake you can make here is to get greedy—to be unwilling to let the horse go—protecting your own self-interest and shying away or ignoring the needs of your horse.

When you see your horses all the time, it’s easy to miss the slow degeneration…your horse has lost weight, conditioning, his attitude has changed…but you don’t see it like someone else would who hadn’t seen your horse in six months. Track your horse’s weight, it doesn’t matter how accurate the weight tape is, just that it can register a change. Get a resting heart rate, so you can monitor his pain level. Become familiar with the subtle signs of lameness and understand that horses are programmed to hide weaknesses to survive…when they finally reveal a weakness/illness/lameness it is often a shock.

It’s not easy to know when it’s the right time to end a horse’s suffering, but to me, the greatest mistake is in waiting too long and losing control of a dignified death. Don’t wait until it’s an emergency. This decision might be made easier by considering “The Five Freedoms of Horses,” which outline five aspects of animal welfare under our control:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst.
  • Freedom from discomfort.
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
  • Freedom from distress and fear.
  • Freedom to express natural behavior.

When a horse no longer has all five freedoms, it’s probably time to consider euthanasia. Unfortunately, the decision to euthanize a horse sometimes comes with no warning or time for preparation. Here’s where your action plan can be most helpful. This is often the case with serious colic, acute laminitis or trauma. Call on those resources you’ve already identified – that friend, the vet or others knowing they have knowledge, experience and advice you can trust. The support of a horse professional or more experienced horse friend will also help you think through these hard decisions—call someone – you don’t need to go it alone. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is to end the horse’s suffering and you should never feel badly about that. In the end you should trust your gut and listen to your vet.

Euthanizing a horse is not the easy way out and it is not a pretty thing to witness.  Say your goodbyes, then consider letting the professionals handle the job. It’s best to preserve the most beautiful memories you have of your horse. It’s good to rely on others at times like this. If you feel the need to be there at your horse’s side for his last breaths, realize that it can be a dangerous and unpredictable process. Listen to your vet and let them coach you on staying out of harm’s way.

Guilt is a Useless Emotion
Often when horses die, especially from an acute colic or sudden death, we have a need to seek answers and assign blame. Too often, the answers will never be available to you, so time spent chasing them can be fruitless. Assigning blame and second-guessing, whether it’s to yourself or others, rarely if ever helps. It’s always important to assess what happened, what could have been different and how we might change things for the future. But no amount of guilt, blame or self-punishment will bring the horse back to life. So be kind to yourself. This sentiment was eloquently stated by a staff veterinarian at Nutramax Labs, in a letter to me, after Eddie died:

Dear Julie, 

I’m so very sorry for your loss in Eddie. I know he was a fabulous horse and I also know that he had a fabulous life with you! I’m sure he couldn’t have had a better home than at your ranch! Unfortunately, we never know when their time will come to cross the rainbow bridge and sometimes it is far too soon. Find peace in the fact that he went quickly and did not suffer. There is nothing you could have or should have done differently for him. You gave him an amazing home and a wonderful life full of love! You and everyone on your team are in my thoughts and prayers!

Love and Hugs!!
Stacey Buzzell, DVM

Instead of feeling sad and guilty or angry and defensive, wouldn’t it be great if we could remember the good things about our time with that horse—reflect on the memories and savor the relationship we had? Another note I received from retired trauma physician—no doubt well-versed in knowing just what to say in times like this– was very meaningful to me and set the right tone…

Julie,  

I am so sorry about Eddie’s sudden death and just want to tell you I’m thinking about you and your “barn family” as you each grieve the loss in your own way.  Anyone who met Eddie immediately saw him as the epitome of a “Good Boy” and the love and respect and comfort he felt for you as his leader was so obvious when he was with you.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every horse were able to live up to his potential in a similar environment?  Give yourself a hug for the life that you and Rich gave Eddie.

Barbara Williams

Final Resting Place
Having to watch a horse suffer and making difficult, life-ending decisions is hard enough, and it’s followed by the challenge of physically dealing with the horse after he’s dead. Honestly, if you’re squeamish, it may be best to just skip this whole section of the article and find someone else to deal with it. But there will be decisions that must be made.

There may be renderers in your area that will come pick up the carcass and dispose of it in their own way. This is likely the easiest and cheapest solution, if it’s available to you. Also, there are cremation services for horses and generally the service you pay for (and it’s expensive) will come pick up the carcass and handle the cremation and return a large container of ashes to you.

Depending on where you live and the local and state laws that apply, your options for carcass disposal will vary. In many places, it is illegal to bury horses in the ground, in part to prevent contamination of the water table. If burial is an option on your property, then hiring a backhoe and driver to dig a hole may be an option, but it comes with a few caveats. If the driver has not buried a horse before, they will almost certainly make the hole too small. The size of the hole is way bigger than one might think. Getting the horse to the hole and fitting it into the hole is also not easy nor pretty and may require some wrestling.

If you are burying a horse that was euthanized with a needle, the carcass is highly toxic both to scavenger animals and to the water table. Chemically euthanized horses must be handled carefully to avoid spreading the toxins that are now in the carcass. Make sure the carcass is well-covered if some time will elapse before burial and use discretion in selecting a burial spot.

The local landfill may take horse carcasses but call them first so they can be prepared. I have on occasion, had a horse euthanized in a stock trailer so that the carcasses can be off-loaded easily and then immediately buried at the landfill. Again, this is not a pleasant thought, but sometimes, especially with euthanized horses, it is the most practical solution.
In many areas of the west, ranchers have “bone yards” at a remote location on their ranch where they take carcasses and let predators and Mother Nature do the job of decomposing. If you know a rancher that will allow it, this is not a bad way to go. It’s not an option for horses euthanized with drugs, but may be a viable solution for horses that die naturally or are euthanized with captive bolt or a bullet. Also, there may be uses for non-toxic carcasses in feeding zoo animals in your area.

Composting a carcass can be a viable solution, depending on how much land you have and the climate you live in. There are instructions available online and it’s an elaborate process. It takes six months to a year for the carcass to fully decompose, depending on the climate. Your veterinarian may know of other options in your area and your county extension agent should have some advice on carcass disposal.

There’s one more piece of advice that is not fun to talk about, but important to know. Removing a dead horse from a barn or stall can be ugly. If possible, you want to avoid having a horse die inside a building or area of confinement. It will require a large piece of equipment to move a thousand-pound carcass, which will need room to negotiate and lifting the carcass off the ground will require a tall reach. Once rigor mortis has set in, moving the carcass through door openings or out of stalls is nearly impossible and sometimes it can only be moved in parts if walls and fences cannot be disassembled.

These are certainly not pleasant issues to think about and investigate, but it’s far easier to get the information and choose an option well before you need it than in the heat of the moment.

Moving On
Just like with horses, humans can become so tightly bonded to one individual horse, especially when you’ve been partners for years, that starting over in a brand-new relationship with another horse can be a challenge. I’ve heard a lot of anguish over the years from people in this situation who’ve had trouble accepting a new horse—succumbing to the temptation to make comparisons between the horses and ultimately being disappointed in the new horse because they can’t let go of what they once had.

For many people, riding an unfamiliar horse is scary and leaving that comfort zone and heading into the unknown with a new horse feels like stepping off the edge of the earth. There’s no point in rushing into anything. Allow yourself to grieve. Give it time before moving onto another horse. For others, jumping back in the saddle with a new horse is just the right medicine, but could carry the risk of making an impetuous decision about a long-term relationship.

Whether you need to give it time or are ready to jump right back in, this is an opportunity for you to reassess your wants and needs, when it comes to your next horse. Before looking at any horses for sale or for adoption, think long and hard about your personal needs. What disciplines do you ride or want to ride, how much time can you devote to the new horse, your personal energy/activity level, and your skill level. What do you miss most about the horse you lost? What qualities do you wish to avoid? Create a list of must-haves and hope-to-haves and deal-breakers.

Rather than thinking of it as starting over, think of it as reinventing your horse life and a chance to create a new beginning and relationship. Make your lists and imagine your dream horse. Finding that horse will present a whole new set of challenges but knowing what you want is the right place to start.

Once you’ve found your new partner, be patient and allow your relationship to develop over time. Each horse and owner relationship is unique. Give your new horse time to adjust to its new life with you. Open your heart to this next step with your equine partner and avoid making comparisons with the horse you loved and lost. Know that it will take time to get to know each other, to build trust, to build a comfort level. Eventually, you’ll once again be able to focus on the power, the strength and the beauty that a horse brings to your life and simply enjoy the ride…

Horse Report August 2019

eddie and julie
Eddie and Julie

It’s been a sad month around the barn. We lost Eddie, my good ranch horse, my best teaching horse, and one of the most honest horses I’ve ever known. I wrote about him recently in my Equine Good Citizen blog. It happened fast—literally within minutes, he was dead in his tracks. Although I’ve seen many horses euthanized over the decades, I’ve never seen a horse go from seemingly “healthy-as-a-horse” to no signs of life in under three minutes. All my life, I’ve heard of horses dying suddenly—with no signs or symptoms, but this is the first time I’ve actually witnessed it. It’s not common, but it happens.

Sudden death in horses is sometimes caused by a rupture to the aorta. In the case of Eddie, my best guess is that he sustained a sudden disruption of oxygen to the brain, which may well have been caused by an aneurism, although we saw no outward signs. Why he died, we’ll never know. There are few answers because necropsy is not often performed on horses. Even when it is, we don’t always find the reason why a healthy horse would drop dead. The sad fact is that Eddie is gone, but at least he did not suffer much.

To say we are feeling the loss around the barn is a HUGE understatement. Since Eddie was the de-facto herd leader, the other horses are a little bit lost. Since Eddie was one of our best trained horses—a true Western bridle horse—we’ve also lost one of our most reliable team members for the media production that we do around here.

We felt the loss just two days later at a scheduled video shoot for Showsheen, but our second-string stepped up. Annie carried the big load as the only “broke” horse (photo and video shoots can be scary for a green horse), Pepper was there to fill the role of the horse that needs Miracle Stain Remover, and Mel’s 2-year-old, Gus, (with his Fabio looks) was our supermodel. Even Dually came out of retirement for a cameo role.

I’ll miss Eddie a lot. So will Rich, who’s been riding him for the last couple years. Even my friend and colleague, Barbra Schulte, who’s been teaching clinics off Eddie when we work together, feels the loss. He was the kind of horse you could put anyone on and he would try his best for them. Consequently, many of my family and friends have ridden Eddie when they visit us. I know they will miss him too. RIP Eddie’s Pick.

A Devoted Horse

horse running in the round pen

Horses rise or fall to your level of expectation, no matter how high or low. If you think he’s going to spook at something, he generally will. If you think he is going to throw a fit about getting in the trailer, he will oblige (especially if his emotional outbursts have gotten him what he wanted in the past). On the other hand, when your expectations are high, and you have clear parameters of obedient and compliant behavior, he steps up.
 
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that horses will respond to your expectations. After all, they’re herd animals— instinctively drawn to the herd, which provides the comfort and security they yearn for. Keep in mind that membership in the herd is not automatically granted—each horse must earn it; and once granted, a horse must follow the rules of the herd and be a good herd mate (meet expectations) in order to maintain his status. A good citizen is one that respects the hierarchy of the herd and lives up to the expectations of the leader.
 
Keep in mind that horses not only live in cooperative groups, they’re also extremely communicative. While us humans rely heavily on the spoken/written word to communicate (often believing words more than the physical evidence before us), horses communicate primarily with postures, gestures and actions. And horses never lie.
 
Learning to have clear and lofty expectations of your horse, to convey those expectations with consistent and unambiguous actions, to control your own emotions and be aware of the body-language message you present your horse, is all it takes to have a compliant and willing horse that worships the ground you walk on.
 
My Herd, My Rules
Horses know leadership when they see it; they seek out authority, because it makes them feel safe. Having been around horses well over half a century, literally working with thousands of individuals over the years, I’ve learned to first have expectations and boundaries, and then convey them to any horse I encounter—immediately. The first part of the equation is critical—knowing what behavior you expect from your horse, and therefore knowing when he is compliant and when he is not. That seems easy, right? But if I asked you to state three simple and clear expectations of your horse right now, could you?
 
Because I am abundantly clear on my personal boundaries and I have a few fundamental rules of behavior that I expect from any horse, a horse learns my rules within a couple minutes of our first interaction. Horses love clarity and consistency; they’re lightning-fast learners, given the right conditions for comprehension (timing and pressure). So in a few short minutes, a fussy, tantrum-throwing horse can become a model citizen, looking to me with deference and willingness, because my expectations have become clear and his compliance is non-negotiable.
 
Horses are good at following rules, when rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, because that is what life is like in the herd. But long before you can “enforce” the rules or “enforce” a boundary, you have to know the rule, be clear on the boundary yourself and have high expectations of your horse’s behavior.
 
One reason we do groundwork with horses, is to establish these rules and boundaries and to build a relationship with your horse wherein he looks to you for direction and eagerly does your bidding. Whether it takes you minutes, days or weeks to become the leader in the eyes of your horse, depends on you. Horses come along quickly when presented with consistent and fair leadership.
 
Talk the Talk
Once you know your own boundaries and have clear expectations of your horse’s behavior, it’s time to convey those expectations to your horse. The message needs to be simple, clear and consistent and conveyed without emotion. Both reward and correction are meted out fairly—his actions have consequences, for better or for worse.
 
For instance, a very basic expectation I have of any trained horse, is that he moves his feet when I ask him to and stands like a statue if I ask him to. I’ll ask him to stand without moving in the exact same way 100% of the time (facing him with my toes pointed at his shoulder and saying, “Whoa.”). And 100% of the time, I will correct him appropriately if he moves (a scolding and a bump of the rope) and I will always reward him when he complies (by giving him the greatest gift—leaving him alone). Because my message is clear and the reinforcement or reward comes quickly and has meaning, even a tyrant of a horse will become complaint quickly.
 
Because horses crave authority, they’re also quite eager-to-please animals, if you have the same respect and admiration they give the herd leader. Because horses want to be accepted in the herd, they’re good at following rules. But for a rule to become law, it must be consistently enforced, and compliance must be mandatory. Sometimes horses understand what behavior is expected of them, but if they learn that reinforcement is lacking, and/or they can employ clever tricks to circumvent the rules and manipulate the human, compliance becomes optional.
 
To be the maker of the rules and the enforcer of the rules is not easy; to do it with consistency and clarity is even harder. Throw into the mix a thousand-pound flight animal, who may physically intimidate you and who easily learns to push your emotional buttons and being the leader can get downright grueling. The trick is to keep your own emotions in check; as you single-mindedly convey your expectations to your horse. The more emotionally charged your horse becomes, the more granite-like your emotions must be.
 
Explain the simple rule (don’t move your feet unless I tell you to) or define the boundary (stay behind my shoulder as we walk), then reinforce immediately and with meaningful pressure when the horse breaks the rule; leave the horse alone and take all pressure off the moment he is correct. Reinforcement should come quickly (within a second of the infraction) but should be over just as fast (one and done) and should never be done in anger or retribution. A true leader strives to always be in command of her emotions, to always set a good example and to always speak the truth.
 
Walk the Walk
It’s hard for a horse to look up to you as a strong and benevolent leader, when you present the picture in your body language of a lost tourist in a foreign land. Words mean nothing to your horse, but your actions, your emotions and your body language tell him everything he needs to know.
 
Horses crave authority because it brings order, regularity and peace to an otherwise chaotic world. It’s not enough to have expectations, to convey and enforce the rules, you also must comport yourself in a manner that you look like the one in charge, at all times. It’s my goal to make my horse think I am not only in control of his actions, but I control everything in the environment, too. In his eyes, I want to be the supreme commander of the universe. With that, comes not only his trust, but his compliance and willingness, too.
 
Everyone has self-doubt at times. Everyone. It’s what you do with yourself in that moment that separates leaders from followers. Taking mental and physical control of your emotions, reminding yourself, “I’ve done this before and I can do it now,” and then pushing through that moment of self-doubt, will get you everywhere with your horse (and in life). When you allow self-doubt to creep into your ground-handling or riding of a horse, you become passive and convey the picture of that lost tourist. The horse sees this as a giant opening to either 1) start a mutiny, or 2) abandon ship.
 
Once you’ve asked a horse to do something, you should continue to ask, with steadfast determination, until you get the right answer. If you’re not committed, or you cannot reinforce the command, it’s best not to ask. Your horse is very keen to your level of confidence, intent and determination. He can see it—or lack thereof—in your body language (where you look, your posture, your gestures, even the look on your face and the way you move).
 
The key is to act confident on the outside, even though you don’t always feel that way on the inside. Fake it ‘til you make it; never show your weakness on the outside. It’s not that you always feel confident and in-control, just don’t let that negative emotion take over your mind and body. The mind, body and spirit (the mental, the physical and the emotional) are inextricably intertwined. Controlling your mind with positive thoughts and your body language with a show of determination, will keep the negative emotions at bay.
 
Be the Captain
Of course, you cannot just strut around like a leader and expect someone to follow. You must also be true to your word, consistent and predictable in your actions and have sound judgment in all matters. Say what you do and do what you say. You must recognize the horse’s effort and willingness, just as quickly and vehemently as you offer criticism and reinforcement.
 
Often, in a moment that really counts with a horse, humans are too caught up dwelling in the past and fretting over the future to notice a horse’s behavior in that instant. Horses exist in the moment—when three seconds go by, it’s like a whole different day to the horse, and the moment is lost forever. Sadly, humans tend to linger in the past (he spooked here before) and jump to the future (what if spooks up there), instead of directing our horse like a true leader, in the moment of his greatest need.
 
It’s a tall order, what your horse needs from you to feel safe and comfortable in your presence. He needs to know what you expect of him, that rules exist and will be enforced fairly and consistently. He needs you to be strong emotionally, in-control of yourself and others, clear in your intent and consistent in your actions. He needs you to make good decisions, to recognize his efforts and reward his compliance. It’s a lot to for him to ask, but the price is well worth paying, because once you become a true leader in the eyes of your horse, he will reward you with obedience, respect and devotion.

Think Forward: Ride Yourself Out of Rough Spots

Julie riding in the mountains.

Julie riding

When was the last time you felt a lack of control while riding your horse, even if only for a moment? Was he spooked? Did your horse freak out because the other horses took off? During a tantrum your horse threw about leaving his herd mate?

In the moment of panic—let’s say right after your horse spooked at a rabbit—most riders grab the reins and clench hard when they first feel a lack of control. Often, they fail to shorten the reins first, so the reins are too long, causing the rider to lean back, hands flailing and out of balance too. With white knuckles the rider clenches on the reins (inadvertently clenching with her legs too), as the horse dives into the bit, stiffening his neck, leaning on the rider. This scenario rarely pans out well for the rider.

Let’s look at this same scenario from the horse’s point of view (hPOV). I was going down the trail just fine, as commanded by my rider; I was obedient, my head down, no pressure on my mouth, and I was eating up the ground like a good trail horse. Out of nowhere, that evil rabbit jumps right at me! OMG! It coulda been a mountain lion! Suddenly my rider screams and grabs the reins, jerks my mouth, ouch! Now she’s scared, I’m scared and my mouth hurts! Rider keeps pulling even after I stopped, wrapping that jointed bit right around my tongue and jaw. Double ouch! I stiffen the muscles on both sides of my neck and lean on the bit to protect my mouth. Panicked, I do what I do best—run for home, running toward safety as if that bit wasn’t there.

There’s no doubt that being out of control on a fractious horse is a terrible feeling and the tendency to stop is huge. But with horses being flight animals, it usually works better to keep them moving, ride proactively and re-establish control through purposeful movement. Horses are also comfort animals, so rest (after hard work) becomes a huge reward. One of the oldest wisdoms of horsemanship (thousands of years old) is, “Forward motion is the basis of all training.” Without willing, free and forward movement, the horse cannot be trained.

Horses respond well to confidant authority. Horses are animals that are habitual in their behavior and remember their training, even though at times they may need a little reminder. Being a proactive, confident rider is what your horse needs and wants. If you are rider that tends to panic when you feel a loss of control, there’s a dynamic between you and your horse that needs to change—and you are the only one capable of introducing that change.

Here are my best three tips for how to become the confidant, proactive rider your horse needs.

#1 Stay present in the moment. Don’t allow your mind to shut down in panic; be observant of your surroundings (it’s your job as the leader, you know). Don’t start shutting down, grabbing the reins and thinking about all the things that could go wrong or have gone wrong before. Be aware of your horse and what he needs from you—it’s not his job to make you feel safe; it’s your job to make him feel secure. Take a deep breath (and many more). Keep your eyes active and aware, taking in information in your environment. Relax the reins. Ride the horse beneath—you not the one in your head. Don’t read things into the situation that aren’t there. Allow your horse to calm down; don’t’ keep him in an anxious state just because you’re anxious. Remember, he can calm down and become obedient just as quickly as he spooked, so let him.

#2 Think and ride through the situation, like you know how to do. Immediately start asking your horse to go somewhere and do something—trot, turn right, turn left– preferably using up some oxygen as you do (think working trot). It’s what your horse knows how to do (stop, go and turn) and it will get his mind back in the game faster. As soon as you start asking him to go somewhere, doing what he knows how to do, he feels a since of normalcy and starts relaxing. That’s your cue to relax and soften the reins, sit back and take a deep breath. Controlling forward movement is much easier than trying to staunch it. Moving forward relaxes a frightened horse and then, letting him stop and rest when he relaxes, rewards his relaxation and compliance. It’s a win-win.

#3 Ride with a destination in mind. Be purposeful—look where you are going and ride with determination. One of the first things that happens when a rider panics is that she looks down and loses all focus as her mind shuts down and she stops riding. Horses are masters at determining your level of determination and intent—they can see it or feel it in your body language and posture. When the rider shuts down, the horse learns he can do whatever he wants. Always look far past where you plan to go and ride like you have a plan; Look about 10 seconds ahead of your horse, seeing your specific route and focus on a destination. Your horse will feel your intent and respond accordingly. Don’t compromise; accept nothing less than 100% compliance. Once you have asked a horse to do something, you must follow through on the request. If you start a turn and then abandon that request because your horse didn’t respond, you just trained him to ignore your request to turn.

When you become a more proactive and confidant rider, the hPOV will change drastically:

I’m going down the trail like a good horse, the reins are slack, my head is down, and my rider is happy and I feel good. That evil rabbit jumped at me and I freaked at first, but right away, my rider rubbed my neck told me I was okay and she went right back to riding like nothing ever happened; I took a deep breath and we rode off toward something more important than that silly little rabbit. I feel safe with my human, she’s clearly in control of the entire universe and I know she will take diligent care of me; I’m just along for the ride.

Remember, all riders have moments of doubt, nerves or uncertainty. Riding a thousand-pound flight animal is no little thing. But it’s important to keep in mind that there is a living, breathing, thinking animal underneath you, who is going to respond to your actions, for better or for worse. Learning to keep your mind engaged and present in the moment—thinking through the situation and riding purposefully—will get you out of most sticky spots with your horse.

Help! My Horse Won’t Stay on the Rail

close up of horse in an arena

Close-up of horse in an arena.
Horses are smarter than we give them credit for and any horse that’s been around an arena more than once, has figured out that it’s a much shorter distance around when they cut corners and leak in off the rail. No horse stays glued to the arena fence unless he is well-trained and obedient. All horses feel the pull of “gate gravity” or “barn gravity,” but only the horses that think they can get away with it will act on that feeling.

If you feel like you are constantly steering your horse back to the rail or pulling his nose to the outside as you go around, you’ve got a disobedience problem. Chances are good that your horse is a step or two ahead of you, and while you might not be fully aware of the dynamics of this situation, your horse almost certainly knows exactly what he is doing. Horses are pros at manipulating the behavior of others—and that includes you.

I could write 10,000 words on the mechanics of how to train your horse out of this problem, but it would do little good if you don’t have an understanding of the dynamics happening between you and your horse.

If your horse is cheating you by not staying on the rail, cutting corners, speeding up on the way back or refusing to go over an obstacle, you need to take a deeper look at your role. First, you must understand what the underlying motivations of the horse are and how you got to this point. Then you must figure out a plan for what’s next, how you will change your horse’s behavior and change the way you ride.

Define the Problem
Assuming you are riding a trained horse, you need to realize this is not a steering problem. An obedient horse goes on the exact path dictated by the rider, at a speed chosen by the rider, without argument or micromanagement. A horse that is leaking into the middle from the rail, cutting the corners, pulling toward the gate or stopping at the gate is disobedient to the aids of the rider. The first step in fixing this issue is to recognize it as disobedience—to become aware of your horse’s behavior.

How ever your horse is acting now, there’s a reason why he is acting that way—he has a motivation. To effectively train a horse, it helps to be aware of your horse’s motivations. Why is he coming off the rail? Why is he stopping at the gate? Is he trying to get back to the barn/herd, is he trying to get out of work, or does he simply think he can go wherever he wants, whenever he wants? These types of behaviors are generally motivated by a desire to get back to the herd and/or to get out of work.

Being aware of your horse’s disobedience, and treating it as such, is often enough to stop this kind of behavior. Acknowledge his behavior as disobedience and let him know, you know. Once a horse realizes you are onto his antics, he’ll often stop doing it. Once you are aware, his tricks don’t work so well. Understanding his motivation is important because it dictates how you will respond. If he’s trying to pull toward the barn, you want to make sure that he ends up farther away from his objective as you correct him. Correct him in such a way that he loses territory, doesn’t gain it.

How did we get here?
Horses are masters at subtle disobediences that often go unnoticed by the rider; but the horse knows exactly what he is doing. If you have put him on the rail and he starts pulling toward the middle, on the very first step toward the middle, he became disobedient, whether the rider noticed or not. Often the rider, blissfully ignorant of the horse’s disobedience, simply steers the horse back to the rail, without addressing the disobedience; then the pattern starts again.

Soon, the rider is going all the way around the arena, with the horse’s nose pulled toward the rail, while his body is leaking in to the middle of the arena; he’s counter-bent and still not on the rail. When the rider tries to hold the horse on the rail with the outside rein (or hold the horse in a certain speed), she becomes complicit in the horse’s disobedience—it is a co-dependent relationship. Your horse is constantly threatening disobedience, and instead of addressing the disobedience, you are treating it as if the horse just doesn’t know where he is going. The problem is, the horse knows exactly what he is doing.

The horse that is cutting corners, leaking off the rail or slowing/stopping at the gate, is essentially saying to the rider, “I don’t want to do that; I want to go over here.” Often, the rider is so busy on her own agenda (working on something herself), that she does not hear what the horse is saying and so she simply steers back to the rail. The problem is, that this sets up a compromise with your horse. He cuts the corner, you steer him halfway back (without scolding his disobedience), then you say, “Well, at least I got him halfway back to the corner,” and go on with your ride. In this moment, you have just compromised with your horse, letting him know that he does indeed get a say in the direction you go. This is a bad precedent to set and it will surface every time you ask your horse to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. Compromising with a horse on direction or speed is a bad idea.

Where do we go from here?
First you must become aware of your horse’s behavior and motivations. Just becoming aware of it will make your horse less successful. Once you are aware of your horse’s manipulations, you will be able to correct him in a timely manner—at the instant he makes his first move. Also, with an understanding of his motivations (Where is he trying to go? Why?), you’ll be able to correct him more effectively, making sure your correction does not inadvertently give him what he wants.

Secondly, don’t treat this as a steering problem and don’t ever hold your horse in a speed or direction. Treat it for what it is, a disobedience problem. Instead of just cueing or steering the horse back to where you asked him to go, scold him for being willingly disobedient. Allow your horse to make the mistake (instead of holding him or preventing it), then correct him when he does. Let him know that you disapprove—often this can be accomplished simply with your voice.

Horses will work hard for your approval, but only if he is occasionally admonished. You should have clear expectations of your horse (go on the path I dictate, at the speed I chose), and never be afraid to let him know when he falls short of your expectations. How much pressure your scolding will require depends on the horse and how egregious his discrepancy—it may be as benign as a harsh word or as sharp as a tap with a crop or spank of the reins.

Finally, scientific research has shown that it is far more effective to use “replacement training” to change a horse’s behavior. Replacing one behavior (an undesirable one) with another more desirable behavior, is far more effective than trying to distinguish the undesirable behavior through punishment. Once you understand your horse’s disobedience and his motivation, it will be easier to know how to replace that behavior with a better one.

For instance, if my horse is coming off the rail, trying to get into the middle of the arena, I will place him on the rail on a clear straight line, then lay my hands on his neck to neutralize the reins (and make sure I am not inadvertently holding him on the path). At the first moment my horse makes a move toward the middle (on the first step), I will sharply pick up the outside rein and turn the horse right into the fence (away from his objective) and proceed on the rail in the opposite direction. After a few times of this—the horse steps off the path and I turn him abruptly into the fence (opposite direction of where he wants to go), every time my horse starts to take a step into the middle, he will immediately think about turning into the fence and he will get prepared for that by taking a step toward the rail. Now every time he thinks about coming into the middle, he takes a step toward the rail. Replacement training is highly effective with horses and it works fast.

Once you understand your horse’s subtle disobediences and the motivations behind his behavior, it’s far easier for you to call him out on it. In many instances, just having that awareness (and letting your horse know you know) is enough to resolve it. Knowing your horse’s motivations in the undesirable behavior will help you devise an effective replacement—if your horse wants to turn right, you’ll turn left; if he wants to get away from something, you’ll turn toward it; if he is trying to get toward something you’ll turn away from it.

Don’t be complicit in your horse’s disobedience by holding him on a path or holding him in a speed. Never be afraid to let your horse make a mistake—it is through correction of the mistake that he learns. When you try to prevent the mistake, he doesn’t learn anything, and you end up in a codependent relationship with your horse. Instead, be aware of your horse’s intentions and recognize the moment he becomes disobedient to your aids. Soon, you will have a well-behaved horse who is responsible for and accountable for, his own behavior.

Enjoy the ride,

Julie

Horses Give More than they Get

Julie riding Annie in the arena

Julie riding Annie in the arenaWhen you own horses, and especially if you keep them at home, sometimes it seems like your whole life revolves around doing their bidding—food service, housekeeping, valet service, maintenance. Most people who dream of bringing their horses home (after boarding them forever) are stunned to discover they have even less time to ride. Why? Because of all the other chores that need doing! But as much as we like to complain, it’s been my observation that horses do far more for us and our essential well-being, tan we could ever do for them.

Recently, I sat down to make a list of some of the valuable life lessons that horses have taught me in my lifetime and the list is weighty. It’s a good list for me to check in with every now and then, to remind myself of the lessons and to use as evidence for why parents should not just allow, but encourage their children’s interest in horses. From horses, I have learned to live in the moment, to have a keen awareness of myself and others, to develop my leadership skills, to be very disciplined in my life and have high expectations.

Horse Time Vs. Human Time
Horses are always present in the moment; humans, not so much. People tend to dwell in the past and think about the future but are often not present in the moment. We spend so much time thinking about what happened to us before and what is going to happen next, that we often miss the importance of the moment and fail to respond. I see this on a regular basis in my horsemanship clinics, when riders are afraid or having trouble controlling a horse—the memory of what happened before pollutes the mind and the riders are so busy thinking about what may happen later, that they miss important signs from their horses or freeze up on the horse instead of just riding through the situation.

Horses don’t think in the past or the future, only in the now. From horses I have learned this important lesson. As a professional horse trainer, I had to learn this skill early on—to trust the horse, to be present in the moment, to hear his concerns and to ride through the rough spots. Life is much more enjoyable and productive when I am present in the moment.

Time has no meaning to horses. After decades of training horses, I know with certainty that slower is faster when training horses. Even in this day and age of horse training contests that focus on speed of training– be it a few hours, a few weeks or a few months, most professional trainers agree that slower is always faster with horses. The more time I take, the more I break each step down into its smallest component, the slower I move around my horse– so that I see the instant my horse first responds and give him the best release, the more patience I have to allow the horse to think and decide for himself, the faster he learns and the more solid his foundation of training. When a situation gets tough on a horse, I want to be able to rely on my horse’s solid foundation, the seamless communication we have developed through time and consistency, and the strong trust he has built in me.

Awareness
Being a prey animal and a flight animal, a horse’s awareness of his environment is keen. Being animals that communicate primarily with gestures and postures, they can read other animals—including humans—with accuracy and speed. Horses are also biologically wired to be aware of and mimic the emotions of the animals around them. To be effective with horses and for horses to be comfortable around me, I learned at an early age to be aware of my body language and to use it to convey the right message to the horse—one of strength, calmness and confidence.

Because horses are quite emotional animals, having more or less the same emotions as humans (except perhaps more honest and less complicated), I’ve learned to be honest with myself about the emotions I feel, to be aware-of and in-control-of my emotions at all times around a horse. If I l let my emotions take control of my thoughts and my posture, things devolve quickly. When I remain positive in my thoughts (mind) and confident in my posture (body), my emotion is good (spirit).

Because horses mirror and mimic the emotions of the animals around them, when the rider (or handler) is frustrated, the horse is frustrated; anger is met with anger (and trust me, you don’t want to fight with a horse, if you can help it); fear causes fear; and trust leads to trust. If a human’s emotions are out of control, things generally don’t go well when they are dealing with a horse. But then again, the same can be said of life in general. From horses, I have learned to be true to others and honest with myself about my emotions, and not let negative emotions take control of my body and mind.

Leadership
To a horse, his very survival depends on being accepted into a herd with a strong, fair and competent leader. It’s one of his strongest instinctive drives—to be with the herd. Horses always recognize a strong leader, apparently much better than us humans do. Horses crave strong leadership and are drawn to it like a magnet. Hierarchy is linear, with one horse at the top. There is never a void of leadership in a horse herd; when a leader falls down on the job, another horse will immediately assume the leadership role.

Even as a young, shy, introverted child, I was able to develop strong leadership skills from being with horses; these skills have served me well in my lifetime and not only with horses. This is not a lesson that comes easily or naturally to some people and the relationship with their horse will always reflect their leadership ability—for better or worse.

To get very far with horses, you must learn to accept accountability for your own actions. In every clinic I teach, I hear people say things like, “my horse has a problem with [fill in the blank—spooking, running away, standing still, lead changes, etc.],” when the problem very clearly lies in the rider’s own deficiency. The sooner the rider accepts that the horse’s performance problem is actually her own, the faster the performance of the horse improves. Like any good leader, when her followers struggle, she must step-up and take responsibility.

A leader has the responsibility to keep her charges safe and to make good judgments. Always. This is all your horse wants from you. If you make a decision, intentionally or not, that results in your horse getting hurt or feeling unsafe, you have fallen on your responsibilities as the leader and eroded the trust he placed in you.

I’ve had many truly alpha horses in my life—their beauty, intelligence and strength of character enthrall me—and from them, I have had the best examples of leadership from which to learn. From them, I have honed my own leadership skills and forged incredible partnerships with some very dominant horses. The power of horses to make us better people is unlimited.

Discipline and Authority
Discipline simply means training individuals to follow rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience. Most people I know are law abiding citizens, willing to obey the laws of our society because it’s the right thing to do and because it is a pact amongst us that insures we have a peaceful and safe existence. While the threat of punishment may be required for some people to obey the law, for most of us, the punishment is not something we’ll ever experience and we voluntarily and willingly comply. We have high expectations of ourselves and others and we strive to teach our children to be law abiding and productive citizens.

With horses, I think of discipline using punishment more in terms of teaching a horse what NOT to do, like bite. An undisciplined horse is not only unpleasant to be around but it is also unsafe. A horse that bites, slams you with its head, shoulders into you and runs over the top of you is untenable and entirely unnecessary. It’s incredibly easy to teach a horse to have good manners and follow a code of behavior. Unless a horse has been taught to be an outlaw or has been taught to disregard rules and authority, they are generally willing and happy to follow a code of behavior and punishment is rarely needed. When a horse owner has no rules, no expectations or code of behavior for their horses, the result is a  dangerous horse, that will require discipline and punishment to retro-actively teach him proper rules of behavior. But let me be clear, this is not the fault of the horse that he has become a criminal; it is the fault of the owner/handler for not imposing rules, order and discipline.

While “discipline” may have a negative meaning to some, being “disciplined” generally has a positive connotation. Being disciplined means having a controlled form behavior or way of working. In my personal life, I strive to be more disciplined in all things—I work out daily, watch what I eat, strive to improve my work habits and productivity, try to better myself and be a better person to others.

A disciplined horse is an amazing animal to be around and to have as a partner. Horses crave rules and structure; they are animals that seek out acceptance into a herd because of the safety, comfort and order the herd represents. For these reasons, it’s incredibly easy to teach a horse to follow a code of behavior, to work hard to be accepted and to respect authority. I have learned to have high expectations of my horses and even higher expectations of myself.

Just the other day, I met a woman whose young daughter was starting to take riding lessons—even though they were a decidedly non-horsey family. (The idea was being promoted by and facilitated by her grandmother.) Knowing I was a horse professional, she started the conversation by saying, “Even though we’ll never lease or buy a horse….” What followed from me was desperate attempt to make her see the incredible value that horses would bring to her daughter’s life. Far beyond the fun she will have riding a horse, her daughter will learn to focus on the present moment, to have a keen awareness of herself and those around her, to be disciplined, and to have high expectations of herself and others.

I have spent half a century with horses, and I’ve learned a lot. Yet the older I get, the more in awe of horses I become—and the more important the life lessons that I learn.

Begging for Acceptance

Julie pushing Amy's dominant horse, Chief, out of her space in the round pen.
Photo by: Melissa Arnold

Imagine you’re meeting a blind date at a coffee shop, a setup by your friend who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Even though you’re not really interested in a relationship right now, you arrive only a few minutes late, and looking across the café, you see a guy jump to his feet, frantically waving his arms over his head, a little too eager to get your attention. Apparently, he recognizes you; obviously, he’s been studying pictures. Already, you’re suspicious of his motivations and thinking he looks a bit foolish.

You’re busy conjuring up an excuse to get out of this date as you reach out to shake his hand, but he grabs you with both his hands and pulls you into a half-embrace, kissing both your cheeks, before you have a chance to react. Now you’re thinking this guy’s way over-the-top, clearly desperate to have a relationship and in serious need of a schooling on personal space.

Despite your best efforts to send a clear message to him that you are uninterested, he gushes on about himself, how much money he makes, what a sporty car he has, and how many times a week he works out. Not once does he ask what kind of movies you like, how many siblings you have or what you want out of life; it’s solely about his agenda. Stunned at how clueless he is to your disgust, you think to yourself, “How rude am I gonna have to be, before this guy sees that I am not interested in him?”

Then, just as you’re prepared to tell him to take a hike and bolt out the café door, he reaches for his pocket, pulls out a jewelry box, thrusts a diamond ring in your face and asks you to marry him! As you run from the restaurant screaming, you’re thinking, “This guy’s probably a stalker and I’m going to be needing a restraining order soon.”

Anyone who’s that self-absorbed and disrespectful of personal boundaries, oblivious to body language clues and that desperate for a relationship, is clearly not someone you want to hang out with. But did you ever stop to think that’s what your horse might’ve thought, the first time he met you?

This is the story of Amy and Chief, the big bay Morgan, recently featured in episodes of Horse Master. It took almost a year for Amy to come to the realization that she’d started her relationship with Chief on the wrong foot and that her dream horse had turned into an aggressive bully who was disdainful and resentful of her. Dream horse turned night mare.

First Impressions
Long before actually being in a position to have a new horse, many horse-crazy people have spent years imagining the perfect horse and perusing dream horse ads online. Amy was no exception. Just like with movies and restaurants, when there’s a big a buildup and expectations are huge, it almost always leads to disappointment.

As luck would have it, just when Amy was finally in a position to acquire a new horse, the local horse rescue posted pictures of her dream horse online—a big, beautiful, bay Morgan who’d had a rough life and was in desperate need of someone just like her—a strong and confident rider who would shower the horse with love. Before even seeing this horse in the flesh, she’d already made the decision that they were perfect for each other.

Pulling up to the rescue to “test ride” her new dream horse, Amy was literally glowing with anticipation, knowing full well she’d already made up her mind and there was nothing he could do to disappoint her. Gushing about his beauty as she approached him for the first time, pulling a baggie of freshly sliced apples and carrots from her pocket, she stepped right into the horse’s space, fawning and petting him, kissing him on the nose and stuffing treats in his mouth. Tears of joy were running down her cheeks; she was falling desperately in love with this horse she’d only just met. Sound familiar?

Life in the Herd
Now let’s consider what it’s like from the horse’s point of view, when a horse, like Chief, is looking for a new herd. For whatever reason he finds himself alone, his instincts tell him survival is dependent on being accepted into a herd, so he sheepishly approaches the herd, asking for acceptance. The existing herd wants nothing to do with the new horse, so they start biting, kicking and chasing him away.

The herd leaders will be quite aggressive to the new horse, driving him away, herding him in one direction then the other, to establish control of the new horse. He runs away, but always comes back, lowering his head with a contrite gesture, adopting a submissive posture, seeking out approval and acceptance. Eventually, if he plays his cards right, the herd leaders will allow the new horse probational membership into the herd. But he will remain on his best behavior, hoping to stay in good graces with herd leaders.

Horses always seek acceptance into the herd; they respect and admire the leader of the herd and want to be with her. Herd leaders don’t beg for members or bribe and coddle a new horse so he’ll want to be in their herd. A strong and competent leader is what makes a herd great and what makes the other horses want to be part of it. A good leader does not have to beg for followers. Horses establish dominance and control first, then work on the finer points of a relationship later.

Amy started her relationship with Chief by showering him with love, telling him he could do no wrong and begging him to be part of her herd. To Chief, anyone that desperate for a herd mate couldn’t possibly be a good leader or have anything of value to offer him. Chief did eventually come home with Amy to his forever home, but the story was far from over.

Things went well at first, but in time, Amy’s attempts at groundwork with Chief started annoying him (“Who does she think she is?”), and he felt the need to assert his dominance over her, to put her in her place, by displaying aggressive gestures. His antics worked, thoroughly intimidating Amy, and nearly a year into this relationship, it was starting to resemble a bad marriage.

Lasting Impressions
For myself, I never want to start a relationship with a horse with bribery or pampering. In fact, those things are never a part of any relationship I want with a horse. I want the horse to recognize my leadership from the very beginning and for him to want to be with me, in my herd, to beg for my acceptance and approval. I usually start a new relationship with a horse in a very authoritative and standoffish way, looking for opportunities to move him out of my space and communicate my expectations to him. I’d like him to think I have no interest in him; I prefer to let him come to me.

I was impressed that Amy came to the understanding of the bad dynamics of their relationship on her own, of how she got off on the wrong track with Chief from the beginning. The analogy of a guy proposing marriage on a first date was actually Amy’s idea. She knew she made some major mistakes from the beginning of their relationship, but she did not think it could be fixed. She was beginning to wonder if she was the right human for this horse after all.

The Horse Changes with You
The good news about horses is that once the person changes, the horse always changes with them. Once Amy understood what had led them to the predicament they were currently in, she was able to change how she acted. We started by taking Chief back to the round pen, to mimic the antics that go on when a new horse asks for acceptance into a herd. It wasn’t easy. It was scary at times because Chief was intolerant of her mistakes and stayed dominant and aggressive for a while. It took a lot of courage, patience and determination—qualities that Amy fortunately has an abundance of– for her to stand up to Chief’s bullying and stay strong.

At the same time, Amy came to the realization that her other horse appreciated her attention while Chief seemed to disdain it; her other horse was respectful of her authority and did not challenge her. So, it made sense for her to lavish more praise and attention on her other horse, who appreciated her, and to ignore Chief. Once Amy started giving Chief the cold shoulder, his demeanor began to change and he gradually started seeking her attention and approval, “Hey, what about me?”

Amy still has a lot of work to do with Chief, to get their relationship back to the dream horse category, but as she changes her approach and her attitude, Chief changes right along with her. Now, a few months into the cold-shoulder routine and in combination with the disciplined ground work she’s doing, to Chief, Amy is starting to look like a leader that he wants to be with.

Even though we may only have one chance for a first impression, and we never want to squander it, this story is proof that by understanding another’s perspective and reflecting on how our own actions are perceived, it can lead to a positive change. That kind of introspection and accountability is not always easy, but Amy rose to the challenge and Chief responded in-kind.

Chief is a really cool horse, but he is truly and alpha horse, and therefore not an easy nut to crack. Stay tuned to Horse Master, to see the final chapter of Amy and Chief’s story in May, when we reveal the challenging round pen work she did with Chief, that turned their relationship around

Beyond Clinics: You Get Out What You Put In

Julie teaching a clinic

Julie teaching a clinic

Horsemanship clinics are intensive training opportunities, usually with an expert from another area. As a horsemanship clinician, I generally work with riders and horses I’ve never met, and usually on a one-time basis.

There are both pros and cons of working with horses and their owners only once. The obvious benefit is that I have no preconceived notions about horse or rider; I just see, evaluate, and work with the horse/rider in front of me to improve them both. Seeing everything with a fresh, objective pair of eyes often sheds new light on the subject. The downside for me is that I don’t get to see the long-range improvements made by the horse and rider, or know how the clinic impacted them.

Getting follow-up letters from clinic participants means a lot to me.

Of course, I love hearing how the clinic impacted their horsemanship, but even more valuable to me is hearing what was most beneficial to the participant. What were the best nuggets you got from the clinic? What really clicked with you and your horse?

Hearing these things from the participant’s point of view helps me improve my teaching skills and helps me know what helped them the most. For the clinic participant, putting it in writing helps her solidify what she learned and remember it for a long time.

This is a recent follow-up letter I received from a clinic participant…

Dear Julie,

I just wanted to say thanks again for doing your clinic in Colorado! Not only did I benefit, but my husband’s understanding of horses and horsemanship moved Light Years Ahead!!! You have been blessed with an incredible talent for teaching! You always find a way to explain things that others have made so complicated!!!

I wanted to let you know that when I rode my horse today I immediately put the following principles [that I learned at the clinic] to work:

Groundwork (esp. not getting ahead of my hand)
Head down in the closet
Lunging and when he backed up because he didn’t want to go clockwise, we just kept backing- twice around the ring!!! Finally, he got it!
The first 10 minutes of Golden Moments
Slow, easy figure 8s to relax him in the ring.
Keeping him between my legs–in the tunnel

I made a list of what I wanted to work on and what the discipline would be so that I would not hesitate to think about it. This has helped me SO VERY MUCH!!!

Thank You Julie,
Barb

Some of these things would make more sense if you had been at the clinic, but most of them are topics I cover in every clinic I do. Still, it’s good to know how people benefitted. Some stuff on her list—like “riding through the tunnel” (about using your natural aids effectively)—I only cover on certain occasions when I am in the mood to wax poetic. With a follow-up comment like Barb’s, I am much more likely to teach this in more clinics!

Every horse and human arrive at the clinic with varying levels of riding, training and confidence behind them. It is my job as the clinician to adapt to the level of each horse and each person, be it high or low. My goal for each horse/rider/handler is to meet them where they are currently, and take them to the “next level,” whatever that looks like for that individual.

While Barb lists quite a few of the things she worked on at the clinic, there was a lot more content in the clinic than what appears on her list—these are simply the things that resonated with Barb and impacted her horse (and her horsemanship) the most. If every rider made their own list, we’d see a lot of variety!

You get out of a clinic what you are ready to learn. I am passionate about teaching horsemanship and training horses. I give as much of myself as I can at a clinic because I love helping horses. But I could give of myself even more—be the best teacher ever—and still, what the rider takes away from the clinic depends on what she puts into it.

If you go to a horsemanship clinic thinking someone else is going to do the challenging work for you—that the clinician is going to simply lay hands on your horse and miraculously cure him of his ills—you probably won’t get much out of the clinic. On the other hand, if you come to the clinic like a sponge—eager to soak up as much information as you can and open to trying new techniques—you will come home with your head swimming in new knowledge and the enthusiasm to get to the barn to work on it!

Write down what resonates with you. In making this list, Barb not only seated this new knowledge in her brain, she also sparked her enthusiasm and was motivated to do more with her horse. By sending this list to me, it both sealed Barb’s commitment to her horse and helped me grow as a clinician—to know what was most useful to my student and what caused the greatest change in the horse. For that, I am grateful.

I always encourage clinic participants to write down every meaningful thing they learn at a clinic. Why? No matter how valuable the information seemed at the time, you’ll forget it if you don’t write it down.

For myself, I always take a little pocket notebook when I ride in a clinic. Whenever it strikes me, I whip out the notebook and write the thought down. I have a whole box full of little butt-shaped notebooks with hundreds of gems of wisdom from every clinic I’ve ever taken. Occasionally I thumb through them and I get to learn the things I’ve forgotten all over again!

Auditing a clinic is also a valuable way to learn. It’s interesting to watch all the horses in the clinic, to see what the clinician sees, and to see how different horses (and handlers/riders) react and respond.

It’s extremely valuable to watch other people ride and do groundwork. You often see the mistakes another person makes before you see it in yourself. Often people watching the clinic relate when they see a mistake and say, “That’s exactly what I do!”

Come prepared—not perfect. Like any type of schooling or training, you only get out of it what you put into it. Occasionally, a rider comes to a clinic without having ridden her horse in a long time, and consequently, afraid to ride at the clinic. I often get the feeling that they thought signing up for the clinic would motivate them to ride more in preparation. Instead, procrastination kicks in, and before you know it the day of the clinic arrives and no preparation has occurred.

As the clinician, it’s still my job to help that horse and person as best I can—but if the student abdicates all responsibility for learning, there’s little I can do to help.

For others, registering well ahead of time for a horsemanship clinic gives them time to get in shape, set realistic goals and arrive at the clinic ready to soak it all in and soar right up to the next level of horsemanship. Registering for the clinic early forms a commitment of time and resources to the endeavor, and motivates the student to be prepared and eager for the opportunity.

Come ready to learn, and bring a pen. Whether you attend a horsemanship clinic as a spectator or a participant, arrive with an open mind, a positive attitude and a blank notebook to write in. Think out your goals and your questions ahead of time so you are armed and ready to get the most out of the clinic. At the end of the day, write down the significant things you learned, how you did it and why it worked.

After you get home, reflect on the experience for a few days. Make a plan—like Barb did—to utilize your newfound knowledge and for putting what you learned to work with your horse. You don’t have to share your follow-up plan with the clinician, but if it’s me, I hope you will!

I’d love to see you at one of my horsemanship clinics this year, and I promise to give you and your horse the best experience I can. For more information on my 2018 clinic tour and the fabulous Getaway Clinics I am doing in both Colorado and Ireland this year, visit JulieGoodnight.com/clinics

Enjoy the ride,
Julie

The Magic and Mystique of Horsemanship Clinics

Julie doing lead line work with a horse at her Florida clinic

Julie riding in a clinic

For some, attending a horsemanship clinic with a particular clinician, is a bucket-list item that they work toward for years. For others, attending horsemanship clinics with teachers who are leaders in the field is a way to further their careers and boost their horsemanship. And then there are the “clinic junkies,” who spend a good portion of every riding season trying to bag as many clinics as they can. (One summer, my husband attended eight different clinics! He also won a year-end award for most-improved in the ranch horse association, so it paid off!)

In theory, attending a horsemanship clinic—either as a rider or spectator—should be an inspiring, motivating and fulfilling event.

It’s a time to observe, explore innovative ideas, and immerse yourself in your passion; an opportunity to learn from a renowned professional, expand your horsemanship and grow as a rider. Sadly, not everyone has a blissful experience at a clinic. Choosing the right clinician, getting organized ahead of time and preparing yourself and your horse will set you up for success.

I’ve been teaching horsemanship clinics for a couple decades now, but I certainly didn’t start my career as a clinician.

I first started teaching riding lessons when I was 16, assisting at a small boarding and lesson farm in Florida. My introduction to group riding lessons came a couple years later when I taught for two summers at a youth camp—two of us taught five 1-hour lessons, 40-50 students a day, six days a week, all summer long. By the time I was 19, I was quite proficient at keeping order and managing traffic flow in an arena full of horses and riders. Little did I know then, I would draw on this experience 20 years later.

Although my passion for horses had more to do with studying behavior and science-based training techniques, I realized something important early on in my career. I could be the best horse trainer in the world, but it wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t teach the rider or handler to have the same success with the horse. So, as I honed my knowledge and training skills, I also had to hone my teaching and communication skills. After all, horses don’t pay the bills—people do.

Like most “horsemanship clinicians,” I spent years—decades, really—teaching individuals and small groups and developing my skills as a horse trainer before I started teaching clinics. I stopped teaching lessons to individuals more than a decade ago, and for the past 15 years I’ve been teaching horsemanship clinics from coast to coast and abroad.

Through my work with the Certified Horsemanship Association, I am still actively involved with educating and certifying riding instructors, but conducting horsemanship clinics now is my main gig.

How is a Clinic Different from a Lesson?
Julie with horse on the ground with neck rope.Clinics are typically taught by someone who is an expert in a particular area of horsemanship, with the experience and depth of knowledge to manage any situation. They are usually taught by someone with a higher level of expertise and/or contains content you would not normally get in a riding lesson. Horsemanship clinics are limited in availability and may require you to travel with your horse. They tend to be costlier in time and money than lessons, but for a great clinic it’s money well spent!

Not only will a horsemanship clinic connect you to a higher level of training or expertise, it is an opportunity to get an objective evaluation– of your riding, of your horse’s training, your tack, your goals– from a professional who has a broad perspective from working with hundreds or thousands of horses and riders, and who has no preconceived notions about you and your horse. Sometimes these objective and experienced eyes will pick up on things that you haven’t, offer innovative ideas or remove roadblocks.

The format for horsemanship clinics can vary a lot, depending on the riding activities and the clinician.

They may be discipline-specific (dressage, jumping, cutting, barrel racing, trick training) or more general in nature (groundwork, riding, colt-starting). Most of my clinics are general horsemanship, which means we address everything from groundwork, to leadership skills, to riding skills, to improving the performance of the horse in any discipline.

Some horsemanship clinics will be taught like a series of private lessons that are given in front of an audience, over a PA system. Dressage clinics are usually that way—the clinician works with the riders one at a time, one after the other, and others pay to watch, observe and learn. The one-on-one attention is less pressure than riding in a large group of unknown horses, but the rider is under a microscope from the clinician and audience. The number of riders that can be addressed in one day is also very limited.

Other clinic formats will have all the riders in the arena at the same time, with the groups as large as 10-20 riders. Performing in a large group in front of an audience brings unique challenges for both the horse and rider. It also has the potential to greatly expand the training and confidence of both horse and rider. Inexperienced horses can be overwhelmed at first—excited by all the unknown horses, and nervous in a new setting.

It’s the role of the clinician to help the horses settle in and teach the riders how to cope. It’s an excellent experience for a young or green horse and should advance their training significantly.

Another unique quality of a horsemanship clinic versus a riding lesson is that there are usually auditors—spectators who have paid to observe the clinician as she/he works with the horses and riders. This can be nerve-wracking for the riders (and for the horses when the spectators laugh, applaud or open an umbrella), but is an excellent and cheap source of information for the spectator.

Auditing horsemanship clinics is an excellent source of continuing education for riding instructors and horse trainers, because it allows you to observe all the different horses and see how the clinician adjusts the techniques to the specific needs of the student.

Finding the Right Clinic
Julie doing lead line work with a horse at her Florida clinicBefore signing up for any clinic, you should already have an idea of your purpose, your goals and what you hope to achieve. Is it to gain experience for a young horse, to get continuing education as a professional, to upgrade your performance, to build a better relationship with your horse, or to have a fun time with friends and horses?

Narrowing down the clinician you hope to work with, the discipline you want to focus on and the budget and time frame you must work within will help you sort through the options as you research the opportunities available in your area.

It’s possible you’ll have to travel a significant way to reach an in-demand clinician, so you’ll have to consider cost and travel logistics. To a degree, supply and demand will dictate the cost of the clinic. Popular clinicians usually come with a higher price tag—and their clinics may be hard to get into because of the high demand. On the other hand, last-minute cancellations can result in a discounted spot. Or, up-and-coming trainers may offer great deals on clinics—just because they aren’t a household name doesn’t mean they aren’t a fabulous trainer and teacher.

If your goals are competitive or focused on a single discipline (like jumping or cutting), narrowing down your options by networking through breed and discipline associations will be easy. Competition-focused clinics are more available, and tend to be more widely promoted.

If you are hoping to attend a clinic for more general reasons—to advance your horse’s training, to improve your riding, to gain confidence—you may have to do more research to find the right clinic for you and your horse.

Beyond expertise and notoriety, the clinician should have other qualities that compel you. Ask around to discover the “word of mouth” reputation of the clinician, preferably from someone who has ridden in one of their clinics. Is the clinician hard-core and driven, supportive and friendly, slow-paced or fast-paced, humble or egotistical, easy to understand or cryptic, witty or dry?

Try to find a clinician whose personality and style of teaching meshes well with yours. If you are a hard-driven competitive rider, you may love the intensity of a high-pressure clinic. If you are timid, inexperienced (you or your horse) or lacking confidence, a demanding clinician may not be an appropriate choice.

Preparation of Horse and Rider
Trucks and trailersTo get the most from a horsemanship clinic, you’ll need to be organized well in advance and have plenty of time to prepare your horse mentally and physically for the experience—it may require up to 6 months to a year of planning. Travelling with your horse—sometimes across state lines—on a multi-day excursion is no small task. For your horse it means sleeping in a strange stall, and being required to perform new skills in a cavernous arena surrounded by strange horses.

Larger horsemanship clinics can offer excellent “seasoning” opportunities for young horses, and a great bonding experience and sense of achievement for a horse and rider.

Often people arriving at a clinic for the first time with their horse are surprised that the horse is excited/nervous/exuberant/misbehaving/downright disobedient; often shocked because the horse “never acts that way at home.” A horse’s ability to function perfectly at home—with familiar horses and people—sometimes has little or nothing to do with their behavior in an unfamiliar setting.

It pays to make a few smaller trips with your horse ahead of time to give him a little taste of “life on the road.”

I am never concerned about horses having emotional meltdowns at the beginning of my clinics—to me it is a great “teachable moment.” I relish the opportunity to make a horse feel better about his situation—to educate that horse, bring him into a compliant and contented frame of mind and show the owner what the horse needs. This can happen really fast in a clinic under the right tutelage, and we see some dramatic changes in horses.

Make sure your horse has the appropriate level of training for the program being offered—be that high or low. Just as it would be unfair to bring a barely-broke 2-year-old to a high-level dressage clinic, or an 18-year-old trail horse to a stadium jumping clinic, it would be inappropriate to bring a world champion reining horse to ride in a colt-starting clinic.

Many horsemanship clinics offer novice and advanced levels; keep in mind it is both the horse and rider’s ability that must be considered.

Both the horse and rider should also be prepared for the physical demands of the clinic. Depending on the type of clinic that you attend, you and your horse may be under-saddle for longer periods than you normally ride. It’s unfair to your horse to go from little or no riding to 5-6 hours in the arena for two or more days in a row.

If you sign up six months ahead of time, even just riding twice a week is enough to get you and your horse prepared. Showing up at a clinic having not ridden much in preparation might be a waste of money (if the horse gets sore or the rider cannot continue), and could be a recipe for failure.

A horsemanship clinic with your horse can be an incredible experience that will boost your horsemanship, your sense of achievement and your confidence. It should leave you with a renewed passion, eager to get home and try all the new techniques you learned. If you choose the right clinic for you and your horse, plan ahead, get organized, and prepare, you and your horse will both be set up for success!

Enjoy the Ride!

Julie Goodnight


(Want to find out more about riding in or watching one of my clinics? Check my clinic schedule and see if I’m coming to an arena near you!)

For Julie's full schedule, go to JulieGoodnight.com/calendar

Slower is Faster with Horses

Let’s face it, we’ve become a society of instant gratification. From fast food, to fake nails, we like immediate results. This quest for instant results carries over to horsemanship, too—from flying lead changes, to side-passing, to collection. These are skills that riders everywhere hope to master, yet aren’t willing to “do the time.”

Horses and riding sports don’t mix well with instant gratification. Riding is a sport that takes years and decades for the human to master. And horses are not animals that react well to rushing and cutting corners. When training is rushed and important steps are missed, mastering even the simplest skill can seem impossible. In most cases, slowing down will get you there faster with horses.

Without question, when it comes to training horses, cutting corners always results holes in your horse’s training, which will come back to haunt you at the most inconvenient time. Undoing poor training is much harder and way more time consuming that training an untarnished horse the same skill. Cutting corners will cost you more time in the long run, which is why for thousands of years, horse trainers have known that slower is better when it comes to horses.

 

Horses are Fast Learners. People … Not So Much

Although horses are incredibly fast learners (a by-product of being flight animals and prey animals), there’s a significant difference between acquiring a new skill and mastering that skill. The challenge with horses is that how fast they learn and how fast they master any given skill is directly related to the effectiveness and consistency (skill level) of the rider or handler.

Because horses are prey animals, they are highly sensitive, and they feel all kinds of pressure (physical, mental, environmental) keenly. Therefore, we apply pressure and release it to train them (negative reinforcement refers to the removal of pressure). Two factors dictate how quickly the horse learns: timing and pressure. A timely release/reward comes within one second; using adequate pressure—neither too little nor too much—requires excellent judgment and ability from the rider. With good timing and adequate pressure, the horse learns rapidly. If the horse isn’t learning fast or is learning the wrong things, you must consider the human side of the equation.

Because horses are such fast leaners, they unfortunately learn the wrong things just as quickly as they learn the right things. The horse may learn to perform the skill incorrectly because the rider inadvertently released the horse at the exact wrong moment. I see this a lot in teaching complex maneuvers like pivot on the haunches. The horse takes one or two good steps in the pivot, then the rider gets greedy and asks for more, then the horse steps incorrectly and the rider releases him. I see riders asking for collection or some sort of head set, but instead of releasing that horse the instant he’s giving the correct response, they hold the horse too long until he starts resisting, then they release him, training the horse to throw his head up.

Whatever your horse is doing at the moment you release him, is what you just trained him to do. “My horse is having problems with this,” is code for, “I taught my horse the wrong thing.”

 

Why Slower is Faster

Getting in a hurry rarely works with horses. Their perspective of time is much different from the average human, who tends to think in the future and dwell in the past, but is rarely present in the moment. We always have a plan, an agenda and a schedule to adhere to. Horses don’t.

Horses are very much here-and-now animals. We humans stand to learn a lot from horses on this subject. Have you ever tried to train a horse to trailer load when you had limited time to load  and get somewhere? Have you ever had a normally easy-to-catch horse stick his tail up in the air and run around for twenty minutes on the day you were pinched for time? I rest my case.

Sometimes going slower with horses is very literal. Slowing down your body language and reactiveness when you are doing groundwork, will almost always have the effect of softening the horse’s response. Slowing down your hands when using rein aids, literally moving them slower, will improve the responsiveness of your horse. Try it.

Going slowly in the training of a horse means that we take small baby steps; we walk before we run and we don’t skip steps. We follow the important tenants of classical horsemanship, which have proven to be a successful recipe for training horses for thousands of years. We teach foundational skills before asking for complex maneuvers. Trying to teach a horse collection, before he has mastered the most fundamental skill of a riding horse—to move freely and willingly forward—will never work.

There are many seemingly simple skills of a riding horse that riders are often impatient to learn, like collection, flying lead changes and side passing. Rarely have I done a clinic (in the past 30 years) where a rider didn’t state one of these skills as a desired outcome for the clinic. Each of these skills require the horse (and therefore the rider) to master many foundational skills, a pre-flight checklist so to speak, which may take weeks and months to achieve. Only the most dedicated riders will devote the time needed to build the proper foundation for that skill and not get frustrated with how many steps are required to get there.

 

Stages of Learning

For both humans and horses, when mastering a new skill, there are stages of learning that describes how the individual typically advances through a predictable series of learning stages before mastering the skill. At first, the student (two-legged or four-legged) is halting and uncertain is using the skill, but gradually, through practice and guidance, the individual becomes more proficient and confident in the skill.

When we partner with horses, both horse and human are sometimes learning the skill for the first time together, and both animals have to move through the stages. With horses, it usually works best when one individual has already mastered the skill. In other words, if the rider does not know the skill, let’s say how to cue for and ride the canter, she will move through the stages must faster on a horse that has already mastered this skill. If the horse knows nothing about cantering with a rider on its back, it’s best trained by a rider that has already mastered cueing for and riding the canter.

The hierarchy of learning a new skill involves acquisition, fluency, generalization and adaptation. While this is common knowledge among educators of humans, it’s also highly applicable to the training of horses. Let’s look at the most fundamental skill of a riding horse—to go forward.

The very first time we ride that young horse, we have to teach it to go, turn and stop, but at first, he knows absolutely nothing. So, you flap your legs, cluck, wave your arms and otherwise apply pressure until the horse takes a step forward—then you immediately release the pressure, praise, and hopefully the horse learned something. The next time you ask that horse to move forward and it only takes a little wiggle of your legs and a couple clucks before he steps off, your horse has just acquired a new skill.

The next phase the horse moves through is fluency, and that will take some time; how long, depends on the skill of the rider. Although the horse has acquired the skill, he is still tentative and slow to respond. As he becomes more fluent, his response time increases, your cues get lighter, and he becomes more confident. Now the horse moves off with a slight closing of the rider’s leg.

Then we reach one of the most challenging and time-consuming phases when it comes to training horses, and that is generalization. This phase is not complete until the horse can perform the skill in any situation or any setting. No matter where you are or how emotionally your horse has become, he still responds accurately and promptly to the cue and performs the skill. Since horses are very location-specific in what they learn, having to perform the skill in many various locations requires a lot of time and effort. You can train a horse to perform to a very high level at home and practice for years, then take him somewhere else to perform, only to have him fall apart and become nonresponsive (or worse). A generalized horse is what we call a “seasoned” horse—he’s been hauled around and learned to perform his skills at the same level away from home that he does at home. This can take years.

Adaptation occurs when the horse or human is so accurate and confident in using the skill, that it can be applied to new and unique situations and the horse will adapt his skills to the demands of the new situation. Think about the high-level cross-country jumping horse, who adapts the jumping skills that he learned in an arena starting with ground poles and cavaletti, and now he gallops boldly through a course he has never seen, jumping huge, scary obstacles, landing blindly in potentially hazardous footing like a water obstacle. He can adapt his jumping skills to any type of obstacle, in any situation, even one he has never experienced.

 

Teaching Complex Maneuvers

Complex maneuvers are almost anything that we teach a horse beyond stop, start and steer. Advanced maneuvers generally require putting two or more foundational skills together to perform the maneuver, like collection, leg-yielding, side-passing, pivots on the forehand and haunches, lead changes, jumping, rollbacks, and the like.

One of the earliest complex maneuvers we encounter in the training of a riding horse is the canter departure. Before that horse learns to step off quietly and smoothly from a walk into a canter on whichever lead asked, there are many smaller steps which take time to accomplish. Knowing what the smaller steps are, being able to break down that skill into the smallest steps, and being willing to spend whatever time it takes at each step of the way, are the hallmarks of success in training horses.

Precursor skills always exist in complex maneuvers. For instance, before a horse and rider can flawlessly perform a flying lead change on command, they must both be able to execute walk-to-canter transitions on the correct lead 100% of the time; halt-to-canter transitions, dead-leaded; collection at the canter; an obedient and balanced counter-canter; haunches-in walk, trot and canter; leg yielding walk, trot and canter; etc. When you take the time to accomplish these lesser skills, flying lead changes are easy.

Because horses are very fast learners, acquisition of a skill can (and should) happen fast. But one response, does not a habit make. How fast a horse moves through the stages of learning is directly proportionate to the talent of the rider. Whether it takes a day, a week or a month to get fluent in a skill, fluency must occur before moving on to the next phase. This is true of each smaller step or precursor skill. When you try to fast forward though any stage of a horse’s training by skipping steps, you end up training the wrong response to the horse.

For all the complex maneuvers that we train horses to do, physical strength, stamina and coordination are required—that takes weeks and months to develop, not hours or days. While most of the maneuvers we ask horses to perform are movements they can do naturally, packing the weight of the rider (who is often getting in the way of the horse) makes it much more difficult for the horse. Pushing a horse faster than his physical strength and coordination can develop generally results in a burned-out horse, an injured horse, or both.

 

It’s no wonder that slower is faster when it comes to horses and learning to ride. When both the horse and the rider are learning new skills together, it will take even longer. It’s important to strive for correctness in training, which means releasing at the right moment, and making sure that you are giving the correct cues and training the correct response. Quality versus quantity.

Beyond precision, it’s important to be patient, to slow down your actions and expectations—to walk before you run. The ability to break down complex maneuvers into the smallest steps and then refine each step, to build a solid foundation, is one of the most crucial factors in successful horse training. This requires a lot of knowledge and a high skill level; if you do not possess the knowledge and skills yourself, you need help from someone who does. You can find that help online, at JulieGoodnight.com/Academy.

Riding in the Moment

Julie riding her horse, Dually.

Julie riding her horse, Dually.

One thing horses are really good at is being present in the moment. People, not so much. We tend to carry baggage from the past and stress about the future, but not stay present with our horse in the moment. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could stay present and thinking in the moment and ride through any sticky situation with your horse?

Riding an unfamiliar horse, or riding in a new situation like a clinic or a big trail ride, or when riding a horse that was less-than-trustworthy in the past, are typical times when I see people lock up and shut down on their horses. When the rider shuts down, the horse’s behavior deteriorates under the pressure of a fearful, untrusting and clenching rider. It goes something like this…

The horse triggers an emotional response in the rider, then a chain reaction of events occurs between the rider and the horse, which results in gasping, clenching, hollowing and bracing on the part of both rider and horse. Pretty soon the rider has a death grip on the reins, pulling back and manually steering the horse’s nose every inch of the ride, instead of guiding direction and letting the horse move forward and do his job. Soon the horse is high headed and defiant; rooting the reins and starting to act like a bull in a china shop. Resistant behavior in horses tends to amp up fearful behavior in riders, leading to more clenching, gasping and hollowing. And the downward spiral continues.

Riding in the moment is not the same as having no fear. It requires the mental discipline to be aware of your surroundings, objectively reading your horse’s mood and responsiveness, trusting your horse to do his job but being prepared to react if he doesn’t. Riding the horse that is beneath you means that you are present in the moment with him, not thinking about what could go wrong or a past incident. It means responding to your horse with both praise and admonishment as needed, and giving him every opportunity to be a good horse, not doubting his every move.

Riding a thousand-pound flight animal certainly comes with risk; there’s nothing we can do to totally eliminate that but when all you think about is what can go wrong, it affects your riding in very negative ways. The horse becomes anxious and resistant, which generally increases the fear in the rider, creating a snowball effect. The keys to riding in the moment and riding through problems are to have awareness, to think through and ride through it, to have a deep and anchored seat and to be relaxed but prepared—with both physical and mental skills.

Prey and the Herd Mentality
It’s hard for us to remember, but horses are prey animals and they worry about their safety a lot. That’s one reason why they crave strong leadership and authority—it makes them feel safe. The leader of the herd is responsible for keeping the herd safe, leading them to food and water when it’s time and maintaining order in the herd. It’s only possible for your horse to think of you as the leader (and therefore be confident going anywhere with you) if you act this way—thinking through the problems and taking charge. When the rider is scared, dodgy, and unaware of things going on around her, it worries the horse.

Horses also have an incredibly strong herd instinct, known as gregarious behavior—they are instinctively drawn to the herd. Because horses are both prey and herd animals, they are hard-wired to adopt the emotions of the animals around them—when one horse in the herd startles, they all do. This emotionality carries over to people as well. When the rider gets fearful, the horse knows it and can’t help but feel anxious too. If the rider is constantly thinking about what can go wrong, the horse becomes suspicious and anxious too.

The horse looks to his rider to set the tone—be it relaxed or tense; confident or insecure; leader or follower. It would be unreasonable to say you should never to have any fear or anxiety; that’s impossible. But what is possible, is not to let that emotion creep into your body language and your actions and succumb to the paralysis it can cause. Having good mental discipline and an awareness of your posture, your body language, your eyes and your breathing, will help settle your horse and give him more confidence in you.

Presumptive Leadership
To be a strong and confident leader for your horse, you need to develop a presumptive quality in your demeanor—presume everything will go well, presume your horse will respond as he is trained to do, presume that your horse agrees you are the one in charge and that you have complete control. Horses really dig that kind of strong leadership.

Set a positive tone for the ride– visualize the best outcome; keep your eyes engaged and ride with a destination in mind—be a proactive rider, not one that devolves into a clenching, gasping, red-faced mess. When things go awry, ride forward—go somewhere—take action—redirect your horse. Don’t pull back, clench the reins and try to stop the ride and get off.

When something scary happens on your ride, divert attention rather than focus on the scary thing. Perfect the art of shifting gears and doing something else, not stopping in paralysis. Riding forward is usually better than stopping since forward motion is the basis of all training. Since horses are flight animals, they generally respond better when they are moving than when forward motion is inhibited. When a horse is anxious, it’s generally easier to control the forward motion of the horse than it is to stop all motion and try and contain it.

Look around, find a destination and ride there. Ask the horse to move forward then direct that movement. Throw in some turns and changes of direction to establish even more control. Be a pro-active rider in times of stress, not a victim.

Be Prepared but Relaxed
When you have the riding skills and mental skills you need to control a horse in almost any situation, it will give you great confidence. This has a positive effect on your horse as well, because when you are confident in yourself, your horse feels more confident in you too. When you have confidence in yourself, your horse is far less likely to challenge your authority (see the comments above on being presumptive). The riding and mental skills needed, include having a balanced position in the saddle with an anchored seat, keeping your eyes up and focused on your environment and staying objectively aware of your horse, breathing deeply and rhythmically, and knowing effective emergency stopping techniques.

Beyond basic riding position (ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment), having a deep and anchored seat means that you are sitting back, weighted in your heels, your lower back is in a “J” shape and your joints are loose and relaxed. From this position, almost nothing can get you off the horse. But fear and anxiety will do the opposite to your position if you allow it—your back hollows, you perch forward, your heels come up, your joints stiffen (causing you to bounce and your horse to hollow his back and throw his head up), you clench the reins and pull yourself even more forward—all of this is transmitting fear and panic to your horse.
Develop your mental skills so that when the going gets tough, you automatically sit back, round your lower back, get weighted in your heels, keep your eyes up and engaged and your breathing deep. Ride pro-actively and go somewhere!

It’s also important to develop your riding skills and have a full understanding emergency stopping techniques and when to use them. Learn the one-rein stop for times when your horse is acting up or getting a little frisky; however, the one-rein stop should not be used when a horse is bolting because it could cause him to trip and fall. The emergency stopping rein (a/k/a the “pulley” rein) is an important skill that all riders should learn.

The pulley rein is like a one-rein stop, except the outside rein is fixed and locked on the crest of the neck, so it will not cause a turn. When executed properly, the pulley rein generates leverage and will allow the rider to stop any horse on a dime. It’s not often taught because not all instructors/trainers know it and because the practicing of it is hard on the horses. However, if you don’t practice the maneuver, you certainly won’t be able to employ it when your horse is bolting. You can read articles and watch videos about the pulley rein here.

Awareness, Knowledge and Skill
When it comes to riding horses, nothing gives you more confidence than knowledge and skill. Being aware of your environment, being balanced in the saddle and anchored in your seat, staying in the moment, being aware of your horse’s behavior, riding proactively, with purpose and intent will get you through almost any tricky situation with a horse. Armed with knowledge, skills and mental discipline, you will have the confidence you need to get the job done!

Top Five Concerns for Winterizing Your Horse


I grew up in Florida, where the main riding season is the winter. Our main chore to get ready for winter was body clipping the horses, to get rid of the winter coat they were not going to need. For the last 30+ years, I’ve lived in the mountains of Colorado, at an altitude of 8000 feet, where the winters are long and cold and preparing your horse and barn for the winter comes with some important concerns.

Depending on your climate, your barn and the facilities you have to work with, preparing for winter may mean a lot of work! We all have unique challenges in the winter that may vary from dealing with ten-foot snow drifts to dealing with eight inches of mud, but my first concern is always making sure my horses will be comfortable for the long winter ahead.

While winters here in the mountains are long and hard, with temperatures well below zero at times, it’s not that bad everywhere (and much worse some places). Whether your winters are mild or wild, you might find a few things to think about, as you prepare your horses for winter. My biggest concerns to prepare my horses for winter are transitioning the horses’ diets, winterizing their water sources, preparing their hooves, checking their parasite status, and organizing blankets.

The Grass is not Greener

My horses have free-choice access to hay and/or grass 24/7, but late in the summer as the grass starts losing its nutritional value, the horses start transitioning themselves to more of a hay diet. Since Fall comes early here, by mid-August, the horses start eating more hay and less green grass, all on their own. Since we offer both hay and green grass to the horses in the late summer, they will slowly transition themselves to an all-hay diet by the time the grass goes dormant.

Unlike the Spring, when we must be very careful transitioning the horses from an all-hay diet to an all-grass diet, in the fall the transition is easier. However it’s done at your place, it is important to make any change in diet gradually. Whenever we are changing a horse’s diet, we always put them on a pre/pro-biotic like Proviable throughout the transition period, to aid in digestion.

After over thirty years in the horse business, I’ve learned many hard lessons about buying hay. First, I always buy a year’s worth of hay in the fall. I will not take the chance of running out of hay in the spring when hay can be very scarce and expensive. I will not buy hay right out of the field. It’s not fully cured until it’s been in the stack for 30 days. Some hay can look absolutely beautiful for a few weeks after it’s baled but can turn bad in the stack thirty days later if it was baled with too much moisture.

For my horses, I buy straight grass hay, top-quality, no rain on it. We buy large bales, which are a challenge to move around, but the cost savings is significant. I’ll also buy a few tons of small bales so that when I travel with my horses, I have some hay to take on the road.

I’ve found that hay prices are lowest and most stable in the fall and I can usually find the best quality then too. An uncomplicated way to budget your hay is to plan on using 1/3 a ton per horse per month; so, three horses are going to consume about one ton a month. I like to buy 10 months’ worth of hay in September; that should take me through July, when the new crop comes in and when the grass is in full swing. If you may have spoilage, add 10%. If your herd numbers fluctuate, overbuy your hay. If it’s well stored, hay will retain its nutritional value for up to a couple years after it’s baled. So I’d rather have extra hay in the Spring (when hay is the most expensive)—I’ll be sure to use it up first before I start feeding the next year’s crop.

Winterizing Water Sources

Frozen water sources can be one of the biggest challenges in winter horse keeping. Just like us, it’s easy for a horse to get dehydrated because he is not drinking enough water when he is cold. Dehydration is a huge factor in colic, so I do everything I can to make sure my horses are adequately hydrated all winter long, including heating their water and adding an equine drink mix like Rein Water, which encourages drinking.

As the nighttime temps drop below freezing, we hang heated water buckets in the stalls. I prefer not to have automatic waterers in their stalls, so I know exactly how much water each horse consumed overnight. For the horses that stay outside, we have heated water sources too, but there’s no way to monitor individual consumption. Since the heated water sources are covered, it’s important that someone checks it twice a day to make sure it is not frozen or malfunctioning another way (like having an electric current running through the water).

If you are using stock tanks and tank heaters, make sure the heaters and wires are all functional and protected so that the horses will not break anything. Horses can be a real nuisance when it comes to fiddling with wiring and contraptions, especially on a water tank. They tend to hang out at the water source and can easily get bored or frustrated and start playing with the heater. If your winters are mellow, with little freezing at night. Then maybe all you need to do is break a little ice in the morning. Just keep in mind that the colder the water, the less your horse will drink, so consider heating some water for your horse.

Finally, all the hoses, the wash rack and implements must be thoroughly drained and put away for the winter. If you must use hoses in the winter to fill water tanks, it’s a huge chore in cold climates. Hoses must be drained twice to make sure they are usable the next time. Without fail, someone will mess up and you’ll end up with frozen hoses sometime during the winter. If so, just coil the hose and dump the whole thing in your heated stock tank. In no time, it will be thawed and you can drain it (much faster than dragging it in your house).

To Shoe or Not to Shoe?

Right behind food and water, I have a huge concern about getting the horse’s feet ready for winter. This can be complicated because each horse has unique needs and will be used differently over the winter. Without question, it is better if horses can be kept unshod, especially in the winter. Their hooves are healthier when unshod and they are less likely to slip on the ice or develop snowballs on their feet.

In cold climates like ours, we must be very careful with hooves as we transition from fall to winter. Some of our horses are shod in the summer, because of the demands of hard riding on rocky terrain. If you wait until the last minute to pull their shoes for the winter, their feet are very tender when the ground freezes hard and the horses can get dangerously footsore, even slightly laminitic. I want to pull their shoes well before the hard freeze, so their feet have time to toughen up before the ground gets rock hard. This is always a difficult choice for some riders who really enjoy trail riding in the fall and want to leave shoes on as long as possible. I prefer to pull shoes early if I can and use hoof boots on the trails so that the horse’s feet toughen up before the ground is frozen hard.

My first choice is to leave all the horses barefoot over the winter and for as long as I can. Most of my horses will go at least five months without shoes. However, some of our horses have therapeutic or corrective shoeing and they will stay shod, with special shoes and pads, usually on the fronts only. Sometimes we have horses that are in performance training and will wear sliders on the hinds, so we’ll leave them bare in the front and shod on the hinds. If horses are shod during the winter, we use snow pads on them to prevent the hard ice-balls from forming on their feet.

Does Your Horse Need a Blanket?

The short answer is, probably not. Horses are unbelievably adaptable animals and are well-equipped to deal with almost any climate. Did you ever hear of the cartoon, “South Park?” It’s a real place, not too far from where I live, and there are few places in the lower 48 that have a harsher winter. 25-30 below zero for weeks on end, deep snow and howling winds. Yet all winter long, you can drive through that valley and see hundreds of horses, unblanketed, doing just fine. If they have food and water and a windbreak, they are happy. For the most part, horses do not need blankets, but there are some situations when it’s a good idea.

First, in extreme weather, we always cover our geriatric horses (or any horses that are unhealthy or skinny). Horses need to eat more in the winter because they expend a lot of energy to stay warm. When a horse is barely keeping his weight without the cold, he may need some blanketing help in the coldest weather.

Keep in mind that when you blanket a horse and compress his haircoat, he loses some insulation value. Once you start blanketing a horse, you may need to continue. If you are flexible enough to only put the rug on just during inclement weather and leave him uncovered in the better weather, his winter coat may stay fluffy. But if you leave that blanket on for days or weeks on end, his coat will compress so much that you’ll need to leave him blanketed. Often, it’s best to leave it to nature and let the horse’s winter coat do its job.

Some of my horses stay blanketed all winter long. But make no mistake about it, this is entirely for human convenience, not because the horses need it. We ride our horses year-round, but from November through April, we are generally riding inside. For ease of use and for aesthetic reasons, we like to keep the winter coats as short as we can, so we keep them blanketed, starting early in the fall. Riding inside, in a warm indoor arena, horses with a full winter coat will get soaking wet and it’s impossible to get them dry before nightfall. Sometimes we trace clip the hair coat to manage the sweating and keep our horses dry when we ride. Blanketing and keeping their hair coats short, helps us manage the winter riding (and keeps them looking good for photo shoots too!).

Most horses don’t need blanketing, no matter how cold it is. However, it’s nice to have the choice, so we keep a good heavy, waterproof rug for each horse (we actually have sheets, mid-weights and heavy weights for each horse). I’ve bought hundreds, maybe more than a thousand horse blankets in my lifetime and I’ve learned through experience that you get what you pay for. Spending a few hundred dollars on a top-quality blanket is money well spent. Keep in mind that your horse will do its best to destroy the blanket; you’ll go through 3-4 cheap blankets before you replace one high-quality rug. I also want a winter blanket that wicks moisture, has a turtleneck and utilizes high-tech materials. We can usually get 3-4 years or more of use out of one heavyweight rug.

Check for Parasites

I do not de-worm my horses unless they need it. We do fecal egg counts in the Spring and Fall. If the report comes back negative for worms, we do not give them a de-wormer. If a horse shows a positive result, we will de-worm that individual accordingly. The fecal egg count is easy and no more expensive than the cost of a de-wormer if you send it to a lab. I do not want to give my horses any chemicals or medications they do not need, so the fecal egg count is a wonderful way to go.

You can do the egg count yourself (find instructions online) or you can order a testing kit and send it off to a lab. There are many sources available now, so just google it and figure out the best option for you and your horses. If horses are kept in very sanitary conditions and de-wormed as needed, you’ll find you have far fewer parasites to deal with.

If I did not do fecal egg counts, I would de-worm all my horses with ivermectin after the first hard frost. By waiting for the hard frost, your hope is to take care of the last of the parasites before the winter kill. If I only de-wormed once a year, I’d do it in the fall after the first hard frost. But honestly, it’s been a few years since any of our horses have been de-wormed because the reports come back clean.

Around here, winters are long and hard, and horse keeping can be a real challenge! Being prepared around the barn and getting your horse ready ahead of time will help a lot. Every climate and every facility has its own set of challenges in winter and summer and as the years pass by, we learn how to manage it better. If you’re new to horses, it pays to ask more experienced horse owners in your area what they do to get ready for the seasons. It helps to get ideas from others but it’s up to you to make the decisions on what’s best for you and your horses.

Have You Ever Been Kicked?

Julie working with horse on the lead line.

Have You Ever Been Kicked?

Dear Julie: This may be a very odd question, but I was curious how many times have you been kicked or caught in the crossfire in your training career? I’ve been kicked three times, but tonight I got kicked square in the pelvis by a dominant mare who was going after my mare while I was putting a halter on her. I saw it start to happen, but couldn’t get away fast enough. It is the first time I have considered throwing in the reins because it frustrates me so much.

First Time for Everything

One of my earliest memories is of getting kicked by a horse. It was circa 1965. I was 5 or 6 years old and my dad was feeding the horses who had lined up in their tie stalls for their grain. I was watching my dad feed as I wandered aimlessly around the barnyard—right smack into the kick zone of the food-aggressive gelding. Lightning fast, he kicked me square in the stomach—throwing my little stick figure up into the air and landing flat on my behind unceremoniously in the mud. It was the first (but not last) time I got kicked and also the first (but not last) time I got the air knocked out of me. It was, however, the very last time I laid eyes on that gelding. My dad never tolerated unsafe horses. Nonetheless, wrong place, wrong time. Entirely predictable.

Whenever someone asked, “Does this horse kick?” my father always said, “All horses kick, all horses bite, all horses strike.” That’s a simple fact of horse behavior—Horsemanship Safety 101, if you will. What I would add is that generally when you get kicked, it’s because you were too close to the kick zone when you shouldn’t have been. I know for myself personally, every time I’ve been kicked (and yes, there have been many—far too many to count), it was because I was doing something I shouldn’t have. Also, I would say, that which does not kill you makes you stronger!

Whose Fault Is It?

As I said, I’ve been kicked too many times to remember the number. Anyone who has worked with as many horses over as many decades as I have—handling colts, starting young horses under saddle, desensitizing, catching, gentling, doctoring, loading in a trailer—has been kicked too many times to remember each one. Still, some incidents stand out to me (for the sheer stupidity of my actions which resulted in me being kicked). The good news is that we learn (hopefully) from each stupid mistake so we won’t get kicked that way again!

Another kicking episode that stands out in my memory, was the time I got kicked in the thighs by double barrels, coming from a shod 17-hand black Thoroughbred. His name was Magic and he was a kind and gentle OTTB gelding that belonged to a friend and client. He occupied the biggest stall in my barn (12×14), yet he made it look small. The door out to his run was wide open, but he barely fit out of it (the old barn being built for much smaller horses). I was in the middle of morning chores and his head was buried deep in the feeder as I walked by his stall. I looked at him, eye-to-eye, as I spoke a gentle, “Good morning big guy,” to him. I opened his door, speaking to him again as I reached out to touch his side and move him over so I could grab his dirty water bucket. Whaphumph!!

Although I was absolutely certain that horse had seen me, heard me and understood me to be opening his stall door, when I reached out to touch him I startled him—and he kicked out with both his hind feet. They landed square in the middle of both my thighs and sent me sailing out of the stall, slamming my back into the wall on the other side of the barn aisle. In one huge movement, he kicked me out of his stall and exploded his 1100-pound, 17-hand frame out of the tiny stall door, into the run. Even as I was flying backward out of the stall I knew I had done something stupid—made some unreasonable assumptions—and that this kind and gentle horse was not at fault. The good news is, I will never make that mistake again.

Is Getting Kicked Part of the Sport?

Although horses generally choose flight in response to a threat, they are perfectly well-equipped to fight. Kicking is one of three defensive or offensive “weapons” of the horse, and it is the least deadly. Biting and striking (lashing out with the front feet) are much more dangerous, but fortunately, we see these behaviors less. Horses sometimes kick aggressively (usually backing up and kicking with double barrels, squealing at the same time), but most often kicking is defensive in nature. You see it all the time when a dominant horse comes after the subordinate horse. The subordinate will kick out to buy a little time as he runs away—much like he would kick and run from a predator.

Horses kick at each other all the time, mostly as a gesture or threat. They pull their punches a lot and tend to make contact when they want to. Generally, when they kick at each other (or at you), it is more of a threat or warning and less intent to injure. Often, when they do make contact with a kick, it is to a fleshy or meaty area that can take the punch better. But their aim is not perfect and it is not hard to get caught in the crossfire between two or more horses, as in this case.

Sadly, most people that have been around a lot of horses for a lot of years have gotten kicked, stepped on or bit. Although I do not believe getting hurt must be a part of this sport (and I believe that most incidents are preventable), getting bumped, bruised and pushed around comes with the territory. Still, if you are smart and learn from your mistakes—and if you keep safety as your highest priority—you will be less likely to get hurt. My father taught me that when it comes to horses, always plan for the worst-case scenario. The more experience with horses you have, the more worst-case scenarios you’ve seen.

Getting Smarter

In most of my clinics, I physically show people the kick zone of the horse, so that they are aware of exactly where it is at all times. The horse can reach forward with the hind foot, almost to his front leg; he can reach the full length of his leg to the side; plus, the full extension of his leg back. That makes about a 3- to 4-foot half circle around the hind leg of the horse that is within his kick zone. To be safe around horses, you must always be aware of the kick zone and when you have entered it. For instance, when I clean my horse’s front feet, my head is right in the kick zone. That doesn’t mean I never clean his feet, but that I am aware of it and monitoring the horse while my head is at risk.

When you are doing groundwork with a horse and when you are entering a group of horses to catch one, you have extra risk of getting kicked. We do groundwork with horses to move them around and control their space, like a dominate horse would. Often in the earlier stages of groundwork, the horse may feel threatened by the handler. So it is not only normal, but to be expected that the horse will kick out. If you get kicked while doing groundwork, you were in the way and it is your fault—not the horse’s.

Another memorable time I got kicked very hard, was doing circling work on a 20-year-old beginners’ school horse. I assumed that this gentle old horse wouldn’t kick, but I was wrong. I stepped right into the kick zone, then shushed her with the flag. Then she shattered my assumption (but thankfully not my leg). It hurt a lot (and embarrassed me more), but it was an important lesson to learn—and one I share with my students every time I teach circling work.

Going to catch your horse in a group of horses is one of the riskiest things you’ll do around horses, especially when you are not familiar with all of the horses or the pecking order of the herd. I’d suggest taking a flag or a whip to keep the other horses in control while you catch your horse. Take your time and keep the other horses away—they should respect your space. If not, chase them off with the flag. Your horse will come to understand what you are doing and should cooperate.

It Is What It Is

Kicking does not make a horse bad. It makes him a horse—and all horses kick. We know that, we should expect that and we should take precautions to keep ourselves safe—All. The. Time. There are sometimes when a kicking response is more predictable, and other times when it can seemingly come out of the blue (usually because we missed the warnings). But the horse’s kick range is a finite space; all you have to do is know where it is and stay out of it. I’m not saying that with this knowledge and awareness, you’ll never get kicked again. But by being smart, owning your mistakes (which is the only way to learn from them) and erring on the side of caution, it will definitely make you safer!

 

Does Your Horse Like You?

Recently at one of my clinics, a rider told me that three different trainers told him flat-out that his horse did not like him. He was hoping that the clinic would help him understand if the horse would ever come to like him or if he should get a different horse. I was hoping that the clinic would help me understand why a trainer (let alone three of them) would say something like that to anyone, let alone their client.

We know horses are very emotional animals, and we know them to also be very relationship oriented. The question is, what does your horse think of you? And what are the signs that tell you? People say all the time, “I want my horse to like me and I want my horse to trust me!” All the “want” in the world won’t make this happen. Learning to read the signs from your horse that indicate his emotional state—and asking yourself what you are doing that is causing this reaction—will get you where you need to be.

What horses want the most is security and comfort. They love things that make them feel safe, like clear rules and expectations, consistency and strong leadership. They love to rest, they love to be praised for a job well done and they love it when you take all the pressure off of them.  Horses don’t like you or dislike you randomly. They react to how you make them feel—safe and content or anxious and uncomfortable. Analyzing the mistakes you make and the reactions of your horse will help you find the answers and bring your relationship with your horse to a whole new level.

Do Horses Like People?
In the case of the owner who was told that his horse did not like him, I personally found that to be ridiculous, but I gradually came to understand what was going on. It wasn’t a matter of who the horse “liked” and “disliked,” it was a matter of riding skill and how the horse reacted to the rider’s mistakes.

It was a young Quarter Horse gelding, only 3 years old and working very well under saddle. He had been trained and ridden a by several different pro-riders since he was a 2-year-old. This is a great start for a horse, and it certainly showed in this horse’s performance at the clinic. He was cool as a cucumber and keeping up with much older and more experienced horses. The reason why this guy thought his horse did not like him was that the horse was showing some signs of frustration when he rode—but not when the trainers rode him.

When a young horse is ridden primarily by pro-riders, that level of rider becomes the norm for that horse. They are highly sensitive, fast-learning animals—and they come to know the patterns, routines and idiosyncrasies of the rider fast. Of course, the pro-rider is generally very balanced, using light aids, and very consistent in her cues and expectations of the horse—giving praise and rest when earned, and correcting the horse fairly when needed. The pro-rider that is very accustomed to riding green horses also knows what to expect and knows how to avoid problems. This consistency and confidence of the rider is palpable to the horse and results in a confident and compliant horse.

I learned a long time ago that when starting colts it’s a good idea to have more than one person ride the horse, so that the young horse comes to understand that there will be different riders, who cue and ride differently. When a horse is only ever ridden by one person as a youngster, and that one person is a highly qualified rider, the horse rightfully may come to believe that all riders will be exactly this way. Then at some point, when the new rider comes along and cues differently, holds the reins tighter, and gives conflicting and confusing signals, the horse is shocked and frustrated.

Signs to Look for in Your Horse
Horses are all quite different in their temperaments, so their reactions to a new and/or lesser skilled rider may range from mild frustration to downright anger and revolt. Some horses have a strong sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair. These horses tend to be less tolerant of the rider’s mistakes. Like people, some horses have the patience of a saint, while others, not so much.

When a trained horse becomes frustrated with the rider, the signs may be as subtle as a shake of his head or tensing/hollowing of his body, or as blatant as swishing the tail, kicking out or flat out refusing to do what the rider asks. As his frustration with a lesser skilled rider grows, he may start shutting down, refusing to move forward, diving toward the gate or center of the arena, or running right through the bridle—no steering, no brakes. These are all signs that the horse is frustrated with the rider and feels like he is being treated unfairly.

This nice QH gelding did not dislike his owner—he just wished he rode as well as the trainers. The horse never acted out badly, he was just happy when the trainers rode—and a little frustrated when the novice owner rode. When the rider made a mistake—like pulling back on the reins when he wanted the horse to go forward—the horse would get understandably frustrated and shake his head or swish his tail in irritation. This does not mean the horse did not “like” the person; it meant he needed to learn to ride better and own his mistakes.

Fortunately for us, horses don’t stand around the water cooler and decide which humans they like and dislike, or who did what to whom. They live in the present moment and they react to your actions (good or bad). They learn to trust you—or not—based on your actions, not whether they like you. They get frustrated or irritated—or they become content and relaxed—based on what you do. That’s why most of the time when we are having problems with trained horses, we have to examine our own actions—not blame the horse.

As the clinic progressed, I worked with all the riders to develop a balanced seat and to ride with all their aids—not just their hands. In fact, we worked on controlling speed and direction without using the reins, cueing lightly and consistently and having proper position in the saddle and moving fluidly with the horse, having clear and reasonable expectations of your horse and following through with consistency. The young gelding worked very well for his proud owner, and at the end of the clinic I asked the rider, “Do you still think your horse doesn’t like you?” Seeing the huge smile on his face as he kissed his horse smack on the lips, told me all I needed to know. Maybe it was my imagination, but in this moment I thought I saw a twinkle in the horse’s eye that said, “Thank you (for fixing my rider).”

Three Common Mistakes that Erode Your Horse’s Trust

In Florida, Julie encourages this experienced horse to take jumps confidently—even in new places.  Photo by: The Whole Picture, LLC.
In Florida, Julie encourages this experienced horse to take jumps confidently—even in new places. Photo by: The Whole Picture, LLC.

Horses know good leadership when they see it because their lives depend upon it. We probably all agree that the ultimate relationship with a horse is one in which the horse looks up to you, wants to be with you and feels safe and peaceful in your presence. But all the groundwork and relationship building exercises in the world won’t help you develop this relationship unless you present yourself as a competent leader at all times.

In every clinic that I teach, people ask how they can get their horse to trust them more, yet I see them constantly doing things that show their horses that they lack judgment and make poor decisions. It’s funny that horses see this so clearly, but humans—not so much.

Your job as the leader is to watch out for the safety of your followers. Every time you give a horse a reason to question your judgment–because you’ve put him in a situation he perceives as unsafe–you’re chipping away at his faith in you.

Here are three common mistakes I see people making every day with their horses that give the horse good reasons not to trust their judgment and leadership. Watch for these mistakes closely the next time you interact with your horse; make sure that you are the leader your horse deserves.

 

Putting the Horse on a Collision Course

An obedient riding horse goes in the direction you dictate, at the speed you set, without argument. The problem is that horses are much more spatially aware than humans. Horses worry about the other horses in the arena and they expect the leader to watch ahead and prevent any potential horse-to-horse collision or conflict.

Most people are so consumed with themselves, that they are oblivious to their surroundings, including what the other horses are doing. Your horse always recognizes your lack of awareness, because his safety depends upon it. He sees the hazard even when you don’t.

I often see this when people are longeing or circling in an arena where there are other horses. First of all, let’s be clear on this, longeing a horse in an arena where horses are being ridden is dangerous and should never happen—that’s a pretty basic safety rule. At clinics, when everyone is doing circling work (and no horses are being ridden), people will still put their horses on a collision course with another horse. The horse always sees it; the person seldom does. If you do this, your horse starts doubting your judgment.

I also see this in the arena when all riders have their own agendas. The smart riders (and the good leaders) are looking well ahead. But invariably, there will be riders totally focused down on the horse’s withers, concentrating only on themselves, not even aware of their own horse let alone the other horses in the arena. Being aware of danger in the environment is such a basic job of the leader that it is hard for your horse to think of you that way when you are failing at such a basic task.

 

Putting the Horse Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Your horse may view any given situation much differently than you and he sees danger where you may not. We, as humans, tend to analyze, rationalize and justify the situation, while to your horse it’s simple—it’s either safe or not. I often see riders and handlers put their horses in very precarious situations, with seemingly no awareness that it was risky for the horse. Perhaps the rider had no awareness of how the horse views the situation. Or perhaps the rider made an executive decision to override instinct and go into an unsafe situation anyway because her logic tells her it’s safe (logic that the horse may not possess).

This happens at my clinics while we are working on teaching the horse to step back with a subtle hand signal. I always catch people backing their horse into a solid fence or worse, another horse. He knows it to be wrong and unsafe. People get so caught up in the exercise of teaching the hand signal, that they lose all awareness of the surroundings and abdicate all responsibility for leadership.

Similar examples from the ground include asking a horse to step into a trailer, then standing right in front of him so he would have to bowl you over in order to comply. He’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to do that. Or asking the horse to trot on the lead line, but remaining right in front of him so there’s nowhere for him to go without running into you. It feels like a trap.

When riding in a group, it’s your job to keep your horse safe. Still, I see riders pass between a horse and the fence. Entrapment! There’s a reason fundamental safety rules exist—and it’s a fundamental rule to never pass between a horse and the rail. Horses can be very opportunistic when it comes to aggressive behavior and many horses will kick, given this opportunity. Your horse knows that as well and he has good reason to question your judgment when he is the one that will likely take the blow.

 

Asking the Horse to do Something, Then Punishing him When he Does

Horses, by nature, are very willing animals that instinctively seek out approval and acceptance from the herd leader. When you are a fair and consistent leader, your horse will work hard to please you and will feel safe and content in your presence.  When you notice his efforts and praise him for giving of himself, then your relationship kicks to a whole new level. There’s no limit to how hard a horse will try to please you when the right kind of give-and-take relationship exists.

We humans tend to fall down on our leadership in some very gut-wrenching ways to the horse. Often I see riders give a cue to the horse, then inadvertently punish him for responding to the cue. The most common example of this occurs in the canter departure. The rider may lack confidence. The horse is cued to canter, then hit in the mouth with the bit when he does (because his head moves into the bit in that moment). It hurts his mouth and scares him, leaving him with the feeling that he is being punished for doing what was asked.

Sometimes I see riders miscue their horse then admonish him for responding to the cue given. Then the rider wonders why he suddenly stopped responding to that cue. A perfect example is seen frequently when the rider, with two hands on the reins, asks the horse to turn with the inside rein, then starts pulling on the outside rein too, effectively pulling the nose in two directions at the same time. Pulling on two reins to turn puts incredible undue pressure on the horse’s mouth. It appears to him that you asked him to turn, then penalized him with the outside rein when he did. In that moment, the mistake was the rider’s (it’s the leader’s job to be clear in her directives). The horse did exactly what he was told to do then was admonished for trying.

Being a good handler and good rider takes a lot of time and effort and a lot more awareness of the horse. The more we can think from our horse’s point of view, the deeper our level of understanding of his behavior and the more rewarding the relationship with the horse. They are complicated animals, perceiving much more about us than we do about ourselves. That’s what makes horses so therapeutic to our souls.

Seek out help and have others watch you—they’ll catch on faster than you about what cues you may be giving the horse. They’ll see what you can’t. Let your horse guide you. He won’t lie to you; he either thinks of you as the leader or not. If he’s resistant and argumentative, he probably has a good reason. If he trusts you and looks up to you, you’re a good leader.