Joy 2 Ride: Top Ten Qualities of My Ideal Riding Horse

#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).

Every time you handle or ride a horse, you are either training it or un-training it. As horse owners, we are responsible for training the horse so that he is safe and pleasant to be around and has a bright and secure future, even if you are no longer in the picture. Just like you raise your children to be successful and independent adults, you must train your horse in such a way that he has value to society and a safe future ahead of him.

Only a few of these top 10 qualities are related to the horse’s temperament, and even then, training will have a heavy influence on the horse’s natural behavior. A horse is born with his temperament, but they are such capable learners that even the flightiest horse, for instance, can be taught to approach scary objects with curiosity.

Here are my top ten ideal qualities in a riding horse that make it a #Joy2Ride:

  1. Stands still like a statue for mount/dismount and does not walk off unless given a cue. Once we are underway, he will stand calmly and patiently any time I ask him to stop.
  2. Goes exactly in the direction that I ask with straightness; tracks exactly in a path dictated by me, never veering or avoiding or pulling me in the direction he wants to go. Stays “between my aids” (seat, legs, hands) at all times.
  3. Goes at a speed dictated entirely by me and never requires me to push, pedal or pull. Self-regulates his speed at whatever rate I ask and maintains that speed even on a loose rein.
  4. Is relaxed and compliant and focused on me or the task at hand or tuned out to his surroundings (focused on nothing). Is not looking all around, looking for an escape route or distracted by other horses.
  5. Performs equally well when ridden on a loose rein or on direct contact. Collects his frame easily when asked and carries himself in collection with a soft rein and light aids.
  6. Is light and responsive to my aids; stops off my seat and moves off my legs with complete nose-to-tail body control.
  7. Performs reliably in any situation and any location. Can perform equally well away from home or in a strange location as he does at home. 
  8. Ignores other horses, known and unknown; does not show interest or interact with other horses while being ridden. Rides well alone or in company. Not intimidated by large groups of horses. Will lead or follow without complaint.
  9. Tries hard when I ask, even when it’s scary, physically difficult and/or something he doesn’t want to do. Has a stellar work ethic and gets down to business—not looking for shortcuts or trying to get out of work.
  10. Has courage and curiosity; low on flight and high on investigative behavior. Does not spin and bolt when spooked but is willing to face and approach.

Score your horse on a scale of 1 to 10 for each category, with 10 being perfect. Add all ten categories and you’ll have your horse’s score, based on 100 being the perfect saddle horse. If you scored in the 80s or 90s, good job! Think about what more you need to do to make your horse perfect.

If your score was below 80, you’ve got some remedial work to do! First, you must recognize how much of the low score is caused by you—either through poor handling or unclear and 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. 

I could write volumes on how to go about training all these qualities in a horse (and I have), but it’s not rocket science. People have been doing it for thousands of years, with a great deal of success. In my podcast later this month, I’ll talk about some of the specific training techniques to instill these qualities in a saddle horse and I’ll answer your most pressing questions. So be sure to tune in, anywhere you get your podcasts, or at JulieGoodnight.com/podcast.

Equine Good Citizen Award: Is your horse eligible?

Eddie
Eddie

Well-mannered, easy to handle horses are a joy to be around—it’s like pushing the easy button. A calm, patient, focused horse that respects your boundaries, is eager to please and willing to do you bidding is not only fun, but safer too.

If a horse could be an Eagle Scout, my horse Eddie would earn the rank. He always tries hard to please, he follows the rules, works hard to earn approval and will try hard to conquer any challenge I present to him. By my standards, he would easily win a good citizen award. Although he hit the ground with a stellar temperament, which certainly helps, good citizens are made not born.

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 and turn a young horse into a pushy, impatient, tantrum-throwing brat. 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 and instead focusing on the task at hand, like facing and approaching a fearful stimulus instead of running from it, come from clear and consistent training and competent handling over time.

We have an obligation to teach good manners to the horse, not only for our own benefit, but also to ensure that the horse is well-treated by others and has the best opportunities in life. Your horse knows nothing more and nothing less about how to behave around humans than what he’s been taught. Inappropriate or undesirable behaviors in a horse reflect on his handlers, in the same way that spoiled children are a product of their parents. We cannot blame the horse or the child.

I spent some time thinking about what expectations I have of a well-mannered horse and what skills are important to instill so that he is safe, pleasant and fun to be around. These are lofty goals, yes, but for centuries and millennia, people have been successful in training horses to do incredible things and be amazingly cooperative partners.

Below, I have compiled a list of ten ground-manners and skills that I think a horse should have in order to win a good citizen award. As you read through the checklist, score your horse on a scale of 1 to 10 for each category, with 10 being perfect. Tally your score for all ten categories and you’ll know if your horse passes the test!

  1. Respects my boundaries: does not crowd my space, put his mouth or lips on me, shoulder into me, or sling his head at me.
  2. Easy to catch, halter and leads politely alongside me in the position I have designated, from either side, rating his speed on mine, never getting ahead of me and never lagging behind me.
  3. Stands quietly whenever and wherever tied; ground ties; stands still for vet and farrier; stands perfectly still and does not move his feet unless I ask him to.
  4. Desensitized for easy handling of mouth, nose, face, ears, legs, tail, under belly and between the hind legs; lowers his head when asked.
  5. Picks up his feet when asked, holds them up without leaning or fussing and allows me to place the foot back down in a particular place.
  6. Accepts confinement in a stall and trailer. I love for horses to be turned out and not confined, but there will be times when confinement is necessary, and I need my horse to accept it.
  7. Loads and unloads from a horse trailer willingly; rides quietly. Even if you don’t plan to travel with your horse, this is an important skill for his safety and well-being.
  8. Keeps his focus on me and is always present with me, not distracted by others, looking for an exit or searching for his friends.
  9. Does not interact with other horses or display herd behaviors of any kind when being handled from the ground or ridden in a group of horses.
  10. Willing to leave the safety and comfort of the herd to go with me anywhere and without question. Acts the same way away from home as he does at home.

So how does your horse score? A score above 90 or above means you have an equine good citizen. Good job! This did not happen accidentally—it takes, time, patience, consistency and skill. If this test has revealed holes in your horse’s training, it’s never too late to teach him. My videos, Lead Line Leadership and Raised with Manners, are great resources for you (available in DVD and streaming online at juliegoodnight.com).

A horse with good manners is truly a pleasure and the prospects for his future are good. Every horse is worth this investment in your time and energy; every horse deserves a chance to be a good citizen—it’s all up to you. Horses crave leadership, structure and rules. When we have high expectations of the horse and teach him good manners, the added bonus is that your horse will look up to you, be eager to please you and want to be with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Unspoken Agreements

Apple, the horse starring in this episode.
Apple, the horse starring in this episode.

Is your horse easy to get along with, until you ask him to do something new and different? Or, heaven forbid, something he doesn’t want to do? Perhaps he’s happy to go down the trail in the company of others, but not alone. Or maybe he’ll go anywhere you point him, alone or with company, as long as you don’t ask him to cross water. How about the horse that half-heartedly trots when you ask, but threatens to buck if you ask to canter?
Horses are living, breathing animals with a mind of their own. They form opinions and make decisions.

Unfortunately, sometimes they come to conclusions we don’t agree with and form opinions that don’t jive with our wants and needs. For instance, if you’ve ridden a horse for two years and never once asked him to canter, your horse might understandably think you will never ask him to canter, or cantering is wrong or that it is not part of his contract. You can’t blame a guy for thinking, right?

The process of training horses involves both helping your horse form the correct opinions about being ridden and handled and not letting him get the wrong ideas. It takes months and years to train horses to a high level of performance and many mistakes can be made along the way that would lead your horse to misconceptions about what’s right and wrong. All it takes is releasing the pressure at the wrong moment, to convince a horse that was the right thing to do.

Although horses are not good at problem solving, they are always thinking and learning—whether we want them to or not—learning wrong things just as quickly as the right stuff. It’s funny that humans have literally three times the brain of a horse and much more capability in problem solving, yet we get outsmarted by horses all the time.

Huge pitfalls in a horse’s training can be avoided when the rider becomes more aware of the motivation behind the horse’s behavior, by making sure your horse forms the correct opinions about being ridden, by being mindful of the unspoken agreements between you and your horse and knowing who the decision maker is, in your “herd of two.”

Motivations Matter
Behind every behavior of your horse, there is a motivation for that action. If your horse throws a temper tantrum as you approach the horse trailer, his motivation is to get away from the trailer. If he refuses to move forward when you ask him to leave the barnyard, his motivation is likely to get back to his herd. If he argues and resists when you ask him to canter, his motivation may be to get out of hard work.

We don’t always get to know what motivates the horse’s behavior but in many instances, the motivation is very clear. If you can understand what is motivating the horse’s behavior, it will be far easier to fix. For instance, when the horse throws a fit about approaching the horse trailer, I know the very worst thing I can do is circle him back away from the trailer at the moment he throws the fit. Turning him back away from the trailer rewards the tantrum in that moment and getting away from the trailer was all he wanted.

Rather than simply react to your horse’s behavior, take a moment to assess his motivation. Once you understand why your horse is acting that way and what he is trying to achieve, you can address the behavior more effectively and make sure you don’t inadvertently reward the wrong behavior.

Opinions Count
You have opinions and so does your horse. It would be nice to think our opinions always align, but they don’t. For instance, you may think that you have not asked the horse to canter in over a year because you don’t want to canter and are not ready to canter. Your horse may come to believe that if he hasn’t been asked to canter in that long, he will never be asked. Furthermore, he may come to believe that it is not part of his contract—that you don’t have the right to ask him to canter.

Recently, I became aware that my young horse, Pepperoni, had formed an opinion that differed from mine. After riding indoors all winter, in the company of his herd mates, he mistakenly formed the opinion that he would never have to work alone. This became quite obvious when I took him to the outdoor arena alone and he threw a wall-eyed red-headed fit. My bad. I should’ve been working him in isolation more.

He had inadvertently formed the wrong opinion about how things work and he thought he was entitled to always ride in the company of other horses. We worked through this problem and I changed his way of thinking over a few weeks, and now I make sure I ride him alone regularly. Sometimes you and your horse will have differing opinions. It’s up to you, the leader, to clarify and rectify and make sure your horse comes out of every training session with the correct opinions.

Breach of Contract
In the training of a horse, we constantly make unspoken agreements with him. When you do as I ask, I will acknowledge and praise your obedience. When you try hard, I will let you rest. When you give the correct response, I will always release the pressure. When you resist or disobey my requests, I will always follow through with reinforcement.

Sometimes we make mistakes and fall down on our end of the agreement. Maybe at the moment you asked your horse to canter, you froze up on the reins and caused him to hit the bit and hurt his mouth. As far as he is concerned, this is an egregious breach of contract—you failed him. His head shaking and crow-hopping is his way of telling you that he thinks what you did is wrong. A smart rider will admit her mistakes and not blame the horse.

On the other hand, if you’ve been avoiding doing something with your horse because you are afraid to try or because you don’t think you can get your horse to do it, he may have come to believe that it is not part of his contract—that he will never have to do that. We can easily end up with a horse that does most of what we ask, but draws a line in the sand and says, “But I won’t give you any more than that—if you don’t push me, I won’t push back on you.”

I often see riders and horses that have this kind of arrangement—the “don’t push me too far” scenario. If there are things that you avoid asking your horse to do because you are afraid of his reaction when you do ask, your horse probably knows it and has come to believe that you’ve crossed a line when you ask that of him. In many instances, this kind of agreement seems to work, as long as the rider knows her place. But gradually, the horse will start making more and more deals under the table and is willing to do less and less.

You have a contract with your horse—to release the pressure when you should, to reward his good behavior, to not make mistakes and penalize him for doing his job, to be a good leader and make good decisions. Just make sure you have not inadvertently led your horse to believe that there are clauses in the contract which you have not agreed to. If there are things you avoid doing or if your horse has refused your request and you did not follow through, you may have taught him that he will never have to do that.

Decisions, Decisions
The person in charge is the one responsible for making the decisions. In your team of two—you and your horse—you should be the one in charge; you should be making all the decisions. You are the leader; your horse is the follower. You don’t want a thousand-pound flight animal making the decisions.

If your horse cannot trust your judgment (because you’ve made too many mistakes or betrayed his trust or been passive when you should’ve acted), he will constantly question your decisions. He may refuse to do what you ask or have a better suggestion for what you should do. If you make a poor decision that results in him getting hurt or scared, he has good reason not to trust your judgment anymore.

To be a good leader to your horse, you must not only make all the decisions but also make good decisions. It’s not just about you. Your responsibility is to take care of your horse—to be fair, consistent, and have good follow-through. It’s easy to blame things on the horse, but a good leader looks within for answers to problems.

At the end of the day, there’s only one conversation I want to have with my horse, and it starts like this… “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.” I like to think of myself as the Captain and my horse is my best first mate. I make the decisions and he makes it happen. He doesn’t argue with me or suggest I do things differently. He trusts me to make good decisions and he knows I won’t ask for more than he’s capable of giving me. He knows he will always be praised and rewarded for a job well done, and he also knows that if he falls down on his end of the agreement, he will hear about it from me.

Horses are quite clever, and they have a knack for reading people, sometimes better than people are reading themselves. Don’t be lured into thinking your horse doesn’t notice your actions, your lack-of-action or your avoidance behavior. Be honest with yourself and accept responsibility for your own mistakes. Think through your horse’s behavior, motivations and opinions and address them openly. Horses crave strong leadership and they know it when they see it, so look within and be the best leader you can be for your horse.

Top 5 Trailering Tips

Top 5 Tips for Stress-Free Trailering

Loading a thousand-pound flight animal into a small container on wheels and driving that live-weight down a busy highway to a horse show or up a 4WD forest road to a trail head, is no easy task and should never be taken lightly.

I remember driving my mom’s Buick (circa 1972), pulling a 3-horse-abreast trailer when I was only 16. My horse show buddies and I were headed to a local horse show, saddles in the trunk and our Thoroughbred show jumpers loaded happily in the back. My father taught us to drive and ride motorcycles as youngsters and I’d hauled horses with my dad a lot, so I was comfortable with the routine and confident in my driving skills. Perhaps a bit overconfident, as it turned out.

The roads were more-or-less flat and straight in Florida, so it wasn’t until I got off the interstate and headed down the short steep off-ramp that I realized that the extra 3,000 pounds of live-weight in the back, currently surging us forward, was going to be difficult to stop. I can still remember it like it was yesterday—it’s the subject of a recurring nightmare for me.

With some serious foot stomping and butt clenching, I managed to slow the rig down enough to slide through the stop sign, without losing traction. The horses were packed-in like sardines, so they made the turn just fine and thankfully there was no on-coming traffic. After that, I took driving horse trailers a lot more seriously.

For the last thirty-five years, I’ve lived in the mountains of Colorado, near the Continental Divide, in the “inner-mountain” region of the state. For me, hauling horses always requires negotiating mountain passes—some easy, some hair-raising; and usually entails driving hundreds of miles to get to a clinic or event. Our closest trail head on the forest is only seven miles away, but it takes nearly two hours to get there, with a loaded horse trailer on a 4WD road.

With nearly a half-century and thousands of miles hauling horses under my belt, I’ve learned a few things that might help you avoid a few bumps in the road. Let me share the most significant lessons I’ve learned regarding the maintenance of a horse trailer, hitching, driving, loading and unloading horses, and the must-haves to carry onboard with you, as you head down the road with your horse.

Don’t Skip on Trailer Maintenance

A horse trailer is a great investment because it maintains its value, when taken care of. My gooseneck stock trailer is worth today, just about what I paid for it brand new, twenty-five years ago. So, it pays to put a little money into its maintenance. Not to mention, the peace-of-mind that a safe, road-worthy trailer gives you.

Once a year, I take my trailers to a mechanic to have a safety check performed and the wheel bearings re-packed (some trailers will have sealed bearing that don’t need packing). They’ll check all the wiring, the trailer brakes, the emergency brake and battery, the tires, the wiring and the lights. The most common problems with horse trailers are wheel bearings, flat tires or wiring/lights. Sometimes trailer tires must be replaced from old-age and dry-rot before they run out of tread. Better to spend money on new tires than get a blowout with your precious cargo onboard.

Make sure you periodically pull out the rubber mats and check the floor of your trailer, especially if it is made of wood. Time, moisture and contaminants can promote rotting or rusting and the trailer floor must be really strong to take a horse’s weight as it bounces down the road.

I always muck out the inside of my trailer as soon as I arrive at my destination and unload the horses. I also take my trailers 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.

Be Hitch Savvy

Horse trailers have all different kind of hitches. Beyond bumper pulls and goosenecks, they can have various latches, pins and toggles and require different size balls. The person driving the trailer is responsible for the hitch and the safety of the rig; you cannot delegate this responsibility. You must know exactly how the hitch works and be able to hitch and unhitch it by yourself.

Make sure the hitch on your tow vehicle is professionally installed, your vehicle is well rated for the hauling that you plan to do, and that you have safety chains and an e-brake on the trailer. I’ve seen horse trailers come unhitched and I’ve seen the safety chains and emergency brake serve its purpose, stopping the trailer safely without harm to the horses.

Check and double check your hitch and do a full walk-around safety check of your entire rig every time before you get underway. Check the lights and tire pressure and make sure all safety equipment is onboard. Each time you stop, feel the wheel bearings and check to make sure they’re not hot or leaking. Do another walk-around safety check before you pull out again.

Practice Driving Until You Get It Right!

If you are not confidant driving a horse trailer, practice will help. Hitch up and head out, sans horses. Practice cornering and braking without causing a shift in balance from side-to-side or front-to-back (remember that it will be even trickier with horses onboard). Drive slowly enough that you don’t have to use the brakes—every time you tap the brakes or take a turn too fast, you’ll throw your horse off balance.

Backing is the nemesis of most rooky trailer drivers. It’s not that hard if you will only practice. Find a big open area (free of obstacles) or a little-traveled country road to practice. First, just practice backing up straight. If you can back your rig straight, you’ve got a head start on most people. Line the wheels of the trailer up with the wheels of your truck and try to keep them that way with only minor adjustments.

Once you can back up straight, you can practice turning and parking. Here are a couple of great tips for backing a horse trailer… If you get confused over which way to turn the wheel while backing up, place one hand on the bottom of the steering wheel and move that hand in the direction you want the back of the trailer to go. Also, steer the back wheels of the trailer—watch them in your mirror and visualize where you want the rear wheels to go.

Make sure your mirrors adjust so that you can see your trailer tires and how they are tracking. A long rig comes to the inside in the turn and you need to know exactly where those rear tires will track in the turn, so you know how wide to take the turn. Practice, practice, practice, until you feel confidant.

Trouble-free Loading & Unloading Requires Advance Preparation

There’s nothing worse than being ready to hit the road, but the horse won’t load up. It’s a given that your horse is more likely to refuse when you are in a hurry to get somewhere. If your horse is not an experienced traveler, you’ll want to address trailer loading weeks before you need to drive somewhere.

Horses should not be bribed into a trailer or forced in with ropes, whips or devices. Training a horse to load in your trailer should not be hard if your horse has good manners and is well-trained in-hand. I train horses that once they are asked to approach a trailer, the only option is to get onboard. I never allow a horse to walk away from the trailer, no matter how big a fit he throws. I take my time and wait it out, ruling out the horse turning right or left or backing up. Once he accepts that the only option is forward, he’ll walk right on. This may take some time at first, so don’t wait until the last minute. Start weeks or months in advance and have the patience to say to your horse, “I’ve got all day.”

No trailer-loading technique has passed the test of time and effectiveness more than feeding a horse in the trailer. You must teach the horse to load first. Then, make sure the trailer is hitched to a vehicle and load him up for his grain and hay, once or twice a day for a week. The trailer soon becomes his happy place and he’ll be eager to jump onboard.

If your trailer requires your horse to back out and down a step, it may be harder to get him out of the trailer than in. I prefer to start trailer training with an open trailer that my young or inexperienced horse can turn around and walk out forward at first. Stepping down a step backwards is not something a horse would ever do on his own, so this will require patience and a progression of training. Once he’ll walk out forward confidently, then I’ll ask him to back one step at a time toward the rear, then turn around and walk out forward, at the last minute. Eventually, Ill ask him to step down backwards.

My video on stress-free trailering explains these training techniques in detail, as well as hitching, driving and backing a horse trailer.

Don’t Leave Home Without It

If you have a trailer with a tack room or other storage space, it’s nice to keep it stocked with the important things you need, every time you hit the road. I like to keep my trailer stocked with tools and safety items, horse and human first aid, grooming tools and other horse gear that stay on the trailer all the time.

I have a basic tool kit in my trailer with screw drivers, pliers, wrenches, cutters, flashlight, electrical and duct tape. We like to have either a floor jack or a drive-on lifter, in case we have a flat tire when we cannot offload the trailer. If we are traveling cross-country, we might buy a spare set of wheel bearings, just in case we lose the bearings in an inconvenient place.

Human first aid kits should have the standard stuff and I add plenty of comfort items like Chapstick, sunscreen, hydro-cortisone cream, pain reliever, bug repellant, extra-large band aids (for saddle sores) and wet wipes. My horse first aid kit includes wound care items (cleaning and bandaging), ointment, Bute paste and Banamine injectable (the latter two things I get from my vet). I always carry a few disposable baby diapers (newborn size) because they can be useful for bandaging and for girth sores. Hoof boots, well sized to your horse, are good to have as a back up plan if your horse pulls a shoe or becomes sore-footed.

Basic grooming tools and a sturdy hoof pick stay onboard my trailer, as well as a farrier’s tool box in case we need to pull or repair a shoe. The comfort products I like to use on my horses, like fly spray (I prefer Ultra Shield Green because it is nontoxic to my horses, myself and the environment), Absorbine and A&D ointment (good for sunscreen and insect bites). We also keep water buckets with straps (one per horse), full hay bags, manure fork and bucket, spare halter and lead, extra bridle/cinch, a leather punch and a leather repair kit, in case they’re ever needed.

With my trailer fully stocked, all I need to add are my horse’s tack, feed and a cooler, and I’m ready to load my horse and hit the road. I’m far less likely to forget things and have a lot less stress. I keep a small white board inside the tack room door, so I can make note of anything I forgot or want to remember to bring next time.

Hauling your precious cargo doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking. When you’re confident in your driving skills and your rig is well-maintained and properly hitched, it relieves a lot of the risk and stress. Having your horse well trained for loading, unloading and tying at the trailer takes advance preparation, but makes your trip much smoother. Making sure you have all the tools, equipment and comfort items you need will insure a pleasant trip.

 

For more detailed information on reducing the stress in hitching and driving horse trailers, training your horse to load and outfitting your horse for the ride, check out my video, Stress-Free Trailering. It’s available in DVD, or streaming on-demand at JulieGoodnight.com.

Horse Master Memories

After 11 years of producing the TV show, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight, and 260 episodes featuring a different horse and rider, I made the decision to end the series. Eleven years is a long run for a TV show—by any standards—and it was important for me to go out while we were still on top and time to move onto other projects. Although I will miss the Horse Master crew, the shoots, the horses and the people we met along the way, I am quite proud of the body of work we amassed.

Each year, from 2008 to 2018, we produced 24 half-hour episodes of Horse Master. We conducted three shoots each year, at various locations around the USA. We recruited horse owners from that region, with challenges they wished to resolve. Except for our very first shoot, we always had way more applicants than spots on the show. It was always a difficult task to pick cast members, not only because we wanted to help everyone, but also because we had to find a balance between English and Western riders, between groundwork and mounted work, and represent a variety of breeds and find topics that were both relevant and unique.

About a month before each shoot, we would review the applications and assign them a rating of 1, 2 or 3. A one rating was either a subject we’d been hoping for or a common horse challenge that would be easy to address within the time constraints of a half-hour episode. If a male or a youth rider applied, they were automatically rated a one. In more than one case, the man’s application had actually been submitted the wife, without his knowledge. A teenage boy once applied without his parent’s consent; fortunately, his mother was a good sport (she found out about it the day before) and agreed to haul his horse cross-country and allowed him to miss school to attend the shoot.

Twos were subjects we could use in a pinch (if we didn’t have enough ones), but they were often complicated topics that would be difficult to resolve in one episode; or redundant subjects (how many times could we make an episode on how to get the correct lead at the canter?). Threes were basically subjects we didn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole; subjects that were too outlandish for the average horse owner to relate to, or behavior that was extreme and/or dangerous. We did not want to offer solutions that required a disclaimer, “Do not attempt these techniques at home.” It was always our intention to provide useful, relevant horse training techniques that were also safe to employ and would benefit the average horse owner and horse.

The Horse Master with Julie Goodnight video library of eleven seasons and 260 episodes, is available on-demand at TV.juliegoodnight.com. It offers practical horse training, handling and riding techniques and useful information for horse owners, searchable by keywords. Believe it or not, as I read through the extensive list of episodes, I can remember each one—the horse, the subject (which was often not the subject we planned for) and the person.

Certainly, some horses were more memorable than others—maybe because it bit or bucked or bolted. Maybe because it was painfully misunderstood and needed an intervention; or maybe it was a clever horse that was duping its owner. Of the 260 episodes, a couple dozen really stand out in my mind. I can remember the details like it was yesterday—where we were, the time of day, the horse’s reaction or the person’s epiphany.

In my last blog (February 2019), I wrote about the top three episodes that stood out most in my memory from over a decade of making TV shows about horse training. It was the horses I remember most—the Thoroughbred that bolted, the beautiful black mare that had a breakthrough, and the regal but defiant Morgan. I remember every horse that was in the show, especially the ones that challenged my skills as a trainer and the ones that taught me important lessons. If I made a Top Ten list of Horse Master episodes, I would definitely include these episodes.

Season 2, Episode 1 (201), “Wave Runner”
We shot this episode on the beach of Martha’s Vineyard, where the movie “Jaws” was filmed—that alone was enough to make it memorable. We arrived before the sun came up and shot while the beaches were still empty. The horse was a big pinto Warmblood, a 3-day event horse that struggled with water jumps. Our thinking was that if we could get him in the ocean, we could probably get him around a cross country jump course. Since the owner had a broken collar bone, all the riding was left to me (yippee!). It took me almost an hour to get the horse into the surf and it was a wild and wet ride, but a lot of fun! To this day, this episode (recorded in 2008) still gets more comments than any other.

Season 3, Episode 1 (301) “Can’t Make Me”
Recorded at my ranch in Colorado, this horse stands out in my memory because I really had no idea if I would be successful overcoming the challenge. The issue was the mare’s refusal to step on a tarp. The owner was training her for trail obstacle competition, but there were certain obstacles the mare refused to attempt. The owner had recently attended a five-day trail obstacle clinic with a highly respected clinician, who also happens to be a good friend of mine. I have a lot of respect for this guy’s skill, so it was intimidating to find out that in the entire five-day clinic, they never once got the mare on the tarp, ultimately giving up. These were not promising odds for me and every time they had attempted to cross a tarp and failed, the mare had become more set in her refusal. I got on the horse late in the afternoon and it was nearly dark when she finally gave in and walked quietly across the tarp. I used the classic technique, “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard,” working her hard anytime she backed away from the tarp and only letting her rest when she was near or on the tarp. It was a case of being patient, staying the course and waiting for the mare to come to the right conclusion, which she did, right before dark.

Season 9, Episode 17 (917) “Betty Lou Knew”
Recorded in Tucson AZ, at the White Stallion Ranch (one of our favorite shoot locations), this was one of only two mules we ever featured in Horse Master, but keep in mind that every mule owner that applied, got on the show. Did you ever hear of a mule kick? You can see it in real-life action in this episode. It was supposed to be about bad ground manners, but this mule took one look at the cameras and the set, and suddenly she had perfect ground manners. Moving on to plan B for a topic, the owner said she was also tough to saddle, so we decided to tackle that subject. “Tough to saddle” may have been an understatement, since it was more like taking your life into your hands. Although she kicked like a mule, she never once made contact and her kicks were highly calculated to warn but not hit—you can see that very clearly in the video. Turns out Betty Lou was quite clever, as most mules are, but all it took was a little scolding to make her see the error of her ways.

Season 9, Episode 23 (923) “Back on Board”
During the course of producing Horse Master, we did many episodes with “spoiled” horses that had learned to act poorly due to improper handling. In many instances, these are perfectly well-trained horses whose behavior has deteriorated to the point that they are unpleasant, if not downright dangerous. This was a clever, but spoiled palomino who walked all over his young owner and basically did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. When it came time to load in a trailer, this horse knew every avoidance trick in the book, most of which can be seen on the video. As the owner tried to approach the trailer, the horse managed to drag her all the way around the truck and trailer twice—not once getting even close to the door. It didn’t take much to retrain this horse—he knew perfectly well how to load in a trailer. As usual, the bigger challenge was in retraining the owner.

Horse Master with Julie Goodnight is a body of work of which I am quite proud. We amassed a significant volume of content that offers practical horse training, handling and riding techniques. As searchable, streaming on-demand content available at TV.juliegoodnight.com, it will continue to help horses and horse people all over the world, for many years to come. Horse Master is currently airing on broadcast TV in many European countries, Australia and Canada (on Horse & Country TV), while work is underway to dub it into Spanish and Portuguese, to air in many Latin markets. This content will live on for some time, helping horses, one human at a time.

See the Horse Master trailer here:

Meanwhile, work has begun on our new TV series, Horse Life with Julie Goodnight, which is a one-hour unscripted lifestyle/adventure series, featuring multiple storylines about fascinating characters and intriguing issues, in places where horses are deeply entrenched in the culture. The pilot episode, Horse Life—Colorado, is scheduled for release this spring, and will be airing in many USA and international markets this summer.

Horse Master with Julie Goodnight, The Final Chapter

My career as a horse trainer took a sudden detour back in 2008, when I went from riding horses for a living to producing a television series, called Horse Master with Julie Goodnight. Becoming an Executive Producer and Host of a TV series was not in the original business plan, when I started my horse training company back in 1987. But when a door opens, I tend to lunge for it. I had no idea where this door would take me, but I am sure glad I went through it, because that door took me on an incredible ride.

Now, 11 years and 260 episodes later, I can honestly say that the job we started out to do is complete and it’s time for me to move onto something bigger and better. Knowing that every project has a beginning and an ending, and that no TV series can run forever, it was important to me to bring the series to close while we were still on top with the fans and doing our best work. Even though we’ve produced the last episode of Horse Master, this significant body of work will live on for decades and will still be available to viewers around the world.

Humble Beginnings

Back in 2007, RFD-TV was a fledgling satellite network offering TV programming to rural areas, including horse programs. It was really the start of weekly horse training programs that could be seen on TV. I was offered a contract with the network, who would air the shows if we produced them. It was an incredible opportunity—the only catch was that we had just three months before the first shows would start airing. I had no crew, no cameras, no sponsors, no locations, no cast members and twenty half-hour episodes to produce.

Knowing I couldn’t do it alone (I may have been a good hand with horses, but I knew nothing about producing a TV show), I recruited Heidi Melocco (then Heidi Nyland) to jump off the cliff with me. Heidi came onboard as Producer and Director, helping create the production and sticking with the show for ten years and 236 episodes. Without Heidi’s help, I would never have been able to pull this off. Little did we know then, that the series would go on for so long and become an award-winning, substantial body of work.

So we jumped off the deep end, took the deal offered and scrambled to get a crew together, find a shoot location plus the horses and people we needed to be on the show. Within a few weeks we pulled a shoot together in Longmont, Colorado, calling on many of our friends to be on the show. Looking back on it now, with 260 episodes behind us, I am amazed at how well we did at that first shoot. I recall staying up all night, trying to compose what I would say and practicing a difficult line that I needed to say at the close of one of the shows, without breaking into tears (S1: E3).

One of my funniest memories of all the Horse Master shoots, was from that first location. I had no idea what clothing I should wear, so I basically threw my entire equestrian wardrobe in suitcases, which ended up dumped on a filthy tack room floor (in my unglamorous, not-so-private dressing room) so we could rummage through them to find the right outfits. I must have changed clothes 100 times at that shoot. Special credit goes to my friend and wardrobe wrangler, Cheryl Lee (S6: E6 and S9: E2), whose style help we enlisted from the beginning of the series and who stuck with me to the very end (and still counting). It’s not an easy job to style-up a horse trainer.

At the very first shoot for Horse Master, we taped 6 episodes in 5 days. As the years went by and we all got better at our jobs, we were shooting 8 episodes in 4 days. We learned a lot about TV production over the years, about working with horses in live-action (horses don’t do re-takes) and about finding the people and stories that would make the show interesting.

The Body of Work

From 2008 through 2018, we produced a massive amount of content about horse training and horse people. Our original concept for the show was that it would feature a new horse and rider every week, helping them overcome challenges and reach new goals. Knowing that in the TV world, they describe new shows by comparing them to current shows, back in 2007, when we were first pitching the show, we liked to say that Horse Master was a cross between Dog Whisperer and Super Nanny.

We produced 260 episodes over 11 years, at 37 different shoots, in ten states, and at 18 different locations. We shot in Colorado ten times, in Arizona nine times, five shoots in Florida, three in California, two times in South Carolina, Texas and Massachusetts, and once in Georgia and Tennessee. We shot at my ranch in Salida, Colorado, every summer and we ended up going to the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson for seven shoots, because it served our needs so well for winter shoots and because the scenery and accommodations were fantastic. To this day, many people think I live in Arizona.

Once we set a location and dates for the shoot, we would begin to recruit people and horses for the show. They would fill out an application online and about a month before the shoot, Heidi and I would comb through the applications, trying to find the right mix of horses, people, riding disciplines and problems to solve. It turns out, this was one of the hardest parts of producing the show, and we got pretty good at it, although we always dreaded it. We hated that we couldn’t take every horse on the show.

Looking back on all 260 episodes, there are some cast members (both two-legged and four) that I will never forget. I can remember every horse I worked with and each one of them had something to teach us. I compiled some statistics about Horse Master, which are not only interesting facts about the show, but also reflect the American horse world—the people and horses, and the challenges they face.

The Horses

115 episodes of Horse Master featured Quarter Horses (both purebreds and grade). That should come as no surprise, since they are by far the largest breed of horses. We also featured 24 Paint horses, 20 Thoroughbreds, 19 Warmbloods (of various persuasions) and 16 Arabians (purebreds and crosses). Again, very representative of the American horse population. Interestingly, eighteen of the horses we featured were Palomino in color. I’ve always thought Palominos liked to be the center of attention and this statistic bears that out. Ten gaited horses starred in Horse Master, eight pony breeds were represented, six Mustangs, six Morgans, five Appaloosas, three Paso Finos and one Peruvian Paso, and two mules were also featured in episodes.

The People

Through all eleven years of production, we tried to have a balance of people, riding disciplines and subjects. But to be honest, getting men on the show was always a challenge. Every man that applied, got on the show, but sometimes it turned out that his wife had filled out the application, unbeknownst to the husband. Same thing happened with kids—they would apply to be on the show without their parent’s knowledge, so we learned to follow-up on these things. All said and done, our cast members included 28 youth, 24 male and 208 female equestrians.

The Subject Matter

Horse Master episodes included 113 Western riders, 72 English riders, 63 unmounted groundwork episodes and 12 personal interest stories. By categorizing all the shows into a dozen broad subjects, I saw that the content is somewhat of a running commentary on the most common challenges horse owners face:

  • 32 were on advancing riding skills—improve the rider so the horse can do his job
  • 24 on were leadership (human) and ground manners (horse)
  • 21 featured spoiled, tantrum throwing horses (always the fault of humans)
  • 21 about riding the canter
  • 18 were about spooky horses or horses with a high fear response
  • 17 were about building confidence in the rider (reference above)
  • 14 about training green, uneducated horses
  • 14 on slowing down a fast horse
  • 3 on speeding up a lazy horse
  • 6 on trailering horses
  • 4 on saddle fit
  • 2 on hard-to-catch horses

Most Memorable Episodes

In preparation for this article, I went through our catalog of episodes several times. I can honestly say, I remember every horse we had on the show, but some stand out more than others in my mind. Looking at all 260 episodes, there were about 27 shows that really stood out to me—either because we made a big impact or because I learned something important. I’ve written about all 27 of these episodes in a separate article, but of those memorable episodes, a couple are indelibly imprinted on me.

S4: E9, “Bucket List” This was an incredible episode because this beautiful black QH mare, who was the apple of her owner’s eye, had a huge breakthrough in her training—going from a high-headed, fast and choppy ride, to a rounded, soft frame and slow, rhythmic gaits. Truly becoming her dream horse. It wasn’t easy to get there- a significant bit change and a lot of training on my part. By the time the sun was setting that night, the mare was perfect. Of all the episodes, there was never a person on Horse Master more thrilled with the outcome, than Cynthia. We were all shocked and saddened to hear that her dream horse died of colic, just a few short weeks later, long before the episode was edited (making it more bitter sweet). A tragic reminder to us all, that horses are delicate creatures and we should treasure our time spent with them and the gifts they give us.

S11: E7-9, “The Lost Episode of Chief” I will never forget this horse; he starred in three episodes in season 11. Memorable in part, because he belonged to my good friend and neighbor, Amy, but also because of his crazy history (he was dumped at a horse rescue after being gored by a bull) and because of his strong sense of right and wrong and his regal bearing. He was extremely intolerant of any mistakes and would become aggressive if he thought you did something wrong, thoroughly intimidating his owner. He was a very big Morgan— dominant and powerful, especially when he was charging you head on, with ears back, teeth barred and ‘smoke coming out his nose’! Amy was determined to become a better leader to her horse, and that she did. He was a tough nut to crack, but she won him over in the end. It was an interesting and intricate relationship that evolved, requiring Amy to step up and Chief to step down. We only half-jokingly changed his name to Cobb, as Amy came to realize that she could not buy this horse’s admiration with love and pampering, but she could earn it by becoming a better leader.

Where You Can Find Horse Master Now

I’m very proud of the body of work we’ve amassed with Horse Master, on horse behavior, training and riding horses. This content is “evergreen,” meaning it will not become outdated or obsolete any time soon. All 260 episodes of Horse Master are available online (SVOD) and searchable by key words. So, if a horse owner in say, Dubai, were to search the content for “bucks at canter,” six different episodes would come up and hopefully one of them would answer his question. Horse Master Online is available by subscription at TV.juliegoodnight.com.

Horse Master is also enjoying its first run internationally, with season 11 currently playing on Horse & Country TV in UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Australia and Canada. We are working with other content providers to dub Horse Master into Spanish and Portuguese, for airing in Spain and South America. All over the world, there are places where horses are deeply entrenched in the culture, and the content providers want Horse Master. Who knows? Maybe we’ll resurrect the show in another country… Horse Master: South Africa… Horse Master: Brazil… Horse Master: Ireland….

New series, New Life

Most folks that know me, know that I am not one to sit still for long. Or at all. In fact, for the last two years, my partner and producer, Stephen Schott and I have been burning the candle at both ends– creating a brand-new TV series at the same time we were completing Horse Master. We launched a new company, 2Horse Productions™ (same players, new name and a few new partners), and began production on a new series called, Horse Life with Julie Goodnight.

Horse Life is an unscripted lifestyle series featuring people and places where horses are entrenched in the culture. Horse Life goes behind the scenes into the splendor and nature surrounding horse communities around the world. Host Julie Goodnight (that’s me) brings expert insight to illuminate the unique cultures, history, and the magical world of horses and the lives of equestrians.

You’ll be hearing a lot more about this new series soon! We’re very excited about the opportunities before us and we are hard at work, producing the new series.

Acknowledgements

Producing 260 episodes of a TV show is no small undertaking, by anyone’s standards, and I could never have pulled it off without lots of expert and enthusiastic help from others. I have an abundance of gratitude for all the horses, people and places that were part of Horse Master over the years. It would take pages and pages for me to thank them all, but there are some individuals that were indispensable to the production, whom I wish to acknowledge.

A big thank you to Heidi Melocco, Producer and Director, who was willing to take a chance with me and jump into the TV world with both feet running. To Stephen Schott, Producer, Director, Camera and Editor; often the only male on our shoots, Steve put up with a lot! His patience, work ethic and vision have been invaluable to me. To Rich Moorhead, 2nd camera and supportive husband, willing to jump in and take on any job and whose business acumen I rely on heavily.

To Cheryl Lee, my dear friend, wardrobe wrangler and style advisor for all 11 years and 260 episodes (trust me, I am not an easy person to style up!). To Lucy Achenbach, Tanya Cody and Twyla Walker-Collins, all of whom appeared int eh show throughout the eleven years, for their excellent help as assistant trainers, helping the horses and patiently working with cast members behind the scenes (the latter more challenging). To Susie Donaldson, key grip and editor’s assistant, who has a keen eye for details and who was always looking for ways to make the show better. And Jackie Marks, key grip on many shoots—thank you for keeping everyone calm and on-track. Thank you to my dear friend, Sharon Gilbert (S1: E3), key grip, on-set guidance counselor to everyone and someone’s who’s insight I always value.

Gratitude to my invaluable Salida staff who always keeps my wheels turning—Twyla Walker-Collins (S11: E7-9) Megan Fischer, Diana Hatfield and Melissa Arnold (S4: E6). They’ve contributed a lot to the series over the years, and they come to work every day with smiles on their faces, eager to help with whatever crazy project I concoct.

To Brenda Beach, Shawntel Gallegos-Wilson, Alisa Reniker, Mary Ann Page, Madison DeCook, Lucy Koehler, Dawn Hurlbert, Carolyn Nyland, Sddita Blackburn, Pi Poletta, Bill Bekkering, Gwen Van Dorp, Rosie Sweatt, Dawn Roberge, Tami and Eddie Leedy, Debbie and Mark Gould. Thank you all for being excellent grips and for giving us your time and energy on multiple shoots. There were many local volunteers, too numerous to mention here, whose help on shoots we were grateful for and who appear in the credits. You are not forgotten!

Without the 260 brave souls who appeared on the show as cast members and brought their horses to me, we would never have had such an interesting show. Thank you for your courage to apply and your willingness to give us two days of your life. I hope you and your horse remember your time on Horse Master fondly and that you continue to pursue your dreams. The names of our cast members, two- and four-legged, appear in the show and in the credits, so we will always remember you!

A special shout out goes to Myler Bits and Toklat Originals, our presenting sponsors and two companies I love partnering with because they understand importance of educating horse owners, to help horses. Dale Myler, world-renowned expert on bits, contributed to many shows and taught us a lot, starring in two episodes each year from 2011 to 2018 and helping us with many other episodes. Anyone who watches the entire series knows that through the years I changed the bits on many, many horses. We changed bits so often that sometimes we didn’t we forgot to mention it. All three of the Myler brothers have dedicated their lives to making bits better for horses, and you can witness the profound impact this has on horses in many of the Horse Master episodes. Thank you to Toklat for supporting our production and for supplying bits to the horses that needed them.

Troxel Helmets also supported the show and its mission to promote safe riding practices and make helmet-wearing cool, by donating beautiful and sporty equestrian helmets to all the cast members and me. That was a lot of helmets over past 11 years. 326 of them, to be exact! Riders everywhere (and their friends and families) thank you. I am also happy to report that other than a few nips and kicks here and there, we never had any serious injuries to horses or people during 37 shoots, over 11 years. Thank you to ALL the cast and crew for keeping your focus on safety.

We recorded Horse Master in some incredibly scenic locations, from Martha’s Vineyard (S2) to the Napa Valley (S3). All the locations were amazing and welcoming, but some places were so perfect that we went back, again and again. A special thanks to the White Stallion Ranch, Tucson AZ, and the True Family. It’s an incredible guest ranch in the Sonoran Desert, with huge Saguaro cacti looming in the background (and the only place we could reliably shoot in the middle of winter). They were so good to us that we shot there seven times (S5-11)! I’d also like to thank the Grand Oaks Equestrian Resort in Weirsdale FL, for their scenic location, exceptional facilities, fabulous accommodations and gracious hospitality (S1, 10, 11). We might have shot there one more time, if not for the hurricane!

And finally, I’d like to thank all the horses, Seasons one through eleven and Episodes 1-260—without them, there would have been no show. They never volunteered to be on the show, but we treated them like stars anyway. We learned a lot from every one of the horses and they did their best to make us better people. In turn, we did our best to help every horse that we could, by teaching their people something. Horse Master always was, and continues to be, all about helping horses, one human at a time.

Back to Basics: Part 2, Square-One in the Riding Arena


When a horse’s training is either lacking or confused, we often talk about going “back to basics.” Last month, I talked about basic training from the ground—and how important it is to have a well-mannered, attentive and cooperative horse on the ground—before moving up to training under-saddle. If being on the ground with the horse is a harrowing experience, why on earth would I want to ride him?

Assuming you’ve got your horse squared away from the ground, let’s look at what going back to square one means in mounted training means. Horses may have this need for a variety of reasons, and consequently, my focus may be different too. But we can rely on the methodology of classical training for a sure-fire recipe for success. After all, it’s worked for thousands of years. I’d like to introduce you to three imaginary horses and show you what each step of the journey looks like, when going back to square one in a saddle horse.

I’m purposefully leaving out abused and traumatized horses from this back-to-basics discussion. Traumatized or psychologically damaged horses are special cases and their training plan needs to be customized entirely for the needs of that horse, given his individual level of fear and emotionality. Obviously, these horses need time and patience, and their volatility may make them more dangerous to handle. If you’re working with this type of horse, you should get expert, hands-on help.

What Horses are We Talking About?
A horse might be completely uneducated and inexperienced, like the clean slate of a colt or filly that’s never been ridden. He/she knows nothing about being ridden, balancing a rider, rating speed, responding to cues or what is required. He doesn’t even have a reason to dislike being ridden or think of it as drudgery yet. This is the easiest kind of horse to train, because he hasn’t learned any wrong things yet. We’ll call this horse, Junior.

Another horse for which back-to-basics training would be useful, is a horse that is “broke” but not trained. He’s fully accustomed to being saddled, mounted and ridden, but he never went to high school. Maybe he’s a ranch horse or trail horse, but he’s been well-handled, taught good manners from the ground, developed a good work ethic and is obedient while being ridden—he just doesn’t know much. Depending on how long this horse has been ridden, he may have some engrained bad habits or improper responses that need replacing, like leaning into turns or stiffening the neck with rein contact, but otherwise, he just needs to learn new, more advanced skills. We’ll call this horse Cowboy.

A common situation that often leads to a horse going back to square one in his training, is the horse that has been ridden many times, perhaps for years, but has become “spoiled” and is prone to tantrums and disobedient behavior. He’s learned the wrong things. He may have even learned clever strategies for manipulating or intimidating the rider, like bucking at canter or spinning and bolting. This horse is harder to train because he’s learned nasty tricks, we wish no horse would ever learn (and there’s no such thing as UN-learning; once he knows it, he knows it). For every time he’s benefitted from his bad behavior, we’ll have to add two or three experiences (or 10 or 20) where he doesn’t. Undesirable behaviors must be replaced with more desirable behaviors, and repetition must occur until the desired response becomes engrained. If the horse returns to the conditions that caused the undesirable behavior in the first place, the horse will revert fast. We’ll call this horse, Treasure.

Junior, Cowboy and Treasure, are three typical horses that need to go back to basics in their training. The tenants of classical horse training that stretch back thousands of years in our history, give us great guidelines for advancing a horse’s training. Here, I’ll share the primary steps I would take in back-to-basics training of the saddle horse, and how I would apply it to each of our three recruits.

STEP ONE: Forward Motion is the Basis of All Training
A horse must move willingly forward when asked. A horse that will not move freely forward cannot be trained. A horse that refuses to move forward is disobedient.

Junior: In the beginning, this is almost all we do—go, go, go somewhere. I want the youngster to step right out and know that we may keep going for some time. I’m always looking ahead, riding with a destination in mind (even in the arena) and riding purposefully. He needs to learn to balance the rider in all gaits and most importantly, that he must keep going, without me pedaling, until I ask him to stop.

Cowboy: He’s well beyond Junior in this regard. For Cowboy, this step means refining our cues for upward transitions, learning to canter without a fast trot or cue for a particular lead. I may be working Cowboy in the arena a lot, so we may also be establishing basics like not cutting corners or speeding up/slowing down at the gate.

Treasure: This could go one of two ways, depending on Treasure’s temperament. One, he might be lazy and refusing to move forward. This could be a big hurdle to overcome, but no training can proceed until we get him moving willingly. I’ll focus on nothing else other than keeping the horse going forward for a while, admonishing him when he tries to quit. Two, if Treasure is the high-energy sort, this is going to be more about containing the forward motion, riding it out his forwardness and smoothing out upward transitions.

STEP TWO: Straightness
A horse must always travel on the path dictated by the rider; he doesn’t get to decide where he goes. Furthermore, he must be straight through his whole body (nose to tail), on straight lines, in turns and on circles.

Junior: At first, on a previously un-ridden horse, there’s not much in the way of power steering or precision—I’m lucky if I wind up in the general vicinity of the target. Although I’m always riding forward with energy, looking ahead and riding purposefully, we will change directions a lot (cueing first with my eyes, so he starts learning to follow my gaze). With every change of direction, I have a little more control. Gradually we add increasingly long stretches of straight lines (an even greater challenge), first o the rail, then without that aid.

Cowboy: He does better on straight lines, than on turns. Cowboy is ready to carry “straightness” into turns and circles, without dropping his shoulder and leaning into the turn. We’ll focus more on the precision end of straightness: riding challenging straight lines, bending on half circles, serpentines and full circles. As he comes into higher levels of training, we’ll focus more on lifting the shoulder and arcing through his ribcage.

Treasure: For this horse, straightness is more about obedience than power steering. Chances are good, he’s learned (wrongly) that he has some say in where he goes and where he doesn’t go. I’m paying close attention to things like cutting corners, pulling toward the gate/barn/buddy. I may test him by putting him on a long straight line, next to the far fence, then lay my hands on his neck (to neutralize the reins) and see what he does with the freedom. If he immediately diverts and heads where he wants to go, I know he is in a disobedient and opportunistic frame of mind. This step is more about reshaping his opinion of what I expect of him, teaching him that his tactics won’t work on me.

STEP THREE: Obedience to the Aids
At every level of training, obedience to the aids means something a little different. At first, it’s simply about controlling direction and speed, establishing basic control and a developing a compliant horse. Then we move on to complete nose-to-tail body control, collection, lateral movements and other advanced maneuvers. All the while, shaping the horse’s work ethic and nurturing the horse’s try.

Junior: Gradually, I start requiring Junior to maintain the speed I ask for in all gaits, without my help. For a while, we will continue to focus on forward movement, and when I do introduce collection (impeding the horse’s forward movement), it will be at a very low level. As we do more turns and circles, we start working on bending and control of the shoulders (the hardest part of the horse to control). Slowly, I start introducing lateral movements—haunches-in, shoulder-in, leg yielding. I will take my time and go slowly here, because I know foundational skills must be learned well, before moving on to more advanced stuff.

Cowboy: This will be the most meaningful step in Cowboy’s back-to-basics training. He’s ready for collection at all gaits, I just need to show him what I want and condition him both mentally and physically for the task. I’ll focus a lot on shoulder control with leg yields, turns and pivots. Obedience to the aids for Cowboy also means improving upward and downward transitions, so I’ll start getting more demanding there too.

Treasure: By now, my hope is that this horse has come to a better understanding of what my expectations are and what I consider inappropriate and disobedient. Obedience to the aids for Treasure is both mental and physical. I’ve been working with him in such a way that makes him want to please me—to stay on my good side (ain’t nobody happy , if mamma ain’t happy). I want every part of his body to stay exactly on the path I dictate, and I should not have to hold him on a path or hold him in a speed—that’s his responsibility. I need him to be present at all times, either focused on me or focused on nothing, not looking outside the arena or worrying about other horses. Often, for horses like Treasure, once I resolve his learned disobedience and establish clear parameters for his behavior, the previous (positive) training the horse had (if any) will surface once again.

The classical progression in horse training has been around for thousands of years—it’s a proven recipe for success. However, every horse is different in his talents and attributes, his temperament, and his life experience (that may have been good, bad or nonexistent). It’s important to progress in an orderly fashion and not cut corners—that’s why “slower is faster” when it comes to training horses. Often, when horses need to go “back to basics,” it’s because shortcuts were taken and there are holes in the horse’s foundational training.

While starting a horse under-saddle (getting him used to the tack and the weight of the rider) goes quickly, thorough training to the highest levels takes years. Some horses will naturally progress faster than others (usually the clean slate variety), but all horses are extremely fast learning animals. Unfortunately, that means they learn wrong things quickly too, so sometimes our time is spent undoing the wrong things the horse has learned. The holes will have to be filled, before higher level training occurs. You can’t build a skyscraper on a shaky foundation.

There’s one more important consideration when you think about the fact that horses are exceptionally fast-learning animals. When the student (the horse) fails to learn or learns the wrong things, it is not the student that should be blamed, but the teacher. When a horse is not learning new concepts quickly, it is the rider’s technique that needs to improve.

When a horse’s training is either lacking or confused, we often talk about going “back to basics.” Last month, I talked about basic training from the ground—and how important it is to have a well-mannered, attentive and cooperative horse on the ground—before moving up to training under-saddle. If being on the ground with the horse is a harrowing experience, why on earth would I want to ride him?

Assuming you’ve got your horse squared away from the ground, let’s look at what going back to square one means in mounted training. Horses may have this need for a variety of reasons, and consequently, my focus may be different too. But we can rely on the methodology of classical training for a sure-fire recipe for success. After all, it’s worked for thousands of years. I’d like to introduce you to three imaginary horses and show you what each step of the journey looks like, when going back to square one with a saddle horse.

I’m purposefully leaving out abused and traumatized horses from this back-to-basics discussion. Traumatized or psychologically damaged horses are special cases and their training plan needs to be customized entirely for the needs of that horse, given his individual level of fear, aggression and emotionality. Obviously, these horses need time and patience, and their volatility may make them more dangerous to handle. If you’re working with this type of horse, you should get expert, hands-on help.

What Horses are We Talking About?
A horse might be completely uneducated and inexperienced, like the clean slate of a colt or filly that’s never been ridden. He/she knows nothing about being ridden, balancing a rider, rating speed, responding to cues or what is required. He doesn’t even have a reason to dislike being ridden or think of it as drudgery yet. This is the easiest kind of horse to train, because he hasn’t learned any wrong things yet. We’ll call this horse, “Junior.”

Another horse for which back-to-basics training would be useful, is a horse that is “broke” but not trained. He’s fully accustomed to being saddled, mounted and ridden, but he never went to high school. Maybe he’s a ranch horse or trail horse, but he’s been well-handled, taught good manners from the ground, developed a good work ethic and is obedient while being ridden—he just doesn’t know much. Depending on how long this horse has been ridden, he may have some engrained bad habits or improper responses that need replacing, like leaning into turns or stiffening the neck with rein contact, but otherwise, he just needs to learn new, more advanced skills. We’ll call this horse “Cowboy.”

A common situation that often leads a horse back to square one in his training, is the horse that has been ridden many times, perhaps for years, but has become “spoiled” and is prone to tantrums and disobedient behavior. He’s learned the wrong things and gotten away with a lot. He may have learned clever strategies for manipulating or intimidating the rider, like bucking at canter or spinning and bolting. This horse is harder to train because he’s learned nasty tricks, we wish no horse would ever learn (there’s no such thing as UN-learning; once he knows it, he knows it). For every time he’s benefitted from his disobedient behavior, we’ll have to add two or three experiences (or 10 or 20) where he doesn’t. Undesirable behaviors must be replaced with more desirable behaviors, and repetition must occur until the desired response becomes engrained. If the horse returns to the conditions that caused the undesirable behavior in the first place, the horse will revert fast. We’ll call this horse, “Treasure.”

Junior, Cowboy and Treasure, are three typical horses that need to go back to basics in their training. The tenants of classical horse training that stretch back thousands of years in our history, give us meaningful guidelines for advancing a horse’s training. Here, I’ll share the primary steps I would take in back-to-basics training of the saddle horse, and how I would apply it to each of our three recruits.

STEP ONE: Forward Motion is the Basis of All Training
A horse must move willingly forward when asked, for as long as you require. A horse that will not move freely forward cannot be trained. If his refusal to move forward is disobedience (and not a physical issue); then no other training will occur until you get past this stage.

Junior: In the beginning, this is almost all we do—go, go, go somewhere. I want the youngster to step right out and know that we may keep going for some time. I’m always looking ahead, riding with a destination in mind (even in the arena) and riding purposefully. He needs to learn to balance the rider in all gaits and most importantly, that he must keep going, without me pedaling, until I ask him to stop.

Cowboy: He’s well beyond Junior in this regard. For Cowboy, this step means refining our cues for upward transitions, learning to canter without a fast trot or cue for a particular lead. I may be working Cowboy in the arena a lot, so we may also be establishing basics like not cutting corners or speeding up/slowing down at the gate.

Treasure: This could go one of two ways, depending on Treasure’s temperament. One, he might be lazy and refusing to move forward. This could be a big hurdle to overcome, but no training can proceed until we get him moving willingly. I’ll focus on nothing else other than keeping the horse going forward for a while, admonishing him when he tries to quit. Two, if Treasure is the high-energy sort, this is going to be more about containing the forward motion, riding it out his forwardness and smoothing out upward transitions.

STEP TWO: Straightness
A horse must always travel on the path dictated by the rider; he doesn’t get to decide where he goes. Furthermore, he must be straight through his whole body (nose to tail), on straight lines, in turns and on circles.

Junior: At first, on a previously un-ridden horse, there’s not much in the way of power steering or precision—I’m lucky if I wind up in the general vicinity of the target. Although I’m always riding forward with energy, looking ahead and riding purposefully, we will change directions a lot (cueing first with my eyes, so he starts learning to follow my gaze). With every change of direction, I have a little more control. Gradually we add increasingly long stretches of straight lines (an even greater challenge), first o the rail, then without that aid.

Cowboy: He does better on straight lines, than on turns. Cowboy is ready to carry “straightness” into turns and circles, bending his body without dropping his shoulder and leaning into the turn. We’ll focus more on the precision end of straightness: riding challenging straight lines off the rail, bending on half circles, serpentines and full circles. As he comes into higher levels of training, we’ll focus more on lifting the shoulder and arcing through his ribcage.

Treasure: For this horse, straightness is more about obedience than power steering. Chances are good, he’s learned (wrongly) that he has some say in where he goes and where he doesn’t go. I’m paying close attention to things like cutting corners, pulling toward the gate/barn/buddy. I may test him by putting him on a long straight line, next to the far fence, then lay my hands on his neck (to neutralize the reins) and see what he does with the freedom. If he immediately diverts and heads where he wants to go, I know he is in a disobedient and opportunistic frame of mind. This step is more about reshaping his opinion of what I expect of him, that I control direction and speed, and teaching him that his tactics won’t work on me.

STEP THREE: Obedience to the Aids
At every level of training, obedience to the aids means something a little different. At first, it’s simply about controlling direction and speed, establishing basic control and developing a compliant horse. Then we move on to complete nose-to-tail body control, collection, lateral movements and other advanced maneuvers. All the while, shaping the horse’s work ethic and nurturing the horse’s try.

Junior: Gradually, I start requiring Junior to maintain the speed I ask for in all gaits, without my help. For a while, we will continue to focus on forward movement, and when I do introduce collection (putting restraints on the horse’s forward movement), it will be at a very low level. As we do more turns and circles, we start working on bending and control of the shoulders (the hardest part of the horse to control). Slowly, I start introducing lateral movements—haunches-in, shoulder-in, leg yielding. I will take my time and go slowly here, because I know foundational skills must be learned well, before moving on to more advanced stuff.

Cowboy: This will be the most meaningful step in Cowboy’s back-to-basics training. He’s ready for collection at all gaits, I just need to show him what I want and condition him both mentally and physically for the task. I’ll focus a lot on shoulder control with leg yields, turns and pivots. Obedience to the aids for Cowboy also means improving upward and downward transitions, so I’ll start getting more demanding there too.

Treasure: By now, my hope is that Treasure has come to a better understanding of my expectations and what I consider inappropriate and disobedient behavior. Obedience to the aids for Treasure is both mental and physical. I’ve been working with him in such a way that makes him want to please me—to stay on my good side (ain’t nobody happy, if mamma ain’t happy). I want every part of his body to stay exactly on the path I dictate, and I should not have to hold him on a path or hold him in a speed—that’s his responsibility. I need him to be present at all times, either focused on me or focused on nothing, not looking outside the arena or worrying about other horses. Often, for horses like Treasure, once I resolve his learned disobedience and establish clear parameters for his behavior, the previous (positive) training the horse had (if any) will surface once again.

The classical progression in horse training has been around for thousands of years—it’s a proven recipe for success. However, every horse is different in his talents, attributes, temperament, and life experience (which may have been good, bad or nonexistent). It’s important to progress in an orderly fashion and not cut corners—that’s why “slower is faster” when it comes to training horses. Often, when horses need to go “back to basics,” it’s because shortcuts were taken and there are holes in the horse’s foundational training.

While starting a horse under-saddle (getting him used to the tack and balancing the rider) goes quickly, thorough training to the highest levels takes years. Some horses will naturally progress faster than others (usually the clean slate variety), but all horses are extremely fast learning animals. Unfortunately, that means they learn wrong things quickly too, and often our time is spent undoing the wrong things the horse has learned. The holes will have to be filled, before higher level training occurs. You can’t build a skyscraper on a shaky foundation.

There’s one more important consideration, if you think about the fact that horses are exceptionally fast-learning animals. When the student (the horse) fails to learn or learns the wrong things, it is not the student that should be blamed, but the teacher. When a horse is not learning new concepts quickly, it’s generally the rider’s technique that needs to improve.

Back to Basics (Part 1)

Julie doing groundwork with a fractious horse.

“It’s time to go back to Square One.” This is a phrase we often throw out when a horse has developed undesirable behaviors, or the handler has lost all authority and control of the horse. But like many things in horsemanship, it is far easier said than done. Getting back to basics or going back to square one in your training may mean different things to different people, but to me it means starting at the beginning—the most basic level of training.

When a previously well-behaved and well-trained horse goes rogue, it often stems from poor leadership and poor handling on the human side of the equation. Perhaps it has escalated into rude, disrespectful or even aggressive behavior from the horse, but it started with the actions of the human. Sometimes, a horse that is poorly behaved on the ground was never really taught proper behavior, or worse, was inadvertently taught to do the wrong things. Either way, we must go back to the beginning and re-establish rules of behavior, ground manners and our expectations of the horse.

In most clinics that I do, there are a handful of horses that fit into this category. For whatever reasons, the relationship between the person and the horse is contentious. Sometimes this results in a horse that is indifferent to the owner—ignoring her requests, walking all over her and paying attention to everything around him except the handler. But when this condition persists, it can result in a horse that becomes disdainful of the handler and may act out in aggressive or volatile ways. While the behavior of the horse definitely needs to be addressed, unless the person changes the way they handle the horse, retraining the horse is futile.

Whether a horse is untrained (has never been taught how to act) or is poorly trained (has actively been taught the wrong things), if he doesn’t learn proper manners, he may become unpleasant and unsafe, in short order. Horses are herd animals that know how to get along, know how to follow rules, and know how to respect authority. It is up to the handler to set the rules of behavior for the horse and provide the leadership the horse needs, in order to respect the authority.

If I am taking a horse back to square one in ground handling, there is a very clear progression I would take, starting with the most critical issues and progressing to complete mind and body control; sussing out the holes in the horse’s training and filling them in before moving onto the next thing. Turning a horse into a model citizen and one that’s pleasant and safe to be around, doesn’t happen accidentally. It comes from systematic training, consistent reinforcement and high expectations.

Step One—Control Space
My first concern, if I am handling an unruly horse from the ground, is always about me and my space. Does the horse have deference for my space? Will he move out of my space expeditiously when I ask? After a lifetime of handling horses, I’ve learned to be very clear on this subject with any horse I handle. If he moves any part of his body (nose, shoulder, hip) toward me, I will address it immediately.

Most horses that I handle learn to respect my space very fast. I am VERY protective of my space. If you’ve met me face-to-face, you may have noticed that I am not very big. The last thing I want to do, is be around a horse that is moving into my space or slinging his head and shoulders toward me. Generally, within a few minutes, the horse I am handling becomes very clear on my boundaries. You must define your space (for me, it’s as far as I can reach around me, with my arms outstretched), and make it clear to your horse where the boundary is.

Horses are very good at understanding space; people are not very good at defining and defending their own boundaries. Horses can be very clever about invading your space in subtle ways, so be diligent. The next step is to make sure the horse yields to your space—meaning he backs away when you move toward him. He moves respectfully out of your bubble when you move your bubble closer to him. He shows concern about where you are and is careful not to come too close to you.

Once you are in control of the horse’s space, you will know it. The horse will have deference for you then. He will watch you and be concerned about what you are doing and whether or not he should react in some way. I have no interest in moving forward with a horse’s training, until he shows some deference and has some respect for my authority.

Step Two—Control Direction and Speed
The next thing I need my unruly horse to learn is that I control where he goes and how fast he gets there—not him. This is a critical step in ground handling and it will carry over in a big way to mounted work too. In both instances, we need the horse to understand that he doesn’t get to do whatever he wants. Trust me, you don’t want a thousand-pound flight animal thinking he has a choice over where he goes and how fast he gets there!
To show the horse that I control direction and speed, I simply need to change direction and change speed a lot. In the round pen, this would mean turning the horse around frequently. I am very particular about which way the horse turns—starting with the outside turn (turning away from me), to emphasize him moving out of my space.

If I am working the horse in-hand, from a lead line (using at least a 12’ training lead, and preferably a 15’ lead), I’ll be turning the horse away from me (turning to the right if I am leading form the left), making sure his whole body is moving away from me in the turn and not just his nose. A critical concept to remember in horse training is, every time you change the direction of the horse, you gain more authority.

Once the horse understands that I control his direction, I want to start altering his speed. I’ll walk slowly, making sure the horse alters his speed to match mine; then walk faster, making sure the horse makes an effort to catch up. Another critical concept to remember in horse training: all of training occurs in transitions. The more I ask for changes of speed, the more responsive the horse becomes.

Step Three- Manners and Expectations
With the previous two steps, I gained deference from my horse and established control of him. Now it’s time to teach him how I expect him to act around me. My herd; my rules. Horses are very good at learning and following rules, because that is what herd life is like. When rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, horses learn the rules fast.
If it is a trained horse I am dealing with, one of the first rules I will teach the horse is, “Don’t move your feet unless I tell you to.” I teach him to stand perfectly still, like a statue, when I ask him to. To me, it’s not enough to make the feet of the horse move. I must also be able to make them hold still. Moving the feet of a flight animal should not be hard; but making them hold still can be a challenge sometimes.

The second rule of behavior I teach the horse is, “Keep your nose in front of your chest at all times I am around you.” No looking around. No moving your nose toward me (you’ll never have a horse that bites if you never allow him to move his nose toward you). When a horse is busy looking around, he’s looking for a way out or for something to react to (or he’s just being a busy-body). Either way, he’s not paying attention to me. If he’s looking for a way out, he’s telling me he’s not there for me. I need him to know that leaving is not an option. In short order, a horse I am handling learns that he has two choices: focus on me or focus on nothing.

Once these more fundamental expectations are made clear, I move onto more of a refinement level of training from the ground. I’ll work on the horse’s leading manners, making sure he is vigilant about my space, that he rates his speed off me and that he turns well and never leans his shoulder into me. We’ll also work on standing tied, quietly and patiently (lots of time at the “patience post”), feet handling, trailer loading and tacking up.

The End Result
This kind of “back to basics” training can transform a horse rapidly, if the handler has good training skills. A trained horse that has learned to act poorly because of bad handling, will respond in just minutes when faced with a skilled trainer and competent leader. An uneducated horse will learn proper manners with just a little more time and will become a model citizen fast, when handled consistently in this way.

The specific training techniques I would use to accomplish these steps are clearly detailed in my two training videos, Round Pen Reasoning and Leadline Leadership (available both in DVD and VOD). The mechanics of your training are very important—the progression, the techniques, the response of the horse. You must use clear and consistent cues, with effective reinforcement and appropriate amounts of discipline and praise. When you do, the horse responds rapidly.

Just as in the case of spoiled, poorly behaved children– it’s the parent and not the child that should be blamed for the poor behavior– the same could be said of poorly behaved horses. Either they don’t know how to act and are acting in a way that seems most appropriate to them, or, they’ve been inadvertently taught to act the wrong way (sort of like giving a lollipop to a child that is throwing a fit in the grocery store). Ultimately, the way a horse behaves is a reflection of his handler.

Going back to square one in your ground training, should result in a happier, more compliant horse. Before I move on to addressing training under-saddle, I want to make sure all these steps have been accomplished. And when they are, we’ll move onto “Back to Basics” in our mounted work.

Reward, Reinforcement and Punishment


Horses are intricate and complicated animals and their views and perceptions of the world around them can be quite different from our own. Being prey animals and flight animals, horses are highly sensitive to all forms of pressure: physical, mental and environmental. They are lightening fast learners, which can make them very easy to train or un-train. Unfortunately, horses learn the wrong things just as quickly as they learn the right things and we have to take responsibility for that.

Horses learn by making associations between one thing and another. Sometimes they make intended associations, like, “When I feel the rider close her legs on my sides, I should move my feet faster.” The horse has learned to associate the movement of the rider’s legs with the movement of his own legs. But sometimes they make unintended associations, like, “When I buck, the rider stops me.” In this example, the rider has reinforced the horse’s bucking, and the horse now associates bucking with what he wants—getting to stop.

Inadvertent associations by the horse and learning the wrong things cannot always be avoided. Having a more thorough understanding of how horses learn, what actions on your part may reinforce a response, and what actions may discourage a response will help keep your horse learning the right things. A horse is always learning, for better or for worse, but the more you understand how your horse perceives reward, reinforcement and punishment and their roles in training the horse, the more effective you will be.

Just Rewards
It is far too simplistic to think of giving a horse a treat as a reward. Waiting for a horse to give the correct response and then giving it a food-based reward, is an example of “positive reinforcement.” A positive reinforcer is something that is added to the equation. In general, horse trainers prefer to stay away from food-based rewards since horses also establish dominance by taking away food from others. Also, while it may be quite handy for training tricks to a horse, offering a food-based reward loses its practicality when training complicated and intricate maneuvers while riding the horse. To me, a pet on the neck, verbal praise and letting the horse rest are far more effective rewards.

Because horses are sensitive animals that feel pressure quite keenly, horses can also perceive a release of pressure as a reward. This is known as “negative reinforcement,” because pressure is removed when the horse gives the correct response—apply pressure, wait for the correct response, then remove the pressure. The release of pressure is the reward and this turns out to be the most expedient and practical means to train a horse, because they are so very sensitive to pressure of all kinds. Contrary to what many people think, negative reinforcement is not punishment, in fact, reinforcement is the opposite of punishment (more on that later).

One of the biggest problems the inexperienced/uneducated/unaware horse trainer has (anyone who handles a horse is either training it or un-training it, because of how quickly they learn) is rewarding a horse’s behavior unintentionally. Because a horse seeks safety and comfort more than anything else in this world, it’s quite easy to reward the wrong behavior.

A horse will always associate a release of pressure with his actions that immediately preceded the release. For example, let’s say you’re trying to load an uncooperative horse in a trailer and as you approach the trailer, he throws a wall-eyed fit. At that point, many people will stop, turn the horse away from the trailer and circle back in a second attempt. Unfortunately, what the horse learns is that when he throws a fit, you will take him away from the trailer. He does not make the association that after you circle him back, you approach again. It’s too late. In taking him away from the trailer (releasing the pressure) when he threw a fit, you rewarded the fit.

Releasing the pressure, allowing the horse to rest or allowing him to get closer to what he wants (safety) can all be perceived as a reward to the horse so it pays to be conscious of what the horse’s motivations are, what her perceives as a reward and how he interprets your actions.

Reinforcement Vs. Punishment
A reinforcement is an action that increases the likelihood of a response, while punishment decreases the likelihood of a response. There’s a very big difference in reinforcement and punishment. For example, if I ask a horse I am riding to turn by first looking in the direction of the turn, opening my shoulders and arms, twisting my torso and letting the signal sink all the way down to my feet, I have given him many cues to turn—none of which involved a pull on the reins. If he does not immediately turn his nose, I will give him a slight bump of the inside rein—a touch of his mouth—to reinforce the cue to turn that I just gave him. Look, turn my body, then bump the rein. The rein contact is the reinforcement and because I gave the cue first, then reinforced with the rein contact, it increases the likelihood of the response. The reins are reinforcement, not the cue. In very short order, through reinforcement, I have a horse that turns without rein pressure (a beautiful thing for both you and your horse).

Punishment is defined as an unpleasant action in retribution for an offense, designed to decrease the likelihood of a response. Let’s say a horse I am leading suddenly bites me. To me, this is a punishable offense because it is dominant and aggressive behavior that can easily progress to dangerous and deadly behavior in the horse. The horse bites (an offense) and I harshly admonish him in punishment. If I used good timing (the punishment came within a second of the offense) and adequate pressure in the punishment, the horse immediately associates his action (biting) with the punishment and therefore he learns biting me is not a good idea, thus decreasing the response.

But let’s look at another common example where the horse feels punished, but the rider didn’t intend to punish. When riders are learning to canter, they often have reluctance—afraid of the speed or a lack of control. At the moment the horse takes the first stride of canter, his head drops down into the bridle. In that moment, if the rider is fearful, she often clenches the reins and either fails to give the needed release or actively pulls up on the reins, causing the horse to run into the bit. In this moment, the rider has just punished the horse for doing something she asked the horse to do. Unfair? Absolutely. The action of the rider, although unintended, punishes the horse and decreases the likelihood of him picking up the canter next time he is asked.

While punishment may have its place in the training of a horse, particularly in dangerous behaviors, it has been shown not to be highly effective in the regular training of horses. Because horses are prey animals and flight animals, their fear level can be quite high. Training routine performance through punishment is therefore ineffective in horses because it can easily increase their fear level. Once a horse becomes fearful, he is not thinking well and therefore is not able to learn complex maneuvers.

Scientific research has shown us that “replacement training” is far more effective in eliminating undesirable behaviors in horses than punishment. For instance, if every time my horse tries to cut the corner of the arena or pull toward the center, I instantly turn him the opposite direction (into the fence), soon every time he thinks of turning toward the center, he thinks of turning the opposite way and picks himself up and starts moving in that direction. In this process, I have replaced one behavior (undesirable) with another (more desirable) in the horse and he thought his way through that, without fear.

Inadvertent or unintended rewards, reinforcements and/or punishments happen all the time with horses. Precisely because they are such fast learning animals, most poorly behaved horses have been trained to act that way by the unaware human. Thinking through the horse’s actions and motivations in the moment he is mis-behaving and enacting the appropriate response is not a simple matter. Accepting responsibility as the source of his misbehavior is unpalatable but necessary, if you hope to make progress.

It’s not always easy to know what the right thing is to do with a horse in the moment of his inappropriate response, and it’s easy to make mistakes. Understanding what the horse perceives as reward, what reinforces the behavior you want and what discourages that behavior will make you a better trainer. Understanding and accepting responsibility for your own mistakes, will make you a better person.

Did You Teach Your Horse to Kick?

horses next to each other looking agitated


The first time I saw and understood this behavioral dynamic, between a horse and its rider, was about twenty years ago at a clinic for people learning to manage their fear of horses. I’ve seen it many times since, enough to recognize the cause and effect. When a rider fears their horse will kick at another horse while being ridden, it quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Typically, at fear management clinics, I would conduct a meet-and-greet the night before the clinic where we all came together to talk and process, sharing stories of what brought the riders there. Many people had horrific stories of an incident with a horse and losing their confidence. One woman shared that she lost her confidence when she was at a horse show and her horse was kicked by another horse. What are the odds that very horse would show up at my clinic the next day?

I arrived t the clinic site early the next morning and was greeted by this woman who had seen the horse that kicked at her; she was almost hysterical. “That’s the very horse that kicked at me and caused me to lose my confidence,” she cried. She was in the midst of packing up and leaving. I could see this was going to be a challenging day.

I talked her down off the ledge and kept the horses separated as much as possible. I had the riders mount up only two at a time, so that they weren’t overwhelmed with so many horses in the arena. When it came time for the alleged kicking horse to come in the arena, the mare was decked out with a dozen red ribbons in her tail and her rider was clearly nervous and almost panicking any time the other horse came anywhere near her horse. I was beginning to see the problem.

Recently I was at another clinic and saw this very same dynamic—the rider cueing the horse to kick. Horses often act the way we expect them to. When the rider gets so wrapped up in worrying about what bad thing she thinks her horse is going to do, the horse usually complies. Your job as the leader is to be aware of the environment, to keep your horse out of danger and to tell your horse what to do and how to act. When a rider starts focusing on what could go wrong, becomes defensive or frightened and then freezes up on the horse, she has abdicated her authority as the leader and the horse takes over in that moment.

What Message are You Sending Your Horse?
Horses are herd animals and as a result, they take emotional and behavioral cues from the horses around them. When one horse gets frightened, they all do. Additionally, horses communicate with each other primarily with body language and postures and they are masters at reading the body language of other horses and people. We know that horses, whether trained or not, respond differently to different people—they see each person as an individual.

When a person handles a horse with calmness, strength and confidence, the horse generally responds with relaxation, acceptance and subordinance. Conversely, when the handler is nervous, agitated and defensive, the horse responds in kind. I’ll admit that maintaining a cool demeanor on the outside when you’re not feeling that way in the inside, is not always easy, but it’s an important skill to master.

Now, picture the scene described above with riders that are fearful and a horse that has a history of kicking at other horses while being ridden. Instead of focusing ahead of her and proactively riding the horse forward, the rider was nervously looking behind her, clenching the reins, shouting-out her fear of an approaching horse. While the rider thought she was looking out for and avoiding danger, the horse thought the approaching horse was the enemy, felt the defensiveness of the rider and consequently lashed out at the approaching horse. In that moment, the rider telegraphed her fear and defensiveness to her horse and the horse responded in the way horses do when they become defensive—kicking out.

Being aware of your body language and emotional behavior, and the message you are sending your horse is not easy for everyone but it is an important skill for working with horses. Controlling your emotional behavior—taking a deep breath, relaxing, conveying strength and confidence even when you don’t feel that way—makes a huge impact on horses. There’s a saying we like to use about this… “No matter how your feel on the inside, never show your weakness on the outside.”

Think Forward
Many riders, at the first sign things are not going the way they want, will stop their horse, in an effort to re-establish control. This is not usually the right thing to do. One of the strongest tenants of horse training—a concept that has survived thousands of years—is that forward motion is the basis of all training. Without forward motion, a horse cannot be trained. Horse training involves the ability to establish and control the forward movement of the horse.

When a nervous rider feels like something is going wrong, the first thing she typically does is pull back on the reins in an effort to stop the horse and gain control. But you are only in control, when you are controlling forward movement. Riding away from a “bad spot,” toward another safer destination is usually a better answer.

Additionally, although horses are flight animals and prefer to run away from danger, they also prefer to conserve their energy in case it is needed for flight. As a result, horses can be a little lazy at times and they often perceive stopping and resting as a reward. If every time a horse displays undesirable behavior, we let him stop and rest, we are rewarding and reinforcing the undesirable behavior.

Using the example of the mare with red ribbons in her tail, first the rider conveyed her fear of the approaching horse and her defensiveness, causing the horse to focus on the approaching enemy and become defensive herself. Then, in a panic, the rider pulls back on the reins, stopping the horse and clenching the reins in panic, sending a message of fear to the horse and abdicating her responsibility as the leader. Unfortunately, this puts the horse right in harm’s way as the other horse gets closer, leading to an obvious result of the mare kicking out in defense. This is the unfortunate dynamic that teaches the horse to kick other horses while being ridden.

If instead, the rider is focused forward, aware of the environment and riding the horse away from “danger” well ahead of any problem, the horse stays focused on what’s ahead, not what is behind. If every time the horse acts untoward, the rider asks for more forward movement and rides toward a

destination (ride forward and go somewhere), the horse learns that the untoward behavior gets him nothing but more work, so it doesn’t really pay off.

I realize this is a tall order for many riders—to stay calm and focused on the positive outcome, to show confidence and leadership even when you don’t feel that way, and to ride the horse more forward even when your greatest wish is to stop and get off. These are not riding skills; they are mental skills. This is not about how good a rider you are, but about how effective a leader you are.

Everyone, even the most confident leader you know, experiences self-doubt at times. It’s what you do I that moment that matters. With horses, being aware of and in control of your body language and emotions is critical. Thinking forward and focusing ahead, not behind you, will bring your horse’s attention to what is coming next.

That mare with the red ribbons on her tail? As soon as the rider understood the dynamics that existed and that she was causing the mare’s defensive behavior, she began to ride the horse forward out of trouble and the disturbing kicking behavior went away immediately. Once the rider was able to make the horse understand she expected something different from her horse, the red ribbons were no longer needed.

Riding in Ireland

After two flights and ten hours in the air, we landed in Dublin, ready for our horseback riding adventure! My husband Rich and eight of our friends made the journey together, meeting up in Galway City, on the western coast of Ireland. We stopped off at a few pubs, bought beautiful sweaters made from fine Merlino wool, and got a few gag gifts from the tourist shops. With a seven-hour time difference, our heads crashed hard into the pillows that first night.

At noon the following day, we met our host, Cait (pronounced Coitch in Gaelic), the purveyor of Connemara Equestrian Tours, the gateway to the Connemara Region of Ireland. Another eight riders, mostly from the U.S., joined our group as we made the drive to the farm, winding along the coast and into the rural interior. The reality fit perfectly into our imaginations—lush green pastures fenced with ancient rock walls, dotted with sheep and cattle, the occasional castle punctuating landscape. Picturesque rock farm houses, beautiful gardens and small villages with more pubs than churches, completed the picture.

We arrived at the farm in time for a lovely lunch, overlooking a huge lake (the second largest in southern Ireland), complete with hundreds of wild swans and jagged rocky islands (one for every day of the year). After lunch, the horses were saddled for a test ride, then the groups split in two—eight riders headed to the coastal resort in Renvyll for three days of riding on the beach, while eight stayed at Curra Farm with Rich and me.

In the afternoon, we all got situated on a mount—either Connemara ponies (way bigger than American ponies) or an Irish Draft, all outfitted in English tack. We rode along the shoreline of the lake, across pastures and into the forest, singing, laughing and snapping selfies, while back at the farm, a traditional Irish dinner was being prepared. By the time the sun set on the first day of our riding tour, our eyes were at half-mast.

It rained all night—an unusual and welcomed sound for those of us from the high desert—and well into the morning, but the clouds parted, and the sun appeared, just in time for our first clinic. My job that morning was to make sure everyone was comfortable on their mount and in the English tack, which was a little foreign to some of the riders. We played a few rounds of musical horses, trotted over some ground poles and cantered through the puddles. After a lovely lunch, we jumped in the van and headed to town.

It was Sunday afternoon and we considered ourselves lucky, when we arrived at the local horse show. What an incredible experience! Far different from any American horse show I’ve ever seen. There were drafts and ponies, being shown in-hand, on the flat and over fences. There was a sheep-dog competition and a dog show, a bit of a carnival, and it seemed like the whole town showed up to cheer on the riders and socialize with people of all ages. It was an atmosphere of celebration, not competition.

Back in the van, after the show, we headed to a castle for a fascinating historical tour, then on to a pub, for some local charm. The Irish people are incredibly friendly and open, and they seem to love and appreciate Americans. We listened to some authentic Irish music from a live band then headed out to dinner at a fine restaurant. No one goes hungry for a minute on this tour. Back at the farm, we all hit the showers, then collapsed into bed with big Irish grins on our faces and dreams of Leprechauns.

The rain comes and goes here so often that no one really notices. While you don’t want to be caught without your slicker, the rain does not alter any plans—just keep on trucking. The next morning was quite lovely and we enjoyed some clinic time in the arena, before heading off on a hack through the magical “Harry Potter Forest,” where we enjoyed a picnic lunch. Our plans to head into town for another bit of Irish culture were thwarted because a car wreck was blocking the one-lane road and there was no way around it. Back to the farm we went to wait for the road to clear, but by the time it did, we had decided to stay put for the evening and enjoy some down time.

Day three of our adventure brought the two groups back together again to have lunch and swap stories. Together, we toured a silver mine, saw a fabulous sheep dog demonstration, then we slit up again as one group went to the coast and the other came back to the farm with Rich and me, for some clinic time. As we watched the sun set on the lake and the swans come in back at the farm, the other group was riding along the sea shore. Meanwhile, the group now at the farm, having had plenty of time splashing on the shore, was ready to clinic with me and further their skills and knowledge.

On days four and five, we were blessed with gorgeous sunny weather, all day! It was still cool and damp, but no rain. From the moment we arrived in Ireland, I was worried I did not have enough warm clothes, so I was especially pleased to see the sunshine! Group B, now at the farm, had an insatiable appetite for learning and they were an absolute pleasure for me to teach. For the next two mornings, we had 2-3 hours of clinic time in the arena, then went hacking through the forest. I also did some training demos with a couple of horses that needed a little extra help. In the evenings, we talked about horse behavior and training and everyone shared stories about their horses at home.

The six-night riding tour went by so fast, we were all a bit shocked at the end. On our way back to Galway City, we got to stop by an Irish tack store—Equine Warehouse, where I was able to buy a pair of split boots for my little Pepperoni. We met up again with the other group in Galway and said tearful goodbyes to our hosts and guides, Cathy and Cait.

A group of us stayed on for a few days and the seven of us travelled by car to Doolin, a beautiful small village near the Cliffs of Moher. We made the guided seven-mile hike along the shoreline, through private farms, in places merely inches from the cliffs. The scenery was stunning and the fish and chips we had at the end of it was definitely the best in all of Ireland.

As I write this blog, we are travelling back to Dublin to begin our journey home. My reflections on Ireland first and foremost have to do with the Irish people—without exception, they are all kind, friendly and laugh a lot. They are full of opinions but take no offense if your opinion differs. The pubs aren’t all about drinking (well, maybe a wee bit) but more about socializing across generations, class and even nationality. We received a warm welcome every where we went and people were always eager to help us find our way or offer suggestions to make our trip better. The Irish people are proud of their heritage and eager to show off their country.

Not much surprised me about the horses and horsemanship in Ireland. No matter where I’ve travelled, horses act like horses and people make the same mistakes (and usually blame it on the horses). Horses are clearly a huge part of the culture in the Connemara region of the country, where we had our riding tour, and horse sports in general are widely enjoyed and appreciated all across the country, much more so than in America. But all that said, I am eager to get home—to see the incredible Rocky Mountains again, to eat some green chili and to have a wee bit of a hack on my own horses.

A Devoted Horse

horse running in the round pen

Horses rise or fall to your level of expectation, no matter how high or low. If you think he’s going to spook at something, he generally will. If you think he is going to throw a fit about getting in the trailer, he will oblige (especially if his emotional outbursts have gotten him what he wanted in the past). On the other hand, when your expectations are high, and you have clear parameters of obedient and compliant behavior, he steps up.
 
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that horses will respond to your expectations. After all, they’re herd animals— instinctively drawn to the herd, which provides the comfort and security they yearn for. Keep in mind that membership in the herd is not automatically granted—each horse must earn it; and once granted, a horse must follow the rules of the herd and be a good herd mate (meet expectations) in order to maintain his status. A good citizen is one that respects the hierarchy of the herd and lives up to the expectations of the leader.
 
Keep in mind that horses not only live in cooperative groups, they’re also extremely communicative. While us humans rely heavily on the spoken/written word to communicate (often believing words more than the physical evidence before us), horses communicate primarily with postures, gestures and actions. And horses never lie.
 
Learning to have clear and lofty expectations of your horse, to convey those expectations with consistent and unambiguous actions, to control your own emotions and be aware of the body-language message you present your horse, is all it takes to have a compliant and willing horse that worships the ground you walk on.
 
My Herd, My Rules
Horses know leadership when they see it; they seek out authority, because it makes them feel safe. Having been around horses well over half a century, literally working with thousands of individuals over the years, I’ve learned to first have expectations and boundaries, and then convey them to any horse I encounter—immediately. The first part of the equation is critical—knowing what behavior you expect from your horse, and therefore knowing when he is compliant and when he is not. That seems easy, right? But if I asked you to state three simple and clear expectations of your horse right now, could you?
 
Because I am abundantly clear on my personal boundaries and I have a few fundamental rules of behavior that I expect from any horse, a horse learns my rules within a couple minutes of our first interaction. Horses love clarity and consistency; they’re lightning-fast learners, given the right conditions for comprehension (timing and pressure). So in a few short minutes, a fussy, tantrum-throwing horse can become a model citizen, looking to me with deference and willingness, because my expectations have become clear and his compliance is non-negotiable.
 
Horses are good at following rules, when rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, because that is what life is like in the herd. But long before you can “enforce” the rules or “enforce” a boundary, you have to know the rule, be clear on the boundary yourself and have high expectations of your horse’s behavior.
 
One reason we do groundwork with horses, is to establish these rules and boundaries and to build a relationship with your horse wherein he looks to you for direction and eagerly does your bidding. Whether it takes you minutes, days or weeks to become the leader in the eyes of your horse, depends on you. Horses come along quickly when presented with consistent and fair leadership.
 
Talk the Talk
Once you know your own boundaries and have clear expectations of your horse’s behavior, it’s time to convey those expectations to your horse. The message needs to be simple, clear and consistent and conveyed without emotion. Both reward and correction are meted out fairly—his actions have consequences, for better or for worse.
 
For instance, a very basic expectation I have of any trained horse, is that he moves his feet when I ask him to and stands like a statue if I ask him to. I’ll ask him to stand without moving in the exact same way 100% of the time (facing him with my toes pointed at his shoulder and saying, “Whoa.”). And 100% of the time, I will correct him appropriately if he moves (a scolding and a bump of the rope) and I will always reward him when he complies (by giving him the greatest gift—leaving him alone). Because my message is clear and the reinforcement or reward comes quickly and has meaning, even a tyrant of a horse will become complaint quickly.
 
Because horses crave authority, they’re also quite eager-to-please animals, if you have the same respect and admiration they give the herd leader. Because horses want to be accepted in the herd, they’re good at following rules. But for a rule to become law, it must be consistently enforced, and compliance must be mandatory. Sometimes horses understand what behavior is expected of them, but if they learn that reinforcement is lacking, and/or they can employ clever tricks to circumvent the rules and manipulate the human, compliance becomes optional.
 
To be the maker of the rules and the enforcer of the rules is not easy; to do it with consistency and clarity is even harder. Throw into the mix a thousand-pound flight animal, who may physically intimidate you and who easily learns to push your emotional buttons and being the leader can get downright grueling. The trick is to keep your own emotions in check; as you single-mindedly convey your expectations to your horse. The more emotionally charged your horse becomes, the more granite-like your emotions must be.
 
Explain the simple rule (don’t move your feet unless I tell you to) or define the boundary (stay behind my shoulder as we walk), then reinforce immediately and with meaningful pressure when the horse breaks the rule; leave the horse alone and take all pressure off the moment he is correct. Reinforcement should come quickly (within a second of the infraction) but should be over just as fast (one and done) and should never be done in anger or retribution. A true leader strives to always be in command of her emotions, to always set a good example and to always speak the truth.
 
Walk the Walk
It’s hard for a horse to look up to you as a strong and benevolent leader, when you present the picture in your body language of a lost tourist in a foreign land. Words mean nothing to your horse, but your actions, your emotions and your body language tell him everything he needs to know.
 
Horses crave authority because it brings order, regularity and peace to an otherwise chaotic world. It’s not enough to have expectations, to convey and enforce the rules, you also must comport yourself in a manner that you look like the one in charge, at all times. It’s my goal to make my horse think I am not only in control of his actions, but I control everything in the environment, too. In his eyes, I want to be the supreme commander of the universe. With that, comes not only his trust, but his compliance and willingness, too.
 
Everyone has self-doubt at times. Everyone. It’s what you do with yourself in that moment that separates leaders from followers. Taking mental and physical control of your emotions, reminding yourself, “I’ve done this before and I can do it now,” and then pushing through that moment of self-doubt, will get you everywhere with your horse (and in life). When you allow self-doubt to creep into your ground-handling or riding of a horse, you become passive and convey the picture of that lost tourist. The horse sees this as a giant opening to either 1) start a mutiny, or 2) abandon ship.
 
Once you’ve asked a horse to do something, you should continue to ask, with steadfast determination, until you get the right answer. If you’re not committed, or you cannot reinforce the command, it’s best not to ask. Your horse is very keen to your level of confidence, intent and determination. He can see it—or lack thereof—in your body language (where you look, your posture, your gestures, even the look on your face and the way you move).
 
The key is to act confident on the outside, even though you don’t always feel that way on the inside. Fake it ‘til you make it; never show your weakness on the outside. It’s not that you always feel confident and in-control, just don’t let that negative emotion take over your mind and body. The mind, body and spirit (the mental, the physical and the emotional) are inextricably intertwined. Controlling your mind with positive thoughts and your body language with a show of determination, will keep the negative emotions at bay.
 
Be the Captain
Of course, you cannot just strut around like a leader and expect someone to follow. You must also be true to your word, consistent and predictable in your actions and have sound judgment in all matters. Say what you do and do what you say. You must recognize the horse’s effort and willingness, just as quickly and vehemently as you offer criticism and reinforcement.
 
Often, in a moment that really counts with a horse, humans are too caught up dwelling in the past and fretting over the future to notice a horse’s behavior in that instant. Horses exist in the moment—when three seconds go by, it’s like a whole different day to the horse, and the moment is lost forever. Sadly, humans tend to linger in the past (he spooked here before) and jump to the future (what if spooks up there), instead of directing our horse like a true leader, in the moment of his greatest need.
 
It’s a tall order, what your horse needs from you to feel safe and comfortable in your presence. He needs to know what you expect of him, that rules exist and will be enforced fairly and consistently. He needs you to be strong emotionally, in-control of yourself and others, clear in your intent and consistent in your actions. He needs you to make good decisions, to recognize his efforts and reward his compliance. It’s a lot to for him to ask, but the price is well worth paying, because once you become a true leader in the eyes of your horse, he will reward you with obedience, respect and devotion.

Think Forward: Ride Yourself Out of Rough Spots

Julie riding in the mountains.

Julie riding

When was the last time you felt a lack of control while riding your horse, even if only for a moment? Was he spooked? Did your horse freak out because the other horses took off? During a tantrum your horse threw about leaving his herd mate?

In the moment of panic—let’s say right after your horse spooked at a rabbit—most riders grab the reins and clench hard when they first feel a lack of control. Often, they fail to shorten the reins first, so the reins are too long, causing the rider to lean back, hands flailing and out of balance too. With white knuckles the rider clenches on the reins (inadvertently clenching with her legs too), as the horse dives into the bit, stiffening his neck, leaning on the rider. This scenario rarely pans out well for the rider.

Let’s look at this same scenario from the horse’s point of view (hPOV). I was going down the trail just fine, as commanded by my rider; I was obedient, my head down, no pressure on my mouth, and I was eating up the ground like a good trail horse. Out of nowhere, that evil rabbit jumps right at me! OMG! It coulda been a mountain lion! Suddenly my rider screams and grabs the reins, jerks my mouth, ouch! Now she’s scared, I’m scared and my mouth hurts! Rider keeps pulling even after I stopped, wrapping that jointed bit right around my tongue and jaw. Double ouch! I stiffen the muscles on both sides of my neck and lean on the bit to protect my mouth. Panicked, I do what I do best—run for home, running toward safety as if that bit wasn’t there.

There’s no doubt that being out of control on a fractious horse is a terrible feeling and the tendency to stop is huge. But with horses being flight animals, it usually works better to keep them moving, ride proactively and re-establish control through purposeful movement. Horses are also comfort animals, so rest (after hard work) becomes a huge reward. One of the oldest wisdoms of horsemanship (thousands of years old) is, “Forward motion is the basis of all training.” Without willing, free and forward movement, the horse cannot be trained.

Horses respond well to confidant authority. Horses are animals that are habitual in their behavior and remember their training, even though at times they may need a little reminder. Being a proactive, confident rider is what your horse needs and wants. If you are rider that tends to panic when you feel a loss of control, there’s a dynamic between you and your horse that needs to change—and you are the only one capable of introducing that change.

Here are my best three tips for how to become the confidant, proactive rider your horse needs.

#1 Stay present in the moment. Don’t allow your mind to shut down in panic; be observant of your surroundings (it’s your job as the leader, you know). Don’t start shutting down, grabbing the reins and thinking about all the things that could go wrong or have gone wrong before. Be aware of your horse and what he needs from you—it’s not his job to make you feel safe; it’s your job to make him feel secure. Take a deep breath (and many more). Keep your eyes active and aware, taking in information in your environment. Relax the reins. Ride the horse beneath—you not the one in your head. Don’t read things into the situation that aren’t there. Allow your horse to calm down; don’t’ keep him in an anxious state just because you’re anxious. Remember, he can calm down and become obedient just as quickly as he spooked, so let him.

#2 Think and ride through the situation, like you know how to do. Immediately start asking your horse to go somewhere and do something—trot, turn right, turn left– preferably using up some oxygen as you do (think working trot). It’s what your horse knows how to do (stop, go and turn) and it will get his mind back in the game faster. As soon as you start asking him to go somewhere, doing what he knows how to do, he feels a since of normalcy and starts relaxing. That’s your cue to relax and soften the reins, sit back and take a deep breath. Controlling forward movement is much easier than trying to staunch it. Moving forward relaxes a frightened horse and then, letting him stop and rest when he relaxes, rewards his relaxation and compliance. It’s a win-win.

#3 Ride with a destination in mind. Be purposeful—look where you are going and ride with determination. One of the first things that happens when a rider panics is that she looks down and loses all focus as her mind shuts down and she stops riding. Horses are masters at determining your level of determination and intent—they can see it or feel it in your body language and posture. When the rider shuts down, the horse learns he can do whatever he wants. Always look far past where you plan to go and ride like you have a plan; Look about 10 seconds ahead of your horse, seeing your specific route and focus on a destination. Your horse will feel your intent and respond accordingly. Don’t compromise; accept nothing less than 100% compliance. Once you have asked a horse to do something, you must follow through on the request. If you start a turn and then abandon that request because your horse didn’t respond, you just trained him to ignore your request to turn.

When you become a more proactive and confidant rider, the hPOV will change drastically:

I’m going down the trail like a good horse, the reins are slack, my head is down, and my rider is happy and I feel good. That evil rabbit jumped at me and I freaked at first, but right away, my rider rubbed my neck told me I was okay and she went right back to riding like nothing ever happened; I took a deep breath and we rode off toward something more important than that silly little rabbit. I feel safe with my human, she’s clearly in control of the entire universe and I know she will take diligent care of me; I’m just along for the ride.

Remember, all riders have moments of doubt, nerves or uncertainty. Riding a thousand-pound flight animal is no little thing. But it’s important to keep in mind that there is a living, breathing, thinking animal underneath you, who is going to respond to your actions, for better or for worse. Learning to keep your mind engaged and present in the moment—thinking through the situation and riding purposefully—will get you out of most sticky spots with your horse.

Help! My Horse Won’t Stay on the Rail

close up of horse in an arena

Close-up of horse in an arena.
Horses are smarter than we give them credit for and any horse that’s been around an arena more than once, has figured out that it’s a much shorter distance around when they cut corners and leak in off the rail. No horse stays glued to the arena fence unless he is well-trained and obedient. All horses feel the pull of “gate gravity” or “barn gravity,” but only the horses that think they can get away with it will act on that feeling.

If you feel like you are constantly steering your horse back to the rail or pulling his nose to the outside as you go around, you’ve got a disobedience problem. Chances are good that your horse is a step or two ahead of you, and while you might not be fully aware of the dynamics of this situation, your horse almost certainly knows exactly what he is doing. Horses are pros at manipulating the behavior of others—and that includes you.

I could write 10,000 words on the mechanics of how to train your horse out of this problem, but it would do little good if you don’t have an understanding of the dynamics happening between you and your horse.

If your horse is cheating you by not staying on the rail, cutting corners, speeding up on the way back or refusing to go over an obstacle, you need to take a deeper look at your role. First, you must understand what the underlying motivations of the horse are and how you got to this point. Then you must figure out a plan for what’s next, how you will change your horse’s behavior and change the way you ride.

Define the Problem
Assuming you are riding a trained horse, you need to realize this is not a steering problem. An obedient horse goes on the exact path dictated by the rider, at a speed chosen by the rider, without argument or micromanagement. A horse that is leaking into the middle from the rail, cutting the corners, pulling toward the gate or stopping at the gate is disobedient to the aids of the rider. The first step in fixing this issue is to recognize it as disobedience—to become aware of your horse’s behavior.

How ever your horse is acting now, there’s a reason why he is acting that way—he has a motivation. To effectively train a horse, it helps to be aware of your horse’s motivations. Why is he coming off the rail? Why is he stopping at the gate? Is he trying to get back to the barn/herd, is he trying to get out of work, or does he simply think he can go wherever he wants, whenever he wants? These types of behaviors are generally motivated by a desire to get back to the herd and/or to get out of work.

Being aware of your horse’s disobedience, and treating it as such, is often enough to stop this kind of behavior. Acknowledge his behavior as disobedience and let him know, you know. Once a horse realizes you are onto his antics, he’ll often stop doing it. Once you are aware, his tricks don’t work so well. Understanding his motivation is important because it dictates how you will respond. If he’s trying to pull toward the barn, you want to make sure that he ends up farther away from his objective as you correct him. Correct him in such a way that he loses territory, doesn’t gain it.

How did we get here?
Horses are masters at subtle disobediences that often go unnoticed by the rider; but the horse knows exactly what he is doing. If you have put him on the rail and he starts pulling toward the middle, on the very first step toward the middle, he became disobedient, whether the rider noticed or not. Often the rider, blissfully ignorant of the horse’s disobedience, simply steers the horse back to the rail, without addressing the disobedience; then the pattern starts again.

Soon, the rider is going all the way around the arena, with the horse’s nose pulled toward the rail, while his body is leaking in to the middle of the arena; he’s counter-bent and still not on the rail. When the rider tries to hold the horse on the rail with the outside rein (or hold the horse in a certain speed), she becomes complicit in the horse’s disobedience—it is a co-dependent relationship. Your horse is constantly threatening disobedience, and instead of addressing the disobedience, you are treating it as if the horse just doesn’t know where he is going. The problem is, the horse knows exactly what he is doing.

The horse that is cutting corners, leaking off the rail or slowing/stopping at the gate, is essentially saying to the rider, “I don’t want to do that; I want to go over here.” Often, the rider is so busy on her own agenda (working on something herself), that she does not hear what the horse is saying and so she simply steers back to the rail. The problem is, that this sets up a compromise with your horse. He cuts the corner, you steer him halfway back (without scolding his disobedience), then you say, “Well, at least I got him halfway back to the corner,” and go on with your ride. In this moment, you have just compromised with your horse, letting him know that he does indeed get a say in the direction you go. This is a bad precedent to set and it will surface every time you ask your horse to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. Compromising with a horse on direction or speed is a bad idea.

Where do we go from here?
First you must become aware of your horse’s behavior and motivations. Just becoming aware of it will make your horse less successful. Once you are aware of your horse’s manipulations, you will be able to correct him in a timely manner—at the instant he makes his first move. Also, with an understanding of his motivations (Where is he trying to go? Why?), you’ll be able to correct him more effectively, making sure your correction does not inadvertently give him what he wants.

Secondly, don’t treat this as a steering problem and don’t ever hold your horse in a speed or direction. Treat it for what it is, a disobedience problem. Instead of just cueing or steering the horse back to where you asked him to go, scold him for being willingly disobedient. Allow your horse to make the mistake (instead of holding him or preventing it), then correct him when he does. Let him know that you disapprove—often this can be accomplished simply with your voice.

Horses will work hard for your approval, but only if he is occasionally admonished. You should have clear expectations of your horse (go on the path I dictate, at the speed I chose), and never be afraid to let him know when he falls short of your expectations. How much pressure your scolding will require depends on the horse and how egregious his discrepancy—it may be as benign as a harsh word or as sharp as a tap with a crop or spank of the reins.

Finally, scientific research has shown that it is far more effective to use “replacement training” to change a horse’s behavior. Replacing one behavior (an undesirable one) with another more desirable behavior, is far more effective than trying to distinguish the undesirable behavior through punishment. Once you understand your horse’s disobedience and his motivation, it will be easier to know how to replace that behavior with a better one.

For instance, if my horse is coming off the rail, trying to get into the middle of the arena, I will place him on the rail on a clear straight line, then lay my hands on his neck to neutralize the reins (and make sure I am not inadvertently holding him on the path). At the first moment my horse makes a move toward the middle (on the first step), I will sharply pick up the outside rein and turn the horse right into the fence (away from his objective) and proceed on the rail in the opposite direction. After a few times of this—the horse steps off the path and I turn him abruptly into the fence (opposite direction of where he wants to go), every time my horse starts to take a step into the middle, he will immediately think about turning into the fence and he will get prepared for that by taking a step toward the rail. Now every time he thinks about coming into the middle, he takes a step toward the rail. Replacement training is highly effective with horses and it works fast.

Once you understand your horse’s subtle disobediences and the motivations behind his behavior, it’s far easier for you to call him out on it. In many instances, just having that awareness (and letting your horse know you know) is enough to resolve it. Knowing your horse’s motivations in the undesirable behavior will help you devise an effective replacement—if your horse wants to turn right, you’ll turn left; if he wants to get away from something, you’ll turn toward it; if he is trying to get toward something you’ll turn away from it.

Don’t be complicit in your horse’s disobedience by holding him on a path or holding him in a speed. Never be afraid to let your horse make a mistake—it is through correction of the mistake that he learns. When you try to prevent the mistake, he doesn’t learn anything, and you end up in a codependent relationship with your horse. Instead, be aware of your horse’s intentions and recognize the moment he becomes disobedient to your aids. Soon, you will have a well-behaved horse who is responsible for and accountable for, his own behavior.

Enjoy the ride,

Julie

Horses Give More than they Get

Julie riding Annie in the arena

Julie riding Annie in the arenaWhen you own horses, and especially if you keep them at home, sometimes it seems like your whole life revolves around doing their bidding—food service, housekeeping, valet service, maintenance. Most people who dream of bringing their horses home (after boarding them forever) are stunned to discover they have even less time to ride. Why? Because of all the other chores that need doing! But as much as we like to complain, it’s been my observation that horses do far more for us and our essential well-being, tan we could ever do for them.

Recently, I sat down to make a list of some of the valuable life lessons that horses have taught me in my lifetime and the list is weighty. It’s a good list for me to check in with every now and then, to remind myself of the lessons and to use as evidence for why parents should not just allow, but encourage their children’s interest in horses. From horses, I have learned to live in the moment, to have a keen awareness of myself and others, to develop my leadership skills, to be very disciplined in my life and have high expectations.

Horse Time Vs. Human Time
Horses are always present in the moment; humans, not so much. People tend to dwell in the past and think about the future but are often not present in the moment. We spend so much time thinking about what happened to us before and what is going to happen next, that we often miss the importance of the moment and fail to respond. I see this on a regular basis in my horsemanship clinics, when riders are afraid or having trouble controlling a horse—the memory of what happened before pollutes the mind and the riders are so busy thinking about what may happen later, that they miss important signs from their horses or freeze up on the horse instead of just riding through the situation.

Horses don’t think in the past or the future, only in the now. From horses I have learned this important lesson. As a professional horse trainer, I had to learn this skill early on—to trust the horse, to be present in the moment, to hear his concerns and to ride through the rough spots. Life is much more enjoyable and productive when I am present in the moment.

Time has no meaning to horses. After decades of training horses, I know with certainty that slower is faster when training horses. Even in this day and age of horse training contests that focus on speed of training– be it a few hours, a few weeks or a few months, most professional trainers agree that slower is always faster with horses. The more time I take, the more I break each step down into its smallest component, the slower I move around my horse– so that I see the instant my horse first responds and give him the best release, the more patience I have to allow the horse to think and decide for himself, the faster he learns and the more solid his foundation of training. When a situation gets tough on a horse, I want to be able to rely on my horse’s solid foundation, the seamless communication we have developed through time and consistency, and the strong trust he has built in me.

Awareness
Being a prey animal and a flight animal, a horse’s awareness of his environment is keen. Being animals that communicate primarily with gestures and postures, they can read other animals—including humans—with accuracy and speed. Horses are also biologically wired to be aware of and mimic the emotions of the animals around them. To be effective with horses and for horses to be comfortable around me, I learned at an early age to be aware of my body language and to use it to convey the right message to the horse—one of strength, calmness and confidence.

Because horses are quite emotional animals, having more or less the same emotions as humans (except perhaps more honest and less complicated), I’ve learned to be honest with myself about the emotions I feel, to be aware-of and in-control-of my emotions at all times around a horse. If I l let my emotions take control of my thoughts and my posture, things devolve quickly. When I remain positive in my thoughts (mind) and confident in my posture (body), my emotion is good (spirit).

Because horses mirror and mimic the emotions of the animals around them, when the rider (or handler) is frustrated, the horse is frustrated; anger is met with anger (and trust me, you don’t want to fight with a horse, if you can help it); fear causes fear; and trust leads to trust. If a human’s emotions are out of control, things generally don’t go well when they are dealing with a horse. But then again, the same can be said of life in general. From horses, I have learned to be true to others and honest with myself about my emotions, and not let negative emotions take control of my body and mind.

Leadership
To a horse, his very survival depends on being accepted into a herd with a strong, fair and competent leader. It’s one of his strongest instinctive drives—to be with the herd. Horses always recognize a strong leader, apparently much better than us humans do. Horses crave strong leadership and are drawn to it like a magnet. Hierarchy is linear, with one horse at the top. There is never a void of leadership in a horse herd; when a leader falls down on the job, another horse will immediately assume the leadership role.

Even as a young, shy, introverted child, I was able to develop strong leadership skills from being with horses; these skills have served me well in my lifetime and not only with horses. This is not a lesson that comes easily or naturally to some people and the relationship with their horse will always reflect their leadership ability—for better or worse.

To get very far with horses, you must learn to accept accountability for your own actions. In every clinic I teach, I hear people say things like, “my horse has a problem with [fill in the blank—spooking, running away, standing still, lead changes, etc.],” when the problem very clearly lies in the rider’s own deficiency. The sooner the rider accepts that the horse’s performance problem is actually her own, the faster the performance of the horse improves. Like any good leader, when her followers struggle, she must step-up and take responsibility.

A leader has the responsibility to keep her charges safe and to make good judgments. Always. This is all your horse wants from you. If you make a decision, intentionally or not, that results in your horse getting hurt or feeling unsafe, you have fallen on your responsibilities as the leader and eroded the trust he placed in you.

I’ve had many truly alpha horses in my life—their beauty, intelligence and strength of character enthrall me—and from them, I have had the best examples of leadership from which to learn. From them, I have honed my own leadership skills and forged incredible partnerships with some very dominant horses. The power of horses to make us better people is unlimited.

Discipline and Authority
Discipline simply means training individuals to follow rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience. Most people I know are law abiding citizens, willing to obey the laws of our society because it’s the right thing to do and because it is a pact amongst us that insures we have a peaceful and safe existence. While the threat of punishment may be required for some people to obey the law, for most of us, the punishment is not something we’ll ever experience and we voluntarily and willingly comply. We have high expectations of ourselves and others and we strive to teach our children to be law abiding and productive citizens.

With horses, I think of discipline using punishment more in terms of teaching a horse what NOT to do, like bite. An undisciplined horse is not only unpleasant to be around but it is also unsafe. A horse that bites, slams you with its head, shoulders into you and runs over the top of you is untenable and entirely unnecessary. It’s incredibly easy to teach a horse to have good manners and follow a code of behavior. Unless a horse has been taught to be an outlaw or has been taught to disregard rules and authority, they are generally willing and happy to follow a code of behavior and punishment is rarely needed. When a horse owner has no rules, no expectations or code of behavior for their horses, the result is a  dangerous horse, that will require discipline and punishment to retro-actively teach him proper rules of behavior. But let me be clear, this is not the fault of the horse that he has become a criminal; it is the fault of the owner/handler for not imposing rules, order and discipline.

While “discipline” may have a negative meaning to some, being “disciplined” generally has a positive connotation. Being disciplined means having a controlled form behavior or way of working. In my personal life, I strive to be more disciplined in all things—I work out daily, watch what I eat, strive to improve my work habits and productivity, try to better myself and be a better person to others.

A disciplined horse is an amazing animal to be around and to have as a partner. Horses crave rules and structure; they are animals that seek out acceptance into a herd because of the safety, comfort and order the herd represents. For these reasons, it’s incredibly easy to teach a horse to follow a code of behavior, to work hard to be accepted and to respect authority. I have learned to have high expectations of my horses and even higher expectations of myself.

Just the other day, I met a woman whose young daughter was starting to take riding lessons—even though they were a decidedly non-horsey family. (The idea was being promoted by and facilitated by her grandmother.) Knowing I was a horse professional, she started the conversation by saying, “Even though we’ll never lease or buy a horse….” What followed from me was desperate attempt to make her see the incredible value that horses would bring to her daughter’s life. Far beyond the fun she will have riding a horse, her daughter will learn to focus on the present moment, to have a keen awareness of herself and those around her, to be disciplined, and to have high expectations of herself and others.

I have spent half a century with horses, and I’ve learned a lot. Yet the older I get, the more in awe of horses I become—and the more important the life lessons that I learn.

Begging for Acceptance

Julie pushing Amy's dominant horse, Chief, out of her space in the round pen.
Photo by: Melissa Arnold

Imagine you’re meeting a blind date at a coffee shop, a setup by your friend who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Even though you’re not really interested in a relationship right now, you arrive only a few minutes late, and looking across the café, you see a guy jump to his feet, frantically waving his arms over his head, a little too eager to get your attention. Apparently, he recognizes you; obviously, he’s been studying pictures. Already, you’re suspicious of his motivations and thinking he looks a bit foolish.

You’re busy conjuring up an excuse to get out of this date as you reach out to shake his hand, but he grabs you with both his hands and pulls you into a half-embrace, kissing both your cheeks, before you have a chance to react. Now you’re thinking this guy’s way over-the-top, clearly desperate to have a relationship and in serious need of a schooling on personal space.

Despite your best efforts to send a clear message to him that you are uninterested, he gushes on about himself, how much money he makes, what a sporty car he has, and how many times a week he works out. Not once does he ask what kind of movies you like, how many siblings you have or what you want out of life; it’s solely about his agenda. Stunned at how clueless he is to your disgust, you think to yourself, “How rude am I gonna have to be, before this guy sees that I am not interested in him?”

Then, just as you’re prepared to tell him to take a hike and bolt out the café door, he reaches for his pocket, pulls out a jewelry box, thrusts a diamond ring in your face and asks you to marry him! As you run from the restaurant screaming, you’re thinking, “This guy’s probably a stalker and I’m going to be needing a restraining order soon.”

Anyone who’s that self-absorbed and disrespectful of personal boundaries, oblivious to body language clues and that desperate for a relationship, is clearly not someone you want to hang out with. But did you ever stop to think that’s what your horse might’ve thought, the first time he met you?

This is the story of Amy and Chief, the big bay Morgan, recently featured in episodes of Horse Master. It took almost a year for Amy to come to the realization that she’d started her relationship with Chief on the wrong foot and that her dream horse had turned into an aggressive bully who was disdainful and resentful of her. Dream horse turned night mare.

First Impressions
Long before actually being in a position to have a new horse, many horse-crazy people have spent years imagining the perfect horse and perusing dream horse ads online. Amy was no exception. Just like with movies and restaurants, when there’s a big a buildup and expectations are huge, it almost always leads to disappointment.

As luck would have it, just when Amy was finally in a position to acquire a new horse, the local horse rescue posted pictures of her dream horse online—a big, beautiful, bay Morgan who’d had a rough life and was in desperate need of someone just like her—a strong and confident rider who would shower the horse with love. Before even seeing this horse in the flesh, she’d already made the decision that they were perfect for each other.

Pulling up to the rescue to “test ride” her new dream horse, Amy was literally glowing with anticipation, knowing full well she’d already made up her mind and there was nothing he could do to disappoint her. Gushing about his beauty as she approached him for the first time, pulling a baggie of freshly sliced apples and carrots from her pocket, she stepped right into the horse’s space, fawning and petting him, kissing him on the nose and stuffing treats in his mouth. Tears of joy were running down her cheeks; she was falling desperately in love with this horse she’d only just met. Sound familiar?

Life in the Herd
Now let’s consider what it’s like from the horse’s point of view, when a horse, like Chief, is looking for a new herd. For whatever reason he finds himself alone, his instincts tell him survival is dependent on being accepted into a herd, so he sheepishly approaches the herd, asking for acceptance. The existing herd wants nothing to do with the new horse, so they start biting, kicking and chasing him away.

The herd leaders will be quite aggressive to the new horse, driving him away, herding him in one direction then the other, to establish control of the new horse. He runs away, but always comes back, lowering his head with a contrite gesture, adopting a submissive posture, seeking out approval and acceptance. Eventually, if he plays his cards right, the herd leaders will allow the new horse probational membership into the herd. But he will remain on his best behavior, hoping to stay in good graces with herd leaders.

Horses always seek acceptance into the herd; they respect and admire the leader of the herd and want to be with her. Herd leaders don’t beg for members or bribe and coddle a new horse so he’ll want to be in their herd. A strong and competent leader is what makes a herd great and what makes the other horses want to be part of it. A good leader does not have to beg for followers. Horses establish dominance and control first, then work on the finer points of a relationship later.

Amy started her relationship with Chief by showering him with love, telling him he could do no wrong and begging him to be part of her herd. To Chief, anyone that desperate for a herd mate couldn’t possibly be a good leader or have anything of value to offer him. Chief did eventually come home with Amy to his forever home, but the story was far from over.

Things went well at first, but in time, Amy’s attempts at groundwork with Chief started annoying him (“Who does she think she is?”), and he felt the need to assert his dominance over her, to put her in her place, by displaying aggressive gestures. His antics worked, thoroughly intimidating Amy, and nearly a year into this relationship, it was starting to resemble a bad marriage.

Lasting Impressions
For myself, I never want to start a relationship with a horse with bribery or pampering. In fact, those things are never a part of any relationship I want with a horse. I want the horse to recognize my leadership from the very beginning and for him to want to be with me, in my herd, to beg for my acceptance and approval. I usually start a new relationship with a horse in a very authoritative and standoffish way, looking for opportunities to move him out of my space and communicate my expectations to him. I’d like him to think I have no interest in him; I prefer to let him come to me.

I was impressed that Amy came to the understanding of the bad dynamics of their relationship on her own, of how she got off on the wrong track with Chief from the beginning. The analogy of a guy proposing marriage on a first date was actually Amy’s idea. She knew she made some major mistakes from the beginning of their relationship, but she did not think it could be fixed. She was beginning to wonder if she was the right human for this horse after all.

The Horse Changes with You
The good news about horses is that once the person changes, the horse always changes with them. Once Amy understood what had led them to the predicament they were currently in, she was able to change how she acted. We started by taking Chief back to the round pen, to mimic the antics that go on when a new horse asks for acceptance into a herd. It wasn’t easy. It was scary at times because Chief was intolerant of her mistakes and stayed dominant and aggressive for a while. It took a lot of courage, patience and determination—qualities that Amy fortunately has an abundance of– for her to stand up to Chief’s bullying and stay strong.

At the same time, Amy came to the realization that her other horse appreciated her attention while Chief seemed to disdain it; her other horse was respectful of her authority and did not challenge her. So, it made sense for her to lavish more praise and attention on her other horse, who appreciated her, and to ignore Chief. Once Amy started giving Chief the cold shoulder, his demeanor began to change and he gradually started seeking her attention and approval, “Hey, what about me?”

Amy still has a lot of work to do with Chief, to get their relationship back to the dream horse category, but as she changes her approach and her attitude, Chief changes right along with her. Now, a few months into the cold-shoulder routine and in combination with the disciplined ground work she’s doing, to Chief, Amy is starting to look like a leader that he wants to be with.

Even though we may only have one chance for a first impression, and we never want to squander it, this story is proof that by understanding another’s perspective and reflecting on how our own actions are perceived, it can lead to a positive change. That kind of introspection and accountability is not always easy, but Amy rose to the challenge and Chief responded in-kind.

Chief is a really cool horse, but he is truly and alpha horse, and therefore not an easy nut to crack. Stay tuned to Horse Master, to see the final chapter of Amy and Chief’s story in May, when we reveal the challenging round pen work she did with Chief, that turned their relationship around