Too Hot to Trot

I grew up in central Florida, riding year-round in the steamy heat. As a young girl, most of my summer riding was done bareback, barefooted, in a bathing suit (much to my mother’s chagrin). As a teenager, I spent summers training hard for jumping competitions, often wearing a black velvet hard hat, tall boots and chaps. Living in a climate like that and riding horses, you learn a lot about surviving the heat. 

For three decades now, I’ve lived in the high mountains of Colorado, where we lose more days of riding each year due to cold rather than heat. The harsh, high-altitude, desert-like conditions that I live in now bring their own environmental challenges. Horses are highly adaptable to the climate they live in, but good horse management practices will keep horses safer, more comfortable, and more capable at their jobs.

In some places, it’s too hot to ride in the summer, and the primary riding season is winter. But for many riders, summertime offers the best riding opportunities—like trail riding, camping, horsemanship clinics and competitions. We dream, scheme, and plan through the winter months about the riding we will do come summer. If you’re active with your horses in the summer, chances are good that you will run into overwhelming heat at times.

To navigate hot weather riding, you need to know when it’s too hot to ride or too hot to transport your horse, and how you will monitor your horse for signs that he’s not coping well with the heat. There are many things you can do to manage your horse better in the heat, and keep him safe and comfortable when the mercury rises.

Too Hot to Ride

Every region has its own environmental challenges to consider, but the most challenging conditions for horse sports are the combination of high heat and high humidity. Here in the high mountain desert of Colorado, we often have days with less than 10% humidity. Even when it’s blazing hot outside, it remains comfortable in the shade, and sometimes it feels cooler than the actual air temperature due to the low humidity. But when you add high humidity to the equation, conditions can get dangerous—fast.

High humidity affects the horse more than the hot air temperature because it interferes with the body’s ability to cool itself down by sweating. If there is so much humidity in the air that the sweat does not evaporate, the body loses its ability to cool itself. The heat index is a measure that combines the effects of heat and humidity to tell you how hot it feels (also known as the apparent temperature).

According to the National Weather Service, when the heat index reaches 103°F, conditions become dangerous for both you and your horse. A summer day with an air temp of 88°F plus humidity of 75%, means the heat index is 103°F, and you and your horse are at risk of heat exhaustion. A temperature of 92°F plus 85% humidity gives a heat index of 126° and puts you and your horse in extreme danger of heat stroke. 

Since the heat index chart tells us how hot it feels in the shade, if you are out in the sun it’s far worse, so you must factor that in too. A black or dark colored horse in the sun will struggle even more than a gray or light-colored horse. If the horse is already covered in sweat before you saddle, it could be a warning sign that the heat index may be too high to ride.

The heat index chart is derived from a complicated formula, but even without the chart, you can make simple calculations by adding the heat and humidity. When the sum of both is more than 150 (e.g., 80°F with 70% humidity), your horse is at risk of heat stroke, and you should take precautions.

Too Hot to Box

Even when it’s cool outside, horses can get easily overheated in a horse trailer (often called a “box” in other countries). When you add excessively high air temperatures outside the metal box, the body heat coming off multiple horses inside the box, and the excessively high heat coming off the asphalt road  in the middle of a hot day, the horse trailer can quickly become an oven.

When transporting horses in the summer heat, we often travel at night or early in the morning to avoid the hottest part of the day. If it’s a fully enclosed trailer, we make sure the overhead vents and all windows are open, to ensure good air flow. With our seasoned travelers, we avoid leg wraps or shipping boots in the hot weather to help keep the horses cooler.  

Since many horses won’t drink as much on the road, dehydration is always a concern when traveling with horses. Add to that the heat of the trailer on a hot summer day, and that road trip can be quite hard on the horses. We make sure to offer horses a clean, cool bucket of fresh water every time we stop and monitor the intake on each horse.

Look for Warning Signs 

When exercising in extreme heat, both you and your horse are at risk of heat exhaustion, muscle cramping, anhidrosis (non-sweating) or even the life-threatening condition of heat stroke (when internal overheating occurs, and blood flow shuts down). The best thing to do is avoid riding in conditions that present a risk to your horse, but it’s also important to know what signs to look for and how to deal with an overheated horse.

First, be alert for excessive sweating—a horse completely wet from head to tail with sweat pouring from his body is a sign that the horse’s body is losing its ability to cool itself. You may start to see lethargy, stumbling or a lack of response from your horse.

Rapid breathing (almost panting), fully dilated nostrils and a rapid pulse are signs that the horse is struggling, and your intervention is needed. As the horse loses its ability to cool itself through sweat, its internal temperature begins to rise, and the horse is at risk of heat stroke.

Anhidrosis, or a failure to sweat, is a serious, but poorly understood condition in horses that can lead to heat stroke fast. It is most often seen in horses in hot, humid climates like Florida, and it seems like some horses are more prone to it than others. Be watchful for horses that are dry when exercising in the heat—they may be more lethargic and breathing hard. When a horse fails to sweat, we must take immediate and aggressive external measures to cool him down before his internal temperature rises too high.

Cooling Down a Hot Horse

There’s nothing complicated about cooling a hot horse. Get him in the shade, stop exercise, hose or sponge him down with cool water. In extreme conditions, or for horses with anhidrosis, ice packs or cool packs can be placed on his neck and jugular veins (specialty cooling garments are also made for horses). Running cool water from a hose over the large veins on the insides of the legs will help a lot. Misting fans, shade and air circulation will also help keep horses cool.

Make sure the hot horse has access to drinking water. There was a time when it was believed that you should not let a hot horse drink too much. That crazy idea flew right out the window after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where they researched cooling off hot horses and found that the faster you cool them off, the better. Sure, if it appears a horse is bolting down very cold water, you might want to slow him down a little, but it’s not a good idea to restrict his intake.

Proper hydration is critical to a horse’s health, and salt and electrolytes can play a big role in hydration. My horses always have access to a salt lick, even when we are traveling. If a horse will not consume the salt, we may consider top dressing loose salt in their grain. If I think a horse would benefit from electrolytes, I give them in a separate water bucket, along with a bucket of plain water so that the horse always has a choice. He will consume the electrolytes if he needs them (no need to force feed), and I don’t want to restrict his access to water.

At the End of a Hot Day

The bottom line is that a well-trained horse will do whatever you ask of him, even if it’s dangerous to his health and well-being. The fact of the matter is that it’s the rider’s responsibility to keep the horse safe, to monitor the weather conditions and make appropriate decisions about when it’s too hot to ride. It’s the rider’s job to watch for warning signs that the horse is not coping well with the heat and to take immediate action to bring him relief. 

Even though our horses are always willing to give, it doesn’t mean we should always be willing to take. Sometimes that means we must change the plan or wait for a better day to ride. If you’re armed with the facts about how your horse copes with the heat, it will help you make responsible decisions to protect your horse.

Now get out there and enjoy the summer riding!

My First Covid-Era Horsemanship Clinic

After almost two decades of being a road warrior, traveling 20-30 times a year to clinics and public speaking at horse fairs and conferences, I suddenly found myself grounded when travel came to a screeching halt in March. The writing was on the wall a week or two before the shutdown, when events on my calendar started cancelling one by one. By the time the shutdown was official here in Colorado (March 16th), I was already starting to panic about how I would make a living if there were no live events for me to attend.

At first, my normal weekly rhythm—pack, travel, work the weekend, fly home, unpack/laundry, then start packing again for the next trip—was completely disrupted. For a week or two, I felt like I was going in circles—not knowing what to do next or even what day of the week it was. At first, like a lot of people, I thought it would be great to have a break from travel, to be at home more, have more time to ride my horse, garden and complete scores of back-burner projects.  I eased slowly into this newfound freedom, but it never seemed to fit me quite right.

Can Someone Please Explain What Just Happened?

It was scary—not knowing when I would travel again or how my business would suffer—could we pivot to find a new revenue model to replace the losses? I enjoy being on the road, meeting new horses and their people, seeing new places, eating at great restaurants. I missed networking with my peers, doing training demonstrations for the public, seeing old friends, making new connections, and helping horses. We were suddenly pitched overboard into unchartered waters. I couldn’t help but fear that these things that I so loved would no longer be part of my life.

But then, something changed in me. A new normal took hold. I got used to the slower pace. I found more time to ride my bike, hike, boat, and fish. I no longer missed traveling and forgot about eating at restaurants. I got stuff done around the house, and yes, I was able to pivot my business model and keep my team gainfully employed by doing daily posts of horsemanship homework 7-days a week, throughout the shutdown.

At first, it seemed like all the events I was booked for through the summer, and even beyond, were going to cancel. It was a strange relief, finally accepting that staying at home was the right thing to do. But at the same time, it was disconcerting—surrendering instead of fighting for my business. And it was with this uneasy feeling of ambivalence that I greeted the news that my first post-covid public event—a riding retreat at the C Lazy U Ranch in Granby, Colorado—would be one of the first such events to happen as we approached the reawakening of our economy.

Life Resumes But It’s Not Exactly Normal

Julie and Barbra teaching a clinic attendee.The Women’s Riding & Wholeness Retreat—an innovative 4-day program that includes horsemanship, personal empowerment, and confidence building—is a program I co-teach alongside Barbra Schulte. The C Lazy U Ranch is a “5 Spur” guest ranch, nestled in the Colorado Rockies, with a herd of over 200 saddle horses. They offer all-inclusive luxurious vacations, steeped in horses, the Western lifestyle and outdoor adventure. 

I’ve been conducting horsemanship programs at the C Lazy U several times a year, for more than a decade.  I was totally confident in their ability to navigate this new germ-conscious world, knowing that during the shutdown they were working hard to figure out how to reopen safely. I knew, in typical C Lazy U fashion, that they would exceed governmental requirements and offer a shining example for hospitality businesses planning to reopen. Intellectually I knew this to be true. But in my current state of sheltering in place, withdrawing and retreating, I had very mixed emotions.

Is getting back to work important? Yes. Is it too soon? I don’t know. Can we do this right? Yes. What exactly does that mean? I don’t know. Who will come? Will they fly across the country to get here? Will it be life as normal? I doubt it. Can I speak over a microphone with a face mask on? (I would soon discover that you can’t).

At the start of 2020, this program was full, with 36 guests. When the shutdown occurred, each guest was given the option of getting a refund, moving their registration to one of my fall programs, or staying enrolled for the postponed dates. Surprisingly, there was about a 30/30/30 split, and we ended up with 22 participants still registered for the clinic.

About a third of the guests were from Colorado (like me, driving a few hours to get there) and the rest were from out of state. Several women drove all the way from Tennessee. Some flew in from California, Georgia and Florida. There was certainly an atmosphere amongst those of us that made the trip that we were going to make this happen—and have a great experience—come hell or high water.

Let’s Get This Party Started!

The C Lazy U made extensive plans and procedures for protecting their staff and their guests. Following county, state, and CDC guidelines—in fact exceeding them in most instances—I felt confident in the Ranch’s attention to detail. Prior to the event, Barbra and I had several video conferences with Ranch management to discuss the procedures so that we presented a united front to our guests.

Prior to the start of the program, we were all asked to read about and agree to the procedures the Ranch outlined and be prepared for appropriate social distancing and wearing face coverings. Five days before the start of the program, we completed affidavits online about our current health and recent exposures. We completed the same forms again upon arrival at the ranch. 

And so it was, that on Thursday, May 28th, we started our first post-covid horsemanship clinic, with 26 of us coming together, but staying apart. Barbra and I could not have hand-picked a better group of participants. We were all brave but cautious; excited to be there, but uncertain how to act; not letting covid define us, but being incredibly careful to respect and protect others—especially the staff at the ranch.  

Horseback Riding is Perfect for Social Distancing

Photo Credit: Louise Hollaway

Turns out, once you are up on a horse, social distancing is easy! No one wants to get closer than six feet anyway, for fear of getting bit or kicked. We knew that once we were up on a horse and riding outdoors, we would have fewer concerns. But the fact remained that mounting and dismounting those horses could be problematic for maintaining proper distancing. Eating meals together and having workshops indoors were issues we had to mitigate.

Barbra and I were both confident in the extensive precautions the Ranch had taken. We felt strongly that we had a duty to set the right example for our guests and to get business functioning again. The precautions taken by C Lazy U (exceeding government guidelines) are far too extensive to list here, but I’ll give you an idea of what we, as guests, experienced…

  • Face coverings: Everyone complied with the requirement to cover mouth and nose with a face mask, bandanna or buff (tubular neck gaiter) at all times when social distancing is not possible—indoors or out. 
  • C Lazy U staff ALWAYS wore face coverings and gloves, indoors and out. We learned to recognize them by their eyes and body shape. Their temperatures were taken daily and everyone was very conscientious to look for signs of infection. 
  • Instead of everyone meeting at the barn to mount, we were spread around the ranch at three separate mounting locations to reduce the number of people congregating in one area. Everyone (guests and staff) wore masks during mounting and dismounting, but once underway and away from others, we could pull the mask down.
  • Initially, we thought we would require riders to keep their masks on during riding in the indoor arena, but quickly discovered that would not work. Riding can be an aerobic activity, and with the high altitude at the ranch, breathing is hard enough without a mask. Keeping the end doors of the arena open and with half the number of riders as normal, it felt safe.
  • In addition to masks, riders were expected to wear their own riding gloves and each horse’s tack was fully disinfected each day after use. You knew that your tack (and all other items around the ranch that may have been touched) had been disinfected because it was flagged with orange surveyor’s tape each morning.
  • All our meals were eaten outside, around the pool (it was cold and rainy one night, so we retreated indoors for dinner). Seated at tables of four or six (which normally held 10 or 12 people), we were served gourmet food, family style. We developed our own policies at the table, like once one of us had touched a serving utensil, that person would serve everyone else, so as not to share utensils. 
  • When you checked in (outside), you were asked how you prefer housekeeping to be handled. Guests had three choices: regular daily service, just replace towels and coffee, or no housekeeping. Whatever your comfort level, the Ranch would accommodate.
  • Small bottles of disinfectant were everywhere around the ranch, at your dining table and in the workshop room. Spray bottles of disinfectant were in the public bathrooms, along with instructions about how to spray, wash your hands and exit without contamination.
  • For our indoor workshops, we were relocated from the normal conference room to a larger building that would better accommodate social distancing. The big converted haybarn allowed the ranch to place comfy, upholstered chairs, spread around with plenty of space in-between. Hand sanitizer was always within reach.

We Did It!

Although I initially had some ambivalence about having the clinic, that uncertainty melted away once we arrived at the Ranch. As always, it felt like coming home. I had complete confidence in the C Lazy U staff and management, and they didn’t let me down. We felt safe and taken care of, the whole time. The flexibility of the staff to meet the needs of each guest was amazing, but they never compromised on safety.

I will say that as guests, we were all very conscientious about face coverings at first, but as we ate our meals together, rode together and participated in workshops together, there was some erosion to the policy. By the middle of the clinic, many guests were forgetting their masks or getting lax, particularly when amongst ourselves.

Still, we worked hard to respect the health and comfort level of the people around us—staff or guests. We so appreciated the C Lazy U staff and their willingness to put themselves at risk for our personal benefit, and we always made a point of pulling our face coverings up when around them.  

Everyone in our group had a different level of comfort in terms of wearing masks and being close to others and we all respected one another. Afterall, covering your mouth and nose around others is a sign of respect and a selfless act. 

What Happens Next?

Sadly, this was not only my first post-covid horsemanship clinic, it was my last one for a while. All my other events have been cancelled or rescheduled for 2021 until the next time I go to C Lazy U in September. I normally take time off in the summer anyway, so for now I am content to stay at home and train horses in front of a camera instead of an audience.

I am still ambivalent about getting “back to normal,” as it relates to getting on a plane and traveling from coast to coast. But I love my job—going to where the horses are and helping people get along with them better— and I look forward to resuming my travels. I’m doing my best to stay informed of the facts, listen to the experts, to resist falsehoods/rumors/conspiracy theories, and to keep an objective view.

In the meantime, my team and I are working hard to stay connected with our followers around the world and to grow our business in new directions. Our online streaming services and online training programs are enjoying a surge of activity. And one day soon, we’ll all be participating in horsemanship clinics, horse fairs, horse shows, and group trail rides again—albeit with modifications. I am confident and I am patient.

This too shall pass, and when we get to the other side, we’ll be stronger—both as individuals and as a society. I look forward to seeing you at a horse event soon!

Helping Horses in Need—It Takes a Village

Dear Friends,

This is a story about one horse that needs our help, and the dozens of people stepping up to help horses in need every day. But the truth is, he is only one of hundreds of thousands of horses at risk in the United States. The latest figures from the Humane Society of the United States are that roughly 80,000 horses cross into Mexico or Canada, bound for slaughter each year.

If that seems like a lot of horses, you should know that the number is down significantly from a few years ago when it was around 130-150,000 each year for more than a decade. Keep in mind that these slaughter-bound horses are just a partial reflection of the number of horses at risk of homelessness, starvation, neglect or worse each year. We have two million fewer horses in the United States today, than we did in 2005, as evidenced by the numerous shuttered horse properties all over the country. What happened to all those horses?

How Did We Get Here?

Dr. Tom Lenz, one of our nation’s top veterinary experts on horse welfare, authored this fact-based article on the history of unwanted horses in this country. I encourage you to read this article yourself, so you have a realistic perspective on the depth and scope of this issue. Recently Dr. Lenz said, “I think the smaller number of mares bred today, the industry’s awareness of the problem and the re-homing of horses by many organizations have contributed to the lowered numbers [of horses going over our borders to slaughter].” But we have a long way to go.

Dr. Lenz explained further, “The horse industry will never completely eliminate unwanted horses. Horses will always age, sustain career ending injuries, or not meet their owner expectations. However, I’m optimistic that the future is brighter for these horses because the horse industry has turned its attention to the issue and continues to develop strategies to both reduce the number of unwanted horses on the front end through responsible care and breeding as well as on the rear end through rescue/retirement programs, retraining for alternative careers, and low-cost euthanasia options. Horse owners today are more aware than ever of how their actions affect the welfare of their horses and an ever-increasing number consider the consequences before they breed, buy, or discard a horse.”

Awareness and Action by Others are Saving Horses Every Day

According to The Right Horse Initiative, a horse in transition is any horse who is currently in transition from one home, vocation, opportunity or owner to the next. Throughout their lifetime, most horses will have multiple homes and owners. Often, these horses find themselves in transition due to no fault of their own, rather, as the result of a change in the owner’s circumstances (time, location, finances, need, etc.).

Because horses are long-lived animals, on average a horse is re-homed seven times in its life—and at each transition, it may be at risk of homelessness or worse. This is where we pick up the story of Doc Gunner. For us, the story begins in December 2019, when the then 3-year-old gelding was purchased in Kansas by a woman who found the horse via a social media post. Her sole reason for acquiring the horse was to rescue him from a bad situation. This woman courageously stepped up to help one horse, and through her actions, it’s quite possible his life was saved.

The gelding was quarantined for 30 days, then trailered to Oklahoma City, where he resided on the woman’s small farm until April 2020. He was vetted, vaccinated and dewormed. His neglected teeth and feet were treated and healed. But as is often the case with neglected horses brought back to health, it became increasingly obvious the horse had little handling and training. Although this gelding was fortunate to have one person step up to help him out of a bad spot, his fate was not yet secure.

 

Meet Doc Gunner

He is a 2015 or 2016 sorrel overo gelding, reported to be registered with APHA (papers lost) and apparently the progeny of Colonels Smokin Gun (aka Gunner), an AQHA/NRHA reining champion from the late ‘90s and a NRHA Hall of Fame inductee. Certainly, the young gelding strongly resembles the sire in color and movement, plus he was born deaf, as some Gunner foals are. We are investigating his alleged registration with APHA. We know there is a Paint horse registered by that name, we just don’t know for sure if it’s him. We will run some DNA tests soon, 

 

Doc Gunner arrives at the ASPCA Regional Support Center in Oklahoma City to be vetted before he comes to Colorado.

which will give us more information about his color, breeding, health, and behavior (and possibly something about his deafness, too).

Although the horse seems quiet and kind, he ultimately proved to be too much for the 75-year-old woman to handle. She contacted the ASPCA Regional Support Center in Oklahoma City, a no-cost, open-door center that provides options for horse owners who need to surrender a horse or seek euthanasia if that is what’s best for the horse. At this point, a second set of people have now stepped up to the plate to help save one more horse.

It Takes a Village

Tom Persechino, Director of Equine Welfare at the ASPCA, who helps operate the Regional Support Center, worked with Nexus Equine to get the horse into the adoption pipeline. Persechino indicates the horse is quiet and cooperative with relatively good manners, and although he does not tie and is slippery to catch, he is good with having his feet handled and trailers well. According to Persechino, “The only thing standing in the way of this horse having a happy home and a purposeful life is basic training in ground handling and a solid start under-saddle.”

Apparently, this is where I came into the conversation, due to my involvement with the Right Horse Initiative and their efforts to increase awareness of the huge need for foster homes for horses. According to Christie Schulte-Kappert, Program Director for The Right Horse Initiative (and the mastermind behind me taking Doc Gunner for foster training), “This young horse is just a perfect example of a horse in transition. We like to say horses like him ‘get lost in transition.’ Horses can be at risk when they transition from one career to the next.  Training can often be the missing link that increases this risk.”

In mid-April, Christie gently prodded me to put my money where my mouth was. “He’s cute and athletic and apparently pretty well bred – we think he could really flourish in the right home, but it will take some training to get him there,” said Schulte-Kappert.

“So when Tom brought this gelding to our attention this week,” she continued, “your name came up as a possibility to help him become a good citizen and transition to his next career. His story is an amazing example of a ‘horse in transition’ – not a rescue case, but a horse that needs help to get from point A to point B, and could be at risk in between there. He’s a great example of how any horse, regardless of parentage or background, can be in transition at some point in their lives and the programs we’re working to build to stand in those gaps.”

Doc Gunner Starts his New Journey

On April 24th, Tom Persechino and Katrina Friend, a horse trainer from Nexus Equine, picked up the young gelding from the woman who first saved him and delivered him to the vet clinic that works with the Regional Support Center, where a thorough health, dental and lameness evaluation was completed. A benign mass was removed from a hind leg (possibly a sarcoid or proud flesh), and no other health issues were found. Before valuable resources (in short supply) are spent on a horse, we want to make sure its training will be successful. If not, another horse may need those resources more. Currently, Doc Gunner is at Nexus Equine, awaiting the results of his vet work while Persechino works on his travel logistics to Colorado.

Like the dog and cat world, in which animals in the system are routinely transported to different locations, horses are also transported from state to state, with a goal of giving them the best opportunity to be adopted. Horses, as in the case with Doc Gunner, may be transported to receive specialized training, or in some instances, there may be a higher demand for certain types of breeds of horses in different parts of the country.

“For example, gaited horses may move into new homes faster in states like Missouri, Tennessee or in the Northeast, so if one is sitting in Texas or Oklahoma, we would consider transporting that horse to increase his chances of finding a suitable adopter. We also have learned that some re-homing organizations have become highly skilled at re-homing either certain breeds or types of horses, or have programs that might benefit different horses,” said Persechino. “We’ve seen this with older horses or horses with minor medical issues who still have many good years left in them, however, the key is finding adopters willing to take on horses like this, so we might move horses to a re-homing organization that specializes in finding homes for what one might deem the more difficult to adopt.”

Persechino goes on to explain that once they ensure a horse is fit for travel and have its Coggins updated and health certificate in order, the actual transporting is relatively straightforward. “However, we think a key to transporting horses is to try and be as efficient as possible, so we have this understood rule of trying not to leave any empty slots in trailers when we transport! Last year, through the Regional Support Center, we had a group of five horses that we needed to move from Oklahoma to Minnesota. As our luck had it, waiting in Minnesota were 10 miniatures that were having a hard time in the adoption process so as our luck would have it we were able to send five horses north from Oklahoma and load 10 minis up for a return to Oklahoma where they were able to receive some much-needed training and gentling.”

“With Doc Gunner, as we’re working to bring him up to Colorado, we’re also working with a couple of other groups in the area to send them a horse or two and receive some back,” said Persechino. “Again, the whole goal of transporting horses is to move them to a location where they have the best opportunities for success!”

The network of individuals and organizations working together to help horses is both amazing and inspiring. This story has left me wondering what would happen if every horse lover in this country made one single effort to help. Would there still be horses at risk?

My Turn to Help

Doc Gunner is awaiting his journey to Colorado, where he will begin training to become a solid equine good citizen and a reliable and safe riding horse. I am taking the gelding into my barn for foster training.

Once here, we will evaluate his training and temperament, then make plans to fill in the holes in his ground manners and start his under-saddle training. Once he is more manageable and rideable, he may go to a foster home as an intermediate step, while his training continues under my supervision, and where his life will more closely resemble the pace of a real home, in preparation for a non-pro adopter (as opposed to the regimented life in a horse trainer’s program).

In time, Doc Gunner will be matched with the perfect human to adopt him and who will give him a purposeful and secure life. Fortunately for Doc Gunner, he will always have the safety net of Nexus Equine should he ever find himself in bad circumstances again.

Come with Us on This Journey

We will document Doc Gunner’s journey via a social media campaign on Facebook, YouTube and at JulieGoodnight.com, to bring awareness to the needs of horses in transition and how horse people everywhere might help at-risk horses in their area.

We will video this journey and post regularly, so you can follow the gelding’s progress as he works his way through the training, fostering and adoption process. With any luck, he’ll be on the road soon, headed from Oklahoma to Colorado, and we are eager to welcome him into his temporary home, here at my ranch. My crew and my friends are all excited to help out where they can and it will be rewarding for all of us to see this young horse blossom and have a secure future. It will take a village.

You Can Help Horses Too

If horse owners everywhere made a commitment to help even just one horse a year, imagine how we could reduce the numbers of horses at risk. There are many things people can do to help, even if you’re not a horse person.

  • Now more than ever, adoption is critical—more and more horse owners are affected by the pandemic and are facing loss of jobs or income. Shelters and rescues have limited capacity and even in the best of times are often full or pressed for space.
  • The American Horse Council and United Horse Coalition both have great COVID-19 information hubs on their websites. UHC has a nice overview on cost-saving tips for horse owners which we encourage owners to implement before seeking surrender options.
  • Folks can search for adoptable horses at org or visit TheRightHorse.org and click on “Partners” to find an adoption partner near them.
  • Contribute money to a local horse advocacy organization if you can. If not, maybe you can offer in-kind donations of hay, grain, equipment or services
  • If you have experience caring for horses, and have space for one or two horses, you could play a vital role by providing a temporary Foster Home for horses, helping to bring them back to health as they work their way through the adoption pipeline.
  • If you are experienced in riding and training horses, you could be a Foster Trainer, like me, and take on a project like Doc Gunner for training or evaluate a trained horse for the type of home he is most suitable for. There are many trained riding horses that wind up at-risk.
  • If you have a truck and horse trailer, perhaps you could volunteer to transport horses to their new homes or to their temporary foster homes
  • Look for safety net programs in your state or region to support. Colorado has a great hay/feed bank organized by Drifter’s Hearts of Hope and Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance.
  • Horse owners can also reach out to friends and neighbors in their horse communities and offer their help. Seniors or owners with health issues may need temporary help with basic care for their horses, or a place to keep their horses for a few weeks. The more we can help in our local communities in small ways, the more horses we can keep safe and keep in their homes through the crisis.
  • And at the very minimum, we can all keep our eyes out for horses at risk, that might exist right before our very eyes. Maybe a neighbor needs help. Maybe you see horses that have fallen through the cracks. Be proactive on behalf of horses and contact your local animal control or horse rescue. Who else will advocate for them if the owner isn’t?

If you want to help horses like Doc Gunner, be sure to visit MyRightHorse.org to find a horse to foster, adopt or share on your social media.

Horsemanship Homework

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. Despite our best efforts, there are times when life-events will supplant your horsemanship activities. Putting in too many hours at work, an illness in the family, a new job, building a house, starting a family, moving or changing jobs are all events that can put your riding on hold for an extended period. But who knew a viral pandemic and national stay-at-home orders would stand in the way of improving your horsemanship?

Right now, people all over the country and all over the world are home from work or school, helping to curtail the spread, with nothing but time on their hands. Have you ever thought how much time you’d spend riding if you didn’t have to go to work or school? Or fantasized about being able to spend all day at the barn, with no other demands on your schedule? Be careful what you wish for.

The truth is, in this new reality, some of you are stuck at home WITH your horses, while some of you are stuck at home WITHOUT access to your horses. I’m sure most of you would prefer to be in the former group—to be able to get outside, do the physical chores, groom, ride and train. But without guidance, supervision and structure, how will you improve and what will you work on? If you’re in this boat, you might want to check out my riding audios that you listen to while you ride.

For those of you experiencing separation from your horses, not only are your goals and dreams temporarily suspended, but you’re also worried about your horse and the separation must be heartbreaking. Still, there are ways to make lemonade.

Sometimes life gets in the way of our plans. That’s our current reality and the hand we must play. No matter what your circumstance, whether you’re isolated from your horse or not, able to ride or not, there are ways to stay on track with your horsemanship, to grow your knowledge, to improve your balance and fitness, to learn more about horse behavior and influencing a horse’s behavior.

I often talk about the Mind-Body-Spirit connection, or, if you prefer, the Mental-Physical-Emotional connection. These are three parts of our being that are inseparable and inter-connected. When you have a thought, it affects you physically. When your emotions surge, it affects the thoughts in your mind and has a physical effect. We do best when these three parts of our being are in balance.

To take it one step farther, if you’re stuck at home, separated from your horses or feeling like you’ve been set adrift, there are many things you can do to keep you mind, body and spirit engaged in a positive direction to further your horsemanship, even when times are tough.

Mental Connection

If you can’t go out and ride your horse or your regular riding lessons are cancelled, you can still improve your horsemanship by studying! Read books and research articles, listen to podcasts, and watch videos to learn more about horses and riding. I love to read, especially about horse behavior, and recently I dedicated a blog to my favorite horse books.

I shudder to think where would we be without the internet in times like these. Online courses about horses and riding sports makes study-at-home easy. I started converting all my content to the digital space about a decade ago, in the form of articles, videos and audio recordings and we’ve amassed a huge resource library. We’ve got hundreds of episodes of Horse Master, all searchable content, streaming on-demand. My Interactive membership includes an online curriculum, study resources and assignments, plus personalized coaching from me. There are plenty of educational resources out there, both paid and free. And remember, when you read a term you don’t understand, look it up in your Equine Dictionary!

Study horsemanship theory—classical riding. The higher you go in your riding level, the more important riding and training theory comes into play. It’s less mechanical and more cerebral. Read the Book of Xenophon, the oldest known complete work of horsemanship (written almost 4,000 years ago). Take a cross-discipline approach and study skills and techniques in other disciplines of riding than the one you are used to. There’s more to riding than heels down, eyes up and shoulders back!

Focus is an important mental skill in all areas of life, but especially with horses. Multi-tasking is not as valuable as the ability to bring 100% focus onto a singular task. I’d guess that all accomplished riders have exceptional focus. It’s a skill you must hone and practice. To me, riding my bike on a single-track trail in the mountains, is as much an exercise on focus as it is physical. Riding a horse can be similar. Check out this exhilarating helmet-cam video that shows the amount of focus it takes to pilot a powerful horse through a five-star cross country jumping course.

In everyday life you can find ways to improve your focus with brain teasers, meditation, exercise, jigsaw puzzles, or simply putting your phone down and practicing listening skills.

Physical Connection

Riding is a very physical sport, so getting in better shape will help. Also, since horses communicate primarily with gestures and postures (body language), having good control of your physicality and body language helps you communicate more effectively and actually will help you ride better.

Balance is the #1 skill required of riders. It’s a challenging balance sport, because it’s a balance-in-motion and the synchronization of the balance of two animals—horse and human. Each has a will of its own and a balance of its own. Balance is a skill that naturally declines with age, peaking at about 18-20 years old. But no matter your age, young, old or in-between, you can always improve your balance through exercises that challenge your balance.

I’ll give you a full refund for the price of this blog if you practice a simple balance exercise two days in a row, and don’t see a huge improvement the second day. Balance improves rapidly when you work on it. Whether your exercise is as simple as balancing on one foot when you brush your teeth, or as complicated as walking a tightrope, you get better every time you practice and anything you do to improve balance off the horse, will help you on the horse as well.

Core strength is essential to good balance and to great riding skills. Riding is a weird combination of balancing while seated and synchronizing your balance with the horse—making your core strength and center-of-gravity critically important. It’s not enough to just do sit-ups and strength-building exercise, you must also use your core for balance and coordination. There are many great workout routines that address core strength and balance, and you can look at my favorites here.

Bi-lateral coordination refers to being equally strong and coordinated on both sides of your body. But the sad truth is, most of us are one-side dominant—as are most horses. Once again, getting older doesn’t help because often old injuries, scoliosis or arthritis will make lateral imbalances more pronounced. I seek out activities and exercises that help me develop bi-lateral coordination and I like to work my weak side more than my strong side.

I enjoy exercise routines like Pilates because it helps me identify my lateral weaknesses, which in turn affect my horse’s performance. Exercises that improve bi-lateral coordination are fun—try patting your head with one hand and rubbing your stomach with the other at the same time. Try signing your name with your other hand. Groom with two brushes– wax-on-wax-off (one of many reasons why I love the HandsOn grooming gloves

Most riding errors are posture related. If you do it on the ground, chances are you do it on the horse. Also, posture declines with age—that’s a fact of life. Our body shape changes with age from year one to 100. But like balance, you can always improve your posture. Just simply making an effort to sit up straight or making a mutual agreement with your friend or spouse (I’ll remind you if you remind me) to kindly point out when you are slouching, will go a long way to improve your posture. Better posture is good for your health, your confidence and your riding! 

Emotional Connection

Having faith in a positive outcome is important no matter how bad or chaotic it seems in the moment. Things will look different with time and perspective. Having confidence in yourself is not easy, but sometimes it’s required. “I’ve got this,” “I’ve been through worse,” “I love this!” (as my friend and colleague Barbra Schulte would say in any moment of adversity), are productive messages to give yourself. Just like when your horse spooks and blows up on you, you need to stay focused and proactive and do what you and your horse know how to do.

Everyone has moments of self-doubt. It’s normal. But not everyone has the grit to deal with it. The ability to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn more and succeed next time, the ability to lean-in when the going gets tough, and the ability to have faith in the positive outcome require true grit.

Building confidence and honestly examining your fears will not only help with your horsemanship, it will impact everything in life from scolding a naughty horse to asking your boss for a raise. Building your confidence will not happen automatically, it’s an attitude you must develop and maintain. There are many tools available for building confidence on my website, including a motivational audio and an online short course, both called Build Your Confidence with Horses.

Practice controlling your emotions through deep abdominal breathing and mental relaxation techniques. This stuff works, but only if you practice it. Next time you are startled and feel your heart rate shoot up, practice calming yourself through deep abdominal breathing and positive imagery. Next time you have an emotional confrontation or even just a welling of emotion, practice these skills. Sometimes when I am speaking in front of a crowd, touching on something poignant, I feel myself starting to cry and I view it as an opportunity to push through and take control of the emotion. Calming yourself and steeling your emotions is not always easy but like any skill, it gets easier when you practice.

There’s so much you can do to improve your horsemanship, even when you are secluded at home, unable to ride or feeling disconnected from the sport. While it’s great to have a trainer and/or riding instructor to motivate you and guide your learning, with some dedication and self-discipline, you can achieve your goals independently.

Take the time to study, read, watch and listen. Study classical riding theory and science-based research on horse behavior and training. Improve yourself physically and learn to steady your emotions. It’s a wholistic approach, to address the Mind, the Body and the Spirit in your horsemanship pursuits, and it will cause your horsemanship to soar. Regardless of your current situation, there is much you can do to become the horseperson your horse deserves!

March 2020 Horse Report

Had I written this report a week ago, when I was supposed to, it would have sounded much different. Then, I would’ve been whining about being on the road too much and how little ride-time I had with my own horses. Now, I’ve got all the time in the world because my business trips have been cancelled through April. I’ve got plenty of time at home to ride my horses now and I’m making the most of it. However, I will miss connecting with you, my loyal friends and followers, and I am sad about all the vendors and expo producers whose hard work preparing for horse expos burned up in a flash.

Fortunately, Goodnight Horsemanship is an internet-based business, located in a remote and rural area and my crew and I are still hard at work, in a seemingly normal way. Twyla and Diana are in our (spacious) office every day (taking all precautions, of course), to keep up with orders and give technical support (and emotional support) to our members and subscribers. Melissa is taking care of the horses as usual and we are riding and training every day (she’s also videotaping, editing and modeling too). She’s working more from home now, in an attempt to keep her son busy while he’s home from school. Megan, who keeps our intricate websites and social media platforms functioning (among many other things), works remotely from home normally anyway. We are all working hard to make the most of this slowdown by producing even more video/audio content for our subscribers. We are working on it every day and plan to release brand new content several times a week!

Our streaming services and online horsemanship library have definitely seen an uptick in activity this week, a sign of all the people who cannot go to work but still have a hankering for horses. We are grateful to be able to share this searchable educational content with you and to help you reach your horsemanship goals. I’ve also seen an increase in completed assignments and messages from my Interactive members (it’s an online curriculum and coaching program). This tells me that many of you, like me, are stuck at home for a while and trying to keep moving in a positive direction. Let’s keep these connections going!

I’m eager to get back on the road again soon. As much as I enjoy this unplanned time at home, I love traveling to clinics and expos and I already miss it. The Women’s Riding & Wholeness Retreat, at the C Lazy U Ranch, that I co-teach with Barbra Schulte, is going on as planned in May and I cannot wait! We are optimistic that our government and the greatest scientists in the world will continue to be proactive and will get this viral outbreak under control quickly, and that restrictions will be lessening soon. Obviously, it’s a fluid situation and it can change rapidly, but we are optimistic and eager to get back to normal.

With all the event cancellations, I’ll have lots of time available once things kick back into gear. I’d love to schedule more private clinics around the country, especially in the areas where horse expos were cancelled. If you’re interesting in partnering with us to host a horsemanship clinic, please call my office.

My horses are all healthy, fat and happy. I’m getting more ride time these days and I’ve been sharing that on FaceBook and YouTube. Many of you wonder what I do with my own horses, so now’s your chance to get an insider’s look at my farm, my personal horses and what training challenges I face. You’ll hear from me again in a couple weeks and I’m confidant my newsletter will have a more positive tone by then. In the meantime, let’s all stay connected online, through live posts and chat rooms. Keep your comments coming and let us know you’re still there!

Take care and be smart,
Julie

Fresh Start

Like my fruits and vegetables, I prefer my horses fresh. It’s clearly not for everyone, but I enjoy riding a horse that’s a little bit excited, that’s looking down the road, eager to get there and curious about what job awaits him. It took me about forty years to realize it, but I prefer a horse with a big motor and a busy mind. To me, it’s more fun than riding a horse that’s sluggish, insensitive and looking for a way out of work. But a fresh horse is neither fun nor confidence inspiring to many riders.

What is a fresh horse?

A fresh horse is one that has not been handled or ridden for an extended time or for a longer period than normal. Perhaps it’s a horse that’s simply not in a regular riding routine or hasn’t been ridden in a few days. At one end of the extreme, it could be a horse that’s been turned out with the herd for several years without any riding or handling, and at the other end, maybe it’s Monday and that horse just had the weekend off. 

Because horses are emotional animals, a horse might be in a fresh state of mind because of the situation it’s in. Riding in a strange area or with unknown horses can sometimes cause emotional overload. When something changes in a horse’s known environment, like a new banner on the fence, it can temporarily blow his mind. Maybe the wind is howling, putting a normally calm horse on edge. Often a nervous or excited horse feels just like a fresh horse— it’s more horse than you are used to.

What does fresh look and feel like? 

A horse with the freshies tends to be high-headed, energetic and easily distracted. It may be looking around a lot, calling out to other horses, fidgeting. It’s muscles feel and look tight (we call that “on the muscle”) and sometimes the rider feels a hump in the horse’s back that may morph into a little crow-hop. It’s often the result of pent up energy in the horse, not the result of disobedience or defiance. There’s a big difference.

If a trained horse has simply had a time off, even if it’s been months or years, it does not forget its training or become untrained, let alone become disobedient or defiant. Horses retain their training forever; they don’t unlearn, although they may benefit from occasional reminders. 

However that horse was left before the lay-off, is the same horse that you get back, once you get the freshies out. While I expect a fresh horse to be energetic and need some re-tuning, that should not translate to disobedience if the horse was properly trained to begin with. Defiance and disobedience are signs of poor training, not a fresh horse.

Whether your horse has been laid off for days or weeks or has had time off due to weather conditions, vacation, physical rehab or some external reason, there are a few steps you can take to make sure your first few rides on a fresh horse go well. From take-off to landing, it helps to pay attention to details, to insure a smooth and safe flight.

Pre-Flight Checklist

At its best, riding is a physically demanding and somewhat risky activity. When a horse is fresh, it’s important to be thorough in your preparations and make sure all conditions are perfect for flight. If we always consider the worst-case-scenario with horses, it will keep us safer. Minimally, I want to make certain that my tack is right, the environment is conducive to training, and my horse is in the right state-of-mind. Before I take that first ride, I’ll go through a pre-flight checklist, to make sure all conditions are right.

  • Saddle fit and tack check: If the horse has had weeks or months off, it pays to reassess saddle fit. A horse’s body shape changes rapidly with age and conditioning, so saddle fit is a constant concern. With an extended layoff, it’s even more important. Pads may need to be adjusted; billets and latigos may need adjusting. Check all parts of your tack, especially if it hasn’t been used in a while. Adjust the headstall/bit/curb strap; look for wear spots where metal meets leather; check Chicago screws and other connections.
  • Safe footing: Keep in mind that the fresh horse is probably going to outrun his lungs. Like most horse trainers, I’m a fanatic about soft, freshly-groomed and consistent footing. A fresh horse may be physically out of shape or coming off injured reserve and in his excitement, he may run fast and buck hard in the groundwork and trot/canter hard when I ride. I want deep enough footing that my horse has plenty of soft ground underneath him, but not so deep that he over-stresses his tendons. I don’t mind mud unless it’s slippery, as long as the footing is consistent. 
  • Groundwork for focus, not to tire: If the fresh horse is nervous and a looky-lou right when I pull him out of the stall, some groundwork is indicated. If the well-trained horse is mannerly from the start, listening to me, standing quietly while tied and compliant, I may skip it. If I do groundwork with the fresh horse, my goal is to get the horse to listen to me, follow instructions and demonstrate compliance. It is not to “get the bucks out” or tire out the horse. In my experience, people who say that are often inadvertently training the horse to buck on the lunge line. 
  • Ground School. For groundwork, I use a premium rope halter, with a 15-foot training lead; I may also employ a flag or boundary stick. I start with leading the horse around at walk and trot, doing turns and stops, to check its manners, its awareness of boundaries and its focus on me. Then I might circle the horse on the end of the line and ask it to turn around and trot off a few times. If it gives me green lights, I may only spend a couple minutes in groundwork before I step up in the stirrup. If I think the horse really needs to blow off some steam, due to excessive confinement or extreme emotionality, I’d rather use the round pen or turn him loose in a bigger pen (assuming re-injury is not a concern).

Cleared for Take-off

Once I swing a leg over the back of a fresh horse, we are wheels up. As soon as I settle in the saddle, I will ask the horse to move forward at either walk or trot. If he’s truly fresh and has a lot of energy, I want to send that energy in a positive direction. Riding and training horses is entirely about controlling forward movement—start with the forward, then gradually start guiding the horse more and more.

  • Forward motion is the basis of all training. Working trot is the best gait for a fresh horse. It covers the most ground and is the most efficient gait for the horse. If he’s really fresh, I’ll jump right to working trot as soon as I get on and keep him at that gait for at least ten minutes. That’s enough to take the air out of most horses. After that, we can usually settle into some more serious work.
  • Lower your expectations for performance, but not for obedience. I don’t expect a horse that hasn’t been ridden in months to be as sharp in his skills as he was in the peak of his training, but I always expect and require obedience. If he hasn’t had a reason to think about riding cues in a long time, he’s a little rusty and I will give him the time he needs to regain his performance skills. But I expect him to go in the direction I choose, at the speed I dictate, without argument. Having time off does not change the rules of expected behavior.
  • Bending, not pulling, to control speed. A hot blooded, forward moving horse that has been laid-off or cooped up, is going to have a full tank of gas and be eager to go. What never works well on a horse like this is to try to control speed by pulling back on two reins. Instead, I prefer to control speed or excessive energy by bending the neck of the horse softly from right to left to right to left. When the horse builds speed, I gradually bring him onto an arcing circle, increasing the bend in the neck until I feel him gear down a notch, then letting him go straight in reward. Remember, the goal is to control forward motion, not stop it. A lot of behavioral problems stem from the latter.
  • Changes of direction matter. If I am bending the horse to control speed, I will also throw in some changes of direction too. I never go ‘round and ‘round in one direction; instead, I change directions often. This has the double-effect of bending the horse and showing the horse I control its direction. Changes of direction are a powerful tool on a horse that’s excited, scared or feisty.
  • Be prepared for spooks. A nervous or excited horse is more prone to spook, spin and bolt. Mange your rein length and know how to shorten and lengthen your reins blindfolded (my rope reins are the perfect length and are easy to manage); know how to execute the emergency stop (see my YouTube video on Pulley Rein). Don’t ride the horse as if he is going to spook (because he will), but be prepared to react if he does.
  • Rest in the far corners. After extensive trotting, circling, changes of direction, hand gallop and canter, when the horse reaches his full aerobic capacity (maxVO2), I will take him to one of the far corners of the arena (where he doesn’t want to be) for rest and recovery. This addresses barn sour tendencies and teaches the horse to enjoy the part of the arena he normally avoids. 

Horse, this is Your Captain Speaking

Besides getting the fresh off the horse and dissipating his pent-up energy, my main goal with this horse is to remind him of how we do business, who is in charge and who will be making all the decisions (me). I’m less concerned on the horse’s accurate response to specific cues, and more interested in re-establishing a productive working relationship. With that in mind, there are some specific parameters that I work within.

  • No looking around. Focus on the job ahead of you. This is a strict rule of mine on any horse, but especially for the green or fresh horse. A horse that is looking around excessively is not focused on me or the task ahead. I simply disallow it by bumping the outside rein once when the horse turns its head to look. As soon as the nose crosses the line of its shoulder, I issue the correction. Using good timing and the right amount of pressure, the horse stops looking for his escape and brings more focus to riding within a minute or two.
  • Breaking gait (up or down) is bad. Whether the horse is lazy or full of gas, he doesn’t get to pick the speed. Ever. You don’t want a thousand-pound flight animal thinking he controls the speed. A fresh horse needs to move forward, so I proactively take charge by asking it to move forward before it has the chance and for longer than it wants to. Holding that forward horse back when it’s fresh is a bad idea; it’s better for me to be the one asking for speed (and the horse asking to slow down). 
  • Control direction; don’t compromise the path. Just as with speed, I also don’t want my horse thinking it gets a vote in where it goes. If the horse is avoiding the far corners, pulling toward the gait or otherwise veering off the path I have chosen, I will address it. If the horse is nervous or full of itself, I may not take it immediately to the scary places, but it’s important that I maintain control of the direction. I may employ changes of direction, but always turning the horse away from where he wants to go (the gate) or toward the place his is avoiding (the scary place). This kills two birds with one stone: the changes of direction give me more authority over the horse and turning toward scary or away from home will make sure the horse does not benefit from its disobedient actions. If I let the horse veer-away from a place I’ve directed it to go or let the horse pull me in a direction without addressing it, it is learning the wrong thing.

Us horse trainers like to talk about riding the horse underneath you and staying in the moment. Ride the horse that showed up today; play the hand you are dealt. They are not robots and they all have good days and bad days. It’s the rider’s job to adjust to the needs of the horse, in the moment and ride proactively.

Just because a horse has pent-up energy or hasn’t been ridden for an extended period, does not mean he is a bad horse or that he has become untrained. Think about kids going back to school after summer break. They are a little wild and may need a few days to fall back into the routine, but they know how to do it. Contain and direct their energy, remind them of their manners, and get their mind back in the game. That’s what you want to do with the fresh horse.

As always, with horses, keep your safety and the safety of your horse, first and foremost in your mind. And don’t forget… enjoy the ride!

March 2020 Letter from Julie

Dear friends,

The valley I live in is known as “the banana belt of Colorado” for a reason. At a high altitude, winters are long and in spite of lots of snow and cold in February, I was able to ride Pepperoni in the outdoor arena on March 3rd, for the first time since mid-October. And let’s just say it was an enthusiastic ride, thoroughly enjoyed by both of us! With wide open spaces all around us (and epic views I might add), after months of staring at walls and going in circles, and with freshly groomed footing, Pepper had a revved up engine and seemed like he had somewhere important to go! We laid a lot of tracks in that fresh soft dirt, before the thin air slowed us down.

After three back-to-back trips and two weeks on the road, I’m happy to be home for a couple weeks. My first trip was to Fort Collins, CO, in mid-February. I’ve been involved with the Colorado State University Equine program for a long time and I often show up there as a guest lecturer. This time, I was substitute-teaching for John Snyder, the instructor for the colt-training class. Thirty-one colts are trained by students over two semesters and they had their first rides scheduled for the week I was there. I was like a kid in a candy shop! I love training  young horses and I had a blast. With the help of two patient and supportive teaching assistants, we got every last colt through their first few rides. There were three half-siblings to my youngster, Pepperoni, which was interesting. Like déjà vu. All the colts are working well under-saddle now, in preparation for the Legends of Ranching Horse Sale in April. https://equinescience.agsci.colostate.edu/outreach-events/legends-of-ranching/ I can’t wait to go back to Fort Collins early next month, to lecture to the Behavior class and to see how the colts have progressed.

My last two trips in February were to Tennessee and Pennsylvania. Lucy and I had a fabulous time at the Southern Equine Expo—it was a busy weekend for us and the attendance was tremendous! Same at the Horse World Expo—great crowds, lots of friends—old and new.

Later this month, I’m headed to the Northwest Horse Expo in Albany, Oregon. http://equinepromotions.net/northwest-horse-fair/ My presentations include The Natural Ride, Riding ‘til You’re 90!, Finding Your Dream Horse, Exercises to Improve Riding Skills, and Canter Master: Leads and Lead Changes. This well-established horse expo offers three full days of education, entertainment and shopping for all horse lovers. I look forward to seeing you there!

Winter “Whoas”

Pepper walking in the snow between two tree branches.
Pepper walking in the snow between two tree branches.
Unless you have the luxury of loading up your horses and heading to Arizona or south Florida for the winter, chances are good your riding activities have been seriously curtailed by winter weather. Whether you’re dealing with rain and mud, snow and ice, or sub-zero temps and bomb cyclones, the winter months can put the brakes on your horsemanship, if you let it.

This time of year, I hear a lot of frustration in the voices of the riders I coach online, because they have assignments they want to complete, but can’t do much with their horses until the weather improves. I grew up in Florida, where winter is the prime riding season, but after decades of living in the Rocky Mountains, 7800 feet above sea level, I can certainly relate to the winter whoas.

Truth is, there are plenty of things you can do to advance your horsemanship and increase your horse’s training, no matter how bad the footing gets. I think it’s important to keep your hands on your horses daily—for health reasons, for bonding, for leadership. Even if the winter weather restricts you from riding or groundwork, just grooming your horse in the barn, is time well-spent.

With just a little bit of ground with decent footing– in the barn aisle, a stall or the driveway—there are ground exercises that will keep your horse tuned into your signals and interested in what you have to say. Even with no footing at all, you can engage your horse enough to maintain the relationship (and authority) you’ve built. 

The heart of winter is a great time to reassess your riding goals and your horse’s training. Evaluate and plan. And while you’re at it, think about improving your own self too! Horse sports are physically demanding, so fitness matters. 

Finally, while there are some skills that require getting your hands dirty in order to learn, there is much about riding, training and horse behavior that can be learned didactically. Winter is a great time to read, study, take online short courses and gain knowledge. There’s a lot to learn about horses; you need to gain knowledge every way you can.

Grooming Time is Bonding Time
Even if you can’t ride, it’s important to visit your horse and remind him of your relationship. Here in Colorado, some people hardly touch their horses all winter and by Spring, the horses are incredibly herd-bound. Getting your horse out, separating him from the herd and reminding him who you are, will help a lot.

Horses are mutually-grooming animals and they won’t groom on just any horse—it’s a behavior that only occurs between bonded horses. Giving your horse a thorough grooming reminds him of your special relationship and gives you an opportunity to remind him that you are still the one in charge. 

I like to lay my hands over every square inch of my horse’s body, legs, neck and face. It’s especially important in the winter when their coats are long. Winter coats can mask health problems, like weight loss, plus, I like to feel the skin for any scabbing or injuries. I give my horses a thorough head-to-tail curry with HandsOn Gloves, just for this reason. I can kill two birds with one stone—while I curry and clean, I’m also feeling the skin and searching for sore spots. It’s a great massage for my horse and it mimics the way horses groom each other.

Grooming promotes health and well-being in your horse in many ways. Since I cannot bathe my horses all winter, yet we’re still riding and causing sweat buildup, I use a waterless bathing product called Miracle Groom. It also cleans manure and urine stains, without requiring any rinsing.

Get Grounded
Even if you don’t have suitable footing for riding or active groundwork, there are still things you can do with your horse in the winter to maintain your leadership and authority. As I said, just getting him away from the herd and alone for an hour or so will help. Tying your horse for grooming reminds him to be patient. You can work on ground tying exercises in the aisle of the barn.

If your driveway has some dry areas or even some snow-packed areas, you might be able to do some leading exercises with your horse to keep his ground manners sharp and to keep him tuned into you. Check out my Lead Line Leadership video for ground tying and other exercises to work on. 

We try to keep our horses barefoot in the winter because it’s better for their hooves and an unshod horse has better traction in the snow and ice and is less-likely to get snowballs under his hooves. Hoof boots can be useful for shod or unshod horses, when you need more traction. If we have a horse that must remain shod in the winter for therapeutic reasons, we use snow pads for added traction and to prevent snowballs. Sometimes people use studded shoes or borium welded onto a steel shoe, for added traction in the winter.

If you have an indoor arena or suitable footing outside, you can include lungeing and circling work with your horse, which will not only keep him responsive, but also improve his fitness. If your riding activities are restricted in the winter months, spend whatever time you can on groundwork and relationship building activities. If you keep the relationship strong between you and your horse, you won’t miss a beat when the good weather finally arrives.

Goal-setting and Training Plans 
Winter is a logical time to look forward and decide what you will accomplish with your horse in the coming year. Feats to accomplish, skills to master, trail rides, horse shows and clinics to attend. Get a calendar and fill that thing up. Set your long-range goals now.

The next step is to think about the skills and resources you will need to acquire, what steps you will take, how you will condition both you and your horse. Back-track on that calendar, thinking about how many weeks it takes to impact fitness, training and performance. What skills are you and your horse lacking and how long will it take to fill the holes? Break down the skills and set a training schedule.

Training and performance goals are accomplished over months and years, not hours and days. Looking forward, six to twelve months in advance, will help you chart a course. My Interactive Academy curriculum begins with assessing the current skill level of you and your horse, then setting realistic goals for the future.

For instance, if you’re planning to attend a multi-day rigorous trail ride in July, start by getting that date on the calendar. Calculate how many weeks and days-per-week of riding t will it take to condition your horse. Now you can back track on the calendar and set your riding goals.

Maybe you need to acquire some new skills for the trail ride… ground tying, tying to the trailer, trailer loading, crossing water, riding in a strange location. Identify the skills/experience/resources you need and make a plan. Take lessons, go on shorter rides, fill the holes with training—all that requires planning and time to accomplish.

In Pursuit of Knowledge
Most accomplished horse people are curious and insatiable learners. It’s a good sport for people that crave learning because if you devoted every waking minute of your life to learning more about horses, you’d still never learn it all. There’s no such thing as a perfect rider—never has been, never will be. And even after more than five thousand years of domestication, there’s still an awful lot about horses we don’t know. 

The professional horse trainers that I admire, all have cross-trained in other disciplines and/or taken any opportunity they can find to study classical horsemanship. Certainly, riding horses requires a lot of physical skill, but there is also a huge body of riding theory that can be learned by reading, studying and taking lessons, clinics or online courses

I’ll never grow tired of studying horse behavior and the science behind behavior modification. Sometimes a small piece of information can connect a lot of dots in your understanding. Personally, I look to science-based, peer-reviewed research and avoid fluffy, anecdotal books that tend to romanticize horse behavior. 

Recently I wrote a blog sharing my favorite horse books, so if you’re looking for books that will increase your knowledge base, check it out. Also, if structured learning is important to you, check out my Interactive Academy. Each set of assignments includes a study problem (complete with all the study resources you need), a groundwork exercise, an equitation exercise (to improve riding skill) and a horse training exercise (mounted). It’s self-paced and for all skill levels and I personally coach you through the program. It’s not for everyone, but for self-motivated, insatiable learners, this program is perfect!

Fitness Matters
Horse sports are physically demanding and getting in better shape will always make a positive difference in your riding and in your self-confidence. The winter months are a great time to reassess your fitness and think about improving your conditioning in ways that impact your riding. 

Balance is the #1 skill required of riders—a critical skill that must be constantly honed through exercise. We reach our peak ability to balance at the age of 18-20. Balance decreases with age, unless you work on it. Fortunately, balance improves quickly with exercise and practice.

My fitness regime always includes exercises to address core strength, increase aerobic capacity and improve my balance. I find that cross-training in my fitness routine is important—I might hike one day, bicycle or ski the next. I like to start my day with a 30-minute Pilates workout because it involves core strength and dynamic balance. Of all the exercises classes/videos I have done, Pilates relates the most to riding because it connects your core strength to body control and balance.

Consider your horse’s fitness alongside your own. Inactivity affects all of us. If nothing else, maybe you can go on walks with your horse in-hand. Stretch your legs, jog a little bit, work on your horse’s ground manners and get him away from the herd and more focused on you.

From “Whoas” to Goes
Don’t let the winter months bring your horsemanship to a sliding stop. Even if you only find one thing from this entire blog that you can employ, it will help you further your goals. Just imagine if you picked one thing from each category and then dedicated time each week to work on it! Without question, both you and your horse will feel a positive impact. 

Stay connected with your horse through grooming and groundwork, even if it takes place standing in the barn aisle. Take time to assess where you and your horse are in the training continuum, where you’d like to go, then chart a course to get there. Great accomplishment stems from evaluation, planning and taking small steps. 

Finally, invest in yourself. Improve your balance and strength—even just adding one new component to your exercise regime can make an impact. If you cannot spend time in the saddle, the next best thing is to study riding theory, watch videos, take online courses and read, read, read. 

Horse sports are some of the most complicated, physically demanding and difficult-to-learn activities out there. To excel, you must give it everything you’ve got and attack it on all fronts. My husband likes to tease me by saying I can relate any subject in the world to horses, and he’s right. I look to all areas of sport, exercise, philosophy, psychology, science and behavior for knowledge that can inform my horsemanship. 

Go ahead and take the plunge.  Change the narrative from whoa to go. Make a commitment to advance your horsemanship and don’t let winter slow you down!

February 2020 Letter From Julie

Dear friends,

Is it Spring yet? Once the holidays are behind me, I’m always eager to get the year underway. I’ve got places to go, people to meet and horses to ride! I’ve been busy making plans for the year, both professionally—with clinics, vacation retreats, horse expos and TV shoots—and personally—setting goals with my horses, starting new projects on the farm, living up to my NYs resolutions!

I’m looking forward to the start of the Spring horse expo season this month! I’m headed to Murfreesboro TN, February 21-23, for the Southern Equine Expo . I’ll be busy all three days, with multiple presentations each day about improving your riding, building confidence and letting horses be your guide. I’m eager to be back in Tennessee—I’ve got lots of good friends there and if I’m lucky, I’ll get to see my nephew perform in Nashville—he’s a successful base player/backup singer there and it’s always a treat to hear him play.

February 27-March 1, I’ll be in Harrisburg PA for the Horse World Expo. I always enjoy this event—it’s one of the best for shopping, especially if you’re in the market for tack, equipment, barn or arena construction. I’ve got clinics and lectures scheduled all four days of the event, on topics ranging from collection, lateral movements and canter, to overcoming fear and riding ‘til you’re 90! I’ll be riding my favorite demo horse, Smoke, the beautiful champagne cremella stallion that you’ve seen me ride at many events. My job does come with certain perks!

As Spring approaches, I’ll head to Oregon for the Northwest Horse Fair & Expo, then Wisconsin for the Midwest Horse Fair. In May, Barbra Schulte and I co-teach the Women’s Wholeness & Riding Retreat at the C Lazy U Ranch—a fabulous riding vacation and an inspirational weekend for everyone. For details on all these programs, plus my September riding tour in Ireland, please check my schedule online: Julie’s Events

Later this month, I’ll share what I’ve been working on with my own horses and I’ll drop another installment of my podcast, Ride On with Julie Goodnight. The podcast has been growing by leaps and bounds, now that accessing podcasts is so easy. You can find it anywhere you get your podcast or at JulieGoodnight.com/podcast . Be sure you hit subscribe, so you won’t miss a single episode! And if you like it, rate and review so more horse lovers like you can find the podcast.

Enjoy the ride!

Julie Signature

My Favorite Books of the Year and Decade

As a voracious reader, I often reference books when I’m teaching or public speaking. Typically, that leads to questions from other voracious readers about what horse books I recommend. With the start of a new decade, I thought it would be a good time to share my favorite books on horses and animals. While I’m at it, I may as well share all my favorite books with you.

Reading is one of my favorite pastimes. In fact, my fantasy vacation (which I’ve yet to take) always involves endless reading on a beach or a boat. I read myself to sleep every single night, but I’m lucky to get through one paragraph. To sit down and read a book, for the sheer pleasure of reading, is the ultimate luxury. 

I read for a lot of different reasons: education, edification, entertainment, and personal betterment (call it self-help, if you’d like). I try to alternate between fiction and nonfiction, but nothing is more entertaining to me than curling up with a fast-paced spy novel.

For more than a decade, I’ve been reading almost exclusively on my Kindle. It travels with me everywhere I go, and it literally sleeps in the bed with me. Occasionally I read hard copies—often they are books about horses or obscure titles that are not available in digital format.

Although I prefer the written word over listening to audio books, lately I’ve been using the “Switch to Listening” feature on my Kindle, so I can consume more books—listening in the car, the hot tub or while doing chores. I’ve learned not to listen to books at night in bed, because I awaken to a finished book that I’ve slept through. 

If I really fall in love with a book, I often buy the hard copy to add it to my collection and so I have something to loan to others. I prize my library of real books. They surround my desk—most of them titles about horses—and I enjoy perusing the titles and thumbing through them. When it comes to books, I suppose I’m moving into the 21st century, slowly but surely, since the titles in my personal Kindle Library now outnumber those on my book shelves. 

Below, I’d like to share with you my favorite books of the year and of the decade! In case you are only interested in one type of reading, I’ll divide them into the categories of horses, nonfiction, fiction and self-help.

My Favorite Books of 2019

About Horses

Whole Heart, Whole Horse, by Mark Rashid
Mark Rashid is one of my all-time favorite authors; he’s also a friend and colleague. Not only a talented and engaging author, Mark is an exceptional horseman and a stellar person. In this book, he emphasizes the importance of not placing judgment on a horse’s behavior. As with all of Mark’s books, this one will change your perspective on horses and people.

Nonfiction

The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, by Pat Shipman  
This may be my number one read of 2019. Lately, I’ve been very researching the domestication of dogs and horses and their roles in human society. This book offers a scientific look at the evolution of homo-sapiens and how they collaborated with wolves to become the apex predator. The author lays out a compelling case for humans as the most invasive species on earth and how the domestication of wolves may have played a role in the extinction of many species, including Neanderthals.

Fiction

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
This is a beautiful work of fiction set in coastal North Carolina. The story is full of the wonders of the coastal environment; it’s a beautiful love story and a compelling murder mystery. Kya, the main character, is abandoned as a child and forced to survive on her own in the swamp. With a few characters to guide her, she not only survives, but goes on to become self-educated and highly successful. But will she survive the cruelty of the people in her own community?

Self-Help

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
As a confirmed introvert myself, this book spoke volumes to me, in terms of the value of listening and the importance of quiet and solitude. According to the author, at least a third of humans all over the world are introverts; they are the ones that are listening, not talking. She talks about the rise of the “Extrovert Ideal” in the 20th century and how deeply it has permeated our culture. 

My Favorite Books of the Decade

Online, I can scan through hundreds of digital books that I’ve read over the past ten years. The best books stand out in my mind like I read them yesterday; others evoke vague memories of pleasant reading, while some are completely forgettable. Here, I will list my most favorite books that I have read or re-read in the past 10 years on horses, works of nonfiction, novels, and personal betterment.

Books on Horses and Animal Behavior

Evidenced-Based Horsemanship, by Dr. Stephen Peters & Martin Black. This is a short book and an easy read, but it will teach you a lot about how horses think (and don’t think). It’s about the neurology, physiology and behavior of horses and how that relates to the ways we train them.
Equine Behaviour: Principles & Practice, by Daniel Mills and Kathryn Nankervis. This is my favorite book on horse behavior because it’s science-based, with textbook content, but it’s relatively easy to read. The author’s British wit made me chuckle throughout this comprehensive look at horses.
Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, by Paul McGreevy. Widely regarded as the definitive work and the “Bible” of horse behavior, you’ll need a highlighter, a dictionary and plenty of time to make it through this book. Caveat: It’s very expensive and only for the obsessed student of horse behavior.

Zen Mind, Zen Horse: The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses, by Allan J. Hamilton, MD. In many ways, the simplicity of this book on horse behavior is in stark contrast to the work above. Written more for the horse owner, it combines a scientific look at behavior, both horse and human, with simple and effective training techniques that promote harmony in both.

Understanding the Ancient Secrets of the Horse’s Mind, by Dr. Robert Miller. I love this book—it’s a quick read, chock full of science-based behavior, and it offers the reader a much deeper understanding of the horse’s perspective and it will give you a greater ability to think like a horse.

Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. This book is about the behavior in many different species, including humans, and brings insight that only Dr. Grandin can give. She’s a renowned animal behaviorist at Colorado State University, primarily known for her work in the cattle industry (and the HBO movie about her life), but she has, and is currently, researching horse behavior as well.

Equine Science: Basic Knowledge for Horse People of All Ages, by Jean T. Griffiths. This is a comprehensive reference book for horse owners, with everything you need in one place: evolution, behavior, coat colors, senses, gaits, genetics, nutrition, health, disease and anatomy. This book should be required reading for all horse owners.

Nonfiction

Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover. For me, this book ranks as one of the best reads of the decade. It is a fascinating autobiography that reads like a novel. It’s a story of cruelty, survival and amazing accomplishment.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama. An intriguing and inspirational memoir about the former First Lady and the path that led her to the White House.

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice, by Bill Browder. Honestly, I thought it was a novel when I first started reading it; but sadly, it’s true and factual. This books sheds light on the entrenched corruption and murder in Putin’s regime. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. This renowned historian takes us through the evolution of modern humans, starting about 70 thousand years ago with the appearance of modern cognition, through the cultures and conquests of history, to the state of affairs today.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. A true story about a culture in crisis—the white working class—and the loss of the “American Dream.”

American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, by Chris Kyle. This is the deeply personal story of a young soldier from Texas, a former cowboy and bronc rider, who went on to become an Army sniper. You may recall the tragic real-life ending of this story, which occurred after the book was published, when the author was tragically murdered by a fellow Veteran. 

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, by Chris Hadfield. This is a light-hearted, but fascinating read on what it takes to become an astronaut and the harrowing stories of real-life space travel. It is a motivating tale of determination, perseverance and ingenuity.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. From the author of Seabiscuit, one of my ‘books of a decade’ from the 2010s (also a must read), comes this true-life story that proves life is stranger (and more fascinating) than fiction.

Fiction

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. A moving love story steeped in southern culture and institutionalized racism. It’s a compelling story that opens your eyes to some ugly truths.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. This is a charming and heart-warming story about the “neighbor from hell,” a grumpy old curmudgeon, and how the actions of others can have meaningful impact.

Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult. A moving and gut-wrenching look at racism, privilege, prejudice and justice in American society.

Spilled Milk, by K.L. Randis. Based on a true story, this book offers a disturbing look at child abuse and one girl’s pursuit of safety and justice.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. A psychological thriller with many twists and turns; a serious page-turner.

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. A riveting and unique plot about a marriage gone bad. I love plots that are unpredictable and this one keeps you guessing.

Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. Okay, I admit it. I often read young-adult fiction. This trilogy has everything I love—it’s post-apocalyptic, dystopian, sci-fi, and futuristic all in one story. And, it has a strong female heroine.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. One of my favorite books of all time, this novel is narrated from the voice of its main character—a dog. On top of the unique point of view, the plot is as intriguing as the setting—the life of a race car driver. BTW, it’s a major motion picture now and the movie is almost as good as the book. Bonus book: Ephemeral, by Andie Andrews, is a charming novel written from the first-person voice of a horse named Sonny, and how he deals with his novice rider. 

Personal Betterment 

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, by The Arbinger Institute. I first read this book to increase my business acumen but soon realized it also has a significant impact on more intimate relationships too. I’ve gifted this book to quit a few people; I’ve read it several times and reviewing it now, makes me want to read it again. 

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. A fascinating look at the neuroscience and psychology behind making good decisions and snap judgments. Filled with anecdotes and scientific research, it is both fascinating and entertaining.

The Happiness Animal, by Will Jelbert. This book explains the painful truth… that happiness comes from within. It helps us become accountable for our own happiness and to train our minds to think positively.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen. I’m an organization freak, so I loved this helpful book on organizing your business and personal life. I read this almost 10 years ago and I still use these techniques daily.

Mulling over and describing these books to you is like reliving the joy of reading them all over again. I love that about a good book and it’s the reason I like to keep hard copies around. I like to highlight meaningful passages or beautifully crafted prose, to make it easy to enjoy again later.

Maybe you’ve found some books in my list that you’ve read already—I hope you loved them too. Perhaps there are a few titles that interest you and maybe you’ll find some new gems. Be sure to comment below if you’ve read, or want to read, any of these books or if you want to share your favorite books of the decade with me!

Enjoy the read,

Consistency Counts

Photo by: Tina Fitch

On one of my many visits to southern California, I was conducting a horsemanship clinic in the town of Norco, renowned for its horse-friendly lifestyle. On any given day in “Horsetown USA,” you’ll see horses being ridden on the dirt sidewalks along Main Street  or parked at a tie rail in front of a shopping center, or even in line for the drive-up window at McDonald’s.

While there, I was invited to tour the Circle D Ranch, home to Disneyland’s herd of gorgeous draft horses. Having worked behind the scenes of the horse operation at Disney World, on the other side of the country, I was not surprised to find an immaculate, state-of-the-art horse facility, that was custom-built to suit the exceptionally high standards of Disney.

The ranch is home to 18 draft horses, who work 3-4 days a week in the theme park, some thirty miles away, where they are stabled in a similar barn while “on duty.” The horses come to the Norco ranch for rest and pampering on their 3-4 days off. Aside from the incredible horse flesh and the five-star facility, I was most impressed by the consistency with which the horses are handled. Strictly enforced, detailed policies and procedures are designed to make sure the horses get handled exactly the same way every day, by each of the many employees tasked with their care, both in the theme park and at the ranch.

From the way the horses are haltered and led, to how they are tied, to the order of the brushes used, to the process for turning them out or to their daily hand-walking– it was done exactly the same by every handler, in the same order, at the same time, in the same places. There’s almost no stress for these horses, because of the consistency. They always know what to expect and what is coming next. They never have to guess or question. There is great comfort in order and predictability.

Horses are prey animals and it’s easy for them to feel like victims in a chaotic world, when there is a lack of consistency or predictability. Small changes in a horse’s known environment can send him into a tailspin. For the same reasons, horses thrive on routines, law and order and consistency. It makes them feel safe and calm when they know what will happen next.

Horses always do better with consistent handling and regular routines. They learn patterns quickly and they love to be able to predict what is going to happen next. Most horse owners have learned the benefits of feeding and turning out horses in the same order, and how quickly you can train horses to a routine. Professional horse trainers tend to be very consistent and systematic in the way they ride and handle horses, and their horses are usually a reflection of that. But I often see a lack of consistency in novice horse owners, particularly when it comes to establishing boundaries, communicating clearly and displaying consistent leadership to the horse.

Draw a Line in the Sand
If a dog has poor manners and jumps on you, rubs against you, roots his nose under your arm so you’ll pet him or jumps in your lap uninvited, it may be obnoxious but it’s probably not going to kill you. When a horse has no boundaries and no manners, it’s downright dangerous and is a problem that will snowball. Remember, one way that horses establish dominance is to move the subordinate out of their space.

My horsemanship clinics typically start with groundwork. This is my opportunity to get a feel for the horse’s temperament, to evaluate the relationship between horse and handler and to refine (or establish) the horse’s ground manners. Since horses basically do what you’ve taught them to do (for better or for worse), it’s often the way that a horse is being handled that is leading to the problems.

Typically, in groundwork sessions I see a lot of inconsistency in boundaries or no boundaries at all. Sometimes the person stands too close to the horse, constantly in the horse’s personal space, and choking up on the lead. But when the horse gets irritated and starts throwing its head or nipping, it’s often wrongly concluded that the horse is the problem.
People are sometimes totally unaware of space and boundaries when it comes to horses. Just like a toddler, horses will push on you until they find the limit of their boundaries. If the person is unaware of her own personal space and has no boundaries, the horse will react to that by pushing until he’s slinging his head at you, dropping his shoulder into you and moving you out of his space. Even then, sometimes the person is unaware of their own boundaries.

It’s unfair to be in a horse’s face, kissing all over his muzzle, and standing up under his neck, but then get mad at him when he crowds you, nips at you or worse. To be effective (and safe) with horses, you need to be very clear of your own personal boundaries and diligently enforce the boundary.

My personal boundary is as far as I can reach around me with my arms outstretched. If the horse moves any part of his body into my space uninvited—even just his nose—I will correct it. If I’ve set a forward boundary of where the horse should be while I am leading him and he crosses the line, I will reinforce the boundary—100% of the time. A boundary is

only a boundary if it is consistently enforced. If you are clear on where the boundaries are and you consistently enforce it, the horse learns quickly.

Say What?
Horses are very communicative animals—that’s a big part of why they became domesticated to begin with and why they have remained an integral part of human society for thousands of years. Although they have some communication through sound (audible signals), most of their communication is through postures, gestures and gazes. Yes, it can be subtle, but the information is there if we look for it.

Horses are more adept at reading people than people are at reading horses. As verbal communicators, we put far too much stock in the spoken word and often miss the subtleties of body language—both in our horses and in ourselves. Learning to be in command of your body language and use appropriate gestures, will help you send the right message to your horse.

For instance, when a horse is shying away from something or refusing to go in a certain direction, the rider often does the opposite of what they should do—staring at what the horse is spooking at or looking in the direction the horse wants to go. What you do with your eyes is very meaningful to the horse in these moments—your eyes will reveal your determination (or lack thereof), your intentions (where you want to go) and your confidence level. If you say one thing with the reins (go this way) then the opposite with your eyes, you’ve contradicted yourself.

When doing groundwork with horses, our goal is to move the horse out of our space, in order to reinforce who is in charge. Yet, time and time again, I see handlers approach the horse as if to move him off, but then withdraw if they think the horse is not going to budge. Often, the person is completely unaware that they are withdrawing or even stepping back—but the horse always sees it. Always. Even the smallest retreat will be detected. Being in command of your body language and sending intentional nonverbal signals to the horse will bring your communication to his level.

Perhaps the biggest area of miscommunication with the horse comes when we are riding. Complex cues for movements and guidance require skill from the rider, yet it’s usually the horse that’s blamed for a poor response. A horse can only perform to the level of the rider and when the horse is not performing well, it’s usually the rider that needs fixing.

Conflicting signals and inconsistent expectations are often to blame for a horse’s poor performance. Pulling back on the reins at the same time you want the horse to move more forward is super frustrating to horses and I see it in every clinic I teach. Pulling on two reins to turn is another frustrating example of miscommunication, often seen when people are riding two-handed. If I want to turn right, and I pull both reins to the right, my right hand is pulling his nose to the right, but my left hand is pulling his nose to the left, once it crosses the withers. How can he respond correctly to that?

Another example is when I do training demonstrations on canter leads at horse expos, most of the time the “lead problem” is fixed by simply clarifying the cue the rider gives. The horse doesn’t have a lead problem, the rider has a cueing problem. Clarifying your cues and using a consistent sequence in your cues will get you the response you want. You could teach a horse almost any cue, by consistently applying the cue and reinforcing it. But if the cue is a little bit different every time or if you fail to reinforce your cues consistently, the horse will fail to respond.

Think about the cues you give to your horse when you’re riding—cues to walk, trot, canter, stop or turn. What are the precise aids you use? In what sequence do you apply the aids? How is the trot cue different from the canter cue? How do you prepare a horse or warn him that a cue is coming? How does your body change when you are tense, upset, tired or nervous that may change the clarity of these cues? When you are clear and consistent in the way you cue your horse, your horse will respond like clockwork.

Following Your Lead
You don’t have to be around horses very long to figure out that you want to be the one in charge. It’s not a good idea to let a one-thousand-pound scared rabbit call the shots. Horses seek out leadership because it makes them feel safe and protected. But there is never a void of leadership in a horse herd. If the leader falls down on the job, either figuratively or literally, another horse will immediately step in to fill the void. You’re not the leader unless you act like the leader all the time.

A comment I often hear from horse owners is, “every day, I feel like I am starting over with my horse.” They do the groundwork exercises, designed to establish authority and control, and get a good response in the moment, but the authority does not stick. The next day, the horse is challenging their authority again. It’s not the horse that’s the problem—he’s just doing what horses do. It’s a lack of consistency in their leadership (and therefore a lack of leadership).

If it is a daily battle to be in charge of your horse, you’re doing something that is eroding your own authority. Are you controlling the actions of the horse? Or are his actions dictating what you do? It’s a simple equation—action and reaction. If you are making an action, to which the horse is reacting, you are in charge. If the horse is making an action, to which you are reacting, the horse is in charge.

It amazes me how often I see handlers work hard in the arena, during the clinic, to establish good ground manners and authority over the horse, then throw it all away the moment the session is over and they leave the arena. Walking back to the barn they let the horse get in front and pull them to the barn or get impatient and start fidgeting and fussing. Rules of behavior must apply all the time and be enforced all the time, or they are not rules.

Little things can erode your authority or leadership with the horse– letting him grab the hay out of your arms when you feed him, hand feeding treats, letting him rip away from the halter when you turn him loose, stepping back when he moves into you. Being the leader to your horse is a full-time job.

Without question, horses will make us better at being humans, if we rise to the occasion and resist the temptation to blame the horse and instead look to ourselves. Consistency in defending your boundaries not only keeps you safer around the horse, but also helps the horse accept your authority. Achieving command of your body language and the subtle signals you constantly send to your horse, helps you communicate to the horse and may help you receive the subtle signals he’s sending you.

Nothing is more important to your horse than your consistency of leadership. Horses yearn for a strong and fair leader, but it’s not always easy to be the one at the top. As the leader, you’re not really allowed any down time. It’s a hard job—to be consistent in praise and reinforcement, to be consistent in your rules and expectations of behavior, to be consistent in your emotions and confidence, to be consistent in the way you communicate. It’s not an easy job, but the payoff is huge. When the horse puts all his faith in you and is willing to follow you anywhere, it’s a feeling like no other.

December 2019 Letter From Julie

Dear friends,

As the year ends, I’m resisting looking back and wondering where the days/weeks/months went, and instead I’m focused ahead on what the new year will bring. I’m a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, and I’m already busy crafting mine. I operate with multiple resolutions—personal betterment, professional goals, horsemanship, household, recreational—that way I am sure to accomplish some of them! Next month I’ll share my New Year’s resolutions with you—at least the ones I can share publicly.

2020 is shaping up to be a busy year for me, with horse expos in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Wisconsin. I’m also offering two new programs at the renowned C Lazy U Ranch in Colorado. In addition to the Women’s Wholeness Retreat that I co-teach with Barbra Schulte, we are offering a ground-breaking program—The Couples Riding Retreat—which will be led by Barbra and her husband Tom, and my husband Rich and me. We’re super excited about this vacation program for couples and already getting tremendous response.

Also new at C Lazy U for 2020, is the Horsemanship Immersion program– five days and four nights of immersive study of riding, horse behavior, conformation, training and health care, with a herd of 200 horses as our laboratory! The Ranch Riding Adventure program at C Lazy U is back by popular demand; I think there will be some openings in this program, for those of you who have patiently waited to get in. Your dream vacation awaits. www.juliegoodnight.com/clazyu Click Here – C Lazy U Ranch

I can’t wait to go back to the magical country of Ireland in September 2020, for a fabulous riding vacation sponsored by Connemara Equestrian Escapes. We had so much fun there in 2018, that I just had to go back. We’ve had so much interest in the Ireland trips, and space is quite limited, so I wanted to go back to Ireland and offer this ‘trip of a lifetime’ to more of you. With an intimate group of eight riders, we get to know each other well. In addition to spending our days in lessons and hacking through the Irish countryside and seaside, we’ll also enjoy cultural tours, dining at authentic Irish pubs and getting to know the local characters. Imagine yourself riding in Ireland! Click Here – Ride with Me in Ireland

For now, I plan to make the most of every day that’s left of 2019. Rich and I are getting a jumpstart on the ski season and the snow conditions are epic! Since I won’t have to get on an airplane in the immediate future, I’m able to get caught up on some back-burner projects and ride my own horses more. I’ll spend a few days teaching up at Colorado State University Equine this month, helping with the Legends of Ranching colt-starting classes. It’s always a treat for me to work with young horse professionals and help the colts progress through the program. And occasionally I become smitten with one of the Legends colts, and they end up in my barn after the Legends of Ranching Sale (Eddie and Pepperoni both came from this horse sale). Click Here – Legends of Ranch Riding

Don’t forget to think about your horse as you shop for Christmas gifts! We’ve got a lot of great items that your horse will love and that will make your horse life easier. I hope you enjoy some quality time with friends, family and horses over the holidays and don’t forget to think about your resolutions!

Enjoy the ride,
Julie

Looking Back: The Journey of Goodnight Training Stables

Photograph of Pepsea and Julie

Photograph of Pepsea and Julie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Lucy Koehler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Have a Codependent Relationship with Your Horse?

Horses are very clever animals—quite adept at training people to do what they want. If you think you’ve never been trained by a horse, you probably aren’t paying attention. In every clinic I do, I see riders that have developed what I would call a codependent relationship—a horse that is constantly threatening disobedience and a rider that is playing along with the horse’s threats.

I see riders that cannot keep their horse going at trot or canter—the horse is constantly threatening to break gait and the rider is constantly saying, “No, don’t do that.” I see horses cutting corners and the rider pulling the outside rein. I see horses pulling toward the gate/barn/buddy and the rider seemingly oblivious, pulling the horse in the other direction but never confronting the issue.

Horses are sneaky about this stuff and long before the rider realizes she is playing along, the horse has trained the rider to keep pedaling the horse to go or keep pulling the outside rein to stay on the right path. By playing along, the rider is complicit in the horse’s disobedience and proving to the horse that she will tolerate the disobedience, rather than address it. Or worse, demonstrating to the horse that she is unaware of its disobedience.

Generally, the biggest problem in a codependent relationship is that the rider is unaware of the horse’s behavior—riding in a way that tells the horse that she is blissfully ignorant about the way he is supposed to act. It helps to know how a properly trained horse is supposed to act, but the most important thing is to become aware of the horse’s disobedience, call him out on it and break the cycle of codependency (often easier said than done).

What is an Obedient Horse?
A properly trained saddle horse should travel in the speed and direction the rider wants, until the rider says to do something different. Once you tell the horse to do something, let’s say slow-trot in this direction, the horse should continue trotting in that direction, at the speed the rider dictates, without pedaling or pulling, until the rider says to do something different—like turn, slow down or speed up.

Obedience in a riding horse means that it goes on the path dictated entirely by the rider, at a speed chosen by the rider, without micromanagement from the rider.  The horse should have no decision-making authority in this regard (imagine letting a thousand-pound flight animal go in the speed or direction it wanted). If the rider is constantly telling the horse to slow down, speed up or stay on the path, it means the horse is constantly threatening disobedience. The horse is holding the rider hostage and making the rider complicit in its disobedience, while the rider seems blissfully ignorant of the horse’s actions.

Everyone who has ever taken a horsemanship clinic from me, has heard me talk about “The Golden Moments.” It’s the time at the beginning of the ride when the rider should test the horse’s level of obedience and make her expectations abundantly clear to the horse. If the rider is not proactive at this time, the tables will turn. The horse will test the rider to see what it can get away with, and how aware the rider is of the horse’s actions.

Awareness is the Answer
Horses are herd animals and are very aware of the actions and emotions of the animals around them—including humans. Since most of their communication with other horses is through postures, gestures and body language, they are particularly adept at reading others—again, including humans. They are relationship-oriented animals, so they have a high level of awareness of how other animals are acting.

Humans, on the other hand, are often oblivious to the vibe they are giving off to a horse. The rider often lets her self-doubt, lack of confidence or lack of skill/knowledge show, by not following through on directives and overlooking small infractions. The rider tends to be overly focused on herself, how she’s sitting, what she’s doing with the reins, heels down, eyes up, hands in front of the saddle…. Gradually, the horse starts pushing boundaries, to see what it can get away with, until the rider notices.

Once the rider becomes more aware of the horse, its actions and its motivations, the game is over for the horse. It’s the rider’s lack of awareness that gives the green light to the horse to act however he wants.

Turning the Tables
Once the rider is aware of the horse’s disobedience, it’s easy to bring the game to an end. Part of his strategy involves the rider’s lack of awareness, so simply calling the horse out on his behavior—treating it as a violation—will go a long way to stop the behavior. In general, horses do not want to get in trouble. The rider should scold the horse in such a way that he gets the message, “I know what you are doing, now knock it off!” 

In addition to recognizing the disobedience, it’s also important to understand the motive. Why is the horse acting this way? How does he benefit? What does he want? By understanding the horse’s motivations, it will be far easier to correct him in a manner that takes away all the benefits. Perhaps a few examples will help.

If I detect a horse is veering from the path I dictated by pulling toward the gate/barn/buddy, I now know that 1) my horse is in a disobedient frame of mind, and 2) that he wants to go in a certain direction. My first goal is to let the horse know, I know what he is doing. So instead of politely steering him back to the path I chose, I will scold with my voice (calling him out) and maybe bounce/slap my leg on his ribs, perhaps bump one rein. Then, and most importantly, I’ll make sure I turn the horse a few times—with each turn being AWAY from his objective. I want to be very careful that my horse does not gain any ground and in fact ends up farther away from his objective.

If I am riding in the arena and the horse is pulling toward the middle, refusing to stay on the rail unless I hold him there, my first step is awareness. If I just go around the arena holding the outside rein so his nose is to the wall and he’s going around the arena counter-bent, the horse thinks I don’t know what he’s doing. So I may bump the outside rein as I bump/slap with my inside leg and scold with my voice. Then, I will make a few changes of direction, turning him into the fence each time—never turning him toward the middle. The changes of direction are abrupt and cause him to come closer to the rail with each turn. Then I’ll put him back to the rail, relax my hands and see if he decides to stay there without me holding him. If not, scold and turn into the fence a few times. Once he learns that every time he leans into the middle, it will buy him 3-4 abrupt turns into the fence, he will give it up.

Beware of Whack-a-Mole
When horses misbehave, they generally do the same thing at the same place, every time. They tend to be predictable in their disobedience. This is good because it gives the rider the opportunity to think ahead of the horse and be proactive—take charge BEFORE the horse does his little trick. Being one step ahead of the horse lets him know that the rider is onto his antics.

However, there is a saying in horse training… “it always gets worse before it gets better.” This refers to the fact that if a horse has been getting away with disobedience for some time and you address it—call him out on it—he is unlikely to just stop and never do it again. Especially if it’s a tactic that’s been working well for him; he’s reluctant to give it up so he might put up a little fight before he totally caves. It’s important to stay-the-course, even if he gets mad.

Often, when a horse is acting up at a specific place—either in the arena or on the trail—and you address it, that same disobedient behavior will pop up in a new place. This is quite normal; it’s a tactic the horse has reason to believe will work again, so he tries the same thing someplace else. When you call him out on that, he may try it again someplace different. But eventually, he will give it up.

If a horse has gotten away with disobedience for some time, it may make him mad that his tricks aren’t working. It may temporarily exacerbate the disobedience or cause a bit of a tantrum. The job of the rider is to stay the course without throwing gas on the flame. In other words, be insistent and persistent, but do not agitate the horse further. No need to fight; just wait for the horse to give it up.

Horses may not be great problem-solvers, but they can be very clever in their disobedient tactics and very manipulative of others. Often this manipulative behavior leads to a co-dependent relationship, causing the rider to hold the horse on the path or hold the horse in a speed. But once the rider is aware of the horse’s manipulations, calls the horse out on it, refusing to succumb to the tactic, the game is usually over for the horse. 

New Kid on the Block: Introducing a new horse to the herd

Whether you keep your horse at home or at a boarding facility, there will be times when new horses must be integrated into an existing herd. Generally, this involves a lot of posturing between the horses– chasing, biting, and hooves flying. Horses take this event quite seriously and it’s a scary proposition to the new horse and its owner.

Horses are herd animals by nature; they form bonded relationships within the herd, vie for status and fight amongst themselves. Acceptance of a new horse is never granted easily by the herd and the addition of one new individual can totally disrupt the hierarchy of the herd. 

The more you understand the horse’s herd instincts, and the ways that domestication complicates matters, the easier it is to make smart decisions. Taking the time to introduce horses slowly and strategically will help the integration of the ‘new kid’ go smoothly, reduce the risk of injury and keep fireworks to a minimum. 

Herd Dynamics

Horses are instinctively gregarious animals, meaning that by nature, they’re drawn to the herd. A horse banished from the herd will always seek acceptance in another herd, because his survival is at stake. A horse is dependent on the herd for its own safety and comfort.

Gregarious behavior is present in all horses, it’s one of their strongest instinctive drives, although we often speak of it as an affliction (herd bound, barn sour, nappy, etc.). Although a horse without a herd will always seek acceptance into a herd, the existing herd always rejects a new member, until the new horse proves it is worthy of acceptance. The new kid is guilty until proven innocent.

A horse herd has a distinct structure and hierarchy of leadership. What horse owners often refer to as the “pecking order,” animal behaviorists call a “linear hierarchy.”  Simply put, every individual in the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to every other herd member. There is no equality in a horse herd; there’s a horse at the top, and one at the bottom, the rest are lined out in-between. Even amongst bonded individuals (buddies), one of them is dominant and the other is subordinate.

The most dominant horse often becomes the leader of the herd and this horse is designated “Alpha.” The next horse in the line of hierarchy is called “Beta.” The horse all the way at the bottom of the pecking order is designated “Omega.” Truly alpha horses are strong, fair leaders that the other horses admire and feel secure in its presence. Alpha individuals may be male or female, an unusual trait in the animal kingdom. Beta horses tend to challenge authority and may act like bullies, but often do not have the leadership qualities of a true alpha horse. The omega horse usually accepts its fate at the bottom of the hierarchy, it rarely challenges authority and tries to stay out of the fray.

By nature, horses are born with a temperament that may be high or low on the scales of fear, confidence, curiosity or dominance, among other traits. A horse is born with its temperament, which will largely dictate where it sits in the hierarchy. But horses are extremely fast learning animals as well; they may learn to manipulate other horses to gain more status. Sometimes horses gain status in the herd from an affiliation with another horse, so adding or subtracting one individual can often disrupt the hierarchy.

An existing herd is always reluctant to accept a new member, unless and until it shows contrition and a willingness to respect the leadership and be a good citizen in the herd. As predictable as the tides, when a new horse seeks acceptance into the herd, the existing herd members will aggressively drive the horse away, as if to say, “We don’t like you and we don’t want you.” 

The new horse continues to seek acceptance, feeling as if his life is dependent on being accepted. He lowers his head in a contrite and subordinate posture, as if to say, “Please, I’ll do anything if you let me in. I’ll follow the rules, respect the hierarchy and be a good herdmate.” 

Eventually, the existing herd members will back off and allow the new horse provisional membership in the herd. The new kid will work his way up the hierarchy to its rightful place and may become bonded with other herdmates. 

Relationships are Complicated

In a stable herd of any size, feral or domestic, the horses all know their position in the herd and are accepted members. Large herds of horses usually have factions, or smaller sub-herds of horses that like to be together.  

Within a large herd there are horses that like each other and others who do not; there are friends, rivals and enemies. Horses prefer to hang out with their buddies and bonded horses will have each others’ back. There are many cooperative and philanthropic behaviors that occur between bonded horses, including protection and fighting off an aggressive horse.

Within any herd of horses, individuals may form a specially bonded relationships with one or two other individuals. In natural herds, bonded individuals (who behaviorists refer to as “associates”) are often related by blood. Stallions can be extremely possessive of mares and entirely hostile towards marauding stallions. 

Horses in the herd, either domesticated or feral, can be possessive of some horses and jealous of other horses.  Sometimes domesticated horses may become possessive over their humans and are jealous or combative if another horse approaches or gets attention from its human.

Forced Marriages

In domestication, horses don’t get to choose their herdmates. Usually humans make that choice, organizing herds according to their own convenience, often without regard to the horse’s natural behavior. Consequently, the horses may not like each other, sometimes bullies are in charge and/or the hierarchy can be unstable. Often, adding or subtracting one individual can change the herd dynamic in surprising ways, because there were false or forced relationships to begin with.

There is never a void of leadership in a horse herd, either domesticated or feral.  If the alpha individual is suddenly removed, another horse will immediately step in as alpha—theoretically, the strongest natural leader emerges, either male or female. 

But what happens if none of the horses in a forced herd are natural leaders? What happens when there are multiple beta horses, all scrapping for dominance? In domestication, although there will always be a leader in the herd, it may not always be a good one. 

Geldings, although neutered, can often display stallion-like behaviors when it comes to possessing mares, fighting off other geldings and even mating. Of course, mares are usually not neutered and therefore may display unpleasant behaviors in estrus, wreaking havoc in the herd for a 4-5 days every few weeks. Interestingly, in feral herds, the mares usually only come into heat once a year, shortly after foaling, then are pregnant again for the remaining 11 months of the year. Domesticated mares that are not bred may cycle most or all of the year, causing a lot of frustration and angst in the herd.

Many large horse operations segregate horses by gender, to avoid the unpleasantness of a mixed-gender herd. I’ve seen it plenty of times—a large group of geldings co-existing peacefully, and the same of mares. But put one gelding in the mare pen or one mare in the gelding pen and there’s kicking, squealing, chasing and hair flying. But for many horse owners, segregating horses by gender isn’t a realistic option.

Even horses that don’t like each other may become a tight-knit herd, when that’s their only choice. But they may never become bonded associates. A horse’s preference or disdain for another horse can be hard to know in a small, forced herd where they have no choice but to hang out together. In larger herds, it may be hard to know which horse are enemies because horses that dislike each other don’t have to interact. 

A manger of a herd of 200 saddle horses once told me that they bought about a dozen horses a year and those horses were quarantined together, then at some point, integrated to run with the larger herd. Because the horses were quarantined together and then were pitted against the whole herd as the “unwanteds,” they often became their own faction, staying together as a sub-group for the rest of their tenure at the ranch, as if that traumatic experience had bonded them for life.

Relationships between horses can be complicated and the preferences or disdain they show for others can play out like a B-rated soap opera at times. This makes integrating new horses into a herd a huge challenge. It pays to be very deliberate, move slowly and test the waters carefully, so horses don’t get hurt.

Flight or Fight

Flight is the most defining characteristic of the horse, a trait that made the equine species difficult to domesticate some five to ten thousand years ago. Horses generally choose flight over other options, but when motivated to fight, they are very well equipped. 

Horse fights are extremely violent, and stallions may even fight to the death. In a normal herd setting, horses constantly make threatening gestures to others or lash out with a kick or bite. Minor horse-on-horse aggression is normal; but if the herd is in a constant state of argument and aggression, some rearrangement may be needed.

A horse has three weapons in his arsenal—his teeth, his front feet and his hind feet. Biting, striking and kicking are the horse’s arsenal and his teeth are his most deadly weapon. When horses fight to kill, they generally bite the jugular. Consequently, when male horses spar, or play-fight, they often bite at the throat.

It’s important to distinguish between aggressive kicking and defensive kicking—most often it’s the latter that we see. When a dominant horse attacks a subordinate, the subordinate kicks out in defense, often with one leg, and then runs away. The kick buys him time. 

Aggressive kicking is typically accompanied by squealing (a terribly loud scream) and the horse is usually kicking double-barrels and backing into the other horse (who may be doing the same). Horses kicking butt-to-butt are very serious about the fight and this is a very dangerous situation.

When two unfamiliar horses meet, they generally come nose-to-nose and smell each other’s breath, then go nose-to-genitals and smell there before coming back head-to-head. At that point you may see aggressive posturing (raised neck, arched back, swishy tail, stomping) and hear a squeal, which means aggression may ensue. 

Any result is possible when two unknown horses meet: they may be indifferent to each other, like each other, hate each other or want to kill each other. Most often, horses are indifferent or get along. When they don’t, sparks may fly and horses may get hurt.

Mitigation Techniques

Introducing a new horse into a herd is best done slowly and with calculation, to minimize the risk of injury. There are so many variables in the herd size and dynamics, the facilities available and the temperament of the horses, that it is difficult to offer suggestions that work in any situation. But over the decades, I’ve learned some tricks that may help ease the transition.

First, I like to quarantine the new horse for a week or two. Not only does this help reduce the spread of illness, it also allows the horse time to get used to his new environment and become acquainted with his new human family. It allows me time to get to know the horse and evaluate his temperament before introducing him to the rest of the herd. 

Next, I like to let the new horse be in a pen that shares a common fence with the herd. I want the fence to be tall (at least five feet) and solid (to hold up to kicking, striking and leaning on both sides). I may only do this for short periods while I observe what horses are friendly and which are aggressive. I may leave the new horse next to the herd for days, as he gets to know the players.

Since more horses are friendly than aggressive, chances are good that some of the horses in the herd will be interested in making friends with the new horse. As I observe the initial interactions over the fence, I can determine which horses will be jealous or possessive and which horses are interested in the new horse. 

If I can, I will allow the new horse to meet one or two of the friendly horses without the fence in between—turning them out together for some time before introducing the rest of the herd. That way, the new horse may have a friend when he meets the whole herd. Sometimes it’s feasible to add one horse at a time to the new horse’s pen, until the whole herd is together.

Often, identifying the one dominant horse that is causing the conflict and removing that horse from the equation, allows everyone else to get along just fine. I would keep that horse isolated from the herd for a week or two, while the new guy settles in and finds his place. Be careful not to break up alliances in the existing herd, as you introduce the horses one at a time. A jealous, dominant horse may come uncorked when he sees his BFF with the new guy.

If I have any concerns about aggression when I put the horses all together, I’ll recruit help from one or two friends. Armed with training flags or whips to wave and make noise, we’ll referee the first meeting. If the horses become aggressive, we’ll shout and wave the flags to break them up and then remove the trouble-makers. A little solitary confinement may make the aggressive horse rethink his behavior next time, while the new horse gets comfortable with the rest of the herd. Fighting horses are scary and dangerous, so proceed with great caution. 

Most importantly, take your time when integrating a new horse into a herd and employ a strategy. Do your best to know the temperaments of the horses and who the main players will be. Most of the time, horses will work out their differences and find a new order in the herd, in a matter of hours, but occasionally, horses can be injured. Whatever you can do to reduce the risk and stress level, will help the horses.

Dealing with the Death of a Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Julie, 

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

Love and Hugs!!
Stacey Buzzell, DVM

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

Julie,  

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

Barbara Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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