Cultivating a Connection with Horses

Julie and her now retired cowhorse, Dually, take a moment to connect.

Duke was a well-trained gelding, successful in the show ring as a youngster, then ridden extensively in the rugged mountains of Colorado. He was a handsome hunk of muscle, very balanced, always a delight to ride and safe to handle. But at the age of 16, after six months in winter pasture, he wasn’t the same horse.  

In May, I picked him up from the large ranch where his owners had boarded him for the winter. The horse was turned out in a large herd on a fifteen-hundred-acres, with little handling. At first, he was easy to catch and seemed happy to see me, but once we turned toward the truck and away from the herd, the easy-going, well-trained gelding suddenly resembled a thousand-pound toddler throwing a tantrum.

The farther away from the herd we got, the more emotionally distraught Duke became—prancing, looking around, shaking his head, eyes white, nostrils flared and screaming bloody murder for his friends. In the moment, my scolding and attempt at groundwork did little to reset his brain.  

Duke’s connection to the herd was strong and his misery was intense. He made it abundantly clear he had no interest in me. The gelding fussed, stomped, and screamed throughout most of the 100-mile drive to my barn. I knew I had my work cut out for me, to break the instinctive herd-connection, remind him of his training, and re-connect him to people. Horses are relationship-oriented animals with an instinctive need for acceptance to a herd and to form bonded connections to other individuals in the herd (we call them “buddies” and behaviorists call them “associates”).  Cultivating that same sense of connection between horse and human is very attainable. For me, it is the ultimate partnership I want to have with a horse—one in which the horse feels safe and wants to be with me, is eager to please, hungry for my praise and willing to follow me anywhere. I’ve worked with lots of riders in my horsemanship clinics and through my online coaching programs who are striving for a better connection with their horse too. Sometimes they are rebuilding confidence after a bad experience, and both horse and rider need to develop trust in each other again. Or maybe it’s a new horse or one that’s coming back into training after a long layoff from illness or injury; or maybe the horse has been idle because the human in its life was simply absent.

There are many reasons why a person might need to establish (or re-establish) a connection with a horse. Forging a partnership between horse and human and developing a bonded relationship brings greater satisfaction and more accomplishment. Here, I’ll show you the steps I took to reconnect with Duke and share some tips that you might use to connect with the four-legged friend in your life.


Separation Anxiety

Without much separation, the herd becomes the horse’s entire world. From the herd, the horse gets a sense of safety and comfort. There’s law and order, a capable leader calling all the shots, a daily regimen to follow, and buddies to cover your back. Obviously, walking away from all of that is not easy for a horse—a prey animal—who lives in fear of being eaten. Rarely will separating a herd-bound horse be easy or quiet, but it is a necessary step to take before the horse will transfer the same feelings he gets from the herd to a person.

Woodrow, a three-year-old gelding, throws a tantrum because his herdmate just left the arena.

For Duke, it was easy since we put him in the trailer and physically distanced him from the herd. Out of sight and out of ear shot, the severing of herd ties is easier and faster, although the horse will still feel some separation anxiety. The most difficult scenario for dealing with herd-bound horses occurs when you cannot physically separate them from the herd—when they can still see and/or hear the herd– it’s a constant reminder to the horse that he is separated and vulnerable.

We always isolate new horses that come to my facility, for health reasons, but it helps a lot with resolving separation anxiety too. I put them in their own comfortable pen, where they can see the other horses but not get close to them. Then for two weeks, the only interaction the horses have is with the people that feed them and clean their pen. People start to seem a lot more appealing to a horse when they bring comfort and apply no pressure.

Initially, we won’t dote on the horses in isolation or try to make friends with them, but we take care of their basic needs and are there if they need us or want interaction. Within a week or less, we can see the horses changing their minds about who is important in their lives and humans become much more appealing. Once a horse starts looking more longingly for interaction with us, we start spending more quality time with the horse, giving it the interaction, routine and enrichment it seeks.

Allowing horses to work through their anxiety and grief at losing the herd, before expecting them to show interest in people, is important. A horse cannot be trained unless he is calm, focused and thinking. But as soon as the horse shows acceptance of its fate and begins to look around for a new deal I want to step in and fill the void.

If physical separation from the herd is not possible, this job can get harder and may take longer.  I still separate the horse I am trying to connect with every day for an hour or more. There will be fussing, fidgeting, and hollering. Depending on the horse, I may tie it up in a comfortable place and let it fuss. I will wait until the horse is quiet and patient before turning it back with the herd. I will make this a routine for the horse—same time, same place, same activity every day, because horses take comfort in sameness.

If tying the horse is not reasonable, because the horse is not trained to tie, I may have to keep it busy during this separation time, doing lead-line work, round penning, or going for a walk. Movement is often better for anxious horses, rather than standing still. Over time, horses get comfortable with a routine and begin to fear separation less.

The quarantine pen: horses in isolation will naturally seek companionship with the people who take care of them.

Getting past the initial separation anxiety is the hardest part of establishing a connection with a horse and it may take a while, depending on the horse and circumstances. Keen observation of the horse during this time, will show me when the horse starts to look for new attachments. That’s my cue to step in and start doing more with the horse—more friendly activities like grooming and providing enrichment. At this stage, the horse will start transferring his feelings of attachment to me and begin to look to me for leadership.


Establishing Boundaries & Expectations

Horses know leadership when they see it and they seek it out. In the presence of a strong leader, horses feel safe, protected, and accepted. As soon as the horses are past the initial shock of being separated from the herd, I want them to learn they can count on me to take care of them and keep them safe. Keeping the horse isolated from the herd, with humans providing its food, water and care, the horse begins to look to humans as their new herd.

Whether a horse is new, or you are reconnecting after a long hiatus, the first impressions and the initial precedents you set are critical and they will form the basis of your relationship with the horse going forward. If you tolerate unsafe or rude behavior initially, you will set a precedent that is difficult to undo.

I want to teach horses what my expectations of their behavior are, by establishing boundaries and controlling their actions and movements through groundwork; disallowing tantrums and emotional outbursts, not through punishment, but by redirecting their energy and actions elsewhere. Duke was a well trained and experienced horse that had become herd-bound due to circumstance. When the horse has training to fall back on, establishing boundaries and expectations can go very quickly. The horse already knows the rules; but is rusty on them. For Duke, once separated, all it took was a few days of groundwork, tying, and revisiting the basics of his training before he fell right back into his groove. Reminding trained horses of what they know, can almost be a relief for the horse if they have separation anxiety. Duke was happy to get back to the regimented life that he once knew and eagerly accepted my authority and leadership.

Establishing boundaries immediately with an unruly horse is not only important for my personal safety, but also for establishing my authority with the horse. In the herd, horses establish dominance by controlling the space and actions of subordinates.  If I allow horses to move into me or act as if I am not there, in their minds, they are in charge. This can happen on the very first incident. At any time the horse moves into me, slings its head at me, or gets ahead of me, I will immediately scold the horse, back it up and move it away from me. I am 100% clear on my personal boundaries and my expectations of its behavior, and that is immediately impactful to the horse.

If you want to learn more about how to handle a pushy horse, how to make your boundaries clear, or about the horse honoring boundaries while leading, watch my “Establishing Boundaries” and “Leadline Boundaries” videos here.


Communicating your expectations to the horse presumes you have clear expectations. I expect my horses to voluntarily be present with me, not looking around for an exit or threatening to leave. I expect them to be focused on me and what I am asking or focused on nothing. I expect them to stand still when I ask, never invade my personal space, and to always display safe and pleasant manners when I am around them. Armed with the right equipment for groundwork (rope halter, training lead, training stick or flag if needed) and the information you need to teach basic ground manners, this can go really fast. Check out this special which includes a rope halter and training lead plus a free ground manners video that gives you step-by-step instruction on teaching ground manners to a horse.

Establishing boundaries and communicating your clear expectations to the horse should happen right away upon your first interaction with the horse. The precedents you set on that initial encounter (which I often refer to as the “golden moments”), the impressions you give the horse about your confidence level and leadership, your tolerance or intolerance of certain behaviors, your strength, consistency and fairness, will make a huge impact on the horse. The horse learns rapidly (way faster than humans, as far as I can tell) and you cannot unmake first impressions.


Good Leadership Generates Good Followership

The Alpha Individual is a strong, confident, and capable herd leader. In a horse herd, the Alpha may be male or female, and their responsibilities are to protect the herd, motivate the herd to flight, should it be necessary, to maintain law and order in the herd, and to budget time for the herd to eat, drink and sleep. Horses crave strong leadership, they recognize it easily, and they feel safe and content in its presence. My goal in connecting with horses is to have them voluntarily hook onto me and want to be with me, no matter where I go. But first the horse must get from me, the same sense of safety and comfort it gets from the herd. The voluntary behavior I seek from the horse, begins with my own behavior—I need the horse to see me as the strong leader it craves.

I must be confident, calm, and communicate my expectations clearly. To be the leader horses crave, I must take care of their physical needs and be consistent and fair in administering both praise and admonishment. Most of all, I must keep the horses safe (emotionally and physically) and never ask more than they can give me. This is how horses make us better people.

More than anything, horses want to feel safe and taken care of. They appreciate order, routine and sameness, because that makes them feel safe. When horses are displaying emotionality, especially anxiety, they are not happy. But they don’t know how to act differently in that moment—their emotions have taken control.

When Duke was having his emotional meltdown upon leaving the herd, I knew I had a job ahead of me. I had to contain his behavior in the moment, while showing confidence, remaining calm and focused on the task, remind him of his manners, and bring some sense of order to the scene.

Once home at my ranch, it was easy to reconnect with Duke, since he was quarantined from other horses and his food and water, and his clean and comfortable accommodations, came directly from me. After a few days to settle in, he began to recognize me as an important figure in his life. Then it was time to start setting some precedents in terms of his behavior, starting with the basics, and reminding him of his previous training.

A moment of connection after a round-pen training session.

One thing I know about horses, is that they will always act like horses. They know and understand horse behavior and herd dynamics; who’s in control and who is not. They are keenly observant of body language and intent, and they learn wickedly fast, for better or for worse. These attributes of horses are always present, and can be either an advantage or disadvantage, depending on how it’s handled.

To establish a meaningful connection with a horse, means understanding its natural behavior, being clear and confident about your expectations, being fair and consistent in your praise and admonishment, and going back to basics in training. It means having reasonable expectations, neither too low or too high, and giving the horse the time it needs to adjust to a new situation.

It’s a tall order and will require some dedication to the cause. But in the end, having that bonded relationship, where the horse looks up to you, wants to be with you and is eager to please you, will make all your efforts worthwhile.

March 2021 Horse Report

Remi napping with herd.
Remi napping with herd.
March has been a snowy month for us, but we are grateful for the moisture that will ease us out of drought conditions and help green up our pastures. It will be the end of May before the grass is tall enough to turn the horses out to graze. In the dry, high-desert climate we have here in the southern Rockies, the new grass is very fragile, and we wait until the short grass has seed heads before any grazing begins. 

In a good year (abundant moisture and deep snowpack), we can only graze the horses for about three months before the grass is overwhelmed. I call it “recreational grazing,” since there’s not enough grass to serve as their sole source of roughage.

Julie grooming Abner with HandsOn GlovesWe are eagerly awaiting shedding season, so we can slough those ratty winter coats and reveal the sleek, shiny dapples underneath. This time of year it appears the horses are starting to shed, but it’s a false alarm because their coats are so dense that as the dead hair falls out (which happens year-round), it seems like a lot of hair. But the real shedding won’t start for some weeks yet and then the hair comes out by the handful. 

That’s what I am waiting for! This is when I truly love my HandsOn Grooming Gloves, and the horses love them too. (We call it, “Gimme Some Glovin’.” My crew and I actually wrote a song about it to the tune of, you guessed it, “Gimme Me Some Lovin’.”😉)

The little squirt, Remington, is not so little anymore—and not so innocent. On April 1st, the Clydesdale colt will be 6 months old, and he is already bigger than my little QH mare, Annie. He’s full of piss and vinegar, loves rough-housing with the older geldings, and can learn bad habits faster than you can say, “No!” But the good news is that he is smart, willing and calm. 

I haven’t been around many draft babies, but I suspect his good attitude is a common trait in the breed. The mare is super kind too, and I can see why people love draft horses so much (unless, perhaps, you are the one paying the feed bill, or on the business end of a scoop shovel!).

Remi and Dodger horsing aroundThis month brought the big “W-Day” for Remi and Big Momma. Weaning a mare and foal can be challenging, but in this case, we made short work of it. For weeks leading up to the cold-turkey weaning, we increasingly separated the mare and colt, turning him out with the other geldings while Big Momma enjoyed eating some particularly nice hay in solitude. They fussed and worried a bit, but as time went on we saw less and less concern. 

Then, in an orchestrated effort, we simultaneously walked Remi out to turnout with his uncles (as normal), while we walked Big Momma right into the ranch’s trailer where her BFF from the ranch was waiting for her, and off they went. Outta sight, outta mind.

Big Momma, aka Joy, was reunited with the herd at the C Lazy U Ranch, where she will resume her career as a trail horse at the premier guest ranch this summer. Meanwhile, back at my ranch, Remi will hang out a little longer. We will focus over the next couple months on getting his lead line manners and handling manners up to par. We will have him gelded, make sure he is fully healed, and give him time to grow up and become independent. Sometime this summer, Remington will return to the C Lazy U for good. They will bond him to some younger geldings before turning him out with the herd of nearly 200 head. Eventually, he will grow up to be one of the favorite riding horses at the ranch, and it will always be fun for me to see him when I visit there.

Meanwhile, our other horses, Annie, Pepperoni and Casper, are all fat, happy and healthy. Now that we can ride outdoors more, we will step up their conditioning in preparation for the upcoming riding season.

While we have not yet made concrete plans for the summer, we hope to enjoy some camping trips with the horses, maybe hit a few clinics, and hopefully Rich will participate in some mounted shooting. The time to plan is now! The summer will be here before we know it, and unless we plan ahead, all our good intentions will remain just that.

What are your summer plans for you and your horse? Venture into new territory? Take some trips with friends? Trail rides? Competition? Clinics? So much to do and so little time! If you’ve got some fun plans in the works, I’d love to hear about them! You can share it on my Horse Goals or Bust Facebook group and help motivate others.

April 2021 Horse Report

Dear Friends,

The horses are starting to shed and the outdoor arena has thawed enough to ride in—surely spring is around the corner! The horses are feeling frisky, and adventurous equestrians are planning new excursions. I’m excited to get back in the arena myself, working directly with you and your horse. In the meantime, I’ve been busy in the virtual world!

The next best thing to doing training demonstrations to a live audience is to be able to share information with thousands of equestrians all over the world with webinars and video chats. I’ve been busy making pre-recorded video presentations for online horse expos, as well as offering live presentations to horse clubs and nonprofit organizations. 

My 2021 clinics at the C Lazy U Ranch are filling quickly, but there are still some openings for the Fall programs. The Ranch Riding Adventure is September 16-20; the Saddle Up! Women’s Leadership program that I co-teach with Barbra Schulte is October 7-11; and the Horsemanship Immersion  clinic is October 21-25. Join us for incredible riding in the mountains, education, networking and adventure!

Soon our snow will be gone, the grass will come back to life, and as the daylight increases, the horses will start shedding in earnest. Armed with my HandsOn Gloves (the best grooming aid ever) and some good old-fashioned elbow grease, their slick summer coats will soon emerge and their dapples will shine. I can’t wait to get rid of the winter fuzz!

Last month, I got my second Covid-19 vaccination and it feels like it’s my ticket to start traveling again! I will proudly wave my vaccine-passport if it gets me where I want to go. I’m glad we have the capability to connect in the digital world, but I miss working directly with people and their horses. I hope to meet you and your horse in an arena near you soon!

At home, I’m looking forward to working with my young, 5-year-old horse, Pepperoni. He’s shown a real strength for the trails, and I cannot wait to get him up in the mountains when the snow melts. I also brought home my new foster horse, Truth Takes Time (or “Truth” as we’ve been calling her) and have just started getting to know her. She’s an 18-year-old, sweet off-the-track Thoroughbred and former broodmare, and I’m looking forward to getting her ready for her third and final career. Get to know Truth in my latest videos on Facebook. There will be a new video or Live every Thursday at 10:00am MT (12:00 pm ET) where my team and I give you the inside look at our training progress as we embark on this journey with this lovely mare.

Secret Powers are Within You!

It should go without saying that training and riding a thousand-pound flight animal is complicated—it’s the only sport I know of that involves inter-species teamwork. Riding is a partnership of two athletes—horse and human—each with their own balance, emotionality, and willfulness. Learning to ride a horse confidently and securely with finesse and poise in all situations can take years, if not decades, to master. 

Aside from heels up and hands too high, looking down is one of the most common errors I see riders make, regardless of their riding discipline or experience level. Riders everywhere tend to focus down on the horse’s neck as they ride—when they are thinking too hard, nervous, concerned about the horse, learning, or concentrating on something new. 

If you think about it, how well you use your eyes is critical in most athletic endeavors, especially those involving balance and movement, like horseback riding. If balance, accuracy, and focus are needed to win the game, your eyes are your secret weapon. 

Learning to keep your eyes level and softly focused on a distant target is critical to your balance, whether you are riding a precise pattern on a horse, executing a floor routine in gymnastics, or riding single-track on a mountain bike. Having a soft, far-off focus when riding helps you stay in balance with the horse and know where you are going.

Turning with Your Eyes

Horses communicate primarily with gestures and postures They are herd animals that react to the focus and emotions of their herd mates—if one horse suddenly turns its head and gazes off in the distance, all the horses will turn their head to look. It’s an instinctive trait of survival.

Handling a horse from the ground, using your eyes and body language appropriately communicates the direction you want the horse to go and your confidence and authority as the leader. Communicating intentionally with your eyes may mean glancing in the direction you want the horse to turn, averting your gaze when you want the horse to come to you, or staring it directly in the eyes if you want to drive the horse forward or establish boundaries.

Sitting atop the horse, with a great deal of connectivity through your seat, legs, and hands, using your eyes deliberately when you want to turn or go straight, sends directional cues to the horse. 

Right now, sit up straight in a chair, with your feet underneath you, equal weight on two seat bones, shoulders over your hips, abs engaged, chin up and eyes level. Imagine a Marionette string at the top of your head, lifting you up, lengthening your spine, centering your weight. This is the balanced position we aim for on the horse. 

Now imagine you have a neck brace and body cast on, and the only way to look to the right is to slowly twist your shoulders and torso. Feel the changes in your body, from your head all the way down to your feet. Just by simply looking in the direction you want to go, the horse receives the correct turning cues from your seat, legs and hands. 

Horses communicate within the herd through glances, gestures, and focus. When riders use their eyes deliberately, consistently and with meaning, the horse learns to rely on the rider’s eyes for communication too.

The Mind, Body, Spirit Connection

Because the mental, physical, and emotional states of our being are interconnected, you cannot have a thought without having a physical reaction. Famously, this is what we mean by “thinking a horse into the canter.” To the sensitive, high-energy horse, the rider merely thinks about the motion, which causes minute changes that the sensitive horse receives as a cue to go.

There is also a connection between your physicality and your emotions. It is not hard to know if a person is sad, angry, or frightened, just by looking at their body language. The reverse works as well! It has been proven by science that when people put themselves in certain confident-looking postures, they feel more confident. Try the Superman pose and see how you feel.

On the contrary, when negative emotions like fear and frustration take root, riders tend to stare down at their hands, shutting down focus. The simple act of looking up and focusing on the environment around you, engages your mind and body in a positive direction and keeps negative emotions in check.

Because horses are so adept at reading body language and adopting the emotions of the animals around them, using your eyes to show confidence and assuredness can have a calming influence on your horse. In the presence of a human that looks confident and in-charge, the horse is less likely to challenge authority. All that starts with your eyes. 

The Enemy 

If consciously using your eyes to communicate direction, confidence, and determination are your super-powers, then looking down at the horse’s neck is the Kryptonite that drags you down. We’ve established that in most sports, what you do with your eyes is important, sometimes critical. But with riding, it not only erodes your communication, confidence, and authority with the horse, it also has negative effects on the horse’s athletic performance.

Horses are naturally heavy on the forehand, yet all their power comes from behind—it’s like a 2-wheel-drive pickup in the snow. When riders focus down at the horse’s neck, it automatically brings their weight forward, weighting the forehand even more. 

To rebalance the horse onto its hindquarters for more power and athleticism (aka collection), the rider must first look up and find the balanced (vertical) position, engage her core, elevate the forehand and drive the hind-end up underneath the horse. Looking down makes all that impossible.

Another negative side-effect of looking down is that the riders gets their shoulders in front of their hips, closing the pelvis joint and losing range-of-motion. This leads to tension in the hips and bouncing on the horse’s back—what we fondly refer to as “butt slapping.” A hollowed back in the rider leads to a raised head and hollowed back in the horse.

Perhaps the most devastating effect on the horse’s performance that looking down causes is a loss of connection between horse and rider. Feeling the horse’s rhythm, centering yourself, finding an effortless balance with the horse, and communicating with finesse, will only happen when the rider’s eyes are up, with a far-off and soft focus.

The Eyes are the Window to Your Soul

Horses are exceptionally keen at reading and understanding the human’s confidence, intention, determination, and authority (or lack thereof). Often it is the person’s eyes that give them away— looking down, lost in thought, their brain shutting down, missing opportunities to connect. This is not the picture of confident leadership.

Around horses, we like to say, “Fake it ‘til you make it,” because even if you feel weak on the inside, you can fool your horse by looking up and displaying strong body language on the outside. These are acting skills that can hugely impact the behavior of a horse and your eyes are the key that unlocks that door.

A simple thing like looking where you are going (a good idea, since you are the one steering), instead of staring down at your hands, makes you feel more confident and indicates your intention. Looking confidently beyond a scary obstacle lets the horse know you are determined and confident to cross it, while staring directly at the scary thing may validate the horse’s fear. 

Honestly, horses are more aware of the riders’ intention and determination than they are. Horses are masters at reading body language and your eyes and focus are dead giveaways. Keeping your eyes up, taking in information in the ever-changing environment and deliberately conveying your intention with your eyes will unleash your secret powers and propel your horsemanship to new heights.

February 2021 Horse Report

Here in the high mountains of Colorado, we’re still in our deepest part of winter, with sub-zero temperatures and blowing snow. It’s the time of year when we go into a holding pattern with our horses, hoping there are enough warm days to ride and simply maintain their training and conditioning. 

Riding indoors gets boring and monotonous for horses (and riders), so we try to mix it up a little and avoid drilling the horses repetitively. The middle of winter is the time of year we start laying out our training goals for each horse, and start planning the clinics, competitions and camping trips we want to go to this summer.

My youngest horse, Pepperoni, now 5 years old, has matured into a steady horse and a fun ride. He’s always willing and game for any crazy thing I ask him to do, but he does tend to think he’s smarter than me. Annie, my older mare, is my go-to, finished horse, and lately I’ve been doing some bareback and bridleless riding with her. She loves that, and I do too. She’s my little red Ferrari, and super fun to take for a spin every now and then (although I mostly ride Pepper).

We’ve also been having a lot of fun with our temporary resident, Remington. He’s a 4-month-old Clydesdale colt who was evacuated (along with his mother) from the wildfires last fall, only a few weeks after he was born (surprise birth). Learn more about the fires, how they affected my beloved C Lazy U Ranch and how Remi came to live at my ranch for the winter.

Technically the big, rambunctious colt is a yearling now—even though he’s not quite old enough to wean. He skipped the weanling-sized halter and went straight to yearling size when he was born, and at 3 months old, he graduated to a regular horse-sized rope halter. He’s learning his halter manners and how to get along with the older horses in the herd. We’ve enjoyed having him around—it’s fun to watch him grow and learn how to negotiate his world.

I’m looking forward to resuming my travels later this month with a trip to the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson AZ, for a private clinic. We taped the TV show at the White Stallion for about 7 years in a row, so it may be familiar to many of you. Indeed, a lot of people think I’m from Arizona because we recorded there so often. It’s been a few years, and I’m excited to go back this month to soak in some warm weather and ride in the incredible desert landscape!

Speaking of world renowned guest ranches, I have four retreats planned in 2021 at the C Lazy U Ranch, in Granby, Colorado. I can’t wait to celebrate their new “Vision 2121,” to reimagine their next hundred years as a guest ranch. In May, we have the Women’s Riding & Wholeness Retreat, that I co-teach with Barbra Schulte—it’s restorative, confidence-building and indulgent. In September, I have the popular Ranch Riding Adventure—a fabulous riding vacation for any ability level.

I’m offering two brand new programs at the C Lazy U in October. First, it’s the Saddle Up! Women’s Leadership Retreat, which offers professional development for female executives and business leaders. Co-taught with Barbra Schulte, our focus is on leadership lessons learned from the back of a horse. Open to businesswomen from any industry, this retreat offers unique and innovative perspectives about leadership, but does not require any horse experience.

Also in October, the Horsemanship Immersion program, based on numerous requests, is designed to offer a horsemanship-intensive program for insatiable learners that love horses. With a laboratory of 200 horses and dozens of hands-on workshops, we’ll study all aspects of horsemanship over five power-packed days, from riding skills to groundwork, behavior and training to bits and saddle fit, plus health, nutrition and first aid. You’ll enjoy trail rides in the mountains on steady trail horses, and the fine dining and luxurious accommodations the ranch has to offer.

With the cancellation of all the big events, I have more time in my schedule for horsemanship clinics this year too! I am eager to start working face-to-face with you and your horse again. Horsemanship clinics are perfect for staying COVID-cautious, since horses are excellent tools for enforcing social distancing.

As winter winds down, and the “new normal” emerges, I expect to have more confirmed clinic locations around the country. If you’re interested in hosting a clinic, please let us know. I’ll come to your facility and conduct a clinic for one or more people. It could be just for you and your friends, or it could be open to the public. Together, we’ll design a program that works for you. For more information go to

Canter Hacks, Part 2: Canter Hacks for Advanced Horses & Riders

Julie cantering palomino horse
Julie cantering palomino horse

Last month, I wrote about some of the most common canter problems I see in less-experienced riders and green horses, gave some quick fixes, and shared a few horsemanship secrets. For this article, I’ll address some of the most common cantering problems for more experienced riders, in terms of controlling and collecting the canter.

The natural gaits of the horse are walk, trot and gallop. The canter is a slow, collected gallop, developed over time, through training. Rarely do you look out into a pen full of horses and see them making slow bendy circles at the canter. Instead, they prefer to run full speed straight ahead, then drop their shoulder, wheel around, and take off in the other direction. Balancing the rider enough to canter slowly and make bending turns at the canter are skills that come with time and training.

Canter and lope mean the same thing. Canter is the more traditional term and lope is a slang term used in Western riding, derived from the Spanish word galope. Whether you ride English or Western, learning to sit the canter smoothly, and control the horse’s direction and speed is a goal of most riders—even though it can be a  challenging gait to ride.

There are very few true quick fixes when it comes to training horses—mostly horses progress with time and consistency. However, there are many quick fixes for rider-error and often once the rider is corrected, the horse has instant and dramatic improvement. The following are common performance problems at the canter—mostly rider-induced—and the solutions I would employ.

It’s unlikely a horse would have all these problems at one time, but it’s likely that all horses went through these stages at some point in their training. If the goal is to refine the communication and control at the canter, there are likely to be some solutions here that will help.

Dropped Shoulder

Julie’s horse, Pepper (when he was still learning his ABC’s), dropping his shoulder and diving into a turn. Julie keeps herself upright to correct and teach him to lift his shoulder in the turn instead.
When horses are ridden, the goal is for them to do upright, bending turns, arcing their bodies laterally, bending nose toward hip. But that’s not how horses do it naturally—they prefer to lean in and wheel around the turn, then run the other direction. For that reason, and a few others, horses tend to lean into the turn, especially at the canter.

Always remember this important truth: the horse does in its body whatever the rider does in their body. In most instances of the horse dropping its shoulder, the rider is doing the same thing—leaning into the turn. Therefore, the #1 hack for a horse dropping its shoulder in the turn is for the rider to sit up, elevate their own shoulder, and weight the outside seat bone.

If that doesn’t fix it, here’s something else to try. When I ask the horse to canter in an arena and he drops his shoulder, leaning in toward the middle, my next best hack is to simply drive the horse more forward on the circle as he leans into the middle, until he can’t really lean-in anymore, so he must pick his shoulders up and go straight. Then, and only then, will I let him come out of the circle and rest. Next time, he’ll think ahead and pick his shoulders up to avoid the exertion. Once the horse learns that there is only one way out of the circle, he employs it immediately.

This training exercise requires advanced riding skills—the rider needs good balance and a lot of drive to keep the horse going. I find this exercise quite useful because aside from teaching the horse not to drop the shoulder, I’m also working on controlling direction, bending, collection and sustaining the gait.

Trots Fast Before Canter

If the horse goes into a ground-pounding roadster trot when you cue him to canter (instead of stepping promptly and smoothly from walk or slow trot into the canter), it is probably a cueing problem and the horse is unable to distinguish the trot cue from the canter cue. The horse thinks the cue from the rider means “go faster,” and because the rider indeed goes along with it—riding faster and faster—the horse thinks he is doing the right thing.

It’s important that the cue to trot is distinctly different from the cue to canter, and that when the horse gives the wrong response, the rider doesn’t just go along with it. Again, this is rider error—not a problem with the horse. Riders should be able to voice the difference between their trot and canter cues. If they can’t, it’s unlikely the horse understands the cues either.

Cues should always involve a sequence—do this, then that, then this. Horses learn best this way, and they are more prepared for what the rider is asking. For me, the sequence of the canter cue is outside leg, slight lift of the inside rein (lifting my inside shoulder and weighting the outside), then give a kiss (as an audible cue), and push with my seat in the canter motion (like pushing a swing). If cueing more clearly is a goal, check out volume two in my riding videos, Communication & Control.

Once the rider’s error is fixed, it’s time to retrain the horse to respond differently and properly to the cue. My hack for the horse that trots fast when you ask him to canter, is to immediately say, “No.” Gather up the reins, sit back, and bring the horse promptly back to the slow trot, then immediately cue again to canter. If he trots fast again, I immediately say, “No. Now try that again…” with my aids. I will continue to disallow the fast trot but ask again immediately, keeping the pressure on. This will cause the horse to start looking for another response to the cue. Once he canters, the pressure is gone.

Bucks at Departure

Riders should know and understand the difference between a crow-hop (rounding the back and hopping straight up off all four feet) and bucking (kicking out with the hind legs). Some horses are known to be “cold-backed,” and will often crow hop when first cantered, but usually they warm out of it quickly and then canter nicely. It is not a training issue and could be an indication that the horse needs a chiropractic adjustment.

Keep in mind that bucking or crow-hopping at the canter can often be the result of physical pain and/or poor saddle fit—particularly if the horse starts bucking after the canter departure and not as a result of the departure. Always rule out physical problems before addressing training—talk to an equine veterinarian. Find out more about saddle fit at

Sometimes horses will crow-hop or threaten to buck because they do not want to canter. It’s a refusal to move forward, and the buck threat usually causes the rider to slam on the brakes. So, the horse threatens to buck, causing the rider to stop, and thus, the horse is rewarded for its behavior. Stopping the horse that bucks when it does not want to canter reinforces the behavior and gives the horse everything he wants.

When a horse is bucking or crow-hopping in a refusal to move forward, the solution is to gently move the horse more forward until it stops threatening, and only stop the horse when it’s moving freely forward with a relaxed back. Yes, it is possible that when I drive the horse more forward, it may buck more. But if the horse is lazy, he’ll give up this learned behavior quickly and follow the path of least resistance.

If the horse is exploding in the canter departure as if he were shot out of a cannon, and throwing a few bucks in the process, chances are good the rider is simply over-cueing. By now, it should not come as a surprise that this is rider error. A forward moving horse needs a minimal cue to canter. For many forward horses, it’s more like you allow them to canter, rather than ask them. Tone your cues down so low that you just think your horse into the canter—no leg cues, just start moving your hips as if you were cantering—and you probably will be. If you subscribe to my online training library, you’ll find one of my favorite episodes of Horse Master, Lost in Transition (Season 2, Episode 12), on this very subject.

Clean Departures

When the rider’s cues are clear, consistent, and easily distinguished from the trot cue, the canter departures are smooth and the horse is always on the lead the rider asked for (not the lead the horse thinks is correct). Clean and smooth departures from the walk or halt require a high level of communication and coordination, and it takes months and years to perfect, not hours and days.

My first hack for clean canter departures is to make sure the horse is prepared for the cue (balanced and attentive), and take the time to set the horse up properly for the correct lead (by displacing the horse’s hips to inside, aka, haunches-in). By consistently taking the time to position the horse for the correct lead before I cue for canter, the horse is already thinking about the canter at the moment I ask for it. Too much preparation and anticipation can amp a horse up, but if it is managed well, the horse’s anticipation works to my advantage in the canter departure.

One of my most popular training videos, Canter with Confidence, explains in detail how to prepare the horse for the canter cue, and how to cue more effectively. This is an A-to-Z video about the canter, starting with cueing and riding the canter, and ending in flying lead changes.

My best hack for improving mediocre departures is doing many, many transitions, particularly trot-canter-trot-canter-trot canter, transitioning to and from the slow, collected trot. With each transition, the canter departure should improve. Hence the old saying, “All of training occurs in transitions.”

Once the horse is making smooth trot-canter transitions, I bring the same principles to the walk to canter transition. If my horse still insists on a few steps of trot, instead of stepping smoothly into canter from walk, I use the tactics I outlined above for the horse that trots faster when asked to canter.

When I have a horse that gets stuck thinking he should trot first before cantering, I may declare one day that from that moment forward, we shall only transition to canter from walk. Each time the horse trots instead of canters, I immediately and firmly bring him back to walk, then instantly re-cue for canter—repeating as many times as necessary until the horse tries something different and steps directly into canter. In this instance, I am giving the horse a clear cue, and he is giving the incorrect response (by trotting). So I say “No. That’s not right—try it again.” Facing that kind of determination from the rider, the horse will figure out the right answer quickly.

Collection at Canter

Collection at the canter is challenging, and it comes much later in the training progression. Before you can work on collection, the horse must be moving freely forward, maintaining impulsion in circles and turns, and never breaking gait. This may take a long time to accomplish in a green horse.

If the horse is resistant to canter and/or tends to break gait, collection will be impossible.  Collection involves containing the horse’s forward motion to rebalance the horse and shift weight to the hind quarters. By driving the horse forward into a resisting hand, the horse rounds his back, lifts at the withers, shifts weight onto the haunches, and comes into collection.

I like to use circling and bending to sneak up on collection at the canter. By allowing the horse to move freely forward in the canter and slowly coming into a wide, arcing circle, the horse will naturally shift weight onto the haunches. Lots of time in arcing circles will lead to a collected canter. Keyword: arcing—with the shoulders lifted and an even arc in the horse’s spine from nose to tail. My training video for riders, Refinement & Collection, offers detailed instruction on how to use your natural aids for complete body control.

Try these hacks for collection the canter. First, I drive the horse more forward at the canter and bring the horse onto a wide circle. Slowly I lift the inside rein, bringing my pinkie in toward the wither, to ask the horse to lift his inside shoulder more. Next, I apply a soft contact to the outside rein, opening my arm a little to ask the horse to round-up. At the same time I add more inside leg, driving the horse into my outside hand. It sounds more complicated than it really is.

My inside leg is the gas pedal that keeps the horse moving forward and prevents it from falling in. I use my reins with alternating pressure, right-left-right-left, squeezing the rein as the horse’s shoulder comes back. I never use pressure on two reins at the same time because that causes the horse to be stiff and resistant.

When I feel the horse’s weight shift onto his haunches and his stride gets shorter and higher, I know the horse is coming into collection. I always keep in mind that collection is exceedingly difficult for the horse, and the muscles will have to be conditioned in a collected frame before the horse can sustain it very long. If I always release the horse while it feels light and responsive, it learns to work harder for the release.

At the End of the Day…

There’s no cap on improving the canter. As the horse progresses in its training, and more control is gained, work begins on more challenging maneuvers like lead changes and lateral movements. As the rider improves, eliminating conflicting signals and riding in better balance with the horse, the horse can perform much better and new skills can be developed. This is a never-ending continuum that starts with beginners and reaches into the highest levels of riding.

If I’ve learned one thing over more than five decades of riding horses, I’ve learned to be patient and work on one thing at a time. Rushing and cutting corners will rarely pay off. Persistence, determination and patience will. I know for myself, and from working with thousands of riders through the years, that almost all so-called “horse problems” are actually stemming from rider error—so the first place to look for improvement is always within.

A rider can spend a lifetime working to master the canter, and still not get there. But the joy is in always reaching for a higher level and the constant challenge to improve. There’s no such thing as a perfect rider, but that doesn’t mean I will stop trying.

February 2021 Letter from Julie

Julie with clydesdale colt
Julie with clydesdale colt

Dear friends,

Although the “new” has worn off this year now, as the days get longer and the nights warmer, I am beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. It’s starting to look like the pandemic may ease up substantially by summer and because horses are the ultimate defenders of social distancing, perhaps we’ll be getting back to clinics, expos and horse shows soon. I can’t wait!

I’ve got four riding retreats at the C Lazy U Ranch this year. At the end of April, we have the Women’s Wholeness & Riding Retreat in April, which I co-teach with Barbra Schulte. In the fall, we have the Ranch Riding Adventure, which is for gung-ho riders and includes clinics with me, trail obstacles, cattle sorting and trail riding. Plus I have two brand new programs that I am super excited about! The Saddle Up! Women’s Leadership Program, for professional women, managers and directors, entrepreneurs and business owners. It’s co-taught with Barbra Schulte and the focus is on “leadership skills learned from the back of a horse.” I’ll also offer the Horsemanship Immersion program, designed for insatiable learners of all ability levels, who want to intensively study horse behavior and training, health and first aid, groundwork, plus improving equitation skills.

With some of the horse expos still on hold, I’m focusing more on planning smaller horsemanship clinics. We’ve got clinics in-the-works in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but holding off on setting dates until the picture becomes more clear. If you are interested in hosting a private clinic in your area, please let me know and we can work together to make it happen.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we’ve enjoyed watching the Clydesdale colt, Remington, grow up before our very eyes. He’s learning his leading manners now, with very short training sessions twice a day as we lead him to and from turnout. Remi and Big Momma are turned out with the herd every day now and he continues to learn his herd manners form the older horses. Although relegated to riding indoors now, we work the riding horses every day, but it gets monotonous for horses and riders. We like to mix things up a lot, to reduce the tedium, by setting up patterns with cones and poles, dragging logs, playing follow-the-leader, or working without the bridle.

I’m eagerly awaiting my turn at the covid-19 vaccine and as soon as I am eligible, I’ll be in line! I think it’s the key to getting back to business (along with other smart precautions). I can’t wait to resume my business travel and I look forward to being face-to-face with you and your horses again soon. But for now, we can continue to connect online and through social media.

Until we meet again, enjoy the ride!


January 2021 Horse Report

Remi and Momma Joy turned out in the arena.
Remi and Momma Joy turned out in the arena.

Winter is long and hard, here in the high mountains of Colorado and although the days are getting longer now, subzero temperatures, wind and ice, make riding outdoors a challenge. Thankfully, our indoor arena has passive solar heating and is comfortable for both horses and riders to hangout. We usually bring the horses in from their turnout in the early afternoon and they spend a couple hours with us—fortunately they enjoy their pampering, petting and praising enough that they don’t mind the workout. On most days, all the horses are saddled and ridden (except the geriatrics), and any horses left at the barn are not happy—preferring instead to come inside to stand on the wall and wait.

If the weather is reasonable outside, we may take a trip around our “virtual trail course” (I don’t know why we call it that since it is a real trail course that Rich built out in the pasture), but this time of year we are relegated to walk-only because of the footing outside. Going round and round in the indoor arena is a little boring for everyone, horses and riders, but we try to mix it up a little by dragging logs, playing with ground poles, or working on the cutting machine. Some days we play follow the leader (to teach the horses to rate speed and maintain a certain distance) or work on riding without the bridle. By the time the ground thaws in the spring, I can assure you, we will all be ready to ride outside!

Our temporary residents, the Clyde Family, are doing great, and the handsome and thoughtful colt, Remington, continues to grow like a weed. Right now, he is a week shy of 4 months old and is already wearing a regular horse-size halter. We don’t know much about Remington’s sire, since no one even knew the mare was pregnant until just a few weeks before she foaled in October, but the mare came from a Clydesdale farm and one look at the colt—size, shape and color—makes you think he’s all Clyde. At the rate he’s growing, he could be a wheel horse.

Joy, aka Big Momma, is a giant and gentle Clydesdale mare, who was acquired by the C Lazy U Ranch in March 2020 (a month that will forever go down in infamy) as an addition to their remuda of riding horses. She’s sweet and well-trained to both ride and drive. We don’t know much about her past, but I’m guessing this is not her first foal. She’s an awesome mom—protective enough, but never frantic. She puts up with a lot of Remi’s shenanigans, but isn’t afraid to discipline him when needed—which is good, because he is a rambunctious colt! Remi was born on October 1, 2020, shortly before one of my clinics at the Ranch. When he was three weeks old, the entire herd of 200 horses were evacuated from the ranch because of wildfires. The following week they were evacuated again as the massive fires swept through the valley.

Obviously taking care of a mare and a newborn foal was the last thing the C Lazy U wranglers had time for, as they dealt with 200 horses in temporary accommodations, so Remi and his mother came to live with us for the winter—making this his fourth home in just four weeks of life. Thankfully, the C Lazy U Ranch was largely spared in the fires, and they are set to reopen in the spring. I have four clinics scheduled at the ranch this year—two of them brand new programs—and I cannot wait to return!

We have not exactly been “training” Remi but he gets handled every day and learns by doing. He’s learned to greet you politely at the gate and wait patiently for his halter, to walk more or less beside you without crowding, and to keep his mouth to himself (most of the time). Rather than trying to actively train such a young horse, we focus more on letting him figure things out in his own time (like to stand and wait for the halter to go on and off) and not letting him develop bad habits (like putting his mouth on your, crowding your space or leaning into you—one day he will be a 1600# draft horse!). There’s plenty of time for ground-training, since it’s going to be a few years before he’s ridden. I am not an advocate of over-training or over-handling young foals.

Remi is bold and smart and he needs to learn the kind of manners best taught by other horses. In the past couple of weeks, we gradually introduced Joy and Remington to our entire herd of six geldings and one mare, with little to no fireworks. Remi needs to be socialized because once he returns to his home ranch, he’ll be running with hundreds of horses. In our herd, Rich’s gelding Casper is the most interested in playing with Remi, like a cool uncle that loves to wrestle and play catch and never grows tired. Dodger, the cranky old Sheriff in our herd, keeps an eagle eye on Remi and lays down the law or referees the sparring as needed. When Joy gets uncomfortable with the party, she lays her ears back, bars her teeth and charges through the group like a bowling ball, scattering the horses to every corner.

It’s been fun to watch this colt grow up and learn to navigate his world—he’s been a constant source of laughter in our lives, at a time when we needed to laugh! One day, when he’s much older, he’ll be a treasured saddle horse at the CLU, but for now he’s enjoying the good life. As he approaches weaning, we’ll start working a little harder on his ground training, so that he leads well and loads in a trailer. We’ll be sad to see him load up and go home in a few months, but for years to come when I go up to C Lazy U for my clinics I’ll be able to keep tabs on his progress and follow his training throughout his career.

Be sure to check out my Facebook page and YouTube channel if you want to track Remi’s progress. I hope the days are getting lighter for you too, and that you and your family (2-legged and 4) are healthy and happy. I am looking forward to traveling to clinics this year in the hopes that our paths will cross soon, and that I can get to know you and your horse and help guide you on your journey.

Until then, enjoy the ride!

Julie Goodnight (signature)

January 2021 Letter from Julie

Dear friends,

Rich and I spent the holidays alone and together. For Christmas, we enjoyed a few unseasonably warm days at the lake, boating, in almost complete and utter solitude. As it turns out, ice on the water and 40+ mile-per-hour winds is enough to keep most people away from water sports. But for us, it was relaxing, peaceful and blissful. New Years eve is normally uneventful for us, and this year was no exception. To say I am an early-to-bed-early-to-rise person is a gross understatement. Usually we go skiing on NYE, then catch the ski area fireworks right after sundown, then go home to catch dinner and a movie. This year the fireworks were cancelled, so we just skipped straight to dinner, movie and in bed by nine (IBBN is a motto I live by).

I’m still formulating my new year’s resolutions for 2021, how about you? It’s hard to predict just how the year will unfold and I am trying to find the right mindset about it. I’m pleased with how well I did last year in fulfilling my NY’s resolutions. I completed all my over-due, routine medical exams and tests (gotta love the tele-medicine), including mammogram and colonoscopy (if only this could be virtual), and I am happy to say I am healthy as a horse. I was also resolute about severely reducing the amount of copy paper and printing that my business and I consumed. On top of that, I managed to clean out and reorganize my cupboards and pantry—long past due! The latter resolution no doubt attributable to the covid-stay-at-home situation (there’s a silver lining to every pandemic). Cleaning out my tack room is next on the list!

I’m a big fan of making and keeping resolutions, but the key is in making the right ones. I look for things that will make me a better person, things I really want to get done and things that are fun, easy, or satisfying to strive for. Some might argue that it’s cheating, like putting something on your to-do list that you already did, then crossing it off. Okay, I admit it, sometimes I do that too, but only because I savor the moment of accomplishment. New Year’s resolutions can be the same way.

If your NY’s resolutions include items like riding more, doing more groundwork, or improving your horsemanship skills, take a look at my online training program—Goodnight Interactive Academy. It could be your key to accomplishment with your horse this year. If you are committed to learning and enjoy structured assignments, hands-on exercises, and multi-media study resources, this program is for you. Plus it comes with personalized and unlimited coaching from me. Together, we’ll make sure you reach your horsemanship goals!

I’m optimistic about 2021 and the promise it brings. I eagerly await my turn to take the covid-19 vaccine and I am confidant that in a few short months, this pandemic will be in our rear view mirror, like Hindsight is 2020! I’m excited to get back on the road, getting face-to-face with you and your horses again, and helping you mark a few to-do items off your horsemanship list. I have four vacation clinics planned this year at the C Lazy U Ranch, here in Colorado, and we are booking clinics now, at private facilities around the country. Please contact me if you are interested in hosting a Goodnight Horsemanship clinic at your facility.

Wishing you all a healthy, happy, and prosperous new year!

Enjoy the ride,

Julie Goodnight (signature)

Conquer the Canter | Part 1 of 2

Julie cantering a warmblood in an arena.
Julie cantering a warmblood in an arena.

Five Canter Hacks for Green Horses and Green Riders

The natural gaits of the horse are walk, trot and gallop. The canter is a slow, collected gallop, developed over time, through training. Rarely do you look out into a pen full of horses and see them making slow bendy circles at the canter. Instead, they prefer to run full speed straight ahead, then drop their shoulder, wheel around, and take of in the other direction. Balancing the rider enough to canter slowly and arc turns at the canter, comes with time and training.

Canter and lope mean the same thing. Canter is the more traditional term and lope is a slang term used in Western riding, derived from the Spanish word gallope. Whether you ride English or Western, learning to sit the canter smoothly and control the horse’s direction and speed is a goal of most riders, even though it is a gait that can be intimidating to ride.

Whether you’re just starting out and learning to ride the canter for the first time, an experienced rider dealing with a loss of confidence, or an advanced rider training a green horse, these hacks are for you! I’ll discuss some of the most common canter problems I see in less-experienced riders and green horses, I’ll give you some quick fixes, and I’ll share some horsemanship secrets that you may not know. It’s not likely that you’ll need all these hacks, but it is likely that at least one of them will help propel you and your horse to a higher level.

#1 Confidence to Canter

There’s an old saying in horsemanship (thousands of years old, in fact) that says, “The best way to improve canter is to improve the trot.” This simply means that if you wait to canter until you have truly mastered the trot, cantering will be easy. The trot is actually a harder gait to ride, with a lot of vertical motion that tends to throw you up and out of the saddle.

There is a lot to accomplish at the trot: you can ride it sitting, posting, and standing; none of which are easy. You can ride a working trot, collected trot, extended trot. You can ride changes of direction, circles, serpentines and execute many maneuvers at the trot. I encourage riders not to get in a big hurry to canter. It will be much easier when you’ve mastered the trot.

When riders approach the canter with trepidation, the horse will read the reluctance of the rider and be reluctant to canter himself. Most horses have learned the hard way that when a rider is reluctant, they usually get hit in the mouth in the canter departure. He doesn’t want to canter anyway, so if the rider is not committed, the horse will not be either.

It’s best to wait to tackle the canter until you’re ready to commit and you want it! Work on your skills and confidence at slower gaits. I offer a short course on developing confidence, which may help you address your fears, so that you come to cantering with the right mindset.

#2 Sitting the Canter

If you’re just learning to canter, it’s hard to know what to teach you first—how to get the horse into the canter or how to ride the gait when he does canter. It’s an awkward stage! I prefer to set the student’s horse up to canter in the easiest way possible so that the rider can focus on sitting the gait first.

To sit the canter smoothly, your hips make a circle—forward and down, up and back, like they do when you push a swing to go higher. There’s a moment in the stride, when the horse goes into complete suspension (all four feet are off the ground), when your shoulders go behind your hips—if you are sitting back far enough.

The biggest mistake I see in riders learning to canter is that they sit too far forward and the lift in the horse’s back throws them up and out of the saddle in a posting motion. Therefore, I encourage riders learning to sit the canter to lean back, with your shoulders slightly behind your hips. But make sure you reach forward with your hands as he starts, so you don’t accidentally hit him in the mouth when he departs.

One of the easiest ways to learn to canter is out on the trail, with steady horses in front of and behind you, on a flat sandy surface. With good communication and more experienced riders supporting you, it will be easy to get the horse into the canter and you can focus on the feel of it without having to steer.

My number one selling training video is Canter with Confidence, and it can be especially useful in learning to ride the canter smoothly and it thoroughly covers how to cue the horse for canter and how to get the correct lead.

#3 Controlling Direction

Riding straight lines at the canter is far easier than riding turns. In the arena, horses tend to drop their shoulders, cut corners, and lean into the middle. It’s what horses do, and these natural tendencies are often exacerbated by the rider.

Often, when a rider is learning to control the horse at the canter, the horse breaks gait as soon as a turn is attempted. The rider leans into the turn, throwing the horse off balance and into the middle, then the rider pulls back on the rein to turn, instead of opening the rein to the side. The backward pull equals opposition to forward movement and causes the horse to break gait. In this common scenario, the rider’s errors are causing the horse to canter fast and out of balance, and rider error trains the horse to break gait.

Set up a cantering scenario where you can canter a long straight line at first, then come back to a controlled trot before you make a turn. Once you can ride the straight lines and upward and downward transitions well, then think about tackling turns. But first, you must conquer the straight line on the long wall, with balanced upward and downward transitions. Your next goal in the arena for controlling the canter is being able to canter around the short side and past the gate, without breaking gait; then all the way around the arena.

Be aware! There’s a fine line between a rider learning to control the canter and a trained horse being disobedient. If the horse is refusing, shutting down, diving into the middle, or slamming on the brakes at the gate, you may be dealing with disobedience. If so, go back to walk and trot and regain your authority. Address the disobedience before coming.

back to the canter, but keep in mind this kind of disobedience is often a result of a horse’s frustrations over the rider’s mistakes and may lead to worse behavior is the mistakes of the rider are not addressed.

#4 Controlling Speed

Green horses cannot canter slowly—that is a skill that is learned over time. Young horses will usually need to carry a little speed because sometimes balance requires speed. Some horses are more talented in this area than others. In my experience, people often complain about their horses going too fast at the canter when the horse is actually moving well. If the horse is green, you may have to accept a little speed.

One thing I know for sure, you cannot control speed by pulling on the reins. Pulling on two reins to make the horse go slower at the canter will almost always result in the horse going faster and “running throughout the bridle.” This is a ridiculously hard concept to comprehend for novice riders, but often the horse will slow down when you loosen the reins.

For me, the two most effective means for slowing the canter is first to put the horse on a wide arcing circle. Lift slightly up and in with your inside rein and energize and lengthen your inside leg, so the horse lifts his inside shoulder and tips his nose into the circle. Gradually bring the horse onto a smaller circle, with a lot of bend in the horse’s body—which will physically cause him to slow down. As soon as you feel the horse gear down, release him from the circle on a loose rein. Gradually, through circling and bending, the horse develops better balance and coordination and learns that going slower is easier and gets him what he wants.

Another useful hack to slow down the canter is with trot-canter-trot-canter transitions. Start by just cantering 3-4 strides, then coming back to a slow, collected trot. After many repetitions of that, start going 5-6 strides, then 6-8 strides, always coming back to a slow collected trot. Soon the horse begins to anticipate the downward transition, so he prepares by going slower. This is a classic example of “replacement training,” a highly effective means of training horses, where you replace one thought or behavior with another. Soon, every time he speeds up, he will think about slowing down.

These training lessons are also a part of my online training course, Goodnight Academy, which offers a complete curriculum of groundwork, equitation lessons and horse training, and personalized coaching from me.

#5 Breaks Gait

Which brings us to another common problem, mostly caused by the rider—breaking gait. It’s a cardinal disobedience for the riding horse and it may Illuminate a hole in the horse’s fundamental training, a lack of authority from the rider, or gross errors of the rider that impede the horse’s ability to continue the canter. The latter is often the cause of the aforementioned frustration in the horse (see #3).

If the horse also breaks gait at the trot and walk, the horse is lacking basic training, or the rider has no authority, or both. For thousands of years, we’ve known that forward motion is the basis of all training in the horse; without it, the horse cannot be trained. A properly trained and obedient riding horse continues at the speed set by the rider, until the rider cues the horse to speed up, slow down or stop. If the shoe fits, go back to basics and come back to the canter once it’s resolved at the walk and trot.

Horse often learn to break gait simply because the rider allows and condones it. Most horses don’t want to keep cantering circles with a rider on their back. If the horse breaks into trot, most riders politely re-cue the horse to canter, as if breaking gait was not a problem. But the disobedience continues indefinitely because the horse benefits from breaking gait (rest) and pays no penalty. Re-cueing to canter, without admonishment or ramifications, tells the horse that you condone his breaking gait.

If the horse breaks gait at the canter, give him a good scolding, with your voice and other aids, to let him know you disapprove. Then put him immediately back to canter and make him work harder for a 10-20 strides. If you feel the horse starting to falter in his stride, drive him forward into a hand gallop and only let him stop and rest when you feel him moving freely forward. If you only stop the horse when he is moving forward willingly, he’ll stop breaking gait.

Don’t Worry, You’ll Get There!

The canter is the most complicated of gaits to learn to ride and it takes time to develop good skills in both the horse and the rider. In a perfect world, people learning to canter would only ride easy, well-trained horses, and untrained horses would only be ridden by high-level, experienced riders, but that’s not always how it goes.

Whether you’re just learning to canter for the first time or you are training a green horse, I hope you found some help with the canter hacks listed here. Tackle your issues one at a time—start with the most basic and work toward the more complex skills. Give it time and practice deliberately. Get help from an instructor or a more experienced rider, so you have some external feedback.

Next month, I’ll give you five more canter hacks for the more experienced horse and rider, working to perfect the canter. We’ll look at how to keep the horse from dropping his shoulder in turns, how to deal with the horse that trots faster instead of stepping smoothly into canter, preventing bucking, perfecting canter departures, and collecting the canter.

Until then, enjoy the ride!

December 2020 Horse Report

Here in the Colorado mountains, we love snow! The more, the better. And it looks like a white Christmas is in the forecast. Our valley is the headwaters of the Arkansas River; our snowmelt sends drinking water to millions downstream. Snow fall impacts our local economy in many ways. We rely on snow and snow melt for our two biggest tourist draws—skiing and whitewater rafting. We rely on snow for irrigation water to grow hay and crops. But on the downside, super-cold temps, snow and ice make horse care a challenge! Without an indoor arena, we might go months without riding. In the midst of our winter wonderland, it’s easy to imagine that it’s full-on winter everywhere, although I know many of you are enjoying perfect riding weather this time of year. What is your most challenging season for horse care?

Our horses are all fat and happy. With another year of growth and maturity, my youngest horse, Pepperoni, is leaving behind his childish ways and adopting more adult attitudes. It’s an interesting and always welcomed stage, when a “colt” becomes a “horse.” It’s not a clear line or a definitive moment, but a gradual feeling that comes over you. By the latter part of this year, I would say Pepper crossed that line. These days, he’s all business when we ride, with less playfulness and more of a let’s-get-to-it attitude. If I go a week or two without riding him, he works the same as if I had ridden yesterday—gone are the exuberant, fresh-horse rides. Pepper is a fun horse with a happy outlook, a courageous and curious attitude, and an incredible sense of awareness. He’s never surprised or startled, because he always saw it coming. He’s not hyper-alert; but he is very consciously present at all times. Although he is a red-head, with a bit of a temper if pushed, and he does not tolerate the mistakes of the rider well. But with a generous spirit, he’s always happy to point out my mistakes and he keeps me on my toes, so I like that.

My sweet little mare, Annie, is my most under-appreciated horse. I don’t ride her as often as Pepper, but when I do, I’m reminded what a great ride she is! This time of year, we always go through the mental gymnastics to recall what age our horses will turn in January. Each year represents a different stage of life for the horse, which is why we don’t use the actual birthdate of horses to describe their age and instead go by the year. On January 1st, horses all celebrate a birthday and Annie will be 14! My how times flies. She’s a beautiful little mare, well-trained and sporty, like driving a Porsche. Lately I’ve been thinking about breeding her. My goal would be to have a colt just her size (14.0) and athleticism, but with my luck, I’d end up with a 15 hand mare. That’s the problem with breeding—it’s a bit of a crap shoot.

Our temporary residents, The Clyde Family, Joy and Remington, are enjoying their stay on our ranch, while their home ranch, the C Lazy U, rebuilds their horse barn after the destructive wildfire season. Joy is a purebred Clydesdale mare that was acquired by C Lazy U in March 2020 (a month that goes down in infamy), as an addition to their remuda of 200 riding horses. She rides and drives and is a sweet and gentle giant. After a summer of being ridden by the wranglers on the C Lazy U, in September it became obvious that the acquisition of Joy was a two-fer. Remington, apparently also a Clyde, was born on October 1st, unexpected and about six months later than a foal is normally born. On October 14th, the East Troublesome fire started and in a matter of days, fueled by 80-100 mph winds, the fire grew to be Colorado’s second largest and second most destructive wildfire ever. Joy and Remi were evacuated to a safe facility, then a week later, as the fires grew, they needed to be evacuated again. On October 29th, Joy and Remington were evacuated a third time when I brought them to my ranch. Poor Remi had four homes in four weeks of life! I’m happy to report that Joy and Remi have settled in well and they seem quite happy. It’s fun to have a baby to play with, but he is getting big fast! He’s calm and cooperative like his mother and he loves attention! Sometimes I think if I stood in front of his pen long enough, I would actually see him grow. He’s two and a half months old now, starting to eat hay and grain, and learning his manners quite well. Once the hardest part of winter is behind us, the Clydesdales will be repatriated back to the C Lazy U, and in four or five years, Remi will become an awesome addition to the remuda.

As this bizarro year comes to a close, I find myself reflecting less on the months behind me and more on the year in front of me. I know there are still some dark days of winter ahead of us, but the light is coming. I so look forward to the Spring and to traveling again, so I can come to your area and work with you and your horse, in person! Until then, we will continue to connect in the digital space, as we work together on improving horsemanship and becoming the rider and the leader our horses deserve. In the meantime, be safe, be well and celebrate the end of this long, hard year!

Enjoy the ride,


December 2020 Letter from Julie

Dear friends,

I admit I’m happy this year is coming to a close. It’s been a tough one for most of us, and for some of us, it’s been downright devastating. But it’s heartening to see people pulling together to help each other, and to see people stepping up to do the right thing. Always an optimist, I’ve tried to focus on the positive, and I’ve gotten some good practice on that this year! But I see light at the end of the tunnel now, and I am hopeful that sometime in 2021 this derailed freight train will get back on the track.

Even during these dark months of winter, I’m talking to lots of different people around the country about scheduling horsemanship clinics next summer. If we all remain smart and diligent, and do the right thing over the next few months, we’ll get a handle on this virus and slowly discover the new normal. I’m confident the new normal will have me back in the arena, working in the dirt, helping you with your horses. I cannot wait!

Meanwhile, my Interactive Academy members have gotten more active this year and we’ve welcomed lots of new members to the online training program. I enjoy the connections I make with members and their horses, keeping in touch, and seeing them progress through the curriculum and have breakthrough moments. It’s amazing how easy it is to develop personal relationships and how well I get to know your horses—even with oceans in between us (shout out to my Aussie members!). I enjoy this connection now more than ever since I haven’t been teaching clinics lately.

Like most of you, I’m spending the holidays hunkered down at home with my husband and our dogs and horses. We’re gradually falling into a new rhythm of life, and I am reluctantly recalling how to cook full meals. I’ll admit it’s not all bad, because this new lifestyle has given me the opportunity to work on back-burner projects that I thought I’d never get done—like cleaning out my pantry! As much as I miss traveling and connecting with you and your horses, staying home isn’t all that bad (truly spoken by someone who has no small children running around the house).

Stay warm and stay safe over the holidays. Enjoy the simplicity and solitude of smaller celebrations, and embrace the stillness—this too shall pass! Hopefully you have some horses in your life to fall back on for therapy—there’s nothing like cleaning stalls and currying horses to get your blood flowing and help you think straight. It’s been my go-to therapy in tough times for my whole life. 

Most importantly, always have faith in the positive outcome, and join me in thinking and planning for what’s certain to be a better year in 2021!

Enjoy the ride,
Julie Goodnight (signature)

The Making of a Trail Horse, Part 4 (and Other Duties, as Assigned)

Julie's dad on his palomino trail horse, Scout.
Julie's dad on his palomino trail horse, Scout.
Julie’s father riding his horse, Scout.

I remember my father’s last and best trail horse, Scout. He was a big, bold, grade quarter horse, afraid of nothing, with a motor like a freight train.  Aboard Scout, my father climbed all over the mountains surrounding Jackson Hole, Wyoming, usually ponying a string of pack horses. He always said, “Julie, you could ride a well-trained horse over a cliff if you wanted to, because he’ll go anywhere you point him without argument.” He also said Scout would sleep in his bedroom, if only he could figure out how to get him down the hallway.

I was fortunate to climb some of those Wyoming mountains with my dad, horse packing point-to-point in some of the most magnificent terrain in the country. My dad was always up for an adventure—you could count on every outing entailing surprise. There wasn’t much terrain he would shy away from, and Wyoming has a lot of rugged mountains!

But my perspective on great trail horses involves more than the adventures with my father. I first moved to Colorado in 1984, fresh out of college, and promptly landed a job guiding hourly trail rides in the Sangre de Cristo mountains and wrangling dude horses for an outfitter. The Sangres are notoriously steep and wild. It’s not a popular area for riding horses, and I have come to understand why. 

Despite the wild terrain, we took people who had never ridden a horse before all the way up to the tree line. In a way, it was better that way because they were unaware of all the things that could go wrong. “Just lay the reins over the horn, hold on with both hands, and don’t move!” The horses would make it safely across the treacherous scree slope with incredible sure-footedness, as long as the rider stayed out of their way. This is where I formed the strong and everlasting opinion that good dude horses are worth their weight in gold. 

Being a trail guide and wrangler in the high mountains, sometimes leading three pack mules while keeping an eye on the dudes, shaped my perspective of what it takes to make a great lead horse. To me, a great trail horse is also a good lead horse—your partner in safety, in control, and in, well, leadership. It’s the kind of horse that would jump off the cliff for me, if I asked, but that trusts me enough to know I would never ask him to do anything we couldn’t handle together.

Julie on a trail ride with her son, Hunter, and her Morgan mare, Pepsea.

Scout was an exceptional lead horse and pulled my father out of many hairy situations. My old Morgan mare, Pepsea, was too, and I guided trail from her for a couple of decades. She was possibly the best lead horse I’ve ever known. We climbed a lot of mountains together and she was a reliable partner through thick and thin.

I’ve ridden a few other great lead horses over the years—enough to know that my young horse, Pepperoni, has the prerequisites needed, and he may make the cut. Which brings me to the age-old question… is a great horse born or made? Nature vs. Nurture. 

The truth is, it’s difficult to answer that question, because from the moment a horse is born his learning begins. A naturally good-tempered horse can turn sour in the wrong hands, and a horse with a challenging temperament can be shaped into something amazing. But starting with the best raw ingredients, then adding copious amounts of training and experience, you can turn an average-performing horse into a great one.

In previous installments on the making of a trail horse, I’ve written about the qualities of a good trail horse, the manners and ground training it needs, and the foundational under-saddle training that will take him from average to exceptional. Now it’s time to talk about the hard stuff.

To Lead or Not to Lead
To be truly exceptional, I think a trail horse must be willing to accept any position in the lineup—in front, in the middle, or at the end. I think he should always mind his manners and rate his speed, keeping appropriately distanced from the other horses. He should be willing to ride calmly away from the herd any time I ask, and be happy going out alone—just the two of us. He needs to act the same way every day so that I can count on him when the going gets tough. He needs a lot of awareness and presence and some sense of caution, but not be prone to flight.

Being exceptional is not easy or common. It’s a very tall order, and not all horses will pass the test. Even with a lot of natural talent, it still takes training and experience, over months and years—not hours and days—to make a good horse great.

The Right Stuff
It’s not hard to train a horse to follow another horse down a trail. That’s completely natural, and they would probably do it on their own if you turned them loose. Horses naturally stay with the herd and follow the leader.

Horses are instinctively drawn to other horses because they are prey animals, and there is safety in numbers. Taking that theory one step further, imagine you’re a horse traveling with your herd through treacherous terrain in lion country (think Sangre de Cristos). Where would you feel safest? Right in the middle of the herd. It’s the horse in front that gets sucked into bogs or falls in the hole; it’s the horse in the back that gets picked off by the lion. For many horses, being out in front or tailing behind is untenable.

Horses can be very social, but also jealous and competitive animals, prone to seeking higher status in the herd. It takes a brave and confident horse to lead, but those qualities often come with dominant personalities. While many horses don’t want to be out front, some insist on it and throw a wall-eyed fit if you try to ride in the middle or tail-end. To me, the best trail horse is the one that likes being out front, is eager to head down the trail and see what’s around the corner, but is happy to let others lead or bring up the rear.

Flight and investigation are also instinctive behaviors of horses, even though they are opposite qualities. A horse “hits the ground” with its temperament and these qualities can become apparent from the moment it’s born. Some horses will be high in flight and low in curiosity; others low in flight and high in curiosity; while some hit right in the middle. It’s obvious that for a good trail horse, you want the latter. But again, be careful what you wish for, because a very brave, bold horse can also be quite dominant, and may be prone to question your authority.

Energy and sensitivity levels are important qualities inherent in the horse’s temperament, and once again, be careful what you wish for. For myself, I know I need a forward-moving and forward-thinking horse, one that is sensitive to his environment and responds to the lightest cue. But there is a very fine line between that and a horse that spooks at his own shadow and spins and bolts like his hair’s on fire.

To be exceptional, the horse must be my partner in all things—be willing to work as hard as I am, to be as achievement-oriented as I am, and to be game for an adventure together. I believe that a good work ethic can be trained into any horse, no matter how lazy, and that a horse with a natural work ethic can be worthless if poorly handled. 

Beyond his temperament, that exceptional lead horse must also be strong and athletic to get me out of tricky spots and handle the unexpected. But not so tall that I am ducking under every branch or need to carry a step ladder. And since I don’t ask for much, I’d like him to be smooth gaited, so I can ride all day and my saddle bags aren’t flapping.

The best raw ingredients in the temperament of an exceptional trail horse are willingness, bravery, curiosity, adventurous, independent, steady, reliable, energetic, aware, thinking, and game. These ingredients alone won’t make any horse exceptional. Starting with the right stuff helps, but there’s still a lot of training and shaping yet to come.

Education and Experience
Every successful horse trainer knows that some horses are easier to train than others. Some horses are so willing and eager-to-please that shaping their behavior is easy. Others, not so much. I believe strongly that good training and solid, consistent handling can make any horse a great horse. We can always improve a horse through training, though starting with quality ingredients sure helps.

Some of the qualities of an exceptional trail horse are baked into his temperament, but others come from training and handling from a young age, nurturing the horse along slowly, so that he only develops good habits and never learns behaviors that will affect his ability to do his job later. Ground manners, ground skills (like trailer loading and ground tying), finish training under-saddle, work ethic, and the ability to perform in all settings (independently of the herd), are trained into the horse over time.

In part two of this series, I talked at length about manners and ground skills that are important for a good trail horse, but to be an exceptional trail horse there must be more. Over time, with consistency and experience, the exceptional trail horse learns his job and understands his role. He isn’t ground tying because you’ve scolded him in the past for moving, he’s staying put because he knows his job is to stay with you. If you’ll excuse an over-used COVID phrase, the horse knows, “we’re in this together.”

He doesn’t jump down the steep embankment of a creek because you forced him to, but because he sees the horse below in trouble and knows we must help. He doesn’t question when you ride away from the herd, because he knows there must be something important to do ahead. When a horse begins to understand his job, not just giving rote responses, he begins morphing into the exceptional category.

Work ethic is one of the most important qualities to instill in a young horse. It will be much harder to teach when the horse is older. It starts early with groundwork and is one of the very first things a riding horse learns—keep going until I tell you to stop. One of the most fundamental tenets of classical horsemanship (wisdom which dates back 5,000 years), is that forward motion is the basis of all training. Without free and willing forward motion, a horse cannot be trained. No truer words were ever spoken.

When taught early, consistently reinforced, and significantly rewarded (with release, praise and rest), even a horse that is by nature lazy, will develop a strong work ethic.  Some horses have a go-for-it temperament too—game for any adventure, always looking ahead, eager to prove themselves. When you combine this kind of temperament with a good work ethic and solid training, you are well on your way to exceptional.

Behind the Magic Curtain
Horses are extremely fast learning animals who are willing and seek acceptance by nature. Sometimes truly exceptional horses can be made from the most unlikely candidates. You can turn a Scarecrow into Braveheart, by simply shaping their behavior. A subordinate, omega horse can develop into the best lead horse and become a steady partner. 

For instance, all horses are instinctively flighty and fearful, some more than others. But we can systematically teach any horse how to deal with its fear in a different way. By replacing one behavior with another, we can turn fear into curiosity. By praising and rewarding investigative behavior, we can instill bravery. I have written and talked a lot about “de-spooking” horses (if only there really were such a thing); check out my blog and podcast for more information on this training technique.

At the very core of a horse’s behavior, he is drawn to the herd for comfort and safety. No matter what his circumstance, a horse will always seek acceptance into a herd. To me, this is a quality we can shape to our advantage. What a horse gets from the herd is a sense of safety, structure (rules), and leadership (someone to take care of you and tell you what to do). Horses are also comfort-seeking animals and the herd provides them with plenty of that in the form of social engagement, friendship, mutual grooming, napping and frolicking.

When a horse feels alone, he will always seek out a herd. From the first moments of interacting with a horse, young or old, it’s my goal to teach the horse to seek acceptance from my herd. To show him that I will be a strong, but fair, leader, and that I will always watch out for his safety—and never ask him to do something he’s not capable of. He will learn to trust that I will have high expectations of his behavior, but that I will also recognize and reward his efforts. In short order, he is seeking my acceptance and getting the same good feelings from me that he gets from the herd. Ultimately, he is willing to leave his herd and go anywhere with me.

To me, there are few things in life as satisfying as riding a great horse in the wilderness. To have an exceptional trail horse—one that trusts you, is safe, reliable, willing, loyal, and dedicated to the task at hand—is a thrill that few people get to experience. I’ve been fortunate to ride a few great trail horses throughout my career, and I’ve got at least one more in the making.

Not every horse is destined for greatness. Not every great horse was naturally talented to begin with. And every horse has the potential to be great in the right hands. In the end, it takes a lot of hard work, patience, dedication, and determination. But to me—without question—a great trail is made, not born.

November 2020 Horse Report

It was a fitting end to my travel-year, when my last remaining clinic was cancelled, not due to the pandemic, but because of raging wild fires in northern Colorado. This has certainly been a year full of challenges. I’m a big believer in finding the good in every situation and in looking for opportunity in the face of adversity. 2020 has given me a lot of practice at that and proven the value of this positive outlook. Although I did not get to travel as much as I had planned, to work with horses and people around the country, I was fortunate to have new horses come into my life, here at home, so I could continue to learn and grow as a horse trainer and share that journey with all of you, through social media.

I am blessed to have my three personal horses, any one of which I could call a “horse of a lifetime.” Dually, my old man, although fully retired now, still gives me a lot of pleasure, watching him run around the field and remembering the good ole days we had together. I’ll never forget how amazing he was to ride and I am eternally grateful for how much I learned from him. He’s not completely lame and some people might still use him for light riding, but I think he’s earned a full retirement. And anyways, “light riding” is not really in my vocabulary. So he enjoys his days out with the herd, being the cranky old man that bosses everyone around, and being highly possessive of my youngest horse, Pepperoni.

My sweet little mare Annie is perfect in every way, if only she were a gelding. Just kidding! <not really> Seriously, she is an awesome ride, a finished bridle horse, and now she’s my go-to horse for teaching/photographing/demonstrating. Standing every bit of 14.0 hands, she is the PERFECT size for me. Did I ever tell you I grew up schooling naughty hunter ponies? Being small-of-stature is not helpful in many things, but when it comes to training naughty ponies, it’s an advantage! Although Annie can be a bit mare-ish at times, for the most part she is not naughty and is a blast to ride.

My youngest horse, Pepperoni, is the clown in our barn. He’s always friendly, curious and eager to solve puzzles (like how to open the gate or squeeze through an opening in the fence or pull the blanket off the rack). Although he has gotten a lot bigger than I’d hoped, he’s still a wonderful horse to ride and train because he is very smart and so aware of what’s going on around him. He has an uncanny ability to understand the purpose behind the task and he has taught me the importance of showing the horse the purpose of the task you are teaching, whether it is to open a gate from horseback, to track a cow, or to pivot or rollback. More than anything, I love horses that make me laugh and Pepperoni is a true comedian (while Annie has no sense of humor whatsoever).

Doc Gunner is a 4-coming-5 year old gelding that fell into our lives about 6 months ago during the initial shutdown. In a joint effort between the ASPCA, Nexus Equine (both of Oklahoma) and myself, we accepted Doc Gunner for training under-saddle, to prepare him for adoption; we shared his progress on Faceook. As DG’s foster parents, our job was to nurse him back to health, give him the training he needs to be successful, and then find him the perfect human for him. I’m happy to say, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, on all accounts. DG is now a gorgeous, fat, muscular horse that is working beautifully under-saddle at walk-trot-canter. We were successful in finding the absolute PERFECT home for him in southern California. Even as I write this blog, they are on the way to my farm to pick him up. We will all shed a tear when he leaves—he’s an unforgettable horse that has earned a place in all of our hearts. But we take great comfort and pride in having helped him on the way to his forever home.

If you want to know how you can help a hose in need, through a foster program like this, please visit I want to thank everyone who helped us in this mission, from my outstanding vet, Dr. Casey Potter, who aggressively treated this horses as if he were a world champion, and to my generous friends who helped pay his vet bills! Without the help and research from Etalon Diagnostics  we would not have discovered some of the underlying medical conditions that needed treatment and we were able to learn more about his performance potential and his breeding. The generous donation from ReNoVo , the makers of biologic medical treatments for horses, allowed us to utilize this cutting-edge treatment, and the results were truly amazing. It takes a village to help one horse at-risk and I am grateful to all of you, including those of you at home who joined us on all the live posts and cheered Doc Gunner on. But his journey isn’t over yet and you’ll be hearing more from Doc Gunner, once he’s settled in his new home. Congratulations to Bill Lockwood and family for adopting Doc! The Lockwood’s own Lomita Feed Store, in Lomita CA, so be sure to stop by there and ask about Doc! They are well-positioned to take great care of Doc for the rest of his life and they’re honored to have been chosen for this special horse.

The wild fires in October brought a lot of destruction and uncertainty to Colorado, but resulted in us welcoming two new horses into our lives, for the winter. The East Troublesome Fire was a shockingly fast moving fire that engulphed well over 100,000 acres and endangered the C Lazy U Ranch, the beloved 100 year-old guest ranch where I‘ve taught horsemanship for well over a decade. Their remuda of about 200 saddle horses had to be evacuated not once, but a second time, when the fire grew so fast that it threatened the ranch they had been evacuated to. As you might imagine, moving a herd of 200 horses, that normally never travel, is no small undertaking! Many community members hitched up their rigs and lined up to transport. It was amazing! But a dozen or so horses were unable to travel with the herd, because they needed special care, and thus the Clydesdales, Joy and Remington, came to live with us for the winter.

Joy is a lovely Clydesdale mare that was acquired by the ranch as a riding horse, back in March of 2020. She had settled into the herd nicely and was busy learning the trails of the ranch, when late this summer one of the wranglers noticed her stomach moving while she was brushing her. It turned out buying Joy was a twofer!  Although not planned or expected, on October 1st, Remington was born. It’s a very awkward time of year for a horse to be born and when the fires hit, he was only three weeks old and not halter trained. Obviously, they couldn’t be left to run with the herd and required a different level of care, so I volunteered to give them a place to live for the winter, while C Lazy U rebuilds their horse facility. Remi and Joy have brought us a lot of fun and laughter already, and we plan to share their progress with you on Facebook.

You’ll be happy to know that C Lazy U survived the fire with surprisingly little damage. Sadly, many people in the area lost their homes, and our hearts go out to them, but somehow the ranch was spared. Of course, there are repairs and cleaning to do before they reopen and the horse barn has to be rebuilt before the horses can go back to work, but these efforts are well underway already and I look forward to being back at the ranch in the Spring for my clinics. We were able to re-patriate the remuda back to the ranch on November 7th, and once again, an unexpected gift fell into my lap. Rich and I volunteered to help with the move and in less than 24 hours, all 182 horses were loaded into trailers, driven across the continental divide, and re-patriated to the ranch. Never were the horses (and the wranglers) happier to be home! It was fun and satisfying to help my friends (two and four legged) and an awesome experience to load that many individual horses into trailers at one time. I learned a lot but I could barely lift my arms the next day! Still, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. You can’t buy that much experience in loading horses! Most people won’t load that many different horse in their lifetime. Sometimes the best presents come in plain wrappers.

Until next time… Enjoy the Ride!

November 2020 Letter from Julie

Mamma Joy and baby Remi at Julie's ranch.
Mamma Joy and baby Remi at Julie's ranch.

Dear friends,

As this bizarre year comes ever so slowly to a close, there is so much to reflect on. It’s easy to get caught up in the negatives and dwell in the gloom and doom. It’s much harder to live in the moment, have faith in the positive outcomes and look for the good in every situation. This is the creed I try live by, but I’ll admit, it’s been a hard course to steer lately. There are so many life lessons we can learn from horses, not the least of which are to live in the moment and not in the past, to be aware and ready to take action.

As many of you know, Colorado was ravaged with wildfires last month, and we were grateful for the early winter storm at the end of the month that helped dampen the flames. (Two feet of snow was not enough to extinguish the fires, but did bring them somewhat into control.) The C Lazy U Ranch (the 100-year-old guest ranch where I have been doing multiple clinics a year for more than a decade) was impacted by the East Troublesome Fire, which completely surrounded the ranch. Amazingly, the ranch headquarters was largely spared, and plans are already being made to restore the minor damage and reopen in the spring. You can find updates from the ranch about the impacts of the fire here

C Lazy U has a remuda of about 200 saddle horses, and many people say the herd of safe and reliable riding horses is the heart and soul of the ranch. The herd was preemptively evacuated before the fire blew up, and then they were moved again when the fire grew exponentially to a safer location on the front range. As you can imagine, moving nearly 200 horses is no easy feat. But in the spirit of finding a bright spot in the darkness, we had a pleasant surprise come our way in the form of refugees from the fire.

The ranch had an unexpected and unplanned foal born on October 1st from a Clydesdale mare they had recently acquired as a riding horse. October is a very awkward month for a baby horse to be born, especially in the high mountains. Since the colt is too young to run with the currently evacuated herd, we offered our accommodations at Goodnight Training Stables to the mare and foal for the winter. Mamma Joy and Baby Remington (“Remi”) are safe and sound at my ranch now, settling in and getting comfortable in their temporary home. It’s fun to have a youngster around—it’s good to laugh at his silly antics! Once the mare and foal have settled in and  feel more secure, I’ll introduce you to them.

In the midst of so much turmoil and uncertainty, it can be hard to stay positive and find joy. Taking action to help others and witnessing the uncomplicated exuberance of a young foal has given me peace and laughter, and for that I am grateful. November is when we traditionally take time to give thanks and reconnect with family and friends. I’ll admit that the holidays may look different this year, but that does not mean we can’t celebrate, re-connect and find joy. We just have to be creative about it and work a little harder to find the good in every situation.

I am confident that 2021 will be a year of healing and unity, and that we will get the upper hand on the pandemic and come together as a nation. I’m not expecting life to go back to the way it was exactly, but I am expecting to get back to a *new* normal in 2021. One thing that has not changed, and never will, is that there will always be horses that need help with their humans. I look forward to doing clinics next year, not only at the renowned C Lazy U Ranch—which is making plans to serve guests for the next hundred years—but around the country too. I hope to connect with you and your horse soon. In the meantime…

Enjoy the ride,

Julie Goodnight (signature)

The Making of a Trail Horse, Part 3

View from behind horse's ears of treed hills and mountain range.
View from behind horse's ears of treed hills and mountain range.

Foundational Training Under-Saddle

With solid ground-handling skills in place, half the battle of under-saddle training is behind you. As the young horse’s training progresses from ground manners to riding skills, there are certain philosophies that must be consistently applied to its training to make an exceptional trail horse. These skills are important no matter what discipline you choose, but when riding into uncontrolled and un-improved environments with natural hazards, these skills can be the difference between a fun and exciting ride and a total disaster.

Obedience: Fundamental obedience starts from day one of under-saddle training and it means that the horse will go on the exact path dictated by the rider, at the speed chosen by the rider, without argument from the  horse or excessive management by the rider. This is important in all horses and especially in trail horses. I always want to be able to control the path my horse travels on the trail. If I allow him to choose the path, he may ram my knee into a tree trunk or hang me on a low branch.

Work Ethic: While this can be a natural quality in a horse, it will certainly be solidified through consistent training and handling. A good trail horse is forward moving, eager to please, and willing to work. When I ask my horse for effort, I need to see it, but I’m careful not to abuse the power by asking too much. I expect the same work ethic in my horse that I have for myself, but I always recognize his efforts and reward the horse, with rest, for a job well-done.

Rating Speed: Whether I’m leading the horse from the ground, ponying from another horse or riding the trail horse, he needs to rate his speed off of me or off another horse. No hanging back, then trotting up. No outpacing all the other horses. A horse is perfectly capable of maintaining a given speed (without you holding or pushing) and they instinctively rate speed off other horses, so it shouldn’t be hard to train. From the very beginning of a young horse’s training, proper spacing and rating speed needs to be ingrained.

Complete and Total Body Control: Often we hear people say, “he’s just a trail horse,” as if riding in a wild environment with natural hazards isn’t risky. I know the importance of having full body control on my horse, especially on the trail, where tight spots can be scary and a horse that panics and runs will get us both hurt. Being able to control the exact placement of my horse’s nose, shoulders, hip, and feet, no matter how rough the terrain is, will keep me safe and get me out of a lot of trouble. Full body control and lateral movements are not just for show horses.

Ride Alone or In Company: While all horses prefer to be in the company of other horses, I need my horse to trust me enough to go out alone—whether that be for a short jaunt away from the group or going on a long ride alone. There are two important factors here: one is that my horse is not herd-bound and the other is that my horse gets the same level of confidence from me that he gets from the herd. I want him to think of us as a team; we are in it together and reliant on each other. This does not come easily—it requires hard work, leadership, and dedication on your part.

Minds Manners Around Other Horses: I’m extremely strict about my horses’ behavior around other horses. No fraternizing in any way is allowed, when the horse is being handled or ridden. No friendly interactions, no busy-bodies, and certainly no aggression. That’s a basic manner that all horses should be taught from a young age… when you are being handled or ridden, no herd interactions are allowed! Trail horses are often ridden in groups with unknown horses. They may have to be in close proximity to other horses and perhaps even tied on a highline next to a horse they don’t know. Besides, he is at work and on-the-clock when we are trail riding; it’s not social time. This is first and foremost a safety issue that will prevent someone from getting kicked, or worse. If your horse has bad manners, in this regard, it’s a poor reflection on your horsemanship and a liability to the group.

Stands Quietly for Mounting and Dismounting: From day one, we teach horses to stand square, dead-still, and on a loose rein for mounting and dismounting and to never walk off without a cue from the rider. This will come in mighty handy should you find yourself on the side of a steep mountain, getting off and back on because someone dropped their camera. Never walking off or increasing speed without a cue, is important for when you are riding with inconsiderate riders who take off without warning.

Performs the Same Away from Home and in New Environments: The ability to perform skills in new places and in different situations, is something a horse learns over time and through varied experiences. Horses are location-specific in what they learn (they associate their behavior and actions with a place). Learning new skills at home (where the horse is relaxed) happens fast, but it takes months and years of performing those same skills in new locations before the horse is a seasoned pro. As early as possible in the horse’s training, we try to put them in new situations—teach them to investigate and be curious when they are uncertain, and take them on small journeys to increase their exposure and confidence. Horses move through the first two stages of learning fast: acquisition of skills and fluency of skills. But generalizing what he has learned—to be able to perform any time or place, even under duress—takes a lot of time and careful planning to make sure the horse always has confidence-building experiences away from home.

You may have noticed that the manners and skills necessary to make a great trail horse are the same for any good horse—safe, reliable, mannerly, and obedient—makes for a pleasant horse to be around. Even if you will never head into rugged terrain or camp overnight with your horse, developing these qualities in your horse will make him successful in whatever activity you do.

There’s no such thing as “just” a trail horse. A lot of hard work goes into finding the right prospect, developing the skills that will keep you safe on the trail, and establishing a meaningful relationship with the horse. But it is time well-spent when you and your horse need to rely on each other out in the wilderness.

There are so many important traits to develop in the making of a great trail horse. What I’ve talked about here is just the beginning. Next month, I’ll write about the importance of a trail horse accepting any position on the trail line-up—from lead, to middle, to rear, to flank. I’ll discuss whether good lead horses are born or made, and how to train your horse to accept any position and ride calmly away from the herd when asked.