Horses are very precocious animals—they are fast learning and their education begins in the first moments of life. Unfortunately, they learn inappropriate things just as quickly as the good stuff, so it is easy to make mistakes that will cause any horse pick up some undesirable (or even dangerous) behaviors along the way.
Sometimes, through no fault of their own, horses have simply missed a proper education and must be patiently taught manners later in life and/or after being mishandled. Good manners aren’t always natural to the horse, at least not in the way us humans define them.
Horses must learn what is expected of them while being handled by humans. Many of the skills we require of well-mannered horses, like ignoring their surroundings to focus on the task at hand and facing and approaching a scary stimulus instead of running from it, come from clear and consistent training and competent handling over time.
So how do you know where to start with your horse? First. you need to do a thorough examination of where your horse is at right now. After you have laid out what your horse does know, you can identify the holes in his training and set reasonable goals from there.
When I work with horses and riders in-person, at a clinic or expo, I can see with my own eyes how the horse acts and responds and how the rider engages the horse, but helping horses and riders I’ve never met is more of a challenge without a lot of information up front that I need to understand where the horses and riders are in their journey.
To bridge the gap, I developed a series of questionnaires for my online coaching students that help me get a full understanding of what level of training it currently has, and where the holes may be. Other questionnaires for new students, similarly, give me an understanding of the rider’s ability and training level, as well as the horse’s conformation and temperament.
See where your horse stands right now and take my “What is Your Horse’s Training Level?” quiz:
Scoring your horse’s current training level gives you a baseline, illuminates training priorities, and helps you develop an effective training plan.
A 70% is a good score, and anything above that is awesome and you should have a huge appreciation for your horse. Don’t fret if your score is below 70%—it simply means you have things to work on with your horse. (Don’t we all?)
First, you must recognize how much of the low score originates with you—either through poor handling or unclear, inconsistent expectations. Sometimes changing your leadership is all the horse needs to become a perfect horse!
Then you must determine where the holes in your horse’s training are and how you can patch them. The training resources in my online Academy will help, and my Interactive Curriculum will give you specific training exercises and educational resources to get you on the right path, with me as your coach. Some of the assignments, like this one, are designed to find (and plug) holes in the horse’s training, while others are designed to refine the horse’s training and develop high-level skills.
If you are starting with raw ingredients—either a youngster or a mature horse that missed out on a proper education, it will take time (weeks and months) to develop these skills and engrain these qualities in your horse. Don’t be overwhelmed! Instead, start forming your expectations and teaching them to your horse today. Set some ground rules.
If your horse is not just missing some education, but has been trained improperly—meaning he has learned wrong things, like he can do or not do whatever he wants—achieving these ideal qualities will take even longer. You can start working toward these ideals today, but be aware that you may need to change your approach. It may be that you need to change your ways—not the horse. Consistency and clarity will help make your job easier.
There’s no such thing as a bad horse or bad behavior. Behavior should not have a value judgment on it—it’s neither bad nor good, it’s just behavior. Horses act like horses, unless they’ve been taught to act differently. Horses reflect their handlers and act solely in ways that are either instinctive or learned. When a horse displays behavior that is undesirable to us, it is either because it’s his natural behavior or he has actually been taught to act that way through poor handling and training (the latter happens a lot more often than one might think).
It’s hard to know where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been—and where you are right now. Completing this assignment should give you a greater understanding of your horse’s training level now, and help you see the path ahead.
Horses are unique individuals with differing temperaments and a variety of idiosyncrasies. Even within one breed or type of horse, temperament can vary greatly between individuals. The more you know and understand about your horse’s temperament, the easier he will be to train, the better you will communicate, and the stronger the bond you will have with the horse.
It’s not always easy to know and understand your horse’s temperament– to discern its true nature from its life experiences and what he has learned. It’s the age-old argument of nature vs. nurture and instinctive vs. learned behavior. Since horses are lightning-quick learners, from the moment they are born, it can be hard to discern an instinctive reaction from a cleverly learned trick.
Horses are born with their temperament, and you cannot change it (nature). Training (nurture) will teach the horse to contain its behavior and emotionality, and give the horse skills for coping, but it will not change the horse’s underlying temperament.
Let’s say you have a horse with a quick temper, or maybe it’s a horse that’s quite spooky; with consistent handling and training, the horse’s habitual behavior can become quite the opposite. Sadly, the reverse is also true—if you constantly fight with a quick-tempered horse or give that spooky horse more reason to be afraid (by punishing fear) you may engrain those temperament traits indelibly.
Temperament should not be scored as good or bad or right or wrong. It is what it is and the very qualities that make one horse undesirable for a certain rider, may make him highly desirable in another rider. A high-level Olympic show jumper is not going to be a good fit for a person in their 60s just learning to ride. What’s important is that the horse’s temperament is suitable for the rider’s temperament, skill level, and intended use.
We intentionally refrain from using the term “personality” when talking about horses. Since the human brain is more evolved than the equine brain, human personality traits don’t apply. As you think about horse behavior, try not to anthropomorphize (instill human-like characteristics) and be objective and nonjudgmental as you consider the characteristics of your horse.
Somewhere on the Spectrum
If your experience with horses is limited to one or two individuals, it’s hard to have a broader perspective on the different aspects of equine temperament. After working with literally thousands of different horses over my career, I’ve learned to focus on certain aspects of temperament to evaluate a horse I am getting to know. The more I understand what motivates the horse—how reactive he is, how quickly he learns, how eager he is to please—the better I can train the horse.
Before you begin to assess any horse’s temperament, you need to be aware of two things:
Behavior should never have judgment attached to it.
A temperament trait that is appealing to one type of rider can also be undesirable to another.
Because of these two factors, there are no high or low scores or right or wrong answers in this evaluation. It’s hard to be exact when evaluating temperament, because training (for better or for worse), life experiences and age can disguise a horse’s true temperament.
As you consider the characteristics of temperament that I have listed below, think about where your horse fits on the spectrum of behavior. Think about your interactions with the horse, how he responds to your cues, how he acts in new situations, and take the time to observe your horse’s behavior in a herd setting, where he interacts with other horses.
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One of the greatest variances we see in horses is in their sensitivity level. While all horses are incredibly sensitive to pressure of all kinds, we see a huge range in sensitivity from “hot-blooded” to “cold-blooded.”
Hot-blooded means the horse is highly sensitive and reactive to all forms of pressure—physical, mental, environmental, emotional. A cold-blooded horse is not. Higher-level riders love a sensitive horse that reacts to a rider’s thoughts and invisible cues. On the other hand, an inexperienced rider’s inconsistencies and mistakes may be intolerable to a highly sensitive horse and rapidly send him into a tailspin.
Keep in mind that while we think of some breeds of horses as hot- or cold-blooded, these are just generalities, and do not apply to every individual. The most hot-blooded breeds will have cold-blooded individuals, and visa-versa.
Evaluate Your Horse’s Sensitivity Level: Think about how reactive your horse is to sounds, movements, leg and rein pressure, changes in the rider’s balance, touching, brushing, etc. Remember that both low and high sensitivity can be an advantage to a certain type of rider—so there’s no right or wrong. On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is insensitive/unreactive and 10 is highly sensitive/over-reactive, most horses are probably going to fall somewhere in the middle. Where would you put your horse?
Characteristic #2: Forward Energy
People like to say there are two kinds of horses—ones with too much go, and ones with too much whoa. Energy and activity levels vary a lot between individual horses. For some horses, movement is the solution to every problem and the answer to every question. Other horses prefer to conserve all of their energy in case it’s needed for flight.
Of course, training level and daily workload can impact a horse’s energy level, but some horses are by nature quite slow and reluctant to move forward. (But God love the lazy horses, without whom none of us would’ve learned to ride!)
Evaluate Your Horse’s Energy Level: This time, on a scale of 1-10, 1 is the horse that you could light firecrackers under its tail and he might not move, and 10 is the horse that you just think “go” and it’s in the next county.
For the average rider, a horse in the mid-range is ideal. For the beginners, we need more whoa. For high-performance endeavors, horses with a lot of go are just right. Where does your horse land?
Characteristic #3: Vigilance
Vigilant horses are highly aware, and can be busy-minded and easily distracted. Vigilance is a common trait in prey animals that rely on flight as their #1 defense. Hyper-vigilant horses notice the smallest changes in their known environment. They tend to be easily distracted by other horses and their comings and goings, and they keep track of everything happening around them. A high level of vigilance combined with a high fear level can make for a spooky horse. A high level of vigilance combined with calmness and confidence, on the other hand, can be ideal for some riders, and is likely an alpha horse by nature.
Because horses can be highly reactive to new or unexpected stimuli (like a plastic bag blowing across the trail), a horse with less life experience—that has not been exposed to new places and different situations—may overreact to change. A horse that has “been there, done that,” and seen a lot of things can seem less vigilant—but really, he has just become accustomed to change.
Evaluate your horse’s vigilance: Think about how present and focused your horse is. This time, 1 means your horse is 100% focused on you and the task at hand, unbothered by anything else that’s going on. When you’re not asking anything of him, he’s content to zone out and focus on nothing (a horse’s “happy” place). A 10 means he wants to look around at everything (but remember, if he’s a confident horse, he isn’t necessarily spooking at everything). He keeps track of other horses coming and going, the arena gate shutting, a barn cat playing in the distance, a leaf blowing across his path. Keeping all of that in mind, how vigilant is your horse?
Characteristic #4: Herd Hierarchy
The horse herd has a clear hierarchy, or chain of authority. It is linear, with one horse at the top of the pecking order (the alpha), then going down the line to the horse at the very bottom (the omega). It is not always easy to know if your horse’s natural tendency is to be at the top, middle, or bottom when they are put into forced herds. Even in a pen full of very submissive horses, one will rise to the top and a hierarchy will exist.
Horses that are alpha by nature tend to be brave and bold, with a high level of awareness and a strong sense of right and wrong. They are not bullies, but can be assertive when laying down the law in the herd. Omega horses tend to be leery, keep away from the fray, get picked on by others, and won’t fight for their food. Many herds have a horse fondly known as the “uncle” horse, who gets along with all the other horses and will stand up to bullies.
Both alphas and omegas have their pros and cons. What is most important is that the horse’s temperament is a suitable match for the rider. For instance, a dominant horse would not be a good match for a very passive, easily intimidated person.
Evaluate where your horse is in his herd’s hierarchy: You can think of a 1 as an omega and 10 as an alpha—with many positions in between. Observe how your horse interacts in the herd, it will tell you a lot about his dominance or submissiveness. If horses are fed in a group, the more dominant horses always eat first. Dominant horses control the space and actions of the submissive horses. What number do you think your horse is?
Because horses are animals that always seek acceptance into the herd, and because we have bred horses to be tractable over hundreds of generations, some horses are super-eager to please. Others, not so much.
In my experience, sometimes super-willing horses are entirely misunderstood, because they will fall apart emotionally and shut down easily when over-criticized or confused. On one end of the spectrum, I think of an Eagle Scout—the horse that’s always there for you, steady and reliable, eager to please, hardworking, and never questioning my decisions as the troop leader. The other end, however, is not a horse that works against you, but maybe a horse that is indifferent to praise, looks for ways to detach, looks away and acts as if you don’t exist.
In reality, most horses are indifferent to people. Don’t take it personally that they prefer horses over people. Horses are not overtly affectionate animals—if affection, loyalty, and devotion is what you need, get a Golden Retriever. The naturally willing and eager-to-please horse may be more of the exception than the rule, and this trait can be highly affected by training too. Still, super willing horses exist, and they can get their feelings hurt easily.
Evaluate your horse’s willingness: Knowing that training can highly affect this trait, consider how hard your horse tries when you ask him to do something new or different. Does the horse work at finding the right answer? Does he get upset or nervous when confused, and thrive on praise? Does he follow rules well and try hard when you ask? Or, does your horse challenge your decisions, take advantage of opportunities, or act like you don’t exist at times? Where would your horse score if 1 is the most indifferent or contrary to your decisions, and 10 is the most willing? (Obviously, this is one trait where we’d love to score all horses highly. Consider it a big bonus if your horse is exceptional in this characteristic!)
Characteristic #6: Bravery
It’s tempting to think that a brave, bold horse is always better than a horse that’s scared of his own shadow, but that’s not actually true. Some horses hit the ground thinking the world is their oyster, and that adventures lay ahead.
You might think that bravery seems like a particularly useful trait when you are riding atop a 1000-lb. animal which is prone to flight—and you’d be right. But horses that are low on fear, bold and brave also tend to be dominant, confident, willful, and will do best with riders cut from the same cloth. Horses that are more average on the fear/courage scale are more reliant on their human and because of that, may be more willing.
Evaluate your horse’s bravery: Let’s go back to the 1 to 10 scale with 10 being the horse that rarely, if ever, spooks and seems to be afraid of nothing. He likes being out in front on the trail, is not easily intimidated by other horses or people, and may get angry or lash out if treated harshly. Score 1 if the horse is nervous all the time, doesn’t handle new situations well, and spooks or startles regularly. Somewhere in the middle is just fine!
Characteristic #7: Curiosity
While some horses seem brave because they are confident and dominant, others seem brave strictly because of their high curiosity level. These horses tend to learn clever tricks like untying the lead rope or opening the gate. This is called “investigative behavior,” one of seven categories of instinctive behaviors in horses, and it is the opposite of flight (another category). Horses tend to be either high on flight and low on curiosity, or low on flight and high on curiosity. For the most part, curiosity is a great trait in a horse (few people hope their horses have a high fear quotient).
Evaluate your horse’s curiosity: To evaluate your horse’s curiosity, think about how it reacts to a novel stimulus—something it’s never seen before. How quickly is the horse able to go from flight (or thinking about flight) to forward investigation? How willing is he to approach a new thing? A 10 is the horse that, when startled, keeps thinking and responding. That horse that is a 1 spins and bolts. (If your horse scores low on fear and high on curiosity, it’s definitely a bonus—but again, it’s not the norm.)
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Horses can be quite emotional, and they experience the same primary emotions as humans–sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. Their emotions are expressed with postures, facial expressions, body language, and audible communications.
Emotion, in its most general scientific definition is “a neural impulse that moves an organism to action, prompting automatic reactive behavior that has been adapted through evolution as a survival mechanism to meet a survival need.”
The individual temperament of any horse might range from emotionally steady, unflappable, and stoic, to a horse that often loses its ability to think, easily becomes emotional, is exuberant at times or may shut down easily (become unresponsive). While some individuals are calm and steady emotionally, and others are a big mess in this department—all horses can learn to control their emotionality and behavior through training.
Evaluate your horse’s emotionality: To evaluate the relative emotionality of your horse, think about how it behaves around new horses or in new environments. What is his anxiety level when leaving the herd or facing a scary object? Is your horse prone to temper tantrums or other emotional meltdowns? If 1 is completely calm at all times, and 10 is coming unglued at the drop of a hat, where would your horse land? (If anyone has ever referred to your horse as Steady Eddie, lucky you!)
Characteristic #9: Independence
Because horses are instinctively gregarious, or drawn to the herd, they are not always confident when separated from other horses. Once again, horses can learn to trust their human companion enough to leave the safety of the herd behind, but few horses are this way naturally.
Horses can be notoriously indifferent to humans, and they find comfort and safety with the herd, but a few horses will show more independence—particularly younger horses. It’s not common, but some horses seek out human company, willingly walking away from the herd like they are getting special treatment or going on a new adventure. Other independent horses may not be as interested in people, but are always looking forward to the next big adventure—approaching the trail or a new situation with gusto.
Some horses ride out fine alone, and seem to pay no attention when all the other horses leave. However, many, if not most horses, can have complete meltdowns when separated or left behind. In general, younger horses are less herd-bound and middle-aged horses are the worst—but even amongst a bunch of younger horses, most of them will be very dependent on, and drawn to, the herd.
Evaluate your horse’s independence: You probably don’t have to think too much about this temperament trait in your horse, so on a scale of 1-10, I’m sure you already know. Although independence and an interest in being with humans are great qualities, it’s certainly the exception and not the rule. So, score more bonus points if your horse is independent!
Those are the big temperament categories that I consider whenever I am getting to know a new horse. Evaluating your horse’s temperament is an academic exercise, since we can’t really know for sure where nature ends and where learned behavior begins. There’s nothing we can do to change a horse’s temperament either.
However, horses are such fast learners, and they adapt so well to our expectations of their behavior—when they have consistent handling and fair treatment. I know many young horses with challenging temperaments that turned out to be awesome horses (Seabiscuit is one of my favorite books about a horse like this). Most temperament traits can be strengthened with training. Even the seemingly negative traits can often be channeled in a positive direction—with good training.
Still, it’s good to have a deeper understanding of your horse’s natural temperament. It will inform the training methods you use and shape your expectations. Most importantly, it will help you forge a deeper bond with your horse—the kind that comes from empathy and acceptance.
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There’s a lot to consider when it comes to traveling with horses, and I’ve learned a lot of things to do (and not to do) over the years. Whether you are hauling 10 minutes or 10 hours away, make sure you’re prepared the next time you hit the road with your horse. These are the things I check off my list when I’m getting ready to travel.
My Pre-Trip Routine
I’m a little bit of a stickler when it comes to vehicle and trailer maintenance. Before I even think about hooking up my trailer, it’s imperative to make sure both are up-to-date on maintenance and safe to take on the road.
I keep up with all service recommendations like oil changes, tire rotations and other regular maintenance. (I love my new truck because I receive regular emails that show me the truck’s maintenance records, current status, and alert me to any system that needs attention.)
Once a year, in the spring, we bring our horse trailers to a mechanic to have the wheel bearings greased and a front-to-back safety check, including tires, wire harness, trailer brakes, lights, and the trailer’s emergency brake. We also pull up mats once a year to inspect the trailer’s floor.
I’m fortunate to have a truck dedicated to hauling so it’s always ready to go. After each trip I take, I go to the carwash, scrub it inside and out, refuel, and top-off the fluids. I also like to hook up my trailer a day or two before my trip, so I have plenty of time to organize and load stuff, and I want to make sure it’s on a full tank before I hitch up.
I always muck out the inside of my trailer right after I arrive at my destination and unload the horses. I also take my trailer to the carwash after a road trip. Road grime is corrosive over time, so the undercarriage and outside need regular attention. At least once a year, I clean the inside of the trailer with soap and disinfectant and a high-pressure wash.
Hitchin’ Up Safely
With over half a century and thousands of miles of hauling horses, I’ve seen some crazy wrecks. Over the years, I’ve learned two really important lessons about trailer hitches:
Never tag-team hooking up a horse trailer. Just one person should be in charge of it from start to finish, using a methodical process. It’s too easy for something to be missed when two people are hitching up—I think you hooked the safety chains, but you think I did it. This can lead to critical mistakes being made.
No matter who hooks up the trailer, the driver is responsible for the hitch and for the safety of all parties. Check it twice. Then do a complete walk-around again before pulling out.
Once the trailer is hitched, my travel companion (usually my husband) and I check brakes, brake controller settings, and trailer lights. The next step is to park it in a convenient place for loading all the feed, tack and equipment we’ll need for the trip.
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I’m a big fan of making a list and checking it twice. Often, I start with a really long list several days ahead of the trip. As I gradually load gear, the list gets pared down until I end up with two or three items on a post-it. I’ve made so many lists for horse trips that I can practically do it in my sleep, but I still write it down and check it again and again.
Here’s a basic list you can use, just add on things unique to your journey (items with an asterisk are extras I keep loaded in the trailer all the time, so I never forget them):
Hay and grain
*Water buckets with hangers/straps, hay nets, feed pans
*Muck bucket and manure fork
*Horse first aid
*Farrier tool kit
*Horse documents (copies of Coggins, health certificates, brand papers, etc.)
Saddles, bridles, saddle pads
*Spare halter and bridle
*Tools for unforeseen repairs, tire changing gear, chocks
Comfort & Safety for Horses
We have four different horse trailers—each for a different purpose, and each set up differently for how we use it. How far I am traveling, how the horse space is configured (stock, slant, divided or not), and how well it ventilates all have a bearing on my horse’s comfort.
The most important factor in your horse’s comfort while on the road is ventilation. In a closed-in trailer, especially with more than one horse, it can get hot and steamy even in the coldest weather. Opening roof vents over the horse’s back and cracking open windows in front and back of the horse to ensure adequate airflow. Whenever we stop, I stick my head inside to get a feel for the air quality in there.
If the horses are going to be in the trailer for more than an hour, I always spread a small layer of shavings to absorb urine. I just put it under the back half of the horse and I use a minimal amount of shavings. With all the ventilation open, it can get dusty in there with too much shavings. I never use shavings in the stock trailer for that reason.
Unless it’s below 20 degrees outside, I prefer that my horses stay uncovered in the trailer, and I do not wrap legs if I can avoid it. My horses will stay cooler and more comfortable naked, and fixing wonky apparel in the trailer can be challenging.
Load & Go
Once the trailer is hitched, completely loaded with gear, and made ready for the horses’ comfort, it’s time to start the truck and make a final pit stop for myself. I wait until the very last minute to pop the horse’s in the trailer, jump in the truck and go. I avoid loading horses and hanging out because they can get anxious and impatient. Once the trailer is moving, they tend to settle in for the ride.
I always tie my horses in the trailer using a safe clip. I adjust the length of the lead so that there is just enough slack for the horse to hold its head comfortably, but not enough slack that it can turn its head and neck around behind him. The safe clip gives a slow release should the horse pull on it and makes it quick and easy to hook the horse to the ring, unhook to unload, and then snap them right onto the tie rings on the outside of the trailer.
It is important to train your horse to load, unload, and get them comfortable riding in a trailer long before you make your first trip. Time and again, I see people attempting to train a horse to load at the very time they need to go somewhere. It rarely has a satisfactory result, especially in the event of an emergency. You owe it to your horse to make trailering as easy as possible, and that includes training him over time—not in the heat of the moment.
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There are many good techniques for training a horse to load and unload from a horse trailer, but the technique I use, to me, gives the best result. You can check out my training technique online—it’s highly effective and generally happens fast. But even after the horse is trained to load and unload, we must spend some time getting it used to being locked inside the trailer and riding in a moving trailer, taking small steps and allowing the horse to get comfortable over time.
There are few situations in which I would take the risk of unloading horses for a walkabout during the trip. I prefer to get where I am going asap, and let the horses rest and recuperate on the other end.
If we are driving for more than an hour or two, when we stop for gas or a bite to eat, we pause long enough for the horses to relax. I drop down the windows and hang a hay bag outside the window so they can look around and get some fresh air. We will always offer them water, but many horses are reluctant to drink when traveling.
Driving slowly with minimal use of the brakes makes the trip easier for the horses. I like to imagine a full glass of water on the dashboard and if I corner or brake enough to make the water slosh, I know my horses are sloshing around too. The horse constantly works to maintain balance in the moving trailer, and it’s hard work. It’s entirely up to my driving skill as to whether or not the horse has an easy ride or a hard ride.
Hauling your horse doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking. When you’ make a through plan that you’re confident in, it relieves a lot of the risk and stress. Advance preparation makes everything go much smoother from departure to arrival, and helps ensure a pleasant trip.
If you are reading my blog, chances are good that you LOVE all horses, and your own horse especially. But does your horse LOVE you back?
As it turns out, many animal behaviorists believe that the short answer is yes. Pets are certainly capable of loving their humans (although it’s not a given). But what does love look like in horses, who aren’t exactly pets, nor are they known for overt displays of affection and adoration?
There is no one agreed-upon definition of “love,” but a simple Google search will lead you down some interesting rabbit trails. We know how deeply bonded horses may become to another horse, but how do we know it’s love? And can a horse love a human?
LOVE Me Not
Defining love between humans is complicated enough. Defining love between two disparate species, predator and prey; when one party is meant to capitulate and is incapable of expressing their feelings with words, it is nearly impossible to define.
Humans and horses think, communicate, and behave differently. It’s hard to step outside your human mind and truly understand the horse’s point of view. Sometimes what people think is expressing love to a horse, is actually counterproductive and ends up with angst and animosity.
For instance, if you are in the habit of hand-feeding treats to your horse every time you arrive at the barn, your horse is eager to see you and greets you with that throaty whisper of a nicker that makes your heart sing. But the nicker does not mean “I love you.” It simply means “Come to me.” Or in your case, come to me and bring me the food, I know you have it!”
The horse is not beckoning you because he loves you—it’s because he thinks of you as his personal cookie jar. Unlike dogs, horses are not reliant on the herd for food. They are quite capable foragers and can eat almost any plant material. Therefore, using food as bribery—either to make the horse “love” you or to make the horse do something he doesn’t want, often leads to disdain from the horse (not disdain of the treat, but of the subservient human relinquishing it).
What is LOVE?
Many believe that love (from the human point of view) involves multiple components like attachment, caring, and intimacy. Attachment is the need for approval and physical contact, caring means that you value your partner’s needs as much as your own, and intimacy is the willingness to be physically close and share thoughts, desires and feelings.
After countless hours in the barn, unburdening my grief with my neck buried in a horse’s mane; after too many long, cold nights spent in the barn caring for a sick horse; after losing my first horse, perhaps my greatest love of all, at the tender age of 14, and thinking it was surely going to kill me; there’s no question that what I feel for my horse is love. But can a horse love me back?
I think we can all agree that horses love other horses. They are instinctively gregarious animals (always drawn to the herd) and they tend to form special bonded relationships with only one or two horses in the herd. We know them as buddies; behaviorists call them associates.
Have you ever seen two bonded horses involuntarily separated? I think they display an abundance of love. Attachment, check. Caring, check. Intimacy, the closer the better. Based on what happens when we separate those horses, I think we can all agree that horse-to-horse love exists.
From a behavioral point of view, I think the more scientific definition of love more aptly reflects the love between horse and human– a rational exchange in which the partners make deals based on their needs, and they succeed to the degree that they master the negotiation process. This may give you pause for thought, but the more you think about it the truer it gets.
Horses are masters of negotiation. Picture the unwilling horse being forced to step up into a horse trailer, only willing to go so far, before flying backwards. Or the school horse, negotiating with the newbie rider where the corners of the arena are, suggesting when to stop, or sidling up next to a cohort. Its negotiation skills are honed on scores of unwitting riders, who often had no idea they were at the negotiating table.
When Horses Love You Back
After more than a half-century of riding and training horses, I am grateful to have had some amazing relationships with a few incredible horses who I think of as having “made” me as a rider. I’m not naïve enough to think that these horses loved me like they loved their same-species soul mates, but there was definitely something there.
If love involves negotiating for each other’s needs, it begs the question, what is your horse negotiating with you for? What needs of your horse do you satisfy? Some things are obvious—food, water, protection, shelter, enrichment. With horses, it’s quite simple, when it comes to their needs and wants. What motivates horses most is the feelings of safety and comfort.
What may not be quite as obvious is what makes your horse feel safe and secure around you– so secure that it willingly leaves its bonded herdmate behind, to go anywhere you ask and do your bidding? Is it your benevolent leadership and your ability to keep your horse safe? Is it your strength and wisdom? Your reliable sense of judgment and fairness? Your kindness, acceptance and approval? These are the intangible qualities horses adore.
Horses are creatures of comfort too– seeking shade or shelter, soft places to lay down, time to rest, engagement with herd mates. They are tactile animals that touch, scratch, massage and mutually groom, so having companionship is important.
Your horse’s sense of safety and comfort and the enrichment you add to its life are the things you bring to the negotiating table. In return, your horse offers you loyalty, duty, adventure, entertainment, enrichment, and yes, even adoration if you’re lucky.
None of that comes freely or easily but once the negotiation process is mastered, the results are pure joy. Realistically, I cannot expect my horse to love me like his bonded herd-mate, but I’ll take what I can get.
Love Like No Other
When horses and riders reach the pinnacle of their connection, they can think and move as one, they know what each other is thinking, they can predict each other’s actions, and feel their reactions before it happens. They share a unique language known only to them.
When a significant relationship between horse and human exists, forged over time, there are deep bonds of mutual trust. When one party is off their game or under the weather, the other party is always aware. I don’t know of any other sport or activity where this kind of unification of mind, body, and spirit occurs between two disparate species.
All of this is made possible by some unique characteristics of horses. Their reliance on communication through body language gives us the potential for a shared language. Their prey mentality causes them to be wicked-fast learners, eagerly seeking answers to your questions.
Horses are exceptionally sensitive to touch and to mental and environmental pressures that cause them to respond to nearly invisible cues. When riding a horse that you are deeply connected to, sometimes all you have to do is think of a movement and the horse executes the maneuver.
Few things in this world are more satisfying than this kind of loving relationship with a horse. But us humans are greedy- always asking for more and constantly moving the target. It’s important to remind ourselves to give something back to horses, in return. To love my horse is to be mindful of my horse’s needs, both physical and emotional. No love exists when one party does all the taking and none of the giving.
Show Me Some Lovin’
We are experts at what we want for ourselves and what makes us feel good, but from the horse’s point of view, things may look much different. Predators and prey view the world from opposite perspectives, sometimes making it hard to empathize with the other.
It’s important to take time to bond with your horse and there are plenty of activities you can do together towards this end. Beyond just grooming your horse, there are a few relaxing, calming and bonding activities I like to encourage people to do with their horses.
Head down cue: outfitted in rope halter and long training lead, use two fingers to put slight downward pressure on the bottom of the halter and the fiador knot. The instant the horse’s nose moves the slightest amount down, release the pressure and praise the horse by cooing and stroking. Once you’ve coaxed the horse’s head all the way to the ground, the horse will be very calm and content. Article: Your Horse’s Quiet Place
Facial rub down: Use a soft shammy to rub and massage the horse’s face and ears, work slowly and satisfy your horse’s itchiness. This is especially important after riding or when your horse has worked up a sweat. Check out my favorite shammy here!
Sweet spot: bonded horses mutually groom each other, scratching and massaging deeply with their teeth at the withers, neck and chest. You’ll use your fingers (otherwise hairs get stuck in your teeth) to rub and probe until you find your horse’s sweet spot. You’ll know by watching his upper lip for puckering. It’s a kind and affectionate gesture and serves as a nice “thank you,” after riding. Article: 3 Leadership Activities
Recognize effort: How hard horses attempt to comply with your wishes is way more important than the actual response. If you learn to recognize when horses are trying hard, and then give them the release, praise, and rest they seek, they will try harder and harder to please you, knowing that they get something in return. Horses are notoriously indifferent in terms of showing outward signs of affection, but they crave recognition and acceptance. Article: Nurturing the Try in Your Horse
Assessing your tack—in terms of its condition, fit to the horse, and appropriateness for the horse’s discipline and level of training—should be ongoing, but doing a thorough assessment should happen at least once a year. For me, New Year’s Day is the time I like to plunge into my horse’s saddle fit, consider what goals I have for the upcoming riding season, and plan for any changes I may need to make.
My Quarter Horse mare, Annie, is going to be 15 years old in 2022. It’s a big leap away from prime time, landing her squarely in middle age (and there’s no need to discuss the middle-aged spread we all experience). Let’s just say that with every year of a horse’s life, its body undergoes significant changes.
This year, my evaluation of Annie’s saddle fit revealed that it’s time for me to make some major changes.
Annie is small, very short-coupled, and round as a 55-gallon barrel. At 14.0 hands, she’s the perfect size for me, and being short-backed and quick-footed makes her super-fun to ride. Even though Annie is round, she’s still a very little horse—a pony, really. She’s also quite short from withers to loins, presenting additional challenges with a Western saddle. Low withers, short-backed, small stature, round barrel—these are the challenges I face in finding the best saddle fit for her.
Because her withers are not prominent and her physique is rotund, her saddle is always prone to slipping—no matter how tight the girth. This has been her nemesis since she was a youngster, and she’s grown quite weary of being cinched up tight.
In the past few months, I’ve seen increasing resistance from her when I am saddling. I can tell she dreads it. She bows her back, steps backwards, and makes sour faces, which make her opinions quite clear. These changes in her behavior made me suspicious, so I scheduled my vet for a thorough examination of her back. Dr. Casey Potter is a performance horse and lameness specialist, who treats world champion horses for lameness and structural unsoundness—including the spine.
I was tremendously relieved when Dr. Potter found no signs of soreness or abnormalities in Annie’s back, giving me confidence that her spine is strong and healthy. Still, I knew that my saddle fit needed improvement, because a tight girth was clearly creating her discomfort. She was telling me she had reached her limit, and resentment was building.
My first step was to re-evaluate her saddle fit, starting from scratch. First, I set the saddle on her back without a pad or cinch and pressing down from the top, I slipped my fingers under the bars of the tree, running them down her back from front to rear, feeling the amount of contact the bars of the tree had with her back. As I suspected, the bars were not making even contact down the length of her back and it was bridging, causing pressure in the front and rear, but not in the middle.
My next step was to try various small bridging pads that are designed to adjust for the contours of the horse’s back that cause the bars of the saddle tree to bridge. I’ve been using a shim pad on Annie for years, to mitigate asymmetry and bridging, but it was beginning to look like that wasn’t sufficient anymore. The short shoulder pad seemed like the right shape for her back, but it was too big for her compact frame.
"Bridge the Gap" with Bridge Pads by Circle YWhether a horse is short-backed, long-backed, hip high, sway backed, thin of flesh or prominent of withers, it can affect saddle fit. Depending on the length and shape of the horse’s back, the bridge pad, shoulder bridge pad, or long shoulder bridge pad may help improve saddle fit.
Throughout this process, it became increasingly apparent to me that the fit problem was less about the shape of her back and more about the length of my full-skirted Western saddle. That’s not an easy pill to swallow when I have a tack room full of fabulous saddles, but improving Annie’s saddle fit means buying a different saddle. My full-skirted Monarch with a 16” seat is simply too long for her short pony-type build, and the bridging is related more to the saddle length than any dip in her back.
The Wind River saddle, of all the saddles I designed, is for just this sort of situation. It’s got the eye-appeal of a classic Western saddle, the same close-contact, comfort features, and functionality of the Monarch, but with a rounded skirt that significantly shortens the overall length of the saddle to 27 inches. Conveniently, I am of small stature, too, so I’ll order a 15 ½” seat (which is big enough for me) to help shorten it even more.
I guess both Annie and I will be getting a late Christmas present this year! Like many things in the supply chain these days, saddles are in high demand and low supply, so I know I need to order now, to enjoy my new saddle this summer. This saddle comes in three colors, but personally I prefer the natural oil over walnut and black, because it eventually turns to a beautiful mahogany patina, which accentuates Annie’s deep red color.
What Saddle Is Perfect for a Short-Backed Horse Like Annie?My Teton Trail Saddle has a 27” overall length (the same as the Wind River saddle), and at a great price, it's a good option to consider for a short-backed horse like Annie. I have 1 in stock right now with a 15” seat—and you don't have to wait 7 months—it's ready to ship today!
New Year’s is also the time of year I like to plan for the upcoming riding and training season—while there’s plenty of time to get organized, leg-up my horse, and invigorate my training plans. This year, my husband and I have an ambitious schedule of clinics and versatile ranch horse competitions we want to attend.
Although my role will be more as a groom and coach rather than as a competitor, I still need my little mare to be fit, happy and comfortable in her tack. Far better to bite the bullet now so I have time to order the saddle, get it fitted, and for her to get comfortable in the new saddle before the busy riding season begins.
In the meantime, the snow and cold has driven us indoors to ride, and since I am without a well-fitted saddle, I’ve decided to focus on riding bareback until my new saddle comes. Surprisingly, riding in the bareback pad also gives me the opportunity to train the habitual cinchiness out of Annie. Even though the bareback pad girth is soft and never pulled tight, she’s still resistant when I go through the tightening motions—more evidence that it’s an ingrained habit and not a true reaction to pain.
As I slowly snug the soft girth of the bareback pad, if she tenses and bows her back up, I gently send her forward in a circle around me, one way then the other, waiting for her to relax. After just a few days, already one behavior is replacing the other and when she begins to tense, she then relaxes and steps forward. By taking the time to work through her resentment now, by the time my new saddle comes, I’m hopeful this habit will be long gone.
Of course, riding bareback will also help my riding skills. Honing my balance, building core strength, and increasing my endurance are just a few of the benefits of riding bareback, and these are all essential to staying strong as a rider, particularly as I age. It helps me stay in better riding shape from using my abdominal and leg muscles more, and most importantly, it hones my balance on the horse. Remember, balance naturally deteriorates as we age, so riding bareback is a good way to combat aging!
On some days, I shed the bridle and ride Annie bareback and without the bridle, with just a neck rope. This brings a refined subtleness to my riding and cueing that seems like pure connectivity. It’s harder work for the horse without the bridle, since she must pay rapt attention to my cues so as not to miss something. But it brings us both together and makes our shared language more fluent.
Now that I’ve bitten the bullet and made the decision to buy a new saddle for Annie, I’m excited about it and I can’t wait to try it out. I’m working on my patience too, since it will be a couple months before my new saddle arrives. In the meantime, riding bareback makes my indoor arena seem much bigger than it really is, and I’m confident that I am improving my stamina and balance.
Despite all the odds, this year is off to a great start for me. Now is the time to make your plans for next summer and to evaluate where you are now with your horse, and where you hope to be this time next year. I wish you all the best for a bright, healthy, and happy new year!
Even though our winter out here in the mountains has been disturbingly warm and dry this year, I know that eventually the cold and snow will descend upon us. Neither horses nor the humans caring for them look forward to winter, but after several decades managing horses in a harsh climate, I’ve learned there are things we can do to make the horses more comfortable and the chores less forbidding.
You don’t have to experience blizzards, bomb cyclones, and subzero temps to appreciate tips to make your horse life easier and your horses happier during winter months. But many horse owners live in four-season climates—some harsher than mine. If you do, you already know that horses and ice are not a good mix, and it leads to a lot of slips and falls—for both two-legged and four-legged types.
Whether your winters are mild or wild, there are some basics that are important to know:
What does your horse need to stay comfortable?
How do you need to change how you manage your facility?
What do you need to do differently to manage your horse’s nutritional and hydration needs?
How can you make winter chores easier?
What do you need to do to ensure your own protection from the elements?
I have a few thoughts to offer. Since the internet began, literally, I have accumulated a vast library of information for horse owners and equestrians—articles, videos, and podcasts to give you the answers you need, when you need them. So I thought I would point you to a variety of articles I’ve written over the years about winter horse management.
What should you do to get ready for winter? This article includes some of the hard lessons I’ve learned over the years about buying hay, and what you need to know about buying hay and budgeting your horse’s hay consumption. It has good information about what is important to know about winter blankets—and whether your horse really needs a blanket. This article also addresses nutritional concerns, caring for your tack, and prepping your barn and arena for winter.
What worries you when it comes to making sure your horse is ready for winter? Living in a subzero climate, my #1 concern is keeping the water flowing, preventing ice build-ups, and keeping the water warm enough that the horses will drink it. Another critical factor about winter management regards the care of my horses’ feet—to make sure their hooves are healthy and ready for the harsher environmental pressures of winter. From blanketing needs to shelter and routine veterinary maintenance (parasite control, teeth, and vaccines), this article covers an array of issues we deal with most in the winter months.
What do you do with your horses in the winter? Once people know where I live and how harsh the winters can be, I often get this question. Some of the answers may surprise you, but the bottom line is, we more or less do the same thing with our horses in the winter as in the summer—it’s just a lot harder!
In this article I share my own rules about when it is too cold to work the horses, some important things I’ve learned about their feed plan, and preventing dehydration. Horses are adaptable to any climate, including extreme heat and cold. However, it’s important for you to know what your horse’s natural coping mechanisms are, and how you can help—or at the least, not interfere with—his natural defenses to the cold.
Have you remembered an important task that needed to be done—in the middle of a snow storm? I’ve developed a checklist of important things to accomplish before winter sets in (because here in the high mountains of Colorado, winter comes early and stays late). In September, we start prepping for winter around the barn. This is the time of year we buy the hay we need for all the horses for an entire year, and get it properly stored.
From blanket repair and maintenance, to storing my valuable tack and making sure I have all the stall-cleaning and ice-breaking tools I need on hand, I’ve got a lot to do! Just like many people must winterize their RV or boat, I’ve got to put my trailers to bed and address my horses’ health and well-being. Finally, in this article I share my favorite hacks for human barn apparel, and how I’ve learned to dress for subzero barn chores and cold-weather riding.
Many of the questions I get start with a sentiment like this: “My horse used to do this well, but now he won’t,” or, “My horse was really responsive when I first got him, and now he ignores me.” A common denominator is that the horse was well-behaved initially, but its behavior has deteriorated over time. In all instances, we must rule out pain first. After you have worked with your vet to rule that out, the gradual decline of responsiveness and willingness in the horse could be attributed to a training problem.
Even the most well-trained horse will occasionally misbehave—usually in minor ways that make its life a little easier, or gets it closer to what it wants. With a trained horse, letting disobedient actions go unchecked and unacknowledged often leads to worse behaviors.
Common disobediences—like cutting corners, slowing down at the gate, breaking gait, pulling toward the barn, coming off the rail, ignoring a go cue, and refusing to do what is asked—are often ignored by the rider, or handled inappropriately, leading to greater disobedience in the future.
In theory, humans are smarter than horses. We have a more highly evolved brain and abilities the horse lacks, like the ability to think in the future, use linear reasoning (putting multiple thoughts together to predict a certain outcome), problem solve, do math, and use complex language. Given these abilities, it’s surprising to me how often horses outsmart people.
Horses are quite clever when it comes to probing boundaries, manipulating others, and getting what they want. Beyond everything else, horses seek out safety and comfort—these are their greatest motivators, and usually at the root of their behavior. They are masters of subtlety, gently testing boundaries to find openings. When their smaller misdeeds go unnoticed or unchecked, the horse naturally begins to take advantage of the unaware rider.
Riding horses are trained from day one to maintain direction and speed, as dictated by the rider. In other words, we train horses to stay on a certain path or at a specific speed until told by the rider to change directions or change speeds. When a trained horse slows down, speeds up, or changes course without a cue from the rider, it is considered a disobedience.
These kinds of small disobediences are quite common in riding horses, and you cannot blame a horse for trying. But what always surprises me, is how often riders seem completely unaware of the horse’s small disobediences until it turns into a big one.
While horses are quite clever at manipulation, they do tend to deploy the same tactics, in the same place, with great predictability. For instance, if you have a problem with a horse coming off the rail in the arena, it generally does the same thing, in the same place, every time you go around. Remember, humans are smarter than horses, so it shouldn’t be too hard to predict what will happen next time you go around.
Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.
The keys to not being manipulated by a horse or losing your authority, are to simply be aware of the horse’s actions and motivations, think ahead of the horse, and acknowledge its disobedient behavior. This shouldn’t be too hard when the horse’s misdeeds are predictable.
The first key is to simply be aware of the horse’s actions. Riders are often so caught up in themselves that they fail to notice when a horse manipulates them. But the horse always knows and will probe its boundaries gently, until it gets a reaction from the rider. The sooner the reaction comes, the faster the horse learns that the rider cannot be manipulated.
One of the most common examples of a lack of awareness in the rider, occurs when a horse breaks gait or changes speed, unauthorized by the rider. Let’s say the rider has asked the horse to canter in the arena, and when they canter by the gate, the horse slows down and breaks into a trot. In most instances, the rider simply re-cues the horse to canter.
When the rider simply carries on, as if nothing happened, the horse learns that either the rider is unaware of its tactics or that the rider condones breaking gait. Either way, the horse benefits from the momentary rest and its disobedience is reinforced. If there was no admonishment, how would the horse know it did something wrong? If the rider doesn’t seem to know that breaking gait was contrary to what the horse was previously trained, it believes new rules apply.
On the other hand, if the rider scolds the horse for breaking gait, puts it immediately back to canter, perhaps making it canter a little harder, and then thinks ahead of the horse the next time around, driving it more forward before it has a chance to break gait, the horse learns its tactics won’t work and that the rider has authority.
Tools for the Proactive Rider
Already armed with a greater awareness of the horse’s actions and motivations (e.g., to rest or to get closer to the herd), the proactive rider has many tools to redirect the horse’s behavior and assume the leadership role.
Again, before you move on to treating disobedience as a training issue, be sure to rule out pain as the cause first.
Because horses tend to misbehave in very predictable ways, like cutting the corners at the far end of the arena, it should be easy to think ahead of them. If the horse did it last time around, it’s likely to do it again. Therefore, being proactive and checking in with the horse before it deploys the tactic, letting the horse know you are thinking about it and prepared for it, is often enough to eliminate the behavior entirely.
Specific skills for the rider to deploy include using all your aids to ride the horse forward—drive the horse with your seat and legs and redirect the horse with the reins. Looking where you expect the horse to go is a simple way to show your determination and confidence. Driving the horse more forward before you get to the spot that the horse breaks gait or diverts direction, is a proactive measure that tells the horse you are aware.
The “blocking rein” is a highly effective tool to use before the horse veers direction. The blocking rein is a warning to the horse that you know what it is thinking about and that veering off the path will not be tolerated.
Grooming ToolsMake grooming time a bonding time with your horse
The blocking rein is applied by simply lifting the inside rein and closing it against the horse’s neck. The blocking rein is not a pull on the rein, but rather a motion of the rider’s hand that closes the door to that direction. If you are going around the arena to the left, and your horse is trying to veer to the left, your left rein is the blocking rein. Before you get to the spot where you know the horse will veer, simply reach forward, and close the rein against the neck. Be very careful not to pull on the rein, which would ask the horse to turn left—the way it wants to go.
The blocking rein is a proactive measure, used before the horse veers course, to warn the horse that further actions will be taken if it changes course. In many cases, this simple action alone will dissuade the horse because it learns that you are aware, you know what it is thinking and that you will take additional measures if needed. Horses don’t like to get in trouble, so a warning can be highly effective in this case.
Another useful tool to correct undesirable behaviors is called replacement training. It simply means replacing the undesirable behavior with a more desirable one. It’s been scientifically proven that trying to eliminate undesirable behaviors through punishment is not effective with horses but replacing behavior is highly effective.
If every time the horse starts to cut the corner to the left, you immediately turn him to the right, in short order, every time the horse thinks about veering left, it will prepare to turn right. Every time the horse breaks gait, you make him go faster, soon every time he slows down, he automatically speeds up. If every time the horse does this, you do that, in short order as soon as the horse thinks about this, it immediately thinks about that. You are creating an association between one thing and another.
The most important and effective tool you have for changing behavior in the horse is a release of pressure at the right time. Horses always seek a release of pressure, both mental and physical. Releasing a horse from the pressure of a cue or from an activity, the instant it responds, is the most powerful reward you can give.
Releasing at the wrong moment, while the horse is displaying undesirable behavior, rewards the horse too, but for the wrong thing. If a horse ignores a cue, so you stop giving the cue, the horse is rewarded for ignoring your cues. Sometimes people release the horse from pressure without even knowing it, inadvertently rewarding the horse.
This happens all the time in trailer loading; the horse resists, so the handler circles the horse back away from the trailer to start over. But what the horse learns is that when it resists, you will take it away from the trailer. It doesn’t matter if you start over, the horse already knows how to get what it wants.
It’s easy to make mistakes with horses and because they are such lightning-fast learners, even one mistake by the rider can develop a bad habit in the horse. Our temptation to blame the horse is huge, even though the horse is simply reacting to the rider.
Learning to think ahead of the horse, to understand its motivations and intentions, and to become aware of its subtle attempts to manipulate the rider, will automatically give you more authority and control over the horse. Horses seek out authority because it makes them feel safe, so being an aware and consistent rider makes you appealing to the horse.
Using your aids effectively to proactively ride the horse through a problem, warning the horse ahead of time that you are aware and intend to take action, and riding with determination and confidence through a sticky spot puts you in the driver’s seat and displays leadership to the horse.
My horses enjoyed a well-deserved training break over the past month. Slowly, my life is creeping back to normal and I’m spending more time traveling. I’m so grateful to be fully vaccinated (and in line for the booster) and to be able to hit the road and do the things I enjoy the most—public speaking, teaching horsemanship, and yes, vacation! Just this past month, I spent a fabulous week at the C Lazy U Ranch, for the annual Ranch Riding Adventure—and it was all of that! We had a great group of riders, incredible fall weather, and we rode our pants off! I also spent a week in Fort Collins, Colorado, teaching various classes for Colorado State University’s Equine Science program. I always enjoy working with up-and-coming young professionals and getting in touch with the university scene. Then just last week, Rich and I spent an entire week in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, visiting family and having fun in the sun. This is the area where I grew up and spent countless happy days fishing, boating, and beaching, and we had a blast! But with all that activity, I’m afraid I didn’t get much training done on my horses this month.
Our horses are exercised daily, regardless of whether I ride them or not. To keep them fit and in a routine, we bring the horses in at the same time every day and even if I don’t ride, they get tied up, groomed and free-longed, usually two or three horses together. I always like to say, “Misery loves company,” and they do like the free longe in a group, so they can have a little friendly competition on the side—who gets to be in front, who cuts the corner to gain the advantage, who likes to offer ‘friendly’ encouragement from behind. Horses thrive off routines and you can tell with my horses because they line up at the gate every day to come in for their scheduled time. It’s not that they love working, they don’t. But they like the grooming for sure, and they thrive on the routine activity.
Last week, after coming home from Florida, I was eager to ride both my horses, Annie and Pepperoni. Then I realized it had been a full month since I had ridden them last. This kind of thing never worries me because I know that horses don’t forget or unlearn—you could go years without riding and the horse would more or less be at the same training place that you left off. Time off doesn’t make my horses fresh or disobedient; in fact, usually the opposite. Still, it’s always interesting to me to see how they will respond after a long layoff (keep in mind they still get exercised and handled daily). Will they be froggy? Lazy? Rusty? But this time, they were perfect and I couldn’t be happier with my two horses.
Annie, at the ripe old age of 14, is highly trained and knows her job well. Fully tacked or without saddle and bridle, she can perform full reining patterns and execute just about any maneuver asked of her. Oddly, if I haven’t ridden in a while, my horses tend to be even sharper with their bridle-less cues (riding without rein contact), as if they are concentrating harder. After a few days, I can feel their acute attention level starting to wane (which is totally how I was in school too). Although riding Annie is not exciting or challenging for me (because I enjoy training green horses so much), it’s always fun to ride my little fancy sports car. She’s smooth, quick-footed, and highly responsive. I love this little mare because I can ride her at the highest level, then turn around and take her up in the mountains for a fabulous trail ride, then the next day, put my friend and beginner rider on her. This little horse is all in.
Pepperoni, my 5-year-old gelding, is following closely behind Annie in terms of training and reliability. I was thrilled that after a month without riding, I was able to step in the stirrup and take off for a-great ride, without looking back. He was mellow and engaged, trying as hard as usual to be the very best. Since he is younger and actually a quite energetic soul, I expected we would need to burn off a little extra rocket fuel. But he was actually quite mellow and attentive; a sure sign of maturity! With no good reason to do anything different, I brought Pepper along slowly in his training, focusing more on the classical progression of training, on correctness, and laying a solid foundation. I have to say, that has paid off big, and now he is close to finished, without having been jammed on, and I can ask almost anything of him. His solid foundation of training means that he responds fully to my aids and that I have 100% nose-to-tail body control. This means he can do pretty much anything I ask, as long as I ask correctly. He’s truly been a joy to train and a fun horse to have as a partner.
Later this week, I head back to the C Lazy U Ranch for the inaugural Horsemanship Immersion clinic. This is a program I’ve dreamed of for years and had innumerable requests for—a complete immersion into the study of horses and horsemanship. This program is not for the casual rider; it is specially designed for the person who simply cannot learn enough and is never fully satiated at a regular clinic—always yearning for more. I designed this program for me—and all the equestrians just like me! With a laboratory of more than 200 riding horses to study and play with, the program offers six seminars, nine hands-on workshops, plus equitation lessons and trail riding, all in the glorious setting of a 5,000 acre ranch in the Rocky Mountains, and the “five-spur” meals and accommodations that the Ranch is famous for. We’ll study horse behavior, conformation, ground training, health, nutrition, first aid, saddle fitting and bits, just to name a few. Can it possibly get any better than that?
Although this year’s Immersion program is full, we will be offering the program again next year; same time, same station. Check out my 2022 schedule here. I’m optimistic that 2022 will bring us even closer to our ‘before times’ normalcy. I have a full horse expo schedule slated for the spring, plus four exciting programs at the C Lazy U, plus a return to Ireland for a fabulous vacation-clinic with Connemara Equestrian Escapes. I’m so excited to return there, riding and touring the amazing Irish countryside with another adventurous group of riders—stay tuned for more information on that (with limited spots available, this program will fill quickly!).
My young horse, Pepperoni, was just a tender 2-year-old with about 30 days undersaddle when I first ventured outside the arena with him. On that day, my number one goal was to make sure he had a positive experience, so I enlisted the help of a friend with a seasoned, calm gelding to act as a good role model. But as luck would have it, shortly after venturing outside his known universe, we encountered a horse-eating monster that both horses feared.
The toppled-over trash trash can was sticking halfway out onto the dirt road we were riding on, the lid free floating and wavering slightly in the breeze—just the kind of thing a horse would have trouble deciphering. Clearly, to a horse, it was a danger of the worst kind—unknown and unidentifiable. I knew for certain that the way both horses negotiated this scary obstacle would have lasting impacts on my young horse’s development.
One minute we were happily on an adventure, then the lead horse perked his ears and balked at the trash can, causing Pepper to think twice about how much fun this adventure would be. Expecting the worst, I immediately deployed my trademark de-spooking techniques and started the game to convert his fearful behavior to curiosity.
Pepper took the bait right away, his willingness to approach the scary object growing. His delight in the praise that followed him touching the trash can with his nose sealing the deal. On the very first time this young horse spooked undersaddle, I was successful in converting his fear to investigative behavior.
Now a well-trained 5-year-old that has climbed all over the high mountain trails, Pepperoni has had occasion to be fearful, but he always responds in the same way—the way he learned to manage his fear on his first time out.
Contributing Factors That Lead to a Horse’s Fear
There are certain situations where a normally calm and confident horse can become anxious. Understanding the scenarios where this is likely to happen helps the rider be proactive, stay in control, and even alleviate the horse’s fear before it panics.
A horse’s fear can be triggered suddenly, as in the case of a deer jumping out of the brush, or it can build slowly as the horse’s anxiety increases, until at some point the horse meets a thresh-hold that causes meltdown. Being aware of changes in the horse’s emotional state helps a rider take action to alleviate anxiety before it reaches threshold.
As herd animals, horses find safety in numbers, and the thought of being alone to face danger is overwhelming to many horses. The same horse that is calm and confident on the trail in the company of other horses can turn into a scared rabbit when out alone. Only horses that are confident, experienced, and well-trained will handle riding alone into strange environments.
Along the same lines, horses will obviously have more fearful behavior in areas they are unfamiliar with than they will in known environments. The same thing is true of riding with unknown horses (stranger danger). Again, with more training and experience, and a confident rider holding the reins, horses will build confidence over time (we call it seasoning) in new environments or when riding with strange horses.
Additionally, “fresh” horses that have not had much riding lately may be lacking confidence, and may also be over-reactive to stimuli. But horses can display more anxiety than normal for more hard-to-understand reasons (like pain or changes in herd dynamics). Also, when something inexplicably changes in a horse’s well-known environment (like a new banner hanging on the arena fence that wasn’t there yesterday), it can cause a dramatic reaction.
Every horse is a little bit different in what causes its fear and how it responds in these types of situations. The more experience a rider has with a horse, the easier it is to predict the situations that will trigger fear.
Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.
Often people confuse desensitizing and de-spooking. When done correctly, it’s easy and fast to desensitize a horse to scary or aversive stimuli, like fly spray, the water hose, or clippers. I prefer the desensitizing technique known as “advance and retreat.” In just a few minutes, I can eliminate the horse’s fear of that stimulus. During desensitizing, with repeated advances of the scary stimulus, the horse knows the scary thing is coming and is prepared.
Spooking generally occurs when the horse is in an unknown situation and the unexpected happens. This is quite different from the controlled setting in which desensitizing occurs. It’s not really possible to “spook-proof” or “bombproof” a horse, but by using my de-spooking techniques, it is not hard to teach them to gain confidence by converting their fear to curiosity.
Fear vs. Curiosity
As prey animals and as flight animals, horses naturally have a high level of fear in new situations or stimuli. While some horses are more prone to flight than others, fearful behavior is instinctive, and it is what keeps them alive. But horses are also instinctively curious and investigative once fear has been ruled out.
Through training, we can teach horses to convert their fear to curiosity—by ruling out flight, letting the horse know it’s safe, and waiting for the moment he turns his attention forward. While training won’t change a horse’s temperament, it will teach the horse to manage its fear differently and help the horse find confidence.
Important Skills for the Rider
How the rider responds to a horse’s anxiety can make or break the situation. Having a proper, balanced position in the saddle, being centered with the horse’s center of gravity, and sitting in a relaxed manner, not only instills confidence in the horse, but also allows the rider to move fluidly with the horse when the horse becomes reactive.
Having quiet hands that are reaching well forward and giving, rather than clenching and grabbing helps a horse remain calm and focused. Imagine how the horse feels when it begins having anxiety and then its mouth is grabbed unexpectedly, causing it pain. Transmitting fear through the reins is very common and rarely has a good effect.
Furthermore, developing good rein handling skills is important in all matters of riding—that means knowing how to properly hold the reins, what the correct rein length is for the situation, and how to shorten and lengthen reins easily and quickly, without looking or fumbling. Knowing how to use the tools properly is critical to success.
Most importantly, to successfully manage fearful behavior in a horse, the rider or handler must have the ability to keep thinking and keep riding (or keep connected with the horse from the ground).
React, But Don’t Over-React
One should always be prepared to deal with sudden reactions from the horse, particularly when riding in an uncontrolled or unknown environment. That means having good situational awareness (paying attention to your surroundings), monitoring the horse’s emotional state, having the correct rein length to respond appropriately, and knowing how to execute the emergency stop.
One of the most valuable skills a rider can deploy when a horse becomes fearful is to keep riding, keep communicating with the horse, and stay in the moment—rather than freeze up like a deer in the headlights.
When a rider freezes up, clamps on the reins, or simply becomes passive, things rarely go well. Instead, taking the initiative to guide the horse through its fear, giving it clear cues to keep a dialogue going, and redirecting the horse’s focus will allow the rider to stay in control—and let the horse know it’s safe.
The worst response to a horse’s fearful behavior would be for the rider or handler to act afraid. If the horse’s behavior triggers the flight-or-fight response in the rider, it validates and exacerbates the fear. As herd animals, horses tend to adopt the emotions of those around them. So when the rider shows fear, the horse reacts in kind.
The opposite is also true—if the rider takes a deep breath, sits back and relaxes, acting as if there’s no problem, it transmits a lack of concern and instills confidence in both horse and human.
Fearful Behavior Can Be Managed
Riding in balance, with a relaxed back, deep seat, and an open pelvis will make riding out a serious spook much easier. Having good situational awareness and managing rein length helps a rider be prepared to deal with almost any reactive behavior from the horse. Teaching a horse that flight is not an option, and that curiosity will always be rewarded, will go a long way to eliminate flight behavior.
Having all the skills and knowledge you need to be safe on a reactive horse may seem foreboding, but it is attainable. Knowing how to respond to a spook will yield great confidence—for you and your horse—in all riding situations.
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I’m pretty sure no one loves horses more than I do, but I know a lot of you who love them just as much. We’ve cultivated a small herd of great riding horses, plus one or two geriatrics living out their golden years at my ranch, and I take great joy watching them every day. Horses have given a lot of themselves to humankind throughout history and today, asking for no more than security and comfort in return.
Owning and caring for horses is fulfilling—way beyond the beautiful vistas as they graze, or the pleasure of watching their subtle communications and clever antics, and even beyond the fun of riding. Anyone who has cared for horses daily enjoys the warmth of their early morning nickers, the mental therapy of raking, the satisfaction of a clean barn, the soothing sounds of horses munching away, and the give-and-take relationship you develop with each horse.
Horses give me exercise and build my strength and confidence. They make me think, organize and plan every day. They warm my heart, make me laugh (a lot), relieve my heartache, and offer the therapy I need.
For 10,000 years, horses have found ways to make themselves useful to humans. Maybe it’s time we give something back.
Focus on One at a Time
Watching my own healthy and happy horses frolic in the fields, knowing they will be tucked securely into their cozy barn at night with an all-you-can-eat buffet of high-quality hay, it can be easy to forget that there are tens of thousands of horses in this country alone that need our help.
Each year, thousands of horses find themselves at risk, often after serving humans well for decades. They are at risk of homelessness, neglect, starvation, and abuse. Tens of thousands of horses cross our northern and southern borders each year in semi-trucks bound for slaughter because they got lost in the system.
The numbers are staggering, and when I see my horses galloping in the fields, I shudder to think how different their lives may have been.
But here’s the cool thing—if even a fraction of the people out there who are qualified to help horses would step up and help just one horse, the problem could be solved in no time. Instead of focusing on saving all the horses, what if each of us just helped one?
There are thousands of good people all over the country—professionals and volunteers—working right now to help as many horses as they can. I’ve worked with The Right Horse Initiative for a few years to help with the messaging about horses that are in transition and in need of our help.
*Brand New* Must-Have "Timing Is Everything" Tees! Inspiration to Focus On This Training Essential
I am an advisor and occasional guest instructor for the Right Horse Program at Colorado State University, which focuses on training and repurposing horses into careers as therapeutic horses, lesson horses, and recreational horses, and thus securing their future (while educating the horse trainers of tomorrow).
I love training horses and have some skill in that department, particularly as it relates to problem horses or riding horses. Since I have accommodations for an extra horse, I’ve enjoyed fostering the occasional rescue horse, helping it gain the manners and skills it needs to be successful in adoption. If I do my job well as their “foster trainer,” the once at-risk horse will transform into a skilled, beautiful and wanted horse who melts hearts at first sight.
What I personally have to offer to horses in need everywhere is my training services—one horse at a time—to help them find forever homes, and then I can move on to help another horse. I graciously accept the support I get from the ASPCA, and Nexus Equine in the adoption process and with the foster horses’ healthcare needs, and together we strive to create awareness and educate the public about horses in transition.
Obviously not everyone is equipped to offer horse training help—but everyone can offer help in some way
There are a lot of horses out there In need! Whether through donations, volunteering, fostering, adopting a horse that needs you, or simply just helping to create awareness, there’s something you can do to help horses in transition.
The Truth of the Matter
Meet my latest foster horse, Truth. I think Truth is the poster child for incredible horses that can get lost in transition from one home to another who deserve a loving, secure home. Truth Takes Time is her official name. She’s a registered Thoroughbred who spent her adolescent years running her guts out at the racetrack, then temporarily became a pleasure horse before becoming a broodmare. A decade and five babies later, at the precarious age of 18, she found herself unemployed and homeless.
Luckily for Truth, she was scooped up by the ASPCA’s safety net, the Regional Care Center in Oklahoma City, given the health screenings and past-due health maintenance she needed (teeth, feet, deworming, etc.). A microchip was implanted in her neck that will make it easy to identify her should she ever get lost in the system again, and it will forever keep the safety net of the ASPCA around her.
After passing the health screenings, we worked together with Nexus Equine in Oklahoma City to bring Truth to Colorado. This took an entire network of transportation—rescue operations all over the country that get horses where they need to be in order to have a bright future. That’s a lot of people helping—one horse at a time.
Truth arrived at my ranch on April 1, 2021, but she’s no April Fool’s joke. She’s a gorgeous and typical Thoroughbred—a chestnut mare who looks a lot like the picture of her grandsire, Secretariat, that hangs on my office wall. She’s athletic, sweet, loves to race the other horses in the field, and is apparently afraid of nothing. She came to me looking rather pot-bellied, wormy, and sagging in all the wrong places. Today, she is healthy, fit and shiny like a new copper penny, after 5 months of high-quality feed and Cosequin ASU Joint & Hoof Pellets.
Originally, my intention was to restart this mare under saddle, and I did without any red flags. I rode her in the arena and out in the open, but later on we discovered an arthritic condition in her spine. Even though it is perfectly treatable by a capable veterinarian, we decided that Truth has probably done enough for people in her life, and she doesn’t need to start a third career as a recreational riding horse.
Think Outside of the Saddle
The good news is, you don’t have to ride horses to enjoy them! Riding sports aren’t the horse’s only purpose, and there are plenty of folks who own horses and don’t ride. Horses can serve so many functions from companion animals, to ground lessons, to in-hand activities like obstacles, liberty, or in-hand dressage (FYI: Truth would rock at this!). But nothing beats the satisfaction of providing a safe forever home to a horse that deserves it and appreciates it.
After 5 months of training, Truth’s physical condition has blossomed. She enjoys attention from people now, she keeps her mini herd well organized (she supervises one ancient old friend and a yearling Clydesdale colt), and has learned the polite manners of a family horse (versus a race horse). She requires no special food or health treatments, she’s very sound, and she comes with a year’s supply of Cosequin ASU Joint & Hoof Pellets.
I am also offering a private clinic to the family that is lucky enough to adopt her. If you think you are the right fit, click here to get in touch.
If Truth’s not for you, there’s another horse out there that needs your help. There are rescues in your area and they all need our support. The numbers of horses at risk in this country are huge, but so are the hearts of people who love horses.
To find out how you can help horses in transition, please go to MyRightHorse.org.
Grooming ToolsMake grooming time a bonding time with your horse
At my ranch, we have seven geldings and one mare. When we brought my new foster mare, Truth, in for training the two mares were instantly drawn to each other like magnets. At first, it was sweet how much they loved each other. Then it became obvious that the otherwise sweet and compliant mares would resemble fire-breathing dragons if we ever tried to separate them.
Both mares became so attached at the hip that even a momentary separation of 10 feet would send both mares into a complete tizzy. Ultimately, we had to separate the mares, and only allowed them to interact when we got them out for training—while working, they were required to follow protocol and behave as they were trained to act. We were able to nip the undesirable behavior in the bud, and the mares went back to their cooperative old selves.
Though highly inconvenient to humans, gregarious behavior (or an unyielding desire to be with others in the herd) is one of the strongest instinctive drives of equines. Often thought of as an affliction by horse owners, a herd-bound horse may display anxious, panicky and undesirable behaviors when it is either taken away from the herd by itself, or are left behind after other horses are removed.
This is a natural, instinctively driven behavior of horses, and it’s an omni-present condition—although most horses are trained to overcome it. There are no quick-fixes to herd-bound behavior, but horses can certainly be taught to accept separation from the herd, and stay calm and obedient despite it. A recent question from one of my podcast listeners, Barbara, reminded me of how imposing this instinctive behavior can be.
Can a horse be desensitized to separation anxiety? My alpha mare is boarded with a pasture mate. We’ve been there for about 2 years. My mare will happily go out alone, but if her BFF even goes around the corner, she goes crazy—running the pasture fence line, screaming and working herself into a lather.
The other horse (also a mare) does not go out alone often, actually rarely, but it is stressful to watch [my mare]. Luckily, she has not hurt herself—yet. We have just started trying to have the other horse lead away for a short time, then come back to see if my mare will calm down when she leaves. Can this—or will this—work? Or are we just causing her more stress?
It’s an excellent question Barbara, and it made me realize that there is an important ingredient for retraining the herd-bound horse, beyond simply separating the horses, that is usually omitted from the recipe for success. But before we talk about the secret sauce, it’s important to fully understand the depth of your horse’s behavior first.
What’s the Big Deal?
For a prey animal, separation from the herd feels like a death sentence. Horses only live in a herd setting, never solitary, because they are reliant on the herd for detecting and fending off predators. You cannot eliminate this instinct, but you can train the horse to override its instinctive urges.
Separation anxiety can rear its ugly head in two common scenarios—one occurs when you take a horse away from the safety and comfort of its herd and it becomes uncooperative (often referred to as barn sour). The other form of separation anxiety happens when a horse’s companion is taken away and it’s left alone, herd-less, to fend for itself.
What many horse owners like Barbara have come to realize is that the latter scenario—the horse that is left behind—is often the hardest to deal with. In other words, the horse you take out of the pen to ride is not as big a problem as the one you leave in the pen. This typically takes the form of running, pacing the fence line, and calling out with increasing panic that escalates unless intervention occurs.
Less dramatic, but just as frustrating, is herd-bound behavior in the horse you take out to ride, if it refuses to cooperate. This often involves impatience, fidgeting, pawing, head shaking, stomping, calling out, ignoring the handler/rider, ignoring trained cues, and downright refusing to do what is asked or to leave the proximity of the herd. It may escalate to blatant disobedience, tantrums, and threats of bucking or rearing from the horse.
Temperament, training, and routine handling all affect herd-bound behavior. There’s not much we can do to change a horse’s temperament but training, regular handling, and teaching a horse how to act appropriately will make an impact on the horse. All horses are instinctively prone to these behaviors, yet for many horses this never becomes an issue.
Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.
It’s important to remember that herd-bound behavior is normal for horses. It is only through training and experience that horses gain a comfort level with being alone and/or accept a human as a suitable substitute for the herd. Younger horses may be more independent and more willing to leave the herd, while middle-aged and older horses may become increasingly herd bound. I suspect the same pressures that cause differences in the behavior of humans at various stages of their lives, also affects horses. As we age, security becomes increasingly important.
Horses are not only instinctively drawn to the herd (affected by herd gravity), but they also form bonded relationships within the herd (the double whammy). By nature, horses form deep mutual alliances with one other horse in the herd (at the most two). Horse people call them buddies, behaviorists call them associates, and many other people would probably call it friendship.
It can certainly be the case that a horse is not only unwilling to leave the herd, but it also deeply fears any momentary physical separation from its buddy. So, if you remove the associate, even if the other horse remains in a herd setting it may still be emotionally overwrought with separation anxiety. In the case of herds of two horses, when the buddy is removed and there are no other herd mates there, the horse experiences the worst anxiety.
Horses are creatures that thrive on routine and sameness, for the security and predictability it brings them. They are fast learning, detect patterns quickly, and learn routines easily. When a horse is regularly separated from the herd, handled by people, tied up and groomed, and ridden or trained daily, herd bound problems go away because this is part of the horse’s normal routine, and it has reached a comfort level with it.
On the other hand, if the horse is left in the pen with the other horses, day in and day out, with only occasional removal and handling for vet or farrier, the herd becomes its whole world and separation is unthinkable.
Will Gradual Desensitization Work? It can, but only if you have the secret ingredient. Removing or separating the horses is necessary to reprogram the horse, but it’s only half of the equation. Whether you are dealing with a barn sour horse that throws a fit when you ask it to leave the barnyard, or the left-behind horse that runs a rut in the ground when you take its buddy away, the secret is in what you do after the separation.
It’s not the length of the separation that matters, whether it’s short or long, it’s bringing the horse back to a calm and compliant state of mind before returning it to the herd (or reuniting it with its cohort) that has the greatest impact. In other words, if you remove the buddy horse for a short time but return it while the left-behind horse is emotionally overwrought, you have further reinforced the undesirable behavior. The left-behind horse believes its emotional outbursts caused the buddy horse to return, so it is certain to act the way next time.
Whatever the horse is doing at the moment you release the pressure, is what you just trained the horse to do. This is a universal truth that applies to all matters of training horses—timing is everything. If the horse only gets relief once it has settled, taken a deep breath, and returned to its normal compliant state, then that is the behavior you have reinforced. Bringing the horse back to a calm and thinking state of mind once it is separated and before returning it to the herd, must occur in order to reprogram the horse’s behavior.
Unbinding the Herd-Bound Horse Now that you know that the secret sauce for curing herd-bound behavior is in managing and redirecting the horse’s emotions before reuniting them, I’ll share my formula for teaching a horse to deal with its separation anxiety. I’m assuming you are starting with a trained horse that acts appropriately when it is not having separation anxiety—that you have control and cooperation from the horse otherwise, and that these problems only occur when the horse is isolated from other horses. If your horse is always out of control, this plan won’t work—that horse needs more basic training.
Step One: Create a New Routine On a daily basis, you’ll need to separate the horse from the herd and do the same routine with it—maybe some groundwork, followed by grooming, followed by some time spent tied up. The first day will be the hardest, with the most emotionality, but with each passing day, the horse learns what comes next and comes to accept the routine. Consistency is key. When it happens every day, the same way, at least 5-6 days a week (no one ever said horse training was easy), the horse trains to a new routine quickly.
Step Two: Manage Emotionality The key to success is in reminding the horse how good it feels to be relaxed. Anxiety, anger and frustration are the primary emotions of the horse you’ll be managing. Your own emotions must be relentlessly calm and steady. Treating the horse’s emotionality as a mental health issue and not a training issue, will help the horse the most. My first goal is always to reduce the horse’s anxiety by asking it to lower its head to the ground and cue it to take a deep breath by taking one myself.
To cue the horse to relax, I exaggerate my body language and breathing to exude calmness (shoulders rounded, energy low, averted eyes, deep sighs). I’ll stroke and soothe the horse as it relaxes, to show the horse that being relaxed feels better than being anxious. It is not hard to get an anxious horse addicted to calmness, but you must show them how to do it—lower the head and take a deep breath. After a few days of this, the horse will start lowering its own head when it feels anxious, in an attempt to self-medicate.
For many horses, especially the hotter, flightier horses, movement may be soothing but it may also wind a horse up, as in the case of the left-behind horse frantically running up and down the fence. Sometimes allowing a horse to move its feet helps it calm down—walking quietly, turning right, then left, then right. But moving it around with quick, abrupt, or harsh transitions and changes of direction is not calming.
When I have a problem with a left-behind horse that is panicked when left in the pen, instead of allowing the horse to pace frantically, winding itself up and potentially hurting itself, I will simply tie it up in a safe and comfortable place. When you take away its ability to frantically pace, and when the horse is trained to stand tied, it will usually settle down once you do. My horses prefer to be caught and tied up when we take the other horses out, even if we are not riding them—it makes them feel part of the action and it’s way better than being the only one left behind.
Step Three: Engage the Mind and Regain Focus Once you’ve addressed the out-of-control emotions of the horse, it’s time to engage its mind, get it thinking, and remind the horse of what it knows. Sometimes it seems like the herd-bound horse has completely forgotten all its training, but horses never forget. Put the horse to work, giving it cues and expecting a response, as soon as its mind settles.
When engaging the horse’s mind, I’ll revert back to the simplest commands that I’m sure the horse knows. Go, stop, turn right, turn left, slow down, speed up. All I want is for the horse to listen, think, and respond like it is trained to do. This almost always has a calming effect on the horse as its mind becomes engaged and it reverts to the comfort of what it knows.
This is not the time to ask for the hard stuff or train something new. It is the time to remind the horse that it knows how to act and respond. Most importantly, I want to use this time to re-establish my connection with the horse. I want the horse to give me even the most basic response so that I can praise it copiously and remind it how good it feels to get back to normal.
Engaging the horse’s mind by giving it known cues, waiting for the appropriate response, then releasing and praising the horse, will always help when a horse is feeling anxious. Do this with the horse that is left behind too—leaving it to its own devices will not work.
Step Four: Reimpose Known Rules of Behavior Presumably, your horse has established manners and rules of behavior that you normally expect from the horse. During times of emotional duress, the horse may temporarily become unresponsive or disregard these rules. Your job, as the leader, is to redirect the horse’s behavior (not punish) and remind it of your expectations.
Engaging the horse’s mind by asking it to comply with simple commands will help you reimpose the rules of behavior (manners). But this is where the onus comes to you. If you have established good manners in your horse, aside from the separation issue, you can retrieve the horse quickly. If you have not established good leadership with the horse in the best of times, how can you expect it in the worst of times?
Normally, I expect my horses to stand still whenever I ask. I require them to stand tied for some time every day, I teach them to ground tie and practice it regularly, and I always reinforce standing still once I have asked it of the horse. So, when the horse temporarily loses it and is frantically dancing around, I have known skills and known expectations to fall back on, as I ask the horse to comply and remind it of what it knows. If you have not done this foundational work up front, you have nothing to fall back on when the horse becomes overwrought. That’s your bad.
Time Well Spent While herd-bound behavior is a constant presence with horses, with proper training and handling, it is completely manageable. All horses are prone to becoming herd-bound, yet most riding horses have learned to cope. It’s not an affliction of the horse—it’s normal behavior.
When herd-bound behavior becomes a problem, it generally stems from a lack of training and handling, or inadequate training and handling. As I mentioned, no one ever said horse training was easy or a part-time job, but these are totally solvable problems—if you make the investment of time and energy your horse requires. If I had a quick fix to offer, I’d be the wealthiest horse trainer of all time.
Fixing the herd-bound horse is not possible to do in one day, and it requires your full commitment and relentless consistency. Before your horse lets go of its anxiety about being separated from other horses, it must get comfortable and relaxed spending time with you, accept your leadership, and feel safe with you. Ultimately, you are the secret ingredient, and the responsible party.
Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.
One of the most memorable episodes of Horse Master for me involved a lovely warmblood mare who developed a rearing problem after a successful run as a show jumper. The sweet and kind mare stood straight up as I mounted her—before I even sat down. Although sometimes rearing can become a learned response or a training problem, in this otherwise obedient and compliant horse, all the clues pointed toward pain as the cause.
Rearing occurs when the horse stands straight up on its hind legs. This behavior is often rooted in fear, but can also be a result of pain. In some instances, rearing or rear-threats may indicate a refusal to move forward, or it can occur when forward movement is inhibited.
Whether you are on the ground or in the saddle, it is one of the scariest and most dangerous behaviors of horses. Hopefully you will never have to deal with a rearing horse, but if you do, a little bit of knowledge may help you avoid some of the most common mistakes—and help keep you and your horse safe.
When it comes to rearing, it is important to fully understand the nature of this behavior and what to do when it happens. Here, I’ll discuss what causes rearing, how to avoid it, what to do if it happens, and how to keep safe when this scary and dangerous behavior is displayed.
Naturally “Light on the Forehand”
Some horses are more prone to rearing than others. In some ways, you can think of it as an expression or mannerism. While some horses are more prone to kick out, strike or shake their heads when they are feeling angst, others will tend to rear. Often, horses will threaten to rear—lifting the head and hopping up on the front feet—but never actually rear.
It is not always possible to know if the behavior a horse is displaying in the moment is instinctive or learned; this is the age-old debate of nature Vs. nurture. Rearing can easily become a learned response to get out of something the horse does not want to do, however, some horses clearly favor this behavior over others as an expression.
Regardless of whether it is a natural tendency in the horse, a learned response, or the result of a specific situation, proper handling and training will alleviate the behavior and help keep all four feet on the ground.
Even though some horses may have a natural tendency toward this behavior, all horses are capable of rearing, given the right circumstance. As with any undesirable behavior we are trying to eliminate, avoid, or train out of the horse, it helps to understand the root cause.
Pain, or fear of pain, is one of the most common root causes of many undesirable behaviors in horses. When a horse that has a history of performing well, suddenly does not, it is often a pain response. It may be the rider’s first indication of a developing physical problem, just as it was with the warm-blood mare.
It is quite common in high performance horses—jumpers, reiners, cowhorses, rope horses, barrel racers, or any horses that are training and competing in these athletically demanding sports, to suddenly refuse to participate. Often, rearing is the only way the horse has to tell you it cannot cope with the pain.
If rearing occurs when you ask a horse to perform a certain maneuver or task, particularly when it is an otherwise compliant and obedient horse, it is likely a result of pain. If this is the case, no amount of training will resolve the behavior until the pain is treated. Unless there is specific evidence that it is a learned disobedient response, not rooted in pain, the horse should be thoroughly vetted for a physical problem before any training plan is instigated.
Often, instinctive behaviors become learned behaviors with horses. They are wicked-fast learners and sometimes a horse can learn that a certain response got him what he wanted, even though initially it was an instinctive response. Perhaps the horse reared the first time due to a pain response when you asked him to perform a difficult task and in an abundance of caution, you stopped riding immediately to check the horse out.
Even though the incident was caused by pain, and even once you resolve the pain, you may still see the rearing behavior. It is possible for the horse to make an association between his rearing and you putting him away, on the very first incident. Still, you must always resolve the physical issue first, and with certainty, then come back and address the training problem once the pain is resolved.
Fear and Refusal
Rearing can easily be classified as a fear response, whether it is based in pain (the horse fears that when he does a certain movement it will hurt) or simply when the horse refuses to do something or becomes disobedient. Oddly, there are two seemingly opposite scenarios that commonly provoke rearing—a refusal to move forward or when forward motion is inhibited.
Let’s say you are asking the horse to cross running water with steep banks and creepy overhanging vegetation, and the horse is afraid for his safety and plants his feet in refusal. If you continue to push the horse forward and he is determined not to go, he may rear (or threaten to rear) in protest. Other common scenarios that provoke rearing are loading into a trailer or leaving the barnyard alone—both a refusal to move forward.
The other scenario that often provokes rearing is when forward motion is inhibited in a horse that is determined to go. Maybe you are on a trail ride with a group of horses and they take off at a fast pace while you try to hold your horse back, inhibiting its forward motion. This often provokes rearing in the horse, based on his strong instinctive fear of being left behind.
Whether rearing is the result of a refusal to move forward or when forward motion is inhibited, it is often based in fear initially. Unfortunately, the horse can easily learn to rear as a tactic to get out of something he does not want to do. It is important to take the time to alleviate the horse’s fear in a systematic way to avoid rearing if possible and once a horse does rear, to make sure he does not associate rearing with a means to avoid work.
Rearing Vs Rear Threats
A horse that rears suddenly will often stand straight up on his hind legs, in a nearly vertical position. However, a horse that is thinking about rearing and who is building up to a mutiny, may display rear threats by popping up with its front feet, just a few inches off the ground, as it throws its head up. This is a communicative gesture that means the horse is considering rearing if you keep pushing.
If a rear threat gets the horse any advantage, perceived or real, he will certainly employ the tactic again. Rear threats may or may not lead to full rearing; you do not get to know in advance. But if you are prepared to safely and confidently deal with a full-blown rear, you may want to push through the threats, insisting the horse move quietly forward, turning one way then the other.
When a horse threatens to rear and it causes the rider to ditch her plan (and cave on the directive she gave to the horse), the horse may learn that its threats have value. Sometimes this can become a favored tactic of the horse whenever it does not want to comply, holding the rider hostage to its threats. If you think you are in this situation already with a horse, you probably need the help of a trainer, or a more experienced horse person, to learn how to break this cycle.
As with all threatening behavior from horses, whether it is threatening to kick or buck or charge, when a horse threatens to rear, it could be a bluff. Many horses will learn that rear threats get them what they want, even though they may never actually rear. However, just like when people become threatening, you must take threats seriously because your safety is at stake.
Solutions to Rearing
No matter what the cause, when a horse rears, the solution is always the same– to move the horse immediately forward in whatever means is available to you, in whatever direction it will go. It is not possible for the horse to simultaneously rear and move forward. Forward motion is the antidote to rearing.
It always helps if you understand why the horse is displaying unwanted behavior. In the case of rearing, sometimes it is obvious, like the horse that refuses to leave the barn or cross water or get in a trailer; or the horse being held back while the other horses take off; or the trail horse that senses a rattlesnake ahead. In these cases, the rearing behavior may be avoided entirely or addressed through training and desensitization.
If the reason the horse is rearing is not immediately obvious, chances are good it is related to pain or fear of pain (it hurt once before). Often rearing that presents as a training problem actually stems from pain. The horse should have a thorough veterinary assessment and lameness exam before any further riding or training.
Once a physical cause is ruled out, the horse’s training can be addressed. If the cause of the rearing was indeed pain, even once fully healed, the horse may still rear, either because it has a fear-based memory of the pain or because the horse learned a new tactic to avoid work. These causes are often very difficult to distinguish and you may need the help of a professional to navigate through the horse’s behavior.
If pain is not the cause, the next most likely reason for the horse to rear is fear. Instinctive fear-based behaviors like not separating from the herd or not entering dark, closed-in spaces, or places where predators might lurk, require deliberate training to overcome. Over time we gain more control and trust from the horse, slowly building its confidence, never scaring, or endangering the horse.
In the case of a horse that is rearing in a flat-out refusal to comply with the rider’s commands, even if the reason seems obvious, a physical cause should always be considered first—it’s common for rearing to present as disobedience. But sometimes horses can learn clever tactics to manipulate riders into doing what they want (or don’t want to do), pushing boundaries on riders that lack confidence. Again, a trainer or riding instructor can generally help riders navigate through the disobedience and show more leadership to the horse.
If a horse is rearing because you are inhibiting its forward motion, holding it back when the other horses take off, the solution is simple—just let the horse move forward then worry about controlling that forward motion. Holding back a panicked horse as the rest of the herd rides away is a case of diminishing returns. Avoid that situation entirely by going with the herd or not riding with people that like to go fast. Determine what skills you need as a rider and what skills you need to train to the horse if you need to overcome this kind of rearing.
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The number one danger when a horse rears, is the potential for the horse to lose its balance, either because its feet slip, or the rider or handler pulls on the horse at precisely the wrong time, causing it to lose balance. If the horse falls over backwards, it can easily strike its poll, causing a fatal head injury, break its withers, or crush the person that gets pinned underneath. This is why it is considered one of the most dangerous behaviors of horses.
Horses that are prone to rearing are dangerous and should only be ridden by competent riders who know how to safely manage a horse that rears and a training plan should be developed to give the horse the remedial training it needs. But you may encounter rearing with no warning and suddenly find yourself in a hazardous situation. There are a few critical actions that will keep you safer in this scary situation.
When handling a horse from the ground, never pull on the lead rope of a rearing horse. When a horse rears up, pressure on its poll will make it worse, as it leans into the pressure. Since the horse uses its head and neck for balance, interference from the lead rope can make it fall. When a horse you are handling from the ground rears, hang onto the rope, but give the horse slack. Back away to keep out of the way of its flailing front hooves.
When riding a horse that rears, riders instinctively do the wrong thing, pulling back on the reins, either in fear or because of loss of balance. But just like with the horse from the ground, pulling on the reins is likely to make the horse lose balance and fall.
If a horse I am riding rears, I instantly grab around the neck to hold on and throw my weight forward and, to prevent me from pulling on reins. Keeping a rein in each hand, I hug around the horse’s neck as he ascends, and slip my feet out of the stirrups, in case the horse falls. Once it comes back down, I will send it forward immediately, in any direction I can.
Keep in mind that balking (planting all four feet and not moving) often precedes rearing. When a horse freezes up, sometimes rearing or explosive movement follows. Use your directional aids to rock the horse side-to-side, right to left to right movement, to slowly re-establish forward motion.
All in a Day’s Work
There are times and situations in which any horse would rear, and if dealt with properly and safely, the undesirable behavior goes away. It is only when a horse develops a habit of rearing, or benefits from rearing, or loses their instinctive fear of falling over that rearing becomes a critical problem in the horse’s training.
Rearing can be as dangerous to people as it is to horses and a horse with a history of rearing should only be handled and ridden by the most competent and experienced personnel, who know how to avoid the behavior and deal with it when it happens. Mistakes can be deadly and people often instinctively do the wrong thing when a horse rears. Yet when a rider has the knowledge, experience, and tools to employ, rearing can be easily managed and resolved. Always recognize that rearing is a warning sign of problems– either physical, mental, or training wise. Find the root cause and develop a plan to address the deficiencies.
Remember that lovely warm-blood mare in Horse Master? Turned out she did have an injury in her back that could be resolved with chiropractic treatment, rest, and rehab. Once cleared for riding, her owner brought her to my ranch so I could help her ease back into it. You can see that first post-injury ride I took on her at the end of the episode. That mare never missed a step, had no lingering issues, and went on to become a successful show jumper once again. Just goes to show you that sometimes all horses need is our help.
“Many blogs, books and online training resources talk about helping you develop the relationship you always wanted to have with your horse. For example, having him meet you at the gate in the paddocks, etc. This makes me feel perhaps I should aspire to that as well.
My own horse tends to be aloof and keeps on grazing no matter where I am. I do feel we have a good connection when riding or on the ground. He trusts me and is very responsive. He is a 14-year-old Quarter Horse, who is a very sensitive, ‘hot’ type. So, is the fact that he does not run to greet me an indication that he sees me as any other ‘human,’ and I should work on developing that kind of relationship?”
Is it Me or My Horse?
As prey animals, horses are standoffish, skittish, and stoic by nature. While they are instinctively drawn to the herd and form strongly bonded relationships within, their affectionate behavior (non-reproductive) is not overt, and they often ignore each other.
Some horses are more interested in people than others, but whether this is a trait of their natural born temperament or a result of learned behavior, may be difficult to discern. Some horses are affable, friendly, and investigative by nature, but it’s not the norm. While these are highly desirable traits that can be honed by many positive associations with humans, it’s unreasonable to expect all horses to be that way, given the nature of prey animals.
Horses have strong instinctive drives, and they are also lightning-quick learners with a memory like a steel trap (important traits for prey animals). A horse with zero experience with humans would be naturally shy, but with only one encounter with humans, a horse could make a strong association, either positive or negative. This kind of learned behavior can make a horse eager to see you—or pretend you don’t exist.
For instance, if every time you approached a horse, you offered it a delectable treat, it wouldn’t be long before it was greeting you at the gate, eagerly anticipating your arrival—more accurately, the arrival of the treat. One should not mistake this behavior for anything other than what it is—acceptance of a bribe. Using food to reward a horse’s attention rarely works according to plan since horses establish dominance in the herd by taking away food from others. Still, this habit can result in a horse that eagerly awaits your arrival, but it will not create the kind of bonded relationship Benjamin is looking for.
On the other hand, consider a horse that has had repeated negative experiences with humans—either through strenuous performance training, having to work through pain, or being treated day-in and day-out for an injury or sickness. It doesn’t take long before the horse associates humans with negative emotions and avoidance behavior makes sense.
My new foster training project, a Thoroughbred mare called Truth, is a perfect case-in-point. After a decade as a broodmare, she’d learned that humans approaching her with a halter likely meant she would be put in stocks, twitched, hobbled, bred, or invasively palpated by a vet. Not surprisingly, every time we approached her pen, she would slink away and bury her head in the farthest corner of the pen—a clear message. Even though we had no such intentions, her associations were already there, and her reactions were reasonable. To change her behavior, I would need to change her associations.
Gregarious, Indifferent, or Depressed?
Since horses can be both subtle and overt in their communicative behavior, it’s important to distinguish between a horse that is gregarious, or indifferent, or depressed. Is the horse greeting you at the gate because he is interested in being with you and is looking for an adventure or because he views you as a giant cookie jar? As with any good sugar rush, it tends to be followed by a crash.
Some horses, perhaps most horses, tend to be seemingly indifferent to people and more stoic in their behavior, like Benjamin’s horse. This is far more common than the gregarious horse and should not be considered a negative trait. Sometimes stoic and aloof horses are the most tightly bonded to their humans, and often these horses are incredibly willing and dedicated to the cause.
It’s unreasonable to expect a horse to always look forward to your arrival just so he can carry you around on his back and work hard while entertaining you. It’s hard work, after all. In many cases, just accepting your presence, instead of beating feet the other way, is the best response you can hope for. Horses are much different animals than humans and we do them a disservice when we expect them to act in human ways.
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However, when a horse has made negative associations with humans, its reaction may go beyond indifference to depression and rejection. The horse that actively avoids humans by slipping away to avoid capture, may be a horse that has negative associations with humans, or one that has learned clever tricks to avoid work. But a truly depressed horse will look much different.
A traumatized horse may be depressed and shut down to external stimuli. This horse may look dull, sad, and lethargic, acting as if he doesn’t know you are there, turning his buttocks toward you, or sometimes taking more extreme defensive actions, like kicking, biting, or fleeing. These behaviors may result from hard performance training, frightening experiences, or even abusive handling. A depressed and traumatized horse needs empathy, time, space, and new associations.
Reprogramming the Aloof Horse
Whether the horse is aloof and indifferent from negative experiences with humans, because of its stoic nature, or because it has learned clever tricks to avoid people, there are ways to reprogram the horse’s thinking and create new associations. Reverse psychology is often the key that unlocks the behavior you want.
Think about what happens when a new horse is introduced to an existing herd. Without exception, the new horse gets shunned, as if the existing herd mates are saying, “We don’t like you; you stink, you’re ugly, and we don’t want you.” But the new horse always comes back, begging for acceptance. In his mind, his very survival depends on being accepted into the herd. Unless and until that new horse shows willingness to be contrite, to accept the existing hierarchy in the herd, and to be a good citizen, he will not be accepted.
That is the natural order in the herd and the way horses are programmed to act. When people come along and are desperate for the horse to show them overt signs of affection (which may be unrealistic since they don’t show overt affection to each other very often) the horse often views this as abnormal and suspicious behavior. But if you play hard to get by ignoring a horse and acting as if he is not there, acting as if you are not interested in him, suddenly he’s all over you. Acting indifferent toward your horse will often make him more interested in you.
Be the Provider
When dealing with a naturally aloof horse, a horse that has had unfortunate experiences that led to disinterest in humans, or a horse that has not had exposure to humans at all, I always start with being the provider of basic needs and I put no demands on the horse. For a few weeks, with the horse in its own pen, I will be the sole provider of the horse’s basic needs—food, water, a clean and comfortable pen, a sense of security. I will ask nothing of the horse in return and make no effort to engage the horse—acting as if I have no interest in him. In time, the horse comes to associate the presence of humans with good things and will begin to seek more engagement.
I want the horse to have positive associations with people, but I don’t need him to act in a way that makes me feel better about myself or makes me feel loved. I think it’s unreasonable to expect a horse to validate my own personal need to be accepted, or to ask him for something he’s not capable of giving. I happily accept any interest he shows in me, I just don’t beg for it or become disappointed if he ignores me.
In time, that aloof horse will act much more interested in seeing me as he learns to associate my presence with good and necessary things. That’s my cue to take it to the next level. By now, he’s feeling secure—all of his basic needs are attended to, and he’s starting to look for more engagement. Taking the horse out of his pen to go for a walk, eat some green grass or meet the other horses will enrich his life. Now the horse is well on his way to looking forward to my arrival.
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Once the horse has begun to show more interest in people, it’s time to actively reprogram the horse’s avoidance behavior. Whatever the reason for his lack of interest or active avoidance, he may have learned undesirable behaviors like walking away from you, turning his butt to you, or even defensive behaviors like threatening to kick or bite when you approach.
To reprogram the horse’s habitual behavior, I will employ a highly effective training technique called patterned conditioning. In other words, I will create a conditioned response in the horse (think Pavlov’s dog) by repeating a pattern over and over, releasing the pressure when I get the response I want. In the case of the horse that is avoiding me, it may look like this…
With a halter and lead in hand (no hiding it or using treats as a bribe), I will slowly approach the horse, displaying the most non-threatening posture I can—eyes averted, shoulders rounded, feet moving slowly, approaching the shoulder not the head. If the horse moves away, I follow, being careful not to increase the pressure (speed up or look more assertive) but not allowing the horse to get away from the pressure I am exerting with my approach. As soon as the horse stops and/or looks at me, I turn around and walk away—sometimes all the way out of the pen, completely releasing the pressure and rewarding the correct response.
I’ll give the horse a moment to think about what just happened, then I will approach it again, repeating the same pattern and turning and walking away as soon as the horse stops or shows interest in me. A horse always seeks a total cessation of pressure and turning and walking away is often the release it’s looking for. Soon the horse starts understanding that when he faces me, the pressure goes away. Before long, the horse is approaching me when I come into its pen.
A Tougher Nut to Crack
Because horses are lightning-quick learners, they often learn techniques to avoid capture and to make people leave them alone, like turning its butt and threatening to kick when you approach. It’s just a clever ploy, and I would certainly not take this personally or as an insult. It’s important to keep my own emotions out of it.
When a horse has learned to turn his butt and threaten to kick as I approach, I will step up my game a bit by irritating him when he turns tail and leaving him alone when he faces. With my halter and lead in hand, and from a safe distance in case he does kick, I will toss the halter at his rump when he turns his butt to me, then reel it back in and toss it at him again. This will bother him and at some point, he’ll turn toward me to reassess. At that moment, I will walk away, rewarding the horse for turning toward me. With a lot of repetition, I will pattern a new response in the horse, wherein he faces me every time I approach.
The hard-to-catch horse in a paddock or pasture has learned a clever game of outwitting humans. Sometimes it’s less about the capture and more about controlling the actions of the human (a game horses love). I have a lot of resource material about my techniques for reprogramming this type of behavior, with a method I call “walking the horse off.” It works 100% of the time and it teaches the horse that his clever techniques won’t work on you any more. If you need help with this, you can get more information in my online Training Library.
Accept Your Horse for Who He Is
Sometimes it’s hard not to take your horse’s reactions personally, especially when he seems indifferent to you or is actively avoiding you, but when you allow your emotions and your human expectations to get involved, you do a disservice to your horse. Taking the higher road, by having empathy and displaying leadership, takes the pressure off you and the horse.If what you want from an animal is undying loyalty and endless affection, you should consider getting a Golden Retriever.
Being patient and giving the horse time to change his point of view about humans, allowing the horse to come to a new understanding will give you a superior result. Learning to discern when you are controlling the horse’s actions and when he is controlling yours, will help prevent the horse from learning undesirable behaviors to begin with. Reprogramming the horse’s learned and habitual responses is not difficult when you approach it methodically.
I think Benjamin answered his own question perfectly by saying, “I do feel we have a good connection when riding or on the ground. He trusts me and is very responsive.” And Benjamin is right; he does have a great relationship with his horse and what more could he want? Accept the evidence before you and see your horse for who he is. Don’t let someone else define success for you, don’t place human attributes on a horse, and don’t expect him to be something he’s not.
By letting go of unreasonable expectations, by allowing your horse to be a horse, by taking the leadership role and not the needy role, and by occasionally employing clever techniques yourself, you’ll be amazed at how your horse’s attitudes will change!
No doubt about it—horses are emotional animals; perhaps more emotional than humans. As prey and herd animals, horses are programmed to adopt the emotions of the animals around them (herd mentality) and react appropriately. It is a life and death matter to a prey animal.
When one horse in the herd becomes frightened, generally all the horses will respond in kind. This tendency of horses to adopt the emotions of others applies to the humans around them as well, emphasizing the importance of controlling our own reactions when working with a horse that’s on emotional overload.
Horses have the same basic emotions as humans—happy, sad, scared, angry, frustrated, lonely, jealous, disgusted. Although we cannot always know exactly what emotion the horse is feeling, it is easy to recognize a horse that’s having an emotional meltdown. Whether the horse is panicked, throwing a tantrum over something he does not want to do, or simply overwhelmed and shutting down, this behavior is often dramatic and can be frightening at times.
In a perfect world, a horse is always calm, focused, and steady in its behavior, but in the event your world is not perfect and your horse is not a robot, it is good to be prepared to handle emotional overload in horses. Here, I will share some tips for recognizing and analyzing changes in your horse’s emotionality as well as my philosophy for managing it. Most importantly, I’ll discuss the technical skills you need to employ when your horse’s behavior tanks, you feel out of control, and need to get your horse back to a thinking state of mind.
Not My Horse… He Never Acts This Way at Home!
Any horse may fall victim to emotionality, no matter the age, breed, temperament, or how well trained it is; this is simply the nature of horses. The causes may vary from a simple startle response that triggers flight (rabbit jumps out from a bush), to over-stimulation in a frenetic environment (like a parade; the “first trip to town” scenario), to separation anxiety (herd-bound), or slowly building anxiety that suddenly overflows (often caused by underlying pain issues), to tantrums and refusals (perhaps a result of poor handling, underlying pain, or fear), to a horse that’s being asked something it’s not capable of in the moment and mentally shuts down (“over-facing” the horse).
A horse experiencing an emotional meltdown will likely have its head high, its tail up or stiff or swishing; a distressed expression in its eyes and on its face; tense and perhaps shaking through its whole body (“on the muscle”); calling out, shaking its head, stomping and fidgeting; rearing; searching right, then left, then right (looking for an exit), perhaps attempting to spin and bolt away. At times, a horse that is overwhelmed will simply shut down, become heavy, lethargic, and non-responsive (behavior often referred to as “sulling up”).
Whatever the cause, when a horse is emotionally overwhelmed, it is not in a thinking or trainable state of mind. Without relaxing first, the horse cannot think well, and unless and until it returns to a thinking state of mind, no training can occur. Relaxing and regaining control of the horse, then bringing him back to focus, are the immediate goals. As a rider or as a horse handler, your job will be much easier when you learn to recognize small changes in your horse’s emotionality and take proactive steps right away, to bring him back from the brink.
Calm + Thinking = Trainable
A compliant, attentive, and willing horse has a relaxed posture, with its head and tail low, and its ears relaxed in an east-west position, either focused on the rider/handler or focused on nothing. When the rider gets active from the saddle, both ears focus back, looking for a cue. When asked something from the ground the horse is focused on the handler, calmly looking for clues as to what it should do. A contented horse lowers its head and sighs deeply, often bending a hind leg to rest (much different than cocking the leg tensely, as with a kick threat).
Inevitably, things will happen that lead to excessive emotionality in your horse. Paying close attention to the horse’s posture, its breathing, the tension in its muscles (fight or flight posturing). Accurately reading the horse’s communicative gestures (like tossing its nose, shaking its head, switching the tail, pawing, stomping, cocking a hind foot defensively) will help you understand the origins of the horse’s emotions.
Analyzing the situation to determine the motivation behind the horse’s behavior, is important and will help determine the best response. Is it pure fear, a startle response, separation anxiety, or a total mutiny? Is the horse trying to get away from something or pull toward the barn? Does the horse’s reaction point to pain as a root cause, or is it a tantrum from a horse spoiled by poor handling?
An emotionally overwrought horse may be fearful, angry, defiant, refusing, searching, or despondent, triggering behaviors like flight or fight responses. One thing we know about horses is that once they enter a cycle of behavior like flight, the behavior tends to escalate—until something happens to stop it. The sooner intervention occurs, the easier it is to get the horse back to a relaxed and compliant state. The longer the horse stays in the cycle of behavior, the harder it is to get them out.
Becoming aware of changes in the horse’s emotional state when it first happens, analyzing the situational causes, then taking immediate action to bring the horse back from the brink of an emotional meltdown, are the keys to success in handling a horse with extreme emotionality.
Training Philosophies That May Help
Over the decades of training horses, I’ve learned to treat an excessive emotionality in horses as a mental health problem, not a training problem. Before anything productive can happen with that horse, I must get the horse back to a productive mindset (calm, relaxed, and thinking). Whether I am loading an uncooperative horse into a trailer or trying to cross a sticky water hazard, if the horse is having a meltdown, my job is to diffuse and de-escalate the behavior first, by asking the horse to lower its head (relaxing its physical posture), take a deep breath, sometimes stroking the horse in reassurance, sometimes gently scolding the horse for infractions.
When I am dealing with emotional outbursts in horses, it is critical that I control my own emotions, staying in the moment and taking deliberate and methodical actions. I have learned to breathe deeply, to slow down my own reactions and cues, to exhale as I relax my own body posture. I must stay in a thinking state of mind myself, take control of the situation, and be proactive. The worst things I can do are to shut down, doubt myself, show contradictory body language, and become passive.
When a horse’s behavior goes south on me, I need to find some familiar ground with the horse, to get him back to a responsive frame of mind. I will issue simple directives to the horse and give basic cues I know the horse knows, like turn right, turn left, stop and go. I will praise and reward the horse’s response to these simple cues, reminding the horse that it knows how to respond and how good it feels to be praised. I will regain the horse’s responsiveness the easiest way I can.
As flight animals, horses are hard wired, mentally, physically, and behaviorally for motion. Horses think better when they are moving. Forward motion helps the rider or handler regain control. Without free and willing forward motion, a horse cannot be trained. However, sometimes movement in the wrong direction triggers the flight response, so I must be prepared to shut down flight instantaneously.
Addressing the horse that is emotionally overwhelmed sometimes means I treat it as a mental health issue and that I must slow down my reactions and control my own emotions. I want to engage the horse in simple cues and responses, so he starts thinking again. Often it is best to keep a distraught horse moving, because a horse that is moving forward may be more easily controlled, yet I must be prepared to shut flight if things get out of control.
Technical Skills to Employ
Abdominal breathing, keeping your eyes focused, and adopting calm and confident body language are critical skills for the rider or handler. Horses are mimicking animals that communicate primarily with postures and gestures. Having command of your own presence and being able to call up these skills on demand, will get you far with horses.
Learning the hard skills of managing the reins, controlling the nose of the horse, lateral flexion, using the one-rein stop, and how to employ the emergency stop (which is not the same as the one-rein stop); or, from the ground, to use your rope and flag productively, to be aware of spatial issues and positioning, to disengage the hindquarters to stop—these are the skills that allow you to shut down flight or control the horse that moves into you or wants to wheel around and bolt.
Bending the horse’s neck will help you gain control of a horse that is volatile or threatening aggression or mutiny. Whenever I have concerns about controlling a horse—either from the ground or from the saddle, I will require it to keep a slight bend in its neck as I ride or lead. If the horse’s neck is straight out in front of him, it is much easier for the horse to over-power me. But riders must beware of too much pressure on the outside rein when bending, which may have the opposite result and cause the horse to run through the bridle.
De-escalate an emotional response and reestablish control by engaging the horse in a simple activity he knows how to do. Whatever you can do to cue the horse and get a response will engage its mind, start the horse thinking, and allow you to praise it. Think about cues to go, stop, turn.
Resort to groundwork basics like circling work, changes of directions, and disengaging the hindquarters— if you are riding, do not be afraid to get off to school your horse from the ground to get his focus back on you. It is important to have these groundwork exercises in your bag of tools to fall back on. Your authority and your horse’s confidence may be gained easier from the ground.
Elaborating on these hard skills would be better fodder for a book than a blog, and it could take years to master. The soft skills you need that come with greater knowledge and the judgement gained from experience with a variety of horses in a myriad of situations will develop over time.
The good news is that all of the educational resources you need to learn these skills are available to you from my online membership programs, in the form of how-to videos, audio podcasts, and instructional articles by the hundreds. Go to JulieGoodnight.com/join to find out more.
At the End of the Day
Recognizing and understanding the horse’s emotionality comes first. Keeping yourself in a calm and focused state of mind is paramount to your success with an emotional horse and it requires deliberate practice, to be able to call up these skills on demand. Diffusing the horse’s emotionality while maintaining control and authority, requires the rider or handler to stay focused, ride or direct the horse from the ground proactively, and employ training skills that get the results needed in that moment.
No one ever said riding and training horses would always be easy. Developing the skills, knowledge and judgement you need to handle difficult situations with horses, to gain control in the heat of the moment, and to bring the horse back to a manageable and cooperative mindset, may take years but is well worth the effort. From reading his blog, you already have a start. I hope you found more clarity on techniques for managing your horse’s emotionality and some ideas you can put to work right away!
Duke was a well-trained gelding, successful in the show ring as a youngster, then ridden extensively in the rugged mountains of Colorado. He was a handsome hunk of muscle, very balanced, always a delight to ride and safe to handle. But at the age of 16, after six months in winter pasture, he wasn’t the same horse.
In May, I picked him up from the large ranch where his owners had boarded him for the winter. The horse was turned out in a large herd on a fifteen-hundred-acres, with little handling. At first, he was easy to catch and seemed happy to see me, but once we turned toward the truck and away from the herd, the easy-going, well-trained gelding suddenly resembled a thousand-pound toddler throwing a tantrum.
The farther away from the herd we got, the more emotionally distraught Duke became—prancing, looking around, shaking his head, eyes white, nostrils flared and screaming bloody murder for his friends. In the moment, my scolding and attempt at groundwork did little to reset his brain.
Duke’s connection to the herd was strong and his misery was intense. He made it abundantly clear he had no interest in me. The gelding fussed, stomped, and screamed throughout most of the 100-mile drive to my barn. I knew I had my work cut out for me, to break the instinctive herd-connection, remind him of his training, and re-connect him to people. Horses are relationship-oriented animals with an instinctive need for acceptance to a herd and to form bonded connections to other individuals in the herd (we call them “buddies” and behaviorists call them “associates”). Cultivating that same sense of connection between horse and human is very attainable. For me, it is the ultimate partnership I want to have with a horse—one in which the horse feels safe and wants to be with me, is eager to please, hungry for my praise and willing to follow me anywhere. I’ve worked with lots of riders in myhorsemanship clinics and through my online coaching programs who are striving for a better connection with their horse too. Sometimes they are rebuilding confidence after a bad experience, and both horse and rider need to develop trust in each other again. Or maybe it’s a new horse or one that’s coming back into training after a long layoff from illness or injury; or maybe the horse has been idle because the human in its life was simply absent.
There are many reasons why a person might need to establish (or re-establish) a connection with a horse. Forging a partnership between horse and human and developing a bonded relationship brings greater satisfaction and more accomplishment. Here, I’ll show you the steps I took to reconnect with Duke and share some tips that you might use to connect with the four-legged friend in your life.
Without much separation, the herd becomes the horse’s entire world. From the herd, the horse gets a sense of safety and comfort. There’s law and order, a capable leader calling all the shots, a daily regimen to follow, and buddies to cover your back. Obviously, walking away from all of that is not easy for a horse—a prey animal—who lives in fear of being eaten. Rarely will separating a herd-bound horse be easy or quiet, but it is a necessary step to take before the horse will transfer the same feelings he gets from the herd to a person.
For Duke, it was easy since we put him in the trailer and physically distanced him from the herd. Out of sight and out of ear shot, the severing of herd ties is easier and faster, although the horse will still feel some separation anxiety. The most difficult scenario for dealing with herd-bound horses occurs when you cannot physically separate them from the herd—when they can still see and/or hear the herd– it’s a constant reminder to the horse that he is separated and vulnerable.
We always isolate new horses that come to my facility, for health reasons, but it helps a lot with resolving separation anxiety too. I put them in their own comfortable pen, where they can see the other horses but not get close to them. Then for two weeks, the only interaction the horses have is with the people that feed them and clean their pen. People start to seem a lot more appealing to a horse when they bring comfort and apply no pressure.
Initially, we won’t dote on the horses in isolation or try to make friends with them, but we take care of their basic needs and are there if they need us or want interaction. Within a week or less, we can see the horses changing their minds about who is important in their lives and humans become much more appealing. Once a horse starts looking more longingly for interaction with us, we start spending more quality time with the horse, giving it the interaction, routine and enrichment it seeks.
Allowing horses to work through their anxiety and grief at losing the herd, before expecting them to show interest in people, is important. A horse cannot be trained unless he is calm, focused and thinking. But as soon as the horse shows acceptance of its fate and begins to look around for a new deal I want to step in and fill the void.
If physical separation from the herd is not possible, this job can get harder and may take longer. I still separate the horse I am trying to connect with every day for an hour or more. There will be fussing, fidgeting, and hollering. Depending on the horse, I may tie it up in a comfortable place and let it fuss. I will wait until the horse is quiet and patient before turning it back with the herd. I will make this a routine for the horse—same time, same place, same activity every day, because horses take comfort in sameness.
If tying the horse is not reasonable, because the horse is not trained to tie, I may have to keep it busy during this separation time, doing lead-line work, round penning, or going for a walk. Movement is often better for anxious horses, rather than standing still. Over time, horses get comfortable with a routine and begin to fear separation less.
Getting past the initial separation anxiety is the hardest part of establishing a connection with a horse and it may take a while, depending on the horse and circumstances. Keen observation of the horse during this time, will show me when the horse starts to look for new attachments. That’s my cue to step in and start doing more with the horse—more friendly activities like grooming and providing enrichment. At this stage, the horse will start transferring his feelings of attachment to me and begin to look to me for leadership.
Establishing Boundaries & Expectations
Horses know leadership when they see it and they seek it out. In the presence of a strong leader, horses feel safe, protected, and accepted. As soon as the horses are past the initial shock of being separated from the herd, I want them to learn they can count on me to take care of them and keep them safe. Keeping the horse isolated from the herd, with humans providing its food, water and care, the horse begins to look to humans as their new herd.
Whether a horse is new, or you are reconnecting after a long hiatus, the first impressions and the initial precedents you set are critical and they will form the basis of your relationship with the horse going forward. If you tolerate unsafe or rude behavior initially, you will set a precedent that is difficult to undo.
I want to teach horses what my expectations of their behavior are, by establishing boundaries and controlling their actions and movements through groundwork; disallowing tantrums and emotional outbursts, not through punishment, but by redirecting their energy and actions elsewhere. Duke was a well trained and experienced horse that had become herd-bound due to circumstance. When the horse has training to fall back on, establishing boundaries and expectations can go very quickly. The horse already knows the rules; but is rusty on them. For Duke, once separated, all it took was a few days of groundwork, tying, and revisiting the basics of his training before he fell right back into his groove. Reminding trained horses of what they know, can almost be a relief for the horse if they have separation anxiety. Duke was happy to get back to the regimented life that he once knew and eagerly accepted my authority and leadership.
Establishing boundaries immediately with an unruly horse is not only important for my personal safety, but also for establishing my authority with the horse. In the herd, horses establish dominance by controlling the space and actions of subordinates. If I allow horses to move into me or act as if I am not there, in their minds, they are in charge. This can happen on the very first incident. At any time the horse moves into me, slings its head at me, or gets ahead of me, I will immediately scold the horse, back it up and move it away from me. I am 100% clear on my personal boundaries and my expectations of its behavior, and that is immediately impactful to the horse.
Communicating your expectations to the horse presumes you have clear expectations. I expect my horses to voluntarily be present with me, not looking around for an exit or threatening to leave. I expect them to be focused on me and what I am asking or focused on nothing. I expect them to stand still when I ask, never invade my personal space, and to always display safe and pleasant manners when I am around them. Armed with the right equipment for groundwork (rope halter, training lead, training stick or flag if needed) and the information you need to teach basic ground manners, this can go really fast. Check outthis special which includes a rope halter and training lead plus a freeground manners video that gives you step-by-step instruction on teaching ground manners to a horse.
Establishing boundaries and communicating your clear expectations to the horse should happen right away upon your first interaction with the horse. The precedents you set on that initial encounter (which I often refer to as the “golden moments”), the impressions you give the horse about your confidence level and leadership, your tolerance or intolerance of certain behaviors, your strength, consistency and fairness, will make a huge impact on the horse. The horse learns rapidly (way faster than humans, as far as I can tell) and you cannot unmake first impressions.
Good Leadership Generates Good Followership
The Alpha Individual is a strong, confident, and capable herd leader. In a horse herd, the Alpha may be male or female, and their responsibilities are to protect the herd, motivate the herd to flight, should it be necessary, to maintain law and order in the herd, and to budget time for the herd to eat, drink and sleep. Horses crave strong leadership, they recognize it easily, and they feel safe and content in its presence. My goal in connecting with horses is to have them voluntarily hook onto me and want to be with me, no matter where I go. But first the horse must get from me, the same sense of safety and comfort it gets from the herd. The voluntary behavior I seek from the horse, begins with my own behavior—I need the horse to see me as the strong leader it craves.
I must be confident, calm, and communicate my expectations clearly. To be the leader horses crave, I must take care of their physical needs and be consistent and fair in administering both praise and admonishment. Most of all, I must keep the horses safe (emotionally and physically) and never ask more than they can give me. This is how horses make us better people.
More than anything, horses want to feel safe and taken care of. They appreciate order, routine and sameness, because that makes them feel safe. When horses are displaying emotionality, especially anxiety, they are not happy. But they don’t know how to act differently in that moment—their emotions have taken control.
When Duke was having his emotional meltdown upon leaving the herd, I knew I had a job ahead of me. I had to contain his behavior in the moment, while showing confidence, remaining calm and focused on the task, remind him of his manners, and bring some sense of order to the scene.
Once home at my ranch, it was easy to reconnect with Duke, since he was quarantined from other horses and his food and water, and his clean and comfortable accommodations, came directly from me. After a few days to settle in, he began to recognize me as an important figure in his life. Then it was time to start setting some precedents in terms of his behavior, starting with the basics, and reminding him of his previous training.
One thing I know about horses, is that they will always act like horses. They know and understand horse behavior and herd dynamics; who’s in control and who is not. They are keenly observant of body language and intent, and they learn wickedly fast, for better or for worse. These attributes of horses are always present, and can be either an advantage or disadvantage, depending on how it’s handled.
To establish a meaningful connection with a horse, means understanding its natural behavior, being clear and confident about your expectations, being fair and consistent in your praise and admonishment, and going back to basics in training. It means having reasonable expectations, neither too low or too high, and giving the horse the time it needs to adjust to a new situation.
It’s a tall order and will require some dedication to the cause. But in the end, having that bonded relationship, where the horse looks up to you, wants to be with you and is eager to please you, will make all your efforts worthwhile.
It should go without saying that training and riding a thousand-pound flight animal is complicated—it’s the only sport I know of that involves inter-species teamwork. Riding is a partnership of two athletes—horse and human—each with their own balance, emotionality, and willfulness. Learning to ride a horse confidently and securely with finesse and poise in all situations can take years, if not decades, to master.
Aside from heels up and hands too high, looking down is one of the most common errors I see riders make, regardless of their riding discipline or experience level. Riders everywhere tend to focus down on the horse’s neck as they ride—when they are thinking too hard, nervous, concerned about the horse, learning, or concentrating on something new.
If you think about it, how well you use your eyes is critical in most athletic endeavors, especially those involving balance and movement, like horseback riding. If balance, accuracy, and focus are needed to win the game, your eyes are your secret weapon.
Learning to keep your eyes level and softly focused on a distant target is critical to your balance, whether you are riding a precise pattern on a horse, executing a floor routine in gymnastics, or riding single-track on a mountain bike. Having a soft, far-off focus when riding helps you stay in balance with the horse and know where you are going.
Turning with Your Eyes
Horses communicate primarily with gestures and postures They are herd animals that react to the focus and emotions of their herd mates—if one horse suddenly turns its head and gazes off in the distance, all the horses will turn their head to look. It’s an instinctive trait of survival.
Handling a horse from the ground, using your eyes and body language appropriately communicates the direction you want the horse to go and your confidence and authority as the leader. Communicating intentionally with your eyes may mean glancing in the direction you want the horse to turn, averting your gaze when you want the horse to come to you, or staring it directly in the eyes if you want to drive the horse forward or establish boundaries.
Sitting atop the horse, with a great deal of connectivity through your seat, legs, and hands, using your eyes deliberately when you want to turn or go straight, sends directional cues to the horse.
Right now, sit up straight in a chair, with your feet underneath you, equal weight on two seat bones, shoulders over your hips, abs engaged, chin up and eyes level. Imagine a Marionette string at the top of your head, lifting you up, lengthening your spine, centering your weight. This is the balanced position we aim for on the horse.
Now imagine you have a neck brace and body cast on, and the only way to look to the right is to slowly twist your shoulders and torso. Feel the changes in your body, from your head all the way down to your feet. Just by simply looking in the direction you want to go, the horse receives the correct turning cues from your seat, legs and hands.
Horses communicate within the herd through glances, gestures, and focus. When riders use their eyes deliberately, consistently and with meaning, the horse learns to rely on the rider’s eyes for communication too.
The Mind, Body, Spirit Connection
Because the mental, physical, and emotional states of our being are interconnected, you cannot have a thought without having a physical reaction. Famously, this is what we mean by “thinking a horse into the canter.” To the sensitive, high-energy horse, the rider merely thinks about the motion, which causes minute changes that the sensitive horse receives as a cue to go.
There is also a connection between your physicality and your emotions. It is not hard to know if a person is sad, angry, or frightened, just by looking at their body language. The reverse works as well! It has been proven by science that when people put themselves in certain confident-looking postures, they feel more confident. Try the Superman pose and see how you feel.
On the contrary, when negative emotions like fear and frustration take root, riders tend to stare down at their hands, shutting down focus. The simple act of looking up and focusing on the environment around you, engages your mind and body in a positive direction and keeps negative emotions in check.
Because horses are so adept at reading body language and adopting the emotions of the animals around them, using your eyes to show confidence and assuredness can have a calming influence on your horse. In the presence of a human that looks confident and in-charge, the horse is less likely to challenge authority. All that starts with your eyes.
If consciously using your eyes to communicate direction, confidence, and determination are your super-powers, then looking down at the horse’s neck is the Kryptonite that drags you down. We’ve established that in most sports, what you do with your eyes is important, sometimes critical. But with riding, it not only erodes your communication, confidence, and authority with the horse, it also has negative effects on the horse’s athletic performance.
Horses are naturally heavy on the forehand, yet all their power comes from behind—it’s like a 2-wheel-drive pickup in the snow. When riders focus down at the horse’s neck, it automatically brings their weight forward, weighting the forehand even more.
To rebalance the horse onto its hindquarters for more power and athleticism (aka collection), the rider must first look up and find the balanced (vertical) position, engage her core, elevate the forehand and drive the hind-end up underneath the horse. Looking down makes all that impossible.
Another negative side-effect of looking down is that the riders gets their shoulders in front of their hips, closing the pelvis joint and losing range-of-motion. This leads to tension in the hips and bouncing on the horse’s back—what we fondly refer to as “butt slapping.” A hollowed back in the rider leads to a raised head and hollowed back in the horse.
Perhaps the most devastating effect on the horse’s performance that looking down causes is a loss of connection between horse and rider. Feeling the horse’s rhythm, centering yourself, finding an effortless balance with the horse, and communicating with finesse, will only happen when the rider’s eyes are up, with a far-off and soft focus.
The Eyes are the Window to Your Soul
Horses are exceptionally keen at reading and understanding the human’s confidence, intention, determination, and authority (or lack thereof). Often it is the person’s eyes that give them away— looking down, lost in thought, their brain shutting down, missing opportunities to connect. This is not the picture of confident leadership.
Around horses, we like to say, “Fake it ‘til you make it,” because even if you feel weak on the inside, you can fool your horse by looking up and displaying strong body language on the outside. These are acting skills that can hugely impact the behavior of a horse and your eyes are the key that unlocks that door.
A simple thing like looking where you are going (a good idea, since you are the one steering), instead of staring down at your hands, makes you feel more confident and indicates your intention. Looking confidently beyond a scary obstacle lets the horse know you are determined and confident to cross it, while staring directly at the scary thing may validate the horse’s fear.
Honestly, horses are more aware of the riders’ intention and determination than they are. Horses are masters at reading body language and your eyes and focus are dead giveaways. Keeping your eyes up, taking in information in the ever-changing environment and deliberately conveying your intention with your eyes will unleash your secret powers and propel your horsemanship to new heights.
Last month, I wrote about some of the most common canter problems I see in less-experienced riders and green horses, gave some quick fixes, and shared a few horsemanship secrets. For this article, I’ll address some of the most common cantering problems for more experienced riders, in terms of controlling and collecting the canter.
The natural gaits of the horse are walk, trot and gallop. The canter is a slow, collected gallop, developed over time, through training. Rarely do you look out into a pen full of horses and see them making slow bendy circles at the canter. Instead, they prefer to run full speed straight ahead, then drop their shoulder, wheel around, and take off in the other direction. Balancing the rider enough to canter slowly and make bending turns at the canter are skills that come with time and training.
Canter and lope mean the same thing. Canter is the more traditional term and lope is a slang term used in Western riding, derived from the Spanish word galope. Whether you ride English or Western, learning to sit the canter smoothly, and control the horse’s direction and speed is a goal of most riders—even though it can be a challenging gait to ride.
There are very few true quick fixes when it comes to training horses—mostly horses progress with time and consistency. However, there are many quick fixes for rider-error and often once the rider is corrected, the horse has instant and dramatic improvement. The following are common performance problems at the canter—mostly rider-induced—and the solutions I would employ.
It’s unlikely a horse would have all these problems at one time, but it’s likely that all horses went through these stages at some point in their training. If the goal is to refine the communication and control at the canter, there are likely to be some solutions here that will help.
When horses are ridden, the goal is for them to do upright, bending turns, arcing their bodies laterally, bending nose toward hip. But that’s not how horses do it naturally—they prefer to lean in and wheel around the turn, then run the other direction. For that reason, and a few others, horses tend to lean into the turn, especially at the canter.
Always remember this important truth: the horse does in its body whatever the rider does in their body. In most instances of the horse dropping its shoulder, the rider is doing the same thing—leaning into the turn. Therefore, the #1 hack for a horse dropping its shoulder in the turn is for the rider to sit up, elevate their own shoulder, and weight the outside seat bone.
If that doesn’t fix it, here’s something else to try. When I ask the horse to canter in an arena and he drops his shoulder, leaning in toward the middle, my next best hack is to simply drive the horse more forward on the circle as he leans into the middle, until he can’t really lean-in anymore, so he must pick his shoulders up and go straight. Then, and only then, will I let him come out of the circle and rest. Next time, he’ll think ahead and pick his shoulders up to avoid the exertion. Once the horse learns that there is only one way out of the circle, he employs it immediately.
This training exercise requires advanced riding skills—the rider needs good balance and a lot of drive to keep the horse going. I find this exercise quite useful because aside from teaching the horse not to drop the shoulder, I’m also working on controlling direction, bending, collection and sustaining the gait.
Trots Fast Before Canter
If the horse goes into a ground-pounding roadster trot when you cue him to canter (instead of stepping promptly and smoothly from walk or slow trot into the canter), it is probably a cueing problem and the horse is unable to distinguish the trot cue from the canter cue. The horse thinks the cue from the rider means “go faster,” and because the rider indeed goes along with it—riding faster and faster—the horse thinks he is doing the right thing.
It’s important that the cue to trot is distinctly different from the cue to canter, and that when the horse gives the wrong response, the rider doesn’t just go along with it. Again, this is rider error—not a problem with the horse. Riders should be able to voice the difference between their trot and canter cues. If they can’t, it’s unlikely the horse understands the cues either.
Cues should always involve a sequence—do this, then that, then this. Horses learn best this way, and they are more prepared for what the rider is asking. For me, the sequence of the canter cue is outside leg, slight lift of the inside rein (lifting my inside shoulder and weighting the outside), then give a kiss (as an audible cue), and push with my seat in the canter motion (like pushing a swing). If cueing more clearly is a goal, check out volume two in my riding videos, Communication & Control.
Once the rider’s error is fixed, it’s time to retrain the horse to respond differently and properly to the cue. My hack for the horse that trots fast when you ask him to canter, is to immediately say, “No.” Gather up the reins, sit back, and bring the horse promptly back to the slow trot, then immediately cue again to canter. If he trots fast again, I immediately say, “No. Now try that again…” with my aids. I will continue to disallow the fast trot but ask again immediately, keeping the pressure on. This will cause the horse to start looking for another response to the cue. Once he canters, the pressure is gone.
Bucks at Departure
Riders should know and understand the difference between a crow-hop (rounding the back and hopping straight up off all four feet) and bucking (kicking out with the hind legs). Some horses are known to be “cold-backed,” and will often crow hop when first cantered, but usually they warm out of it quickly and then canter nicely. It is not a training issue and could be an indication that the horse needs a chiropractic adjustment.
Keep in mind that bucking or crow-hopping at the canter can often be the result of physical pain and/or poor saddle fit—particularly if the horse starts bucking after the canter departure and not as a result of the departure. Always rule out physical problems before addressing training—talk to an equine veterinarian. Find out more about saddle fit at CircleY.com.
Sometimes horses will crow-hop or threaten to buck because they do not want to canter. It’s a refusal to move forward, and the buck threat usually causes the rider to slam on the brakes. So, the horse threatens to buck, causing the rider to stop, and thus, the horse is rewarded for its behavior. Stopping the horse that bucks when it does not want to canter reinforces the behavior and gives the horse everything he wants.
When a horse is bucking or crow-hopping in a refusal to move forward, the solution is to gently move the horse more forward until it stops threatening, and only stop the horse when it’s moving freely forward with a relaxed back. Yes, it is possible that when I drive the horse more forward, it may buck more. But if the horse is lazy, he’ll give up this learned behavior quickly and follow the path of least resistance.
If the horse is exploding in the canter departure as if he were shot out of a cannon, and throwing a few bucks in the process, chances are good the rider is simply over-cueing. By now, it should not come as a surprise that this is rider error. A forward moving horse needs a minimal cue to canter. For many forward horses, it’s more like you allow them to canter, rather than ask them. Tone your cues down so low that you just think your horse into the canter—no leg cues, just start moving your hips as if you were cantering—and you probably will be. If you subscribe to my online training library, you’ll find one of my favorite episodes of Horse Master, Lost in Transition (Season 2, Episode 12), on this very subject.
When the rider’s cues are clear, consistent, and easily distinguished from the trot cue, the canter departures are smooth and the horse is always on the lead the rider asked for (not the lead the horse thinks is correct). Clean and smooth departures from the walk or halt require a high level of communication and coordination, and it takes months and years to perfect, not hours and days.
My first hack for clean canter departures is to make sure the horse is prepared for the cue (balanced and attentive), and take the time to set the horse up properly for the correct lead (by displacing the horse’s hips to inside, aka, haunches-in). By consistently taking the time to position the horse for the correct lead before I cue for canter, the horse is already thinking about the canter at the moment I ask for it. Too much preparation and anticipation can amp a horse up, but if it is managed well, the horse’s anticipation works to my advantage in the canter departure.
One of my most popular training videos, Canter with Confidence, explains in detail how to prepare the horse for the canter cue, and how to cue more effectively. This is an A-to-Z video about the canter, starting with cueing and riding the canter, and ending in flying lead changes.
My best hack for improving mediocre departures is doing many, many transitions, particularly trot-canter-trot-canter-trot canter, transitioning to and from the slow, collected trot. With each transition, the canter departure should improve. Hence the old saying, “All of training occurs in transitions.”
Once the horse is making smooth trot-canter transitions, I bring the same principles to the walk to canter transition. If my horse still insists on a few steps of trot, instead of stepping smoothly into canter from walk, I use the tactics I outlined above for the horse that trots faster when asked to canter.
When I have a horse that gets stuck thinking he should trot first before cantering, I may declare one day that from that moment forward, we shall only transition to canter from walk. Each time the horse trots instead of canters, I immediately and firmly bring him back to walk, then instantly re-cue for canter—repeating as many times as necessary until the horse tries something different and steps directly into canter. In this instance, I am giving the horse a clear cue, and he is giving the incorrect response (by trotting). So I say “No. That’s not right—try it again.” Facing that kind of determination from the rider, the horse will figure out the right answer quickly.
Collection at Canter
Collection at the canter is challenging, and it comes much later in the training progression. Before you can work on collection, the horse must be moving freely forward, maintaining impulsion in circles and turns, and never breaking gait. This may take a long time to accomplish in a green horse.
If the horse is resistant to canter and/or tends to break gait, collection will be impossible. Collection involves containing the horse’s forward motion to rebalance the horse and shift weight to the hind quarters. By driving the horse forward into a resisting hand, the horse rounds his back, lifts at the withers, shifts weight onto the haunches, and comes into collection.
I like to use circling and bending to sneak up on collection at the canter. By allowing the horse to move freely forward in the canter and slowly coming into a wide, arcing circle, the horse will naturally shift weight onto the haunches. Lots of time in arcing circles will lead to a collected canter. Keyword: arcing—with the shoulders lifted and an even arc in the horse’s spine from nose to tail. My training video for riders, Refinement & Collection, offers detailed instruction on how to use your natural aids for complete body control.
Try these hacks for collection the canter. First, I drive the horse more forward at the canter and bring the horse onto a wide circle. Slowly I lift the inside rein, bringing my pinkie in toward the wither, to ask the horse to lift his inside shoulder more. Next, I apply a soft contact to the outside rein, opening my arm a little to ask the horse to round-up. At the same time I add more inside leg, driving the horse into my outside hand. It sounds more complicated than it really is.
My inside leg is the gas pedal that keeps the horse moving forward and prevents it from falling in. I use my reins with alternating pressure, right-left-right-left, squeezing the rein as the horse’s shoulder comes back. I never use pressure on two reins at the same time because that causes the horse to be stiff and resistant.
When I feel the horse’s weight shift onto his haunches and his stride gets shorter and higher, I know the horse is coming into collection. I always keep in mind that collection is exceedingly difficult for the horse, and the muscles will have to be conditioned in a collected frame before the horse can sustain it very long. If I always release the horse while it feels light and responsive, it learns to work harder for the release.
At the End of the Day…
There’s no cap on improving the canter. As the horse progresses in its training, and more control is gained, work begins on more challenging maneuvers like lead changes and lateral movements. As the rider improves, eliminating conflicting signals and riding in better balance with the horse, the horse can perform much better and new skills can be developed. This is a never-ending continuum that starts with beginners and reaches into the highest levels of riding.
If I’ve learned one thing over more than five decades of riding horses, I’ve learned to be patient and work on one thing at a time. Rushing and cutting corners will rarely pay off. Persistence, determination and patience will. I know for myself, and from working with thousands of riders through the years, that almost all so-called “horse problems” are actually stemming from rider error—so the first place to look for improvement is always within.
A rider can spend a lifetime working to master the canter, and still not get there. But the joy is in always reaching for a higher level and the constant challenge to improve. There’s no such thing as a perfect rider, but that doesn’t mean I will stop trying.
Five Canter Hacks for Green Horses and Green Riders
The natural gaits of the horse are walk, trot and gallop. The canter is a slow, collected gallop, developed over time, through training. Rarely do you look out into a pen full of horses and see them making slow bendy circles at the canter. Instead, they prefer to run full speed straight ahead, then drop their shoulder, wheel around, and take off in the other direction. Balancing the rider enough to canter slowly and arc turns at the canter, comes with time and training.
Canter and lope mean the same thing. Canter is the more traditional term and lope is a slang term used in Western riding, derived from the Spanish word gallope. Whether you ride English or Western, learning to sit the canter smoothly and control the horse’s direction and speed is a goal of most riders, even though it is a gait that can be intimidating to ride.
Whether you’re just starting out and learning to ride the canter for the first time, an experienced rider dealing with a loss of confidence, or an advanced rider training a green horse, these hacks are for you! I’ll discuss some of the most common canter problems I see in less-experienced riders and green horses, I’ll give you some quick fixes, and I’ll share some horsemanship secrets that you may not know. It’s not likely that you’ll need all these hacks, but it is likely that at least one of them will help propel you and your horse to a higher level.
#1 Confidence to Canter
There’s an old saying in horsemanship (thousands of years old, in fact) that says, “The best way to improve canter is to improve the trot.” This simply means that if you wait to canter until you have truly mastered the trot, cantering will be easy. The trot is actually a harder gait to ride, with a lot of vertical motion that tends to throw you up and out of the saddle.
There is a lot to accomplish at the trot: you can ride it sitting, posting, and standing; none of which are easy. You can ride a working trot, collected trot, extended trot. You can ride changes of direction, circles, serpentines and execute many maneuvers at the trot. I encourage riders not to get in a big hurry to canter. It will be much easier when you’ve mastered the trot.
When riders approach the canter with trepidation, the horse will read the reluctance of the rider and be reluctant to canter himself. Most horses have learned the hard way that when a rider is reluctant, they usually get hit in the mouth in the canter departure. He doesn’t want to canter anyway, so if the rider is not committed, the horse will not be either.
It’s best to wait to tackle the canter until you’re ready to commit and you want it! Work on your skills and confidence at slower gaits. I offer a short course on developing confidence, which may help you address your fears, so that you come to cantering with the right mindset.
#2 Sitting the Canter
If you’re just learning to canter, it’s hard to know what to teach you first—how to get the horse into the canter or how to ride the gait when he does canter. It’s an awkward stage! I prefer to set the student’s horse up to canter in the easiest way possible so that the rider can focus on sitting the gait first.
To sit the canter smoothly, your hips make a circle—forward and down, up and back, like they do when you push a swing to go higher. There’s a moment in the stride, when the horse goes into complete suspension (all four feet are off the ground), when your shoulders go behind your hips—if you are sitting back far enough.
The biggest mistake I see in riders learning to canter is that they sit too far forward and the lift in the horse’s back throws them up and out of the saddle in a posting motion. Therefore, I encourage riders learning to sit the canter to lean back, with your shoulders slightly behind your hips. But make sure you reach forward with your hands as he starts, so you don’t accidentally hit him in the mouth when he departs.
One of the easiest ways to learn to canter is out on the trail, with steady horses in front of and behind you, on a flat sandy surface. With good communication and more experienced riders supporting you, it will be easy to get the horse into the canter and you can focus on the feel of it without having to steer.
My number one selling training video is Canter with Confidence, and it can be especially useful in learning to ride the canter smoothly and it thoroughly covers how to cue the horse for canter and how to get the correct lead.
#3 Controlling Direction
Riding straight lines at the canter is far easier than riding turns. In the arena, horses tend to drop their shoulders, cut corners, and lean into the middle. It’s what horses do, and these natural tendencies are often exacerbated by the rider.
Often, when a rider is learning to control the horse at the canter, the horse breaks gait as soon as a turn is attempted. The rider leans into the turn, throwing the horse off balance and into the middle, then the rider pulls back on the rein to turn, instead of opening the rein to the side. The backward pull equals opposition to forward movement and causes the horse to break gait. In this common scenario, the rider’s errors are causing the horse to canter fast and out of balance, and rider error trains the horse to break gait.
Set up a cantering scenario where you can canter a long straight line at first, then come back to a controlled trot before you make a turn. Once you can ride the straight lines and upward and downward transitions well, then think about tackling turns. But first, you must conquer the straight line on the long wall, with balanced upward and downward transitions. Your next goal in the arena for controlling the canter is being able to canter around the short side and past the gate, without breaking gait; then all the way around the arena.
Be aware! There’s a fine line between a rider learning to control the canter and a trained horse being disobedient. If the horse is refusing, shutting down, diving into the middle, or slamming on the brakes at the gate, you may be dealing with disobedience. If so, go back to walk and trot and regain your authority. Address the disobedience before coming.
back to the canter, but keep in mind this kind of disobedience is often a result of a horse’s frustrations over the rider’s mistakes and may lead to worse behavior is the mistakes of the rider are not addressed.
#4 Controlling Speed
Green horses cannot canter slowly—that is a skill that is learned over time. Young horses will usually need to carry a little speed because sometimes balance requires speed. Some horses are more talented in this area than others. In my experience, people often complain about their horses going too fast at the canter when the horse is actually moving well. If the horse is green, you may have to accept a little speed.
One thing I know for sure, you cannot control speed by pulling on the reins. Pulling on two reins to make the horse go slower at the canter will almost always result in the horse going faster and “running throughout the bridle.” This is a ridiculously hard concept to comprehend for novice riders, but often the horse will slow down when you loosen the reins.
For me, the two most effective means for slowing the canter is first to put the horse on a wide arcing circle. Lift slightly up and in with your inside rein and energize and lengthen your inside leg, so the horse lifts his inside shoulder and tips his nose into the circle. Gradually bring the horse onto a smaller circle, with a lot of bend in the horse’s body—which will physically cause him to slow down. As soon as you feel the horse gear down, release him from the circle on a loose rein. Gradually, through circling and bending, the horse develops better balance and coordination and learns that going slower is easier and gets him what he wants.
Another useful hack to slow down the canter is with trot-canter-trot-canter transitions. Start by just cantering 3-4 strides, then coming back to a slow, collected trot. After many repetitions of that, start going 5-6 strides, then 6-8 strides, always coming back to a slow collected trot. Soon the horse begins to anticipate the downward transition, so he prepares by going slower. This is a classic example of “replacement training,” a highly effective means of training horses, where you replace one thought or behavior with another. Soon, every time he speeds up, he will think about slowing down.
These training lessons are also a part of my online training course, Goodnight Academy, which offers a complete curriculum of groundwork, equitation lessons and horse training, and personalized coaching from me.
#5 Breaks Gait
Which brings us to another common problem, mostly caused by the rider—breaking gait. It’s a cardinal disobedience for the riding horse and it may Illuminate a hole in the horse’s fundamental training, a lack of authority from the rider, or gross errors of the rider that impede the horse’s ability to continue the canter. The latter is often the cause of the aforementioned frustration in the horse (see #3).
If the horse also breaks gait at the trot and walk, the horse is lacking basic training, or the rider has no authority, or both. For thousands of years, we’ve known that forward motion is the basis of all training in the horse; without it, the horse cannot be trained. A properly trained and obedient riding horse continues at the speed set by the rider, until the rider cues the horse to speed up, slow down or stop. If the shoe fits, go back to basics and come back to the canter once it’s resolved at the walk and trot.
Horse often learn to break gait simply because the rider allows and condones it. Most horses don’t want to keep cantering circles with a rider on their back. If the horse breaks into trot, most riders politely re-cue the horse to canter, as if breaking gait was not a problem. But the disobedience continues indefinitely because the horse benefits from breaking gait (rest) and pays no penalty. Re-cueing to canter, without admonishment or ramifications, tells the horse that you condone his breaking gait.
If the horse breaks gait at the canter, give him a good scolding, with your voice and other aids, to let him know you disapprove. Then put him immediately back to canter and make him work harder for a 10-20 strides. If you feel the horse starting to falter in his stride, drive him forward into a hand gallop and only let him stop and rest when you feel him moving freely forward. If you only stop the horse when he is moving forward willingly, he’ll stop breaking gait.
Don’t Worry, You’ll Get There!
The canter is the most complicated of gaits to learn to ride and it takes time to develop good skills in both the horse and the rider. In a perfect world, people learning to canter would only ride easy, well-trained horses, and untrained horses would only be ridden by high-level, experienced riders, but that’s not always how it goes.
Whether you’re just learning to canter for the first time or you are training a green horse, I hope you found some help with the canter hacks listed here. Tackle your issues one at a time—start with the most basic and work toward the more complex skills. Give it time and practice deliberately. Get help from an instructor or a more experienced rider, so you have some external feedback.
Next month, I’ll give you five more canter hacks for the more experienced horse and rider, working to perfect the canter. We’ll look at how to keep the horse from dropping his shoulder in turns, how to deal with the horse that trots faster instead of stepping smoothly into canter, preventing bucking, perfecting canter departures, and collecting the canter.
I remember my father’s last and best trail horse, Scout. He was a big, bold, grade quarter horse, afraid of nothing, with a motor like a freight train. Aboard Scout, my father climbed all over the mountains surrounding Jackson Hole, Wyoming, usually ponying a string of pack horses. He always said, “Julie, you could ride a well-trained horse over a cliff if you wanted to, because he’ll go anywhere you point him without argument.” He also said Scout would sleep in his bedroom, if only he could figure out how to get him down the hallway.
I was fortunate to climb some of those Wyoming mountains with my dad, horse packing point-to-point in some of the most magnificent terrain in the country. My dad was always up for an adventure—you could count on every outing entailing surprise. There wasn’t much terrain he would shy away from, and Wyoming has a lot of rugged mountains!
But my perspective on great trail horses involves more than the adventures with my father. I first moved to Colorado in 1984, fresh out of college, and promptly landed a job guiding hourly trail rides in the Sangre de Cristo mountains and wrangling dude horses for an outfitter. The Sangres are notoriously steep and wild. It’s not a popular area for riding horses, and I have come to understand why.
Despite the wild terrain, we took people who had never ridden a horse before all the way up to the tree line. In a way, it was better that way because they were unaware of all the things that could go wrong. “Just lay the reins over the horn, hold on with both hands, and don’t move!” The horses would make it safely across the treacherous scree slope with incredible sure-footedness, as long as the rider stayed out of their way. This is where I formed the strong and everlasting opinion that good dude horses are worth their weight in gold.
Being a trail guide and wrangler in the high mountains, sometimes leading three pack mules while keeping an eye on the dudes, shaped my perspective of what it takes to make a great lead horse. To me, a great trail horse is also a good lead horse—your partner in safety, in control, and in, well, leadership. It’s the kind of horse that would jump off the cliff for me, if I asked, but that trusts me enough to know I would never ask him to do anything we couldn’t handle together.
Scout was an exceptional lead horse and pulled my father out of many hairy situations. My old Morgan mare, Pepsea, was too, and I guided trail from her for a couple of decades. She was possibly the best lead horse I’ve ever known. We climbed a lot of mountains together and she was a reliable partner through thick and thin.
I’ve ridden a few other great lead horses over the years—enough to know that my young horse, Pepperoni, has the prerequisites needed, and he may make the cut. Which brings me to the age-old question… is a great horse born or made? Nature vs. Nurture.
The truth is, it’s difficult to answer that question, because from the moment a horse is born his learning begins. A naturally good-tempered horse can turn sour in the wrong hands, and a horse with a challenging temperament can be shaped into something amazing. But starting with the best raw ingredients, then adding copious amounts of training and experience, you can turn an average-performing horse into a great one.
In previous installments on the making of a trail horse, I’ve written about the qualities of a good trail horse, the manners and ground training it needs, and the foundational under-saddle training that will take him from average to exceptional. Now it’s time to talk about the hard stuff.
To Lead or Not to Lead To be truly exceptional, I think a trail horse must be willing to accept any position in the lineup—in front, in the middle, or at the end. I think he should always mind his manners and rate his speed, keeping appropriately distanced from the other horses. He should be willing to ride calmly away from the herd any time I ask, and be happy going out alone—just the two of us. He needs to act the same way every day so that I can count on him when the going gets tough. He needs a lot of awareness and presence and some sense of caution, but not be prone to flight.
Being exceptional is not easy or common. It’s a very tall order, and not all horses will pass the test. Even with a lot of natural talent, it still takes training and experience, over months and years—not hours and days—to make a good horse great.
The Right Stuff It’s not hard to train a horse to follow another horse down a trail. That’s completely natural, and they would probably do it on their own if you turned them loose. Horses naturally stay with the herd and follow the leader.
Horses are instinctively drawn to other horses because they are prey animals, and there is safety in numbers. Taking that theory one step further, imagine you’re a horse traveling with your herd through treacherous terrain in lion country (think Sangre de Cristos). Where would you feel safest? Right in the middle of the herd. It’s the horse in front that gets sucked into bogs or falls in the hole; it’s the horse in the back that gets picked off by the lion. For many horses, being out in front or tailing behind is untenable.
Horses can be very social, but also jealous and competitive animals, prone to seeking higher status in the herd. It takes a brave and confident horse to lead, but those qualities often come with dominant personalities. While many horses don’t want to be out front, some insist on it and throw a wall-eyed fit if you try to ride in the middle or tail-end. To me, the best trail horse is the one that likes being out front, is eager to head down the trail and see what’s around the corner, but is happy to let others lead or bring up the rear.
Flight and investigation are also instinctive behaviors of horses, even though they are opposite qualities. A horse “hits the ground” with its temperament and these qualities can become apparent from the moment it’s born. Some horses will be high in flight and low in curiosity; others low in flight and high in curiosity; while some hit right in the middle. It’s obvious that for a good trail horse, you want the latter. But again, be careful what you wish for, because a very brave, bold horse can also be quite dominant, and may be prone to question your authority.
Energy and sensitivity levels are important qualities inherent in the horse’s temperament, and once again, be careful what you wish for. For myself, I know I need a forward-moving and forward-thinking horse, one that is sensitive to his environment and responds to the lightest cue. But there is a very fine line between that and a horse that spooks at his own shadow and spins and bolts like his hair’s on fire.
To be exceptional, the horse must be my partner in all things—be willing to work as hard as I am, to be as achievement-oriented as I am, and to be game for an adventure together. I believe that a good work ethic can be trained into any horse, no matter how lazy, and that a horse with a natural work ethic can be worthless if poorly handled.
Beyond his temperament, that exceptional lead horse must also be strong and athletic to get me out of tricky spots and handle the unexpected. But not so tall that I am ducking under every branch or need to carry a step ladder. And since I don’t ask for much, I’d like him to be smooth gaited, so I can ride all day and my saddle bags aren’t flapping.
The best raw ingredients in the temperament of an exceptional trail horse are willingness, bravery, curiosity, adventurous, independent, steady, reliable, energetic, aware, thinking, and game. These ingredients alone won’t make any horse exceptional. Starting with the right stuff helps, but there’s still a lot of training and shaping yet to come.
Education and Experience Every successful horse trainer knows that some horses are easier to train than others. Some horses are so willing and eager-to-please that shaping their behavior is easy. Others, not so much. I believe strongly that good training and solid, consistent handling can make any horse a great horse. We can always improve a horse through training, though starting with quality ingredients sure helps.
Some of the qualities of an exceptional trail horse are baked into his temperament, but others come from training and handling from a young age, nurturing the horse along slowly, so that he only develops good habits and never learns behaviors that will affect his ability to do his job later. Ground manners, ground skills (like trailer loading and ground tying), finish training under-saddle, work ethic, and the ability to perform in all settings (independently of the herd), are trained into the horse over time.
In part two of this series, I talked at length about manners and ground skills that are important for a good trail horse, but to be an exceptional trail horse there must be more. Over time, with consistency and experience, the exceptional trail horse learns his job and understands his role. He isn’t ground tying because you’ve scolded him in the past for moving, he’s staying put because he knows his job is to stay with you. If you’ll excuse an over-used COVID phrase, the horse knows, “we’re in this together.”
He doesn’t jump down the steep embankment of a creek because you forced him to, but because he sees the horse below in trouble and knows we must help. He doesn’t question when you ride away from the herd, because he knows there must be something important to do ahead. When a horse begins to understand his job, not just giving rote responses, he begins morphing into the exceptional category.
Work ethic is one of the most important qualities to instill in a young horse. It will be much harder to teach when the horse is older. It starts early with groundwork and is one of the very first things a riding horse learns—keep going until I tell you to stop. One of the most fundamental tenets of classical horsemanship (wisdom which dates back 5,000 years), is that forward motion is the basis of all training. Without free and willing forward motion, a horse cannot be trained. No truer words were ever spoken.
When taught early, consistently reinforced, and significantly rewarded (with release, praise and rest), even a horse that is by nature lazy, will develop a strong work ethic. Some horses have a go-for-it temperament too—game for any adventure, always looking ahead, eager to prove themselves. When you combine this kind of temperament with a good work ethic and solid training, you are well on your way to exceptional.
Behind the Magic Curtain Horses are extremely fast learning animals who are willing and seek acceptance by nature. Sometimes truly exceptional horses can be made from the most unlikely candidates. You can turn a Scarecrow into Braveheart, by simply shaping their behavior. A subordinate, omega horse can develop into the best lead horse and become a steady partner.
For instance, all horses are instinctively flighty and fearful, some more than others. But we can systematically teach any horse how to deal with its fear in a different way. By replacing one behavior with another, we can turn fear into curiosity. By praising and rewarding investigative behavior, we can instill bravery. I have written and talked a lot about “de-spooking” horses (if only there really were such a thing); check out my blog and podcast for more information on this training technique.
At the very core of a horse’s behavior, he is drawn to the herd for comfort and safety. No matter what his circumstance, a horse will always seek acceptance into a herd. To me, this is a quality we can shape to our advantage. What a horse gets from the herd is a sense of safety, structure (rules), and leadership (someone to take care of you and tell you what to do). Horses are also comfort-seeking animals and the herd provides them with plenty of that in the form of social engagement, friendship, mutual grooming, napping and frolicking.
When a horse feels alone, he will always seek out a herd. From the first moments of interacting with a horse, young or old, it’s my goal to teach the horse to seek acceptance from my herd. To show him that I will be a strong, but fair, leader, and that I will always watch out for his safety—and never ask him to do something he’s not capable of. He will learn to trust that I will have high expectations of his behavior, but that I will also recognize and reward his efforts. In short order, he is seeking my acceptance and getting the same good feelings from me that he gets from the herd. Ultimately, he is willing to leave his herd and go anywhere with me.
To me, there are few things in life as satisfying as riding a great horse in the wilderness. To have an exceptional trail horse—one that trusts you, is safe, reliable, willing, loyal, and dedicated to the task at hand—is a thrill that few people get to experience. I’ve been fortunate to ride a few great trail horses throughout my career, and I’ve got at least one more in the making.
Not every horse is destined for greatness. Not every great horse was naturally talented to begin with. And every horse has the potential to be great in the right hands. In the end, it takes a lot of hard work, patience, dedication, and determination. But to me—without question—a great trail is made, not born.
With solid ground-handling skills in place, half the battle of under-saddle training is behind you. As the young horse’s training progresses from ground manners to riding skills, there are certain philosophies that must be consistently applied to its training to make an exceptional trail horse. These skills are important no matter what discipline you choose, but when riding into uncontrolled and un-improved environments with natural hazards, these skills can be the difference between a fun and exciting ride and a total disaster.
Obedience: Fundamental obedience starts from day one of under-saddle training and it means that the horse will go on the exact path dictated by the rider, at the speed chosen by the rider, without argument from the horse or excessive management by the rider. This is important in all horses and especially in trail horses. I always want to be able to control the path my horse travels on the trail. If I allow him to choose the path, he may ram my knee into a tree trunk or hang me on a low branch.
Work Ethic: While this can be a natural quality in a horse, it will certainly be solidified through consistent training and handling. A good trail horse is forward moving, eager to please, and willing to work. When I ask my horse for effort, I need to see it, but I’m careful not to abuse the power by asking too much. I expect the same work ethic in my horse that I have for myself, but I always recognize his efforts and reward the horse, with rest, for a job well-done.
Rating Speed: Whether I’m leading the horse from the ground, ponying from another horse or riding the trail horse, he needs to rate his speed off of me or off another horse. No hanging back, then trotting up. No outpacing all the other horses. A horse is perfectly capable of maintaining a given speed (without you holding or pushing) and they instinctively rate speed off other horses, so it shouldn’t be hard to train. From the very beginning of a young horse’s training, proper spacing and rating speed needs to be ingrained.
Complete and Total Body Control: Often we hear people say, “he’s just a trail horse,” as if riding in a wild environment with natural hazards isn’t risky. I know the importance of having full body control on my horse, especially on the trail, where tight spots can be scary and a horse that panics and runs will get us both hurt. Being able to control the exact placement of my horse’s nose, shoulders, hip, and feet, no matter how rough the terrain is, will keep me safe and get me out of a lot of trouble. Full body control and lateral movements are not just for show horses.
Ride Alone or In Company: While all horses prefer to be in the company of other horses, I need my horse to trust me enough to go out alone—whether that be for a short jaunt away from the group or going on a long ride alone. There are two important factors here: one is that my horse is not herd-bound and the other is that my horse gets the same level of confidence from me that he gets from the herd. I want him to think of us as a team; we are in it together and reliant on each other. This does not come easily—it requires hard work, leadership, and dedication on your part.
Minds Manners Around Other Horses: I’m extremely strict about my horses’ behavior around other horses. No fraternizing in any way is allowed, when the horse is being handled or ridden. No friendly interactions, no busy-bodies, and certainly no aggression. That’s a basic manner that all horses should be taught from a young age… when you are being handled or ridden, no herd interactions are allowed! Trail horses are often ridden in groups with unknown horses. They may have to be in close proximity to other horses and perhaps even tied on a highline next to a horse they don’t know. Besides, he is at work and on-the-clock when we are trail riding; it’s not social time. This is first and foremost a safety issue that will prevent someone from getting kicked, or worse. If your horse has bad manners, in this regard, it’s a poor reflection on your horsemanship and a liability to the group.
Stands Quietly for Mounting and Dismounting: From day one, we teach horses to stand square, dead-still, and on a loose rein for mounting and dismounting and to never walk off without a cue from the rider. This will come in mighty handy should you find yourself on the side of a steep mountain, getting off and back on because someone dropped their camera. Never walking off or increasing speed without a cue, is important for when you are riding with inconsiderate riders who take off without warning.
Performs the Same Away from Home and in New Environments: The ability to perform skills in new places and in different situations, is something a horse learns over time and through varied experiences. Horses are location-specific in what they learn (they associate their behavior and actions with a place). Learning new skills at home (where the horse is relaxed) happens fast, but it takes months and years of performing those same skills in new locations before the horse is a seasoned pro. As early as possible in the horse’s training, we try to put them in new situations—teach them to investigate and be curious when they are uncertain, and take them on small journeys to increase their exposure and confidence. Horses move through the first two stages of learning fast: acquisition of skills and fluency of skills. But generalizing what he has learned—to be able to perform any time or place, even under duress—takes a lot of time and careful planning to make sure the horse always has confidence-building experiences away from home.
You may have noticed that the manners and skills necessary to make a great trail horse are the same for any good horse—safe, reliable, mannerly, and obedient—makes for a pleasant horse to be around. Even if you will never head into rugged terrain or camp overnight with your horse, developing these qualities in your horse will make him successful in whatever activity you do.
There’s no such thing as “just” a trail horse. A lot of hard work goes into finding the right prospect, developing the skills that will keep you safe on the trail, and establishing a meaningful relationship with the horse. But it is time well-spent when you and your horse need to rely on each other out in the wilderness.
There are so many important traits to develop in the making of a great trail horse. What I’ve talked about here is just the beginning. Next month, I’ll write about the importance of a trail horse accepting any position on the trail line-up—from lead, to middle, to rear, to flank. I’ll discuss whether good lead horses are born or made, and how to train your horse to accept any position and ride calmly away from the herd when asked.
There are many ingredients that go into the making of an exceptional trail horse and just like in the kitchen, quality ingredients can make the difference in an average dish or an outstanding one. So, what are the ingredients we are looking for in a good trail horse?
Keep in mind that trail riding can be quite different, depending on the part of the country where you live or ride. For me, living in the high mountains of Colorado, trail riding typically involves terrain that is steep, rocky, and hazardous in places. Therefore we don’t take young horses, under the age of 4, into the high mountains. They need physical maturity, strength and coordination, and a considerable amount of training.
Here in the Rocky Mountains, natural obstacles can range from timber blow-downs to scary bogs to raging, rocky creeks with steep banks on both sides. On Pepperoni’s first ride in the high mountains, in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, one difficult water hazard had all those qualities in one crossing. Negotiating it safely meant having total control of the horse from stem to stern and a relationship based on trust and solid leadership.
To me, the ideal trail horse is safe and reliable in changing environments, is always mannerly and obedient, consistent in its behavior, well-trained, responsive, and experienced in a variety of settings. I want a horse that is brave and forward thinking, with a strong work ethic. But the age-old question is this: is a good (trail) horse born or made?
Nature vs. Nurture
A horse hits the ground with its instinctive behaviors almost fully formed and it’s born with its temperament—inherited in his genes. That baby horse has instinctive behaviors such as flight, locomotion, and suckling. He has a temperament that may prove him to be brave and bold, scared and flighty, or somewhere in-between. He may be curious and investigative or spooky and reactive; he may be calm and lazy or excitable and high-energy. He may be willing and eager-to-please, or dominant and challenging. Although training will always help, a horse is born with his temperament and there’s not much we can do about it.
There are only two types of behaviors in any animal (humans included): instinctive and learned (nature vs. nurture). Horses tend to operate a lot on instinctive behaviors, but they learn new behaviors wickedly fast (for better or for worse) and the learning starts the moment they are born.
In the making of an excellent trail horse, it’s best to start with the raw ingredients of good physical traits (conformation and gaits) and a great temperament (brave and willing). But we must also add to that, a lot of training, good handling, and varied life-experiences. There are certain basic skills that must be addressed through training, plus there are some foundational training philosophies that should be ingrained in the young horse throughout its training.
All of this requires a lot of time and dedication to your horse and to the sport—there’s no instant gratification in the making of a great trail horse.
Basic Handling Skills
I’m not a big believer in “training” young horses, under 2 years old. I think they need to grow up first and foals should learn to be horses first. It’s also important for baby horses not to learn bad habits (like moving into pressure or walking all over you), that often comes with over-handling at a young age. We like to start teaching certain skills to yearlings (like tying, lead-line manners and trailering) but we keep it light and allow the horses to mature—physically and mentally—before hard training begins. Saddle training the young horse goes quite fast when they are ready, and starting a horse too early generally leads to more problems than it solves.
While I may start teaching basic ground-handling skills on the horse as a yearling (lead, tie, trailer), the serious training will begin towards the end of its 2-year-old year. I like to start 2-year-olds under-saddle in the fall for simple basics. Then we get far more serious in the spring of their 3-year-old year. As a 3-year-old, he’ll get an abundance of training, as well as confidence-building experiences “on the road.” By the time that young horse turns 4, he’s mature, well-trained, and gotten the prerequisite experience he needs to be successful in the high mountains or on any trail ride.
The basic training on a trail horse is the same as I would give any young horse, as they are useful skills that make the horse safe and pleasant to be around. Most of these skills will be solidly trained into the horse before under-saddle training begins. Here’s a simple checklist of the handling skills that a young trail prospect should have:
Leadline Manners: Leads well beside you, does not crowd you or get in front of you, rates his speed off yours, stands quietly when asked, can be led from ground or ponied from a horse.
Ground Ties: When you ask the horse to stop and you drop the lead rope on the ground, he stands parked, as if he is a statue. This is a useful skill in any horse, but a must-have for trail horses.
Stands Quietly While Tied: This requires many hours and days spent at the “patience post,” learning to stand quietly and patiently while tied. Eventually that horse will have to stand quietly tied to a trailer, and potentially tied overnight to a high line. A horse that does not tie well is a liability on the trail.
Feet Handling: Proper manners here include lifting the foot when asked, holding it up without leaning or fidgeting and allowing me to place the foot back down on a particular spot (not jerking it out of my hands when I’m finished). Be particular about this. A good trail horse needs to allow you to have total control of his feet and body.
Not Claustrophobic: Horses instinctively do not like tight places with no escape—some horses can be way more claustrophobic than others, and they may need major desensitizing. I want to make sure the horse will not rush through gates, tight spaces or scary places or have any kind of panic attack in confinement (like a trailer). It’s easy to get into tight binds on the trail and I need my horse to remain calm, continue to think and always wait for my cues.
Trailering: This includes loading promptly, riding quietly on the road and unloading easily. These are skills I want to develop and engrain over time, so we take every opportunity we can to load young horses, let them eat meals in the trailer and go for short rides (this is also a way to get experience in new places).
Desensitizing: The horse must accept touch all over his body, legs, face, mouth, ears, nostrils, tail, and private parts. The horse needs to accept fly spray, oral medications, bathing, and grooming.
While all of these skills may be quickly learned by the horse (with a good trainer), it will take weeks and months to ingrain these behaviors in the young horse, to the point these skills are “finished.” Taking your time, setting good precedents and having consistent handling will cause the young horse to blossom and it will set a solid foundation for his under-saddle training.
Next month, I’ll discuss the progression into under-saddle training to build a strong foundation for an exceptional trail horse. These skills are important no matter what discipline you choose, but when riding into uncontrolled and un-improved environments with natural hazards, these skills can be the difference between a fun and exciting ride and a total disaster.
My youngest horse, Pepperoni, just successfully completed his first high mountain ride in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, a steep mountain range in southern Colorado. It was an arduous test of his skills and I’m super proud of his accomplishment.
He proved his mettle in handling the toughest terrain, and we gained a great deal of confidence in each other. And even though it required extreme exertion on his part, I think he may have liked it (except for the scary parts).
Rich, our horses and I loaded into our living quarters horse trailer and drove to our friend, Lucy’s ranch in the San Luis Valley. (Many of you know Lucy because she assists me on the road a lot.) It’s a large parcel on the edge of the mountains that borders National Forest and overlooks the expansive alpine valley. We found a picturesque campsite, complete with a water feature to lull us to sleep. And we were faithfully guarded by the ranch’s bear-alert system, a Great Pyrenees named Honey Bear.
The first day, we rode warm-up trails on the ranch, testing the waters (literally), to see if our horses were ready for the wilderness trip. Lucy and her horses know the trails well, and provided an excellent guide service. This is not terrain you want to travel unless you know what you’re getting into. I’ve ridden in these mountains for 30 years, so I already knew that.
Major Creek comes down out of the steep mountains, runs through the middle of the ranch and into the valley. It’s rushing and wild, and we knew the mountain trail we were planning to ride the next day would have numerous creek crossings—some of them complicated by bogs, logs, thickets, boulders, and steep banks.
The Sangres are rocky and treacherous in places, but the rewards surround you in the pristine high-altitude wilderness. The scree slopes are steep, with loose rock in some places and solid rock in others. The terrain ranges from vast and open to closed-in, claustrophobic and thorny, where it’s not unusual to encounter traces of bears or mountain lions. I can imagine that to a lot of people this may seem both impossible and exaggerated, but it is typical of the terrain in this area.
The Major Creek trail is not highly traveled (off the radar and not easy to get to), and therefore not highly maintained, so the challenges are abundant. Before riding into terrain like this, you want to make sure you have a solid, mature horse underneath you. One that has the right temperament and maturity for the job, the physical strength and experience, plus the training and requisite skills necessary to be an extreme trail horse and a supreme trail partner.
Is a Good Trail Horse Born or Made?
The short answer is both. But I’m not known for giving short answers.
Think of being a chef—you must know what you’re doing, and be both adventurous and pragmatic with a dose of creativity. But the key to making an exquisite dish is to start with the best ingredients, and then the results are far superior. However, keep in mind that even with the very best ingredients, the dish must be built from scratch and crafted with skilled hands, or it flops.
There are quite a few ingredients in the making of a supreme trail horse:
Thinking rather than reactive
These are all important qualities that a horse is born with. Horses are both instinctively flighty and investigative, but they generally come down strong on one side or the other.
Surefootedness, in my experience, comes very natural to some horses, and not at all to others. All of these traits can be enhanced through training, but starting with a naturally talented horse sure helps.
There’s No Such Thing as a Thirty-Day Wonder
The “finished” trail horse, like any other discipline of riding, takes years—not weeks or months—to develop. The green horse might go out on its first trail ride very early in its training, but to negotiate a wilderness trail like Major Creek requires a mature horse with exquisite control and perfect obedience.
According to veterinary standards, climbing and descending steep mountains is not an activity for horses younger than four years of age. This is why it was Pepper’s first trip. He’s done quite a few rides in the foothills and around the ranch. Even though he was started under saddle as a 2-year-old, he wasn’t ready for the high mountains until he had the physical strength, the mental maturity and the strong foundational training that gives me complete control and authority—stem to stern.
Pepperoni’s two years of training and experience hauling to clinics and trail rides prepared him for this day. He had some scary moments when he questioned himself, and then me. But when I asked him for effort, he gave it to me. When I asked him to be brave, he was. He came to trust my judgment over his own as he got more careful with his feet and focused his mind on the mission.
There were times when full body control was necessary to negotiate tight and dicey terrain. There were places where stepping over logs and rocks required deliberation, and places so steep he had to work hard to rate his speed. With every mile of our trip he got better and better, embracing his role as my supreme trail partner.
A lot goes into training a horse to be your partner at this level, no matter what your chosen equestrian endeavor, but there are a few things unique to the trail. After thinking on the subject, I realized it’s too much for one article, and worthy of a blog series on the making of a good trail horse.
Consider this part one, and please join me for later installments of The Making of a Trail Horse, as I share my personal experience and my pet peeves about training for the trail. Here’s a sneak peek at the fun we’ll have…
Requisite Manners and Skills: Tie, load, stand, highline, obedience, work ethic, rating speed, and body control
To Lead or Not to Lead? That is the question: Training your horse to accept all positions in the line-up, and ride calmly away from the herd when asked.
Sure Footedness: Evaluating natural talent (or lack thereof), and developing good habits
Navigating Natural Obstacles:Water, bogs, timber, scree, thickets, and exposure
Live Hazards: Lions, tigers and bears—Oh My! De-spooking the trail horse
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
As a voracious reader, I often reference books when I’m teaching or public speaking. Typically, that leads to questions from other voracious readers about what horse books I recommend. With the start of a new decade, I thought it would be a good time to share my favorite books on horses and animals. While I’m at it, I may as well share all my favorite books with you.
Reading is one of my favorite pastimes. In fact, my fantasy vacation (which I’ve yet to take) always involves endless reading on a beach or a boat. I read myself to sleep every single night, but I’m lucky to get through one paragraph. To sit down and read a book, for the sheer pleasure of reading, is the ultimate luxury.
I read for a lot of different reasons: education, edification, entertainment, and personal betterment (call it self-help, if you’d like). I try to alternate between fiction and nonfiction, but nothing is more entertaining to me than curling up with a fast-paced spy novel.
For more than a decade, I’ve been reading almost exclusively on my Kindle. It travels with me everywhere I go, and it literally sleeps in the bed with me. Occasionally I read hard copies—often they are books about horses or obscure titles that are not available in digital format.
Although I prefer the written word over listening to audio books, lately I’ve been using the “Switch to Listening” feature on my Kindle, so I can consume more books—listening in the car, the hot tub or while doing chores. I’ve learned not to listen to books at night in bed, because I awaken to a finished book that I’ve slept through.
If I really fall in love with a book, I often buy the hard copy to add it to my collection and so I have something to loan to others. I prize my library of real books. They surround my desk—most of them titles about horses—and I enjoy perusing the titles and thumbing through them. When it comes to books, I suppose I’m moving into the 21st century, slowly but surely, since the titles in my personal Kindle Library now outnumber those on my book shelves.
Below, I’d like to share with you my favorite books of the year and of the decade! In case you are only interested in one type of reading, I’ll divide them into the categories of horses, nonfiction, fiction and self-help.
My Favorite Books of 2019
Whole Heart, Whole Horse, by Mark Rashid Mark Rashid is one of my all-time favorite authors; he’s also a friend and colleague. Not only a talented and engaging author, Mark is an exceptional horseman and a stellar person. In this book, he emphasizes the importance of not placing judgment on a horse’s behavior. As with all of Mark’s books, this one will change your perspective on horses and people.
The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, by Pat Shipman This may be my number one read of 2019. Lately, I’ve been very researching the domestication of dogs and horses and their roles in human society. This book offers a scientific look at the evolution of homo-sapiens and how they collaborated with wolves to become the apex predator. The author lays out a compelling case for humans as the most invasive species on earth and how the domestication of wolves may have played a role in the extinction of many species, including Neanderthals.
Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens This is a beautiful work of fiction set in coastal North Carolina. The story is full of the wonders of the coastal environment; it’s a beautiful love story and a compelling murder mystery. Kya, the main character, is abandoned as a child and forced to survive on her own in the swamp. With a few characters to guide her, she not only survives, but goes on to become self-educated and highly successful. But will she survive the cruelty of the people in her own community?
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain As a confirmed introvert myself, this book spoke volumes to me, in terms of the value of listening and the importance of quiet and solitude. According to the author, at least a third of humans all over the world are introverts; they are the ones that are listening, not talking. She talks about the rise of the “Extrovert Ideal” in the 20th century and how deeply it has permeated our culture.
My Favorite Books of the Decade
Online, I can scan through hundreds of digital books that I’ve read over the past ten years. The best books stand out in my mind like I read them yesterday; others evoke vague memories of pleasant reading, while some are completely forgettable. Here, I will list my most favorite books that I have read or re-read in the past 10 years on horses, works of nonfiction, novels, and personal betterment.
Books on Horses and Animal Behavior
Evidenced-Based Horsemanship, by Dr. Stephen Peters & Martin Black. This is a short book and an easy read, but it will teach you a lot about how horses think (and don’t think). It’s about the neurology, physiology and behavior of horses and how that relates to the ways we train them. Equine Behaviour: Principles & Practice, by Daniel Mills and Kathryn Nankervis. This is my favorite book on horse behavior because it’s science-based, with textbook content, but it’s relatively easy to read. The author’s British wit made me chuckle throughout this comprehensive look at horses. Equine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, by Paul McGreevy. Widely regarded as the definitive work and the “Bible” of horse behavior, you’ll need a highlighter, a dictionary and plenty of time to make it through this book. Caveat: It’s very expensive and only for the obsessed student of horse behavior.
Zen Mind, Zen Horse: The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses, by Allan J. Hamilton, MD. In many ways, the simplicity of this book on horse behavior is in stark contrast to the work above. Written more for the horse owner, it combines a scientific look at behavior, both horse and human, with simple and effective training techniques that promote harmony in both.
Understanding the Ancient Secrets of the Horse’s Mind, by Dr. Robert Miller. I love this book—it’s a quick read, chock full of science-based behavior, and it offers the reader a much deeper understanding of the horse’s perspective and it will give you a greater ability to think like a horse.
Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. This book is about the behavior in many different species, including humans, and brings insight that only Dr. Grandin can give. She’s a renowned animal behaviorist at Colorado State University, primarily known for her work in the cattle industry (and the HBO movie about her life), but she has, and is currently, researching horse behavior as well.
Equine Science: Basic Knowledge for Horse People of All Ages, by Jean T. Griffiths. This is a comprehensive reference book for horse owners, with everything you need in one place: evolution, behavior, coat colors, senses, gaits, genetics, nutrition, health, disease and anatomy. This book should be required reading for all horse owners.
Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover. For me, this book ranks as one of the best reads of the decade. It is a fascinating autobiography that reads like a novel. It’s a story of cruelty, survival and amazing accomplishment.
Becoming, by Michelle Obama. An intriguing and inspirational memoir about the former First Lady and the path that led her to the White House.
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice, by Bill Browder. Honestly, I thought it was a novel when I first started reading it; but sadly, it’s true and factual. This books sheds light on the entrenched corruption and murder in Putin’s regime.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. This renowned historian takes us through the evolution of modern humans, starting about 70 thousand years ago with the appearance of modern cognition, through the cultures and conquests of history, to the state of affairs today.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. A true story about a culture in crisis—the white working class—and the loss of the “American Dream.”
American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, by Chris Kyle. This is the deeply personal story of a young soldier from Texas, a former cowboy and bronc rider, who went on to become an Army sniper. You may recall the tragic real-life ending of this story, which occurred after the book was published, when the author was tragically murdered by a fellow Veteran.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, by Chris Hadfield. This is a light-hearted, but fascinating read on what it takes to become an astronaut and the harrowing stories of real-life space travel. It is a motivating tale of determination, perseverance and ingenuity.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. From the author of Seabiscuit, one of my ‘books of a decade’ from the 2010s (also a must read), comes this true-life story that proves life is stranger (and more fascinating) than fiction.
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. A moving love story steeped in southern culture and institutionalized racism. It’s a compelling story that opens your eyes to some ugly truths.
A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. This is a charming and heart-warming story about the “neighbor from hell,” a grumpy old curmudgeon, and how the actions of others can have meaningful impact.
Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult. A moving and gut-wrenching look at racism, privilege, prejudice and justice in American society.
Spilled Milk, by K.L. Randis. Based on a true story, this book offers a disturbing look at child abuse and one girl’s pursuit of safety and justice.
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. A psychological thriller with many twists and turns; a serious page-turner.
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. A riveting and unique plot about a marriage gone bad. I love plots that are unpredictable and this one keeps you guessing.
Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. Okay, I admit it. I often read young-adult fiction. This trilogy has everything I love—it’s post-apocalyptic, dystopian, sci-fi, and futuristic all in one story. And, it has a strong female heroine.
The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. One of my favorite books of all time, this novel is narrated from the voice of its main character—a dog. On top of the unique point of view, the plot is as intriguing as the setting—the life of a race car driver. BTW, it’s a major motion picture now and the movie is almost as good as the book. Bonus book: Ephemeral, by Andie Andrews, is a charming novel written from the first-person voice of a horse named Sonny, and how he deals with his novice rider.
Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, by The Arbinger Institute. I first read this book to increase my business acumen but soon realized it also has a significant impact on more intimate relationships too. I’ve gifted this book to quit a few people; I’ve read it several times and reviewing it now, makes me want to read it again.
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. A fascinating look at the neuroscience and psychology behind making good decisions and snap judgments. Filled with anecdotes and scientific research, it is both fascinating and entertaining.
The Happiness Animal, by Will Jelbert. This book explains the painful truth… that happiness comes from within. It helps us become accountable for our own happiness and to train our minds to think positively.
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen. I’m an organization freak, so I loved this helpful book on organizing your business and personal life. I read this almost 10 years ago and I still use these techniques daily.
Mulling over and describing these books to you is like reliving the joy of reading them all over again. I love that about a good book and it’s the reason I like to keep hard copies around. I like to highlight meaningful passages or beautifully crafted prose, to make it easy to enjoy again later.
Maybe you’ve found some books in my list that you’ve read already—I hope you loved them too. Perhaps there are a few titles that interest you and maybe you’ll find some new gems. Be sure to comment below if you’ve read, or want to read, any of these books or if you want to share your favorite books of the decade with me!
On one of my many visits to southern California, I was conducting a horsemanship clinic in the town of Norco, renowned for its horse-friendly lifestyle. On any given day in “Horsetown USA,” you’ll see horses being ridden on the dirt sidewalks along Main Street or parked at a tie rail in front of a shopping center, or even in line for the drive-up window at McDonald’s.
While there, I was invited to tour the Circle D Ranch, home to Disneyland’s herd of gorgeous draft horses. Having worked behind the scenes of the horse operation at Disney World, on the other side of the country, I was not surprised to find an immaculate, state-of-the-art horse facility, that was custom-built to suit the exceptionally high standards of Disney.
The ranch is home to 18 draft horses, who work 3-4 days a week in the theme park, some thirty miles away, where they are stabled in a similar barn while “on duty.” The horses come to the Norco ranch for rest and pampering on their 3-4 days off. Aside from the incredible horse flesh and the five-star facility, I was most impressed by the consistency with which the horses are handled. Strictly enforced, detailed policies and procedures are designed to make sure the horses get handled exactly the same way every day, by each of the many employees tasked with their care, both in the theme park and at the ranch.
From the way the horses are haltered and led, to how they are tied, to the order of the brushes used, to the process for turning them out or to their daily hand-walking– it was done exactly the same by every handler, in the same order, at the same time, in the same places. There’s almost no stress for these horses, because of the consistency. They always know what to expect and what is coming next. They never have to guess or question. There is great comfort in order and predictability.
Horses are prey animals and it’s easy for them to feel like victims in a chaotic world, when there is a lack of consistency or predictability. Small changes in a horse’s known environment can send him into a tailspin. For the same reasons, horses thrive on routines, law and order and consistency. It makes them feel safe and calm when they know what will happen next.
Horses always do better with consistent handling and regular routines. They learn patterns quickly and they love to be able to predict what is going to happen next. Most horse owners have learned the benefits of feeding and turning out horses in the same order, and how quickly you can train horses to a routine. Professional horse trainers tend to be very consistent and systematic in the way they ride and handle horses, and their horses are usually a reflection of that. But I often see a lack of consistency in novice horse owners, particularly when it comes to establishing boundaries, communicating clearly and displaying consistent leadership to the horse.
Draw a Line in the Sand If a dog has poor manners and jumps on you, rubs against you, roots his nose under your arm so you’ll pet him or jumps in your lap uninvited, it may be obnoxious but it’s probably not going to kill you. When a horse has no boundaries and no manners, it’s downright dangerous and is a problem that will snowball. Remember, one way that horses establish dominance is to move the subordinate out of their space.
My horsemanship clinics typically start with groundwork. This is my opportunity to get a feel for the horse’s temperament, to evaluate the relationship between horse and handler and to refine (or establish) the horse’s ground manners. Since horses basically do what you’ve taught them to do (for better or for worse), it’s often the way that a horse is being handled that is leading to the problems.
Typically, in groundwork sessions I see a lot of inconsistency in boundaries or no boundaries at all. Sometimes the person stands too close to the horse, constantly in the horse’s personal space, and choking up on the lead. But when the horse gets irritated and starts throwing its head or nipping, it’s often wrongly concluded that the horse is the problem. People are sometimes totally unaware of space and boundaries when it comes to horses. Just like a toddler, horses will push on you until they find the limit of their boundaries. If the person is unaware of her own personal space and has no boundaries, the horse will react to that by pushing until he’s slinging his head at you, dropping his shoulder into you and moving you out of his space. Even then, sometimes the person is unaware of their own boundaries.
It’s unfair to be in a horse’s face, kissing all over his muzzle, and standing up under his neck, but then get mad at him when he crowds you, nips at you or worse. To be effective (and safe) with horses, you need to be very clear of your own personal boundaries and diligently enforce the boundary.
My personal boundary is as far as I can reach around me with my arms outstretched. If the horse moves any part of his body into my space uninvited—even just his nose—I will correct it. If I’ve set a forward boundary of where the horse should be while I am leading him and he crosses the line, I will reinforce the boundary—100% of the time. A boundary is
only a boundary if it is consistently enforced. If you are clear on where the boundaries are and you consistently enforce it, the horse learns quickly.
Say What? Horses are very communicative animals—that’s a big part of why they became domesticated to begin with and why they have remained an integral part of human society for thousands of years. Although they have some communication through sound (audible signals), most of their communication is through postures, gestures and gazes. Yes, it can be subtle, but the information is there if we look for it.
Horses are more adept at reading people than people are at reading horses. As verbal communicators, we put far too much stock in the spoken word and often miss the subtleties of body language—both in our horses and in ourselves. Learning to be in command of your body language and use appropriate gestures, will help you send the right message to your horse.
For instance, when a horse is shying away from something or refusing to go in a certain direction, the rider often does the opposite of what they should do—staring at what the horse is spooking at or looking in the direction the horse wants to go. What you do with your eyes is very meaningful to the horse in these moments—your eyes will reveal your determination (or lack thereof), your intentions (where you want to go) and your confidence level. If you say one thing with the reins (go this way) then the opposite with your eyes, you’ve contradicted yourself.
When doing groundwork with horses, our goal is to move the horse out of our space, in order to reinforce who is in charge. Yet, time and time again, I see handlers approach the horse as if to move him off, but then withdraw if they think the horse is not going to budge. Often, the person is completely unaware that they are withdrawing or even stepping back—but the horse always sees it. Always. Even the smallest retreat will be detected. Being in command of your body language and sending intentional nonverbal signals to the horse will bring your communication to his level.
Perhaps the biggest area of miscommunication with the horse comes when we are riding. Complex cues for movements and guidance require skill from the rider, yet it’s usually the horse that’s blamed for a poor response. A horse can only perform to the level of the rider and when the horse is not performing well, it’s usually the rider that needs fixing.
Conflicting signals and inconsistent expectations are often to blame for a horse’s poor performance. Pulling back on the reins at the same time you want the horse to move more forward is super frustrating to horses and I see it in every clinic I teach. Pulling on two reins to turn is another frustrating example of miscommunication, often seen when people are riding two-handed. If I want to turn right, and I pull both reins to the right, my right hand is pulling his nose to the right, but my left hand is pulling his nose to the left, once it crosses the withers. How can he respond correctly to that?
Another example is when I do training demonstrations on canter leads at horse expos, most of the time the “lead problem” is fixed by simply clarifying the cue the rider gives. The horse doesn’t have a lead problem, the rider has a cueing problem. Clarifying your cues and using a consistent sequence in your cues will get you the response you want. You could teach a horse almost any cue, by consistently applying the cue and reinforcing it. But if the cue is a little bit different every time or if you fail to reinforce your cues consistently, the horse will fail to respond.
Think about the cues you give to your horse when you’re riding—cues to walk, trot, canter, stop or turn. What are the precise aids you use? In what sequence do you apply the aids? How is the trot cue different from the canter cue? How do you prepare a horse or warn him that a cue is coming? How does your body change when you are tense, upset, tired or nervous that may change the clarity of these cues? When you are clear and consistent in the way you cue your horse, your horse will respond like clockwork.
Following Your Lead You don’t have to be around horses very long to figure out that you want to be the one in charge. It’s not a good idea to let a one-thousand-pound scared rabbit call the shots. Horses seek out leadership because it makes them feel safe and protected. But there is never a void of leadership in a horse herd. If the leader falls down on the job, either figuratively or literally, another horse will immediately step in to fill the void. You’re not the leader unless you act like the leader all the time.
A comment I often hear from horse owners is, “every day, I feel like I am starting over with my horse.” They do the groundwork exercises, designed to establish authority and control, and get a good response in the moment, but the authority does not stick. The next day, the horse is challenging their authority again. It’s not the horse that’s the problem—he’s just doing what horses do. It’s a lack of consistency in their leadership (and therefore a lack of leadership).
If it is a daily battle to be in charge of your horse, you’re doing something that is eroding your own authority. Are you controlling the actions of the horse? Or are his actions dictating what you do? It’s a simple equation—action and reaction. If you are making an action, to which the horse is reacting, you are in charge. If the horse is making an action, to which you are reacting, the horse is in charge.
It amazes me how often I see handlers work hard in the arena, during the clinic, to establish good ground manners and authority over the horse, then throw it all away the moment the session is over and they leave the arena. Walking back to the barn they let the horse get in front and pull them to the barn or get impatient and start fidgeting and fussing. Rules of behavior must apply all the time and be enforced all the time, or they are not rules.
Little things can erode your authority or leadership with the horse– letting him grab the hay out of your arms when you feed him, hand feeding treats, letting him rip away from the halter when you turn him loose, stepping back when he moves into you. Being the leader to your horse is a full-time job.
Without question, horses will make us better at being humans, if we rise to the occasion and resist the temptation to blame the horse and instead look to ourselves. Consistency in defending your boundaries not only keeps you safer around the horse, but also helps the horse accept your authority. Achieving command of your body language and the subtle signals you constantly send to your horse, helps you communicate to the horse and may help you receive the subtle signals he’s sending you.
Nothing is more important to your horse than your consistency of leadership. Horses yearn for a strong and fair leader, but it’s not always easy to be the one at the top. As the leader, you’re not really allowed any down time. It’s a hard job—to be consistent in praise and reinforcement, to be consistent in your rules and expectations of behavior, to be consistent in your emotions and confidence, to be consistent in the way you communicate. It’s not an easy job, but the payoff is huge. When the horse puts all his faith in you and is willing to follow you anywhere, it’s a feeling like no other.
As the year ends, I’m resisting looking back and wondering where the days/weeks/months went, and instead I’m focused ahead on what the new year will bring. I’m a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, and I’m already busy crafting mine. I operate with multiple resolutions—personal betterment, professional goals, horsemanship, household, recreational—that way I am sure to accomplish some of them! Next month I’ll share my New Year’s resolutions with you—at least the ones I can share publicly.
2020 is shaping up to be a busy year for me, with horse expos in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Wisconsin. I’m also offering two new programs at the renowned C Lazy U Ranch in Colorado. In addition to the Women’s Wholeness Retreat that I co-teach with Barbra Schulte, we are offering a ground-breaking program—The Couples Riding Retreat—which will be led by Barbra and her husband Tom, and my husband Rich and me. We’re super excited about this vacation program for couples and already getting tremendous response.
Also new at C Lazy U for 2020, is the Horsemanship Immersion program– five days and four nights of immersive study of riding, horse behavior, conformation, training and health care, with a herd of 200 horses as our laboratory! The Ranch Riding Adventure program at C Lazy U is back by popular demand; I think there will be some openings in this program, for those of you who have patiently waited to get in. Your dream vacation awaits. www.juliegoodnight.com/clazyu Click Here – C Lazy U Ranch
I can’t wait to go back to the magical country of Ireland in September 2020, for a fabulous riding vacation sponsored by Connemara Equestrian Escapes. We had so much fun there in 2018, that I just had to go back. We’ve had so much interest in the Ireland trips, and space is quite limited, so I wanted to go back to Ireland and offer this ‘trip of a lifetime’ to more of you. With an intimate group of eight riders, we get to know each other well. In addition to spending our days in lessons and hacking through the Irish countryside and seaside, we’ll also enjoy cultural tours, dining at authentic Irish pubs and getting to know the local characters. Imagine yourself riding in Ireland! Click Here – Ride with Me in Ireland
For now, I plan to make the most of every day that’s left of 2019. Rich and I are getting a jumpstart on the ski season and the snow conditions are epic! Since I won’t have to get on an airplane in the immediate future, I’m able to get caught up on some back-burner projects and ride my own horses more. I’ll spend a few days teaching up at Colorado State University Equine this month, helping with the Legends of Ranching colt-starting classes. It’s always a treat for me to work with young horse professionals and help the colts progress through the program. And occasionally I become smitten with one of the Legends colts, and they end up in my barn after the Legends of Ranching Sale (Eddie and Pepperoni both came from this horse sale). Click Here – Legends of Ranch Riding
Don’t forget to think about your horse as you shop for Christmas gifts! We’ve got a lot of great items that your horse will love and that will make your horse life easier. I hope you enjoy some quality time with friends, family and horses over the holidays and don’t forget to think about your resolutions!
It was about 34 years ago that I took the big plunge and started my own business, Goodnight Training Stables. Back then, I simply imagined a fun and active life, training and caring for horses. Little did I know, that a few decades later, I’d be a TV personality and own a media production company. I didn’t really see that coming.
Horses are still our central focus, but my how times have changed! Keep in mind that when I founded my business, the internet had not been invented yet, football-sized cell phones were just coming on the market and most people didn’t even use computers. Business operations were much different back then!
I graduated from college in New Mexico in 1984 and moved to Colorado to chase my other passion—snow skiing.As was always the case with me, I got offered horse jobs as soon as people learned I had experience (there’s no shortage of horses that need help with their humans). I worked as a trail guide and hunting camp wrangler, then as a trainer and barn manager at an Arabian breeding and show barn. All the while, I was trying to figure out what I should do for a living. If not horses, then what?
Eventually, two important thoughts became clear to me: 1) since I am now two years out of college and still working horses, perhaps I should consider a career with horses, and 2) if I am going to last in the horse business, I have to be working for myself—doing things MY way. That is the basis on which Goodnight Training Stables was founded, clear back in 1985.
I was fortunate to find a vacated stables owned by a property owners association and I got a great deal on the lease—all I had to do was provide trail riding to the public and fix up the run down facility. It was a win-win for all of us and in no time the facility was ship-shape and full of happy horses there as boarders, training horses or dude horses.
A few years later, I started a girl’s riding camp—a popular program for horse-crazy little girls (a subject I could relate to), and I knew exactly what they wanted—to eat, sleep and breathe horses. Soon, the moms started asking me to do riding camps for adults, and a new aspect of my business emerged. Eventually I was conducting eleven week-long clinics for adults each summer, managing about 20 school horses and training outside horses on the side.
As the demand grew, I began traveling more and offering clinics on the road. Soon it became clear that it made more sense for me to travel to the horses than to make them come to me, in this remote little Colorado mountain town. About 15 years ago, I stopped doing clinics at home, re-purposed all of the school horses, and started teaching exclusively on the road. Today, I travel about 130 days a year, teaching people and training horses, both domestically and abroad.
Early in this business game, I learned that developing products to help people ride and manage their horses better, would be important to sustaining and growing a business. Just so you know how long ago that was, my very first product was an audio cassette tape. We thought we were really going high-tech when we switched to CDs. And yes, my first videos, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, were only available in VHS tapes! Fast forward to today, even DVDs are dinosaurs as we all learn to consume our media online and through streaming videos on-demand.
The information and education on horses and riding are just as pertinent today as it was then, it’s the technology and how we consume the information that has changed. My entire career’s worth of work– every article I’ve written, every audio I’ve recorded and TV shows and training videos are available online, by subscription.
Who knew that having a horse business would require you to stay on top of technological advances and the changes in human behavior that result?
In 2008, I had the opportunity to start a TV show, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight, where I took the biggest detour in my business and jumped into broadcast TV with both feet. There was a steep learning curve at first, but fast-forward eleven years and 260 episodes, and we had it down to a science. Horse Master became a super popular, unscripted, how-to horse training show, where I work with a different horse/rider pair in each episode.
The TV show has opened a lot of doors for me and set the stage for bigger things to come. We’ve now begun production of a brand new TV series about the horse lifestyle and how horses have remained relevant in our society, more than a century after the combustion engine rendered them obsolete.
Today, I operate an online retail sales and a media production company, all centered on horses. I train horses and teach people almost every single day, but the engine that drives my business is retail sales and media. We will never lose sight of how important horses are in our lives and in our business. Everyone on my team is a horse lover and a rider.
We all love going to work every day and we’re fortunate to be involved in a business that we’re passionate about. We’ll never lose sight of the fact that our customers are passionate about horses and that this is a labor of love. We focus on products that make your horse life easier and better. Our motto is, “Helping horses, one human at a time.”
Thank you to everyone who has supported my small business for the last 34 years and counting!
Horses are very clever animals—quite adept at training people to do what they want. If you think you’ve never been trained by a horse, you probably aren’t paying attention. In every clinic I do, I see riders that have developed what I would call a codependent relationship—a horse that is constantly threatening disobedience and a rider that is playing along with the horse’s threats.
I see riders that cannot keep their horse going at trot or canter—the horse is constantly threatening to break gait and the rider is constantly saying, “No, don’t do that.” I see horses cutting corners and the rider pulling the outside rein. I see horses pulling toward the gate/barn/buddy and the rider seemingly oblivious, pulling the horse in the other direction but never confronting the issue.
Horses are sneaky about this stuff and long before the rider realizes she is playing along, the horse has trained the rider to keep pedaling the horse to go or keep pulling the outside rein to stay on the right path. By playing along, the rider is complicit in the horse’s disobedience and proving to the horse that she will tolerate the disobedience, rather than address it. Or worse, demonstrating to the horse that she is unaware of its disobedience.
Generally, the biggest problem in a codependent relationship is that the rider is unaware of the horse’s behavior—riding in a way that tells the horse that she is blissfully ignorant about the way he is supposed to act. It helps to know how a properly trained horse is supposed to act, but the most important thing is to become aware of the horse’s disobedience, call him out on it and break the cycle of codependency (often easier said than done).
What is an Obedient Horse? A properly trained saddle horse should travel in the speed and direction the rider wants, until the rider says to do something different. Once you tell the horse to do something, let’s say slow-trot in this direction, the horse should continue trotting in that direction, at the speed the rider dictates, without pedaling or pulling, until the rider says to do something different—like turn, slow down or speed up.
Obedience in a riding horse means that it goes on the path dictated entirely by the rider, at a speed chosen by the rider, without micromanagement from the rider. The horse should have no decision-making authority in this regard (imagine letting a thousand-pound flight animal go in the speed or direction it wanted). If the rider is constantly telling the horse to slow down, speed up or stay on the path, it means the horse is constantly threatening disobedience. The horse is holding the rider hostage and making the rider complicit in its disobedience, while the rider seems blissfully ignorant of the horse’s actions.
Everyone who has ever taken a horsemanship clinic from me, has heard me talk about “The Golden Moments.” It’s the time at the beginning of the ride when the rider should test the horse’s level of obedience and make her expectations abundantly clear to the horse. If the rider is not proactive at this time, the tables will turn. The horse will test the rider to see what it can get away with, and how aware the rider is of the horse’s actions.
Awareness is the Answer Horses are herd animals and are very aware of the actions and emotions of the animals around them—including humans. Since most of their communication with other horses is through postures, gestures and body language, they are particularly adept at reading others—again, including humans. They are relationship-oriented animals, so they have a high level of awareness of how other animals are acting.
Humans, on the other hand, are often oblivious to the vibe they are giving off to a horse. The rider often lets her self-doubt, lack of confidence or lack of skill/knowledge show, by not following through on directives and overlooking small infractions. The rider tends to be overly focused on herself, how she’s sitting, what she’s doing with the reins, heels down, eyes up, hands in front of the saddle…. Gradually, the horse starts pushing boundaries, to see what it can get away with, until the rider notices.
Once the rider becomes more aware of the horse, its actions and its motivations, the game is over for the horse. It’s the rider’s lack of awareness that gives the green light to the horse to act however he wants.
Turning the Tables Once the rider is aware of the horse’s disobedience, it’s easy to bring the game to an end. Part of his strategy involves the rider’s lack of awareness, so simply calling the horse out on his behavior—treating it as a violation—will go a long way to stop the behavior. In general, horses do not want to get in trouble. The rider should scold the horse in such a way that he gets the message, “I know what you are doing, now knock it off!”
In addition to recognizing the disobedience, it’s also important to understand the motive. Why is the horse acting this way? How does he benefit? What does he want? By understanding the horse’s motivations, it will be far easier to correct him in a manner that takes away all the benefits. Perhaps a few examples will help.
If I detect a horse is veering from the path I dictated by pulling toward the gate/barn/buddy, I now know that 1) my horse is in a disobedient frame of mind, and 2) that he wants to go in a certain direction. My first goal is to let the horse know, I know what he is doing. So instead of politely steering him back to the path I chose, I will scold with my voice (calling him out) and maybe bounce/slap my leg on his ribs, perhaps bump one rein. Then, and most importantly, I’ll make sure I turn the horse a few times—with each turn being AWAY from his objective. I want to be very careful that my horse does not gain any ground and in fact ends up farther away from his objective.
If I am riding in the arena and the horse is pulling toward the middle, refusing to stay on the rail unless I hold him there, my first step is awareness. If I just go around the arena holding the outside rein so his nose is to the wall and he’s going around the arena counter-bent, the horse thinks I don’t know what he’s doing. So I may bump the outside rein as I bump/slap with my inside leg and scold with my voice. Then, I will make a few changes of direction, turning him into the fence each time—never turning him toward the middle. The changes of direction are abrupt and cause him to come closer to the rail with each turn. Then I’ll put him back to the rail, relax my hands and see if he decides to stay there without me holding him. If not, scold and turn into the fence a few times. Once he learns that every time he leans into the middle, it will buy him 3-4 abrupt turns into the fence, he will give it up.
Beware of Whack-a-Mole When horses misbehave, they generally do the same thing at the same place, every time. They tend to be predictable in their disobedience. This is good because it gives the rider the opportunity to think ahead of the horse and be proactive—take charge BEFORE the horse does his little trick. Being one step ahead of the horse lets him know that the rider is onto his antics.
However, there is a saying in horse training… “it always gets worse before it gets better.” This refers to the fact that if a horse has been getting away with disobedience for some time and you address it—call him out on it—he is unlikely to just stop and never do it again. Especially if it’s a tactic that’s been working well for him; he’s reluctant to give it up so he might put up a little fight before he totally caves. It’s important to stay-the-course, even if he gets mad.
Often, when a horse is acting up at a specific place—either in the arena or on the trail—and you address it, that same disobedient behavior will pop up in a new place. This is quite normal; it’s a tactic the horse has reason to believe will work again, so he tries the same thing someplace else. When you call him out on that, he may try it again someplace different. But eventually, he will give it up.
If a horse has gotten away with disobedience for some time, it may make him mad that his tricks aren’t working. It may temporarily exacerbate the disobedience or cause a bit of a tantrum. The job of the rider is to stay the course without throwing gas on the flame. In other words, be insistent and persistent, but do not agitate the horse further. No need to fight; just wait for the horse to give it up.
Horses may not be great problem-solvers, but they can be very clever in their disobedient tactics and very manipulative of others. Often this manipulative behavior leads to a co-dependent relationship, causing the rider to hold the horse on the path or hold the horse in a speed. But once the rider is aware of the horse’s manipulations, calls the horse out on it, refusing to succumb to the tactic, the game is usually over for the horse.
Whether you keep your horse at home or at a boarding facility, there will be times when new horses must be integrated into an existing herd. Generally, this involves a lot of posturing between the horses– chasing, biting, and hooves flying. Horses take this event quite seriously and it’s a scary proposition to the new horse and its owner.
Horses are herd animals by nature; they form bonded relationships within the herd, vie for status and fight amongst themselves. Acceptance of a new horse is never granted easily by the herd and the addition of one new individual can totally disrupt the hierarchy of the herd.
The more you understand the horse’s herd instincts, and the ways that domestication complicates matters, the easier it is to make smart decisions. Taking the time to introduce horses slowly and strategically will help the integration of the ‘new kid’ go smoothly, reduce the risk of injury and keep fireworks to a minimum.
Horses are instinctively gregarious animals, meaning that by nature, they’re drawn to the herd. A horse banished from the herd will always seek acceptance in another herd, because his survival is at stake. A horse is dependent on the herd for its own safety and comfort.
Gregarious behavior is present in all horses, it’s one of their strongest instinctive drives, although we often speak of it as an affliction (herd bound, barn sour, nappy, etc.). Although a horse without a herd will always seek acceptance into a herd, the existing herd always rejects a new member, until the new horse proves it is worthy of acceptance. The new kid is guilty until proven innocent.
A horse herd has a distinct structure and hierarchy of leadership. What horse owners often refer to as the “pecking order,” animal behaviorists call a “linear hierarchy.” Simply put, every individual in the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to every other herd member. There is no equality in a horse herd; there’s a horse at the top, and one at the bottom, the rest are lined out in-between. Even amongst bonded individuals (buddies), one of them is dominant and the other is subordinate.
The most dominant horse often becomes the leader of the herd and this horse is designated “Alpha.” The next horse in the line of hierarchy is called “Beta.” The horse all the way at the bottom of the pecking order is designated “Omega.” Truly alpha horses are strong, fair leaders that the other horses admire and feel secure in its presence. Alpha individuals may be male or female, an unusual trait in the animal kingdom. Beta horses tend to challenge authority and may act like bullies, but often do not have the leadership qualities of a true alpha horse. The omega horse usually accepts its fate at the bottom of the hierarchy, it rarely challenges authority and tries to stay out of the fray.
By nature, horses are born with a temperament that may be high or low on the scales of fear, confidence, curiosity or dominance, among other traits. A horse is born with its temperament, which will largely dictate where it sits in the hierarchy. But horses are extremely fast learning animals as well; they may learn to manipulate other horses to gain more status. Sometimes horses gain status in the herd from an affiliation with another horse, so adding or subtracting one individual can often disrupt the hierarchy.
An existing herd is always reluctant to accept a new member, unless and until it shows contrition and a willingness to respect the leadership and be a good citizen in the herd. As predictable as the tides, when a new horse seeks acceptance into the herd, the existing herd members will aggressively drive the horse away, as if to say, “We don’t like you and we don’t want you.”
The new horse continues to seek acceptance, feeling as if his life is dependent on being accepted. He lowers his head in a contrite and subordinate posture, as if to say, “Please, I’ll do anything if you let me in. I’ll follow the rules, respect the hierarchy and be a good herdmate.”
Eventually, the existing herd members will back off and allow the new horse provisional membership in the herd. The new kid will work his way up the hierarchy to its rightful place and may become bonded with other herdmates.
Relationships are Complicated
In a stable herd of any size, feral or domestic, the horses all know their position in the herd and are accepted members. Large herds of horses usually have factions, or smaller sub-herds of horses that like to be together.
Within a large herd there are horses that like each other and others who do not; there are friends, rivals and enemies. Horses prefer to hang out with their buddies and bonded horses will have each others’ back. There are many cooperative and philanthropic behaviors that occur between bonded horses, including protection and fighting off an aggressive horse.
Within any herd of horses, individuals may form a specially bonded relationships with one or two other individuals. In natural herds, bonded individuals (who behaviorists refer to as “associates”) are often related by blood. Stallions can be extremely possessive of mares and entirely hostile towards marauding stallions.
Horses in the herd, either domesticated or feral, can be possessive of some horses and jealous of other horses. Sometimes domesticated horses may become possessive over their humans and are jealous or combative if another horse approaches or gets attention from its human.
In domestication, horses don’t get to choose their herdmates. Usually humans make that choice, organizing herds according to their own convenience, often without regard to the horse’s natural behavior. Consequently, the horses may not like each other, sometimes bullies are in charge and/or the hierarchy can be unstable. Often, adding or subtracting one individual can change the herd dynamic in surprising ways, because there were false or forced relationships to begin with.
There is never a void of leadership in a horse herd, either domesticated or feral. If the alpha individual is suddenly removed, another horse will immediately step in as alpha—theoretically, the strongest natural leader emerges, either male or female.
But what happens if none of the horses in a forced herd are natural leaders? What happens when there are multiple beta horses, all scrapping for dominance? In domestication, although there will always be a leader in the herd, it may not always be a good one.
Geldings, although neutered, can often display stallion-like behaviors when it comes to possessing mares, fighting off other geldings and even mating. Of course, mares are usually not neutered and therefore may display unpleasant behaviors in estrus, wreaking havoc in the herd for a 4-5 days every few weeks. Interestingly, in feral herds, the mares usually only come into heat once a year, shortly after foaling, then are pregnant again for the remaining 11 months of the year. Domesticated mares that are not bred may cycle most or all of the year, causing a lot of frustration and angst in the herd.
Many large horse operations segregate horses by gender, to avoid the unpleasantness of a mixed-gender herd. I’ve seen it plenty of times—a large group of geldings co-existing peacefully, and the same of mares. But put one gelding in the mare pen or one mare in the gelding pen and there’s kicking, squealing, chasing and hair flying. But for many horse owners, segregating horses by gender isn’t a realistic option.
Even horses that don’t like each other may become a tight-knit herd, when that’s their only choice. But they may never become bonded associates. A horse’s preference or disdain for another horse can be hard to know in a small, forced herd where they have no choice but to hang out together. In larger herds, it may be hard to know which horse are enemies because horses that dislike each other don’t have to interact.
A manger of a herd of 200 saddle horses once told me that they bought about a dozen horses a year and those horses were quarantined together, then at some point, integrated to run with the larger herd. Because the horses were quarantined together and then were pitted against the whole herd as the “unwanteds,” they often became their own faction, staying together as a sub-group for the rest of their tenure at the ranch, as if that traumatic experience had bonded them for life.
Relationships between horses can be complicated and the preferences or disdain they show for others can play out like a B-rated soap opera at times. This makes integrating new horses into a herd a huge challenge. It pays to be very deliberate, move slowly and test the waters carefully, so horses don’t get hurt.
Flight or Fight
Flight is the most defining characteristic of the horse, a trait that made the equine species difficult to domesticate some five to ten thousand years ago. Horses generally choose flight over other options, but when motivated to fight, they are very well equipped.
Horse fights are extremely violent, and stallions may even fight to the death. In a normal herd setting, horses constantly make threatening gestures to others or lash out with a kick or bite. Minor horse-on-horse aggression is normal; but if the herd is in a constant state of argument and aggression, some rearrangement may be needed.
A horse has three weapons in his arsenal—his teeth, his front feet and his hind feet. Biting, striking and kicking are the horse’s arsenal and his teeth are his most deadly weapon. When horses fight to kill, they generally bite the jugular. Consequently, when male horses spar, or play-fight, they often bite at the throat.
It’s important to distinguish between aggressive kicking and defensive kicking—most often it’s the latter that we see. When a dominant horse attacks a subordinate, the subordinate kicks out in defense, often with one leg, and then runs away. The kick buys him time.
Aggressive kicking is typically accompanied by squealing (a terribly loud scream) and the horse is usually kicking double-barrels and backing into the other horse (who may be doing the same). Horses kicking butt-to-butt are very serious about the fight and this is a very dangerous situation.
When two unfamiliar horses meet, they generally come nose-to-nose and smell each other’s breath, then go nose-to-genitals and smell there before coming back head-to-head. At that point you may see aggressive posturing (raised neck, arched back, swishy tail, stomping) and hear a squeal, which means aggression may ensue.
Any result is possible when two unknown horses meet: they may be indifferent to each other, like each other, hate each other or want to kill each other. Most often, horses are indifferent or get along. When they don’t, sparks may fly and horses may get hurt.
Introducing a new horse into a herd is best done slowly and with calculation, to minimize the risk of injury. There are so many variables in the herd size and dynamics, the facilities available and the temperament of the horses, that it is difficult to offer suggestions that work in any situation. But over the decades, I’ve learned some tricks that may help ease the transition.
First, I like to quarantine the new horse for a week or two. Not only does this help reduce the spread of illness, it also allows the horse time to get used to his new environment and become acquainted with his new human family. It allows me time to get to know the horse and evaluate his temperament before introducing him to the rest of the herd.
Next, I like to let the new horse be in a pen that shares a common fence with the herd. I want the fence to be tall (at least five feet) and solid (to hold up to kicking, striking and leaning on both sides). I may only do this for short periods while I observe what horses are friendly and which are aggressive. I may leave the new horse next to the herd for days, as he gets to know the players.
Since more horses are friendly than aggressive, chances are good that some of the horses in the herd will be interested in making friends with the new horse. As I observe the initial interactions over the fence, I can determine which horses will be jealous or possessive and which horses are interested in the new horse.
If I can, I will allow the new horse to meet one or two of the friendly horses without the fence in between—turning them out together for some time before introducing the rest of the herd. That way, the new horse may have a friend when he meets the whole herd. Sometimes it’s feasible to add one horse at a time to the new horse’s pen, until the whole herd is together.
Often, identifying the one dominant horse that is causing the conflict and removing that horse from the equation, allows everyone else to get along just fine. I would keep that horse isolated from the herd for a week or two, while the new guy settles in and finds his place. Be careful not to break up alliances in the existing herd, as you introduce the horses one at a time. A jealous, dominant horse may come uncorked when he sees his BFF with the new guy.
If I have any concerns about aggression when I put the horses all together, I’ll recruit help from one or two friends. Armed with training flags or whips to wave and make noise, we’ll referee the first meeting. If the horses become aggressive, we’ll shout and wave the flags to break them up and then remove the trouble-makers. A little solitary confinement may make the aggressive horse rethink his behavior next time, while the new horse gets comfortable with the rest of the herd. Fighting horses are scary and dangerous, so proceed with great caution.
Most importantly, take your time when integrating a new horse into a herd and employ a strategy. Do your best to know the temperaments of the horses and who the main players will be. Most of the time, horses will work out their differences and find a new order in the herd, in a matter of hours, but occasionally, horses can be injured. Whatever you can do to reduce the risk and stress level, will help the horses.
It’s never easy to witness. There’s something about their power… their free spirit… the image of running like the wind, that makes it especially hard to watch a horse go down. Seeing a happy and carefree horse suddenly fall ill and struggle to survive or watching an old beloved friend suffer and grow weak… these are some of the hardest issues horse owners face. The death of a horse is not something we like to think about, but death is a part of life and when it comes to horses, it’s best to be prepared.
Recently, we lost our horse Eddie—suddenly and with no warning. He literally dropped in his tracks in the arena, the entire ordeal lasting only a few minutes from start to finish. To say it was unexpected is a gross understatement. A few weeks later, I shared our loss in my newsletter, and I was floored with the response—through emails, texts, posts, phone calls and in person— people were expressing condolences and often sharing stories about losing a beloved horse. It made me realize that death is part of life and that we cannot expect to enjoy the incredible gifts horses give us, without taking on this risk and responsibility.
Sudden death in horses, from causes like stroke or aneurysm, is not common, but not unheard of either. Colic is by far the number one killer of domesticated horses and although it typically comes on fast and hard, in some cases it can be a long slow death, unless the suffering is ended through euthanasia. Many horses live with chronically debilitating and degenerative diseases, until their owners recognize the time has come to end their suffering. On rare occasions horses just lay down and die peacefully of old age. If only it was always that easy!
No matter how, when or where it happens, the death of a horse is tragic and difficult. Having an action plan for end-of-life events, thoughtfully considered ahead of time, will help you navigate this difficult path when it is thrust upon you. Understanding the options in dealing with the aftermath of a dead horse can be quite challenging and unpleasant – don’t wait until you are charged with emotion and tears to know what they are. Finally, moving on to a new horse is a big step for some people, but it is possible to find another connection. I have some advice that may help.
Action Plan When the time comes and the unthinkable happens—your horse is dying or needs you to consider its quality of life —what will you do? What resources can you bring to the table? Who will you call for help? Is a trip to a veterinary hospital an option? How will you get him there? What if euthanasia is the kindest decision? Will you be able to make responsible decisions, on the spot? Probably not, unless you have thought some things through in advance.
Your available access to mobile veterinary care, as well as access to equine hospitals and surgical centers, will play a large role in the critical-care decisions you make for your horse. For instance, it would be a three-hour haul through the mountains for me to get a horse to a hospital that could perform colic surgery. Horses sick enough to need colic surgery may die in-route or be too exhausted to survive the difficult and expensive surgery.
Emergency veterinary care for horses can run north of $10,000 in just a few days, so it is an unfortunate fact of life that financial resources will also have a bearing on the decisions you make. Consider setting up an emergency fund and write down what your wishes are for your horse in the event of illness, or injury. These kinds of decisions are best thought about in advance and not in the heat of the moment. Be realistic about your budget and what makes sense. Make sure friends who may end up in charge of your horse’s life, if you are suddenly out of the picture, know what you would want done for your horses. Of course, medical and mortality insurance are readily available for horses, which is a good idea if you have a large financial investment in your horse.
Euthanasia decisions are required to be made by most horse owners eventually – we tend to outlive our horses, for the most part. In the case of old age, crippling lameness, chronical illness or degenerative disease, we sometimes have months or years to make the decision to “pull the trigger.” One of the biggest fears for horse owners is, “How will I know when it’s time?” You’ll know when the horse’s suffering is too great, when he’s depressed and has lost the will to live. When he can no longer lay down or get up. When movement stops because it’s too painful. The worst mistake you can make here is to get greedy—to be unwilling to let the horse go—protecting your own self-interest and shying away or ignoring the needs of your horse.
When you see your horses all the time, it’s easy to miss the slow degeneration…your horse has lost weight, conditioning, his attitude has changed…but you don’t see it like someone else would who hadn’t seen your horse in six months. Track your horse’s weight, it doesn’t matter how accurate the weight tape is, just that it can register a change. Get a resting heart rate, so you can monitor his pain level. Become familiar with the subtle signs of lameness and understand that horses are programmed to hide weaknesses to survive…when they finally reveal a weakness/illness/lameness it is often a shock.
It’s not easy to know when it’s the right time to end a horse’s suffering, but to me, the greatest mistake is in waiting too long and losing control of a dignified death. Don’t wait until it’s an emergency. This decision might be made easier by considering “The Five Freedoms of Horses,” which outline five aspects of animal welfare under our control:
Freedom from hunger and thirst.
Freedom from discomfort.
Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
Freedom from distress and fear.
Freedom to express natural behavior.
When a horse no longer has all five freedoms, it’s probably time to consider euthanasia. Unfortunately, the decision to euthanize a horse sometimes comes with no warning or time for preparation. Here’s where your action plan can be most helpful. This is often the case with serious colic, acute laminitis or trauma. Call on those resources you’ve already identified – that friend, the vet or others knowing they have knowledge, experience and advice you can trust. The support of a horse professional or more experienced horse friend will also help you think through these hard decisions—call someone – you don’t need to go it alone. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is to end the horse’s suffering and you should never feel badly about that. In the end you should trust your gut and listen to your vet.
Euthanizing a horse is not the easy way out and it is not a pretty thing to witness. Say your goodbyes, then consider letting the professionals handle the job. It’s best to preserve the most beautiful memories you have of your horse. It’s good to rely on others at times like this. If you feel the need to be there at your horse’s side for his last breaths, realize that it can be a dangerous and unpredictable process. Listen to your vet and let them coach you on staying out of harm’s way.
Guilt is a Useless Emotion Often when horses die, especially from an acute colic or sudden death, we have a need to seek answers and assign blame. Too often, the answers will never be available to you, so time spent chasing them can be fruitless. Assigning blame and second-guessing, whether it’s to yourself or others, rarely if ever helps. It’s always important to assess what happened, what could have been different and how we might change things for the future. But no amount of guilt, blame or self-punishment will bring the horse back to life. So be kind to yourself. This sentiment was eloquently stated by a staff veterinarian at Nutramax Labs, in a letter to me, after Eddie died:
I’m so very sorry for your loss in Eddie. I know he was a fabulous horse and I also know that he had a fabulous life with you! I’m sure he couldn’t have had a better home than at your ranch! Unfortunately, we never know when their time will come to cross the rainbow bridge and sometimes it is far too soon. Find peace in the fact that he went quickly and did not suffer. There is nothing you could have or should have done differently for him. You gave him an amazing home and a wonderful life full of love! You and everyone on your team are in my thoughts and prayers!
Love and Hugs!! Stacey Buzzell, DVM
Instead of feeling sad and guilty or angry and defensive, wouldn’t it be great if we could remember the good things about our time with that horse—reflect on the memories and savor the relationship we had? Another note I received from retired trauma physician—no doubt well-versed in knowing just what to say in times like this– was very meaningful to me and set the right tone…
I am so sorry about Eddie’s sudden death and just want to tell you I’m thinking about you and your “barn family” as you each grieve the loss in your own way. Anyone who met Eddie immediately saw him as the epitome of a “Good Boy” and the love and respect and comfort he felt for you as his leader was so obvious when he was with you. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every horse were able to live up to his potential in a similar environment? Give yourself a hug for the life that you and Rich gave Eddie.
Final Resting Place Having to watch a horse suffer and making difficult, life-ending decisions is hard enough, and it’s followed by the challenge of physically dealing with the horse after he’s dead. Honestly, if you’re squeamish, it may be best to just skip this whole section of the article and find someone else to deal with it. But there will be decisions that must be made.
There may be renderers in your area that will come pick up the carcass and dispose of it in their own way. This is likely the easiest and cheapest solution, if it’s available to you. Also, there are cremation services for horses and generally the service you pay for (and it’s expensive) will come pick up the carcass and handle the cremation and return a large container of ashes to you.
Depending on where you live and the local and state laws that apply, your options for carcass disposal will vary. In many places, it is illegal to bury horses in the ground, in part to prevent contamination of the water table. If burial is an option on your property, then hiring a backhoe and driver to dig a hole may be an option, but it comes with a few caveats. If the driver has not buried a horse before, they will almost certainly make the hole too small. The size of the hole is way bigger than one might think. Getting the horse to the hole and fitting it into the hole is also not easy nor pretty and may require some wrestling.
If you are burying a horse that was euthanized with a needle, the carcass is highly toxic both to scavenger animals and to the water table. Chemically euthanized horses must be handled carefully to avoid spreading the toxins that are now in the carcass. Make sure the carcass is well-covered if some time will elapse before burial and use discretion in selecting a burial spot.
The local landfill may take horse carcasses but call them first so they can be prepared. I have on occasion, had a horse euthanized in a stock trailer so that the carcasses can be off-loaded easily and then immediately buried at the landfill. Again, this is not a pleasant thought, but sometimes, especially with euthanized horses, it is the most practical solution. In many areas of the west, ranchers have “bone yards” at a remote location on their ranch where they take carcasses and let predators and Mother Nature do the job of decomposing. If you know a rancher that will allow it, this is not a bad way to go. It’s not an option for horses euthanized with drugs, but may be a viable solution for horses that die naturally or are euthanized with captive bolt or a bullet. Also, there may be uses for non-toxic carcasses in feeding zoo animals in your area.
Composting a carcass can be a viable solution, depending on how much land you have and the climate you live in. There are instructions available online and it’s an elaborate process. It takes six months to a year for the carcass to fully decompose, depending on the climate. Your veterinarian may know of other options in your area and your county extension agent should have some advice on carcass disposal.
There’s one more piece of advice that is not fun to talk about, but important to know. Removing a dead horse from a barn or stall can be ugly. If possible, you want to avoid having a horse die inside a building or area of confinement. It will require a large piece of equipment to move a thousand-pound carcass, which will need room to negotiate and lifting the carcass off the ground will require a tall reach. Once rigor mortis has set in, moving the carcass through door openings or out of stalls is nearly impossible and sometimes it can only be moved in parts if walls and fences cannot be disassembled.
These are certainly not pleasant issues to think about and investigate, but it’s far easier to get the information and choose an option well before you need it than in the heat of the moment.
Moving On Just like with horses, humans can become so tightly bonded to one individual horse, especially when you’ve been partners for years, that starting over in a brand-new relationship with another horse can be a challenge. I’ve heard a lot of anguish over the years from people in this situation who’ve had trouble accepting a new horse—succumbing to the temptation to make comparisons between the horses and ultimately being disappointed in the new horse because they can’t let go of what they once had.
For many people, riding an unfamiliar horse is scary and leaving that comfort zone and heading into the unknown with a new horse feels like stepping off the edge of the earth. There’s no point in rushing into anything. Allow yourself to grieve. Give it time before moving onto another horse. For others, jumping back in the saddle with a new horse is just the right medicine, but could carry the risk of making an impetuous decision about a long-term relationship.
Whether you need to give it time or are ready to jump right back in, this is an opportunity for you to reassess your wants and needs, when it comes to your next horse. Before looking at any horses for sale or for adoption, think long and hard about your personal needs. What disciplines do you ride or want to ride, how much time can you devote to the new horse, your personal energy/activity level, and your skill level. What do you miss most about the horse you lost? What qualities do you wish to avoid? Create a list of must-haves and hope-to-haves and deal-breakers.
Rather than thinking of it as starting over, think of it as reinventing your horse life and a chance to create a new beginning and relationship. Make your lists and imagine your dream horse. Finding that horse will present a whole new set of challenges but knowing what you want is the right place to start.
Once you’ve found your new partner, be patient and allow your relationship to develop over time. Each horse and owner relationship is unique. Give your new horse time to adjust to its new life with you. Open your heart to this next step with your equine partner and avoid making comparisons with the horse you loved and lost. Know that it will take time to get to know each other, to build trust, to build a comfort level. Eventually, you’ll once again be able to focus on the power, the strength and the beauty that a horse brings to your life and simply enjoy the ride…
#Joy2Ride | Top 10 Qualities of My Ideal Riding Horse
I expect a lot from my horses, and they rarely let me down. My horse is my partner, first mate and a reflection of my soul. I know the amazing feats horses are capable of, and after riding and training literally thousands of horses, I’ve witnessed countless times their willingness to do our bidding and their tolerance of our mistakes and idiocy. How well the horse performs, and the things he learns, is a product of his rider—although our tendency is to put the blame for a failure to perform squarely on the horse.
Last month, I wrote about the top 10 ground manners that a horse should have to be safe and pleasurable to handle and the response was big—thank you! It got me thinking about what ideal qualities I want in a riding horse. Not specific riding skills (like flying lead changes, or discipline-specific performance like reining or jumping), but general qualities that I expect of any well-trained horse—no matter the breed or type of riding I am doing.
If you are starting with raw ingredients—either a youngster or a mature horse that missed out on a proper education, it will take time (weeks and months) to develop these skills and engrain these qualities in your horse. Don’t be overwhelmed! Instead, start forming your expectations and teaching them to your horse today. Set some ground rules.
If your horse is not just uneducated, but has been trained improperly—meaning he has learned wrong things, like he can do or not do whatever he wants—achieving these ideal qualities will take even longer. You can start working toward these ideals today, but be aware that you may need to change your approach. It may be that you need to change your ways—not the horse. Consistency and clarity will help make your job easier.
If you are in the market for a horse, these would be important qualities to consider in your pre-purchase or pre-adoption evaluation. Maybe you’ve got a horse that you trained yourself and you’d like to see how his skills stack up to a professionally trained mount. Or perhaps you’ve got a new equine partner and you’re establishing a relationship with that horse that will carry you into the future. The ideals listed below will help you clarify your goals and develop a plan of action.
There’s no such thing as a bad horse or bad behavior. Behavior should not have a value judgment on it—it’s neither bad nor good, it’s just behavior. Horses act like horses, unless they’ve been taught to act differently. Horses reflect their handlers and act solely in ways that are either instinctive or learned. When a horse displays behavior that is undesirable to us, it is either because it’s his natural behavior or he has actually been taught to act that way through poor handling and training (the latter happens a lot more often than one might think).