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.

Trust Your Intuition to Avoid Injury

This photo is from Episode 901: "Captain Morgan." Library and Interactive Members can watch it anytime at Photo (c) Whole Picture,
This photo is from Episode 901: “Captain Morgan.” Library and Interactive Members can watch it anytime at
Photo © Whole Picture,

“Try That One More Time.” When it comes to horses, these words are often looked back on with regret. They’re often the words muttered right before something goes terribly wrong. Words matter. Sometimes we need to listen to the words that come out of our mouth and to listen to the voice inside instead.

I strongly believe that most incidents with horses are entirely preventable and if we consider an incident to be an opportunity to learn, not a failure, then we get safer and more effective with horses as times goes on. If you think about incidents as “freak accidents,” you’ve lost the opportunity to learn, grow and improve. There’s always a cause and effect; there’s always an opportunity to learn and grow as a horse person. Recently, I had a message from a rider that was sadly an all-too-familiar refrain. Here’s what the message said:

I had been riding seven months and was posting while trotting and doing 20-meter circles and reverses. We had ridden over an hour. It all clicked that day. I ended with a canter. The trainer wanted me to canter one last time. My intuition said no. I told myself to just do what she said. As we are cantering she (the trainer) is yelling use the crop, use the crop. [The horse] got scared, did a 360 and went into a full run. I hung onto the mane with one hand as she instructed then finally I fell. I couldn’t move. [The trainer] tried to pull me up. I told her not to. She assured me I was ok and the breath was just knocked out of me. I finally was able to get up in searing pain. She had me get back on and post and trot. I did, like a fool. All bent over, I untacked, put him up, drove home two hours. My husband rushed me to the ER. I had broken T-12, crushed L-1, fractured my whole vertebrae and had a concussion. I was told I missed paralysis by 1/8 inch. For three months I couldn’t lift more than the weight of a coffee cup. Riding brought me so much peace and joy –before this incident.

There are quite a few lessons to be learned here. Falling off is part of the sport and can only be entirely avoided by not riding, but while it’s a rough and tumble sport, I do not believe serious injury has to be a part of it. If we learn to not push the limits of our horses and our own abilities, if we learn to pay attention to that inner voice that often warns us when things aren’t quite right and if we let go of archaic and egotistical approaches, the risk goes way down.

Words Matter
I’ve seen many horse wrecks that started with the words, “Let’s try that one more time…” In several decades of work with the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to safe horsemanship instruction, I’ve learned these words to be a red-flag warning. What those words really mean is, “Even though I think we’ve already done this enough, and even though I think there’s a chance we’ve already accomplished what we needed to, let’s get greedy and do it one more time.” When it comes to horses, this kind of approach often backfires.

I’ve learned this important lesson myself over the years and I can think of more than one instance where ‘trying it one more time’ was the worst possible choice and resulted in a wreck and/or an injury to a horse or a rider. When we say things like, “one more time,” or “I’ll try,” or “maybe we should,” there is an unstated concern that something might not go right. When you hear words like that, why not complete the thought and consider why you need to do it again, what good can come of it, why do you think you might not be able to do it and why are you not sure of what the right thing to do is? Maybe just stepping back for a moment and reconsidering isn’t such a bad idea.

When you let words of doubt creep into your vocabulary, like “I’ll try,” it really means you don’t think you can do it. You are doubting yourself and giving yourself an escape. The problem is that horses respond to your level of confidence and determination, be it high or low. When you use words like “if” and “try,” you erode your own confidence and your horse may respond negatively as well—by challenging your authority or losing his own confidence. When you feel the need to use doubtful words like try, if, or maybe, just take a moment to consider why you feel that way. Is this a smart thing to be doing? Are you prepared and qualified to do it? And what good can come of this or what can go wrong? If the answers are affirmative, go for it and drop the ‘try.’ I AM going to do this! If any of the answers are less than affirmative, maybe rethinking or thinking it through, is not a bad idea.

Trust Your Inner Voice
When people are describing bad incidents with their horse, I often hear them say, “I knew I shouldn’t have done it, but my trainer/spouse/friend pushed me, so I did.” Our inner voice of wisdom is important and although it may not always be right, it’s worth at least considering. Far too often in hindsight, it seems clear that had you listened to that inner voice, the wreck may not have happened.

It’s important to hear, respect and consider your inner voice and to take responsibility for your own self—don’t abdicate that responsibility to anyone. Don’t let others pressure you into actions that you don’t feel good about. You know yourself and your horse better than anyone. You know your capabilities and you know where you are emotionally in that moment better than anyone. Yes, sometimes it’s helpful to have someone to gently push you into things you aren’t entirely comfortable with, but no one has the right to pressure and cajole you onto something you are not prepared for.

If you have realistic goals and an objective view of both your and your horse’s capabilities, then you should be confident in your own decisions and not let yourself cave into the pressure of others. Remember, your trainer works for you, not the other way around. Make your expectations and needs known and don’t be afraid to stop, look and listen when you hear that inner voice of warning.

Let Go of Archaic Notions
The idea of getting back on the horse that just bucked you off, is rarely a good idea, in my opinion. Whether you got bucked off or just fell off, chances are you are not in the best frame of mind to get back on that horse. Chances are also good that your horse is not in the best frame of mind either—he’s probably scared or anxious and something led to the problem to begin with. The adrenalin rush that comes from this kind of incident can often mask injuries that you may have sustained and getting back on may make the injuries worse.

When a rider comes off the horse, we’ll call it an “unscheduled dismount,” I prefer that she take a break, sit down and rest, get checked out medically if needed, get control of her emotions, debrief the incident, and only think about getting back on when ready. Maybe that’s today; maybe not. Often, I’ll get up on the horse after an incident, to settle it and let the rider see what’s going on. If the rider feels strongly about getting back on, that’s fine and I will support her as best I can. But no one else has the right to tell you to get back on. Not your husband, not your friend and not your trainer.

Again, take responsibility for yourself and don’t let yourself be pressured by others at times like this. Before getting back on a horse after an incident, think it through. What good will come of this? What would have prevented the incident from happening? Is my horse injured, physically or emotionally? What needs to change with my horse or with my own skills or equipment, to prevent this from happening again? Taking a little break—rather that is for an hour, a day, a week or longer, is not necessarily a bad idea. Think through what happened, how you may have prevented it, and what you would’ve done differently if you could. Armed with this kind of knowledge, you will come back to riding with more confidence and a plan to not let that happen again. Always give yourself time to heal—both physically and emotionally, after any kind of scary incident with a horse.

The sport of riding is a challenging and exhilarating sport that comes with a certain amount of risk that cannot be entirely eliminated. But we don’t need to add to that possibility by doing foolish things and taking unnecessary risks. This is a sport that takes years and decades to master and getting in a hurry and cutting corners rarely pays off. The same thing is true of training horses—generally the slower you go, the better the outcome.

Be patient in developing your skills and your horse’s training. Work with trainers that are supportive of your needs, listen to what you have to say and make good decisions. Learn to trust your inner voice and hear what it has to say. Let your rational mind be the judge of whether or not that inner voice has a point; don’t let someone else make that judgment for you. And finally, when a rider comes off a horse, take the safest and smartest approach—get medical clearance, take a break, debrief the incident and make a smart plan to get back in the saddle safely.

And don’t forget to enjoy the ride!

Julie Goodnight

Getting Ready for the Riding Season—Top 3 Mistakes Riders Make

Julie riding Dually in the pond, Cosequin shirt on.
Julie riding Dually in the pond, Cosequin shirt on.
Photo by: The Whole Picture, LLC.

For many of us, the winter months are not conducive to riding, due to frozen ground, inclement weather and/or mud. And whether we like it or not, sometimes life gets in the way of our riding plans—your horse gets hurt or you have a personal situation that causes an extended layoff for your horse. One way or the other, your horse may go months with no riding at all. As a result, the horse may get little handling as well. This recipe—no riding and little handling—doesn’t always result in sweet rides in the spring or a delicious comeback to riding.

What we love most about horses is that they are not machines. They are thinking and feeling animals, capable of forming an athletic partnership and a bond with their human. But because they are not machines—and because our relationship with them matters—we can’t just ignore them for months and then expect them to step right back into their role as your perfect horse.

To make sure your spring “comeback” goes smoothly with your horse you need to plan ahead. Avoid the missteps that I hear about often when talking to horse owners at clinics and expos. Avoid making the mistakes that may leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Instead, try this recipe for a sweet summer of riding.

Take Time to Reconnect with Your Horse

If your horse has been turned out with a herd over the winter—or if he has had little interaction with people for a while—his herd instincts may be stronger. His focus may be on the herd—not on you—and he may fret when you take him away from his friends. This is perfectly normal, instinctive behavior for horses and it’s unrealistic to think otherwise. To have the kind of relationship with a horse where he is focused on you—and happy to leave the herd with you—requires work in the beginning of the relationship and steady maintenance thereafter.

Plan ahead as your riding season approaches and spend some time reconnecting with your horse. Groom him, do some ground work and take him on some walks away from his herd. Depending on how strong your relationship was last fall and how trained/experienced your horse is, plan on spending at least 3-6 days just getting reacquainted with your horse. I like doing lead line exercises to reconnect with my horse and remind him of his manners and my expectations of him (see my Lead Line Leadership video).

Check Your Tack and Saddle Fit

Don’t get carried away with riding until you have taken the time to inspect all your tack for needed repairs and maintenance, as well as checking the saddle fit on your horse. A horse’s body shape changes a lot every year. If you’ve ever had young horses you already know that. (As weanlings, if you watch them closely it seems like you can actually see them grow.) Think about the changes in the human body from birth to the end of life. A horse’s body goes through those same changes—only three-four times faster.

If he has not had much exercise over the winter, he may have gained weight and/or lost muscle toning, which can have a big effect on saddle fit. Take the time to analyze your saddle fit at least once a year and especially after your horse has had an extended time off. You may need different padding or adjustments. Last year, my horse Eddie (still filling out at the age of 7) outgrew his regular width tree and needed a new saddle. That’s not the answer I was hoping for when re-assessing his saddle fit, but I can’t bear the thought of working him in a saddle that causes discomfort.

Don’t forget to clean and condition your saddle and bridle, and check all the places where metal meets leather and all fasteners to make sure they are strong. Often the smaller parts of your tack—like latigos, leather ties, Chicago screws, and straps—need replacing or fixing. Make sure your bridle is clean and comfortable and the bit is the right size.  Eddie also went from a 4 ¾ inch bit into a 5 inch (the standard size for a horse). But I would’ve changed his bit anyway since his training had advanced so much in the past few years that he was ready for a different bit. As horses progress in their training, they have different needs in bits too. You may find that the bit that worked well for your horse a couple years ago now makes him unhappy—he’s leaning, pulling, chomping, tossing his head, or running through the pressure. These are all signs that a bit change may be in order. Check out this “Bitting Assistant” from Toklat.

Avoid Doing Too Much, Too Soon

After a long, cold winter and too much time spent indoors, it’s easy to want to jump back into riding right where you left off in the fall. But the reality is, both you are and your horse need some time to get back into riding shape—and the older either you or your horse are, the more time you each may need. Both horses and humans get out of shape really fast when not getting exercise; and for both species, the activity of riding (or carrying a rider) uses special muscles. You both need time in the beginning—shorter rides with greater frequency—to build strength slowly.

Your horse also needs time to get used to his tack again—to get “hardened” to the cinch/girth, the saddle and the bit/bridle. If you had gone for months without wearing anything but slippers on your feet, you’d have to get used to wearing heavy boots again over subsequent days to avoid getting sore feet and blisters. Just as you would never want to hike all day in brand new hiking boots, your horse needs time to get re-accustomed to the feel of the saddle, the weight of the rider and the bridle on his face.

Finally, if you’re coming back to riding after a long layoff, think of reconditioning your horse’s training and mental focus as well. Don’t expect him to respond perfectly to cues he hasn’t thought about in a while. Don’t jump right in, asking your horse to perform the most difficult riding maneuvers right on the first try. Even if it seems like he’s just as responsive as the last time you rode him, asking for too much too soon could lead to problems. Start by doing easier stuff and focusing on fundamentals. Make sure you acknowledge and reward your horse when he tries—whether it was brilliant or not—so that you recondition his spirit and willingness as well.

By setting realistic expectations, planning ahead and building up slowly but methodically, your “comeback” will go smoothly and your horse will be happier. Remember, your horse needs the same time that you do to get in condition—both mentally and physically. Be fair to yourself and be fair to your horse. With quality ingredients and careful preparation, your riding season will be cake!

Feeding Transitions in the Spring

My horses claim about 10 of our 15 acres of land, which you’d think would be plenty for half a dozen horses. Our house, barns, arenas, offices, and a warehouse are squeezed into a corner of the property and the rest of the place is procured and manicured just for the horses.

We have about 10 irrigated acres, which is like Park Avenue real estate in the West. But living in the high mountain desert as we do—even with irrigation water—it’s only enough pasture for what I fondly refer to as “recreational grazing.” (Meaning, it doesn’t help my hay bill much, but it sure makes the horses happy!)

Winters are long and hard here in the Rocky Mountains and the grass only grows from April through August. The rest of the year it is decidedly brown. Keeping the grass green is a challenge in this climate and horses are sure hard on the land. Keeping the horses healthy while eating that green grass is also a challenge and a labor of love. Come springtime, managing the pasture for the health of the fields while transitioning our horse’s diet from hay to green grass, without stressing their digestive health, requires some serious planning, as well as detailed execution.


Baby Grass is Delicate

Horses’ teeth and hooves are not. While we may turn our horses out in the fields late in the winter before any new growth starts, and let them browse the dead grass, at the first sign of green shoots, the horses are eighty-sixed from the pastures. For the next month at least, until we can see the first signs of seed heads on the short grasses, we keep the horses totally off the fields. This allows a good head of growth in the pastures and will establish the grass for the whole summer. Horses will paw and dig and gnaw for the first delectable shoots of green grass and they are incredibly damaging to young grass. Keeping them off the fields early on makes the grazing last longer at the other end of the summer.


Over-eaters Anonymous

Once the grass is healthy and ready for grazing, our focus shifts to managing the change in the horses’ diets from dry hay (almost a year old by now) to fresh green grass. Between over-eating and the drastic change to the horses’ delicate digestive balance, it pays to be very, very careful. My horses have access to an all-you-can-eat grass hay buffet, open 24/7. That way their digestive tract is always full—the way nature intended.

When I am ready to start turning them out to the pasture, I wait until late in the day, when their bellies are already full and when the sugar content is low in the green grass. Our horses are programmed to come in the barn at night, so we’ll turn them out an hour before their bedtime. That way they only eat a bit and then they’re ready to come in at the normal time.

Over the next 3-4 weeks, we’ll turn them out a few minutes earlier each day, as they gradually shift from mostly hay to mostly green grass diets. In colder climates like ours, early morning grasses can be hazardous to horses with metabolic issues, so in the spring and early summer, we avoid letting the horses into the fields before mid-day. During this time of transition, we are watching the horses closely for over-eating—as some will do—especially when they have been deprived of the delicacy for so long.

We also keep the horses on heavier than normal doses of Proviable, a pro- and pre-biotic. This helps stabilize their digestive tract and is especially important when horses are undergoing any kind of stress—whether it is a change of diet or a road trip or arduous training.

Since our horses are all in training—worked or exercised on a daily basis—I don’t really have any concerns about obesity. I find my horses are so much healthier and content when they have 24/7 access to a low-protein grass hay. While some horses might put on a little extra weight in the beginning, once they realize the food will always be there they slow their eating way down and go back to a healthier weight. As they switch to more and more green grass the horses will definitely put on a few pounds, but they also get a sheen to their coats and are happier.

In nature, horses put on weight in the summer when the foraging is better, then they lose weight over the winter when it’s slim picking. Their biology is designed this way and this cycle triggers other things like shedding and ovulation. I want my horses to lose weight over the winter and put it back on in the summer. Some horses have major health issues related to obesity because they put on more weight every summer but never lose it in the winter. Consequently, they get fatter and fatter every year. The easiest time to get the weight off a horse is in the winter.


Keeping it Green

Our pastures require a fair amount of maintenance during the spring and summer. Early in the spring, before the grass starts growing, we drag/harrow the fields, to break up the manure clumps and pull out some of the thatch (and every five years or so the fields need to be burned off to get rid of the thick thatch). Since we spread the manure from the stalls and paddocks in the fields, the harrow helps break it up, providing a smooth layer of fertilizer to the grass. Recycling manure is great for the growth of the grass; adding a commercial fertilizer is even better, but much more costly.

We start irrigating the pastures as soon as the snow melt starts and the ditches are running. We use flood irrigation—a manual process that involves damming the ditch and flooding the fields with water. We only have access to the water on certain days (since we share it with others), so our whole lives tend to revolve around irrigation days. Water is a big deal in the West; water rights are very valuable and never taken for granted. We have to work the water through the fields to make sure every nook and cranny is covered; the water is far too precious to waste even a gallon.

We also mow our fields once or twice during the summer. Horses are very particular about the actual plants they eat, selecting the tender sweet grass and leaving the weeds and other kinds of grasses. By mowing (with the blades set as high as they go) we chop off the weeds before they seed and the grass gets stronger. When you mow grass before it seeds out, it grows even harder, trying to get to seed. Keeping our fields mowed improves the growth and quality of the grass while discouraging the weeds.


A Labor of Love

Maintaining the pastures is a lot of work, but like most things in life, if it’s important to you it’s worth working for. Seeing the horses content in the field, basking in the sun and picking and sorting through the plants to find their little treasures more than makes up for the work we put into it. Seeing the shine and dapples in their coat that only green grass gives a horse pleases my eye and puts a smile on my face.

There’s a reason why horse enthusiasts tend to be hard workers—it takes a lot of effort to keep horses happy and healthy! But the end result makes me forget about the extra work and gives me the satisfaction of doing the best I can do for both the horses and the land.

Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight

Avoiding Feed-time Frenzy Logo

If you keep your horses at home, you’ve probably already developed a routine that makes your job efficient and keeps the horses happy. But if you are new to this, or are looking for helpful hints to make your horse life easier, I’d like to share with you the ‘tricks of the trade’ that I have learned over the decades.

Feed time can be very stressful for the horses, especially when they are only fed twice a day. Nothing could be more unnatural to the horse, since he is designed to eat small amounts all day long. His digestive system is designed to always be full, so when he is fed two lump-sum meals that he finished within an hour or two, his stomach gets empty and he now has 6-8 hours or more to worry about when his next meal is coming. In addition to digestive and emotional stress, horses may also learn to act aggressively or rudely, which is reinforced as soon as you feed them. So it’s important to do what we can to alleviate the stress, by developing a good feed-time routine.

Keep Their Bellies Full!
My horses have free-choice access, 24/7, to a low-protein grass hay (tested at 9% protein). When your horses have free-choice hay (only grass hay and never alfalfa), it removes almost all the feed-time stress; there is little to no fighting over food; horses that previously would chase other horses off and hoard the food will eat side by side with their herd mates. I often look out in the paddock and see all of our horses eating from the same pile, with their noses virtually touching. Because horses know they can eat whenever they want and never worry about having enough food, they take turns at the feeders and they never gorge themselves.

Free choice access to grass hay brings a lot of peace and tranquility to the herd, helps keep mental stress low and is critical to digestive health. I find that we have much fewer problems with colic and ulcers with the horses on free-choice and we have no problems at all with obesity. If you are not in a situation where you can give them free-choice hay, you should feed hay in sufficient quantities that he always has a little bit left over before the next meal comes or feed more often than twice a day. If the hay you feed it too high in protein or so sweet that your horse may overeat, try using a slow feeder, such as the Savvy Feeder, that will slow your horse down and help him savor the hay all day long.

Follow a Consistent Routine
Horses love to know what is coming next and they love routines. It makes them feel safe. Develop your feeding routine in such a way that the horses can anticipate it and so that they will help you get the job done. Everyone’s situation is different and there are many ways to make it more efficient, but I will tell you our routine and why it works.

Half our horses stay outside in the paddock all day and all night, while the other half (our performance horses) are out all day and come into stalls at night. We do this for several reasons. One is that our performance horses frequently travel and have to stay in stalls when they do, so we want them accustomed to and comfortable with that confinement. Also, in addition to their free-choice hay, each horse gets special supplements and some get medications, so separating them makes it easier to feed a customized diet. All our horses receive daily doses of Cosequin (a joint health supplement), Wellactin (an omega 3 fish oil for their coats, immune systems and cardiovascular health) and Calxequin (an all-around vitamin supplement). Additionally, some of our horses get Proviable daily (a high-quality pre- and pro-biotic for digestive health) and occasionally one or more of our horses are also receiving some medication in their feed.

Each morning at the same time every day, the horses are all given a token amount of grain to carry their supplements. Most horses do not need any grain if they are receiving adequate amounts of hay. Hay or grass forage are considered “roughage,” while grains and complete feeds are considered “concentrates.” I personally like to avoid concentrates as much as I can but to get the horses to eat the supplements, we give them just a handful of whole oats (no additives or processed feeds). While they are eating their grain, we are taking off blankets and opening the alleyway to the paddock so that when they are finished, we can just open the stall door and let them trot out to the paddock by themselves. They will all spend the day out there together, munching contentedly when they want, napping in the sun and playing together.

Once the horses are all out, we clean the stalls, wash and fill the water buckets, load up the hay in each stall (so the stalled horses have all the hay they want at night) and prep the night-time grain and supplements (but leave it in the feed room so it doesn’t get eaten by the dogs). By 10 o’clock each morning all the chores are done for the whole day and the only remaining feed-time chore is to open the gates and let the horses in.

At 4 o’clock each afternoon, we place their previously prepared grain/supplements in the stall (I always feed hay and grain from the ground level, which is more natural and healthier for their respiratory systems, than putting it in a raised feeder). We close the barn doors to the outside, open all the stall doors, then open the gate to the paddock to let the horses in. Because we use the same routine at the same time every day, the horses are lined up to come in and they march right into their stalls.

Keep It Simple!
A horse has very simple needs when it comes to nutrition—they need roughage (10-20 pounds a day), water (10-15 gallons a day) and free-choice salt. I keep a Redmond all-natural sea salt lick in each stall and I keep several “rocks on a rope” in the paddocks, near the waterers. We also hang two water buckets (heated) in each stall and one of them has “Rein Water” mixed in—it’s a mineral mixture that horses love. It not only encourages them drink more, but it also helps the water taste familiar when we are on the road. I prefer to have buckets in the stalls and not automatic waterers so that I know exactly how much water each horse consumed overnight.

Train Your Horses to Help
I’ve taught my horses to come in the barn when I call them. It’s easy to do. Just use a unique call or whistle every day before they come in for feed. To get started, you may have to shake a grain can after your call and let them have a taste as soon as they come. Soon, the call or whistle itself will get them in. Use it every day so it is like a dinner bell. Then, even if I need to bring them in early, my call will always get their attention. If one horse learns it, the rest will likely follow and teach the new horses what it means.

If you let your horses march themselves into the barn and stalls, do it in the same order every day so they know what to expect. Soon they will be lining up in order and not vying for position. The more consistent your routine is, the better the horses will respond.

Make sure your horses do not act aggressively or display dominance when you feed them. If you must walk into a pen with feed, use a flag to make sure all the horses stay back and do not try to grab feed out of your arms—this is dominant behavior and very dangerous. If a horse is inside a pen or stall and you do not have to go in to feed, he should still be patient and polite. If he is acting aggressively or rudely, do not feed him in that moment. Use a flag to back him up and wait until his ears are forward before you throw the feed in. If you feed him while he is acting poorly, it reinforces that behavior and turns it into an ingrained habit.

Keep in mind that horses establish dominance in the herd, in part, by taking away food from others. If the horse ever comes to believe that his aggressive antics are causing you to feed him, then in his mind, every day you are proving to him he is dominant. Make sure your horses are acting appropriately in the moment that you feed them to help avoid dominance issues.

Whatever your horse-keeping situation is, there are probably things you can do to make it more time-efficient, easier and less stressful for your horses. Keeping a routine that is strictly adhered to by everyone that does the feeding chores, will help train your horses so that they cooperate in the process instead of interfering. If you have some great ideas for avoiding feed-time frenzy, I’d love to hear about them here in the comments!

Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight

A Horse’s Sense of Fairness

“Does my horse have a sense of fairness?” Recently, one of my Interactive Academy members asked me this question—a question that no one has ever asked me during my forty years of teaching people to ride horses. I’ve been working with this rider for a while now. She’s working through my 12-month curriculum with her horse to help improve her own horsemanship, as well as advance her horse’s training. Those endeavors involve improving your own leadership skills. Considering her leadership skills led to the question. So, does a horse have a sense of fairness?

Your horse’s point of view, on any given subject may be (and probably is) quite different than your own. What your horse views as unfair treatment may surprise you. But fairness does not exist in a vacuum—it is always relative to other factors. We get caught up in our own, singular point of view, and fail to consider all the factors. What seems perfectly reasonable to us, may be viewed as grossly unfair as another.

Leadership is not just about your actions or intentions; it is also about your honesty, integrity and fairness—including admitting your own mistakes and taking responsibility yourself if your followers fall short of your expectations. Authority is not the same as leadership—just because you have authority over others does not mean that they have a desire to follow you or accept you as their leader.

Horses most certainly have a sense of fairness, just as they are good judges of leadership and trustworthiness. Because they are herd animals, they are mindful of leadership, hierarchy, rules, and ramifications of behavior. They are instinctively drawn to strong leadership, with a compelling desire to be accepted in a herd and a profound fear of banishment from the herd. Horses thrive when leadership, rules and structure exist and they flail in the absence of it.

That’s not to say a horse never does anything wrong or that he would think any discipline was bad. He knows when he is breaking a rule or pushing a boundary and he usually responds well to fair punishment. But when rules are unclear or inconsistently enforced, when you say one thing but then do another, when you inadvertently punish even though no punishment was intended, or when the punishment does not fit the crime, a horse will feel that they are being treated unfairly, and his trust in you diminishes.

How would you know if you horse feels like you are treating him unfairly? This is what varies greatly with horses—given his natural temperament, he may react strongly or not at all to any perceived injustice. Reactions from the horse may range from a slight tensing and lifting of the head, to shaking the head, refusals, running through the bridle, crow-hopping, bucking, or shutting down (becoming nonresponsive). Of course, there could be many causes for these type of reactions in a horse, but whenever a horse is frustrated, it’s always important to consider your own actions, and how they may be viewed by the horse. After all, none of us is a perfect leader for our horses.

Here are some common scenarios where I see people treating their horses in ways the horse may consider unfair…

Unfair treatment #1

Ask him to do something then punish him for doing it: An easy way to test your horse’s sense of fairness is to cue him to canter, then hit him in the mouth with the bit when he does. How he reacts to that will tell you how tolerant he is. This happens far more often than you think, in all levels of riders. Sometimes it’s related to lack of skill; other times it is reactionary—a rider fearful of the canter often snatches the horse up as soon as they respond to the cue. From the horse’s point of view, you asked him to do something then you punished him for doing it. Responses from this kind of conflicting signal can range from a small shake of the head, to crow-hopping, to a refusal to canter for you anymore, to flat-out bucking. But usually it is the horse that is blamed; not fair, nor is it honest, from your horse’s point of view.

Unfair treatment #2

Asking for one more time: Let’s say you’ve been working on something very challenging for your horse—like jumping gymnastics. Maybe you start with just a few rails up in the line of jump-very-stride obstacles and gradually you add more until it is a very challenging and strenuous exercise. After some stops and starts and failed attempts, your horse finally goes through the full gymnastic correctly. You are thrilled! So what’s the first thing you say? “Let’s do that one more time.” You know what happens next. He’s already given you his best and that wasn’t good enough; now he’s tired and emotionally spent and you ask for more. Things fall apart and what should have been a great training session turns into a salvage effort. Fairness would dictate that you recognized your horse’s best effort and let him rest on that, rather than feed your own greed.

Unfair treatment #3

Setting the horse up for failure: This is the actually the real, unedited scenario that stimulated the whole discussion on fairness between my Interactive member and myself. “The last time we went to the arena, there were about 15 of us in there at once – usually, I have the place to myself, or maybe one other rider. This was a big test I thought – thinking about how anxious he was on the first day of the clinic [she’s referring to a clinic she took with me, 6-8 months ago, when he had come uncorked]. He did great! He stayed focused and listening to me. The only negative was when we were done, I loaded him up – no problem. So I decided to practice unloading and loading since we were a little tired and away from home. He decided no. A nearby rider gave me some help. This made me think about fairness. Was it unfair to finish and then ask for more?”

Yes, it was unfair. Clearly the horse had given of himself, worked very hard and done the right thing. He had every reason to believe he was done and would receive the kindness of comfort from his leader that he had a right to expect after a job well-done. Instead, he was set up to fail; he was set up to rebel. After all, he had already loaded once without resistance. Was that not what you wanted? Authority should not be exploited. My father often said, “A well-trained horse that trusts you, will jump over a cliff if you ask. But that might be the last time he trusts you and it might be the last time you get to ask.”

Does an impatient horse need to learn more patience? Yes. Should we expect perfect patience of him in every situation or at the same level we do another more patient or more experienced horse? No. Should we make him jump through hoops when he is most anxious or most aggravated, just for the sake of seeing him jump through the hoops? No. Should we ALWAYS set him up for success? YES! A good training exercise sets the horse up for the greatest chance of success, not throwing challenges at him one after the other with the intent of making him fail.

A good leader does not expect his followers to do things beyond their capabilities. Yes, you want to push your followers to be the best they can be, but you cannot make them be something they are not or live up to an unattainable expectation. Everyone wants the feeling of a job well done. If we think our horse may not be capable of giving us what we want in that moment, it’s best not to ask. Do something else instead. Come back later and address it when the chances of success are greater or when you have removed other obstacles.

While your expectations should be high, you are not trying to find your horse at fault and it is not about you, but more about what your horse is capable of giving. It’s about asking him to try and then recognizing his try, even when it is not perfect. Every horse is different and what may seem like an awesome response from one horse may be nothing for another horse.

It’s good to have high expectations; just remember that expectations lead to disappointment, so make sure your expectations are realistic and attainable. Your horse will rise to your level of expectation, be it high or low. Have high expectations, and recognize your horse’s efforts honestly and fairly.

Join the academy and get my one-on-one feedback as you work with your horse:

Have a good ride,

Julie Goodnight


Top 3 Saddle-Fit Pains

Saddle Fit: Julie and Eddie

Saddle Fit: Julie and EddieAt each of my clinics, my attention first turns to the horses’ tack to check for fit, adjustment and function. When it comes to saddle fit, my eyes always go to these three parts of the horse first: the withers, the shoulders and the loins.

Most of the saddle fit issues I see affect one of these three parts of the horse. Often problems can be fixed by simply adjusting the placement of the saddle or getting a little creative with padding. Sometimes a different saddle is needed and for some horses, saddle fit will always be a challenge. Whatever the case, we owe it to our horses to make sure that they are as comfortable as possible while we ride.


The Saddle’s Function

The tree of the saddle serves the purpose of evenly distributing the weight of the rider over a larger area–so that the pressure is not focalized on one point of the horse’s back. When the tree fits the horse’s back well, he can carry the weight of the rider comfortably. When the bars of the tree are not evenly contacting the horse’s back, he will develop pressure points which can lead to soreness, scarring on his back, and even permanent damage. Keep in mind that saddle trees are made to fit average horses, but not all horses are average. Also, saddle trees are made to be symmetrical and not all horses are the same on both sides of their spines.

Whether your horse has anomalies or not, assessing saddle fit each year is important, since horses, just like humans, change body shape as they age. Of course we want to look at the big picture for saddle fit, but here are the three areas that I see the most problems. The best way to check saddle fit is to place the saddle on the horse’s back without any pads, un-cinched, so you can see how the shape of the tree jives with the horse’s back.


The Withers

In a perfect world, your horse’s withers would be prominent enough to hold the saddle well, but not so high that they hit the pommel. The “average” horse will not have any problems here, but high withers or very low withers can be a challenge when it comes to saddle fit.

The “mutton withered” horse (very low withers) tends to be quite round, instead of ‘A’ shaped at the withers. There may be a lot of fat or muscling on top of the shoulder blades that make it seem like the withers are low. This horse will generally need the cinch or girth very tight to prevent the saddle from slipping. You will probably not have trouble with the withers hitting the pommel, but you may have too much constriction at the shoulders and/or need an anti-slip pad or a split-withered pad to help keep the saddle from slipping too much.

The horse with prominent withers is more of a challenge for saddle fit. Certain types of horses, like Thoroughbreds, may have prominent withers. As horses age, their withers naturally become more prominent. Obviously, when a horse is in poor flesh (low body condition score), the fat and muscling that often sits below the withers and the flesh that surrounds the spine all the way down his back can disappear, leaving the withers and back bone more vulnerable.

Combined with other saddle fit challenges like low in the back, short backed or long backed, the horse with high withers can be hard to fit in a traditional saddle. Often, horses with high withers can be comfortably fit by using a split-withered pad to gain a little clearance and/or using a back pad or bridge pad in addition to your regular pad to lift the whole saddle (visit for more information).

To check for adequate clearance over the withers, you should be able to stick your whole hand in over the withers, under the pommel, when the horse is saddled and cinched normally. Remember, once you sit up there, the saddle will be even closer to the horse’s withers, so make sure there is plenty of room there.


The Shoulders

Just above the shoulders and below the withers, you often see white spots or white hairs on a horse. This is a tell-tail of poor saddle fit and often goes unnoticed or is mistakenly thought to be a natural white marking. It is usually an indication that there is too much pressure on the horse’s shoulder blades and/or his shoulder blades are running into the front of the tree when he moves. Surprisingly, many horses will tolerate this pressure without much protest, resulting in the horse possibly being ridden for years in an ill-fitting saddle.

Keeping in mind that horses change body shape every year from birth to old age (three to four times as fast as a human), a saddle that fit your horse perfectly when he was four, may not fit at all when he is 8. This was the case with my horse Eddie, who I started riding as a three year old. Then, he fit perfectly in a full-skirted saddle with a regular sized Circle Y Flex2 tree. By the time he was seven (when horses really mature), he not only needed a wide-tree version of the same saddle, but he also needed a shorter skirted saddle. We moved him from the Monarch saddle to the Wind River in my line of saddles—the design is almost the same, but the skirt is a bit shorter and rounded in the Wind River. We continue to experiment with denser but thinner pads for him to accommodate his heavy muscling.

If a horse is experiencing too much pressure at the shoulders, he could need a wider tree or the saddle may be bridging (this occurs when the bars of the tree touch in front and back but not in the middle). If the tree is too narrow for the horse, he needs a wider tree saddle; there is nothing you can do to pad that out (it would be like putting on an extra pair of socks when your shoes are too small). But if the tree is bridging, often a configuration of pads will help. Look into bridge pads, shim pads or sway-back pads. Be wary of pads with built up shoulders, since that may just shift the fit problem off the shoulders and onto the loins.

Sometimes I see horses with white marks on their backs caused simply by placing the saddle too far forward. Look for the screw that sits right at the base of the pommel in both English and Western saddles. This screw shows you the forward point of pressure from the tree and it should sit behind the shoulder blades in the “pocket.” Depending on the slope of the horse’s shoulders, the prominence of his withers, the length of his back, and how the saddle is rigged, the saddle may sit farther back on one horse than it does on another. Sometimes people try to position the saddle by lining up the cinch behind the elbow, but that doesn’t really work. Depending on how your horse is built and how the saddle is rigged, the cinch may be farther back on some horses.

To check the saddle fit in regards to the shoulder, put the saddle on the horse without pads and without cinching. Holding the saddle in place with one hand as someone else leads your horse at the walk, slide your other hand up under the saddle until you feel the top of the horse’s shoulder blade. As he walks, you’ll feel the shoulder move back; make sure your fingers aren’t being pinched between the tree and the shoulder blade as the horse walks.


The Loins

How the saddle fits at the loins, behind the saddle, is more of a concern in Western saddles but it is an area that tends to be over-looked by all kinds riders, when it comes to saddle fit. The Western saddle is generally longer than the English saddle, giving a greater potential for problems at the loins, but both English and Western saddles can be out of balance on a horse, causing an increase of pressure on the horse’s back.

Once the horse is saddled, with the horse standing on level ground, step back and look at the horse from the side. The seat of the saddle should appear to be level—not inclined uphill or downhill. If the saddle appears to be going uphill, it may be out of balance and putting too much pressure on the loins of the horse, as well as throwing the rider out of balance and into the “backseat” position. Often, moving the saddle back a little will help level it out or using back pads or shim pads may help.

Since the Western saddle is generally longer than an English saddle, it’s important to check how the saddle fits all the way at the back of the skirts. Horses can be quite different in shape at the loins—the spine may rise up there and/or the horse may not have enough flesh to protect the spine. Make sure the saddle accommodates the shape of the horse’s back at his loins and is not pressing down into the back. Keep in mind that whatever you see from the ground could be much different or worse for the horse once the rider is mounted.

Often Western saddles will have a ‘V’ shape behind or the skirts are laced together in such a way so as to not press into the horse’s loins. In the case of very short-coupled horses, you may need to look at a saddle that is shorter in overall length—with a rounded skirt or a saddle that is specifically designed for short-backed horses. ‘Hybrid’ designs (cross between English and Western) or endurance style saddles tend to be shorter in overall length than a traditional Western saddle.


Keep Up the Good Work

It’s important to assess your saddle fit every year. Mark it on the calendar and check. It’s so easy to get complacent and overlook developing problems if you don’t check often. Many riders don’t notice a problem until it’s been there for a while, until it causes behavioral issues, or until someone with fresher eyes sees it (this is a big advantage of going to a riding clinic). These three areas—the withers, the shoulders and the loins, are easy to check and I try to assess it on every saddled horse that comes in front of me.

While most horses can fit into readily available saddles, some horses will always be a challenge.  A custom-made saddle or an unconventional type of saddle made for a different discipline may be the right choice.

Think of it this way: shopping for a saddle is a lot like purchasing shoes for yourself. If you wear a size 7, most size 7 shoes will fit—right off the rack.  Some will be a little snug and some too big. Sometimes, with the right socks, all can be comfortable. That’s what we want to do in regards to saddle fit— choose the saddle that’s best for your horse and see what you need to do to make it a perfect fit. Consider all the options. Find the best shape for the horse, and if it’s not perfect, pad it out to make the fit as comfortable as possible.


Designing Saddles to Fit

There’s no one magic saddle that fits every horse, that’s why I decided I had to have different types of saddles in my own line. The saddles had to be available in regular and wide trees and I wanted to make sure there were different lengths of skirting to fit the longer and short-backed horses. The design of the tree was most important. I wanted to make sure that there was a substantial tree that would distribute weight well. I ultimately chose Circle Y’s Flex 2 tree as it has some give for the horse—allowing him to move comfortably without a rigid tree, but is strong enough to carry weight without bowing. Other flexible trees could not make this claim and having a rigid tree made it more difficult to fit many horses during my travels.

My favorite saddle in the line is the Monarch—it has a more traditional, longer skirt and room to attach bags and jackets for the trail. The shape matches the traditional Western saddle look. The same saddle with a rounded skirt (better for short-backed horses) fits my horse, Eddie better than a longer skirt would. Having the tree widths available in wide and regular (with a 2-degree difference) helps fit the high withered and the stocky horses. Plus, having a tall gullet and opening at the back of the saddle keeps weight off of the horse’s spine. It’s got other comfort features for both the horse and rider, making a more comfortable ride for both. Check out all of my saddles at

We owe it to the horses to get the best fit possible. Get expert advice whenever you can. Professional saddle fitters are well worth the expense and are experts not only in fit, but also in how saddles are constructed and what options are available. I prefer certified saddle fitters. Often horse trainers, riding instructors and veterinarians can help with saddle fitting advice, in lieu of a saddle fit expert.

Enjoy the ride,

Julie Goodnight


Editor’s Note: See Goodnight’s full list of clinics at and ride during the 2-day clinic weekends across the country. Goodnight has her own saddle with her at each event and offers a test ride to anyone looking for help with saddle fit.


Keyword: saddle fit pains

Making Time for Horses

Julie Riding

Julie RidingWhen I was a kid, horses and ballet lessons were the only non-school activities I did. I went to the barn every single day to ride my horse. Life was uncomplicated then and time was on my side; carving out time to spend with my horse wasn’t a problem. That sure has changed–you grow up and life fills in all your free time if you allow it.

You’d think being in the horse profession, finding time to ride my own horses would be easy. But did you ever hear of the cobbler’s children going barefoot? Like most adults, the demands on my daily schedule are intense; between family, work, and personal commitments, my horses sometimes have to take a back seat. But quality time with my own horses is a high priority for me so I’ve made it a point to organize my life in such a way to make it happen.

As I work with the riders enrolled in my Interactive online study program (, I hear a lot of frustration over how much time they have to be with their horse. When you join the program, one of the first tasks is to fill out a personal profile, which tells me about your time commitment, your experience, your horse’s level of training and your dreams. Putting all of those things together to come up with goals and a workable plan to achieve them is indeed a challenge!

Setting realistic goals with your horse, making the commitment of time and energy, getting organized and efficient with your precious time and planning ahead will make amazing things possible, even when you are short of time.

Make an Appointment with Yourself

Scrutinize your schedule and analyze your lifestyle and make a standing appointment to meet with your horse. Even if you can only commit one hour, one day a week, commit to it and make it a priority in your life. “I don’t have time,” is one of the most lame excuses ever made. If you want it, make it happen.

Find time in your schedule by organizing your life better, work-sharing with friends, hiring help or adjusting in other places, combining it with other projects (“I’ll do that on my way home from the barn.”). Combine your workout time with horse time by making it more of a workout (think posting without stirrup and power-grooming). Make horses a priority in your life, inform those around you of your newfound intentions and get creative!

For myself, it works best to actually schedule a specific time every day to ride and block it off my calendar. Plus I look at my schedule a week at a time, a week ahead of time, to plan out what days I will ride. I also consider the number of days I will ride over a longer period (and what days I will need my assistant to work my horses), in consideration of meeting my future goals. By committing to future events with my horses, it’s easier to find the time that I know will be required to meet the challenge.

Even if you can only realistically commit to one hour, one day a week, commit to it and plan your life around it. Then when you do find that extra hour in the week, it’s a lovely bonus and time you’ll appreciate even more.

Be Realistic

How much time is enough? What is not enough? These are important questions that relate to your riding goals, your horse’s level training and his age/temperament, not to mention your own life demands. It’s a complicated formula, but to make it work, you must be realistic. Your time commitment has to jive with your horse.

Certainly, a mature, well-trained horse requires less time than a green horse or a horse that has had bad experiences or abusive training. To maintain the training of a well-trained horse doesn’t take much time; if you are lucky enough to be in this category, riding one day a week may be enough. But to progress a horse’s level of training, let’s say from baby-green to finished (whatever your chosen discipline), requires daily work and may still take months and years to accomplish. A horse that needs remedial training to undo his past fears and challenges may require an even greater time commitment.

Horses are extremely fast learning animals, for better or for worse, and how quickly they learn the right things is entirely dependent on the skill of the handler (teaching them the wrong things takes no skill at all). Be realistic in factoring in your time commitment and your level of experience when considering the progress you can make with your horse. It’s best to have a horse that matches both your time commitment and ability level, not to mention your confidence level.

Be Organized

Whether it’s how you choose your wardrobe for the day, packing a lunch and eating on the fly, saving your phone calls for the drive to the barn, having a “go bag” packed with your riding clothes or turning your car into a mobile tack trunk, being organized and prepared to ride on a moment’s notice will give you more time with your horse. Keeping your apparel, gear and tack organized and easily accessible means more time in the saddle.

Thinking six months or a year ahead in where you would like to be with your horse will help you set goals, which in turn, will help you get better organized.  With future goals in mind, you can make a road map to give you some direction and then you can plan all the small stops along the way and how much time you will need to get there.

Set Goals

Horsemanship is a journey, not a destination. No matter how hard you work at it, you will never know it all and you will never be a perfect rider. However, there is a lot to learn and thousands of skills to master; setting realistic goals to work toward, will help keep you focused in your training time.

Your horsemanship goals might range from attending one horsemanship clinic in the next year, to winning a year-end highpoint award in your saddle club, to going on an overnight trail ride, to competing on trail obstacles. Maybe your goals involve regaining enough confidence to canter your horse or being able to ride out alone on your horse or be able to haul your horse in a trailer.

Whatever the goal, be it small or large, it should be a challenge for you and your horse, yet attainable. Your goals should be well defined and easily measured so that it is abundantly clear when you have accomplished them. It’s important to look at least six months to a year in advance and assign a realistic time frame for accomplishing the goal. Horse sports are not known for instant gratification; most worthwhile things take the time to achieve. Looking ahead helps you set a course and develop a good training plan for you and your horse.

Once you’ve defined a goal, make a “project list” to outline all the smaller steps that you will need to accomplish to meet the goal. Take a blank sheet of copy paper, write your goal at the top in big, bold letters, and then list all the intermediate steps to get there, including any equipment, knowledge or skills you will have to acquire along the way. By keeping it all in one place, you can assign a reasonable time frame to your plan and check off the steps and /or add new ones as you progress.

One of the first assignments in my Interactive study program is to fill out a personal profile on you and your horse, to analyze your time commitment and ability levels for you and your horse so that we can come up with reasonable goals and a plan to get there. It’s amazing how getting this stuff in writing helps you find not only time, but also the focus needed to achieve goals that you never thought possible.

Make the Most of the Time You Have

Life happens and some days we have more time than we planned, while others we have less. Don’t let reality get you down, just roll with the punches and make the most of the time you have. If you are short of time, you are better off reducing your expectations than trying to rush and cram in too much. Rushing rarely works well with horses.

Horses don’t operate on human time; horse-time is altogether different. Horses can get very irritable when you get in a hurry and it’s far too easy to make mistakes, cut corners and do unsafe things. If you find yourself short of time, cut back your plans and do something meaningful and positive with your horse—less is often more. Do a little ground work instead of riding. Take your horse on a relaxing walk; give him some extra spa treatments—enjoy some quality time with your horse and be happy with that. Hurrying to cram in more often ends in a frustrating and aggravating way, for both you and your horse, and neither one of you will look forward to next time.

Look for products and gadgets that make your horse life easier and your time more efficient. Clean your saddle with disposable tack wipes while it’s still on your horse. Portable tack racks and grooming totes help keep you organized and keeps your stuff readily accessible. I am always on the lookout for anything that helps me be organized and more efficient with my horses.

Share chores with a friend—take turns bringing the horses in or feeding or watching the kids so you can devote more time to your horse on some days. Consider joining a riding club (or forming your own) or joining an online program like my Interactive study club, so that you have structure and goals and commitments. The social aspect will make it more fun and the structure will keep you focused and making progress.

Making time for horses in your life can be a real challenge, but the payoff can also be huge. What you gain in satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, vigorous exercise, and mental challenge is worth the effort. For many of us, having a meaningful relationship with a horse is worth a lot of sacrifice in other areas of our lives.

Getting organized, making a commitment and setting goals will make it possible to accomplish things with your horse that you never imagined, even if you have a busy life and no time to spare. Looking to the year ahead, it’s a good time to make a resolution, make a commitment to yourself and to your horse and make things happen!

What time-management tips do you have to share? Post them and tag #JGHorseTime to share your ideas on Facebook Twitter and Instagram.

–Julie Goodnight

Extended Trot Instead Of Canter Cue Logo

Julie Goodnight Q&A

Q: How do I get my horse to move out at the trot without breaking into a lope? He’s a western horse learning dressage and the extended trot is part of the pattern we are working on. — Jen Vieira via Facebook

A: Horses differ in their physical abilities. Remember that a horse can only extend the trot as much as his physical conformation and athleticism allows him. How far the horse will extend differs with each horse. You’ll need to find out how much you can extend the gait. You’ll push him to the limit of what he can do to extend then you’ll need to back off on your cues and not ask him for more than that. You’ll only find out how far your horse can extend if you push him to the point that he feels the need to canter. In that process, you’ll find the defining moment. When he does start to canter clarify with a half halt (a momentary application of all the aids to rebalance the horse) then immediately go back to the trot. Ask for the extended trot once again.

What’s the cue for the extended gait? To ask the horse to move into an extended trot, start from the slow sitting trot. Reach forward with both hands to give the horse somewhere to go. Your center of gravity comes slightly forward as your legs move back and close on the horse’s sides. Move into a posting trot to drive him forward with your seat. You’ll be pushing as you rise in the trot and as you sit, your legs will close on his sides to ask him for more impulsion. As you reach forward and drive him on, he’ll extend. It’s your job as a rider to find out how much you can extend the trot gait without cantering.

Keep in mind that all training occurs in transitions. Once you find out how much you can extend the trot, alternate between a slow sitting trot and an extended posting trot. Over time, you’ll ask him to hold the extended trot for longer and longer—conditioning him to hold the new gait.

Be sure to use the entire arena. It will be easiest for your horse to move out on the long sides and diagonal lines of the arena. Practice your extended trot on the long lines of the arena then move to a slow sitting trot as you round the corners of the arena.

Q: I’d like to work my new gelding in the round pen and have him focused on me. Instead, when I turn him loose, he begins trotting or cantering around quickly before I even give a command. Why does he do this and how can I help him slow down and tune in? –Tammy Buffing, via email

When it comes to horses that are speedy or downright out of control in the round pen, there are two common reasons for the behavior. Either the horse doesn’t want to be there and is herd bound—he looks outside, kicks out and carries on to show you that he really wants to get back to his herd. It’s also possible that before you got this horse, someone inadvertently trained him to run. Some people think round pen work is simply a time to run a horse around in circles– to wear him out before riding. But the truth is, there is a lot more to round pen work than that. In that scenario, the horse may learn to run around in circles as soon as he’s turned loose. He thinks that’s what he’s supposed to do.

Either way, you have a horse that is not paying attention to you and probably has no regard for you. . First in the round pen, I want to control the horse’s direction and speed. To control the horse’s movements, you need to understand the horse’s driveline. Imagine a plumb line down from the horse’s withers. If you look or step in front of that vertical line, you cue the horse to stop and or turn around (because you are blocking his path). If you aim your eyes or body behind that line, you’re pushing the horse forward. You use your position to either drive the horse forward or cut off his direction..

Use caution, the round pen can be a pressure cooker for the horse. You have him confined, but you’re chasing him as if he was out in the open. That can cause a horse to be emotional, to kick out, to try to jump out of the pen, or to simply feel uncomfortable until he understands what you’re asking for and accepts your authority. Be careful; it’s easy get kicked or run over in the round pen.

Any time you’re in the round pen, make sure to have a flag or stick with you to help you pronounce your cues and to defend your space. If you’re working a horse in the round pen, it’s probably because you need to get his attention and establish that you are in charge. The flag will help you get your horse’s attention and if he disagrees with your leadership, it’s possible he could charge you; make sure you have a tool to defend your space if needed.

I like a flag so that I can wave it and I have a way to signal the horse visually without touching him. If the horse were to become aggressive, having the attached stick helps me defend my space. I have been charged in the round pen by a several horses. Sometimes it is predictable, sometimes not. You can’t predict how a horse will react when he is learning to follow your round pen cues. Kicking and charging are normal horse behaviors and you need to be prepared.

Your speedy horse is probably looking anywhere but at you. To slow a speedy horse, you’ll need to change his direction a lot. And to change his direction, you’ll need to visually block his way and get him to notice you. You’ll need to cut him off and send him in the opposite direction. You can’t just step directly in front of him or he may run you over. Plan ahead and visualize where the horse will be when he continues three quarters of the way around the pen. Then walk to that point of intersection. That gives him plenty of time to see you and stop and turn.

If you start turning the horse around every time you lose his attention, he will start thinking about you more. Turning around is extremely difficult. When the horse turns into the fence, he has to stop abruptly, roll back onto his haunches and launch forward—that uses lots of energy. If you turn him and after a few strides he starts going too fast again, turn him around again. Soon, he’ll get tired of turning. He’ll start to focus on you to see when he’ll have to turn around again. If he seems tired, see if he’ll stop instead of stop and turn.

If he’ll stop, I’ll walk to the fence that is away from the horse and talk to a friend. If your friend is close enough to watch, it’s interesting to hear about what the horse does as your back is turned. As long as he’s looking at you, allow him to stay still and rest. If your friend reports that he has looked away, put him back to work.

As soon as he looks outside the pen or speeds up, turn him around. You’ll see results in the first session. If he starts benefitting from looking at you—by being allowed to slow down or to stop and rest—he’ll give you his attention for longer and longer periods.

There’s a whole lot more to round pen work than a casual observer would ever see or understand. There’s so much communication and purpose in this complicated work. There are specific steps to take in the round pen—first drive the horse away, then control direction, then control speed. Even people who own horses don’t always realize how much is going on and may think that a round pen is just a place to chase a horse around to wear him out before a ride. Make sure to study the body language of horses and to learn all the ways you can communicate with your horse in this setting. If done correctly, the round pen can be a place where you establish your leadership and show the horse great rewards for listening and seeing your cues.

–Julie Goodnight

Cinching Up Just Enough – Julie Goodnight Q & A Logo

Q: How tight should I tighten my horse’s cinch—and what is the right process. I don’t want to hurt my horse and I want to make sure he never becomes cinchy. –Pam Friend, via e-mail


A: How tight the cinch needs to be depends on the shape of the horse, the type of riding you plan to do, and the skill and size of the rider. The cinch and girth are interchangeable terms—depending on your saddle type. If you ride English, you probably say girth and if you ride in a Western saddle, you say cinch. The girth is also a term to identify the horse’s body part.


The cinch needs to be tight enough to allow you to mount and dismount without causing the saddle to shift. You want to keep the saddle balanced, but you don’t want to tighten a cinch more than needed—that can cause discomfort to the horse and can cause the horse to resist the saddling process.


A less experienced, or out-of-balance rider may need a tighter cinch. If they shift when a horse spooks or turns quickly, they may torque the saddle and cause it to rotate. A small and unbalanced rider may not be able to move the saddle that much, but an adult who is off balance can easily move a saddle that is not adequately secured with the cinch. If you are cutting or rounding barrels, you want to make sure your saddle doesn’t shift as the horse performs tight turns.


The horse’s conformation plays a role, as well. If you have a round horse with low withers, you may have to tighten the cinch quite a bit. Higher withers can help keep a saddle in place. The type of pad and the material the cinch is made of can also affect how tightly you’ll cinch up. If the material is smooth or shiny, it won’t help the saddle stay in place.


Let’s talk about the process. It’s best to untie a horse before tightening the cinch. Your horse doesn’t have to be totally loose, but if he becomes uncomfortable during the process, you don’t want him to be tied hard and fast to a hitching rail or cross ties. He could pull back and panic, which may lead to tying problems later on. Lay the lead over a rail so that he knows not to move, but perceives he is tied and will stand still.


I like to rub the horse’s girth area before I bring the cinch into place. With my head facing the horse’s head (to keep it out of the kick zone), I bend to reach for the cinch and attach the cinch with the buckle. At this point, I only attach the cinch enough so that the saddle will stay in place. Then I’ll move the cinch up one hole, wait a moment and cinch up one more hole. Then I walk the horse a minimum of five steps to allow the saddle to settle on to his back. Then I’ll tighten the cinch enough so that I can get on. If the saddle slips as I get on, the saddle is too loose. As my horse warms up, the tack will settle onto his back again. Check your cinch again 10 minutes into your ride or before you canter.


To check the cinch, reach between the horse’s front legs and check at the horse’s centerline. You should be able to put one index finger in to your finger’s first joint. If you can reach in at the back of the cinch more than that, it’s probably too loose. If you can’t fit a finger in at all, it may be too tight. Checking the cinch behind the horse’s shoulder may not give you an accurate reading. Most horses are concave there, just below your saddle. The cinch will always feel loose there. Tip: don’t expect your horse to always use the same hole on your cinch or latigo; it will change somewhat as he changes in age, fitness and hair coat. Go by what you notice and how it feels, not by a counting the holes.


Q: How do you train a horse to go from direct reining (two hands) to neck reining with one hand? Kim Ridgeway, via e-mail


A: When I start training a young horse, I lay the groundwork for neck reining later. I believe that all horses should be able to neck rein—English and Western. You never know when you need to ride with one hand. The training for one-handed riding starts by practicing with two hands.


To start, you’ll keep both hands on the reins and make sure your hands are in front of the pommel. Keep your hands to the sides of the horse’s neck—so that your hands are far apart with about a foot of space in between. For proper position, imagine a straight line from your elbow to the corner of the horse’s mouth. Start cueing for a turn with the leading rein. Many riders learn on trained horses and first learn the direct rein—when you pull back in the direction you want to go by pulling the rein toward your hip. The direct rein is a “rein of opposition” and interferes with forward motion. You cannot use a direct rein when you are riding a young horse—or you will stop him from moving freely forward. When you’re riding a young horse you want him to learn to move ahead. You don’t want to train him to get “sticky feet” and stop too often, so forward motion is critical.


Instead, you’ll use the leading rein. Instead of pulling back, you open your hand out to the side in the direction you want to go (imagine a hitch-hiker’s thumb). It helps the horse know to turn without stopping his forward motion. That’s the movement you’ll do with your inside hand. As a secondary rein aid, you’ll close your outside hand against the horse’s neck. Move your outside hand toward the horse’s neck, but never across the midline of the horse.


Step 1: When I’m starting a young colt, this is exactly how I cue him to turn from the very first ride. With the leading rein, I can direct the horse by opening the rein in the direction I want to go and I’m reinforcing what will be the neck rein with my outside hand. I lay the groundwork for the neck rein from the start and he begins to associate the feel of the rein on his neck with a turn.


Step 2: I continue to practice turns by starting with the leading rein and adding the neck rein as the secondary cue. However, when he begins to turn, I release the leading rein (moving my hand back toward the midline of the horse) while keeping the neck rein in place. My goal is to hold the horse in the turn with the neck rein. At any time (still holding the reins with two hands), I can reach down and bump (do not pull or hold pressure) with the leading rein to help him know to continue turning. That’s the second stage of training. After practicing this stage for a week or more, I’ll see if I can initiate the turn with the neck rein.


Step 3: Next I will start the turn with the neck rein. If that doesn’t cause the horse to turn, I’ll immediately bump with the leading rein to remind the horse of what I’m asking. I’ll continue asking my horse to turn with the neck rein first and then reinforcing with a bump of the leading rein until he turns consistently off of the neck-rein cue.


Step 4: Once you’re initiating and holding the turns as long as you want with the neck rein—and the horse is moving lightly off of the neck rein—you’re close to riding with one hand. At this point, I continue to ride with two hands, but I move my hands closer and closer together. Soon, I’m holding my knuckles together so my hands are together as one. The horse feels what he will feel when I move to one hand, but I can quickly reinforce if needed. I then move to a trainer’s hold on the reins—where there’s a bridge of the reins. Then I’ll switch to the pistol grip on the reins—riding with only one hand.


Depending on your horse’s age and experience, your level of skill and the amount of time you have to ride, this process can be taught in as little as three weeks or as long as several months. A colt that has just started learning any cues will take a long time to learn the different rein aids. He needs to stay at the beginning levels for quite some time to make sure he has all the fundamentals. If you are riding a trained horse that knows the leading rein well and just needs a reminder of the neck rein, you may be able to work through a step per week. If at any time you need to step back and remind the horse of the new cue, switch back to two hands.


A note about timing: A reinforcement or reward (release) must come within three seconds for the horse to learn, but the sooner in the three seconds, the faster the horse learns.


For instance, if you lay the neck rein on the horse and wait too long for him to turn before reinforcing with the leading rein, he won’t learn the neck rein as fast as if you reinforce that cue immediately. If the release or reinforcement comes within a second, the horse will learn quickly.

–Julie Goodnight


My Horse Consistently Breaks Gait From A Lope To A Jog On The Right Lead. Q & A Logo

Q: My horse consistently breaks gait from a lope to a jog on the right lead. What may be causing this? –Haley White

A: This is an interesting question—and I wish I had a few more details. If the horse only breaks gait on the right lead and not on the left lead, that makes me suspicious that there may be a physical problem. If a horse breaks gait on both leads, that makes me think that the horse is lazy and disobedient.. However, an obedience issue doesn’t usually happen only on one lead.

By and large if you’re cantering and the horse breaks down to the trot, it’s an obedience issue. The horse should not be allowed to choose the speed and direction—that’s the rider’s job. Many riders just re-cue for the canter and don’t admonish the horse when he breaks gait. So the horse doesn’t know that wasn’t right, he just thinks that if he slows down, he’ll get a break then canter again. You have to break that cycle by adding an admonishment to let him know that breaking gait was unacceptable.

Since Haley writes that it’s only the right lead she’s having trouble with, it makes me think that disobedience may not be the only problem and there may also be a physical component. Plus, it seems that the horse will pick up the right lead and just not maintain it, which would be unusual for a horse that is in pain But, the horse may feel some pain on a leg that is prominent when traveling that direction or may lack conditioning and coordination on that side. Think about the motion of the canter: The legs work unevenly at this gait. On the right lead, the left hind and the right foreleg are enduring the most stress. If the horse is picking up the right lead then not wanting to sustain the gait, he may not be conditioned on that side or he may be feeling pain after the initial canter departure.

I wonder if Haley’s horse has an old injury. After an accident, there could be a coordination or a conditioning issue affecting one side for some time. I’d want to see the horse’s movement in the pasture—will he move on both leads without a rider present? That can tell you what the horse’s preferred lead is and if the horse does pick up the right lead, it would be interesting to see if he keeps the right lead on his own.

This could also be a training issue. Team-roping horses always come out of the box on the left lead because they will eventually turn to the left. Racehorses may only pick up the left lead as they always bend around to the left on the track. I find that many horses also prefer the left lead naturally. So if a horse is trained that the right lead is wrong, or if a horse has never been trained to pick up a specific lead, he may just pick the lead he wants. Horses that were trained for the trail often aren’t taught to pick up specific leads—they just canter on their favorite lead. If the horse has never worked his muscles and been conditioned to work on the right lead, it may take some conditioning and riding at a full gallop to help the horse develop strength and balance in that gait.

Keep in mind that the gallop is the natural gait and the canter is the collected, man-made version of the movement. If the horse has never had to hold himself with a rider while cantering to the right, he may be willing to pick up the lead, but may not be conditioned to keep the lead.

All those thoughts considered, this could be a physical issue or a training issue. My gut tells me that we have to rule out pain first. I’d want to have this horse evaluated by an equine chiropractor who is also a veterinarian. I have seen horses that have a rib or spinal issue not want to canter or just seem “off.”

If the horse doesn’t appear lame on one leg, but isn’t moving how he should, a few treatments may help. Starting with this step would rule out the pain. If it still happens after chiropractic treatment and conditioning, it’s time to go back to basic obedience. If you have asked the horse to canter, he should stay in that gait until you give a different cue.

I’m curious to know what Haley finds out. It’s a curious question and one that’s interesting to think about!

–Julie Goodnight

Feed-Time Aggression Q & A Logo

Julie Goodnight Q&A
Feed-Time Aggression; Maintaining the Right Lead

Q: Why do some horses feel threatened when it comes to their food, and in return behave in an aggressive way at meal times? What can I do to prevent food-time aggression and stay safe at feeding time? –Chloe Martin

A: A horse’s aggression at feed time may be as major as pinning his ears, baring his teeth and charging you or as minor as grabbing the hay out of your arms when you arrive to distribute dinner. Horses may behave this way to establish who’s dominant in the herd—and if you are present with food, you’re part of the herd for the moment! When horses establish who’s in charge in the herd, they show they are dominant by controlling space and controlling resources. The resources are food, water and shelter. With food aggression, the horse is often simultaneously invading your space and taking away the food. That’s his way to control space and resources all at once. Keep in mind that he doesn’t know the difference between horse food and people food—he doesn’t know you won’t eat it. He knows he wants it and he can take it from you.

Why does your horse think he’s dominant over you? Hand feeding treats can lead to the horse thinking he is in charge and allowed to take food from your hand. He also learns that by pushing into you he can control where you stand and where you’ll go. Sometimes horses develop food aggression just because their dominant behavior has been tolerated in the past; it becomes worse over time. Sometimes aggression develops when feeders don’t go into the pen with the horse at all. When horses are fed only twice a day (instead of eating all day long like nature intended) there is a lot of stress and anxiety over when the next meals comes.

Some horses will be so anxious that they start acting out, like pawing, pinning the ears or baring teeth, then when the feeder dumps the hay in, the horse comes to believe his aggressive gestures are causing you to feed him. Even though you aren’t going into the pen so his gestures don’t concern you, to him it is as if he intimidated you into dropping the food and leaving, so his aggressive gestures were rewarded.

There is also herd stress if you’re feeding in a group and only feeding twice a day—horses may be worried about getting their food and also worried if another horse will allow them to eat. Those two factors—the herd and the limited food resource—may make the horses aggressive toward one another and just agitated to anyone present at feed time. That kind of stress in addition to only being fed twice a day causes a competition for the food. In that case, I would recommend separating them for feeding to reduce the competition for food. Or feed more often. Giving horses free access to hay 24 days, seven days a week will virtually eliminate all food aggression.

If a horse is acting out against you as you bring the food, that’s easy to fix. I would use a flag whenever I approach the horse’s pen, whether I intend to go into it or not. Wave the flag at the horse to back him up. Once he yields his space, he will then look forward at you to see what is going to happen next. While his ears are forward and after he has backed up, drop the food and walk away. If his aggressive antics don’t get him what he wants, he will stop acting that way. Make sure you have a flag or stick to make sure you can defend yourself.

Remember, he doesn’t have to act well for long—just has to be acting right at the moment you feed him. It’s not that the alpha horse never lets the other horses eat—they get to eat when she walks away from the food.

3 Leadership Activities Logo

By: Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight

Top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight gives you three fun activities designed to enhance the bond you have with your horse and solidify your role as herd leader.

During cold winter months, you likely trail ride less frequently than you do in warmer months. You might even turn your horse out on winter pasture. And all year long, there are times when you just can’t get out to ride as often as you’d like.

You can take a break from riding, but you still need to keep your horse tuned up so he maintains his respect for you as his herd leader, especially if he’s pastured with other horses.

As a prey animal, your horse instinctively looks for safety and comfort in a horse herd. If he doesn’t also feel safe and at home with you, he’ll feel unsafe, insecure, and alone when you pull him out of his herd.

“Unless and until you can replace those feelings of safety and comfort that your horse gets with his horse herd, he’d rather stay with his buddies,” notes top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

“Your horse will leave with you only if he thinks you can give him safety, security, and comfort. You have to be a herd of two.”

If your horse doesn’t feel safe with you, he might become herd-bound, barn sour, buddy sour, and even appear to forget his training.

It may be tough to ride your horse every day, especially in the winter. But you can make sure that each interaction you have with him is meaningful and shows him you’re his herd leader.

“It’s all about relationships,” says Goodnight. “You have to consistently work with your horse to maintain a good relationship. Some horses need to be handled every day. The good news is that helping your horse feel safe with you can be fun.”

Here, Goodnight will explain the importance of tuning up your horse’s training all year long. Then she’ll give you three fun activities designed to foster your relationship and bond with your horse so he’ll look to you as his trusted leader.


Tune Up His Training

First, understand how your horse thinks. He understands authority and leadership. He’s always testing you. If he finds he doesn’t have to follow the rules with you, he won’t.

Every time you handle your horse, you’re training him to do something, either acceptable or unacceptable. Over time, tiny inconsistencies can erode your authority with him, but you might not notice that you’re no longer the leader until something big happens.

Consistently keep up your horse’s training, whether you bought him trained or trained him yourself. If you allow him to break the rules, and abandon the structure and routine he’s learned, his training is likely to unravel. He’ll lose his respect for you as the herd leader, and may even resist leaving the pasture.

For instance, let’s say you’ve trained your horse to stand still during grooming. Over time, he starts taking a step or two toward you as you brush him. You don’t bother to correct him. Then one day, he takes three steps and actually bumps into you.

You thought those small steps were little infractions not worth correcting. But your horse took your inaction as a sign that you’re not in charge and not even worth noticing.

Teach your horse to respect your personal space. Every time you lead him, make frequent stops and starts, requesting obedience. Remind him where he should be. Don’t allow him to get ahead of you. Make sure he stands still when asked. Correct him if he bumps into you or takes a step away from you.

Another example: You’ve trained your horse to ride out alone. But then you start allowing him to turn his head to look back toward the barn. Left uncorrected, he soon attempts to turn back toward the barn, and balks when you turn him toward the trail.

To keep up your horse’s training, correct him with confidence every time he looks back toward the barn. He’ll remember that first-trained skill.

Goodnight says that in her experience, middle-aged horses, no matter how well-trained, are more likely to become herd-bound than other horses. There are variables in personalities, but that’s a time to make sure you interact with your horse and maintain your leadership.

Five minutes of training here and there can go far to help you maintain your relationship with your horse, especially if the relationship is firmly established.

And the more you spend time increasing your leadership and enhancing the bond with your horse, the more relaxing and enjoyable your trail rides will be. When your horse trusts you and sees you as his herd leader, he’ll more readily follow your cues, and you’ll have a more productive and relaxing time in the saddle.

Following are three short, fun activities you can do with your horse to help keep up his training and enhance the bond you enjoy with him.

Activity #1: Find His Sweet Spot

A fun activity to do with your horse as you groom him is to rub and scratch his “sweet spot.” When something feels good to a horse, he’ll pucker his lip and even raise or stretch out his neck to show you his appreciation. This reaction is related to allo-grooming(mutual grooming). When two horses stand facing one another and groom one another with their teeth, they’ll pucker when the other horse has found the “sweet spot.”

Only horses that are bonded will participate in mutual grooming. In that pair, one is still more dominant; the dominant horse will start and stop the process.

To find your horse’s sweet spot, start at his withers, and rub in a circular motion up his neck with a deep massaging or scratching motion. When you find the sweet spot, he’ll move his lips or even stretch out.

Scratch your horse’s sweet spot after you’ve asked him to perform a maneuver, such as stopping, backing up, or taking a step to the side.

Be aware that you’re working to maintain your leadership within the herd. By initiating and stopping this routine, you’re showing him you’re the herd leader.

Sometimes horses that are allo-grooming will bite each other, so you’ll need to thwart any mouthy behavior. Your horse should never put his lips on you. If he does reach out to groom you in return, acknowledge the kind gesture, but gently push back his nose back to stop him.

And don’t allow your horse to become rude or demanding of the grooming or reward. If he becomes demanding, be demanding back, and tell him that it’s not the right time. Never reward this behavior.

Activity #2: Play the Bravery Game

Ground work builds your relationship with your horse. One fun groundwork activity is the “bravery game,” which teaches him to replace his flight response with a calm alternative.

This is a great skill to have when you’re on the trail. If your horse sees something that scares him, he’ll know that he’s brave enough to stop, turn, look, and draw closer to the scary object.

For this activity, you’ll work with your horse’s instinctive behavior. By nature, he’s investigative and curious. If he sees something new, and he’s unafraid, he may seek to touch the object with his muzzle and even lick it. Your horse is also instinctively a flight animal. However, he can’t act on both of these instincts at the same time.

Here’s how to replace your horse’s flight instinct with investigative behavior when confronted with a scary object.

Step 1. Find a novel item. Once a week or so, find a novel, noisy, visually stimulating item to present to your horse, such as a pinwheel, pom-pom, or plastic toy with moving parts. Place the item behind the barn or next to an out-of-the-way building, where it’ll surprise him.

Step 2. Lead your horse. Outfit your horse with a rope halter and training lead at least 12 feet long. Ask him to walk obediently beside you, stop, back up, etc. Then lead him past the item.

Step 3. Ask him to face the item. As soon as your horse sees the item, ask him to stop. If he moves, correct him with the lead rope. Then ask him to face the item.

Step 4. Praise him. As soon as your horse stops and faces the item, praise him with long strokes of your hand and with your voice. Such praise will calm him. Just relaxing near the novel stimulus will help eliminate his flight instinct.

Step 5. Ask for a step or two. If your horse stays calm, ask him to take a step or two toward the item, then ask him to stop again. If he stays put, praise him for his bravery. Continue to ask him to take one or two small steps forward, but don’t let him walk far. Stop him after he goes only a short way.

Step 6. Encourage investigative behavior. The moment your horse pricks his ears forward and shows forward interest, ask him to walk another step, then stop him again. Going slowly and stopping him piques his investigative instinct, and gives him a chance to take in the new stimulus. It also gives you a chance to praise him and help him to stay relaxed.

This activity is a game as well as a training session. It’s fun for your horse, because he wants to be told he’s good. He doesn’t like being afraid, so when you help him replace fear with bravery, he feels good.

The ultimate point in the game comes when your horse reaches out and touches the item with his muzzle. He wins! Praise him copiously with long strokes of your hand and your voice

If you only have five minutes, do a shorter version of this activity. Place a piece of noisy plastic in your pocket, then take it out, crinkle it, and show it to your horse. If he stays relaxed, praise him. If he becomes nervous, ask him to calm down and face the item.

You can also do the bravery game while you’re riding — even when your horse is accidentally startled. Simply follow the same steps you performed on the ground.

The more often you do this activity, the more often your horse will stop and look instead of thinking of bolting. He may still be startled, but he’ll learn to turn and look instead of taking off.

Activity #3: Ride With Friends

If you make small efforts to constantly improve your horsemanship, you’re horse will be happier, because you’ll learn how to better communicate with him. To keep on a regular schedule, set aside a dedicated time, and include your friends.

One way to do this is to start a once-per-month riding club. Rotate the leader who’ll prepare a lesson that’s fun and educational.

The leader needs to be aware of every member’s skill level so he or she can design exercises that are meaningful for all involved.

The leader will first show the rest of the group what to do. Then everyone else will follow. Afterward, you’ll all talk about what worked, what didn’t, and why.

If time is short, perform ground work, then hold a brief contest. For instance, see whose horse will ground-tie the longest. Give a fun prize to the winner. When you have time, serve after-lesson refreshments.

For more information on equine behavior and trail-riding tips, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available at

Choose The Right Reins Logo



Online extra! For Julie Goodnight’s tip on using color-coded reins for kids, go to


Choose the Right Reins

Learn how choose the right reins, and use them safely on the trail, with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.



On the trail, your reins need to be safe and functional, and help your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue.

And, your reins need to be comfortable. If your reins are too long, too much to hold, or are just uncomfortable, you’ll tend to shorten your trail rides. If they feel good to you, you’ll relax in the saddle and enjoy long rides.

Your horse is highly attuned to how you hold and cue with the reins. When you move along at a casual pace, he appreciates a long rein to give him room to move. Your reins also need to be long enough so that your horse can reach down to drink.

At the same time, when you speed up, you need to be able to easily shorten the reins to collect your horse and give a more direct cue when necessary.

Here, top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight will first cover rein quality, types, and attachments. Then she’ll tell you the best ways to attach your reins to the bit and how to rein your horse. Next, she’ll give you ground-tying safety pointers. Along the way, she’ll give you riding-glove tips for safety and control.


Overall Quality

“It’s all about quality,” Goodnight says. “The heavier the rein is, the easier it’ll be for your horse to feel what you’re doing with your hands and the more subtle a signal you can give.

“Plus, when the reins are made from quality leather or rope, your horse will feel the rein release right away, so he’ll learn to be more responsive.”

Riding with well-weighted reins will remind you to give your horse enough slack, because you’ll feel the downward pull of gravity. He’ll feel the rein’s weight, and your cues will be amplified because of the weighted drape.

If you use reins made from inexpensive, lightweight material that flops around, your horse won’t feel the rein and may have a tough time feeling your rein aids. This means you may find yourself pulling on the reins more than should be necessary (and therefore applying undue pressure to your horse’s mouth) to get a response to your cues.

To experience what your horse feels when the reins are weighted just right, stand up, and place your arms straight out in front of you with your palms up.

Imagine you hold a penny on your right index finger and a feather on your left index finger. Now think what it would take to balance the item on each finger.

You likely imagine that you’d be able to balance the penny easily, but need to shift your finger to keep it under the feather. The same law of physics applies to how your horse feels and balances himself within the weight of your reins.

If your reins are made from lightweight leather or nylon webbing, there isn’t much weight, and it becomes difficult for him to feel the reins and stay balanced.

With high-quality leather or a thick marine-type rope, your horse will be able to feel your hand movements and balance himself more easily. He’ll know what you’re asking because the weight of the reins echoes the slightest movement from your hand.


Rein Types

Here’s a rundown of common Western rein types and how to use them. Find reins that feel best in your hands and as you ride on trail.

* Split reins. If you opt for split reins, choose quality leather. Split reins are long and versatile — you can make them long or short, and use them independently or ride one-handed. Split reins can be great for trail riding, because you can easily ground-tie by laying the reins down on the ground. But some find them cumbersome and they can be easily dropped.

You can hold split reins in a variety of ways. You can choose how you hold them and where you hold them to cue your horse.

The traditional pistol-grip hold is the rein hold used for competition. Hold both the reins in one hand with your index finger in-between the two reins.

The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of your horse’s neck, crossing the reins over each other, and holding one rein in each hand or both in one hand. Hold your hands as though you’re holding bicycle handles, while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over your horse’s neck. This allows you to ride with two hands and work each side of the bit independently. You can also use a bridge while riding one-handed.

When riding Western, the traditional rein hand is the left hand; it’s assumed you’ll need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope, open a gate, rope, etc.

If you’re riding with split reins, make sure the bight (the tail of your reins) lies on the same side of your horse’s neck as your rein hand so his neck doesn’t interfere with your cues.

* Continuous-loop reins. If you choose to ride with continuous-loop reins, choose high-quality, heavyweight rope for trail riding. These reins fill your hand for comfort and control. They’re easy to use when you’re following a trail and don’t need to guide your horse’s every step. Rope reins are easy to hold onto, as well as to shorten and lengthen.

Hold rope reins right in the middle to ride on a loose rein. “The reins I’ve designed have a marker in the middle so you can easily check to see your reins are even,” Goodnight says.

Consider length. On the trail, your horse needs to be able to drop his head to drink and move in a relaxed frame. Most trail horses do well with a 9-foot rein. However, if your horse has a very long neck, you may prefer a 10-foot rein. Find a length that also helps you ride on a loose rein with a relaxed hand.


Rein Attachments

Traditional Western reins can also include a mecate or romal. Here’s what you need to know.

* Mecate. The mecate is a long lead on a continuous-loop rein that comes off of the left side of the bit. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate; off the horse, there’s built-in lead line. But others find the extra rope bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle,” Goodnight says. “I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle.

The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of your horse’s neck, crossing the reins over each other, and holding one rein in each hand or both in one hand. Hold your hands as though you’re holding bicycle handles, while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over your horse’s neck. This allows you to ride with two hands and work each side of the bit independently. You can also use a bridge while riding one-handed.

When riding Western, the traditional rein hand is the left hand; it’s assumed you’ll need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope, open a gate, rope, etc.

If you’re riding with split reins, make sure the bight (the tail of your reins) lies on the same side of your horse’s neck as your rein hand so his neck doesn’t interfere with your cues.

* Continuous-loop reins. If you choose to ride with continuous-loop reins, choose high-quality, heavyweight rope for trail riding. These reins fill your hand for comfort and control. They’re easy to use when you’re following a trail and don’t need to guide your horse’s every step. Rope reins are easy to hold onto, as well as to shorten and lengthen.

Hold rope reins right in the middle to ride on a loose rein. “The reins I’ve designed have a marker in the middle so you can easily check to see your reins are even,” Goodnight says.

Consider length. On the trail, your horse needs to be able to drop his head to drink and move in a relaxed frame. Most trail horses do well with a 9-foot rein. However, if your horse has a very long neck, you may prefer a 10-foot rein. Find a length that also helps you ride on a loose rein with a relaxed hand.


Rein Attachments

Traditional Western reins can also include a mecate or romal. Here’s what you need to know.

* Mecate. The mecate is a long lead on a continuous-loop rein that comes off of the left side of the bit. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate; off the horse, there’s built-in lead line. But others find the extra rope bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle,” Goodnight says. “I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle. This means there’s less to hold. And when you tie your horse, you aren’t tempted to tie with a rope that’s connected to the bit.”

* Romal. A romal is attached to the set of closed reins; the entire assemblage is called romal reins. The romal was developed to help a rider move cattle. Romal reins are held without a finger between the reins, so you have less ability to articulate with the reins than you might with split reins. You ride with two hands — one hand cues your horse, while the other holds the romal. These reins are best used on a well-trained horse that neck reins well.


Bit Connections

Goodnight advises against using a metal snap to attach your reins to the bit. Although convenient, the metal-to-metal connection can annoy your horse. The metals rub and vibrate, which he feels constantly.

A rope or leather bit connection gives you a better feel and helps you know when your horse moves or makes a change. You don’t need to change the bit or reins frequently; take a few extra moments to tie on your reins or otherwise secure without a clip.

“A leather or rope connection is fine,” says Goodnight. “Although I’m not a fan of decorative slobber straps — they’re too bulky and don’t allow me to finesse the reins. Plus, they’re cumbersome to put on and take off.”

The ideal connection for a continuous-loop rein is a corded quick connect, says Goodnight. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, and also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with your horse.”

A split rein will usually have a tied-on connection — a kind of slobber strap made from the same leather as the rein. The leather piece is a breakaway and may save your horse from getting hurt if you drop a rein and he steps on it. If that piece does break, it’s easy to repair while on the trail.


Holding the Reins

Whether you ride with one hand or two depends on the type of bit you use, and your horse’s training level and his obedience.

Snaffle bits (bits without shanks) are designed to be ridden two-handed with a direct rein (applying pressure directly from rider’s hand to the mouthpiece of the bit). Riding in a snaffle bit with one hand causes the bit to collapse around the horse’s tongue and pinch his jaw in a nutcracker effect.


Curb bits (bits with shanks) are designed to be ridden one-handed However, if the bit is designed so that the shanks move independently from each other, you may also ride with two hands when your horse is in training.


Ground-Tying Safety

When you dismount and lay the reins on the ground, a horse trained to ground tie knows that means he should stand still. Laying the reins on the ground should only be done with a split rein, not a continuous-loop rein.

Split reins have no dangerous hoof-catching loop. In the worst-case scenario, your horse may break the split-reins’ leather, but he won’t get caught up or pull excessively on the bit with a material that won’t break.

Never drop loop or continuous-rope reins in front of your horse. Rather, hold loop reins in your hands or over your arm to keep the loop far from your horse’s feet.

If you want to ground-tie with a loop rein, keep the loop over your horse’s neck, or attach a lead rope to a halter beneath your bridle, and allow this lead to hang down. Or you can use the traditional neck rope for this purpose, known as a “get-down” rope.

For safety’s sake, make sure that some part of your reins, bit, and headstall is made of a breakaway material. For instance, if you have rope reins, connect them to a leather headstall. Something needs to give in case of an emergency.



Riding-Glove Tips


Well-fitted leather gloves are handy on the trail when reaching to ride beneath branches.


When should you wear riding gloves? You’ll need gloves if you’re riding a fast-paced trail or endurance challenge, as you’ll hold the horse with contact and you’ll feel friction on your fingers. You may also want gloves if you’re riding in heavy brush and you’ll need to reach up and break branches.

“I always want gloves on if I’m ponying a horse or doing any kind of rope-pulling work,” notes Julie Goodnight. “I always make sure there are gloves in my saddlebag in case I need to help pony a horse in an emergency.

Consider glove material. “I like a leather glove for the feel,” says Goodnight. “The new technical fabrics are great, though, too.

No matter what the material, fit is key. “If the gloves fit well without extra fingertip length, you’ll be able to feel the reins better and not lose the feel of the reins as you’re shortening and lengthening them,” notes Goodnight.


On the trail, your reins need to be safe and functional, and help your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue. Here, top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight will help you choose the reins that are right for you. Shown are Goodnight (right) and Twyla Walker Collins riding with split reins.




Leather split reins are long and versatile, and best for ground-tying. But some riders find them hard to use, and they can be easily dropped. (Note the leather-to-metal connection at the bit, rather than a metal snap, which would annoy your horse.)




If you use continuous-loop rope reins on the trail, make sure they’re long enough to allow your horse to ride in a relaxed frame, turn and bend without constant contact, and reach his head down far enough to drink.



Rope reins are easy to hold and convenient on the trail — especially if you’re worried about dropping a split rein. The reins can be held in one hand or two, depending on the bit and your horse’s training level.


The ideal connection for a continuous-loop rein is a corded quick connect, says Goodnight, who designed the reins shown. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, and also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with your horse.”




With romal reins, you ride with two hands — one hand cues your horse, while the other holds the romal attachment. These reins are best used on a well-trained horse that knows how to neck rein.


A Safe Handle On The Reins Logo

A Safe Handle on the Reins


By Heidi Nyland Melocco with Julie Goodnight


Learn how to safely use your reins on the trail with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. She’ll explain how to hold and use both rope and split reins, plus how to stop and ground-tie.


When you’re on a long trail ride, you want comfortable and functional reins to hold. It’s important that the gear you choose helps you feel comfortable, keeps you relaxed, and helps your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue. If you’re dealing with reins that are too long, too much to hold –or are just not comfortable for you– your ride time may be impacted by your tight grip. If you find the reins you can easily shorten and lengthen and that feel great to you, you’ll relax in the saddle and enjoy your ride.

While your horse may not care if you have the trendiest gear, he does care about how you hold and cue with the reins. When you’re moving along at a casual pace, he wants to know you can easily lengthen the reins to give him room to move. When you want to speed up, you’ll also want a rein that you find easy to shorten so that you can give a more direct cue when necessary. It’s important to consider what material feels best in your hands. It’s also important to make sure that your reins are long enough to allow your horse to relax and reach down to drink.

Here, top trainer and clinician, Julie Goodnight will help you understand your rein options and talk about how to hold different types of reins. She’ll help you understand how reins work to communicate clearly to your horse and she’ll also give you safety pointers to help you avoid common mistakes when bridling and when stopping for a rest during a trail ride.


A Weighty Issue

“It’s all about quality,” Goodnight says. “The heavier the rein is, the easier it will be for the horse to feel what you’re doing with your hands and the more subtle a signal you can give. Plus, when the reins are made of quality leather or rope, the horse will feel your hands’ release sooner.”

Riding with well-weighted reins will help remind you to put slack in the reins because you’ll feel the downward, gravity pull. Your horse will feel the rein’s weight and also feel any movements of your hands amplified because of the weighted drape. When reins are made of inexpensive and light-weight cording that flops loosely, the horse doesn’t feel the rein and may have a tough time feeling your slight rein aids. That means you may find yourself pulling on the reins more than should be needed (and therefore applying undue pressure to the horse’s mouth) to get a response to a turning cue.

What difference does your horse feel when the reins are weighted just right? Goodnight suggests this visualization. Stand and place your arms straight out in front of you with your palms up. Picture a penny on your right index finger and a feather on your left index finger. Now imagine. What would it take to balance the item on each finger? Which is easiest to balance?

You’d probably be able to balance the penny easily and you’d shift and move to keep your finger under the feather. Goodnight says that the same law of physics at work with the penny and feather applies to how your horse feels and balances himself within the weight of reins. If your reins are lightweight leather or nylon webbing, there isn’t much weight and it becomes difficult to feel and balance.

When there is more material (such as a high quality leather or a thick marine-type rope) the horse will be able to feel the movements you make with your hands and will balance himself more easily. He’ll know what you’re asking because the weight of the rein echoes the slightest movement from your hand. No matter what type of rein you choose, this weight and quality consideration applies.


Rein Types

There are many variations of each rein type, but here we’ll stick to the traditional Western rein types. Split reins are commonly used for Western riding—and what you’ve probably seen for years on old Western movies. Today, loop reins, mecate, and traditional romal reins are all fashionable for Western events and on the trail. Here’s a little bit about each….

Split Reins

Today’s choice in Western tack is most often to ride with split reins. Leather reins are long and versatile—you can make them long and short, use them independently or to ride one handed. They can be great for trail riding because you can easily ground tie by laying the reins down on the ground. But while these reins are a common choice, Goodnight says some riders may find them cumbersome on the trail and they can be easy to drop.

Split reins can be held in a variety of different ways—that’s what makes them versatile for training or for showing. You can switch how you hold and where you hold to cue your horse in different ways.


The traditional pistol-grip hold is the rein hold used for competitions. Hold the reins in one hand with your index finger in between the two reins. The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of the horse’s neck crossing the reins over each other and holding both reins in both hands or one hand. You’ll hold your hands the same position as if holding bike handles while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over the horse’s neck. This allows the rider to ride with two hands and work each side of the horse’s bit independently.

The traditional rein-hand is the left hand when riding Western—that’s because it’s assumed that you may need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope or open a gate, shoot a gun, etc. If you are riding with split reins, the bight of the reins needs to lie on the same side of the horse’s neck as the hand you are using.



A romal is attached to the set of closed reins and was developed as an attached tool to help the rider move cattle with an aid. The romal is held without a finger between the reins and you have less ability to articulate with the reins than you may with split reins. You ride with two hands—but one is holding the reins to cue the horse and the tail of the reins (or the actual romal) is held in the opposite hand. These reins are best for a horse that is very well trained and knows how to neck rein without needing corrections.

Continuous Loop Reins

Holding a single loop rope rein is the easiest for most riders. This rein is easy to use and comfortable to hold when you’re following a trail and not needing to guide a horse’s every step. You can hold the rope rein right in the middle—to allow your horse to ride on a loose rein. The rope rein fills up your hands and is easy to hold onto. The rope is easy to shorten and lengthen (compared to split reins).

“The reins I designed have a marker in the middle so you know where the middle of the reins is and can easily make sure your reins are even,” Goodnight says. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, but it also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with the horse.”

There are all different lengths of continuous loop reins for different jobs. A roper or barrel racer may ride with a continuous loop rein, but they ride with a short length—maybe only five or six feet. Out on the trail, you want your horse to drop his head and move in a relaxed frame so you want to make sure you have a longer rein than may be used in fast sports. Goodnight says that most horses do well on the trail with a nine-foot rein. If your horse’s neck is long, he may like a 10-foot rein—and this isn’t about how big your horse is, it’s about his neck length. That length allows the horse to reach down and drink and inspires you to make sure to ride on a loose rein and not have constant grip on the reins.


The mecate is the long lead that comes off of the left side of the bit—and is attached to a continuous loop rein. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate—allowing them to dismount and hold onto their horse, with the built-in lead. To others, the extra rope can be bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle—I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle,” Goodnight says. “This means there’s less to hold and when you tie your horse, you aren’t tempted to tie with a rope that is connected to the bit.”


One Handed or Two?

Whether you’re riding one handed or two handed depends on the type of bit that you’re using and on the training level and the obedience of the horse. If you’re riding in a snaffle bit, you should ride two handed. Riding with one hand in a snaffle bit causes a jointed snaffle to collapse in what’s called the nutcracker effect. The bit collapses around the horse’s tongue and pinches the jaw.

A curb bit is designed to be ridden with one hand. However, if the bit is designed so that the shanks move independently form each other, you may also ride with two hands for training scenarios.


Connected to the Bit

Goodnight says she does not like a metal clip on the end of her reins. It may be convenient to the rider to be able to click the reins to the bit, but the metal-to-metal connection can be annoying to the horse. The metals rub and vibrate—a vibration your horse feels constantly. A rope or leather connection to the bit gives you a better feel and helps you know when your horse moves or makes a change. You don’t need to change the bit or reins frequently; take a few extra moments to tie on your reins or otherwise secure without a clip.

“I like a quick connect, but one that isn’t metal,” Goodnight says. “Leather or rope connections are fine. Though I’m not a fan of , decorative slobber straps—they’re too bulky for me and don’t allow me to finesse the reins. Plus, they ar cumbersome to take on and off.”

A split rein will usually have a tied-on connection—a kind of slobber strap made of the same leather as the rein. The leather piece is breakaway and will save your horse from pain if you drop a rein and he steps on it. If that piece does break, it’s pretty easy to repair while out on the trail. .


Ground Tying Safety

When you dismount and lay the reins on the ground, a well-trained horse knows that means he should stand still. Laying the reins on the ground should only be done with a split rein, not a continuous loop rein. If your horse were to step on the long leather rein, he won’t step into a loop and get caught up. The worst-case scenario is that the horse may break the leather of a split rein, but he won’t get caught up or pull excessively on the bit with a material that won’t break.

Make sure never to drop loop or continuous rope reins in front of your horse—you should always hold loop reins in your hands or over your arm to keep the loop far from your horse’s feet. If you want to ground tie with a loop rein, keep the loop over your horse’s neck or use a lead attachment to a halter beneath your bridle and allow a lead to hang down there.

For safety’s sake, make sure that some part of your reins, bit and headstall is made of a breakaway material. If you have rope reins, connect them to a leather headstall. Something needs to give in case of an emergency.


No matter what rein material and type you choose, make sure you’re making the best choice for you—what is comfortable and safe for you and your horse. Only you know where you’ll ride and what configurations, tying, and riding you’ll need to do along the way. Opt for comfort for you and your horse over any perceived notion of what must look right out on the Western trails.




Reins for Kiddos

First and foremost, make sure that any rider—no matter their age—has reins to hold. If you’re giving a pony ride to a young child, make sure reins are attached to the halter or that you lead from a nylon halter beneath the bridle. Even though you are leading the horse, having reins present will help you teach the child to cue for directions long before they are ready to take full control of the reins—and you’ll empower any rider to make sure they feel in control, even when they’re being led.

Make sure that the reins you choose for a child are slim enough to fit easily in their hands. Also make sure there’s not too much extra rope to hold onto. Keep it simple! You may opt for continuous loop reins with a narrow diameter or rainbow training reins which allow you to give clear directions and allow the rider to easily visualize how to keep their reins even. You can say, “put your hands on the yellow section to shorten your reins,” or “make sure to hold on the green with both hands to make sure your reins are even.”

In any bridle, make sure there’s some breakaway component to make sure you don’t get tangled.




When do you wear gloves? If you’re riding a fast-paced trail or endurance challenge, you’ll be holding the horse with contact and you’ll feel friction on your fingers. You’ll need gloves then. You may also want gloves if you’re riding in heavy brush—if you need to reach up and break branches.

Goodnight says “I always want gloves on if I’m ponying a horse or doing any kind of rope pulling work. I always make sure there are gloves in my saddlebags in case I need to help pony a horse in an emergency.

“I like a leather glove for the feel. The new technical fabrics are great, though, too. The fit is the key no matter what the material. If the gloves fit well without extra fingertip length, you’ll be able to feel the reins better and not lose the feel of the reins as you’re shortening and lengthening.”















How To Feed A Severely Neglected Rescue Horse Logo

When we can offer a safe, caring home to a severely neglected horse, everyone in the horse world cheers. If you have recently adopted a rescue horse, let me first commend you for your actions. Saving a horse that is in desperate need of care and nursing him back to health can be one of the most gratifying experiences a horse owner can have. But you must be committed to giving him a lot of time and attention. The transition period is critical. He’ll need to be moved in and out of pasture throughout the day, fed hay nearly every couple of hours, and given frequent supplemental meals until he gets to where he can hold his own.

If your horse is very thin due to starvation, you will want to proceed slowly and with caution, giving his body a chance to adjust to change with each step. Some horses are in such poor condition they are unable to eat. In this extreme situation, your veterinarian will use a stomach tube to feed the horse. This is a short term procedure with the goal of getting your horse interested in eating again.

Ulcers can complicate the rehabilitation process. Retired race horses almost invariably have ulcers. Your veterinarian may prescribe an ulcer medication, but this can only be used for a month or so. The three long term components of healing an ulcer are: chewing on hay or pasture at all times, plenty of water, and reduction in stress.

Your ultimate goal is to allow your rescued horse to graze freely, as much as he wants, on hay and/or pasture. You’ll want his forage to include a legume such as clover or alfalfa. But take your time — you can’t just put him out on pasture right away if he’s been severely deprived. No matter how gratifying the sight of him grazing 24/7 will be, you must allow time for his digestive tract to adjust to the influx of food. The microbial population in his hindgut is not adequate for fiber digestion; too much, too soon and he may colic or founder.

Here is my recommendation for an 1100 lb horse (his normal weight):

  • Give him a probiotic, at a double dose, every day for approximately one month; then reduce the dosage to a maintenance level.
  • Start with 1 lb of grass hay every two hours, or pasture grazing for 30 minutes with an hour break in between. At night, leave him with 4 lbs of hay, plenty of water, and a plain, white salt block along with granulated salt, offered free-choice.
  • After 3 days, increase the amount of hay to 2 lbs per every two hours and give him 8 lbs of hay at night.
  • By the end of two weeks, he should be able to have hay available free-choice or graze on pasture 24/7. Be sure he has enough at night to last him throughout the night. There should be some hay left over in the morning.
  • Starting at week three, add alfalfa to his hay ration. Start with 1 lb per day for 3 days, and add one more pound every three days, until you reach a total of 8 to 10 lbs per day. If you’re not able to obtain alfalfa hay, get hay cubes. Break them into small pieces and let them soak for a few minutes. Feed them as a snack throughout the day.
  • Also starting at week three, you’ll want to begin feeding him 6 small meals each day. You can use a commercial senior or performance feed that contains 14-16% protein, at least 18% fiber, and at least 8% fat.  Each meal should contain:

o   4 cups feed  (weighs approximately 1 lb or .5 kg)

o   1/4 cup (60 ml) flaxseed meal  (stabilized, commercial product is best)

o   200 IU Vitamin E (you can get capsules in your local pharmacy)

o   Probiotic (double dose , spread over 6 meals)

o   500 mg of Vitamin C

Gradually decrease the number of meals, every two weeks, but increase the amount of feed in each meal so that by the end of one month, in addition to a full ration of forage, you are providing two to three meals per day, with no more than 4 lbs of feed per meal.  Maintain supplements and if your horse is older than 16, provide additional vitamin C.

The upside to the time and attention—in addition to seeing your horse regain his health and vibrancy—is that you will get to know your new horse very well, and together you will enjoy many good years ahead.

Permission to reprint this article is granted, provided attribution is given to Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. No editorial changes may be made without her permission. Dr. Getty appreciates being notified of any publication.

Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide American and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices.

Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available at–buy it there and have it inscribed by the author. Or get it at Amazon ( or other online retail bookstores. The seven separate volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered Spotlight on Equine Nutrition series are available with special package pricing at her website, and also at Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts.

Find a world of useful information for the horseperson at Sign up for Dr. Getty’s informative, free e-newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Reach Dr. Getty directly at She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements.

This spring! On May 2, 2015, hear Dr. Getty address issues in horse nutrition at the Kirkland House Foundation in Delta, British Columbia, sponsored by “Hay…Girl!” For more information on this event, contact Pam Janssen at or call 604-961-7265.