In the past four months, I’ve traveled coast-to-coast for many different horse expos and clinics—just like before-times! It was great to be back on the road again, to meet new people and horses, see lots of familiar faces, and have fun with people as we celebrated our passion for all things horse.
At first, there was a momentary pause on my part (How did I manage all this travel before? Will I remember how to do my presentations? How will my horse perform after two years off the road?), but not to worry! It was just like riding a bicycle. For me, that kind of muscle memory just doesn’t go away.
My little mare, Annie, clearly had the same brief moment of “What the heck am I doing here?” as we headed into a vacuous coliseum for the first-time post-pandemic. My heart swelled with pride when I saw and felt Annie take a deep breath, put her head down and march boldly into the arena with purpose.
She seemed to enjoy the crowd as much as I did. I should’ve never doubted myself—and certainly not Annie—but this is what we humans do. Self-doubt is normal and ever-present (and perhaps reins us in at times). As long as we don’t let self-doubt define us—and armed with the ability to summon your self-confidence and believe in yourself—it doesn’t have to be a problem.
Currently, and for the first time since I can remember, I only have one personal horse. Missing is the young, up-and-coming prospect that I typically have waiting in the wings—keeping me busy planning its development, and being obligated to ride every day.
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As much as I love and appreciate riding a been-there-done-that, finished bridle horse like Annie, what I love most is training young horses and watching them grow and develop. I know my next young prospect will come to me eventually, and I am patient. He may not have even been born yet, but I will know him when I see him.
Until then, I am relishing the ease of only having one horse to contend with and appreciative more than ever of not having to feel guilty that I didn’t ride today. Annie is a horse that can literally go months and years with no riding, and you could step up into the stirrup and have the best ride of your life. Those of you who are fortunate enough to ride a horse like that know exactly what I mean.
The right horse, at the right time, is an amazing thing and should never be taken for granted. Don’t get me wrong, Annie is either ridden or exercised daily, whether I am home or not. She’s never been left to languish in the field.
Annie is a professional performance horse who I rely on regularly for video production, photo shoots, teaching clinics, and giving public performances. She must stay fit, slick, and tuned-up. (I try to do the same, but it’s not as simple and unfortunately nothing someone else can do for me.)
I have a lot invested in my horses, and caring for them as best I can has always been important to me. It’s a simple life-lesson my father taught me, in the contact of horses—if you are going to do it, do it right! I’m certainly not perfect, and I don’t have all the answers, but I will always give it my best.
Summer is upon us now! Annie and I have one more public appearance next month—an educational horse expo for Harmony Equine Center, here in Colorado, then I’ll turn my focus to making new videos and developing more content for my online Academy.
Oh yeah, I plan to have some fun this summer too! I’ve got a brand-new high-performance mountain bike (not planning to break any bones biking this year), and I need to make up for some time I’ve missed on the water, boating and fishing. Good thing I have a horse that doesn’t need riding every day!
Horses are very precocious animals—they are fast learning and their education begins in the first moments of life. Unfortunately, they learn inappropriate things just as quickly as the good stuff, so it is easy to make mistakes that will cause any horse pick up some undesirable (or even dangerous) behaviors along the way.
Sometimes, through no fault of their own, horses have simply missed a proper education and must be patiently taught manners later in life and/or after being mishandled. Good manners aren’t always natural to the horse, at least not in the way us humans define them.
Horses must learn what is expected of them while being handled by humans. Many of the skills we require of well-mannered horses, like ignoring their surroundings to focus on the task at hand and facing and approaching a scary stimulus instead of running from it, come from clear and consistent training and competent handling over time.
So how do you know where to start with your horse? First. you need to do a thorough examination of where your horse is at right now. After you have laid out what your horse does know, you can identify the holes in his training and set reasonable goals from there.
When I work with horses and riders in-person, at a clinic or expo, I can see with my own eyes how the horse acts and responds and how the rider engages the horse, but helping horses and riders I’ve never met is more of a challenge without a lot of information up front that I need to understand where the horses and riders are in their journey.
To bridge the gap, I developed a series of questionnaires for my online coaching students that help me get a full understanding of what level of training it currently has, and where the holes may be. Other questionnaires for new students, similarly, give me an understanding of the rider’s ability and training level, as well as the horse’s conformation and temperament.
See where your horse stands right now and take my “What is Your Horse’s Training Level?” quiz:
Scoring your horse’s current training level gives you a baseline, illuminates training priorities, and helps you develop an effective training plan.
A 70% is a good score, and anything above that is awesome and you should have a huge appreciation for your horse. Don’t fret if your score is below 70%—it simply means you have things to work on with your horse. (Don’t we all?)
First, you must recognize how much of the low score originates with you—either through poor handling or unclear, inconsistent expectations. Sometimes changing your leadership is all the horse needs to become a perfect horse!
Then you must determine where the holes in your horse’s training are and how you can patch them. The training resources in my online Academy will help, and my Interactive Curriculum will give you specific training exercises and educational resources to get you on the right path, with me as your coach. Some of the assignments, like this one, are designed to find (and plug) holes in the horse’s training, while others are designed to refine the horse’s training and develop high-level skills.
If you are starting with raw ingredients—either a youngster or a mature horse that missed out on a proper education, it will take time (weeks and months) to develop these skills and engrain these qualities in your horse. Don’t be overwhelmed! Instead, start forming your expectations and teaching them to your horse today. Set some ground rules.
If your horse is not just missing some education, but has been trained improperly—meaning he has learned wrong things, like he can do or not do whatever he wants—achieving these ideal qualities will take even longer. You can start working toward these ideals today, but be aware that you may need to change your approach. It may be that you need to change your ways—not the horse. Consistency and clarity will help make your job easier.
There’s no such thing as a bad horse or bad behavior. Behavior should not have a value judgment on it—it’s neither bad nor good, it’s just behavior. Horses act like horses, unless they’ve been taught to act differently. Horses reflect their handlers and act solely in ways that are either instinctive or learned. When a horse displays behavior that is undesirable to us, it is either because it’s his natural behavior or he has actually been taught to act that way through poor handling and training (the latter happens a lot more often than one might think).
It’s hard to know where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been—and where you are right now. Completing this assignment should give you a greater understanding of your horse’s training level now, and help you see the path ahead.
The past month brought some rather profound changes around our barn, leaving a giant hole in my heart. First, we said a sad farewell to our faithful old Labrador, Samantha. She was a beautiful girl with a kind and gentle soul, who graced us with her presence for almost 15 years.
Now our house seems rather empty in the wee hours of the morning when I awaken. Coming home from a long and tiring road trip just doesn’t seem the same without a welcoming committee greeting me in the driveway.
Then one morning, while I was away at the horse expo in Michigan, my number one horse Dually, laid down in the favorite napping spot and went to sleep for the last time. As Mark Twain famously said, “It has been my experience that your best horse will just go lay down and die.” Dually was such a great horse—he even died well. My other “great” horse, Pepsea, died the exact same way—in the middle of the morning, when people were around to take care of her.
I knew Dually was not doing well—suffering from a lot of arthritic pain in his old age. We did a lot to support him in his retirement—from pharmaceuticals to farrier—but in the end, his body failed him. It surprised no one that he died while I was out of town, since that seemed to be his pattern.
Dually was a high-maintenance horse—quick to get an ulcer flareup, a finicky eater, the occasional colic, easily depressed. He ruled our barn because, in my mind—and especially in his mind—he was the most important horse there. He very much liked it that way, so even after I officially retired him, he still got the #1 treatment.
Everyone who helps me take care of the horses—Melissa, Hunter, and Rich—all knew that if Dually was going to get puny, it would be when I went out of town. It was a funny coincidence that always left us wondering if he somehow knew I was gone.
Dually (AQHA registered name Dualin Command; with Dual Pep on the topside of his pedigree and Doc O’Lena on the bottom) was an amazing horse, and I am fortunate he came into my life when he was just 6 years old. He had been trained for the cow horse futurity as a 2- to 3-year-old, excelling at the reining and cow work. He went on to become a team roping horse as a 4-5 year old—with enough speed to excel at heading, and the size and power to be a great heeler too.
When I bought him at a performance horse sale in Arizona as a 6-year-old, he was competing in ranch horse events and blowing the doors off the competition. It was love at first sight. I was smitten by Dually’s looks—athletic, built for speed, and a gorgeous (and rare) black chestnut color with a big white face. He was a lot of horse back then—quick to the speed and extremely athletic, with a brilliant mind and a winning attitude.
I learned so much from this horse. One of the most profound lessons was about training horses with a lot of drive on a cow (or a cowy horse, as we like to say). Cowy horses like Dually would rather die than lose a cow, and they can get charg-ey or aggressive in a moment of over-achievement. They will dive for the cow—and consequently end up out of position, losing the advantage point.
An astute old cutting horse trainer taught me that with a horse like Dually, the reward is the cow. The greatest punishment for a cowy horse is to pull him off when he gets out of position, so he loses the cow—a humiliating blow to his ego. Once or twice of that was enough for Dually, and he never let his emotions call the shots again.
Riding a horse like Dually was truly one of the greatest pleasures of my life. For almost 20 years we were a team—one unit really. He definitely knew me better than I knew myself as a rider—he taught me a lot. Our minds were melded together to the point where I could just think about cantering and he was off; just whisper a cue for a maneuver and we’d spin like a top.
He could change jobs in a heartbeat when conditions warranted, always knowing what I was thinking and what the task at hand required. He had a work ethic like no other horse. He would follow me into the craziest situations with an amazing amount of bravery and presence—whether it be walking down the middle of a frenetic trade show aisle at a horse expo, or timber bashing in the high-mountain wilderness—because he knew I had his back, and I knew he had mine. I’ve got a ton of great stories and an abundance of fond memories of my time with this great horse.
Dually and I were a team. I will miss him terribly, but I am grateful to have had him in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have some incredible horses over the decades, but Dually may have been the best. So far.
I’ve still got my little mare Annie—much more right-sized for me than Dually was—and she is a fabulous horse, but much different than Dually. She’s perfect for me at this time, and we’ve got a good thing going on. I cannot expect her to be a Dually, no more than she can expect me to be her fairy godmother. I will appreciate her talents and her efforts and I will do my solemn best to be a good partner for her.
Meanwhile, I’m helping my friend and neighbor with a challenging horse that needs my help—you can hear more about this horse and the bumpy road they’ve been on in my podcast later this month!
Horses are unique individuals with differing temperaments and a variety of idiosyncrasies. Even within one breed or type of horse, temperament can vary greatly between individuals. The more you know and understand about your horse’s temperament, the easier he will be to train, the better you will communicate, and the stronger the bond you will have with the horse.
It’s not always easy to know and understand your horse’s temperament– to discern its true nature from its life experiences and what he has learned. It’s the age-old argument of nature vs. nurture and instinctive vs. learned behavior. Since horses are lightning-quick learners, from the moment they are born, it can be hard to discern an instinctive reaction from a cleverly learned trick.
Horses are born with their temperament, and you cannot change it (nature). Training (nurture) will teach the horse to contain its behavior and emotionality, and give the horse skills for coping, but it will not change the horse’s underlying temperament.
Let’s say you have a horse with a quick temper, or maybe it’s a horse that’s quite spooky; with consistent handling and training, the horse’s habitual behavior can become quite the opposite. Sadly, the reverse is also true—if you constantly fight with a quick-tempered horse or give that spooky horse more reason to be afraid (by punishing fear) you may engrain those temperament traits indelibly.
Temperament should not be scored as good or bad or right or wrong. It is what it is and the very qualities that make one horse undesirable for a certain rider, may make him highly desirable in another rider. A high-level Olympic show jumper is not going to be a good fit for a person in their 60s just learning to ride. What’s important is that the horse’s temperament is suitable for the rider’s temperament, skill level, and intended use.
We intentionally refrain from using the term “personality” when talking about horses. Since the human brain is more evolved than the equine brain, human personality traits don’t apply. As you think about horse behavior, try not to anthropomorphize (instill human-like characteristics) and be objective and nonjudgmental as you consider the characteristics of your horse.
Somewhere on the Spectrum
If your experience with horses is limited to one or two individuals, it’s hard to have a broader perspective on the different aspects of equine temperament. After working with literally thousands of different horses over my career, I’ve learned to focus on certain aspects of temperament to evaluate a horse I am getting to know. The more I understand what motivates the horse—how reactive he is, how quickly he learns, how eager he is to please—the better I can train the horse.
Before you begin to assess any horse’s temperament, you need to be aware of two things:
Behavior should never have judgment attached to it.
A temperament trait that is appealing to one type of rider can also be undesirable to another.
Because of these two factors, there are no high or low scores or right or wrong answers in this evaluation. It’s hard to be exact when evaluating temperament, because training (for better or for worse), life experiences and age can disguise a horse’s true temperament.
As you consider the characteristics of temperament that I have listed below, think about where your horse fits on the spectrum of behavior. Think about your interactions with the horse, how he responds to your cues, how he acts in new situations, and take the time to observe your horse’s behavior in a herd setting, where he interacts with other horses.
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One of the greatest variances we see in horses is in their sensitivity level. While all horses are incredibly sensitive to pressure of all kinds, we see a huge range in sensitivity from “hot-blooded” to “cold-blooded.”
Hot-blooded means the horse is highly sensitive and reactive to all forms of pressure—physical, mental, environmental, emotional. A cold-blooded horse is not. Higher-level riders love a sensitive horse that reacts to a rider’s thoughts and invisible cues. On the other hand, an inexperienced rider’s inconsistencies and mistakes may be intolerable to a highly sensitive horse and rapidly send him into a tailspin.
Keep in mind that while we think of some breeds of horses as hot- or cold-blooded, these are just generalities, and do not apply to every individual. The most hot-blooded breeds will have cold-blooded individuals, and visa-versa.
Evaluate Your Horse’s Sensitivity Level: Think about how reactive your horse is to sounds, movements, leg and rein pressure, changes in the rider’s balance, touching, brushing, etc. Remember that both low and high sensitivity can be an advantage to a certain type of rider—so there’s no right or wrong. On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is insensitive/unreactive and 10 is highly sensitive/over-reactive, most horses are probably going to fall somewhere in the middle. Where would you put your horse?
Characteristic #2: Forward Energy
People like to say there are two kinds of horses—ones with too much go, and ones with too much whoa. Energy and activity levels vary a lot between individual horses. For some horses, movement is the solution to every problem and the answer to every question. Other horses prefer to conserve all of their energy in case it’s needed for flight.
Of course, training level and daily workload can impact a horse’s energy level, but some horses are by nature quite slow and reluctant to move forward. (But God love the lazy horses, without whom none of us would’ve learned to ride!)
Evaluate Your Horse’s Energy Level: This time, on a scale of 1-10, 1 is the horse that you could light firecrackers under its tail and he might not move, and 10 is the horse that you just think “go” and it’s in the next county.
For the average rider, a horse in the mid-range is ideal. For the beginners, we need more whoa. For high-performance endeavors, horses with a lot of go are just right. Where does your horse land?
Characteristic #3: Vigilance
Vigilant horses are highly aware, and can be busy-minded and easily distracted. Vigilance is a common trait in prey animals that rely on flight as their #1 defense. Hyper-vigilant horses notice the smallest changes in their known environment. They tend to be easily distracted by other horses and their comings and goings, and they keep track of everything happening around them. A high level of vigilance combined with a high fear level can make for a spooky horse. A high level of vigilance combined with calmness and confidence, on the other hand, can be ideal for some riders, and is likely an alpha horse by nature.
Because horses can be highly reactive to new or unexpected stimuli (like a plastic bag blowing across the trail), a horse with less life experience—that has not been exposed to new places and different situations—may overreact to change. A horse that has “been there, done that,” and seen a lot of things can seem less vigilant—but really, he has just become accustomed to change.
Evaluate your horse’s vigilance: Think about how present and focused your horse is. This time, 1 means your horse is 100% focused on you and the task at hand, unbothered by anything else that’s going on. When you’re not asking anything of him, he’s content to zone out and focus on nothing (a horse’s “happy” place). A 10 means he wants to look around at everything (but remember, if he’s a confident horse, he isn’t necessarily spooking at everything). He keeps track of other horses coming and going, the arena gate shutting, a barn cat playing in the distance, a leaf blowing across his path. Keeping all of that in mind, how vigilant is your horse?
Characteristic #4: Herd Hierarchy
The horse herd has a clear hierarchy, or chain of authority. It is linear, with one horse at the top of the pecking order (the alpha), then going down the line to the horse at the very bottom (the omega). It is not always easy to know if your horse’s natural tendency is to be at the top, middle, or bottom when they are put into forced herds. Even in a pen full of very submissive horses, one will rise to the top and a hierarchy will exist.
Horses that are alpha by nature tend to be brave and bold, with a high level of awareness and a strong sense of right and wrong. They are not bullies, but can be assertive when laying down the law in the herd. Omega horses tend to be leery, keep away from the fray, get picked on by others, and won’t fight for their food. Many herds have a horse fondly known as the “uncle” horse, who gets along with all the other horses and will stand up to bullies.
Both alphas and omegas have their pros and cons. What is most important is that the horse’s temperament is a suitable match for the rider. For instance, a dominant horse would not be a good match for a very passive, easily intimidated person.
Evaluate where your horse is in his herd’s hierarchy: You can think of a 1 as an omega and 10 as an alpha—with many positions in between. Observe how your horse interacts in the herd, it will tell you a lot about his dominance or submissiveness. If horses are fed in a group, the more dominant horses always eat first. Dominant horses control the space and actions of the submissive horses. What number do you think your horse is?
Because horses are animals that always seek acceptance into the herd, and because we have bred horses to be tractable over hundreds of generations, some horses are super-eager to please. Others, not so much.
In my experience, sometimes super-willing horses are entirely misunderstood, because they will fall apart emotionally and shut down easily when over-criticized or confused. On one end of the spectrum, I think of an Eagle Scout—the horse that’s always there for you, steady and reliable, eager to please, hardworking, and never questioning my decisions as the troop leader. The other end, however, is not a horse that works against you, but maybe a horse that is indifferent to praise, looks for ways to detach, looks away and acts as if you don’t exist.
In reality, most horses are indifferent to people. Don’t take it personally that they prefer horses over people. Horses are not overtly affectionate animals—if affection, loyalty, and devotion is what you need, get a Golden Retriever. The naturally willing and eager-to-please horse may be more of the exception than the rule, and this trait can be highly affected by training too. Still, super willing horses exist, and they can get their feelings hurt easily.
Evaluate your horse’s willingness: Knowing that training can highly affect this trait, consider how hard your horse tries when you ask him to do something new or different. Does the horse work at finding the right answer? Does he get upset or nervous when confused, and thrive on praise? Does he follow rules well and try hard when you ask? Or, does your horse challenge your decisions, take advantage of opportunities, or act like you don’t exist at times? Where would your horse score if 1 is the most indifferent or contrary to your decisions, and 10 is the most willing? (Obviously, this is one trait where we’d love to score all horses highly. Consider it a big bonus if your horse is exceptional in this characteristic!)
Characteristic #6: Bravery
It’s tempting to think that a brave, bold horse is always better than a horse that’s scared of his own shadow, but that’s not actually true. Some horses hit the ground thinking the world is their oyster, and that adventures lay ahead.
You might think that bravery seems like a particularly useful trait when you are riding atop a 1000-lb. animal which is prone to flight—and you’d be right. But horses that are low on fear, bold and brave also tend to be dominant, confident, willful, and will do best with riders cut from the same cloth. Horses that are more average on the fear/courage scale are more reliant on their human and because of that, may be more willing.
Evaluate your horse’s bravery: Let’s go back to the 1 to 10 scale with 10 being the horse that rarely, if ever, spooks and seems to be afraid of nothing. He likes being out in front on the trail, is not easily intimidated by other horses or people, and may get angry or lash out if treated harshly. Score 1 if the horse is nervous all the time, doesn’t handle new situations well, and spooks or startles regularly. Somewhere in the middle is just fine!
Characteristic #7: Curiosity
While some horses seem brave because they are confident and dominant, others seem brave strictly because of their high curiosity level. These horses tend to learn clever tricks like untying the lead rope or opening the gate. This is called “investigative behavior,” one of seven categories of instinctive behaviors in horses, and it is the opposite of flight (another category). Horses tend to be either high on flight and low on curiosity, or low on flight and high on curiosity. For the most part, curiosity is a great trait in a horse (few people hope their horses have a high fear quotient).
Evaluate your horse’s curiosity: To evaluate your horse’s curiosity, think about how it reacts to a novel stimulus—something it’s never seen before. How quickly is the horse able to go from flight (or thinking about flight) to forward investigation? How willing is he to approach a new thing? A 10 is the horse that, when startled, keeps thinking and responding. That horse that is a 1 spins and bolts. (If your horse scores low on fear and high on curiosity, it’s definitely a bonus—but again, it’s not the norm.)
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Horses can be quite emotional, and they experience the same primary emotions as humans–sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. Their emotions are expressed with postures, facial expressions, body language, and audible communications.
Emotion, in its most general scientific definition is “a neural impulse that moves an organism to action, prompting automatic reactive behavior that has been adapted through evolution as a survival mechanism to meet a survival need.”
The individual temperament of any horse might range from emotionally steady, unflappable, and stoic, to a horse that often loses its ability to think, easily becomes emotional, is exuberant at times or may shut down easily (become unresponsive). While some individuals are calm and steady emotionally, and others are a big mess in this department—all horses can learn to control their emotionality and behavior through training.
Evaluate your horse’s emotionality: To evaluate the relative emotionality of your horse, think about how it behaves around new horses or in new environments. What is his anxiety level when leaving the herd or facing a scary object? Is your horse prone to temper tantrums or other emotional meltdowns? If 1 is completely calm at all times, and 10 is coming unglued at the drop of a hat, where would your horse land? (If anyone has ever referred to your horse as Steady Eddie, lucky you!)
Characteristic #9: Independence
Because horses are instinctively gregarious, or drawn to the herd, they are not always confident when separated from other horses. Once again, horses can learn to trust their human companion enough to leave the safety of the herd behind, but few horses are this way naturally.
Horses can be notoriously indifferent to humans, and they find comfort and safety with the herd, but a few horses will show more independence—particularly younger horses. It’s not common, but some horses seek out human company, willingly walking away from the herd like they are getting special treatment or going on a new adventure. Other independent horses may not be as interested in people, but are always looking forward to the next big adventure—approaching the trail or a new situation with gusto.
Some horses ride out fine alone, and seem to pay no attention when all the other horses leave. However, many, if not most horses, can have complete meltdowns when separated or left behind. In general, younger horses are less herd-bound and middle-aged horses are the worst—but even amongst a bunch of younger horses, most of them will be very dependent on, and drawn to, the herd.
Evaluate your horse’s independence: You probably don’t have to think too much about this temperament trait in your horse, so on a scale of 1-10, I’m sure you already know. Although independence and an interest in being with humans are great qualities, it’s certainly the exception and not the rule. So, score more bonus points if your horse is independent!
Those are the big temperament categories that I consider whenever I am getting to know a new horse. Evaluating your horse’s temperament is an academic exercise, since we can’t really know for sure where nature ends and where learned behavior begins. There’s nothing we can do to change a horse’s temperament either.
However, horses are such fast learners, and they adapt so well to our expectations of their behavior—when they have consistent handling and fair treatment. I know many young horses with challenging temperaments that turned out to be awesome horses (Seabiscuit is one of my favorite books about a horse like this). Most temperament traits can be strengthened with training. Even the seemingly negative traits can often be channeled in a positive direction—with good training.
Still, it’s good to have a deeper understanding of your horse’s natural temperament. It will inform the training methods you use and shape your expectations. Most importantly, it will help you forge a deeper bond with your horse—the kind that comes from empathy and acceptance.
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There’s a lot to consider when it comes to traveling with horses, and I’ve learned a lot of things to do (and not to do) over the years. Whether you are hauling 10 minutes or 10 hours away, make sure you’re prepared the next time you hit the road with your horse. These are the things I check off my list when I’m getting ready to travel.
My Pre-Trip Routine
I’m a little bit of a stickler when it comes to vehicle and trailer maintenance. Before I even think about hooking up my trailer, it’s imperative to make sure both are up-to-date on maintenance and safe to take on the road.
I keep up with all service recommendations like oil changes, tire rotations and other regular maintenance. (I love my new truck because I receive regular emails that show me the truck’s maintenance records, current status, and alert me to any system that needs attention.)
Once a year, in the spring, we bring our horse trailers to a mechanic to have the wheel bearings greased and a front-to-back safety check, including tires, wire harness, trailer brakes, lights, and the trailer’s emergency brake. We also pull up mats once a year to inspect the trailer’s floor.
I’m fortunate to have a truck dedicated to hauling so it’s always ready to go. After each trip I take, I go to the carwash, scrub it inside and out, refuel, and top-off the fluids. I also like to hook up my trailer a day or two before my trip, so I have plenty of time to organize and load stuff, and I want to make sure it’s on a full tank before I hitch up.
I always muck out the inside of my trailer right after I arrive at my destination and unload the horses. I also take my trailer to the carwash after a road trip. Road grime is corrosive over time, so the undercarriage and outside need regular attention. At least once a year, I clean the inside of the trailer with soap and disinfectant and a high-pressure wash.
Hitchin’ Up Safely
With over half a century and thousands of miles of hauling horses, I’ve seen some crazy wrecks. Over the years, I’ve learned two really important lessons about trailer hitches:
Never tag-team hooking up a horse trailer. Just one person should be in charge of it from start to finish, using a methodical process. It’s too easy for something to be missed when two people are hitching up—I think you hooked the safety chains, but you think I did it. This can lead to critical mistakes being made.
No matter who hooks up the trailer, the driver is responsible for the hitch and for the safety of all parties. Check it twice. Then do a complete walk-around again before pulling out.
Once the trailer is hitched, my travel companion (usually my husband) and I check brakes, brake controller settings, and trailer lights. The next step is to park it in a convenient place for loading all the feed, tack and equipment we’ll need for the trip.
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I’m a big fan of making a list and checking it twice. Often, I start with a really long list several days ahead of the trip. As I gradually load gear, the list gets pared down until I end up with two or three items on a post-it. I’ve made so many lists for horse trips that I can practically do it in my sleep, but I still write it down and check it again and again.
Here’s a basic list you can use, just add on things unique to your journey (items with an asterisk are extras I keep loaded in the trailer all the time, so I never forget them):
Hay and grain
*Water buckets with hangers/straps, hay nets, feed pans
*Muck bucket and manure fork
*Horse first aid
*Farrier tool kit
*Horse documents (copies of Coggins, health certificates, brand papers, etc.)
Saddles, bridles, saddle pads
*Spare halter and bridle
*Tools for unforeseen repairs, tire changing gear, chocks
Comfort & Safety for Horses
We have four different horse trailers—each for a different purpose, and each set up differently for how we use it. How far I am traveling, how the horse space is configured (stock, slant, divided or not), and how well it ventilates all have a bearing on my horse’s comfort.
The most important factor in your horse’s comfort while on the road is ventilation. In a closed-in trailer, especially with more than one horse, it can get hot and steamy even in the coldest weather. Opening roof vents over the horse’s back and cracking open windows in front and back of the horse to ensure adequate airflow. Whenever we stop, I stick my head inside to get a feel for the air quality in there.
If the horses are going to be in the trailer for more than an hour, I always spread a small layer of shavings to absorb urine. I just put it under the back half of the horse and I use a minimal amount of shavings. With all the ventilation open, it can get dusty in there with too much shavings. I never use shavings in the stock trailer for that reason.
Unless it’s below 20 degrees outside, I prefer that my horses stay uncovered in the trailer, and I do not wrap legs if I can avoid it. My horses will stay cooler and more comfortable naked, and fixing wonky apparel in the trailer can be challenging.
Load & Go
Once the trailer is hitched, completely loaded with gear, and made ready for the horses’ comfort, it’s time to start the truck and make a final pit stop for myself. I wait until the very last minute to pop the horse’s in the trailer, jump in the truck and go. I avoid loading horses and hanging out because they can get anxious and impatient. Once the trailer is moving, they tend to settle in for the ride.
I always tie my horses in the trailer using a safe clip. I adjust the length of the lead so that there is just enough slack for the horse to hold its head comfortably, but not enough slack that it can turn its head and neck around behind him. The safe clip gives a slow release should the horse pull on it and makes it quick and easy to hook the horse to the ring, unhook to unload, and then snap them right onto the tie rings on the outside of the trailer.
It is important to train your horse to load, unload, and get them comfortable riding in a trailer long before you make your first trip. Time and again, I see people attempting to train a horse to load at the very time they need to go somewhere. It rarely has a satisfactory result, especially in the event of an emergency. You owe it to your horse to make trailering as easy as possible, and that includes training him over time—not in the heat of the moment.
The Green Horse's Trailer Training KitThe tools you need so you can get on the road.
There are many good techniques for training a horse to load and unload from a horse trailer, but the technique I use, to me, gives the best result. You can check out my training technique online—it’s highly effective and generally happens fast. But even after the horse is trained to load and unload, we must spend some time getting it used to being locked inside the trailer and riding in a moving trailer, taking small steps and allowing the horse to get comfortable over time.
There are few situations in which I would take the risk of unloading horses for a walkabout during the trip. I prefer to get where I am going asap, and let the horses rest and recuperate on the other end.
If we are driving for more than an hour or two, when we stop for gas or a bite to eat, we pause long enough for the horses to relax. I drop down the windows and hang a hay bag outside the window so they can look around and get some fresh air. We will always offer them water, but many horses are reluctant to drink when traveling.
Driving slowly with minimal use of the brakes makes the trip easier for the horses. I like to imagine a full glass of water on the dashboard and if I corner or brake enough to make the water slosh, I know my horses are sloshing around too. The horse constantly works to maintain balance in the moving trailer, and it’s hard work. It’s entirely up to my driving skill as to whether or not the horse has an easy ride or a hard ride.
Hauling your horse doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking. When you’ make a through plan that you’re confident in, it relieves a lot of the risk and stress. Advance preparation makes everything go much smoother from departure to arrival, and helps ensure a pleasant trip.
Winter got off to a mild start here in the Colorado mountains but has come back with a vengeance lately. With lots of snow and sub-zero temps, our outdoor arena is frozen solid, which has kept us riding primarily indoors.
We try to break the monotony with poles, tarps, and the cutting machine. Occasionally, we venture outside to saunter around the neighborhood, but I am very leery of the riding in slick conditions. But on the rare warm and sunny day, without wind (that’s the rare part), we like to get the horses outside for a more enjoyable ride.
When the thermometer drops below zero (yes, that’s Fahrenheit) or even single-digits, we avoid working the horses- not even longeing. When the air is that cold and dry, it can easily damage their massive lungs, if you get them breathing too hard. Plus, if I get my horse too warm in the toasty solar-warmed indoor, they will get a serious chill when they go back outside.
I just received a brand-new saddle for Annie! It’s a 15.5” Wind River, from my Peak Performance line of saddles, made by Circle Y. It’s a beautiful short-skirted Western saddle on a Flex2 tree. I am still experimenting with the padding, to compensate for her asymmetry at the shoulders, low withers, and her very short back.
It’s been a challenge to get her fitted just right, but she’s working much better in her new saddle now—moving well, keeping her head low and her back rounded, making smoother transitions. Saddle fit is still a work in progress for Annie, especially since she is 15 years old now and experiencing the body changes that come with middle age. Kind of like when humans hit their 40s. Enough said.
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Happily, Annie passed the evaluation with flying colors (thank you Cosequin®!)! Now I can be relatively certain that her occasional grumpiness is not joint soreness, but has more to do with saddle fit or her laziness or the fact that she is a red-headed pony mare.
I am both relieved and excited that Annie is in such great physical shape at her age and thrilled at what that means for her longevity. She is my only horse now and I rely heavily on her as my partner in teaching and training. I need her to be on her game.
This month Annie will accompany me to the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo in Denver, to perform in front of a live audience for the first time in two years! We’ll be doing two presentations on Saturday—one about being a proactive rider and the other on managing meltdowns in horses. This will be fun! Annie and I will need to work tightly together, to help the horses and riders who sign up for the clinics.
Although I admit I’ve gotten comfortable at home lately, with very little travel over the past two years, I’m excited to be getting back on the road again and working with horses and riders. The Rocky Mountain Horse Expo is just the beginning of a busy spring schedule for me. I’ll be back in full swing after that—with expos in Michigan, Oregon, Idaho, and Wisconsin, and I hope our paths cross! See my 2022 events schedule here!
If you are reading my blog, chances are good that you LOVE all horses, and your own horse especially. But does your horse LOVE you back?
As it turns out, many animal behaviorists believe that the short answer is yes. Pets are certainly capable of loving their humans (although it’s not a given). But what does love look like in horses, who aren’t exactly pets, nor are they known for overt displays of affection and adoration?
There is no one agreed-upon definition of “love,” but a simple Google search will lead you down some interesting rabbit trails. We know how deeply bonded horses may become to another horse, but how do we know it’s love? And can a horse love a human?
LOVE Me Not
Defining love between humans is complicated enough. Defining love between two disparate species, predator and prey; when one party is meant to capitulate and is incapable of expressing their feelings with words, it is nearly impossible to define.
Humans and horses think, communicate, and behave differently. It’s hard to step outside your human mind and truly understand the horse’s point of view. Sometimes what people think is expressing love to a horse, is actually counterproductive and ends up with angst and animosity.
For instance, if you are in the habit of hand-feeding treats to your horse every time you arrive at the barn, your horse is eager to see you and greets you with that throaty whisper of a nicker that makes your heart sing. But the nicker does not mean “I love you.” It simply means “Come to me.” Or in your case, come to me and bring me the food, I know you have it!”
The horse is not beckoning you because he loves you—it’s because he thinks of you as his personal cookie jar. Unlike dogs, horses are not reliant on the herd for food. They are quite capable foragers and can eat almost any plant material. Therefore, using food as bribery—either to make the horse “love” you or to make the horse do something he doesn’t want, often leads to disdain from the horse (not disdain of the treat, but of the subservient human relinquishing it).
What is LOVE?
Many believe that love (from the human point of view) involves multiple components like attachment, caring, and intimacy. Attachment is the need for approval and physical contact, caring means that you value your partner’s needs as much as your own, and intimacy is the willingness to be physically close and share thoughts, desires and feelings.
After countless hours in the barn, unburdening my grief with my neck buried in a horse’s mane; after too many long, cold nights spent in the barn caring for a sick horse; after losing my first horse, perhaps my greatest love of all, at the tender age of 14, and thinking it was surely going to kill me; there’s no question that what I feel for my horse is love. But can a horse love me back?
I think we can all agree that horses love other horses. They are instinctively gregarious animals (always drawn to the herd) and they tend to form special bonded relationships with only one or two horses in the herd. We know them as buddies; behaviorists call them associates.
Have you ever seen two bonded horses involuntarily separated? I think they display an abundance of love. Attachment, check. Caring, check. Intimacy, the closer the better. Based on what happens when we separate those horses, I think we can all agree that horse-to-horse love exists.
From a behavioral point of view, I think the more scientific definition of love more aptly reflects the love between horse and human– a rational exchange in which the partners make deals based on their needs, and they succeed to the degree that they master the negotiation process. This may give you pause for thought, but the more you think about it the truer it gets.
Horses are masters of negotiation. Picture the unwilling horse being forced to step up into a horse trailer, only willing to go so far, before flying backwards. Or the school horse, negotiating with the newbie rider where the corners of the arena are, suggesting when to stop, or sidling up next to a cohort. Its negotiation skills are honed on scores of unwitting riders, who often had no idea they were at the negotiating table.
When Horses Love You Back
After more than a half-century of riding and training horses, I am grateful to have had some amazing relationships with a few incredible horses who I think of as having “made” me as a rider. I’m not naïve enough to think that these horses loved me like they loved their same-species soul mates, but there was definitely something there.
If love involves negotiating for each other’s needs, it begs the question, what is your horse negotiating with you for? What needs of your horse do you satisfy? Some things are obvious—food, water, protection, shelter, enrichment. With horses, it’s quite simple, when it comes to their needs and wants. What motivates horses most is the feelings of safety and comfort.
What may not be quite as obvious is what makes your horse feel safe and secure around you– so secure that it willingly leaves its bonded herdmate behind, to go anywhere you ask and do your bidding? Is it your benevolent leadership and your ability to keep your horse safe? Is it your strength and wisdom? Your reliable sense of judgment and fairness? Your kindness, acceptance and approval? These are the intangible qualities horses adore.
Horses are creatures of comfort too– seeking shade or shelter, soft places to lay down, time to rest, engagement with herd mates. They are tactile animals that touch, scratch, massage and mutually groom, so having companionship is important.
Your horse’s sense of safety and comfort and the enrichment you add to its life are the things you bring to the negotiating table. In return, your horse offers you loyalty, duty, adventure, entertainment, enrichment, and yes, even adoration if you’re lucky.
None of that comes freely or easily but once the negotiation process is mastered, the results are pure joy. Realistically, I cannot expect my horse to love me like his bonded herd-mate, but I’ll take what I can get.
Love Like No Other
When horses and riders reach the pinnacle of their connection, they can think and move as one, they know what each other is thinking, they can predict each other’s actions, and feel their reactions before it happens. They share a unique language known only to them.
When a significant relationship between horse and human exists, forged over time, there are deep bonds of mutual trust. When one party is off their game or under the weather, the other party is always aware. I don’t know of any other sport or activity where this kind of unification of mind, body, and spirit occurs between two disparate species.
All of this is made possible by some unique characteristics of horses. Their reliance on communication through body language gives us the potential for a shared language. Their prey mentality causes them to be wicked-fast learners, eagerly seeking answers to your questions.
Horses are exceptionally sensitive to touch and to mental and environmental pressures that cause them to respond to nearly invisible cues. When riding a horse that you are deeply connected to, sometimes all you have to do is think of a movement and the horse executes the maneuver.
Few things in this world are more satisfying than this kind of loving relationship with a horse. But us humans are greedy- always asking for more and constantly moving the target. It’s important to remind ourselves to give something back to horses, in return. To love my horse is to be mindful of my horse’s needs, both physical and emotional. No love exists when one party does all the taking and none of the giving.
Show Me Some Lovin’
We are experts at what we want for ourselves and what makes us feel good, but from the horse’s point of view, things may look much different. Predators and prey view the world from opposite perspectives, sometimes making it hard to empathize with the other.
It’s important to take time to bond with your horse and there are plenty of activities you can do together towards this end. Beyond just grooming your horse, there are a few relaxing, calming and bonding activities I like to encourage people to do with their horses.
Head down cue: outfitted in rope halter and long training lead, use two fingers to put slight downward pressure on the bottom of the halter and the fiador knot. The instant the horse’s nose moves the slightest amount down, release the pressure and praise the horse by cooing and stroking. Once you’ve coaxed the horse’s head all the way to the ground, the horse will be very calm and content. Article: Your Horse’s Quiet Place
Facial rub down: Use a soft shammy to rub and massage the horse’s face and ears, work slowly and satisfy your horse’s itchiness. This is especially important after riding or when your horse has worked up a sweat. Check out my favorite shammy here!
Sweet spot: bonded horses mutually groom each other, scratching and massaging deeply with their teeth at the withers, neck and chest. You’ll use your fingers (otherwise hairs get stuck in your teeth) to rub and probe until you find your horse’s sweet spot. You’ll know by watching his upper lip for puckering. It’s a kind and affectionate gesture and serves as a nice “thank you,” after riding. Article: 3 Leadership Activities
Recognize effort: How hard horses attempt to comply with your wishes is way more important than the actual response. If you learn to recognize when horses are trying hard, and then give them the release, praise, and rest they seek, they will try harder and harder to please you, knowing that they get something in return. Horses are notoriously indifferent in terms of showing outward signs of affection, but they crave recognition and acceptance. Article: Nurturing the Try in Your Horse
One thing I love about horse sports is that no matter what you achieved last year, there’s always more you can do the next year. No sooner do you accomplish one goal than you’re planning the next feat.
For me, January is the time to create a blueprint to accomplish bigger and better things with my horses in the coming year. The coldest and darkest days are behind us now, and there is much to look forward to in the months ahead. Maybe living in the Colorado mountains, where winters can be intense, makes this time of reflection and projection more meaningful.
With horses in particular, looking 3-6 months ahead is always important in your goal-setting. It takes time to develop the training and conditioning of a horse and rider, collect the right equipment (like my new saddle for Annie), and plan your logistics for the upcoming riding season in order to accomplish your goals.
We often think of a horse’s training and conditioning in 30-day increments—and that’s for good reason.
Whether you are working to improve a horse’s fitness, it’s skill level (performance), or it’s fluency (reliability) in a given discipline, the 30-day increments are telling in terms of what results we can expect to see. Knowing that the training and development of a great horse takes time, we set our goals 30, 60, or 90 days apart.
Imagine you were planning a mountaineering expedition in the Andes for yourself, but you didn’t start preparing until a few days before the trip. You’re scrambling to put together the critical equipment you will need, you have no idea how it works, and you didn’t have time to break in your hiking boots. Your physical condition is soft, and you’re not used to carrying a heavy backpack. Chances are good it will be a miserable, if not impossible, trip.
Now imagine you are taking your backyard, flat-lander, “pet” horse on a 5-day, 100-mile wilderness pack trip in the mountains. Sending an unprepared, “soft” horse into an intense riding situation like this would be disastrous. Preparations would need to start a year in advance.
Because my husband and I have ambitious plans to travel with our horses this spring and summer, we are starting our preparations now! Preparation takes a long time with horses and for me, this is the time of year for planning, forecasting, organizing, and executing changes.
Over the last month, I’ve taken a long, hard look at Annie’s saddle-fit and bridle suitability, and made changes to both. I’ve got a brand new saddle on-order, to better accommodate her short, small stature, and I’m using an entirely different bridle—from bit, to headstall, to reins.
I’m using a different mouthpiece that she clearly likes better (as evidenced by smoother transitions and better self-carriage) and by switching to romal reins, I’ve forced myself to ride one-handed and with far less rein contact—which is more appropriate rein handling for Annie’s level of training.
In addition to the full assessment of my tack and equipment, I also evaluate my horse’s current fitness level to figure out what we need to do so that she is at her physical peak when the riding season begins. I look at weight, muscling in the legs, topline, abs, and hindquarters, as well as hoof condition.
Annie is barefoot now, but once I start riding outside more (rocky terrain), and when I am training harder on reining maneuvers, she’s likely to need more farrier support—another course that must be charted.
To have the kind of riding season we are hoping for, our horses need to be sound and fit before the season starts. Knowing it takes a solid 90 days to make much impact on the horse’s physical condition, it’s time to start now!
I use my horses not only for fun (like tagging along with Rich to ranch horse events), but more importantly, in my job as a horsemanship clinician and for content production. That makes the planning and preparation that I do with my horses even more crucial. I need them to be fit and camera-ready year-round.
I also have to plan for specific events and any traveling that will be required. Traveling with horses is logistically complicated, and I need my horses to be comfortable and mentally prepared for life on the road.
Next month, I’ll travel with Annie to Denver for the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo. I’ll have two prime-time presentations on Saturday, and it’s been a couple years since Annie’s had to perform in a large coliseum in front of a crowd. Beyond having her tuned up, slick, and fit, I also need her to stay calm and focused in a highly distracting and unfamiliar venue.
Sometimes that means riding alone months in advance or hauling to ride in unfamiliar arenas alone, to build some confidence in each other. Fortunately Annie’s an old pro, so it won’t take much prep—I just need to get her in the right mindset.
Annie is 15 years old, very well-trained, and highly seasoned (experienced in many ways). I don’t have much to “work” on with her, other than strengthening our partnership and refining our communication.
However, I’ve been working hard to reprogram the “cinchy” behaviors Annie developed in the last year. Right now I am approaching that magic 30-day mark of training on it, and I am starting to see great results. I take my time to saddle her, and mix up the process a lot to ease her anticipation.
I am happy to report she is standing quietly and even lowering her head and taking a deep sign when I snug up the cinch now. I still see some remnants of her cranky behavior, but in another 30 days, I expect that to be gone too.
(This month’s episode of my podcast takes an in-depth look at “cinchy” behavior—and how to address it. It will be released next week, so be sure to subscribe to Ride On with Julie Goodnight on any podcast app so you don’t miss it!)
I’ve got lots of work to do planning the logistics for a summer full of travel with our horses—but to me, that part is fun!
I’ve got a color-coded 12-month calendar that gives me a visual glance at the whole year—showing me when I am gone, when I am home, and what I need to prepare for. I will have to stay focused to meet the high demands on my time between work obligations, special events, and fun. If I want to have it all (and I do), I’ll need to be organized!
We like to say that with horses, it’s about the journey, not the destination—and I fully subscribe to this belief. Without solid planning months in advance to meet our ambitious goals, there would be no destination. And the planning, practicing, training, and preparations are all part of the fun for me—part of the journey.
It’s time to get started now, and to enjoy the ride!
Assessing your tack—in terms of its condition, fit to the horse, and appropriateness for the horse’s discipline and level of training—should be ongoing, but doing a thorough assessment should happen at least once a year. For me, New Year’s Day is the time I like to plunge into my horse’s saddle fit, consider what goals I have for the upcoming riding season, and plan for any changes I may need to make.
My Quarter Horse mare, Annie, is going to be 15 years old in 2022. It’s a big leap away from prime time, landing her squarely in middle age (and there’s no need to discuss the middle-aged spread we all experience). Let’s just say that with every year of a horse’s life, its body undergoes significant changes.
This year, my evaluation of Annie’s saddle fit revealed that it’s time for me to make some major changes.
Annie is small, very short-coupled, and round as a 55-gallon barrel. At 14.0 hands, she’s the perfect size for me, and being short-backed and quick-footed makes her super-fun to ride. Even though Annie is round, she’s still a very little horse—a pony, really. She’s also quite short from withers to loins, presenting additional challenges with a Western saddle. Low withers, short-backed, small stature, round barrel—these are the challenges I face in finding the best saddle fit for her.
Because her withers are not prominent and her physique is rotund, her saddle is always prone to slipping—no matter how tight the girth. This has been her nemesis since she was a youngster, and she’s grown quite weary of being cinched up tight.
In the past few months, I’ve seen increasing resistance from her when I am saddling. I can tell she dreads it. She bows her back, steps backwards, and makes sour faces, which make her opinions quite clear. These changes in her behavior made me suspicious, so I scheduled my vet for a thorough examination of her back. Dr. Casey Potter is a performance horse and lameness specialist, who treats world champion horses for lameness and structural unsoundness—including the spine.
I was tremendously relieved when Dr. Potter found no signs of soreness or abnormalities in Annie’s back, giving me confidence that her spine is strong and healthy. Still, I knew that my saddle fit needed improvement, because a tight girth was clearly creating her discomfort. She was telling me she had reached her limit, and resentment was building.
My first step was to re-evaluate her saddle fit, starting from scratch. First, I set the saddle on her back without a pad or cinch and pressing down from the top, I slipped my fingers under the bars of the tree, running them down her back from front to rear, feeling the amount of contact the bars of the tree had with her back. As I suspected, the bars were not making even contact down the length of her back and it was bridging, causing pressure in the front and rear, but not in the middle.
My next step was to try various small bridging pads that are designed to adjust for the contours of the horse’s back that cause the bars of the saddle tree to bridge. I’ve been using a shim pad on Annie for years, to mitigate asymmetry and bridging, but it was beginning to look like that wasn’t sufficient anymore. The short shoulder pad seemed like the right shape for her back, but it was too big for her compact frame.
"Bridge the Gap" with Bridge Pads by Circle YWhether a horse is short-backed, long-backed, hip high, sway backed, thin of flesh or prominent of withers, it can affect saddle fit. Depending on the length and shape of the horse’s back, the bridge pad, shoulder bridge pad, or long shoulder bridge pad may help improve saddle fit.
Throughout this process, it became increasingly apparent to me that the fit problem was less about the shape of her back and more about the length of my full-skirted Western saddle. That’s not an easy pill to swallow when I have a tack room full of fabulous saddles, but improving Annie’s saddle fit means buying a different saddle. My full-skirted Monarch with a 16” seat is simply too long for her short pony-type build, and the bridging is related more to the saddle length than any dip in her back.
The Wind River saddle, of all the saddles I designed, is for just this sort of situation. It’s got the eye-appeal of a classic Western saddle, the same close-contact, comfort features, and functionality of the Monarch, but with a rounded skirt that significantly shortens the overall length of the saddle to 27 inches. Conveniently, I am of small stature, too, so I’ll order a 15 ½” seat (which is big enough for me) to help shorten it even more.
I guess both Annie and I will be getting a late Christmas present this year! Like many things in the supply chain these days, saddles are in high demand and low supply, so I know I need to order now, to enjoy my new saddle this summer. This saddle comes in three colors, but personally I prefer the natural oil over walnut and black, because it eventually turns to a beautiful mahogany patina, which accentuates Annie’s deep red color.
What Saddle Is Perfect for a Short-Backed Horse Like Annie?My Teton Trail Saddle has a 27” overall length (the same as the Wind River saddle), and at a great price, it's a good option to consider for a short-backed horse like Annie. I have 1 in stock right now with a 15” seat—and you don't have to wait 7 months—it's ready to ship today!
New Year’s is also the time of year I like to plan for the upcoming riding and training season—while there’s plenty of time to get organized, leg-up my horse, and invigorate my training plans. This year, my husband and I have an ambitious schedule of clinics and versatile ranch horse competitions we want to attend.
Although my role will be more as a groom and coach rather than as a competitor, I still need my little mare to be fit, happy and comfortable in her tack. Far better to bite the bullet now so I have time to order the saddle, get it fitted, and for her to get comfortable in the new saddle before the busy riding season begins.
In the meantime, the snow and cold has driven us indoors to ride, and since I am without a well-fitted saddle, I’ve decided to focus on riding bareback until my new saddle comes. Surprisingly, riding in the bareback pad also gives me the opportunity to train the habitual cinchiness out of Annie. Even though the bareback pad girth is soft and never pulled tight, she’s still resistant when I go through the tightening motions—more evidence that it’s an ingrained habit and not a true reaction to pain.
As I slowly snug the soft girth of the bareback pad, if she tenses and bows her back up, I gently send her forward in a circle around me, one way then the other, waiting for her to relax. After just a few days, already one behavior is replacing the other and when she begins to tense, she then relaxes and steps forward. By taking the time to work through her resentment now, by the time my new saddle comes, I’m hopeful this habit will be long gone.
Of course, riding bareback will also help my riding skills. Honing my balance, building core strength, and increasing my endurance are just a few of the benefits of riding bareback, and these are all essential to staying strong as a rider, particularly as I age. It helps me stay in better riding shape from using my abdominal and leg muscles more, and most importantly, it hones my balance on the horse. Remember, balance naturally deteriorates as we age, so riding bareback is a good way to combat aging!
On some days, I shed the bridle and ride Annie bareback and without the bridle, with just a neck rope. This brings a refined subtleness to my riding and cueing that seems like pure connectivity. It’s harder work for the horse without the bridle, since she must pay rapt attention to my cues so as not to miss something. But it brings us both together and makes our shared language more fluent.
Now that I’ve bitten the bullet and made the decision to buy a new saddle for Annie, I’m excited about it and I can’t wait to try it out. I’m working on my patience too, since it will be a couple months before my new saddle arrives. In the meantime, riding bareback makes my indoor arena seem much bigger than it really is, and I’m confident that I am improving my stamina and balance.
Despite all the odds, this year is off to a great start for me. Now is the time to make your plans for next summer and to evaluate where you are now with your horse, and where you hope to be this time next year. I wish you all the best for a bright, healthy, and happy new year!
I have to say I was happy to get back into a more normal work schedule this fall—starting with my first few trips to events by airplane since March of 2020. So far, it’s been smooth sailing.
Last month, I had my first “back-to-normal” horsemanship clinic since 2019 (where people bring and work with their own horses) in Phoenix, Arizona—and the weather was perfect! It was a great clinic, with lots of interesting horses and riders. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to help clients and their horses directly, in-person, so it was super fun for me. It feels good to be back in the arena!
I also attended the CHA International Conference in Fort Worth, Texas last month.. This was one of the best CHA conferences I’ve ever attended. I think everyone had an especially good time. We were hosted by the Fort Worth Herd—and if you’ve never been to Fort Worth, you should check it out. (Just go to FortWorth.com.)
They drive a big herd of longhorns through the old historic downtown area—twice a day, every day—and it’s incredible to see those huge steers parade through downtown and the throngs of tourists there. The drovers and the crew that make it all happen are fabulous people that I’ve gotten to know and love. It’s really an amazing program and a fabulous place to visit.
Best of all, I got to ride Pepperoni for my presentations in the huge coliseum. His “other-mother,” Nancy, and I were quite proud of him. He took everything in stride—even the longhorns he was stabled right next to—and he acted like a mature, well-trained horse just doin’ his job. My little colt is all grown up now and no longer needs me!
Here at home, I’ve had more time to reconnect with my sweet mare, Annie, mostly riding her bareback and bridleless. She’s highly tuned and responsive, and a very quick-footed little horse—and that makes riding bareback a particularly exhilarating experience!
Since winter’s arrived full-bore now, we’re mostly relegated to riding indoors, so riding bareback and without the bridle makes an otherwise monotonous routine a little more exciting. At least for me, but I think Annie likes it too.
I’m having a quiet holiday at home with family, friends, horses, and of course, our lab, Samantha. I’m excited to see what 2022 has in store for me, and to start planning out new goals for the year.
I hope to see you and your horse in person in 2022!
Even though our winter out here in the mountains has been disturbingly warm and dry this year, I know that eventually the cold and snow will descend upon us. Neither horses nor the humans caring for them look forward to winter, but after several decades managing horses in a harsh climate, I’ve learned there are things we can do to make the horses more comfortable and the chores less forbidding.
You don’t have to experience blizzards, bomb cyclones, and subzero temps to appreciate tips to make your horse life easier and your horses happier during winter months. But many horse owners live in four-season climates—some harsher than mine. If you do, you already know that horses and ice are not a good mix, and it leads to a lot of slips and falls—for both two-legged and four-legged types.
Whether your winters are mild or wild, there are some basics that are important to know:
What does your horse need to stay comfortable?
How do you need to change how you manage your facility?
What do you need to do differently to manage your horse’s nutritional and hydration needs?
How can you make winter chores easier?
What do you need to do to ensure your own protection from the elements?
I have a few thoughts to offer. Since the internet began, literally, I have accumulated a vast library of information for horse owners and equestrians—articles, videos, and podcasts to give you the answers you need, when you need them. So I thought I would point you to a variety of articles I’ve written over the years about winter horse management.
What should you do to get ready for winter? This article includes some of the hard lessons I’ve learned over the years about buying hay, and what you need to know about buying hay and budgeting your horse’s hay consumption. It has good information about what is important to know about winter blankets—and whether your horse really needs a blanket. This article also addresses nutritional concerns, caring for your tack, and prepping your barn and arena for winter.
What worries you when it comes to making sure your horse is ready for winter? Living in a subzero climate, my #1 concern is keeping the water flowing, preventing ice build-ups, and keeping the water warm enough that the horses will drink it. Another critical factor about winter management regards the care of my horses’ feet—to make sure their hooves are healthy and ready for the harsher environmental pressures of winter. From blanketing needs to shelter and routine veterinary maintenance (parasite control, teeth, and vaccines), this article covers an array of issues we deal with most in the winter months.
What do you do with your horses in the winter? Once people know where I live and how harsh the winters can be, I often get this question. Some of the answers may surprise you, but the bottom line is, we more or less do the same thing with our horses in the winter as in the summer—it’s just a lot harder!
In this article I share my own rules about when it is too cold to work the horses, some important things I’ve learned about their feed plan, and preventing dehydration. Horses are adaptable to any climate, including extreme heat and cold. However, it’s important for you to know what your horse’s natural coping mechanisms are, and how you can help—or at the least, not interfere with—his natural defenses to the cold.
Have you remembered an important task that needed to be done—in the middle of a snow storm? I’ve developed a checklist of important things to accomplish before winter sets in (because here in the high mountains of Colorado, winter comes early and stays late). In September, we start prepping for winter around the barn. This is the time of year we buy the hay we need for all the horses for an entire year, and get it properly stored.
From blanket repair and maintenance, to storing my valuable tack and making sure I have all the stall-cleaning and ice-breaking tools I need on hand, I’ve got a lot to do! Just like many people must winterize their RV or boat, I’ve got to put my trailers to bed and address my horses’ health and well-being. Finally, in this article I share my favorite hacks for human barn apparel, and how I’ve learned to dress for subzero barn chores and cold-weather riding.
We’ve had some transitions around our barn in the last month. Recently, we said a final farewell to our old friend, Roger Dodger—possibly the best cow horse I ever rode! Dodger was 30 years old and lived a long and productive life– his first 13 years he was the foreman’s horse on a big Texas cattle ranch, and the last 17 years, here with us in Colorado. Dodger was laid to rest here at our ranch, beside some of our most treasured horses who also lived out their old age in dignity and comfort in the past few decades.
I bought the handsome palomino gelding at the very first Legends of Ranching performance horse sale. He was a hot-blooded, power-packed 13-year-old and he was WAAAY too much horse for the average rider. After a decade of doing serious ranch work, this horse was an expert at all phases of cow work, with the ability to immediately adjust to any task at hand—be it herd work, cutting, roping, boxing, or going down the fence. (Aren’t sure what “down the fence” means? Google “reined cow horse.”)
I kept Dodger for myself for a few years, slowly de-tuning his training so he was less reactive and responsive, getting him used to a slower pace of life, and giving him time to learn to be a pleasure horse. Then I sold him to one of my best friends, Lucy Achenbach (who many of you have met because she travels with me a lot and has assisted in more clinics than I can count).
In the years that followed, Lucy and Dodger climbed all over the Colorado mountains and did a variety of ranch horse activities where Dodger was always the star of the show! He came back to live here at my ranch 7 or 8 years ago, where he lived out his retirement in style. We will miss that horse, but Lucy and I both consider ourselves lucky to have Dodger in our lives, and we cherish the memories.
Another big transition to our herd occurred when my young horse, Pepperoni, left for Texas, with my dear friend Nancy. This was not a sad occasion for me because I am not saying goodbye to this exceptional horse. Nancy and I have shared a few horses in the past decade, and she made me promise, when I bought Pepper, that I would give her first consideration if I decided to sell him.
A Note from Nancy:
When you were at the auction and told me about how much you loved this horse, I immediately looked into his background to see how he was bred. He had a great dam and sire and of course his grand sire is Peptoboonsmal. I’ve followed every move you’ve made with this horse and at times I would ask, “When are you going to sell him?” and remind you to think of me!
Having bought horses from you in the past, I had my eye on him from the start. The timing was right for both of us, and I was super excited that I would soon be his new mom. Riding him several times, and of course knowing his background, I was very excited to bring him home.
You and I have been friends for a long time, and we try to see each other once or twice a year. With that, I had comfort knowing you would still see him and that he would be “our” horse, always.
Because what I love most is training young horses, and because Pepper has matured into a big and talented horse, I am ready to start over with a younger and smaller horse. Nancy and Pepper are the perfect match for each other, and I know they will go on to do great things together. Our longstanding agreement is that he is not her horse, but “our” horse. I know that she will share him with me whenever I am doing clinics or events near her. So that’s how I ended up riding Pepper during my presentations at the CHA International Conference this month, where he performed like a champion in the Fort Worth Cowtown Coliseum, and made his other-mother proud.
Luckily, I have my awesome little mare to ride, who is right-sized for me at fourteen hands even. Annie is a quick-footed reined cow horse, a sports car edition, finished in the bridle and a machine on the trail. Now that I have more time to ride her, it’s been fun getting back in sync with her. She’s one of the best bridle-less horses I’ve ridden, and after three years of training a big, young, rambunctious horse, she will be a blast to ride!
Many of the questions I get start with a sentiment like this: “My horse used to do this well, but now he won’t,” or, “My horse was really responsive when I first got him, and now he ignores me.” A common denominator is that the horse was well-behaved initially, but its behavior has deteriorated over time. In all instances, we must rule out pain first. After you have worked with your vet to rule that out, the gradual decline of responsiveness and willingness in the horse could be attributed to a training problem.
Even the most well-trained horse will occasionally misbehave—usually in minor ways that make its life a little easier, or gets it closer to what it wants. With a trained horse, letting disobedient actions go unchecked and unacknowledged often leads to worse behaviors.
Common disobediences—like cutting corners, slowing down at the gate, breaking gait, pulling toward the barn, coming off the rail, ignoring a go cue, and refusing to do what is asked—are often ignored by the rider, or handled inappropriately, leading to greater disobedience in the future.
In theory, humans are smarter than horses. We have a more highly evolved brain and abilities the horse lacks, like the ability to think in the future, use linear reasoning (putting multiple thoughts together to predict a certain outcome), problem solve, do math, and use complex language. Given these abilities, it’s surprising to me how often horses outsmart people.
Horses are quite clever when it comes to probing boundaries, manipulating others, and getting what they want. Beyond everything else, horses seek out safety and comfort—these are their greatest motivators, and usually at the root of their behavior. They are masters of subtlety, gently testing boundaries to find openings. When their smaller misdeeds go unnoticed or unchecked, the horse naturally begins to take advantage of the unaware rider.
Riding horses are trained from day one to maintain direction and speed, as dictated by the rider. In other words, we train horses to stay on a certain path or at a specific speed until told by the rider to change directions or change speeds. When a trained horse slows down, speeds up, or changes course without a cue from the rider, it is considered a disobedience.
These kinds of small disobediences are quite common in riding horses, and you cannot blame a horse for trying. But what always surprises me, is how often riders seem completely unaware of the horse’s small disobediences until it turns into a big one.
While horses are quite clever at manipulation, they do tend to deploy the same tactics, in the same place, with great predictability. For instance, if you have a problem with a horse coming off the rail in the arena, it generally does the same thing, in the same place, every time you go around. Remember, humans are smarter than horses, so it shouldn’t be too hard to predict what will happen next time you go around.
Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.
The keys to not being manipulated by a horse or losing your authority, are to simply be aware of the horse’s actions and motivations, think ahead of the horse, and acknowledge its disobedient behavior. This shouldn’t be too hard when the horse’s misdeeds are predictable.
The first key is to simply be aware of the horse’s actions. Riders are often so caught up in themselves that they fail to notice when a horse manipulates them. But the horse always knows and will probe its boundaries gently, until it gets a reaction from the rider. The sooner the reaction comes, the faster the horse learns that the rider cannot be manipulated.
One of the most common examples of a lack of awareness in the rider, occurs when a horse breaks gait or changes speed, unauthorized by the rider. Let’s say the rider has asked the horse to canter in the arena, and when they canter by the gate, the horse slows down and breaks into a trot. In most instances, the rider simply re-cues the horse to canter.
When the rider simply carries on, as if nothing happened, the horse learns that either the rider is unaware of its tactics or that the rider condones breaking gait. Either way, the horse benefits from the momentary rest and its disobedience is reinforced. If there was no admonishment, how would the horse know it did something wrong? If the rider doesn’t seem to know that breaking gait was contrary to what the horse was previously trained, it believes new rules apply.
On the other hand, if the rider scolds the horse for breaking gait, puts it immediately back to canter, perhaps making it canter a little harder, and then thinks ahead of the horse the next time around, driving it more forward before it has a chance to break gait, the horse learns its tactics won’t work and that the rider has authority.
Tools for the Proactive Rider
Already armed with a greater awareness of the horse’s actions and motivations (e.g., to rest or to get closer to the herd), the proactive rider has many tools to redirect the horse’s behavior and assume the leadership role.
Again, before you move on to treating disobedience as a training issue, be sure to rule out pain as the cause first.
Because horses tend to misbehave in very predictable ways, like cutting the corners at the far end of the arena, it should be easy to think ahead of them. If the horse did it last time around, it’s likely to do it again. Therefore, being proactive and checking in with the horse before it deploys the tactic, letting the horse know you are thinking about it and prepared for it, is often enough to eliminate the behavior entirely.
Specific skills for the rider to deploy include using all your aids to ride the horse forward—drive the horse with your seat and legs and redirect the horse with the reins. Looking where you expect the horse to go is a simple way to show your determination and confidence. Driving the horse more forward before you get to the spot that the horse breaks gait or diverts direction, is a proactive measure that tells the horse you are aware.
The “blocking rein” is a highly effective tool to use before the horse veers direction. The blocking rein is a warning to the horse that you know what it is thinking about and that veering off the path will not be tolerated.
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The blocking rein is applied by simply lifting the inside rein and closing it against the horse’s neck. The blocking rein is not a pull on the rein, but rather a motion of the rider’s hand that closes the door to that direction. If you are going around the arena to the left, and your horse is trying to veer to the left, your left rein is the blocking rein. Before you get to the spot where you know the horse will veer, simply reach forward, and close the rein against the neck. Be very careful not to pull on the rein, which would ask the horse to turn left—the way it wants to go.
The blocking rein is a proactive measure, used before the horse veers course, to warn the horse that further actions will be taken if it changes course. In many cases, this simple action alone will dissuade the horse because it learns that you are aware, you know what it is thinking and that you will take additional measures if needed. Horses don’t like to get in trouble, so a warning can be highly effective in this case.
Another useful tool to correct undesirable behaviors is called replacement training. It simply means replacing the undesirable behavior with a more desirable one. It’s been scientifically proven that trying to eliminate undesirable behaviors through punishment is not effective with horses but replacing behavior is highly effective.
If every time the horse starts to cut the corner to the left, you immediately turn him to the right, in short order, every time the horse thinks about veering left, it will prepare to turn right. Every time the horse breaks gait, you make him go faster, soon every time he slows down, he automatically speeds up. If every time the horse does this, you do that, in short order as soon as the horse thinks about this, it immediately thinks about that. You are creating an association between one thing and another.
The most important and effective tool you have for changing behavior in the horse is a release of pressure at the right time. Horses always seek a release of pressure, both mental and physical. Releasing a horse from the pressure of a cue or from an activity, the instant it responds, is the most powerful reward you can give.
Releasing at the wrong moment, while the horse is displaying undesirable behavior, rewards the horse too, but for the wrong thing. If a horse ignores a cue, so you stop giving the cue, the horse is rewarded for ignoring your cues. Sometimes people release the horse from pressure without even knowing it, inadvertently rewarding the horse.
This happens all the time in trailer loading; the horse resists, so the handler circles the horse back away from the trailer to start over. But what the horse learns is that when it resists, you will take it away from the trailer. It doesn’t matter if you start over, the horse already knows how to get what it wants.
It’s easy to make mistakes with horses and because they are such lightning-fast learners, even one mistake by the rider can develop a bad habit in the horse. Our temptation to blame the horse is huge, even though the horse is simply reacting to the rider.
Learning to think ahead of the horse, to understand its motivations and intentions, and to become aware of its subtle attempts to manipulate the rider, will automatically give you more authority and control over the horse. Horses seek out authority because it makes them feel safe, so being an aware and consistent rider makes you appealing to the horse.
Using your aids effectively to proactively ride the horse through a problem, warning the horse ahead of time that you are aware and intend to take action, and riding with determination and confidence through a sticky spot puts you in the driver’s seat and displays leadership to the horse.
My horses enjoyed a well-deserved training break over the past month. Slowly, my life is creeping back to normal and I’m spending more time traveling. I’m so grateful to be fully vaccinated (and in line for the booster) and to be able to hit the road and do the things I enjoy the most—public speaking, teaching horsemanship, and yes, vacation! Just this past month, I spent a fabulous week at the C Lazy U Ranch, for the annual Ranch Riding Adventure—and it was all of that! We had a great group of riders, incredible fall weather, and we rode our pants off! I also spent a week in Fort Collins, Colorado, teaching various classes for Colorado State University’s Equine Science program. I always enjoy working with up-and-coming young professionals and getting in touch with the university scene. Then just last week, Rich and I spent an entire week in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, visiting family and having fun in the sun. This is the area where I grew up and spent countless happy days fishing, boating, and beaching, and we had a blast! But with all that activity, I’m afraid I didn’t get much training done on my horses this month.
Our horses are exercised daily, regardless of whether I ride them or not. To keep them fit and in a routine, we bring the horses in at the same time every day and even if I don’t ride, they get tied up, groomed and free-longed, usually two or three horses together. I always like to say, “Misery loves company,” and they do like the free longe in a group, so they can have a little friendly competition on the side—who gets to be in front, who cuts the corner to gain the advantage, who likes to offer ‘friendly’ encouragement from behind. Horses thrive off routines and you can tell with my horses because they line up at the gate every day to come in for their scheduled time. It’s not that they love working, they don’t. But they like the grooming for sure, and they thrive on the routine activity.
Last week, after coming home from Florida, I was eager to ride both my horses, Annie and Pepperoni. Then I realized it had been a full month since I had ridden them last. This kind of thing never worries me because I know that horses don’t forget or unlearn—you could go years without riding and the horse would more or less be at the same training place that you left off. Time off doesn’t make my horses fresh or disobedient; in fact, usually the opposite. Still, it’s always interesting to me to see how they will respond after a long layoff (keep in mind they still get exercised and handled daily). Will they be froggy? Lazy? Rusty? But this time, they were perfect and I couldn’t be happier with my two horses.
Annie, at the ripe old age of 14, is highly trained and knows her job well. Fully tacked or without saddle and bridle, she can perform full reining patterns and execute just about any maneuver asked of her. Oddly, if I haven’t ridden in a while, my horses tend to be even sharper with their bridle-less cues (riding without rein contact), as if they are concentrating harder. After a few days, I can feel their acute attention level starting to wane (which is totally how I was in school too). Although riding Annie is not exciting or challenging for me (because I enjoy training green horses so much), it’s always fun to ride my little fancy sports car. She’s smooth, quick-footed, and highly responsive. I love this little mare because I can ride her at the highest level, then turn around and take her up in the mountains for a fabulous trail ride, then the next day, put my friend and beginner rider on her. This little horse is all in.
Pepperoni, my 5-year-old gelding, is following closely behind Annie in terms of training and reliability. I was thrilled that after a month without riding, I was able to step in the stirrup and take off for a-great ride, without looking back. He was mellow and engaged, trying as hard as usual to be the very best. Since he is younger and actually a quite energetic soul, I expected we would need to burn off a little extra rocket fuel. But he was actually quite mellow and attentive; a sure sign of maturity! With no good reason to do anything different, I brought Pepper along slowly in his training, focusing more on the classical progression of training, on correctness, and laying a solid foundation. I have to say, that has paid off big, and now he is close to finished, without having been jammed on, and I can ask almost anything of him. His solid foundation of training means that he responds fully to my aids and that I have 100% nose-to-tail body control. This means he can do pretty much anything I ask, as long as I ask correctly. He’s truly been a joy to train and a fun horse to have as a partner.
Later this week, I head back to the C Lazy U Ranch for the inaugural Horsemanship Immersion clinic. This is a program I’ve dreamed of for years and had innumerable requests for—a complete immersion into the study of horses and horsemanship. This program is not for the casual rider; it is specially designed for the person who simply cannot learn enough and is never fully satiated at a regular clinic—always yearning for more. I designed this program for me—and all the equestrians just like me! With a laboratory of more than 200 riding horses to study and play with, the program offers six seminars, nine hands-on workshops, plus equitation lessons and trail riding, all in the glorious setting of a 5,000 acre ranch in the Rocky Mountains, and the “five-spur” meals and accommodations that the Ranch is famous for. We’ll study horse behavior, conformation, ground training, health, nutrition, first aid, saddle fitting and bits, just to name a few. Can it possibly get any better than that?
Although this year’s Immersion program is full, we will be offering the program again next year; same time, same station. Check out my 2022 schedule here. I’m optimistic that 2022 will bring us even closer to our ‘before times’ normalcy. I have a full horse expo schedule slated for the spring, plus four exciting programs at the C Lazy U, plus a return to Ireland for a fabulous vacation-clinic with Connemara Equestrian Escapes. I’m so excited to return there, riding and touring the amazing Irish countryside with another adventurous group of riders—stay tuned for more information on that (with limited spots available, this program will fill quickly!).
My young horse, Pepperoni, was just a tender 2-year-old with about 30 days undersaddle when I first ventured outside the arena with him. On that day, my number one goal was to make sure he had a positive experience, so I enlisted the help of a friend with a seasoned, calm gelding to act as a good role model. But as luck would have it, shortly after venturing outside his known universe, we encountered a horse-eating monster that both horses feared.
The toppled-over trash trash can was sticking halfway out onto the dirt road we were riding on, the lid free floating and wavering slightly in the breeze—just the kind of thing a horse would have trouble deciphering. Clearly, to a horse, it was a danger of the worst kind—unknown and unidentifiable. I knew for certain that the way both horses negotiated this scary obstacle would have lasting impacts on my young horse’s development.
One minute we were happily on an adventure, then the lead horse perked his ears and balked at the trash can, causing Pepper to think twice about how much fun this adventure would be. Expecting the worst, I immediately deployed my trademark de-spooking techniques and started the game to convert his fearful behavior to curiosity.
Pepper took the bait right away, his willingness to approach the scary object growing. His delight in the praise that followed him touching the trash can with his nose sealing the deal. On the very first time this young horse spooked undersaddle, I was successful in converting his fear to investigative behavior.
Now a well-trained 5-year-old that has climbed all over the high mountain trails, Pepperoni has had occasion to be fearful, but he always responds in the same way—the way he learned to manage his fear on his first time out.
Contributing Factors That Lead to a Horse’s Fear
There are certain situations where a normally calm and confident horse can become anxious. Understanding the scenarios where this is likely to happen helps the rider be proactive, stay in control, and even alleviate the horse’s fear before it panics.
A horse’s fear can be triggered suddenly, as in the case of a deer jumping out of the brush, or it can build slowly as the horse’s anxiety increases, until at some point the horse meets a thresh-hold that causes meltdown. Being aware of changes in the horse’s emotional state helps a rider take action to alleviate anxiety before it reaches threshold.
As herd animals, horses find safety in numbers, and the thought of being alone to face danger is overwhelming to many horses. The same horse that is calm and confident on the trail in the company of other horses can turn into a scared rabbit when out alone. Only horses that are confident, experienced, and well-trained will handle riding alone into strange environments.
Along the same lines, horses will obviously have more fearful behavior in areas they are unfamiliar with than they will in known environments. The same thing is true of riding with unknown horses (stranger danger). Again, with more training and experience, and a confident rider holding the reins, horses will build confidence over time (we call it seasoning) in new environments or when riding with strange horses.
Additionally, “fresh” horses that have not had much riding lately may be lacking confidence, and may also be over-reactive to stimuli. But horses can display more anxiety than normal for more hard-to-understand reasons (like pain or changes in herd dynamics). Also, when something inexplicably changes in a horse’s well-known environment (like a new banner hanging on the arena fence that wasn’t there yesterday), it can cause a dramatic reaction.
Every horse is a little bit different in what causes its fear and how it responds in these types of situations. The more experience a rider has with a horse, the easier it is to predict the situations that will trigger fear.
Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.
Often people confuse desensitizing and de-spooking. When done correctly, it’s easy and fast to desensitize a horse to scary or aversive stimuli, like fly spray, the water hose, or clippers. I prefer the desensitizing technique known as “advance and retreat.” In just a few minutes, I can eliminate the horse’s fear of that stimulus. During desensitizing, with repeated advances of the scary stimulus, the horse knows the scary thing is coming and is prepared.
Spooking generally occurs when the horse is in an unknown situation and the unexpected happens. This is quite different from the controlled setting in which desensitizing occurs. It’s not really possible to “spook-proof” or “bombproof” a horse, but by using my de-spooking techniques, it is not hard to teach them to gain confidence by converting their fear to curiosity.
Fear vs. Curiosity
As prey animals and as flight animals, horses naturally have a high level of fear in new situations or stimuli. While some horses are more prone to flight than others, fearful behavior is instinctive, and it is what keeps them alive. But horses are also instinctively curious and investigative once fear has been ruled out.
Through training, we can teach horses to convert their fear to curiosity—by ruling out flight, letting the horse know it’s safe, and waiting for the moment he turns his attention forward. While training won’t change a horse’s temperament, it will teach the horse to manage its fear differently and help the horse find confidence.
Important Skills for the Rider
How the rider responds to a horse’s anxiety can make or break the situation. Having a proper, balanced position in the saddle, being centered with the horse’s center of gravity, and sitting in a relaxed manner, not only instills confidence in the horse, but also allows the rider to move fluidly with the horse when the horse becomes reactive.
Having quiet hands that are reaching well forward and giving, rather than clenching and grabbing helps a horse remain calm and focused. Imagine how the horse feels when it begins having anxiety and then its mouth is grabbed unexpectedly, causing it pain. Transmitting fear through the reins is very common and rarely has a good effect.
Furthermore, developing good rein handling skills is important in all matters of riding—that means knowing how to properly hold the reins, what the correct rein length is for the situation, and how to shorten and lengthen reins easily and quickly, without looking or fumbling. Knowing how to use the tools properly is critical to success.
Most importantly, to successfully manage fearful behavior in a horse, the rider or handler must have the ability to keep thinking and keep riding (or keep connected with the horse from the ground).
React, But Don’t Over-React
One should always be prepared to deal with sudden reactions from the horse, particularly when riding in an uncontrolled or unknown environment. That means having good situational awareness (paying attention to your surroundings), monitoring the horse’s emotional state, having the correct rein length to respond appropriately, and knowing how to execute the emergency stop.
One of the most valuable skills a rider can deploy when a horse becomes fearful is to keep riding, keep communicating with the horse, and stay in the moment—rather than freeze up like a deer in the headlights.
When a rider freezes up, clamps on the reins, or simply becomes passive, things rarely go well. Instead, taking the initiative to guide the horse through its fear, giving it clear cues to keep a dialogue going, and redirecting the horse’s focus will allow the rider to stay in control—and let the horse know it’s safe.
The worst response to a horse’s fearful behavior would be for the rider or handler to act afraid. If the horse’s behavior triggers the flight-or-fight response in the rider, it validates and exacerbates the fear. As herd animals, horses tend to adopt the emotions of those around them. So when the rider shows fear, the horse reacts in kind.
The opposite is also true—if the rider takes a deep breath, sits back and relaxes, acting as if there’s no problem, it transmits a lack of concern and instills confidence in both horse and human.
Fearful Behavior Can Be Managed
Riding in balance, with a relaxed back, deep seat, and an open pelvis will make riding out a serious spook much easier. Having good situational awareness and managing rein length helps a rider be prepared to deal with almost any reactive behavior from the horse. Teaching a horse that flight is not an option, and that curiosity will always be rewarded, will go a long way to eliminate flight behavior.
Having all the skills and knowledge you need to be safe on a reactive horse may seem foreboding, but it is attainable. Knowing how to respond to a spook will yield great confidence—for you and your horse—in all riding situations.
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Here in the Colorado Rockies, fall comes early, but we have been blessed with exceptionally warm days and normally cool nights, with about a 50-degree difference from the low to high temps. If we ride early, we are bundled up for the cold, but by mid-morning the layers come off. It’s obvious the horses are enjoying the cooler weather, but by morning, they are all positioning themselves for the first rays of heat from the sun.
This week, we head up to the C Lazy U Ranch, for my annual Ranch Riding Adventure clinic (one of the most popular programs I offer). It’s the perfect time of year to be in the Colorado mountains, as the trees are changing and the weather is mild. It’s the best time of year to ride in the mountains, and we do a lot of it in the four days of the clinic: four riding sessions a day (including trail obstacles and ranch riding lessons), guided trail rides, cattle sorting, plus a horsemanship clinic with me. Although this clinic stays in a perpetual state of full, it’s worth the wait to contact C Lazy U and get on the waitlist for 2022.
Our temporary resident, Remington, will finally head back to his home ranch at the C Lazy U this week, after living at my ranch as a wildfire refugee for the last 11 months.
Remi’s mother is a Clydesdale mare named Joy, purchased in the spring of 2020 as a trail horse, and unbeknownst to the ranch, was pregnant. Remi was born on October 1, 2020, an unexpected but happy surprise at the renowned guest ranch.
When wildfires threatened the ranch last fall, the remuda of 200 horses was evacuated—not once, but twice. Remi was just 3 weeks old, and not old enough to run with the herd yet, so he and Joy came to live with us.
Baby horses are meant to be born in the early spring so that they have the whole summer of good feed and warm weather to grow up before their first winter comes. October is not a good time for a horse to be born in Colorado, so we knew Remi and his mother would need some extra support.
We jumped at the opportunity to help out the ranch and to take care of Remi for the winter. It’s been so much fun to watch him grow up. By all appearances, he is a purebred Clydesdale, and some days it seemed that if he held still long enough, you could actually see him grow. He is almost 12 months old now, and he’s bigger than the average adult horse!
This is my first experience raising a draft horse baby, so maybe they are all this way, but I find this young horse to be exceptionally brave and willing. He’s always happy to see us, and will run across the pasture to greet you. He thinks of people as his “entertainment committee,” and is always eager to go on an adventure with us.
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I’m not a big fan of over-handling young horses, but knowing how big he would get, we made sure to give him the halter training he needed, and to teach him some basic manners like leading, standing, tying, feet handling, standing for fly spray, etc. Since he hadn’t been in a horse trailer since the fire evacuations, we thought we would reintroduce him before the trip home this week. Like a mature and brave horse, he stepped right up and happily gulped down the tasty grain he found inside. Trailering is apparently not a problem!
Once he is back at the ranch, he will get acquainted with a few of the younger draft horses there, and stay in a pen with them for a few weeks so that they can form a bond. Eventually, alongside his new homies, he will be turned out with the herd of 200 horses.
The entire herd is kept on a huge mountain meadow at night, and they come into the corrals at the ranch headquarters each morning, where the horses are caught and saddled for trail riding. At the end of the day, the herd runs back out to pasture to graze, socialize, and rest. Out in the meadow, they split up into smaller factions for the night before they gather up again in the morning to head back to the corrals.
It’s unlikely Remi will hook up with his mom again since she has likely forgotten him and found her own bonds. Instead, he will hang with the boys and learn to make his own way in the herd. Of course, the wranglers will keep a close eye on him to make sure. In a year or two, he will begin his saddle training and start learning the trails, first as a guide’s horse, and eventually becoming a guest horse.
It’s sure been fun to have a youngster in the barn, watch him grow and learn, and play a part in shaping his future. He’s handsome and regal, not to mention a giant yearling. I’m going to miss seeing our own personal version of a Budweiser commercial running across our fields each day, but I look forward to seeing him settled back at his home ranch and watching him grow up to be a legendary horse there.
I’m pretty sure no one loves horses more than I do, but I know a lot of you who love them just as much. We’ve cultivated a small herd of great riding horses, plus one or two geriatrics living out their golden years at my ranch, and I take great joy watching them every day. Horses have given a lot of themselves to humankind throughout history and today, asking for no more than security and comfort in return.
Owning and caring for horses is fulfilling—way beyond the beautiful vistas as they graze, or the pleasure of watching their subtle communications and clever antics, and even beyond the fun of riding. Anyone who has cared for horses daily enjoys the warmth of their early morning nickers, the mental therapy of raking, the satisfaction of a clean barn, the soothing sounds of horses munching away, and the give-and-take relationship you develop with each horse.
Horses give me exercise and build my strength and confidence. They make me think, organize and plan every day. They warm my heart, make me laugh (a lot), relieve my heartache, and offer the therapy I need.
For 10,000 years, horses have found ways to make themselves useful to humans. Maybe it’s time we give something back.
Focus on One at a Time
Watching my own healthy and happy horses frolic in the fields, knowing they will be tucked securely into their cozy barn at night with an all-you-can-eat buffet of high-quality hay, it can be easy to forget that there are tens of thousands of horses in this country alone that need our help.
Each year, thousands of horses find themselves at risk, often after serving humans well for decades. They are at risk of homelessness, neglect, starvation, and abuse. Tens of thousands of horses cross our northern and southern borders each year in semi-trucks bound for slaughter because they got lost in the system.
The numbers are staggering, and when I see my horses galloping in the fields, I shudder to think how different their lives may have been.
But here’s the cool thing—if even a fraction of the people out there who are qualified to help horses would step up and help just one horse, the problem could be solved in no time. Instead of focusing on saving all the horses, what if each of us just helped one?
There are thousands of good people all over the country—professionals and volunteers—working right now to help as many horses as they can. I’ve worked with The Right Horse Initiative for a few years to help with the messaging about horses that are in transition and in need of our help.
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I am an advisor and occasional guest instructor for the Right Horse Program at Colorado State University, which focuses on training and repurposing horses into careers as therapeutic horses, lesson horses, and recreational horses, and thus securing their future (while educating the horse trainers of tomorrow).
I love training horses and have some skill in that department, particularly as it relates to problem horses or riding horses. Since I have accommodations for an extra horse, I’ve enjoyed fostering the occasional rescue horse, helping it gain the manners and skills it needs to be successful in adoption. If I do my job well as their “foster trainer,” the once at-risk horse will transform into a skilled, beautiful and wanted horse who melts hearts at first sight.
What I personally have to offer to horses in need everywhere is my training services—one horse at a time—to help them find forever homes, and then I can move on to help another horse. I graciously accept the support I get from the ASPCA, and Nexus Equine in the adoption process and with the foster horses’ healthcare needs, and together we strive to create awareness and educate the public about horses in transition.
Obviously not everyone is equipped to offer horse training help—but everyone can offer help in some way
There are a lot of horses out there In need! Whether through donations, volunteering, fostering, adopting a horse that needs you, or simply just helping to create awareness, there’s something you can do to help horses in transition.
The Truth of the Matter
Meet my latest foster horse, Truth. I think Truth is the poster child for incredible horses that can get lost in transition from one home to another who deserve a loving, secure home. Truth Takes Time is her official name. She’s a registered Thoroughbred who spent her adolescent years running her guts out at the racetrack, then temporarily became a pleasure horse before becoming a broodmare. A decade and five babies later, at the precarious age of 18, she found herself unemployed and homeless.
Luckily for Truth, she was scooped up by the ASPCA’s safety net, the Regional Care Center in Oklahoma City, given the health screenings and past-due health maintenance she needed (teeth, feet, deworming, etc.). A microchip was implanted in her neck that will make it easy to identify her should she ever get lost in the system again, and it will forever keep the safety net of the ASPCA around her.
After passing the health screenings, we worked together with Nexus Equine in Oklahoma City to bring Truth to Colorado. This took an entire network of transportation—rescue operations all over the country that get horses where they need to be in order to have a bright future. That’s a lot of people helping—one horse at a time.
Truth arrived at my ranch on April 1, 2021, but she’s no April Fool’s joke. She’s a gorgeous and typical Thoroughbred—a chestnut mare who looks a lot like the picture of her grandsire, Secretariat, that hangs on my office wall. She’s athletic, sweet, loves to race the other horses in the field, and is apparently afraid of nothing. She came to me looking rather pot-bellied, wormy, and sagging in all the wrong places. Today, she is healthy, fit and shiny like a new copper penny, after 5 months of high-quality feed and Cosequin ASU Joint & Hoof Pellets.
Originally, my intention was to restart this mare under saddle, and I did without any red flags. I rode her in the arena and out in the open, but later on we discovered an arthritic condition in her spine. Even though it is perfectly treatable by a capable veterinarian, we decided that Truth has probably done enough for people in her life, and she doesn’t need to start a third career as a recreational riding horse.
Think Outside of the Saddle
The good news is, you don’t have to ride horses to enjoy them! Riding sports aren’t the horse’s only purpose, and there are plenty of folks who own horses and don’t ride. Horses can serve so many functions from companion animals, to ground lessons, to in-hand activities like obstacles, liberty, or in-hand dressage (FYI: Truth would rock at this!). But nothing beats the satisfaction of providing a safe forever home to a horse that deserves it and appreciates it.
After 5 months of training, Truth’s physical condition has blossomed. She enjoys attention from people now, she keeps her mini herd well organized (she supervises one ancient old friend and a yearling Clydesdale colt), and has learned the polite manners of a family horse (versus a race horse). She requires no special food or health treatments, she’s very sound, and she comes with a year’s supply of Cosequin ASU Joint & Hoof Pellets.
I am also offering a private clinic to the family that is lucky enough to adopt her. If you think you are the right fit, click here to get in touch.
If Truth’s not for you, there’s another horse out there that needs your help. There are rescues in your area and they all need our support. The numbers of horses at risk in this country are huge, but so are the hearts of people who love horses.
To find out how you can help horses in transition, please go to MyRightHorse.org.
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As the days shorten, I’ve been frantically trying to squeeze in all the activities I wanted to do this summer. The older I get, the shorter the summers are, and it’s hard to get enough trail riding, camping, boating, fishing, mountain biking and paddling. But I have given it the college try this summer and I haven’t given up yet!
My personal horses, Annie and Pepperoni, stay in regular daily training to keep them fit and tuned. Pepper is still young, so I look for new experiences for him all the time, even simple ones. Recently, my brother visited us after a motorcycle race and I was pleased to have an opportunity to “desensitize” him to a motorcycle approaching from in front and behind.
For Pepper, it was a big “ho-hum.” That’s what I would expect from him. He’s very brave and unconcerned and seems to always understand what’s going on around him. I’m sure he just figured it was a very loud bicycle. I am also not naïve enough to think he’s fully desensitized to it since he was at home where he is most confident and emotionally stable. Out on an unfamiliar trail by himself could be a whole different reaction. But it’s a good start!
Annie, my go-to finished horse, is middle-aged now, and although her training is excellent and she is a total blast to ride—with tack and without—she’s starting to get more herd-bound. We have to diligently separate her from the geldings and make sure she focuses on the job at hand—not the other horses.
As long as we keep this part of her daily routine, she does well. If we left her in the herd for weeks on end, things would be much different. Middle-aged horses and mares tend to become more emotionally dependent on the herd as they age. If you missed my blog on this subject, check it out here.
Truth, the Thoroughbred mare I have in foster training, has come a long way in the last 4 months and is ready for adoption!
I am partnering with Nexus Equine to find the ideal home for her. She’s a beautiful, brave, athletic, sweet mare, and is best suited for a family that wants a horse to enjoy non-riding activities like in-hand dressage or agility. Although I was riding Truth without issues, an xray of her back revealed an arthritis condition that is not conducive to riding. It’s treatable, but in the best interest of Truth, we decided to find a non-riding home for her.
We continue to work with Truth daily for grooming, ground manners, and further training in non-riding activities. She’s gone from a skinny, wormy-looking, potbellied, defensive horse, to a beautiful, sleek mare, greets you at the gate and who loves the attention she gets.
I look forward to finding her new family—and I am offering a private clinic to them to make sure everyone gets along well. If you’re interested, please contact me.
In the 8 weeks of warmer weather left for me, I’m going to squeeze in as much riding and outdoor sports as I can. This year has been challenging in many ways, making the time I spend with my horses all the more meaningful.
At my ranch, we have seven geldings and one mare. When we brought my new foster mare, Truth, in for training the two mares were instantly drawn to each other like magnets. At first, it was sweet how much they loved each other. Then it became obvious that the otherwise sweet and compliant mares would resemble fire-breathing dragons if we ever tried to separate them.
Both mares became so attached at the hip that even a momentary separation of 10 feet would send both mares into a complete tizzy. Ultimately, we had to separate the mares, and only allowed them to interact when we got them out for training—while working, they were required to follow protocol and behave as they were trained to act. We were able to nip the undesirable behavior in the bud, and the mares went back to their cooperative old selves.
Though highly inconvenient to humans, gregarious behavior (or an unyielding desire to be with others in the herd) is one of the strongest instinctive drives of equines. Often thought of as an affliction by horse owners, a herd-bound horse may display anxious, panicky and undesirable behaviors when it is either taken away from the herd by itself, or are left behind after other horses are removed.
This is a natural, instinctively driven behavior of horses, and it’s an omni-present condition—although most horses are trained to overcome it. There are no quick-fixes to herd-bound behavior, but horses can certainly be taught to accept separation from the herd, and stay calm and obedient despite it. A recent question from one of my podcast listeners, Barbara, reminded me of how imposing this instinctive behavior can be.
Can a horse be desensitized to separation anxiety? My alpha mare is boarded with a pasture mate. We’ve been there for about 2 years. My mare will happily go out alone, but if her BFF even goes around the corner, she goes crazy—running the pasture fence line, screaming and working herself into a lather.
The other horse (also a mare) does not go out alone often, actually rarely, but it is stressful to watch [my mare]. Luckily, she has not hurt herself—yet. We have just started trying to have the other horse lead away for a short time, then come back to see if my mare will calm down when she leaves. Can this—or will this—work? Or are we just causing her more stress?
It’s an excellent question Barbara, and it made me realize that there is an important ingredient for retraining the herd-bound horse, beyond simply separating the horses, that is usually omitted from the recipe for success. But before we talk about the secret sauce, it’s important to fully understand the depth of your horse’s behavior first.
What’s the Big Deal?
For a prey animal, separation from the herd feels like a death sentence. Horses only live in a herd setting, never solitary, because they are reliant on the herd for detecting and fending off predators. You cannot eliminate this instinct, but you can train the horse to override its instinctive urges.
Separation anxiety can rear its ugly head in two common scenarios—one occurs when you take a horse away from the safety and comfort of its herd and it becomes uncooperative (often referred to as barn sour). The other form of separation anxiety happens when a horse’s companion is taken away and it’s left alone, herd-less, to fend for itself.
What many horse owners like Barbara have come to realize is that the latter scenario—the horse that is left behind—is often the hardest to deal with. In other words, the horse you take out of the pen to ride is not as big a problem as the one you leave in the pen. This typically takes the form of running, pacing the fence line, and calling out with increasing panic that escalates unless intervention occurs.
Less dramatic, but just as frustrating, is herd-bound behavior in the horse you take out to ride, if it refuses to cooperate. This often involves impatience, fidgeting, pawing, head shaking, stomping, calling out, ignoring the handler/rider, ignoring trained cues, and downright refusing to do what is asked or to leave the proximity of the herd. It may escalate to blatant disobedience, tantrums, and threats of bucking or rearing from the horse.
Temperament, training, and routine handling all affect herd-bound behavior. There’s not much we can do to change a horse’s temperament but training, regular handling, and teaching a horse how to act appropriately will make an impact on the horse. All horses are instinctively prone to these behaviors, yet for many horses this never becomes an issue.
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It’s important to remember that herd-bound behavior is normal for horses. It is only through training and experience that horses gain a comfort level with being alone and/or accept a human as a suitable substitute for the herd. Younger horses may be more independent and more willing to leave the herd, while middle-aged and older horses may become increasingly herd bound. I suspect the same pressures that cause differences in the behavior of humans at various stages of their lives, also affects horses. As we age, security becomes increasingly important.
Horses are not only instinctively drawn to the herd (affected by herd gravity), but they also form bonded relationships within the herd (the double whammy). By nature, horses form deep mutual alliances with one other horse in the herd (at the most two). Horse people call them buddies, behaviorists call them associates, and many other people would probably call it friendship.
It can certainly be the case that a horse is not only unwilling to leave the herd, but it also deeply fears any momentary physical separation from its buddy. So, if you remove the associate, even if the other horse remains in a herd setting it may still be emotionally overwrought with separation anxiety. In the case of herds of two horses, when the buddy is removed and there are no other herd mates there, the horse experiences the worst anxiety.
Horses are creatures that thrive on routine and sameness, for the security and predictability it brings them. They are fast learning, detect patterns quickly, and learn routines easily. When a horse is regularly separated from the herd, handled by people, tied up and groomed, and ridden or trained daily, herd bound problems go away because this is part of the horse’s normal routine, and it has reached a comfort level with it.
On the other hand, if the horse is left in the pen with the other horses, day in and day out, with only occasional removal and handling for vet or farrier, the herd becomes its whole world and separation is unthinkable.
Will Gradual Desensitization Work? It can, but only if you have the secret ingredient. Removing or separating the horses is necessary to reprogram the horse, but it’s only half of the equation. Whether you are dealing with a barn sour horse that throws a fit when you ask it to leave the barnyard, or the left-behind horse that runs a rut in the ground when you take its buddy away, the secret is in what you do after the separation.
It’s not the length of the separation that matters, whether it’s short or long, it’s bringing the horse back to a calm and compliant state of mind before returning it to the herd (or reuniting it with its cohort) that has the greatest impact. In other words, if you remove the buddy horse for a short time but return it while the left-behind horse is emotionally overwrought, you have further reinforced the undesirable behavior. The left-behind horse believes its emotional outbursts caused the buddy horse to return, so it is certain to act the way next time.
Whatever the horse is doing at the moment you release the pressure, is what you just trained the horse to do. This is a universal truth that applies to all matters of training horses—timing is everything. If the horse only gets relief once it has settled, taken a deep breath, and returned to its normal compliant state, then that is the behavior you have reinforced. Bringing the horse back to a calm and thinking state of mind once it is separated and before returning it to the herd, must occur in order to reprogram the horse’s behavior.
Unbinding the Herd-Bound Horse Now that you know that the secret sauce for curing herd-bound behavior is in managing and redirecting the horse’s emotions before reuniting them, I’ll share my formula for teaching a horse to deal with its separation anxiety. I’m assuming you are starting with a trained horse that acts appropriately when it is not having separation anxiety—that you have control and cooperation from the horse otherwise, and that these problems only occur when the horse is isolated from other horses. If your horse is always out of control, this plan won’t work—that horse needs more basic training.
Step One: Create a New Routine On a daily basis, you’ll need to separate the horse from the herd and do the same routine with it—maybe some groundwork, followed by grooming, followed by some time spent tied up. The first day will be the hardest, with the most emotionality, but with each passing day, the horse learns what comes next and comes to accept the routine. Consistency is key. When it happens every day, the same way, at least 5-6 days a week (no one ever said horse training was easy), the horse trains to a new routine quickly.
Step Two: Manage Emotionality The key to success is in reminding the horse how good it feels to be relaxed. Anxiety, anger and frustration are the primary emotions of the horse you’ll be managing. Your own emotions must be relentlessly calm and steady. Treating the horse’s emotionality as a mental health issue and not a training issue, will help the horse the most. My first goal is always to reduce the horse’s anxiety by asking it to lower its head to the ground and cue it to take a deep breath by taking one myself.
To cue the horse to relax, I exaggerate my body language and breathing to exude calmness (shoulders rounded, energy low, averted eyes, deep sighs). I’ll stroke and soothe the horse as it relaxes, to show the horse that being relaxed feels better than being anxious. It is not hard to get an anxious horse addicted to calmness, but you must show them how to do it—lower the head and take a deep breath. After a few days of this, the horse will start lowering its own head when it feels anxious, in an attempt to self-medicate.
For many horses, especially the hotter, flightier horses, movement may be soothing but it may also wind a horse up, as in the case of the left-behind horse frantically running up and down the fence. Sometimes allowing a horse to move its feet helps it calm down—walking quietly, turning right, then left, then right. But moving it around with quick, abrupt, or harsh transitions and changes of direction is not calming.
When I have a problem with a left-behind horse that is panicked when left in the pen, instead of allowing the horse to pace frantically, winding itself up and potentially hurting itself, I will simply tie it up in a safe and comfortable place. When you take away its ability to frantically pace, and when the horse is trained to stand tied, it will usually settle down once you do. My horses prefer to be caught and tied up when we take the other horses out, even if we are not riding them—it makes them feel part of the action and it’s way better than being the only one left behind.
Step Three: Engage the Mind and Regain Focus Once you’ve addressed the out-of-control emotions of the horse, it’s time to engage its mind, get it thinking, and remind the horse of what it knows. Sometimes it seems like the herd-bound horse has completely forgotten all its training, but horses never forget. Put the horse to work, giving it cues and expecting a response, as soon as its mind settles.
When engaging the horse’s mind, I’ll revert back to the simplest commands that I’m sure the horse knows. Go, stop, turn right, turn left, slow down, speed up. All I want is for the horse to listen, think, and respond like it is trained to do. This almost always has a calming effect on the horse as its mind becomes engaged and it reverts to the comfort of what it knows.
This is not the time to ask for the hard stuff or train something new. It is the time to remind the horse that it knows how to act and respond. Most importantly, I want to use this time to re-establish my connection with the horse. I want the horse to give me even the most basic response so that I can praise it copiously and remind it how good it feels to get back to normal.
Engaging the horse’s mind by giving it known cues, waiting for the appropriate response, then releasing and praising the horse, will always help when a horse is feeling anxious. Do this with the horse that is left behind too—leaving it to its own devices will not work.
Step Four: Reimpose Known Rules of Behavior Presumably, your horse has established manners and rules of behavior that you normally expect from the horse. During times of emotional duress, the horse may temporarily become unresponsive or disregard these rules. Your job, as the leader, is to redirect the horse’s behavior (not punish) and remind it of your expectations.
Engaging the horse’s mind by asking it to comply with simple commands will help you reimpose the rules of behavior (manners). But this is where the onus comes to you. If you have established good manners in your horse, aside from the separation issue, you can retrieve the horse quickly. If you have not established good leadership with the horse in the best of times, how can you expect it in the worst of times?
Normally, I expect my horses to stand still whenever I ask. I require them to stand tied for some time every day, I teach them to ground tie and practice it regularly, and I always reinforce standing still once I have asked it of the horse. So, when the horse temporarily loses it and is frantically dancing around, I have known skills and known expectations to fall back on, as I ask the horse to comply and remind it of what it knows. If you have not done this foundational work up front, you have nothing to fall back on when the horse becomes overwrought. That’s your bad.
Time Well Spent While herd-bound behavior is a constant presence with horses, with proper training and handling, it is completely manageable. All horses are prone to becoming herd-bound, yet most riding horses have learned to cope. It’s not an affliction of the horse—it’s normal behavior.
When herd-bound behavior becomes a problem, it generally stems from a lack of training and handling, or inadequate training and handling. As I mentioned, no one ever said horse training was easy or a part-time job, but these are totally solvable problems—if you make the investment of time and energy your horse requires. If I had a quick fix to offer, I’d be the wealthiest horse trainer of all time.
Fixing the herd-bound horse is not possible to do in one day, and it requires your full commitment and relentless consistency. Before your horse lets go of its anxiety about being separated from other horses, it must get comfortable and relaxed spending time with you, accept your leadership, and feel safe with you. Ultimately, you are the secret ingredient, and the responsible party.
Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.
I’ll admit, it’s been a bit of a lazy summer for me, and I’ve had lots of time to enjoy my horses in a more casual way. With no clinics, expos or tv projects looming in my immediate future, and no deadlines to meet or now-or-never things I must accomplish, it’s been refreshing to just play with my horses.
Pepperoni and I were recently called into action on a search & rescue mission for our old Lab, Samantha, who panicked and bolted the night of July 4th when the fireworks started. She was with us while we were out in the barn checking on the horses (also unsettled from the fireworks)—one minute she was by our side, and the next minute she was gone. For hours we combed through chest-high hay fields in the dark, stumbling over hidden irrigation ditches, searching for our frail old friend.
Calling off the search at midnight, we went to bed with heavy hearts. In the morning, we were alerted that someone had found her and taken her in right after she fled. It turns out she had a lovely night of attention from kids, lots of treats, and sleeping on a comfy bed. I was proud of Pepper’s willingness to leave the barnyard—in the dark and by himself. He proved himself a reliable first mate!
My lovely QH mare, Annie, is also doing well. Without much pressure on her to perform, she’s mostly in a maintenance stage of training. Finished in the bridle (and sans bridle), skilled at just about anything you’d ask a Western horse to do, and awesome on the trail, she’s a valuable horse to have in my quiver.
I love having a horse that I can teach from, make videos with, trail ride, and that is also gentle enough to put friends on. But having the time to devote attention to more than one personal horse is challenging, even for a trainer. Fortunately, I have Mel to help me keep all the horses exercised and ridden.
My beautiful foster horse, Truth Takes Time, has impressed us all with just how far she has come in the last few months. She’s gained weight, improved her topline significantly, lost her giant broodmare belly, and the fluidity of her gaits has improved tenfold!
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She’s gone from burying her head in the corner of the stall when you approach with a halter, to eagerly meeting us at the gate and nickering for attention. She’s transformed from angry and defensive about being touched to practically loving her grooming time. At every step of her training, she’s proven herself to be a willing partner.
Truth is also great in the herd. She’s bold and brave, but gets along well with others, and she has become Remington’s newest nanny. He’s a 9-month-old Clydesdale colt that is temporarily living with us until he is old enough to run with the herd of 200 horses at the C Lazy U Ranch.
We plan to take Remi back to his home ranch in September, when I head up there for my annual Ranch Riding Adventure clinic. We sure will miss having the little squirt around. He always makes us laugh. But it will be fun to see him repatriated to the herd and start the rest of his life as a trail horse for the guest ranch. I predict he will become a legendary trail horse at the C Lazy U and that he will be one of the most sought after horses there. I’ll look forward to seeing him every time I come up there for a clinic—I just hope he remembers his humble beginnings.
You’d think that after a lifetime of riding and training horses and working with literally thousands of horses that I’d become jaded or come to take them for granted. In fact, the opposite has happened. With each year that goes by, with every decade spent with horses behind me, I become more amazed by these generous, intelligent and compelling animals—and their seemingly bottomless desire to do the bidding of humans. Horses make us better people.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent interview I heard with the author of Horse Crazy, Sarah Maslin Nir, a book I am now in the middle of reading. She said, “Over the millennia, we have bred horses to be useful to mankind and perfectly useless to themselves. They are not meant to exist outside us—we owe them a lot.” There’s a lot of depth to that statement.
She also said, “Some people like to describe [horsemanship] as a partnership like two dancers. But that’s not really the way it is because one partner is made to capitulate.” I think this is also a meaningful statement, and a truth that is often overlooked by riders. I think this book is a delightful and provocative read, full of fun anecdotes and a lot of factual, historical, and science-based information about horses. The audio version is read by the author—that’s always a favorite of mine. It may not be the perfect beach read, but it’s a fantastic barn read!
I hope your summer involves some lazy and casual time with your own horses, and that you can take a moment to appreciate what incredible animals they are and how much they enrich our lives.
One of the most memorable episodes of Horse Master for me involved a lovely warmblood mare who developed a rearing problem after a successful run as a show jumper. The sweet and kind mare stood straight up as I mounted her—before I even sat down. Although sometimes rearing can become a learned response or a training problem, in this otherwise obedient and compliant horse, all the clues pointed toward pain as the cause.
Rearing occurs when the horse stands straight up on its hind legs. This behavior is often rooted in fear, but can also be a result of pain. In some instances, rearing or rear-threats may indicate a refusal to move forward, or it can occur when forward movement is inhibited.
Whether you are on the ground or in the saddle, it is one of the scariest and most dangerous behaviors of horses. Hopefully you will never have to deal with a rearing horse, but if you do, a little bit of knowledge may help you avoid some of the most common mistakes—and help keep you and your horse safe.
When it comes to rearing, it is important to fully understand the nature of this behavior and what to do when it happens. Here, I’ll discuss what causes rearing, how to avoid it, what to do if it happens, and how to keep safe when this scary and dangerous behavior is displayed.
Naturally “Light on the Forehand”
Some horses are more prone to rearing than others. In some ways, you can think of it as an expression or mannerism. While some horses are more prone to kick out, strike or shake their heads when they are feeling angst, others will tend to rear. Often, horses will threaten to rear—lifting the head and hopping up on the front feet—but never actually rear.
It is not always possible to know if the behavior a horse is displaying in the moment is instinctive or learned; this is the age-old debate of nature Vs. nurture. Rearing can easily become a learned response to get out of something the horse does not want to do, however, some horses clearly favor this behavior over others as an expression.
Regardless of whether it is a natural tendency in the horse, a learned response, or the result of a specific situation, proper handling and training will alleviate the behavior and help keep all four feet on the ground.
Even though some horses may have a natural tendency toward this behavior, all horses are capable of rearing, given the right circumstance. As with any undesirable behavior we are trying to eliminate, avoid, or train out of the horse, it helps to understand the root cause.
Pain, or fear of pain, is one of the most common root causes of many undesirable behaviors in horses. When a horse that has a history of performing well, suddenly does not, it is often a pain response. It may be the rider’s first indication of a developing physical problem, just as it was with the warm-blood mare.
It is quite common in high performance horses—jumpers, reiners, cowhorses, rope horses, barrel racers, or any horses that are training and competing in these athletically demanding sports, to suddenly refuse to participate. Often, rearing is the only way the horse has to tell you it cannot cope with the pain.
If rearing occurs when you ask a horse to perform a certain maneuver or task, particularly when it is an otherwise compliant and obedient horse, it is likely a result of pain. If this is the case, no amount of training will resolve the behavior until the pain is treated. Unless there is specific evidence that it is a learned disobedient response, not rooted in pain, the horse should be thoroughly vetted for a physical problem before any training plan is instigated.
Often, instinctive behaviors become learned behaviors with horses. They are wicked-fast learners and sometimes a horse can learn that a certain response got him what he wanted, even though initially it was an instinctive response. Perhaps the horse reared the first time due to a pain response when you asked him to perform a difficult task and in an abundance of caution, you stopped riding immediately to check the horse out.
Even though the incident was caused by pain, and even once you resolve the pain, you may still see the rearing behavior. It is possible for the horse to make an association between his rearing and you putting him away, on the very first incident. Still, you must always resolve the physical issue first, and with certainty, then come back and address the training problem once the pain is resolved.
Fear and Refusal
Rearing can easily be classified as a fear response, whether it is based in pain (the horse fears that when he does a certain movement it will hurt) or simply when the horse refuses to do something or becomes disobedient. Oddly, there are two seemingly opposite scenarios that commonly provoke rearing—a refusal to move forward or when forward motion is inhibited.
Let’s say you are asking the horse to cross running water with steep banks and creepy overhanging vegetation, and the horse is afraid for his safety and plants his feet in refusal. If you continue to push the horse forward and he is determined not to go, he may rear (or threaten to rear) in protest. Other common scenarios that provoke rearing are loading into a trailer or leaving the barnyard alone—both a refusal to move forward.
The other scenario that often provokes rearing is when forward motion is inhibited in a horse that is determined to go. Maybe you are on a trail ride with a group of horses and they take off at a fast pace while you try to hold your horse back, inhibiting its forward motion. This often provokes rearing in the horse, based on his strong instinctive fear of being left behind.
Whether rearing is the result of a refusal to move forward or when forward motion is inhibited, it is often based in fear initially. Unfortunately, the horse can easily learn to rear as a tactic to get out of something he does not want to do. It is important to take the time to alleviate the horse’s fear in a systematic way to avoid rearing if possible and once a horse does rear, to make sure he does not associate rearing with a means to avoid work.
Rearing Vs Rear Threats
A horse that rears suddenly will often stand straight up on his hind legs, in a nearly vertical position. However, a horse that is thinking about rearing and who is building up to a mutiny, may display rear threats by popping up with its front feet, just a few inches off the ground, as it throws its head up. This is a communicative gesture that means the horse is considering rearing if you keep pushing.
If a rear threat gets the horse any advantage, perceived or real, he will certainly employ the tactic again. Rear threats may or may not lead to full rearing; you do not get to know in advance. But if you are prepared to safely and confidently deal with a full-blown rear, you may want to push through the threats, insisting the horse move quietly forward, turning one way then the other.
When a horse threatens to rear and it causes the rider to ditch her plan (and cave on the directive she gave to the horse), the horse may learn that its threats have value. Sometimes this can become a favored tactic of the horse whenever it does not want to comply, holding the rider hostage to its threats. If you think you are in this situation already with a horse, you probably need the help of a trainer, or a more experienced horse person, to learn how to break this cycle.
As with all threatening behavior from horses, whether it is threatening to kick or buck or charge, when a horse threatens to rear, it could be a bluff. Many horses will learn that rear threats get them what they want, even though they may never actually rear. However, just like when people become threatening, you must take threats seriously because your safety is at stake.
Solutions to Rearing
No matter what the cause, when a horse rears, the solution is always the same– to move the horse immediately forward in whatever means is available to you, in whatever direction it will go. It is not possible for the horse to simultaneously rear and move forward. Forward motion is the antidote to rearing.
It always helps if you understand why the horse is displaying unwanted behavior. In the case of rearing, sometimes it is obvious, like the horse that refuses to leave the barn or cross water or get in a trailer; or the horse being held back while the other horses take off; or the trail horse that senses a rattlesnake ahead. In these cases, the rearing behavior may be avoided entirely or addressed through training and desensitization.
If the reason the horse is rearing is not immediately obvious, chances are good it is related to pain or fear of pain (it hurt once before). Often rearing that presents as a training problem actually stems from pain. The horse should have a thorough veterinary assessment and lameness exam before any further riding or training.
Once a physical cause is ruled out, the horse’s training can be addressed. If the cause of the rearing was indeed pain, even once fully healed, the horse may still rear, either because it has a fear-based memory of the pain or because the horse learned a new tactic to avoid work. These causes are often very difficult to distinguish and you may need the help of a professional to navigate through the horse’s behavior.
If pain is not the cause, the next most likely reason for the horse to rear is fear. Instinctive fear-based behaviors like not separating from the herd or not entering dark, closed-in spaces, or places where predators might lurk, require deliberate training to overcome. Over time we gain more control and trust from the horse, slowly building its confidence, never scaring, or endangering the horse.
In the case of a horse that is rearing in a flat-out refusal to comply with the rider’s commands, even if the reason seems obvious, a physical cause should always be considered first—it’s common for rearing to present as disobedience. But sometimes horses can learn clever tactics to manipulate riders into doing what they want (or don’t want to do), pushing boundaries on riders that lack confidence. Again, a trainer or riding instructor can generally help riders navigate through the disobedience and show more leadership to the horse.
If a horse is rearing because you are inhibiting its forward motion, holding it back when the other horses take off, the solution is simple—just let the horse move forward then worry about controlling that forward motion. Holding back a panicked horse as the rest of the herd rides away is a case of diminishing returns. Avoid that situation entirely by going with the herd or not riding with people that like to go fast. Determine what skills you need as a rider and what skills you need to train to the horse if you need to overcome this kind of rearing.
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The number one danger when a horse rears, is the potential for the horse to lose its balance, either because its feet slip, or the rider or handler pulls on the horse at precisely the wrong time, causing it to lose balance. If the horse falls over backwards, it can easily strike its poll, causing a fatal head injury, break its withers, or crush the person that gets pinned underneath. This is why it is considered one of the most dangerous behaviors of horses.
Horses that are prone to rearing are dangerous and should only be ridden by competent riders who know how to safely manage a horse that rears and a training plan should be developed to give the horse the remedial training it needs. But you may encounter rearing with no warning and suddenly find yourself in a hazardous situation. There are a few critical actions that will keep you safer in this scary situation.
When handling a horse from the ground, never pull on the lead rope of a rearing horse. When a horse rears up, pressure on its poll will make it worse, as it leans into the pressure. Since the horse uses its head and neck for balance, interference from the lead rope can make it fall. When a horse you are handling from the ground rears, hang onto the rope, but give the horse slack. Back away to keep out of the way of its flailing front hooves.
When riding a horse that rears, riders instinctively do the wrong thing, pulling back on the reins, either in fear or because of loss of balance. But just like with the horse from the ground, pulling on the reins is likely to make the horse lose balance and fall.
If a horse I am riding rears, I instantly grab around the neck to hold on and throw my weight forward and, to prevent me from pulling on reins. Keeping a rein in each hand, I hug around the horse’s neck as he ascends, and slip my feet out of the stirrups, in case the horse falls. Once it comes back down, I will send it forward immediately, in any direction I can.
Keep in mind that balking (planting all four feet and not moving) often precedes rearing. When a horse freezes up, sometimes rearing or explosive movement follows. Use your directional aids to rock the horse side-to-side, right to left to right movement, to slowly re-establish forward motion.
All in a Day’s Work
There are times and situations in which any horse would rear, and if dealt with properly and safely, the undesirable behavior goes away. It is only when a horse develops a habit of rearing, or benefits from rearing, or loses their instinctive fear of falling over that rearing becomes a critical problem in the horse’s training.
Rearing can be as dangerous to people as it is to horses and a horse with a history of rearing should only be handled and ridden by the most competent and experienced personnel, who know how to avoid the behavior and deal with it when it happens. Mistakes can be deadly and people often instinctively do the wrong thing when a horse rears. Yet when a rider has the knowledge, experience, and tools to employ, rearing can be easily managed and resolved. Always recognize that rearing is a warning sign of problems– either physical, mental, or training wise. Find the root cause and develop a plan to address the deficiencies.
Remember that lovely warm-blood mare in Horse Master? Turned out she did have an injury in her back that could be resolved with chiropractic treatment, rest, and rehab. Once cleared for riding, her owner brought her to my ranch so I could help her ease back into it. You can see that first post-injury ride I took on her at the end of the episode. That mare never missed a step, had no lingering issues, and went on to become a successful show jumper once again. Just goes to show you that sometimes all horses need is our help.
Seems like just yesterday I was complaining about winter lasting too long, and now we are enduring a record-breaking heat wave! But ours is a dry heat, and with a little breeze, we can still comfortably work horses. On the upside, it’s finally warm enough to bathe the horses and get rid of the winter build-up of gunk in their coats and on their skin.
After a thorough bathing, I can tell the horses actually feel better after being dirty for so long. (I use ShowSheen 2-In-1 Shampoo & Conditioner and scrub down to their skin with my HandsOn grooming gloves, followed by a liberal coating of ShowSheen detangler.) Best of all, their coats shine, their dapples stand out and their manes and tails flow. Of course, even though they like feeling clean, the first thing they do is go roll in the dirt, but at least the ShowSheen helps keep them stay cleaner for longer!
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My little mare, Annie, is sporting a trim waistline (for a change), and shines like a copper penny. I don’t ride her every day since she is well set in her training, although she gets daily exercise, grooming and handling.
My younger horse, Pepperoni—now 5 years old—is doing well too. My big goal for him this summer is to get him up in the high mountains. He’s bred to be a cow horse, and I think he has good talent there, although I have not had an opportunity to put him on cattle. But oddly, Pepper seems exceptionally talented as a trail horse.
He’s brave, forward moving, curious by nature, and always looks for adventure. His steady nature and eager-to-please attitude makes him the perfect equine partner. Riding horses in the high mountains of Colorado can be adventurous, and even treacherous, with steep and rocky terrain, an abundance of big game (moose and elk), and the occasional predator (mountain lions lurking in many places). Riding up in the mountains requires a strong partnership between horse and rider, and a horse that you can count on to perform in all situations. For this, Pepperoni is perfect!
Have you been following my updates on my Facebook page about my foster horse project, Truth Takes Time? She’s an 18-year-old registered Thoroughbred. She raced for 3 years, then became a broodmare for 10 years (pushing out five babies), and then came into the rescue pipeline. My job is to get her fit and shore up her training so that she becomes eligible for adoption, and will find her ideal forever family.
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I have to say, Truth is surprising even me with how fast she is putting on weight and muscle, how well she has taken to the training, and how far she has come in the two and a half months she’s been with me. You can follow her progress from the beginning on Facebook (Facebook.com/JulieGoodnight) or YouTube (YouTube.com/JulieGoodnight), and we post a new video every Thursday at noon ET.
When I first picked up Truth, she looked like a worn out broodmare—she had no muscle tone, no topline, a huge belly, and was moving rather stiffly. As is typical of Thoroughbreds, she had shelly cracked hooves, with one rather serious quarter crack that ran the full length of the hoof. With her age and history, along with the poor condition of her feet, I put her immediately on Cosequin® ASU Joint & Hoof Pellets, a brand new, cutting edge supplement, along with an all-you-can-eat buffet of high-quality alfalfa/grass mix hay, plus some senior grain.
I’m patient when it comes to complete makeovers on horses, but I’ve been shocked at how quickly this mare has come into shape! Her topline is getting stronger, she’s put on weight, and she’s moving beautifully now. In fact, we’ve recently started riding her, and she’s really getting into a groove!
She may be ready for adoption sooner than I thought, so if you have a place in your heart for a lovely, athletic, and deserving mare, take a look at her videos. Right now, there are literally thousands of great family horses like Truth that are in need of permanent homes and are available for adoption. To find out more about horse rescues in your area and what horses are available, go to MyRightHorse.org.
I fear the summer is slipping away too fast and that I won’t be able to squeeze in everything I want to do, so I’d better get moving! I hope your summer is filled with great adventures on your horse,and I’d love to see you at one of my clinics somewhere down the road.
“Many blogs, books and online training resources talk about helping you develop the relationship you always wanted to have with your horse. For example, having him meet you at the gate in the paddocks, etc. This makes me feel perhaps I should aspire to that as well.
My own horse tends to be aloof and keeps on grazing no matter where I am. I do feel we have a good connection when riding or on the ground. He trusts me and is very responsive. He is a 14-year-old Quarter Horse, who is a very sensitive, ‘hot’ type. So, is the fact that he does not run to greet me an indication that he sees me as any other ‘human,’ and I should work on developing that kind of relationship?”
Is it Me or My Horse?
As prey animals, horses are standoffish, skittish, and stoic by nature. While they are instinctively drawn to the herd and form strongly bonded relationships within, their affectionate behavior (non-reproductive) is not overt, and they often ignore each other.
Some horses are more interested in people than others, but whether this is a trait of their natural born temperament or a result of learned behavior, may be difficult to discern. Some horses are affable, friendly, and investigative by nature, but it’s not the norm. While these are highly desirable traits that can be honed by many positive associations with humans, it’s unreasonable to expect all horses to be that way, given the nature of prey animals.
Horses have strong instinctive drives, and they are also lightning-quick learners with a memory like a steel trap (important traits for prey animals). A horse with zero experience with humans would be naturally shy, but with only one encounter with humans, a horse could make a strong association, either positive or negative. This kind of learned behavior can make a horse eager to see you—or pretend you don’t exist.
For instance, if every time you approached a horse, you offered it a delectable treat, it wouldn’t be long before it was greeting you at the gate, eagerly anticipating your arrival—more accurately, the arrival of the treat. One should not mistake this behavior for anything other than what it is—acceptance of a bribe. Using food to reward a horse’s attention rarely works according to plan since horses establish dominance in the herd by taking away food from others. Still, this habit can result in a horse that eagerly awaits your arrival, but it will not create the kind of bonded relationship Benjamin is looking for.
On the other hand, consider a horse that has had repeated negative experiences with humans—either through strenuous performance training, having to work through pain, or being treated day-in and day-out for an injury or sickness. It doesn’t take long before the horse associates humans with negative emotions and avoidance behavior makes sense.
My new foster training project, a Thoroughbred mare called Truth, is a perfect case-in-point. After a decade as a broodmare, she’d learned that humans approaching her with a halter likely meant she would be put in stocks, twitched, hobbled, bred, or invasively palpated by a vet. Not surprisingly, every time we approached her pen, she would slink away and bury her head in the farthest corner of the pen—a clear message. Even though we had no such intentions, her associations were already there, and her reactions were reasonable. To change her behavior, I would need to change her associations.
Gregarious, Indifferent, or Depressed?
Since horses can be both subtle and overt in their communicative behavior, it’s important to distinguish between a horse that is gregarious, or indifferent, or depressed. Is the horse greeting you at the gate because he is interested in being with you and is looking for an adventure or because he views you as a giant cookie jar? As with any good sugar rush, it tends to be followed by a crash.
Some horses, perhaps most horses, tend to be seemingly indifferent to people and more stoic in their behavior, like Benjamin’s horse. This is far more common than the gregarious horse and should not be considered a negative trait. Sometimes stoic and aloof horses are the most tightly bonded to their humans, and often these horses are incredibly willing and dedicated to the cause.
It’s unreasonable to expect a horse to always look forward to your arrival just so he can carry you around on his back and work hard while entertaining you. It’s hard work, after all. In many cases, just accepting your presence, instead of beating feet the other way, is the best response you can hope for. Horses are much different animals than humans and we do them a disservice when we expect them to act in human ways.
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However, when a horse has made negative associations with humans, its reaction may go beyond indifference to depression and rejection. The horse that actively avoids humans by slipping away to avoid capture, may be a horse that has negative associations with humans, or one that has learned clever tricks to avoid work. But a truly depressed horse will look much different.
A traumatized horse may be depressed and shut down to external stimuli. This horse may look dull, sad, and lethargic, acting as if he doesn’t know you are there, turning his buttocks toward you, or sometimes taking more extreme defensive actions, like kicking, biting, or fleeing. These behaviors may result from hard performance training, frightening experiences, or even abusive handling. A depressed and traumatized horse needs empathy, time, space, and new associations.
Reprogramming the Aloof Horse
Whether the horse is aloof and indifferent from negative experiences with humans, because of its stoic nature, or because it has learned clever tricks to avoid people, there are ways to reprogram the horse’s thinking and create new associations. Reverse psychology is often the key that unlocks the behavior you want.
Think about what happens when a new horse is introduced to an existing herd. Without exception, the new horse gets shunned, as if the existing herd mates are saying, “We don’t like you; you stink, you’re ugly, and we don’t want you.” But the new horse always comes back, begging for acceptance. In his mind, his very survival depends on being accepted into the herd. Unless and until that new horse shows willingness to be contrite, to accept the existing hierarchy in the herd, and to be a good citizen, he will not be accepted.
That is the natural order in the herd and the way horses are programmed to act. When people come along and are desperate for the horse to show them overt signs of affection (which may be unrealistic since they don’t show overt affection to each other very often) the horse often views this as abnormal and suspicious behavior. But if you play hard to get by ignoring a horse and acting as if he is not there, acting as if you are not interested in him, suddenly he’s all over you. Acting indifferent toward your horse will often make him more interested in you.
Be the Provider
When dealing with a naturally aloof horse, a horse that has had unfortunate experiences that led to disinterest in humans, or a horse that has not had exposure to humans at all, I always start with being the provider of basic needs and I put no demands on the horse. For a few weeks, with the horse in its own pen, I will be the sole provider of the horse’s basic needs—food, water, a clean and comfortable pen, a sense of security. I will ask nothing of the horse in return and make no effort to engage the horse—acting as if I have no interest in him. In time, the horse comes to associate the presence of humans with good things and will begin to seek more engagement.
I want the horse to have positive associations with people, but I don’t need him to act in a way that makes me feel better about myself or makes me feel loved. I think it’s unreasonable to expect a horse to validate my own personal need to be accepted, or to ask him for something he’s not capable of giving. I happily accept any interest he shows in me, I just don’t beg for it or become disappointed if he ignores me.
In time, that aloof horse will act much more interested in seeing me as he learns to associate my presence with good and necessary things. That’s my cue to take it to the next level. By now, he’s feeling secure—all of his basic needs are attended to, and he’s starting to look for more engagement. Taking the horse out of his pen to go for a walk, eat some green grass or meet the other horses will enrich his life. Now the horse is well on his way to looking forward to my arrival.
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Once the horse has begun to show more interest in people, it’s time to actively reprogram the horse’s avoidance behavior. Whatever the reason for his lack of interest or active avoidance, he may have learned undesirable behaviors like walking away from you, turning his butt to you, or even defensive behaviors like threatening to kick or bite when you approach.
To reprogram the horse’s habitual behavior, I will employ a highly effective training technique called patterned conditioning. In other words, I will create a conditioned response in the horse (think Pavlov’s dog) by repeating a pattern over and over, releasing the pressure when I get the response I want. In the case of the horse that is avoiding me, it may look like this…
With a halter and lead in hand (no hiding it or using treats as a bribe), I will slowly approach the horse, displaying the most non-threatening posture I can—eyes averted, shoulders rounded, feet moving slowly, approaching the shoulder not the head. If the horse moves away, I follow, being careful not to increase the pressure (speed up or look more assertive) but not allowing the horse to get away from the pressure I am exerting with my approach. As soon as the horse stops and/or looks at me, I turn around and walk away—sometimes all the way out of the pen, completely releasing the pressure and rewarding the correct response.
I’ll give the horse a moment to think about what just happened, then I will approach it again, repeating the same pattern and turning and walking away as soon as the horse stops or shows interest in me. A horse always seeks a total cessation of pressure and turning and walking away is often the release it’s looking for. Soon the horse starts understanding that when he faces me, the pressure goes away. Before long, the horse is approaching me when I come into its pen.
A Tougher Nut to Crack
Because horses are lightning-quick learners, they often learn techniques to avoid capture and to make people leave them alone, like turning its butt and threatening to kick when you approach. It’s just a clever ploy, and I would certainly not take this personally or as an insult. It’s important to keep my own emotions out of it.
When a horse has learned to turn his butt and threaten to kick as I approach, I will step up my game a bit by irritating him when he turns tail and leaving him alone when he faces. With my halter and lead in hand, and from a safe distance in case he does kick, I will toss the halter at his rump when he turns his butt to me, then reel it back in and toss it at him again. This will bother him and at some point, he’ll turn toward me to reassess. At that moment, I will walk away, rewarding the horse for turning toward me. With a lot of repetition, I will pattern a new response in the horse, wherein he faces me every time I approach.
The hard-to-catch horse in a paddock or pasture has learned a clever game of outwitting humans. Sometimes it’s less about the capture and more about controlling the actions of the human (a game horses love). I have a lot of resource material about my techniques for reprogramming this type of behavior, with a method I call “walking the horse off.” It works 100% of the time and it teaches the horse that his clever techniques won’t work on you any more. If you need help with this, you can get more information in my online Training Library.
Accept Your Horse for Who He Is
Sometimes it’s hard not to take your horse’s reactions personally, especially when he seems indifferent to you or is actively avoiding you, but when you allow your emotions and your human expectations to get involved, you do a disservice to your horse. Taking the higher road, by having empathy and displaying leadership, takes the pressure off you and the horse.If what you want from an animal is undying loyalty and endless affection, you should consider getting a Golden Retriever.
Being patient and giving the horse time to change his point of view about humans, allowing the horse to come to a new understanding will give you a superior result. Learning to discern when you are controlling the horse’s actions and when he is controlling yours, will help prevent the horse from learning undesirable behaviors to begin with. Reprogramming the horse’s learned and habitual responses is not difficult when you approach it methodically.
I think Benjamin answered his own question perfectly by saying, “I do feel we have a good connection when riding or on the ground. He trusts me and is very responsive.” And Benjamin is right; he does have a great relationship with his horse and what more could he want? Accept the evidence before you and see your horse for who he is. Don’t let someone else define success for you, don’t place human attributes on a horse, and don’t expect him to be something he’s not.
By letting go of unreasonable expectations, by allowing your horse to be a horse, by taking the leadership role and not the needy role, and by occasionally employing clever techniques yourself, you’ll be amazed at how your horse’s attitudes will change!
After a cold spring, our horses are finally able to graze green grass (and Annie’s svelte figure is soon to be replaced by the Michelin Man look). With Annie and Pepperoni both well set in their training, most of my energy has been focused on my new foster horse, Truth.
Looking at her now, after two months at our ranch, it’s hard to believe she’s the same horse. She has put on weight and is becoming more fit, reclaiming her incredibly athletic physique after a decade as a broodmare.
In six weeks of training, this gorgeous 18-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) has gone from burying her head in the far corner of her pen whenever anyone approached, to meeting us eagerly at the gate. She has progressed from kicking and biting defensively any time you touched her chest, belly or hind legs, to standing quietly tied and enjoying a full-body grooming.
When Truth arrived at my ranch on March 31st, her coat was shaggy, her ribs were too visible, her back lacked the fat and muscling needed to support the weight of a rider, and her belly was huge after having five babies. She needed an abundance of highly palatable, high protein hay, along with some concentrated feed to put some meat on those bones as we started reconditioning her.
After two careers (racing and broodmare), I knew she would also need some joint support as we eased her back into fitness. In just six weeks of 10-minute long-trots, six days a week, I’ve seen her trot go from stiff and reluctant to free-flowing with floating extension. The first week she could barely hold a trot longer than 6-7 minutes and now she’s racing around, cantering freely, with a spring in her step.
Truth is typical of an OTTB in so many ways, not the least of which is her thin and brittle hooves and sensitive skin. She came with an unsightly quarter crack in her right front foot. Knowing it would take a full year to grow that crack out, I wanted her on a supplement to promote hoof growth, and she needed the extra vitamins to help her coat glow. After all, getting her ready for adoption means she has to look fabulous to melt hearts at first sight. Cosequin® ASU Joint & Hoof Pellets were the obvious choice for Truth, and after only eight weeks on her new nutritional plan, we can see a huge difference.
Underneath her rough exterior, I could see Truth’s beauty when I first met her, and I knew she was an athlete, too. After researching her online records, we found that she raced for three years, which means she’s been ridden a lot in her past. So what if it’s been over a decade since she’s been ridden? At least no one has screwed up her training in the meantime!
After six weeks of handling, grooming, and a ton of desensitizing, the defensive behaviors we saw initially have almost gone away. Now we are working on reintroducing Truth to a saddle and bridle as we continue to increase her strength and fitness with daily workouts.
Join us each week on my Facebook page at Facebook.com/JulieGoodnight at 12:00 pm ET (10:00 am MT) for live and real-time training updates to see her progress for yourself.
Truth is an amazing mare, and I know when she is ready for adoption we will find her perfect forever home as a family riding horse. But did you know that tens of thousands of amazing horses are at risk of inhumane treatment or worse each year?
If everyone that could help a horse would step up—whether through adoption, foster training or supporting a local horse rescue—no horses would be at risk. You can find great horses available for adoption today at MyRightHorse.org or find a local rescue to connect with at TheRightHorse.org/Adoption-Partners.
No doubt about it—horses are emotional animals; perhaps more emotional than humans. As prey and herd animals, horses are programmed to adopt the emotions of the animals around them (herd mentality) and react appropriately. It is a life and death matter to a prey animal.
When one horse in the herd becomes frightened, generally all the horses will respond in kind. This tendency of horses to adopt the emotions of others applies to the humans around them as well, emphasizing the importance of controlling our own reactions when working with a horse that’s on emotional overload.
Horses have the same basic emotions as humans—happy, sad, scared, angry, frustrated, lonely, jealous, disgusted. Although we cannot always know exactly what emotion the horse is feeling, it is easy to recognize a horse that’s having an emotional meltdown. Whether the horse is panicked, throwing a tantrum over something he does not want to do, or simply overwhelmed and shutting down, this behavior is often dramatic and can be frightening at times.
In a perfect world, a horse is always calm, focused, and steady in its behavior, but in the event your world is not perfect and your horse is not a robot, it is good to be prepared to handle emotional overload in horses. Here, I will share some tips for recognizing and analyzing changes in your horse’s emotionality as well as my philosophy for managing it. Most importantly, I’ll discuss the technical skills you need to employ when your horse’s behavior tanks, you feel out of control, and need to get your horse back to a thinking state of mind.
Not My Horse… He Never Acts This Way at Home!
Any horse may fall victim to emotionality, no matter the age, breed, temperament, or how well trained it is; this is simply the nature of horses. The causes may vary from a simple startle response that triggers flight (rabbit jumps out from a bush), to over-stimulation in a frenetic environment (like a parade; the “first trip to town” scenario), to separation anxiety (herd-bound), or slowly building anxiety that suddenly overflows (often caused by underlying pain issues), to tantrums and refusals (perhaps a result of poor handling, underlying pain, or fear), to a horse that’s being asked something it’s not capable of in the moment and mentally shuts down (“over-facing” the horse).
A horse experiencing an emotional meltdown will likely have its head high, its tail up or stiff or swishing; a distressed expression in its eyes and on its face; tense and perhaps shaking through its whole body (“on the muscle”); calling out, shaking its head, stomping and fidgeting; rearing; searching right, then left, then right (looking for an exit), perhaps attempting to spin and bolt away. At times, a horse that is overwhelmed will simply shut down, become heavy, lethargic, and non-responsive (behavior often referred to as “sulling up”).
Whatever the cause, when a horse is emotionally overwhelmed, it is not in a thinking or trainable state of mind. Without relaxing first, the horse cannot think well, and unless and until it returns to a thinking state of mind, no training can occur. Relaxing and regaining control of the horse, then bringing him back to focus, are the immediate goals. As a rider or as a horse handler, your job will be much easier when you learn to recognize small changes in your horse’s emotionality and take proactive steps right away, to bring him back from the brink.
Calm + Thinking = Trainable
A compliant, attentive, and willing horse has a relaxed posture, with its head and tail low, and its ears relaxed in an east-west position, either focused on the rider/handler or focused on nothing. When the rider gets active from the saddle, both ears focus back, looking for a cue. When asked something from the ground the horse is focused on the handler, calmly looking for clues as to what it should do. A contented horse lowers its head and sighs deeply, often bending a hind leg to rest (much different than cocking the leg tensely, as with a kick threat).
Inevitably, things will happen that lead to excessive emotionality in your horse. Paying close attention to the horse’s posture, its breathing, the tension in its muscles (fight or flight posturing). Accurately reading the horse’s communicative gestures (like tossing its nose, shaking its head, switching the tail, pawing, stomping, cocking a hind foot defensively) will help you understand the origins of the horse’s emotions.
Analyzing the situation to determine the motivation behind the horse’s behavior, is important and will help determine the best response. Is it pure fear, a startle response, separation anxiety, or a total mutiny? Is the horse trying to get away from something or pull toward the barn? Does the horse’s reaction point to pain as a root cause, or is it a tantrum from a horse spoiled by poor handling?
An emotionally overwrought horse may be fearful, angry, defiant, refusing, searching, or despondent, triggering behaviors like flight or fight responses. One thing we know about horses is that once they enter a cycle of behavior like flight, the behavior tends to escalate—until something happens to stop it. The sooner intervention occurs, the easier it is to get the horse back to a relaxed and compliant state. The longer the horse stays in the cycle of behavior, the harder it is to get them out.
Becoming aware of changes in the horse’s emotional state when it first happens, analyzing the situational causes, then taking immediate action to bring the horse back from the brink of an emotional meltdown, are the keys to success in handling a horse with extreme emotionality.
Training Philosophies That May Help
Over the decades of training horses, I’ve learned to treat an excessive emotionality in horses as a mental health problem, not a training problem. Before anything productive can happen with that horse, I must get the horse back to a productive mindset (calm, relaxed, and thinking). Whether I am loading an uncooperative horse into a trailer or trying to cross a sticky water hazard, if the horse is having a meltdown, my job is to diffuse and de-escalate the behavior first, by asking the horse to lower its head (relaxing its physical posture), take a deep breath, sometimes stroking the horse in reassurance, sometimes gently scolding the horse for infractions.
When I am dealing with emotional outbursts in horses, it is critical that I control my own emotions, staying in the moment and taking deliberate and methodical actions. I have learned to breathe deeply, to slow down my own reactions and cues, to exhale as I relax my own body posture. I must stay in a thinking state of mind myself, take control of the situation, and be proactive. The worst things I can do are to shut down, doubt myself, show contradictory body language, and become passive.
When a horse’s behavior goes south on me, I need to find some familiar ground with the horse, to get him back to a responsive frame of mind. I will issue simple directives to the horse and give basic cues I know the horse knows, like turn right, turn left, stop and go. I will praise and reward the horse’s response to these simple cues, reminding the horse that it knows how to respond and how good it feels to be praised. I will regain the horse’s responsiveness the easiest way I can.
As flight animals, horses are hard wired, mentally, physically, and behaviorally for motion. Horses think better when they are moving. Forward motion helps the rider or handler regain control. Without free and willing forward motion, a horse cannot be trained. However, sometimes movement in the wrong direction triggers the flight response, so I must be prepared to shut down flight instantaneously.
Addressing the horse that is emotionally overwhelmed sometimes means I treat it as a mental health issue and that I must slow down my reactions and control my own emotions. I want to engage the horse in simple cues and responses, so he starts thinking again. Often it is best to keep a distraught horse moving, because a horse that is moving forward may be more easily controlled, yet I must be prepared to shut flight if things get out of control.
Technical Skills to Employ
Abdominal breathing, keeping your eyes focused, and adopting calm and confident body language are critical skills for the rider or handler. Horses are mimicking animals that communicate primarily with postures and gestures. Having command of your own presence and being able to call up these skills on demand, will get you far with horses.
Learning the hard skills of managing the reins, controlling the nose of the horse, lateral flexion, using the one-rein stop, and how to employ the emergency stop (which is not the same as the one-rein stop); or, from the ground, to use your rope and flag productively, to be aware of spatial issues and positioning, to disengage the hindquarters to stop—these are the skills that allow you to shut down flight or control the horse that moves into you or wants to wheel around and bolt.
Bending the horse’s neck will help you gain control of a horse that is volatile or threatening aggression or mutiny. Whenever I have concerns about controlling a horse—either from the ground or from the saddle, I will require it to keep a slight bend in its neck as I ride or lead. If the horse’s neck is straight out in front of him, it is much easier for the horse to over-power me. But riders must beware of too much pressure on the outside rein when bending, which may have the opposite result and cause the horse to run through the bridle.
De-escalate an emotional response and reestablish control by engaging the horse in a simple activity he knows how to do. Whatever you can do to cue the horse and get a response will engage its mind, start the horse thinking, and allow you to praise it. Think about cues to go, stop, turn.
Resort to groundwork basics like circling work, changes of directions, and disengaging the hindquarters— if you are riding, do not be afraid to get off to school your horse from the ground to get his focus back on you. It is important to have these groundwork exercises in your bag of tools to fall back on. Your authority and your horse’s confidence may be gained easier from the ground.
Elaborating on these hard skills would be better fodder for a book than a blog, and it could take years to master. The soft skills you need that come with greater knowledge and the judgement gained from experience with a variety of horses in a myriad of situations will develop over time.
The good news is that all of the educational resources you need to learn these skills are available to you from my online membership programs, in the form of how-to videos, audio podcasts, and instructional articles by the hundreds. Go to JulieGoodnight.com/join to find out more.
At the End of the Day
Recognizing and understanding the horse’s emotionality comes first. Keeping yourself in a calm and focused state of mind is paramount to your success with an emotional horse and it requires deliberate practice, to be able to call up these skills on demand. Diffusing the horse’s emotionality while maintaining control and authority, requires the rider or handler to stay focused, ride or direct the horse from the ground proactively, and employ training skills that get the results needed in that moment.
No one ever said riding and training horses would always be easy. Developing the skills, knowledge and judgement you need to handle difficult situations with horses, to gain control in the heat of the moment, and to bring the horse back to a manageable and cooperative mindset, may take years but is well worth the effort. From reading his blog, you already have a start. I hope you found more clarity on techniques for managing your horse’s emotionality and some ideas you can put to work right away!
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 myhorsemanship 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 outthis special which includes a rope halter and training lead plus a freeground 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.
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 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.
We 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!).
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 JulieGoodnight.com/PrivateClinic.
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.
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 CircleY.com.
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.
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.
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 theWomen’s Wholeness & Riding Retreatin 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.
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.
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 off 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.
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!
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.
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.
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 MyRightHorse.org. 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.
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…
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.
There are many ingredients that go into the making of an exceptional trail horse and just like in the kitchen, quality ingredients can make the difference in an average dish or an outstanding one. So, what are the ingredients we are looking for in a good trail horse?
Keep in mind that trail riding can be quite different, depending on the part of the country where you live or ride. For me, living in the high mountains of Colorado, trail riding typically involves terrain that is steep, rocky, and hazardous in places. Therefore we don’t take young horses, under the age of 4, into the high mountains. They need physical maturity, strength and coordination, and a considerable amount of training.
Here in the Rocky Mountains, natural obstacles can range from timber blow-downs to scary bogs to raging, rocky creeks with steep banks on both sides. On Pepperoni’s first ride in the high mountains, in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, one difficult water hazard had all those qualities in one crossing. Negotiating it safely meant having total control of the horse from stem to stern and a relationship based on trust and solid leadership.
To me, the ideal trail horse is safe and reliable in changing environments, is always mannerly and obedient, consistent in its behavior, well-trained, responsive, and experienced in a variety of settings. I want a horse that is brave and forward thinking, with a strong work ethic. But the age-old question is this: is a good (trail) horse born or made?
Nature vs. Nurture
A horse hits the ground with its instinctive behaviors almost fully formed and it’s born with its temperament—inherited in his genes. That baby horse has instinctive behaviors such as flight, locomotion, and suckling. He has a temperament that may prove him to be brave and bold, scared and flighty, or somewhere in-between. He may be curious and investigative or spooky and reactive; he may be calm and lazy or excitable and high-energy. He may be willing and eager-to-please, or dominant and challenging. Although training will always help, a horse is born with his temperament and there’s not much we can do about it.
There are only two types of behaviors in any animal (humans included): instinctive and learned (nature vs. nurture). Horses tend to operate a lot on instinctive behaviors, but they learn new behaviors wickedly fast (for better or for worse) and the learning starts the moment they are born.
In the making of an excellent trail horse, it’s best to start with the raw ingredients of good physical traits (conformation and gaits) and a great temperament (brave and willing). But we must also add to that, a lot of training, good handling, and varied life-experiences. There are certain basic skills that must be addressed through training, plus there are some foundational training philosophies that should be ingrained in the young horse throughout its training.
All of this requires a lot of time and dedication to your horse and to the sport—there’s no instant gratification in the making of a great trail horse.
Basic Handling Skills
I’m not a big believer in “training” young horses, under 2 years old. I think they need to grow up first and foals should learn to be horses first. It’s also important for baby horses not to learn bad habits (like moving into pressure or walking all over you), that often comes with over-handling at a young age. We like to start teaching certain skills to yearlings (like tying, lead-line manners and trailering) but we keep it light and allow the horses to mature—physically and mentally—before hard training begins. Saddle training the young horse goes quite fast when they are ready, and starting a horse too early generally leads to more problems than it solves.
While I may start teaching basic ground-handling skills on the horse as a yearling (lead, tie, trailer), the serious training will begin towards the end of its 2-year-old year. I like to start 2-year-olds under-saddle in the fall for simple basics. Then we get far more serious in the spring of their 3-year-old year. As a 3-year-old, he’ll get an abundance of training, as well as confidence-building experiences “on the road.” By the time that young horse turns 4, he’s mature, well-trained, and gotten the prerequisite experience he needs to be successful in the high mountains or on any trail ride.
The basic training on a trail horse is the same as I would give any young horse, as they are useful skills that make the horse safe and pleasant to be around. Most of these skills will be solidly trained into the horse before under-saddle training begins. Here’s a simple checklist of the handling skills that a young trail prospect should have:
Leadline Manners: Leads well beside you, does not crowd you or get in front of you, rates his speed off yours, stands quietly when asked, can be led from ground or ponied from a horse.
Ground Ties: When you ask the horse to stop and you drop the lead rope on the ground, he stands parked, as if he is a statue. This is a useful skill in any horse, but a must-have for trail horses.
Stands Quietly While Tied: This requires many hours and days spent at the “patience post,” learning to stand quietly and patiently while tied. Eventually that horse will have to stand quietly tied to a trailer, and potentially tied overnight to a high line. A horse that does not tie well is a liability on the trail.
Feet Handling: Proper manners here include lifting the foot when asked, holding it up without leaning or fidgeting and allowing me to place the foot back down on a particular spot (not jerking it out of my hands when I’m finished). Be particular about this. A good trail horse needs to allow you to have total control of his feet and body.
Not Claustrophobic: Horses instinctively do not like tight places with no escape—some horses can be way more claustrophobic than others, and they may need major desensitizing. I want to make sure the horse will not rush through gates, tight spaces or scary places or have any kind of panic attack in confinement (like a trailer). It’s easy to get into tight binds on the trail and I need my horse to remain calm, continue to think and always wait for my cues.
Trailering: This includes loading promptly, riding quietly on the road and unloading easily. These are skills I want to develop and engrain over time, so we take every opportunity we can to load young horses, let them eat meals in the trailer and go for short rides (this is also a way to get experience in new places).
Desensitizing: The horse must accept touch all over his body, legs, face, mouth, ears, nostrils, tail, and private parts. The horse needs to accept fly spray, oral medications, bathing, and grooming.
While all of these skills may be quickly learned by the horse (with a good trainer), it will take weeks and months to ingrain these behaviors in the young horse, to the point these skills are “finished.” Taking your time, setting good precedents and having consistent handling will cause the young horse to blossom and it will set a solid foundation for his under-saddle training.
Next month, I’ll discuss the progression into under-saddle training to build a strong foundation for 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.
At my ranch, here in the “Heart of the Rockies,” fall came fast and furious with 14” of snow on the ground just two days after record heat on Labor Day. It was a rude awakening, but a reminder to enjoy every day of the fall riding season—for it will soon be over. So I’ve been busy making hay while the sun shines!
We had a fabulous Ranch Riding Adventure clinic at the C Lazy U Ranch in September. The clinic was full to riders, and we all enjoyed the incredible fall colors, cool nights and warm sunny days spent on the back of a horse. Since most of our time was spent outdoors, social distancing was easy, and everyone was cooperative about mask-wearing indoors. The ranch operated all summer without incident under COVID restrictions. Their staff is religious about mask-wearing, distancing and cleaning.
Rich and I just returned from Jackson, Wyoming, where I conducted Equus Magazine and Showsheen®’s Win-A-Day with Julie Goodnight Clinic for the lucky winner, Emily Cholak, and nine of her closest horse buddies. The clinic was lots of fun, the horses were great and everyone made a lot of progress in one day! Rich and I also enjoyed camping for four nights in the exquisite Alpine valley, and while we did not take horses, we did enjoy riding our mountain bikes (which are far easier to stow, travel with and take care of than horses). My father lived in Jackson Hole for 25 years, and I’ve done a lot of horse packing in those mountains. It was fun to see the area again (my how it’s grown), and visit our old stomping grounds.
This month, I have two clinics at the C Lazy U Ranch and the CHA Virtual Conference on the 30th. My clinic for the CHA Conference is on Simple & Flying Lead Changes. We filmed the clinic already, and I will narrate the video live at the Virtual Conference on the 30th.
The Conference, although designed for horse professionals, is open to anyone who wants to learn, and CHA has generously offered a significant discount for subscribers to this newsletter (that’s you!). Just enter priority code JG when you register to get the $95 member price (reg. $155.00!). Find out more about the V-Conference and register.
As this unforgettable year winds down, we are looking ahead with enthusiasm to 2021. Most of the cancelled horse expos I had in 2020 have re-booked me for 2021 and are busy planning for the new year. My 2021 clinic schedule remains up in the air, but most likely I will continue my clinics at C Lazy U and also conduct more private clinics around the country.
We’ve got plans brewing for private clinics in CA, NC, CO, FL, and VA. If you’re interested in hosting a private clinic, I’d love to come to your area to work with you and your horses. Check out JulieGoodnight.com/PrivateClinics for more information on hosting a private clinic.
I hope the fall weather is glorious, wherever you are, and that you get some quality time with your horse before winter hits. Now more than ever, we see the healing benefits of having horses. There’s nothing more therapeutic than cleaning stalls or listening to the sounds of horses eating hay in a quiet barn. It’s where I go when life piles up on me and I feel like my head will explode, and the horses are always there for me. I hope your horses are healing you, too.
Summer came to a screeching halt around our ranch, just two days after record heat on Labor Day, when we were hammered with well over a foot of snow and temps in the low 20s and highs in the 30s (yes, Fahrenheit). We went from fly sheets to mid-weight winter blankets in one day (we save the heavy artillery for true winter). We will certainly still have some warm, summer-like days ahead of us (I hope), but most likely our nights will get colder as the days shorten.
My young horse Pepperoni and I, alongside Rich and his horse Casper, took a trip to my friend Lucy’s ranch where we did some high-mountain riding in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. I was super pleased with Pepper’s performance on the rough, steep and (at times) treacherous trail. He was strong, sure-footed and willing; we rode in every position in the line-up—he even led bravely the descent. The trip inspired me to write a blog series on the making of a great trail horse.
Normally I haul two horses (Pepper and Annie) to clinics at C Lazy U, where I am in the saddle all day. But I’ve decided to take only Pepper to the next clinic—a sure sign of his maturity and reliability. It’s a good thing Fall is such a glorious time of year here in the Rockies, because I’ll be in the mountains, conducting horsemanship clinics for the next month.
I have three programs at the C Lazy U Ranch in northern Colorado and one in Jackson Hole Wyoming, for the winner of the Equus & W.F. Young Win A Day contest. I’m excited about the two new programs we are offering in October—The Fall Getaway (a fun mountain vacation hosted by Barbra Schulte and her husband Tom, and my husband Rich and me) and Horsemanship Immersion (an education-intensive program for insatiable learners, covering equitation, groundwork, training, health, saddle fit, etc.). If you are looking for an adventure—there are still a few openings in both programs. Find out more.
My little mare Annie (14.0 hands in high heels) still carries the load when it comes to media production. She’s a finished cow horse, in her prime, and still my go to horse (although Pepper is creeping up on her). Last week we recorded video for some virtual events this fall. The Certified Horsemanship Association’s annual conference has gone virtual and is happening on October 30th. The conference is open to anyone, and will offer educational horsemanship clinics—both English and Western—from a variety of nationally known presenters, including yours truly.
My clinic is called Lead Changes: Simple and Flying, and we recorded the riding portion last week. I rode Annie in the clinic, plus I had two English riders and one Western rider. The horses (and one pony, not counting Annie) and riders were all at different training levels, from a youth rider to a pro rider. In spite of having about 15” of heavy wet snow on the ground the day before and high winds during the shoot, we pulled off a great clinic! Certified Horsemanship Association’s Virtual Conference is open to anyone. It’s chock full of horsemanship education, and you can participate right from the comfort and safety of your own home! You can register here at the discounted member rate by entering the priority code JG ($60 off!).
Here in the high mountains of Colorado, there’s not much left of summer. But I’m looking forward to a fabulous fall riding season and getting back on the road with my horses. It’s certainly been a strange year, and one we all look forward to seeing in our rearview mirrors. I think many of us horse lovers are grateful to have the stability, connectivity and grounding that horses and the accompanying (never ending) chores give us. I know I am.
My youngest horse, Pepperoni, just successfully completed his first high mountain ride in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, a steep mountain range in southern Colorado. It was an arduous test of his skills and I’m super proud of his accomplishment.
He proved his mettle in handling the toughest terrain, and we gained a great deal of confidence in each other. And even though it required extreme exertion on his part, I think he may have liked it (except for the scary parts).
Rich, our horses and I loaded into our living quarters horse trailer and drove to our friend, Lucy’s ranch in the San Luis Valley. (Many of you know Lucy because she assists me on the road a lot.) It’s a large parcel on the edge of the mountains that borders National Forest and overlooks the expansive alpine valley. We found a picturesque campsite, complete with a water feature to lull us to sleep. And we were faithfully guarded by the ranch’s bear-alert system, a Great Pyrenees named Honey Bear.
The first day, we rode warm-up trails on the ranch, testing the waters (literally), to see if our horses were ready for the wilderness trip. Lucy and her horses know the trails well, and provided an excellent guide service. This is not terrain you want to travel unless you know what you’re getting into. I’ve ridden in these mountains for 30 years, so I already knew that.
Major Creek comes down out of the steep mountains, runs through the middle of the ranch and into the valley. It’s rushing and wild, and we knew the mountain trail we were planning to ride the next day would have numerous creek crossings—some of them complicated by bogs, logs, thickets, boulders, and steep banks.
The Sangres are rocky and treacherous in places, but the rewards surround you in the pristine high-altitude wilderness. The scree slopes are steep, with loose rock in some places and solid rock in others. The terrain ranges from vast and open to closed-in, claustrophobic and thorny, where it’s not unusual to encounter traces of bears or mountain lions. I can imagine that to a lot of people this may seem both impossible and exaggerated, but it is typical of the terrain in this area.
The Major Creek trail is not highly traveled (off the radar and not easy to get to), and therefore not highly maintained, so the challenges are abundant. Before riding into terrain like this, you want to make sure you have a solid, mature horse underneath you. One that has the right temperament and maturity for the job, the physical strength and experience, plus the training and requisite skills necessary to be an extreme trail horse and a supreme trail partner.
Is a Good Trail Horse Born or Made?
The short answer is both. But I’m not known for giving short answers.
Think of being a chef—you must know what you’re doing, and be both adventurous and pragmatic with a dose of creativity. But the key to making an exquisite dish is to start with the best ingredients, and then the results are far superior. However, keep in mind that even with the very best ingredients, the dish must be built from scratch and crafted with skilled hands, or it flops.
There are quite a few ingredients in the making of a supreme trail horse:
Thinking rather than reactive
These are all important qualities that a horse is born with. Horses are both instinctively flighty and investigative, but they generally come down strong on one side or the other.
Surefootedness, in my experience, comes very natural to some horses, and not at all to others. All of these traits can be enhanced through training, but starting with a naturally talented horse sure helps.
There’s No Such Thing as a Thirty-Day Wonder
The “finished” trail horse, like any other discipline of riding, takes years—not weeks or months—to develop. The green horse might go out on its first trail ride very early in its training, but to negotiate a wilderness trail like Major Creek requires a mature horse with exquisite control and perfect obedience.
According to veterinary standards, climbing and descending steep mountains is not an activity for horses younger than four years of age. This is why it was Pepper’s first trip. He’s done quite a few rides in the foothills and around the ranch. Even though he was started under saddle as a 2-year-old, he wasn’t ready for the high mountains until he had the physical strength, the mental maturity and the strong foundational training that gives me complete control and authority—stem to stern.
Pepperoni’s two years of training and experience hauling to clinics and trail rides prepared him for this day. He had some scary moments when he questioned himself, and then me. But when I asked him for effort, he gave it to me. When I asked him to be brave, he was. He came to trust my judgment over his own as he got more careful with his feet and focused his mind on the mission.
There were times when full body control was necessary to negotiate tight and dicey terrain. There were places where stepping over logs and rocks required deliberation, and places so steep he had to work hard to rate his speed. With every mile of our trip he got better and better, embracing his role as my supreme trail partner.
A lot goes into training a horse to be your partner at this level, no matter what your chosen equestrian endeavor, but there are a few things unique to the trail. After thinking on the subject, I realized it’s too much for one article, and worthy of a blog series on the making of a good trail horse.
Consider this part one, and please join me for later installments of The Making of a Trail Horse, as I share my personal experience and my pet peeves about training for the trail. Here’s a sneak peek at the fun we’ll have…
Requisite Manners and Skills: Tie, load, stand, highline, obedience, work ethic, rating speed, and body control
To Lead or Not to Lead? That is the question: Training your horse to accept all positions in the line-up, and ride calmly away from the herd when asked.
Sure Footedness: Evaluating natural talent (or lack thereof), and developing good habits
Navigating Natural Obstacles:Water, bogs, timber, scree, thickets, and exposure
Live Hazards: Lions, tigers and bears—Oh My! De-spooking the trail horse
This fall brings a transition like no other. Normally, I take a break from business travel in the summer and ease back into full swing, traveling to horse expos, clinics and conferences in September. Of course, this year, I’ve had a five-month stretch with very little business travel. Like a lot of people, back in March I went from shock, to wandering in circles, to settling into a new normal. I love traveling, meeting new horses and helping them with their people. At first, I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I couldn’t travel—all I could think about was when things would get back to normal. Then came a period of adjustment; then came a new normal. I’m sure many of you can relate.
Now it’s time to dust off my suitcases, pack my bags and hit the road again! Although a part of me has become content staying at home, I’m super excited to get back to what I do best—teach horsemanship! Although my fall schedule does not look like it used to, I’ve still got some trips on the books, and I’m excited to get back in the arena with three clinics at the C Lazy U Ranch, plus my Equus Win-A-Day clinic in Jackson Hole, WY. Apparently, many of you are eager to travel, too, since our clinics at C Lazy U are filling fast!
The Ranch Riding Adventure in September is full but the Fall Getaway (co-taught with Barbra Schulte), October 8-12, still has a few openings. This is a new, vacation-oriented program, where guests can pick their own agenda each day, choosing from all the ranch amenities (riding and non-riding), plus lessons with Barbra and me each day and plenty of social activities (outside and social distancing). Bring your spouse or a non-riding friend for this fun, action-packed outdoor program. October 22-26 is Horsemanship Immersion—a program you’ve asked for, specifically designed for insatiable learners. This will be a hands-on, 4-day program that covers riding skills, groundwork, health, first aid, conformation, saddle fit and bits, behavior and training, plus trail riding in the Rocky Mountains. These clinics are filling fast, so if you’re ready to venture out, check out these fabulous programs.
This month I’ll be conducting a recorded clinic for the CHA V-Conference on October 30th. The conference is open to anyone and will offer educational horsemanship clinics, both English and Western, from a variety of nationally known presenters. I’ll be offering a clinic on lead changes, which will be pre-recorded and viewed on October 30th, with live commentary from me. The Certified Horsemanship Association is a nonprofit organization that promotes safety and effectiveness in horsemanship instruction. I’ve been a proud member, spokesperson, and certified Master Instructor with the organization for decades. This virtual conference will certainly be chock full of high-quality horsemanship instruction. Please join us!
This year has been like no other. We’ve learned a lot about human nature and how quickly our society can change and how well we can all adapt. I’ve found some unexpected treasures, with more time to do the things I love. I’ve found new strength in my ability to pivot. I’ve had a lot of fun with the Daily Doses of Horsemanship Homework and found a lot of satisfaction in foster-training Doc Gunner (please visit MyRightHorse.org to find out how you can help horses in need). If you asked me back in early March if I would be willing to give up traveling, I would have said no. But now that I see that even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, we can find joy in the smallest things ,and opportunity where we didn’t know it existed. I have a new perspective. I know many people are hurting, and I am heartened by the kindness and generosity of others. As we ease back into “normal” life, there will be more bumps and recalculations, but I do have faith in the positive outcome and I hope you do too!
Here we are at the peak of riding season and I’m happy to report that our horses are all healthy and sound, even our foster horse, Doc Gunner. For the last 90 days, Gunner has more or less been the center of attention aroun