Cultivating a Connection with Horses

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Separation Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Establishing Boundaries & Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Good Leadership Generates Good Followership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secret Powers are Within You!

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

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

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

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

Turning with Your Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mind, Body, Spirit Connection

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

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

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

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

The Enemy 

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

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

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

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

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

The Eyes are the Window to Your Soul

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

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

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

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

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

Julie cantering palomino horse
Julie cantering palomino horse

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

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

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

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

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

Dropped Shoulder

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

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

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

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

Trots Fast Before Canter

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

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

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

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

Bucks at Departure

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

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

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

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

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

Clean Departures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collection at Canter

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the End of the Day…

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

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

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

Conquer the Canter | Part 1 of 2

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

Five Canter Hacks for Green Horses and Green Riders

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

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

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

#1 Confidence to Canter

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

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

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

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

#2 Sitting the Canter

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

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

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

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

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

#3 Controlling Direction

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

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

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

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

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

#4 Controlling Speed

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

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

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

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

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

#5 Breaks Gait

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

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

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

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

Don’t Worry, You’ll Get There!

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

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

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

Until then, enjoy the ride!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Making of a Trail Horse, Part 3

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

Foundational Training Under-Saddle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Making of a Trail Horse, Part 2

Manners and Skills

There are many ingredients that go into the making of an exceptional trail horse and just like in the kitchen, quality ingredients can make the difference in an average dish or an outstanding one. So, what are the ingredients we are looking for in a good trail horse?

Keep in mind that trail riding can be quite different, depending on the part of the country where you live or ride. For me, living in the high mountains of Colorado, trail riding typically involves terrain that is steep, rocky, and hazardous in places. Therefore we don’t take young horses, under the age of 4, into the high mountains. They need physical maturity, strength and coordination, and a considerable amount of training.

Here in the Rocky Mountains, natural obstacles can range from timber blow-downs to scary bogs to raging, rocky creeks with steep banks on both sides. On Pepperoni’s first ride in the high mountains, in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, one difficult water hazard had all those qualities in one crossing. Negotiating it safely meant having total control of the horse from stem to stern and a relationship based on trust and solid leadership. 

To me, the ideal trail horse is safe and reliable in changing environments, is always mannerly and obedient, consistent in its behavior, well-trained, responsive, and experienced in a variety of settings. I want a horse that is brave and forward thinking, with a strong work ethic. But the age-old question is this: is a good (trail) horse born or made?

Nature vs. Nurture

A horse hits the ground with its instinctive behaviors almost fully formed and it’s born with its temperament—inherited in his genes. That baby horse has instinctive behaviors such as flight, locomotion, and suckling. He has a temperament that may prove him to be brave and bold, scared and flighty, or somewhere in-between. He may be curious and investigative or spooky and reactive; he may be calm and lazy or excitable and high-energy. He may be willing and eager-to-please, or dominant and challenging. Although training will always help, a horse is born with his temperament and there’s not much we can do about it.

There are only two types of behaviors in any animal (humans included): instinctive and learned (nature vs. nurture). Horses tend to operate a lot on instinctive behaviors, but they learn new behaviors wickedly fast (for better or for worse) and the learning starts the moment they are born.

In the making of an excellent trail horse, it’s best to start with the raw ingredients of good physical traits (conformation and gaits) and a great temperament (brave and willing). But we must also add to that, a lot of training, good handling, and varied life-experiences. There are certain basic skills that must be addressed through training, plus there are some foundational training philosophies that should be ingrained in the young horse throughout its training.

All of this requires a lot of time and dedication to your horse and to the sport—there’s no instant gratification in the making of a great trail horse.

Basic Handling Skills

I’m not a big believer in “training” young horses, under 2 years old. I think they need to grow up first and foals should learn to be horses first. It’s also important for baby horses not to learn bad habits (like moving into pressure or walking all over you), that often comes with over-handling at a young age. We like to start teaching certain skills to yearlings (like tying, lead-line manners and trailering) but we keep it light and allow the horses to mature—physically and mentally—before hard training begins. Saddle training the young horse goes quite fast when they are ready, and starting a horse too early generally leads to more problems than it solves.

While I may start teaching basic ground-handling skills on the horse as a yearling (lead, tie, trailer), the serious training will begin towards the end of its 2-year-old year. I like to start 2-year-olds under-saddle in the fall for simple basics. Then we get far more serious in the spring of their 3-year-old year. As a 3-year-old, he’ll get an abundance of training, as well as confidence-building experiences “on the road.” By the time that young horse turns 4, he’s mature, well-trained, and gotten the prerequisite experience he needs to be successful in the high mountains or on any trail ride.

The basic training on a trail horse is the same as I would give any young horse, as they are useful skills that make the horse safe and pleasant to be around. Most of these skills will be solidly trained into the horse before under-saddle training begins. Here’s a simple checklist of the handling skills that a young trail prospect should have:

  • Leadline Manners: Leads well beside you, does not crowd you or get in front of you, rates his speed off yours, stands quietly when asked, can be led from ground or ponied from a horse.
  • Ground Ties: When you ask the horse to stop and you drop the lead rope on the ground, he stands parked, as if he is a statue. This is a useful skill in any horse, but a must-have for trail horses.
  • Stands Quietly While Tied: This requires many hours and days spent at the “patience post,” learning to stand quietly and patiently while tied. Eventually that horse will have to stand quietly tied to a trailer, and potentially tied overnight to a high line. A horse that does not tie well is a liability on the trail.
  • Feet Handling: Proper manners here include lifting the foot when asked, holding it up without leaning or fidgeting and allowing me to place the foot back down on a particular spot (not jerking it out of my hands when I’m finished). Be particular about this. A good trail horse needs to allow you to have total control of his feet and body.
  • Not Claustrophobic: Horses instinctively do not like tight places with no escape—some horses can be way more claustrophobic than others, and they may need major desensitizing. I want to make sure the horse will not rush through gates, tight spaces or scary places or have any kind of panic attack in confinement (like a trailer). It’s easy to get into tight binds on the trail and I need my horse to remain calm, continue to think and always wait for my cues. 
  • Trailering: This includes loading promptly, riding quietly on the road and unloading easily. These are skills I want to develop and engrain over time, so we take every opportunity we can to load young horses, let them eat meals in the trailer and go for short rides (this is also a way to get experience in new places).
  • Desensitizing: The horse must accept touch all over his body, legs, face, mouth, ears, nostrils, tail, and private parts. The horse needs to accept fly spray, oral medications, bathing, and grooming.

While all of these skills may be quickly learned by the horse (with a good trainer), it will take weeks and months to ingrain these behaviors in the young horse, to the point these skills are “finished.” Taking your time, setting good precedents and having consistent handling will cause the young horse to blossom and it will set a solid foundation for his under-saddle training.

Next month, I’ll discuss the progression into under-saddle training to build a strong foundation for an exceptional trail horse. These skills are important no matter what discipline you choose, but when riding into uncontrolled and un-improved environments with natural hazards, these skills can be the difference between a fun and exciting ride and a total disaster.

The Making of a Trail Horse

My youngest horse, Pepperoni, just successfully completed his first high mountain ride in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, a steep mountain range in southern Colorado. It was an arduous test of his skills and I’m super proud of his accomplishment. 

He proved his mettle in handling the toughest terrain, and we gained a great deal of confidence in each other. And even though it required extreme exertion on his part, I think he may have liked it (except for the scary parts).

Honey Bear guarding on the hillside. Photo by: Gregory Achenbach

Rich, our horses and I loaded into our living quarters horse trailer and drove to our friend, Lucy’s ranch in the San Luis Valley. (Many of you know Lucy because she assists me on the road a lot.) It’s a large parcel on the edge of the mountains that borders National Forest and overlooks the expansive alpine valley. We found a picturesque campsite, complete with a water feature to lull us to sleep. And we were faithfully guarded by the ranch’s bear-alert system, a Great Pyrenees named Honey Bear. 

The first day, we rode warm-up trails on the ranch, testing the waters (literally), to see if our horses were ready for the wilderness trip. Lucy and her horses know the trails well, and provided an excellent guide service. This is not terrain you want to travel unless you know what you’re getting into. I’ve ridden in these mountains for 30 years, so I already knew that.

Major Creek comes down out of the steep mountains, runs through the middle of the ranch and into the valley. It’s rushing and wild, and we knew the mountain trail we were planning to ride the next day would have numerous creek crossings—some of them complicated by bogs, logs, thickets, boulders, and steep banks. 

The Sangres are rocky and treacherous in places, but the rewards surround you in the pristine high-altitude wilderness. The scree slopes are steep, with loose rock in some places and solid rock in others. The terrain ranges from vast and open to closed-in, claustrophobic and thorny, where it’s not unusual to encounter traces of bears or mountain lions. I can imagine that to a lot of people this may seem both impossible and exaggerated, but it is typical of the terrain in this area.

The Major Creek trail is not highly traveled (off the radar and not easy to get to), and therefore not highly maintained, so the challenges are abundant. Before riding into terrain like this, you want to make sure you have a solid, mature horse underneath you. One that has the right temperament and maturity for the job, the physical strength and experience, plus the training and requisite skills necessary to be an extreme trail horse and a supreme trail partner.

Is a Good Trail Horse Born or Made?

The short answer is both. But I’m not known for giving short answers. 

Think of being a chef—you must know what you’re doing, and be both adventurous and pragmatic with a dose of creativity. But the key to making an exquisite dish is to start with the best ingredients, and then the results are far superior. However, keep in mind that even with the very best ingredients, the dish must be built from scratch and crafted with skilled hands, or it flops.

There are quite a few ingredients in the making of a supreme trail horse:

  • Temperament
  • Physical strength
  • Bravery
  • Willingness
  • Presence
  • Curiosity
  • Thinking rather than reactive

These are all important qualities that a horse is born with. Horses are both instinctively flighty and investigative, but they generally come down strong on one side or the other. Surefootedness, in my experience, comes very natural to some horses, and not at all to others. All of these traits can be enhanced through training, but starting with a naturally talented horse sure helps.

There’s No Such Thing as a Thirty-Day Wonder 

The “finished” trail horse, like any other discipline of riding, takes years—not weeks or months—to develop. The green horse might go out on its first trail ride very early in its training, but to negotiate a wilderness trail like Major Creek requires a mature horse with exquisite control and perfect obedience.

According to veterinary standards, climbing and descending steep mountains is not an activity for horses younger than four years of age. This is why it was Pepper’s first trip. He’s done quite a few rides in the foothills and around the ranch. Even though he was started under saddle as a 2-year-old, he wasn’t ready for the high mountains until he had the physical strength, the mental maturity and the strong foundational training that gives me complete control and authority—stem to stern.

Trail riding through bushes.Pepperoni’s two years of training and experience hauling to clinics and trail rides prepared him for this day. He had some scary moments when he questioned himself, and then me. But when I asked him for effort, he gave it to me. When I asked him to be brave, he was. He came to trust my judgment over his own as he got more careful with his feet and focused his mind on the mission.

There were times when full body control was necessary to negotiate tight and dicey terrain. There were places where stepping over logs and rocks required deliberation, and places so steep he had to work hard to rate his speed. With every mile of our trip he got better and better, embracing his role as my supreme trail partner.

A lot goes into training a horse to be your partner at this level, no matter what your chosen equestrian endeavor, but there are a few things unique to the trail. After thinking on the subject, I realized it’s too much for one article, and worthy of a blog series on the making of a good trail horse. 

Consider this part one, and please join me for later  installments of The Making of a Trail Horse, as I share my personal experience and my pet peeves about training for the trail. Here’s a sneak peek at the fun we’ll have…

  • Requisite Manners and Skills: Tie, load, stand, highline, obedience, work ethic, rating speed, and body control
  • To Lead or Not to Lead? That is the question: Training your horse to accept all positions in the line-up, and ride calmly away from the herd when asked.
  • Sure Footedness: Evaluating natural talent (or lack thereof), and developing good habits
  • Navigating Natural Obstacles:Water, bogs, timber, scree, thickets, and exposure
  • Live Hazards: Lions, tigers and bears—Oh My! De-spooking the trail horse
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Get a Handle on Your Reins

Tack and equipment play an important role in riding and training horses. Knowing the options and making the right choices can make a huge difference in your riding. The four natural aids of the rider that allow communication between horse and rider are the seat, legs, hands and voice. The reins are an extension of your hand and the connection with your horse.

Reins are the conduit between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth, and they can play a critical role in communication. Reins come in a variety of types and styles and are made of many different materials. Depending on the discipline that you ride (English, Western and the sub-disciplines within), the activities you do, your ability level, the training level of your horse and your personal preference, you’ll want to choose the reins that fit your needs best. 

Different Disciplines

Usually when we think of riding disciplines, we think English or Western. But within each basic discipline, there are many sub-disciplines—an English rider may be doing dressage, hunt seat (jumping), endurance or saddle seat. A Western rider may be cutting, barrel racing, roping, reining or pleasure riding.

Reins are generally designed and constructed to fit the specific riding activity you are doing at the moment, so you may need more than one set of reins. For instance, if you are training for barrel racing, the reins you use may be totally useless or even counterproductive for trail riding. The length of reins, the materials they are made of, special design features, the quality and durability all play a role in what type of rein suits you best.

English tack has been around for thousands of years longer than Western tack and we see much more standardization in reins, in terms of length, design and the materials of which they are made. English reins often come with the bridle and are made to match the headstall. English reins usually attach to the bit the same way and are a closed-loop formed with two reins attached in the center with a buckle (hence the term, “riding on the buckle,” which means the rider has made the reins completely loose and is only holding onto the buckle at the center.

While most English reins are made of leather, depending on the type of riding you do, you may choose a different material. Rubber coated reins are popular on the racetrack and for cross-country jumping— they offer better grip for fast and furious riding in variable weather conditions. BioThane®  (a synthetic leather substitute) is another popular material for both reins and headstalls and is particularly useful in climates where humidity, rain and sweat are a problem. Reins made from webbing are common and are easy to care for and affordable.

English reins are usually laced or braided, for better grip by the rider. Since it is common for English horses to be ridden on direct contact, sometimes a lot of contact, the reins are made for gripping. Rainbow reins have different colors between the rein grips to help young or novice riders know where to place their hands. Since many English horses are ridden in running martingales, often English reins will have “rein stops” that prevent the rings of the martingale from sliding up the rein too high. 

The standard length of an English rein is 54 inches—you want just enough length that when you hold the buckle, the horse can completely relax and lower its head without coming to contact. English reins also come in pony size (48”), cob size (“cob” is a term used for a small horse, and cob reins are 52”) or large-horse size for really big/long-necked horses (60” length). Getting the length of your reins right is important for your horse’s comfort but most horses will do well in a standard length.

Western tack has more variety and less tradition than English. With cattle ranching at its roots, a lot of Western tack is designed for working purposes. However, modern sub-disciplines such as speed events, reining, Western pleasure, trail obstacles, mounted shooting and Western dressage are growing in popularity, with new sub-disciplines popping up regularly. Each activity has specific needs for reins.

With a greater variety of riding activities, and with less standardization and tradition than it’s English counterpart, Western reins come in many shapes, sizes and configurations. In the working Western tradition, the reins would progress along with the horse’s training level, from riding 2-handed on a green-horse, to riding 1-handed with little or no contact on the finished horse.

Traditional Western Reins

  • Mecate Reins are traditionally made of a long, braided horsehair rope, but today they are often made of marine rope. The bristly texture of horsehair reins is good for both teaching the horse to neck rein and giving the rider a good grip on the reins when the riding gets rough. The mecate rein is 22-26 feet long and designed for 2-handed riding with either a snaffle bit or the bosal. The mecate is tied onto the bit in a specific manner, depending on which bridle you are using, to give a closed-loop rein, with a long tail coming off the left side of the bit or bosal, to use as a lead rope when you jump on and off the green horse (the finished horse would ground tie when you need to get off). Mecate reins are often attached to the snaffle bit with slobber straps, which protect the reins and help the reins drape, but can sometimes be bulky and cumbersome. The mecate rein has experienced a surge of popularity in the past 20 years, with the trend of natural horsemanship, because they offer a classic Western look. However, if you are not using the lead rope (mecate), it can be a lot of rope to manage. The closed-loop, yacht rope rein like I designed is easier to use and less bulky.
  • Split Reins are the training rein of the Western horse and the most ubiquitous, due to their versatility and usefulness at every training level. The highest quality split reins are made of heavy harness leather and are 7-8 feet long, attaching to the bit with a water tie (like a thin slobber strap) that protects the rein and offers a soft feel of the horse’s mouth. For the uninitiated, split reins are complicated to use. There are a variety of ways to hold split reins, one-handed or two-handed, depending on the horse’s training level and the activity of the rider. Split reins should be long, with a weighted on one or both ends, to help balance the reins so they come to a drape fast at the bit-end and hang quietly on the tail end. When split reins are held improperly, they can easily fall to the ground if dropped and they are complicated to shorten and lengthen, therefore they are not the best choice for children and novice riders.
  • Romal Reins are the finished rein of the Western horse and typically made of braided rawhide and used with a high-ported, long-shanked bit, and a horse that is so well trained that the rider’s hand will barely move. The romal is a closed loop rein with a long tail that has a quirt or popper at the end (to aid in moving cattle and in training the horse). The rider holds the reins in one hand (traditionally the left hand), with no fingers in between the reins, and with the other hand holding the romal. The reins attach to the bit with a rawhide or leather loop, but rein-chains may also be used to help the reins drape faster.

Food for Thought on Reins

When it comes to rein choice, there are many styles and considerations for the rider. The material the reins are made of is a matter of function, aesthetics, and personal preference. The length, width, weight and feel of the reins relate to the size of the horse and rider, how they are used and the intangible values of the rider.

To me, ease-of-use is often the most important consideration in rein choice, particularly for the novice rider. Balancing on top of a thousand-pound moving animal and controlling the forward motion is complicated enough. The reins should be easy to hold in your hands, easy to keep even, and easy to shorten/lengthen. Safety is always a consideration for both horse and rider. Reins that stay on the horse’s neck when inadvertently dropped by the rider and reins that have a breakaway feature (particularly when synthetic materials are used), improve safety for both.

The most specialized reins, designed for high performance in a specific sub-discipline, like team roping or polo, are also designed for ease-of-use and functionality. But what is functional when running at high speed, riding one-handed, swinging a lariat or mallet under rapidly changing circumstances, may not be functional for taking a leisurely trail ride on an old, semi-retired horse.

Reins may be made of natural or synthetic materials. Leather is probably the most common choice, for its feel and give (breakaway), but the range in leather quality is huge. To me, tack is a critical component of performance, so I always want the highest quality Hermann Oak harness leather. The higher the quality of the leather, the heavier it is, the better the feel and the longer it lasts.

BioThane® is a popular leather substitute used for bridles and reins. It’s a coated polyester webbing that has a similar feel and look to leather and also comes in bright colors. It’s waterproof and more durable than leather in corrosive environments (from humidity, sweat, salt water, etc.). It wipes clean and is more hygienic for horses. It’s often used in racing and endurance riding and for some riders, it carries the bonus of being a vegan product. 

Most reins come in a standard length, specific to the activity they were designed for and would work for averaged-sized horses doing that activity, but may not accommodate an exceptionally long-necked horse. If the reins are too short, the horse pays the price with too much pressure on his mouth and a hollowed out frame. I like my reins to be long enough for the horse to stretch his nose to the ground.

Weight and balance are important for reins—how they feel in your hands and how quickly they offer a release of pressure to the horse. Many reins come in different widths. For instance, split reins can be a  half-inch to a full inch wide. What feels best in your hands depends on the size of your hands and how it feels when you close your fingers on the reins. I have small hands but half-inch feels too narrow and a 5/8th inch rein feels just right, while one inch is hard for me to close my fingers on and still have a soft feel.

I ride my bridle horses in split reins, but I prefer a closed-loop, 9-10-foot, marine rope rein for green horses or when I am teaching from horseback. I designed my closed-loop, cross-discipline rope reins for comfort in your hands (soft feel), ease of use and safety. My rope reins are truly my best product, as many users will attest. I designed them with the novice rider in mind (they’re easy to shorten and lengthen and have a convenient center marker so you always know where you reins are) but I find their ease of use is appreciated by expert riders as well. Marine rope reins may not be perfect for every sub-discipline, but novice and recreational riders love them!

Rein Handling Do’s and Don’ts

Do: 

  • Make sure the reins (and/or headstall) have a breakaway component for your horse’s safety.
  • Make sure riders know how and when to shorten and lengthen reins.
  • Make sure riders know the appropriate length to hold the reins and how to hold the reins properly.
  • Always give the rider the means to control the horse (the reins), even when the rider is being led.
  • Lead the horse by looping the reins around his throat latch (or use a halter under the bridle), not by pulling on the bit.

Do Not: 

  • Wrap reins or ropes around your hand or any body part. Never attach yourself to a horse or saddle with a rope or rein.
  • Allow closed-loop reins to lay on the ground or in front of a horse to prevent entanglement.
  • Lead the horse by pulling on the reins. Use a halter to teach proper leading manners.
  • Hold the horse by clamping two reins together behind his jaw. This hurts his mouth and you cannot hold him still this way. Teach your horse to stand still with groundwork.
  • Tie the horse with reins. This will hurt his mouth and break your reins. Keep a halter on or use a “get down rope” around the neck if you need to get off and tie up frequently.

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!

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!

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