Slower is Faster with Horses

Let’s face it, we’ve become a society of instant gratification. From fast food, to fake nails, we like immediate results. This quest for instant results carries over to horsemanship, too—from flying lead changes, to side-passing, to collection. These are skills that riders everywhere hope to master, yet aren’t willing to “do the time.”

Horses and riding sports don’t mix well with instant gratification. Riding is a sport that takes years and decades for the human to master. And horses are not animals that react well to rushing and cutting corners. When training is rushed and important steps are missed, mastering even the simplest skill can seem impossible. In most cases, slowing down will get you there faster with horses.

Without question, when it comes to training horses, cutting corners always results holes in your horse’s training, which will come back to haunt you at the most inconvenient time. Undoing poor training is much harder and way more time consuming that training an untarnished horse the same skill. Cutting corners will cost you more time in the long run, which is why for thousands of years, horse trainers have known that slower is better when it comes to horses.


Horses are Fast Learners. People … Not So Much

Although horses are incredibly fast learners (a by-product of being flight animals and prey animals), there’s a significant difference between acquiring a new skill and mastering that skill. The challenge with horses is that how fast they learn and how fast they master any given skill is directly related to the effectiveness and consistency (skill level) of the rider or handler.

Because horses are prey animals, they are highly sensitive, and they feel all kinds of pressure (physical, mental, environmental) keenly. Therefore, we apply pressure and release it to train them (negative reinforcement refers to the removal of pressure). Two factors dictate how quickly the horse learns: timing and pressure. A timely release/reward comes within one second; using adequate pressure—neither too little nor too much—requires excellent judgment and ability from the rider. With good timing and adequate pressure, the horse learns rapidly. If the horse isn’t learning fast or is learning the wrong things, you must consider the human side of the equation.

Because horses are such fast leaners, they unfortunately learn the wrong things just as quickly as they learn the right things. The horse may learn to perform the skill incorrectly because the rider inadvertently released the horse at the exact wrong moment. I see this a lot in teaching complex maneuvers like pivot on the haunches. The horse takes one or two good steps in the pivot, then the rider gets greedy and asks for more, then the horse steps incorrectly and the rider releases him. I see riders asking for collection or some sort of head set, but instead of releasing that horse the instant he’s giving the correct response, they hold the horse too long until he starts resisting, then they release him, training the horse to throw his head up.

Whatever your horse is doing at the moment you release him, is what you just trained him to do. “My horse is having problems with this,” is code for, “I taught my horse the wrong thing.”


Why Slower is Faster

Getting in a hurry rarely works with horses. Their perspective of time is much different from the average human, who tends to think in the future and dwell in the past, but is rarely present in the moment. We always have a plan, an agenda and a schedule to adhere to. Horses don’t.

Horses are very much here-and-now animals. We humans stand to learn a lot from horses on this subject. Have you ever tried to train a horse to trailer load when you had limited time to load  and get somewhere? Have you ever had a normally easy-to-catch horse stick his tail up in the air and run around for twenty minutes on the day you were pinched for time? I rest my case.

Sometimes going slower with horses is very literal. Slowing down your body language and reactiveness when you are doing groundwork, will almost always have the effect of softening the horse’s response. Slowing down your hands when using rein aids, literally moving them slower, will improve the responsiveness of your horse. Try it.

Going slowly in the training of a horse means that we take small baby steps; we walk before we run and we don’t skip steps. We follow the important tenants of classical horsemanship, which have proven to be a successful recipe for training horses for thousands of years. We teach foundational skills before asking for complex maneuvers. Trying to teach a horse collection, before he has mastered the most fundamental skill of a riding horse—to move freely and willingly forward—will never work.

There are many seemingly simple skills of a riding horse that riders are often impatient to learn, like collection, flying lead changes and side passing. Rarely have I done a clinic (in the past 30 years) where a rider didn’t state one of these skills as a desired outcome for the clinic. Each of these skills require the horse (and therefore the rider) to master many foundational skills, a pre-flight checklist so to speak, which may take weeks and months to achieve. Only the most dedicated riders will devote the time needed to build the proper foundation for that skill and not get frustrated with how many steps are required to get there.


Stages of Learning

For both humans and horses, when mastering a new skill, there are stages of learning that describes how the individual typically advances through a predictable series of learning stages before mastering the skill. At first, the student (two-legged or four-legged) is halting and uncertain is using the skill, but gradually, through practice and guidance, the individual becomes more proficient and confident in the skill.

When we partner with horses, both horse and human are sometimes learning the skill for the first time together, and both animals have to move through the stages. With horses, it usually works best when one individual has already mastered the skill. In other words, if the rider does not know the skill, let’s say how to cue for and ride the canter, she will move through the stages must faster on a horse that has already mastered this skill. If the horse knows nothing about cantering with a rider on its back, it’s best trained by a rider that has already mastered cueing for and riding the canter.

The hierarchy of learning a new skill involves acquisition, fluency, generalization and adaptation. While this is common knowledge among educators of humans, it’s also highly applicable to the training of horses. Let’s look at the most fundamental skill of a riding horse—to go forward.

The very first time we ride that young horse, we have to teach it to go, turn and stop, but at first, he knows absolutely nothing. So, you flap your legs, cluck, wave your arms and otherwise apply pressure until the horse takes a step forward—then you immediately release the pressure, praise, and hopefully the horse learned something. The next time you ask that horse to move forward and it only takes a little wiggle of your legs and a couple clucks before he steps off, your horse has just acquired a new skill.

The next phase the horse moves through is fluency, and that will take some time; how long, depends on the skill of the rider. Although the horse has acquired the skill, he is still tentative and slow to respond. As he becomes more fluent, his response time increases, your cues get lighter, and he becomes more confident. Now the horse moves off with a slight closing of the rider’s leg.

Then we reach one of the most challenging and time-consuming phases when it comes to training horses, and that is generalization. This phase is not complete until the horse can perform the skill in any situation or any setting. No matter where you are or how emotionally your horse has become, he still responds accurately and promptly to the cue and performs the skill. Since horses are very location-specific in what they learn, having to perform the skill in many various locations requires a lot of time and effort. You can train a horse to perform to a very high level at home and practice for years, then take him somewhere else to perform, only to have him fall apart and become nonresponsive (or worse). A generalized horse is what we call a “seasoned” horse—he’s been hauled around and learned to perform his skills at the same level away from home that he does at home. This can take years.

Adaptation occurs when the horse or human is so accurate and confident in using the skill, that it can be applied to new and unique situations and the horse will adapt his skills to the demands of the new situation. Think about the high-level cross-country jumping horse, who adapts the jumping skills that he learned in an arena starting with ground poles and cavaletti, and now he gallops boldly through a course he has never seen, jumping huge, scary obstacles, landing blindly in potentially hazardous footing like a water obstacle. He can adapt his jumping skills to any type of obstacle, in any situation, even one he has never experienced.


Teaching Complex Maneuvers

Complex maneuvers are almost anything that we teach a horse beyond stop, start and steer. Advanced maneuvers generally require putting two or more foundational skills together to perform the maneuver, like collection, leg-yielding, side-passing, pivots on the forehand and haunches, lead changes, jumping, rollbacks, and the like.

One of the earliest complex maneuvers we encounter in the training of a riding horse is the canter departure. Before that horse learns to step off quietly and smoothly from a walk into a canter on whichever lead asked, there are many smaller steps which take time to accomplish. Knowing what the smaller steps are, being able to break down that skill into the smallest steps, and being willing to spend whatever time it takes at each step of the way, are the hallmarks of success in training horses.

Precursor skills always exist in complex maneuvers. For instance, before a horse and rider can flawlessly perform a flying lead change on command, they must both be able to execute walk-to-canter transitions on the correct lead 100% of the time; halt-to-canter transitions, dead-leaded; collection at the canter; an obedient and balanced counter-canter; haunches-in walk, trot and canter; leg yielding walk, trot and canter; etc. When you take the time to accomplish these lesser skills, flying lead changes are easy.

Because horses are very fast learners, acquisition of a skill can (and should) happen fast. But one response, does not a habit make. How fast a horse moves through the stages of learning is directly proportionate to the talent of the rider. Whether it takes a day, a week or a month to get fluent in a skill, fluency must occur before moving on to the next phase. This is true of each smaller step or precursor skill. When you try to fast forward though any stage of a horse’s training by skipping steps, you end up training the wrong response to the horse.

For all the complex maneuvers that we train horses to do, physical strength, stamina and coordination are required—that takes weeks and months to develop, not hours or days. While most of the maneuvers we ask horses to perform are movements they can do naturally, packing the weight of the rider (who is often getting in the way of the horse) makes it much more difficult for the horse. Pushing a horse faster than his physical strength and coordination can develop generally results in a burned-out horse, an injured horse, or both.


It’s no wonder that slower is faster when it comes to horses and learning to ride. When both the horse and the rider are learning new skills together, it will take even longer. It’s important to strive for correctness in training, which means releasing at the right moment, and making sure that you are giving the correct cues and training the correct response. Quality versus quantity.

Beyond precision, it’s important to be patient, to slow down your actions and expectations—to walk before you run. The ability to break down complex maneuvers into the smallest steps and then refine each step, to build a solid foundation, is one of the most crucial factors in successful horse training. This requires a lot of knowledge and a high skill level; if you do not possess the knowledge and skills yourself, you need help from someone who does. You can find that help online, at

Riding in the Moment

Julie riding her horse, Dually.

Julie riding her horse, Dually.

One thing horses are really good at is being present in the moment. People, not so much. We tend to carry baggage from the past and stress about the future, but not stay present with our horse in the moment. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could stay present and thinking in the moment and ride through any sticky situation with your horse?

Riding an unfamiliar horse, or riding in a new situation like a clinic or a big trail ride, or when riding a horse that was less-than-trustworthy in the past, are typical times when I see people lock up and shut down on their horses. When the rider shuts down, the horse’s behavior deteriorates under the pressure of a fearful, untrusting and clenching rider. It goes something like this…

The horse triggers an emotional response in the rider, then a chain reaction of events occurs between the rider and the horse, which results in gasping, clenching, hollowing and bracing on the part of both rider and horse. Pretty soon the rider has a death grip on the reins, pulling back and manually steering the horse’s nose every inch of the ride, instead of guiding direction and letting the horse move forward and do his job. Soon the horse is high headed and defiant; rooting the reins and starting to act like a bull in a china shop. Resistant behavior in horses tends to amp up fearful behavior in riders, leading to more clenching, gasping and hollowing. And the downward spiral continues.

Riding in the moment is not the same as having no fear. It requires the mental discipline to be aware of your surroundings, objectively reading your horse’s mood and responsiveness, trusting your horse to do his job but being prepared to react if he doesn’t. Riding the horse that is beneath you means that you are present in the moment with him, not thinking about what could go wrong or a past incident. It means responding to your horse with both praise and admonishment as needed, and giving him every opportunity to be a good horse, not doubting his every move.

Riding a thousand-pound flight animal certainly comes with risk; there’s nothing we can do to totally eliminate that but when all you think about is what can go wrong, it affects your riding in very negative ways. The horse becomes anxious and resistant, which generally increases the fear in the rider, creating a snowball effect. The keys to riding in the moment and riding through problems are to have awareness, to think through and ride through it, to have a deep and anchored seat and to be relaxed but prepared—with both physical and mental skills.

Prey and the Herd Mentality
It’s hard for us to remember, but horses are prey animals and they worry about their safety a lot. That’s one reason why they crave strong leadership and authority—it makes them feel safe. The leader of the herd is responsible for keeping the herd safe, leading them to food and water when it’s time and maintaining order in the herd. It’s only possible for your horse to think of you as the leader (and therefore be confident going anywhere with you) if you act this way—thinking through the problems and taking charge. When the rider is scared, dodgy, and unaware of things going on around her, it worries the horse.

Horses also have an incredibly strong herd instinct, known as gregarious behavior—they are instinctively drawn to the herd. Because horses are both prey and herd animals, they are hard-wired to adopt the emotions of the animals around them—when one horse in the herd startles, they all do. This emotionality carries over to people as well. When the rider gets fearful, the horse knows it and can’t help but feel anxious too. If the rider is constantly thinking about what can go wrong, the horse becomes suspicious and anxious too.

The horse looks to his rider to set the tone—be it relaxed or tense; confident or insecure; leader or follower. It would be unreasonable to say you should never to have any fear or anxiety; that’s impossible. But what is possible, is not to let that emotion creep into your body language and your actions and succumb to the paralysis it can cause. Having good mental discipline and an awareness of your posture, your body language, your eyes and your breathing, will help settle your horse and give him more confidence in you.

Presumptive Leadership
To be a strong and confident leader for your horse, you need to develop a presumptive quality in your demeanor—presume everything will go well, presume your horse will respond as he is trained to do, presume that your horse agrees you are the one in charge and that you have complete control. Horses really dig that kind of strong leadership.

Set a positive tone for the ride– visualize the best outcome; keep your eyes engaged and ride with a destination in mind—be a proactive rider, not one that devolves into a clenching, gasping, red-faced mess. When things go awry, ride forward—go somewhere—take action—redirect your horse. Don’t pull back, clench the reins and try to stop the ride and get off.

When something scary happens on your ride, divert attention rather than focus on the scary thing. Perfect the art of shifting gears and doing something else, not stopping in paralysis. Riding forward is usually better than stopping since forward motion is the basis of all training. Since horses are flight animals, they generally respond better when they are moving than when forward motion is inhibited. When a horse is anxious, it’s generally easier to control the forward motion of the horse than it is to stop all motion and try and contain it.

Look around, find a destination and ride there. Ask the horse to move forward then direct that movement. Throw in some turns and changes of direction to establish even more control. Be a pro-active rider in times of stress, not a victim.

Be Prepared but Relaxed
When you have the riding skills and mental skills you need to control a horse in almost any situation, it will give you great confidence. This has a positive effect on your horse as well, because when you are confident in yourself, your horse feels more confident in you too. When you have confidence in yourself, your horse is far less likely to challenge your authority (see the comments above on being presumptive). The riding and mental skills needed, include having a balanced position in the saddle with an anchored seat, keeping your eyes up and focused on your environment and staying objectively aware of your horse, breathing deeply and rhythmically, and knowing effective emergency stopping techniques.

Beyond basic riding position (ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment), having a deep and anchored seat means that you are sitting back, weighted in your heels, your lower back is in a “J” shape and your joints are loose and relaxed. From this position, almost nothing can get you off the horse. But fear and anxiety will do the opposite to your position if you allow it—your back hollows, you perch forward, your heels come up, your joints stiffen (causing you to bounce and your horse to hollow his back and throw his head up), you clench the reins and pull yourself even more forward—all of this is transmitting fear and panic to your horse.
Develop your mental skills so that when the going gets tough, you automatically sit back, round your lower back, get weighted in your heels, keep your eyes up and engaged and your breathing deep. Ride pro-actively and go somewhere!

It’s also important to develop your riding skills and have a full understanding emergency stopping techniques and when to use them. Learn the one-rein stop for times when your horse is acting up or getting a little frisky; however, the one-rein stop should not be used when a horse is bolting because it could cause him to trip and fall. The emergency stopping rein (a/k/a the “pulley” rein) is an important skill that all riders should learn.

The pulley rein is like a one-rein stop, except the outside rein is fixed and locked on the crest of the neck, so it will not cause a turn. When executed properly, the pulley rein generates leverage and will allow the rider to stop any horse on a dime. It’s not often taught because not all instructors/trainers know it and because the practicing of it is hard on the horses. However, if you don’t practice the maneuver, you certainly won’t be able to employ it when your horse is bolting. You can read articles and watch videos about the pulley rein here.

Awareness, Knowledge and Skill
When it comes to riding horses, nothing gives you more confidence than knowledge and skill. Being aware of your environment, being balanced in the saddle and anchored in your seat, staying in the moment, being aware of your horse’s behavior, riding proactively, with purpose and intent will get you through almost any tricky situation with a horse. Armed with knowledge, skills and mental discipline, you will have the confidence you need to get the job done!

Top Five Concerns for Winterizing Your Horse

I grew up in Florida, where the main riding season is the winter. Our main chore to get ready for winter was body clipping the horses, to get rid of the winter coat they were not going to need. For the last 30+ years, I’ve lived in the mountains of Colorado, at an altitude of 8000 feet, where the winters are long and cold and preparing your horse and barn for the winter comes with some important concerns.

Depending on your climate, your barn and the facilities you have to work with, preparing for winter may mean a lot of work! We all have unique challenges in the winter that may vary from dealing with ten-foot snow drifts to dealing with eight inches of mud, but my first concern is always making sure my horses will be comfortable for the long winter ahead.

While winters here in the mountains are long and hard, with temperatures well below zero at times, it’s not that bad everywhere (and much worse some places). Whether your winters are mild or wild, you might find a few things to think about, as you prepare your horses for winter. My biggest concerns to prepare my horses for winter are transitioning the horses’ diets, winterizing their water sources, preparing their hooves, checking their parasite status, and organizing blankets.

The Grass is not Greener

My horses have free-choice access to hay and/or grass 24/7, but late in the summer as the grass starts losing its nutritional value, the horses start transitioning themselves to more of a hay diet. Since Fall comes early here, by mid-August, the horses start eating more hay and less green grass, all on their own. Since we offer both hay and green grass to the horses in the late summer, they will slowly transition themselves to an all-hay diet by the time the grass goes dormant.

Unlike the Spring, when we must be very careful transitioning the horses from an all-hay diet to an all-grass diet, in the fall the transition is easier. However it’s done at your place, it is important to make any change in diet gradually. Whenever we are changing a horse’s diet, we always put them on a pre/pro-biotic like Proviable throughout the transition period, to aid in digestion.

After over thirty years in the horse business, I’ve learned many hard lessons about buying hay. First, I always buy a year’s worth of hay in the fall. I will not take the chance of running out of hay in the spring when hay can be very scarce and expensive. I will not buy hay right out of the field. It’s not fully cured until it’s been in the stack for 30 days. Some hay can look absolutely beautiful for a few weeks after it’s baled but can turn bad in the stack thirty days later if it was baled with too much moisture.

For my horses, I buy straight grass hay, top-quality, no rain on it. We buy large bales, which are a challenge to move around, but the cost savings is significant. I’ll also buy a few tons of small bales so that when I travel with my horses, I have some hay to take on the road.

I’ve found that hay prices are lowest and most stable in the fall and I can usually find the best quality then too. An uncomplicated way to budget your hay is to plan on using 1/3 a ton per horse per month; so, three horses are going to consume about one ton a month. I like to buy 10 months’ worth of hay in September; that should take me through July, when the new crop comes in and when the grass is in full swing. If you may have spoilage, add 10%. If your herd numbers fluctuate, overbuy your hay. If it’s well stored, hay will retain its nutritional value for up to a couple years after it’s baled. So I’d rather have extra hay in the Spring (when hay is the most expensive)—I’ll be sure to use it up first before I start feeding the next year’s crop.

Winterizing Water Sources

Frozen water sources can be one of the biggest challenges in winter horse keeping. Just like us, it’s easy for a horse to get dehydrated because he is not drinking enough water when he is cold. Dehydration is a huge factor in colic, so I do everything I can to make sure my horses are adequately hydrated all winter long, including heating their water and adding an equine drink mix like Rein Water, which encourages drinking.

As the nighttime temps drop below freezing, we hang heated water buckets in the stalls. I prefer not to have automatic waterers in their stalls, so I know exactly how much water each horse consumed overnight. For the horses that stay outside, we have heated water sources too, but there’s no way to monitor individual consumption. Since the heated water sources are covered, it’s important that someone checks it twice a day to make sure it is not frozen or malfunctioning another way (like having an electric current running through the water).

If you are using stock tanks and tank heaters, make sure the heaters and wires are all functional and protected so that the horses will not break anything. Horses can be a real nuisance when it comes to fiddling with wiring and contraptions, especially on a water tank. They tend to hang out at the water source and can easily get bored or frustrated and start playing with the heater. If your winters are mellow, with little freezing at night. Then maybe all you need to do is break a little ice in the morning. Just keep in mind that the colder the water, the less your horse will drink, so consider heating some water for your horse.

Finally, all the hoses, the wash rack and implements must be thoroughly drained and put away for the winter. If you must use hoses in the winter to fill water tanks, it’s a huge chore in cold climates. Hoses must be drained twice to make sure they are usable the next time. Without fail, someone will mess up and you’ll end up with frozen hoses sometime during the winter. If so, just coil the hose and dump the whole thing in your heated stock tank. In no time, it will be thawed and you can drain it (much faster than dragging it in your house).

To Shoe or Not to Shoe?

Right behind food and water, I have a huge concern about getting the horse’s feet ready for winter. This can be complicated because each horse has unique needs and will be used differently over the winter. Without question, it is better if horses can be kept unshod, especially in the winter. Their hooves are healthier when unshod and they are less likely to slip on the ice or develop snowballs on their feet.

In cold climates like ours, we must be very careful with hooves as we transition from fall to winter. Some of our horses are shod in the summer, because of the demands of hard riding on rocky terrain. If you wait until the last minute to pull their shoes for the winter, their feet are very tender when the ground freezes hard and the horses can get dangerously footsore, even slightly laminitic. I want to pull their shoes well before the hard freeze, so their feet have time to toughen up before the ground gets rock hard. This is always a difficult choice for some riders who really enjoy trail riding in the fall and want to leave shoes on as long as possible. I prefer to pull shoes early if I can and use hoof boots on the trails so that the horse’s feet toughen up before the ground is frozen hard.

My first choice is to leave all the horses barefoot over the winter and for as long as I can. Most of my horses will go at least five months without shoes. However, some of our horses have therapeutic or corrective shoeing and they will stay shod, with special shoes and pads, usually on the fronts only. Sometimes we have horses that are in performance training and will wear sliders on the hinds, so we’ll leave them bare in the front and shod on the hinds. If horses are shod during the winter, we use snow pads on them to prevent the hard ice-balls from forming on their feet.

Does Your Horse Need a Blanket?

The short answer is, probably not. Horses are unbelievably adaptable animals and are well-equipped to deal with almost any climate. Did you ever hear of the cartoon, “South Park?” It’s a real place, not too far from where I live, and there are few places in the lower 48 that have a harsher winter. 25-30 below zero for weeks on end, deep snow and howling winds. Yet all winter long, you can drive through that valley and see hundreds of horses, unblanketed, doing just fine. If they have food and water and a windbreak, they are happy. For the most part, horses do not need blankets, but there are some situations when it’s a good idea.

First, in extreme weather, we always cover our geriatric horses (or any horses that are unhealthy or skinny). Horses need to eat more in the winter because they expend a lot of energy to stay warm. When a horse is barely keeping his weight without the cold, he may need some blanketing help in the coldest weather.

Keep in mind that when you blanket a horse and compress his haircoat, he loses some insulation value. Once you start blanketing a horse, you may need to continue. If you are flexible enough to only put the rug on just during inclement weather and leave him uncovered in the better weather, his winter coat may stay fluffy. But if you leave that blanket on for days or weeks on end, his coat will compress so much that you’ll need to leave him blanketed. Often, it’s best to leave it to nature and let the horse’s winter coat do its job.

Some of my horses stay blanketed all winter long. But make no mistake about it, this is entirely for human convenience, not because the horses need it. We ride our horses year-round, but from November through April, we are generally riding inside. For ease of use and for aesthetic reasons, we like to keep the winter coats as short as we can, so we keep them blanketed, starting early in the fall. Riding inside, in a warm indoor arena, horses with a full winter coat will get soaking wet and it’s impossible to get them dry before nightfall. Sometimes we trace clip the hair coat to manage the sweating and keep our horses dry when we ride. Blanketing and keeping their hair coats short, helps us manage the winter riding (and keeps them looking good for photo shoots too!).

Most horses don’t need blanketing, no matter how cold it is. However, it’s nice to have the choice, so we keep a good heavy, waterproof rug for each horse (we actually have sheets, mid-weights and heavy weights for each horse). I’ve bought hundreds, maybe more than a thousand horse blankets in my lifetime and I’ve learned through experience that you get what you pay for. Spending a few hundred dollars on a top-quality blanket is money well spent. Keep in mind that your horse will do its best to destroy the blanket; you’ll go through 3-4 cheap blankets before you replace one high-quality rug. I also want a winter blanket that wicks moisture, has a turtleneck and utilizes high-tech materials. We can usually get 3-4 years or more of use out of one heavyweight rug.

Check for Parasites

I do not de-worm my horses unless they need it. We do fecal egg counts in the Spring and Fall. If the report comes back negative for worms, we do not give them a de-wormer. If a horse shows a positive result, we will de-worm that individual accordingly. The fecal egg count is easy and no more expensive than the cost of a de-wormer if you send it to a lab. I do not want to give my horses any chemicals or medications they do not need, so the fecal egg count is a wonderful way to go.

You can do the egg count yourself (find instructions online) or you can order a testing kit and send it off to a lab. There are many sources available now, so just google it and figure out the best option for you and your horses. If horses are kept in very sanitary conditions and de-wormed as needed, you’ll find you have far fewer parasites to deal with.

If I did not do fecal egg counts, I would de-worm all my horses with ivermectin after the first hard frost. By waiting for the hard frost, your hope is to take care of the last of the parasites before the winter kill. If I only de-wormed once a year, I’d do it in the fall after the first hard frost. But honestly, it’s been a few years since any of our horses have been de-wormed because the reports come back clean.

Around here, winters are long and hard, and horse keeping can be a real challenge! Being prepared around the barn and getting your horse ready ahead of time will help a lot. Every climate and every facility has its own set of challenges in winter and summer and as the years pass by, we learn how to manage it better. If you’re new to horses, it pays to ask more experienced horse owners in your area what they do to get ready for the seasons. It helps to get ideas from others but it’s up to you to make the decisions on what’s best for you and your horses.

Have You Ever Been Kicked?

Julie working with horse on the lead line.

Have You Ever Been Kicked?

Dear Julie: This may be a very odd question, but I was curious how many times have you been kicked or caught in the crossfire in your training career? I’ve been kicked three times, but tonight I got kicked square in the pelvis by a dominant mare who was going after my mare while I was putting a halter on her. I saw it start to happen, but couldn’t get away fast enough. It is the first time I have considered throwing in the reins because it frustrates me so much.

First Time for Everything

One of my earliest memories is of getting kicked by a horse. It was circa 1965. I was 5 or 6 years old and my dad was feeding the horses who had lined up in their tie stalls for their grain. I was watching my dad feed as I wandered aimlessly around the barnyard—right smack into the kick zone of the food-aggressive gelding. Lightning fast, he kicked me square in the stomach—throwing my little stick figure up into the air and landing flat on my behind unceremoniously in the mud. It was the first (but not last) time I got kicked and also the first (but not last) time I got the air knocked out of me. It was, however, the very last time I laid eyes on that gelding. My dad never tolerated unsafe horses. Nonetheless, wrong place, wrong time. Entirely predictable.

Whenever someone asked, “Does this horse kick?” my father always said, “All horses kick, all horses bite, all horses strike.” That’s a simple fact of horse behavior—Horsemanship Safety 101, if you will. What I would add is that generally when you get kicked, it’s because you were too close to the kick zone when you shouldn’t have been. I know for myself personally, every time I’ve been kicked (and yes, there have been many—far too many to count), it was because I was doing something I shouldn’t have. Also, I would say, that which does not kill you makes you stronger!

Whose Fault Is It?

As I said, I’ve been kicked too many times to remember the number. Anyone who has worked with as many horses over as many decades as I have—handling colts, starting young horses under saddle, desensitizing, catching, gentling, doctoring, loading in a trailer—has been kicked too many times to remember each one. Still, some incidents stand out to me (for the sheer stupidity of my actions which resulted in me being kicked). The good news is that we learn (hopefully) from each stupid mistake so we won’t get kicked that way again!

Another kicking episode that stands out in my memory, was the time I got kicked in the thighs by double barrels, coming from a shod 17-hand black Thoroughbred. His name was Magic and he was a kind and gentle OTTB gelding that belonged to a friend and client. He occupied the biggest stall in my barn (12×14), yet he made it look small. The door out to his run was wide open, but he barely fit out of it (the old barn being built for much smaller horses). I was in the middle of morning chores and his head was buried deep in the feeder as I walked by his stall. I looked at him, eye-to-eye, as I spoke a gentle, “Good morning big guy,” to him. I opened his door, speaking to him again as I reached out to touch his side and move him over so I could grab his dirty water bucket. Whaphumph!!

Although I was absolutely certain that horse had seen me, heard me and understood me to be opening his stall door, when I reached out to touch him I startled him—and he kicked out with both his hind feet. They landed square in the middle of both my thighs and sent me sailing out of the stall, slamming my back into the wall on the other side of the barn aisle. In one huge movement, he kicked me out of his stall and exploded his 1100-pound, 17-hand frame out of the tiny stall door, into the run. Even as I was flying backward out of the stall I knew I had done something stupid—made some unreasonable assumptions—and that this kind and gentle horse was not at fault. The good news is, I will never make that mistake again.

Is Getting Kicked Part of the Sport?

Although horses generally choose flight in response to a threat, they are perfectly well-equipped to fight. Kicking is one of three defensive or offensive “weapons” of the horse, and it is the least deadly. Biting and striking (lashing out with the front feet) are much more dangerous, but fortunately, we see these behaviors less. Horses sometimes kick aggressively (usually backing up and kicking with double barrels, squealing at the same time), but most often kicking is defensive in nature. You see it all the time when a dominant horse comes after the subordinate horse. The subordinate will kick out to buy a little time as he runs away—much like he would kick and run from a predator.

Horses kick at each other all the time, mostly as a gesture or threat. They pull their punches a lot and tend to make contact when they want to. Generally, when they kick at each other (or at you), it is more of a threat or warning and less intent to injure. Often, when they do make contact with a kick, it is to a fleshy or meaty area that can take the punch better. But their aim is not perfect and it is not hard to get caught in the crossfire between two or more horses, as in this case.

Sadly, most people that have been around a lot of horses for a lot of years have gotten kicked, stepped on or bit. Although I do not believe getting hurt must be a part of this sport (and I believe that most incidents are preventable), getting bumped, bruised and pushed around comes with the territory. Still, if you are smart and learn from your mistakes—and if you keep safety as your highest priority—you will be less likely to get hurt. My father taught me that when it comes to horses, always plan for the worst-case scenario. The more experience with horses you have, the more worst-case scenarios you’ve seen.

Getting Smarter

In most of my clinics, I physically show people the kick zone of the horse, so that they are aware of exactly where it is at all times. The horse can reach forward with the hind foot, almost to his front leg; he can reach the full length of his leg to the side; plus, the full extension of his leg back. That makes about a 3- to 4-foot half circle around the hind leg of the horse that is within his kick zone. To be safe around horses, you must always be aware of the kick zone and when you have entered it. For instance, when I clean my horse’s front feet, my head is right in the kick zone. That doesn’t mean I never clean his feet, but that I am aware of it and monitoring the horse while my head is at risk.

When you are doing groundwork with a horse and when you are entering a group of horses to catch one, you have extra risk of getting kicked. We do groundwork with horses to move them around and control their space, like a dominate horse would. Often in the earlier stages of groundwork, the horse may feel threatened by the handler. So it is not only normal, but to be expected that the horse will kick out. If you get kicked while doing groundwork, you were in the way and it is your fault—not the horse’s.

Another memorable time I got kicked very hard, was doing circling work on a 20-year-old beginners’ school horse. I assumed that this gentle old horse wouldn’t kick, but I was wrong. I stepped right into the kick zone, then shushed her with the flag. Then she shattered my assumption (but thankfully not my leg). It hurt a lot (and embarrassed me more), but it was an important lesson to learn—and one I share with my students every time I teach circling work.

Going to catch your horse in a group of horses is one of the riskiest things you’ll do around horses, especially when you are not familiar with all of the horses or the pecking order of the herd. I’d suggest taking a flag or a whip to keep the other horses in control while you catch your horse. Take your time and keep the other horses away—they should respect your space. If not, chase them off with the flag. Your horse will come to understand what you are doing and should cooperate.

It Is What It Is

Kicking does not make a horse bad. It makes him a horse—and all horses kick. We know that, we should expect that and we should take precautions to keep ourselves safe—All. The. Time. There are sometimes when a kicking response is more predictable, and other times when it can seemingly come out of the blue (usually because we missed the warnings). But the horse’s kick range is a finite space; all you have to do is know where it is and stay out of it. I’m not saying that with this knowledge and awareness, you’ll never get kicked again. But by being smart, owning your mistakes (which is the only way to learn from them) and erring on the side of caution, it will definitely make you safer!


Does Your Horse Like You?

Recently at one of my clinics, a rider told me that three different trainers told him flat-out that his horse did not like him. He was hoping that the clinic would help him understand if the horse would ever come to like him or if he should get a different horse. I was hoping that the clinic would help me understand why a trainer (let alone three of them) would say something like that to anyone, let alone their client.

We know horses are very emotional animals, and we know them to also be very relationship oriented. The question is, what does your horse think of you? And what are the signs that tell you? People say all the time, “I want my horse to like me and I want my horse to trust me!” All the “want” in the world won’t make this happen. Learning to read the signs from your horse that indicate his emotional state—and asking yourself what you are doing that is causing this reaction—will get you where you need to be.

What horses want the most is security and comfort. They love things that make them feel safe, like clear rules and expectations, consistency and strong leadership. They love to rest, they love to be praised for a job well done and they love it when you take all the pressure off of them.  Horses don’t like you or dislike you randomly. They react to how you make them feel—safe and content or anxious and uncomfortable. Analyzing the mistakes you make and the reactions of your horse will help you find the answers and bring your relationship with your horse to a whole new level.

Do Horses Like People?
In the case of the owner who was told that his horse did not like him, I personally found that to be ridiculous, but I gradually came to understand what was going on. It wasn’t a matter of who the horse “liked” and “disliked,” it was a matter of riding skill and how the horse reacted to the rider’s mistakes.

It was a young Quarter Horse gelding, only 3 years old and working very well under saddle. He had been trained and ridden a by several different pro-riders since he was a 2-year-old. This is a great start for a horse, and it certainly showed in this horse’s performance at the clinic. He was cool as a cucumber and keeping up with much older and more experienced horses. The reason why this guy thought his horse did not like him was that the horse was showing some signs of frustration when he rode—but not when the trainers rode him.

When a young horse is ridden primarily by pro-riders, that level of rider becomes the norm for that horse. They are highly sensitive, fast-learning animals—and they come to know the patterns, routines and idiosyncrasies of the rider fast. Of course, the pro-rider is generally very balanced, using light aids, and very consistent in her cues and expectations of the horse—giving praise and rest when earned, and correcting the horse fairly when needed. The pro-rider that is very accustomed to riding green horses also knows what to expect and knows how to avoid problems. This consistency and confidence of the rider is palpable to the horse and results in a confident and compliant horse.

I learned a long time ago that when starting colts it’s a good idea to have more than one person ride the horse, so that the young horse comes to understand that there will be different riders, who cue and ride differently. When a horse is only ever ridden by one person as a youngster, and that one person is a highly qualified rider, the horse rightfully may come to believe that all riders will be exactly this way. Then at some point, when the new rider comes along and cues differently, holds the reins tighter, and gives conflicting and confusing signals, the horse is shocked and frustrated.

Signs to Look for in Your Horse
Horses are all quite different in their temperaments, so their reactions to a new and/or lesser skilled rider may range from mild frustration to downright anger and revolt. Some horses have a strong sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair. These horses tend to be less tolerant of the rider’s mistakes. Like people, some horses have the patience of a saint, while others, not so much.

When a trained horse becomes frustrated with the rider, the signs may be as subtle as a shake of his head or tensing/hollowing of his body, or as blatant as swishing the tail, kicking out or flat out refusing to do what the rider asks. As his frustration with a lesser skilled rider grows, he may start shutting down, refusing to move forward, diving toward the gate or center of the arena, or running right through the bridle—no steering, no brakes. These are all signs that the horse is frustrated with the rider and feels like he is being treated unfairly.

This nice QH gelding did not dislike his owner—he just wished he rode as well as the trainers. The horse never acted out badly, he was just happy when the trainers rode—and a little frustrated when the novice owner rode. When the rider made a mistake—like pulling back on the reins when he wanted the horse to go forward—the horse would get understandably frustrated and shake his head or swish his tail in irritation. This does not mean the horse did not “like” the person; it meant he needed to learn to ride better and own his mistakes.

Fortunately for us, horses don’t stand around the water cooler and decide which humans they like and dislike, or who did what to whom. They live in the present moment and they react to your actions (good or bad). They learn to trust you—or not—based on your actions, not whether they like you. They get frustrated or irritated—or they become content and relaxed—based on what you do. That’s why most of the time when we are having problems with trained horses, we have to examine our own actions—not blame the horse.

As the clinic progressed, I worked with all the riders to develop a balanced seat and to ride with all their aids—not just their hands. In fact, we worked on controlling speed and direction without using the reins, cueing lightly and consistently and having proper position in the saddle and moving fluidly with the horse, having clear and reasonable expectations of your horse and following through with consistency. The young gelding worked very well for his proud owner, and at the end of the clinic I asked the rider, “Do you still think your horse doesn’t like you?” Seeing the huge smile on his face as he kissed his horse smack on the lips, told me all I needed to know. Maybe it was my imagination, but in this moment I thought I saw a twinkle in the horse’s eye that said, “Thank you (for fixing my rider).”

Three Common Mistakes that Erode Your Horse’s Trust

In Florida, Julie encourages this experienced horse to take jumps confidently—even in new places.  Photo by: The Whole Picture, LLC.
In Florida, Julie encourages this experienced horse to take jumps confidently—even in new places. Photo by: The Whole Picture, LLC.

Horses know good leadership when they see it because their lives depend upon it. We probably all agree that the ultimate relationship with a horse is one in which the horse looks up to you, wants to be with you and feels safe and peaceful in your presence. But all the groundwork and relationship building exercises in the world won’t help you develop this relationship unless you present yourself as a competent leader at all times.

In every clinic that I teach, people ask how they can get their horse to trust them more, yet I see them constantly doing things that show their horses that they lack judgment and make poor decisions. It’s funny that horses see this so clearly, but humans—not so much.

Your job as the leader is to watch out for the safety of your followers. Every time you give a horse a reason to question your judgment–because you’ve put him in a situation he perceives as unsafe–you’re chipping away at his faith in you.

Here are three common mistakes I see people making every day with their horses that give the horse good reasons not to trust their judgment and leadership. Watch for these mistakes closely the next time you interact with your horse; make sure that you are the leader your horse deserves.


Putting the Horse on a Collision Course

An obedient riding horse goes in the direction you dictate, at the speed you set, without argument. The problem is that horses are much more spatially aware than humans. Horses worry about the other horses in the arena and they expect the leader to watch ahead and prevent any potential horse-to-horse collision or conflict.

Most people are so consumed with themselves, that they are oblivious to their surroundings, including what the other horses are doing. Your horse always recognizes your lack of awareness, because his safety depends upon it. He sees the hazard even when you don’t.

I often see this when people are longeing or circling in an arena where there are other horses. First of all, let’s be clear on this, longeing a horse in an arena where horses are being ridden is dangerous and should never happen—that’s a pretty basic safety rule. At clinics, when everyone is doing circling work (and no horses are being ridden), people will still put their horses on a collision course with another horse. The horse always sees it; the person seldom does. If you do this, your horse starts doubting your judgment.

I also see this in the arena when all riders have their own agendas. The smart riders (and the good leaders) are looking well ahead. But invariably, there will be riders totally focused down on the horse’s withers, concentrating only on themselves, not even aware of their own horse let alone the other horses in the arena. Being aware of danger in the environment is such a basic job of the leader that it is hard for your horse to think of you that way when you are failing at such a basic task.


Putting the Horse Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Your horse may view any given situation much differently than you and he sees danger where you may not. We, as humans, tend to analyze, rationalize and justify the situation, while to your horse it’s simple—it’s either safe or not. I often see riders and handlers put their horses in very precarious situations, with seemingly no awareness that it was risky for the horse. Perhaps the rider had no awareness of how the horse views the situation. Or perhaps the rider made an executive decision to override instinct and go into an unsafe situation anyway because her logic tells her it’s safe (logic that the horse may not possess).

This happens at my clinics while we are working on teaching the horse to step back with a subtle hand signal. I always catch people backing their horse into a solid fence or worse, another horse. He knows it to be wrong and unsafe. People get so caught up in the exercise of teaching the hand signal, that they lose all awareness of the surroundings and abdicate all responsibility for leadership.

Similar examples from the ground include asking a horse to step into a trailer, then standing right in front of him so he would have to bowl you over in order to comply. He’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to do that. Or asking the horse to trot on the lead line, but remaining right in front of him so there’s nowhere for him to go without running into you. It feels like a trap.

When riding in a group, it’s your job to keep your horse safe. Still, I see riders pass between a horse and the fence. Entrapment! There’s a reason fundamental safety rules exist—and it’s a fundamental rule to never pass between a horse and the rail. Horses can be very opportunistic when it comes to aggressive behavior and many horses will kick, given this opportunity. Your horse knows that as well and he has good reason to question your judgment when he is the one that will likely take the blow.


Asking the Horse to do Something, Then Punishing him When he Does

Horses, by nature, are very willing animals that instinctively seek out approval and acceptance from the herd leader. When you are a fair and consistent leader, your horse will work hard to please you and will feel safe and content in your presence.  When you notice his efforts and praise him for giving of himself, then your relationship kicks to a whole new level. There’s no limit to how hard a horse will try to please you when the right kind of give-and-take relationship exists.

We humans tend to fall down on our leadership in some very gut-wrenching ways to the horse. Often I see riders give a cue to the horse, then inadvertently punish him for responding to the cue. The most common example of this occurs in the canter departure. The rider may lack confidence. The horse is cued to canter, then hit in the mouth with the bit when he does (because his head moves into the bit in that moment). It hurts his mouth and scares him, leaving him with the feeling that he is being punished for doing what was asked.

Sometimes I see riders miscue their horse then admonish him for responding to the cue given. Then the rider wonders why he suddenly stopped responding to that cue. A perfect example is seen frequently when the rider, with two hands on the reins, asks the horse to turn with the inside rein, then starts pulling on the outside rein too, effectively pulling the nose in two directions at the same time. Pulling on two reins to turn puts incredible undue pressure on the horse’s mouth. It appears to him that you asked him to turn, then penalized him with the outside rein when he did. In that moment, the mistake was the rider’s (it’s the leader’s job to be clear in her directives). The horse did exactly what he was told to do then was admonished for trying.

Being a good handler and good rider takes a lot of time and effort and a lot more awareness of the horse. The more we can think from our horse’s point of view, the deeper our level of understanding of his behavior and the more rewarding the relationship with the horse. They are complicated animals, perceiving much more about us than we do about ourselves. That’s what makes horses so therapeutic to our souls.

Seek out help and have others watch you—they’ll catch on faster than you about what cues you may be giving the horse. They’ll see what you can’t. Let your horse guide you. He won’t lie to you; he either thinks of you as the leader or not. If he’s resistant and argumentative, he probably has a good reason. If he trusts you and looks up to you, you’re a good leader.

Trust Your Intuition to Avoid Injury

This photo is from Episode 901: "Captain Morgan." Library and Interactive Members can watch it anytime at Photo (c) Whole Picture,
This photo is from Episode 901: “Captain Morgan.” Library and Interactive Members can watch it anytime at
Photo © Whole Picture,

“Try That One More Time.” When it comes to horses, these words are often looked back on with regret. They’re often the words muttered right before something goes terribly wrong. Words matter. Sometimes we need to listen to the words that come out of our mouth and to listen to the voice inside instead.

I strongly believe that most incidents with horses are entirely preventable and if we consider an incident to be an opportunity to learn, not a failure, then we get safer and more effective with horses as times goes on. If you think about incidents as “freak accidents,” you’ve lost the opportunity to learn, grow and improve. There’s always a cause and effect; there’s always an opportunity to learn and grow as a horse person. Recently, I had a message from a rider that was sadly an all-too-familiar refrain. Here’s what the message said:

I had been riding seven months and was posting while trotting and doing 20-meter circles and reverses. We had ridden over an hour. It all clicked that day. I ended with a canter. The trainer wanted me to canter one last time. My intuition said no. I told myself to just do what she said. As we are cantering she (the trainer) is yelling use the crop, use the crop. [The horse] got scared, did a 360 and went into a full run. I hung onto the mane with one hand as she instructed then finally I fell. I couldn’t move. [The trainer] tried to pull me up. I told her not to. She assured me I was ok and the breath was just knocked out of me. I finally was able to get up in searing pain. She had me get back on and post and trot. I did, like a fool. All bent over, I untacked, put him up, drove home two hours. My husband rushed me to the ER. I had broken T-12, crushed L-1, fractured my whole vertebrae and had a concussion. I was told I missed paralysis by 1/8 inch. For three months I couldn’t lift more than the weight of a coffee cup. Riding brought me so much peace and joy –before this incident.

There are quite a few lessons to be learned here. Falling off is part of the sport and can only be entirely avoided by not riding, but while it’s a rough and tumble sport, I do not believe serious injury has to be a part of it. If we learn to not push the limits of our horses and our own abilities, if we learn to pay attention to that inner voice that often warns us when things aren’t quite right and if we let go of archaic and egotistical approaches, the risk goes way down.

Words Matter
I’ve seen many horse wrecks that started with the words, “Let’s try that one more time…” In several decades of work with the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to safe horsemanship instruction, I’ve learned these words to be a red-flag warning. What those words really mean is, “Even though I think we’ve already done this enough, and even though I think there’s a chance we’ve already accomplished what we needed to, let’s get greedy and do it one more time.” When it comes to horses, this kind of approach often backfires.

I’ve learned this important lesson myself over the years and I can think of more than one instance where ‘trying it one more time’ was the worst possible choice and resulted in a wreck and/or an injury to a horse or a rider. When we say things like, “one more time,” or “I’ll try,” or “maybe we should,” there is an unstated concern that something might not go right. When you hear words like that, why not complete the thought and consider why you need to do it again, what good can come of it, why do you think you might not be able to do it and why are you not sure of what the right thing to do is? Maybe just stepping back for a moment and reconsidering isn’t such a bad idea.

When you let words of doubt creep into your vocabulary, like “I’ll try,” it really means you don’t think you can do it. You are doubting yourself and giving yourself an escape. The problem is that horses respond to your level of confidence and determination, be it high or low. When you use words like “if” and “try,” you erode your own confidence and your horse may respond negatively as well—by challenging your authority or losing his own confidence. When you feel the need to use doubtful words like try, if, or maybe, just take a moment to consider why you feel that way. Is this a smart thing to be doing? Are you prepared and qualified to do it? And what good can come of this or what can go wrong? If the answers are affirmative, go for it and drop the ‘try.’ I AM going to do this! If any of the answers are less than affirmative, maybe rethinking or thinking it through, is not a bad idea.

Trust Your Inner Voice
When people are describing bad incidents with their horse, I often hear them say, “I knew I shouldn’t have done it, but my trainer/spouse/friend pushed me, so I did.” Our inner voice of wisdom is important and although it may not always be right, it’s worth at least considering. Far too often in hindsight, it seems clear that had you listened to that inner voice, the wreck may not have happened.

It’s important to hear, respect and consider your inner voice and to take responsibility for your own self—don’t abdicate that responsibility to anyone. Don’t let others pressure you into actions that you don’t feel good about. You know yourself and your horse better than anyone. You know your capabilities and you know where you are emotionally in that moment better than anyone. Yes, sometimes it’s helpful to have someone to gently push you into things you aren’t entirely comfortable with, but no one has the right to pressure and cajole you onto something you are not prepared for.

If you have realistic goals and an objective view of both your and your horse’s capabilities, then you should be confident in your own decisions and not let yourself cave into the pressure of others. Remember, your trainer works for you, not the other way around. Make your expectations and needs known and don’t be afraid to stop, look and listen when you hear that inner voice of warning.

Let Go of Archaic Notions
The idea of getting back on the horse that just bucked you off, is rarely a good idea, in my opinion. Whether you got bucked off or just fell off, chances are you are not in the best frame of mind to get back on that horse. Chances are also good that your horse is not in the best frame of mind either—he’s probably scared or anxious and something led to the problem to begin with. The adrenalin rush that comes from this kind of incident can often mask injuries that you may have sustained and getting back on may make the injuries worse.

When a rider comes off the horse, we’ll call it an “unscheduled dismount,” I prefer that she take a break, sit down and rest, get checked out medically if needed, get control of her emotions, debrief the incident, and only think about getting back on when ready. Maybe that’s today; maybe not. Often, I’ll get up on the horse after an incident, to settle it and let the rider see what’s going on. If the rider feels strongly about getting back on, that’s fine and I will support her as best I can. But no one else has the right to tell you to get back on. Not your husband, not your friend and not your trainer.

Again, take responsibility for yourself and don’t let yourself be pressured by others at times like this. Before getting back on a horse after an incident, think it through. What good will come of this? What would have prevented the incident from happening? Is my horse injured, physically or emotionally? What needs to change with my horse or with my own skills or equipment, to prevent this from happening again? Taking a little break—rather that is for an hour, a day, a week or longer, is not necessarily a bad idea. Think through what happened, how you may have prevented it, and what you would’ve done differently if you could. Armed with this kind of knowledge, you will come back to riding with more confidence and a plan to not let that happen again. Always give yourself time to heal—both physically and emotionally, after any kind of scary incident with a horse.

The sport of riding is a challenging and exhilarating sport that comes with a certain amount of risk that cannot be entirely eliminated. But we don’t need to add to that possibility by doing foolish things and taking unnecessary risks. This is a sport that takes years and decades to master and getting in a hurry and cutting corners rarely pays off. The same thing is true of training horses—generally the slower you go, the better the outcome.

Be patient in developing your skills and your horse’s training. Work with trainers that are supportive of your needs, listen to what you have to say and make good decisions. Learn to trust your inner voice and hear what it has to say. Let your rational mind be the judge of whether or not that inner voice has a point; don’t let someone else make that judgment for you. And finally, when a rider comes off a horse, take the safest and smartest approach—get medical clearance, take a break, debrief the incident and make a smart plan to get back in the saddle safely.

And don’t forget to enjoy the ride!

Julie Goodnight

Getting Ready for the Riding Season—Top 3 Mistakes Riders Make

Julie riding Dually in the pond, Cosequin shirt on.
Julie riding Dually in the pond, Cosequin shirt on.
Photo by: The Whole Picture, LLC.

For many of us, the winter months are not conducive to riding, due to frozen ground, inclement weather and/or mud. And whether we like it or not, sometimes life gets in the way of our riding plans—your horse gets hurt or you have a personal situation that causes an extended layoff for your horse. One way or the other, your horse may go months with no riding at all. As a result, the horse may get little handling as well. This recipe—no riding and little handling—doesn’t always result in sweet rides in the spring or a delicious comeback to riding.

What we love most about horses is that they are not machines. They are thinking and feeling animals, capable of forming an athletic partnership and a bond with their human. But because they are not machines—and because our relationship with them matters—we can’t just ignore them for months and then expect them to step right back into their role as your perfect horse.

To make sure your spring “comeback” goes smoothly with your horse you need to plan ahead. Avoid the missteps that I hear about often when talking to horse owners at clinics and expos. Avoid making the mistakes that may leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Instead, try this recipe for a sweet summer of riding.

Take Time to Reconnect with Your Horse

If your horse has been turned out with a herd over the winter—or if he has had little interaction with people for a while—his herd instincts may be stronger. His focus may be on the herd—not on you—and he may fret when you take him away from his friends. This is perfectly normal, instinctive behavior for horses and it’s unrealistic to think otherwise. To have the kind of relationship with a horse where he is focused on you—and happy to leave the herd with you—requires work in the beginning of the relationship and steady maintenance thereafter.

Plan ahead as your riding season approaches and spend some time reconnecting with your horse. Groom him, do some ground work and take him on some walks away from his herd. Depending on how strong your relationship was last fall and how trained/experienced your horse is, plan on spending at least 3-6 days just getting reacquainted with your horse. I like doing lead line exercises to reconnect with my horse and remind him of his manners and my expectations of him (see my Lead Line Leadership video).

Check Your Tack and Saddle Fit

Don’t get carried away with riding until you have taken the time to inspect all your tack for needed repairs and maintenance, as well as checking the saddle fit on your horse. A horse’s body shape changes a lot every year. If you’ve ever had young horses you already know that. (As weanlings, if you watch them closely it seems like you can actually see them grow.) Think about the changes in the human body from birth to the end of life. A horse’s body goes through those same changes—only three-four times faster.

If he has not had much exercise over the winter, he may have gained weight and/or lost muscle toning, which can have a big effect on saddle fit. Take the time to analyze your saddle fit at least once a year and especially after your horse has had an extended time off. You may need different padding or adjustments. Last year, my horse Eddie (still filling out at the age of 7) outgrew his regular width tree and needed a new saddle. That’s not the answer I was hoping for when re-assessing his saddle fit, but I can’t bear the thought of working him in a saddle that causes discomfort.

Don’t forget to clean and condition your saddle and bridle, and check all the places where metal meets leather and all fasteners to make sure they are strong. Often the smaller parts of your tack—like latigos, leather ties, Chicago screws, and straps—need replacing or fixing. Make sure your bridle is clean and comfortable and the bit is the right size.  Eddie also went from a 4 ¾ inch bit into a 5 inch (the standard size for a horse). But I would’ve changed his bit anyway since his training had advanced so much in the past few years that he was ready for a different bit. As horses progress in their training, they have different needs in bits too. You may find that the bit that worked well for your horse a couple years ago now makes him unhappy—he’s leaning, pulling, chomping, tossing his head, or running through the pressure. These are all signs that a bit change may be in order. Check out this “Bitting Assistant” from Toklat.

Avoid Doing Too Much, Too Soon

After a long, cold winter and too much time spent indoors, it’s easy to want to jump back into riding right where you left off in the fall. But the reality is, both you are and your horse need some time to get back into riding shape—and the older either you or your horse are, the more time you each may need. Both horses and humans get out of shape really fast when not getting exercise; and for both species, the activity of riding (or carrying a rider) uses special muscles. You both need time in the beginning—shorter rides with greater frequency—to build strength slowly.

Your horse also needs time to get used to his tack again—to get “hardened” to the cinch/girth, the saddle and the bit/bridle. If you had gone for months without wearing anything but slippers on your feet, you’d have to get used to wearing heavy boots again over subsequent days to avoid getting sore feet and blisters. Just as you would never want to hike all day in brand new hiking boots, your horse needs time to get re-accustomed to the feel of the saddle, the weight of the rider and the bridle on his face.

Finally, if you’re coming back to riding after a long layoff, think of reconditioning your horse’s training and mental focus as well. Don’t expect him to respond perfectly to cues he hasn’t thought about in a while. Don’t jump right in, asking your horse to perform the most difficult riding maneuvers right on the first try. Even if it seems like he’s just as responsive as the last time you rode him, asking for too much too soon could lead to problems. Start by doing easier stuff and focusing on fundamentals. Make sure you acknowledge and reward your horse when he tries—whether it was brilliant or not—so that you recondition his spirit and willingness as well.

By setting realistic expectations, planning ahead and building up slowly but methodically, your “comeback” will go smoothly and your horse will be happier. Remember, your horse needs the same time that you do to get in condition—both mentally and physically. Be fair to yourself and be fair to your horse. With quality ingredients and careful preparation, your riding season will be cake!

Feeding Transitions in the Spring

My horses claim about 10 of our 15 acres of land, which you’d think would be plenty for half a dozen horses. Our house, barns, arenas, offices, and a warehouse are squeezed into a corner of the property and the rest of the place is procured and manicured just for the horses.

We have about 10 irrigated acres, which is like Park Avenue real estate in the West. But living in the high mountain desert as we do—even with irrigation water—it’s only enough pasture for what I fondly refer to as “recreational grazing.” (Meaning, it doesn’t help my hay bill much, but it sure makes the horses happy!)

Winters are long and hard here in the Rocky Mountains and the grass only grows from April through August. The rest of the year it is decidedly brown. Keeping the grass green is a challenge in this climate and horses are sure hard on the land. Keeping the horses healthy while eating that green grass is also a challenge and a labor of love. Come springtime, managing the pasture for the health of the fields while transitioning our horse’s diet from hay to green grass, without stressing their digestive health, requires some serious planning, as well as detailed execution.


Baby Grass is Delicate

Horses’ teeth and hooves are not. While we may turn our horses out in the fields late in the winter before any new growth starts, and let them browse the dead grass, at the first sign of green shoots, the horses are eighty-sixed from the pastures. For the next month at least, until we can see the first signs of seed heads on the short grasses, we keep the horses totally off the fields. This allows a good head of growth in the pastures and will establish the grass for the whole summer. Horses will paw and dig and gnaw for the first delectable shoots of green grass and they are incredibly damaging to young grass. Keeping them off the fields early on makes the grazing last longer at the other end of the summer.


Over-eaters Anonymous

Once the grass is healthy and ready for grazing, our focus shifts to managing the change in the horses’ diets from dry hay (almost a year old by now) to fresh green grass. Between over-eating and the drastic change to the horses’ delicate digestive balance, it pays to be very, very careful. My horses have access to an all-you-can-eat grass hay buffet, open 24/7. That way their digestive tract is always full—the way nature intended.

When I am ready to start turning them out to the pasture, I wait until late in the day, when their bellies are already full and when the sugar content is low in the green grass. Our horses are programmed to come in the barn at night, so we’ll turn them out an hour before their bedtime. That way they only eat a bit and then they’re ready to come in at the normal time.

Over the next 3-4 weeks, we’ll turn them out a few minutes earlier each day, as they gradually shift from mostly hay to mostly green grass diets. In colder climates like ours, early morning grasses can be hazardous to horses with metabolic issues, so in the spring and early summer, we avoid letting the horses into the fields before mid-day. During this time of transition, we are watching the horses closely for over-eating—as some will do—especially when they have been deprived of the delicacy for so long.

We also keep the horses on heavier than normal doses of Proviable, a pro- and pre-biotic. This helps stabilize their digestive tract and is especially important when horses are undergoing any kind of stress—whether it is a change of diet or a road trip or arduous training.

Since our horses are all in training—worked or exercised on a daily basis—I don’t really have any concerns about obesity. I find my horses are so much healthier and content when they have 24/7 access to a low-protein grass hay. While some horses might put on a little extra weight in the beginning, once they realize the food will always be there they slow their eating way down and go back to a healthier weight. As they switch to more and more green grass the horses will definitely put on a few pounds, but they also get a sheen to their coats and are happier.

In nature, horses put on weight in the summer when the foraging is better, then they lose weight over the winter when it’s slim picking. Their biology is designed this way and this cycle triggers other things like shedding and ovulation. I want my horses to lose weight over the winter and put it back on in the summer. Some horses have major health issues related to obesity because they put on more weight every summer but never lose it in the winter. Consequently, they get fatter and fatter every year. The easiest time to get the weight off a horse is in the winter.


Keeping it Green

Our pastures require a fair amount of maintenance during the spring and summer. Early in the spring, before the grass starts growing, we drag/harrow the fields, to break up the manure clumps and pull out some of the thatch (and every five years or so the fields need to be burned off to get rid of the thick thatch). Since we spread the manure from the stalls and paddocks in the fields, the harrow helps break it up, providing a smooth layer of fertilizer to the grass. Recycling manure is great for the growth of the grass; adding a commercial fertilizer is even better, but much more costly.

We start irrigating the pastures as soon as the snow melt starts and the ditches are running. We use flood irrigation—a manual process that involves damming the ditch and flooding the fields with water. We only have access to the water on certain days (since we share it with others), so our whole lives tend to revolve around irrigation days. Water is a big deal in the West; water rights are very valuable and never taken for granted. We have to work the water through the fields to make sure every nook and cranny is covered; the water is far too precious to waste even a gallon.

We also mow our fields once or twice during the summer. Horses are very particular about the actual plants they eat, selecting the tender sweet grass and leaving the weeds and other kinds of grasses. By mowing (with the blades set as high as they go) we chop off the weeds before they seed and the grass gets stronger. When you mow grass before it seeds out, it grows even harder, trying to get to seed. Keeping our fields mowed improves the growth and quality of the grass while discouraging the weeds.


A Labor of Love

Maintaining the pastures is a lot of work, but like most things in life, if it’s important to you it’s worth working for. Seeing the horses content in the field, basking in the sun and picking and sorting through the plants to find their little treasures more than makes up for the work we put into it. Seeing the shine and dapples in their coat that only green grass gives a horse pleases my eye and puts a smile on my face.

There’s a reason why horse enthusiasts tend to be hard workers—it takes a lot of effort to keep horses happy and healthy! But the end result makes me forget about the extra work and gives me the satisfaction of doing the best I can do for both the horses and the land.

Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight

Avoiding Feed-time Frenzy Logo

If you keep your horses at home, you’ve probably already developed a routine that makes your job efficient and keeps the horses happy. But if you are new to this, or are looking for helpful hints to make your horse life easier, I’d like to share with you the ‘tricks of the trade’ that I have learned over the decades.

Feed time can be very stressful for the horses, especially when they are only fed twice a day. Nothing could be more unnatural to the horse, since he is designed to eat small amounts all day long. His digestive system is designed to always be full, so when he is fed two lump-sum meals that he finished within an hour or two, his stomach gets empty and he now has 6-8 hours or more to worry about when his next meal is coming. In addition to digestive and emotional stress, horses may also learn to act aggressively or rudely, which is reinforced as soon as you feed them. So it’s important to do what we can to alleviate the stress, by developing a good feed-time routine.

Keep Their Bellies Full!
My horses have free-choice access, 24/7, to a low-protein grass hay (tested at 9% protein). When your horses have free-choice hay (only grass hay and never alfalfa), it removes almost all the feed-time stress; there is little to no fighting over food; horses that previously would chase other horses off and hoard the food will eat side by side with their herd mates. I often look out in the paddock and see all of our horses eating from the same pile, with their noses virtually touching. Because horses know they can eat whenever they want and never worry about having enough food, they take turns at the feeders and they never gorge themselves.

Free choice access to grass hay brings a lot of peace and tranquility to the herd, helps keep mental stress low and is critical to digestive health. I find that we have much fewer problems with colic and ulcers with the horses on free-choice and we have no problems at all with obesity. If you are not in a situation where you can give them free-choice hay, you should feed hay in sufficient quantities that he always has a little bit left over before the next meal comes or feed more often than twice a day. If the hay you feed it too high in protein or so sweet that your horse may overeat, try using a slow feeder, such as the Savvy Feeder, that will slow your horse down and help him savor the hay all day long.

Follow a Consistent Routine
Horses love to know what is coming next and they love routines. It makes them feel safe. Develop your feeding routine in such a way that the horses can anticipate it and so that they will help you get the job done. Everyone’s situation is different and there are many ways to make it more efficient, but I will tell you our routine and why it works.

Half our horses stay outside in the paddock all day and all night, while the other half (our performance horses) are out all day and come into stalls at night. We do this for several reasons. One is that our performance horses frequently travel and have to stay in stalls when they do, so we want them accustomed to and comfortable with that confinement. Also, in addition to their free-choice hay, each horse gets special supplements and some get medications, so separating them makes it easier to feed a customized diet. All our horses receive daily doses of Cosequin (a joint health supplement), Wellactin (an omega 3 fish oil for their coats, immune systems and cardiovascular health) and Calxequin (an all-around vitamin supplement). Additionally, some of our horses get Proviable daily (a high-quality pre- and pro-biotic for digestive health) and occasionally one or more of our horses are also receiving some medication in their feed.

Each morning at the same time every day, the horses are all given a token amount of grain to carry their supplements. Most horses do not need any grain if they are receiving adequate amounts of hay. Hay or grass forage are considered “roughage,” while grains and complete feeds are considered “concentrates.” I personally like to avoid concentrates as much as I can but to get the horses to eat the supplements, we give them just a handful of whole oats (no additives or processed feeds). While they are eating their grain, we are taking off blankets and opening the alleyway to the paddock so that when they are finished, we can just open the stall door and let them trot out to the paddock by themselves. They will all spend the day out there together, munching contentedly when they want, napping in the sun and playing together.

Once the horses are all out, we clean the stalls, wash and fill the water buckets, load up the hay in each stall (so the stalled horses have all the hay they want at night) and prep the night-time grain and supplements (but leave it in the feed room so it doesn’t get eaten by the dogs). By 10 o’clock each morning all the chores are done for the whole day and the only remaining feed-time chore is to open the gates and let the horses in.

At 4 o’clock each afternoon, we place their previously prepared grain/supplements in the stall (I always feed hay and grain from the ground level, which is more natural and healthier for their respiratory systems, than putting it in a raised feeder). We close the barn doors to the outside, open all the stall doors, then open the gate to the paddock to let the horses in. Because we use the same routine at the same time every day, the horses are lined up to come in and they march right into their stalls.

Keep It Simple!
A horse has very simple needs when it comes to nutrition—they need roughage (10-20 pounds a day), water (10-15 gallons a day) and free-choice salt. I keep a Redmond all-natural sea salt lick in each stall and I keep several “rocks on a rope” in the paddocks, near the waterers. We also hang two water buckets (heated) in each stall and one of them has “Rein Water” mixed in—it’s a mineral mixture that horses love. It not only encourages them drink more, but it also helps the water taste familiar when we are on the road. I prefer to have buckets in the stalls and not automatic waterers so that I know exactly how much water each horse consumed overnight.

Train Your Horses to Help
I’ve taught my horses to come in the barn when I call them. It’s easy to do. Just use a unique call or whistle every day before they come in for feed. To get started, you may have to shake a grain can after your call and let them have a taste as soon as they come. Soon, the call or whistle itself will get them in. Use it every day so it is like a dinner bell. Then, even if I need to bring them in early, my call will always get their attention. If one horse learns it, the rest will likely follow and teach the new horses what it means.

If you let your horses march themselves into the barn and stalls, do it in the same order every day so they know what to expect. Soon they will be lining up in order and not vying for position. The more consistent your routine is, the better the horses will respond.

Make sure your horses do not act aggressively or display dominance when you feed them. If you must walk into a pen with feed, use a flag to make sure all the horses stay back and do not try to grab feed out of your arms—this is dominant behavior and very dangerous. If a horse is inside a pen or stall and you do not have to go in to feed, he should still be patient and polite. If he is acting aggressively or rudely, do not feed him in that moment. Use a flag to back him up and wait until his ears are forward before you throw the feed in. If you feed him while he is acting poorly, it reinforces that behavior and turns it into an ingrained habit.

Keep in mind that horses establish dominance in the herd, in part, by taking away food from others. If the horse ever comes to believe that his aggressive antics are causing you to feed him, then in his mind, every day you are proving to him he is dominant. Make sure your horses are acting appropriately in the moment that you feed them to help avoid dominance issues.

Whatever your horse-keeping situation is, there are probably things you can do to make it more time-efficient, easier and less stressful for your horses. Keeping a routine that is strictly adhered to by everyone that does the feeding chores, will help train your horses so that they cooperate in the process instead of interfering. If you have some great ideas for avoiding feed-time frenzy, I’d love to hear about them here in the comments!

Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight

A Horse’s Sense of Fairness

“Does my horse have a sense of fairness?” Recently, one of my Interactive Academy members asked me this question—a question that no one has ever asked me during my forty years of teaching people to ride horses. I’ve been working with this rider for a while now. She’s working through my 12-month curriculum with her horse to help improve her own horsemanship, as well as advance her horse’s training. Those endeavors involve improving your own leadership skills. Considering her leadership skills led to the question. So, does a horse have a sense of fairness?

Your horse’s point of view, on any given subject may be (and probably is) quite different than your own. What your horse views as unfair treatment may surprise you. But fairness does not exist in a vacuum—it is always relative to other factors. We get caught up in our own, singular point of view, and fail to consider all the factors. What seems perfectly reasonable to us, may be viewed as grossly unfair as another.

Leadership is not just about your actions or intentions; it is also about your honesty, integrity and fairness—including admitting your own mistakes and taking responsibility yourself if your followers fall short of your expectations. Authority is not the same as leadership—just because you have authority over others does not mean that they have a desire to follow you or accept you as their leader.

Horses most certainly have a sense of fairness, just as they are good judges of leadership and trustworthiness. Because they are herd animals, they are mindful of leadership, hierarchy, rules, and ramifications of behavior. They are instinctively drawn to strong leadership, with a compelling desire to be accepted in a herd and a profound fear of banishment from the herd. Horses thrive when leadership, rules and structure exist and they flail in the absence of it.

That’s not to say a horse never does anything wrong or that he would think any discipline was bad. He knows when he is breaking a rule or pushing a boundary and he usually responds well to fair punishment. But when rules are unclear or inconsistently enforced, when you say one thing but then do another, when you inadvertently punish even though no punishment was intended, or when the punishment does not fit the crime, a horse will feel that they are being treated unfairly, and his trust in you diminishes.

How would you know if you horse feels like you are treating him unfairly? This is what varies greatly with horses—given his natural temperament, he may react strongly or not at all to any perceived injustice. Reactions from the horse may range from a slight tensing and lifting of the head, to shaking the head, refusals, running through the bridle, crow-hopping, bucking, or shutting down (becoming nonresponsive). Of course, there could be many causes for these type of reactions in a horse, but whenever a horse is frustrated, it’s always important to consider your own actions, and how they may be viewed by the horse. After all, none of us is a perfect leader for our horses.

Here are some common scenarios where I see people treating their horses in ways the horse may consider unfair…

Unfair treatment #1

Ask him to do something then punish him for doing it: An easy way to test your horse’s sense of fairness is to cue him to canter, then hit him in the mouth with the bit when he does. How he reacts to that will tell you how tolerant he is. This happens far more often than you think, in all levels of riders. Sometimes it’s related to lack of skill; other times it is reactionary—a rider fearful of the canter often snatches the horse up as soon as they respond to the cue. From the horse’s point of view, you asked him to do something then you punished him for doing it. Responses from this kind of conflicting signal can range from a small shake of the head, to crow-hopping, to a refusal to canter for you anymore, to flat-out bucking. But usually it is the horse that is blamed; not fair, nor is it honest, from your horse’s point of view.

Unfair treatment #2

Asking for one more time: Let’s say you’ve been working on something very challenging for your horse—like jumping gymnastics. Maybe you start with just a few rails up in the line of jump-very-stride obstacles and gradually you add more until it is a very challenging and strenuous exercise. After some stops and starts and failed attempts, your horse finally goes through the full gymnastic correctly. You are thrilled! So what’s the first thing you say? “Let’s do that one more time.” You know what happens next. He’s already given you his best and that wasn’t good enough; now he’s tired and emotionally spent and you ask for more. Things fall apart and what should have been a great training session turns into a salvage effort. Fairness would dictate that you recognized your horse’s best effort and let him rest on that, rather than feed your own greed.

Unfair treatment #3

Setting the horse up for failure: This is the actually the real, unedited scenario that stimulated the whole discussion on fairness between my Interactive member and myself. “The last time we went to the arena, there were about 15 of us in there at once – usually, I have the place to myself, or maybe one other rider. This was a big test I thought – thinking about how anxious he was on the first day of the clinic [she’s referring to a clinic she took with me, 6-8 months ago, when he had come uncorked]. He did great! He stayed focused and listening to me. The only negative was when we were done, I loaded him up – no problem. So I decided to practice unloading and loading since we were a little tired and away from home. He decided no. A nearby rider gave me some help. This made me think about fairness. Was it unfair to finish and then ask for more?”

Yes, it was unfair. Clearly the horse had given of himself, worked very hard and done the right thing. He had every reason to believe he was done and would receive the kindness of comfort from his leader that he had a right to expect after a job well-done. Instead, he was set up to fail; he was set up to rebel. After all, he had already loaded once without resistance. Was that not what you wanted? Authority should not be exploited. My father often said, “A well-trained horse that trusts you, will jump over a cliff if you ask. But that might be the last time he trusts you and it might be the last time you get to ask.”

Does an impatient horse need to learn more patience? Yes. Should we expect perfect patience of him in every situation or at the same level we do another more patient or more experienced horse? No. Should we make him jump through hoops when he is most anxious or most aggravated, just for the sake of seeing him jump through the hoops? No. Should we ALWAYS set him up for success? YES! A good training exercise sets the horse up for the greatest chance of success, not throwing challenges at him one after the other with the intent of making him fail.

A good leader does not expect his followers to do things beyond their capabilities. Yes, you want to push your followers to be the best they can be, but you cannot make them be something they are not or live up to an unattainable expectation. Everyone wants the feeling of a job well done. If we think our horse may not be capable of giving us what we want in that moment, it’s best not to ask. Do something else instead. Come back later and address it when the chances of success are greater or when you have removed other obstacles.

While your expectations should be high, you are not trying to find your horse at fault and it is not about you, but more about what your horse is capable of giving. It’s about asking him to try and then recognizing his try, even when it is not perfect. Every horse is different and what may seem like an awesome response from one horse may be nothing for another horse.

It’s good to have high expectations; just remember that expectations lead to disappointment, so make sure your expectations are realistic and attainable. Your horse will rise to your level of expectation, be it high or low. Have high expectations, and recognize your horse’s efforts honestly and fairly.

Join the academy and get my one-on-one feedback as you work with your horse:

Have a good ride,

Julie Goodnight


Top 3 Saddle-Fit Pains

Saddle Fit: Julie and Eddie

Saddle Fit: Julie and EddieAt each of my clinics, my attention first turns to the horses’ tack to check for fit, adjustment and function. When it comes to saddle fit, my eyes always go to these three parts of the horse first: the withers, the shoulders and the loins.

Most of the saddle fit issues I see affect one of these three parts of the horse. Often problems can be fixed by simply adjusting the placement of the saddle or getting a little creative with padding. Sometimes a different saddle is needed and for some horses, saddle fit will always be a challenge. Whatever the case, we owe it to our horses to make sure that they are as comfortable as possible while we ride.


The Saddle’s Function

The tree of the saddle serves the purpose of evenly distributing the weight of the rider over a larger area–so that the pressure is not focalized on one point of the horse’s back. When the tree fits the horse’s back well, he can carry the weight of the rider comfortably. When the bars of the tree are not evenly contacting the horse’s back, he will develop pressure points which can lead to soreness, scarring on his back, and even permanent damage. Keep in mind that saddle trees are made to fit average horses, but not all horses are average. Also, saddle trees are made to be symmetrical and not all horses are the same on both sides of their spines.

Whether your horse has anomalies or not, assessing saddle fit each year is important, since horses, just like humans, change body shape as they age. Of course we want to look at the big picture for saddle fit, but here are the three areas that I see the most problems. The best way to check saddle fit is to place the saddle on the horse’s back without any pads, un-cinched, so you can see how the shape of the tree jives with the horse’s back.


The Withers

In a perfect world, your horse’s withers would be prominent enough to hold the saddle well, but not so high that they hit the pommel. The “average” horse will not have any problems here, but high withers or very low withers can be a challenge when it comes to saddle fit.

The “mutton withered” horse (very low withers) tends to be quite round, instead of ‘A’ shaped at the withers. There may be a lot of fat or muscling on top of the shoulder blades that make it seem like the withers are low. This horse will generally need the cinch or girth very tight to prevent the saddle from slipping. You will probably not have trouble with the withers hitting the pommel, but you may have too much constriction at the shoulders and/or need an anti-slip pad or a split-withered pad to help keep the saddle from slipping too much.

The horse with prominent withers is more of a challenge for saddle fit. Certain types of horses, like Thoroughbreds, may have prominent withers. As horses age, their withers naturally become more prominent. Obviously, when a horse is in poor flesh (low body condition score), the fat and muscling that often sits below the withers and the flesh that surrounds the spine all the way down his back can disappear, leaving the withers and back bone more vulnerable.

Combined with other saddle fit challenges like low in the back, short backed or long backed, the horse with high withers can be hard to fit in a traditional saddle. Often, horses with high withers can be comfortably fit by using a split-withered pad to gain a little clearance and/or using a back pad or bridge pad in addition to your regular pad to lift the whole saddle (visit for more information).

To check for adequate clearance over the withers, you should be able to stick your whole hand in over the withers, under the pommel, when the horse is saddled and cinched normally. Remember, once you sit up there, the saddle will be even closer to the horse’s withers, so make sure there is plenty of room there.


The Shoulders

Just above the shoulders and below the withers, you often see white spots or white hairs on a horse. This is a tell-tail of poor saddle fit and often goes unnoticed or is mistakenly thought to be a natural white marking. It is usually an indication that there is too much pressure on the horse’s shoulder blades and/or his shoulder blades are running into the front of the tree when he moves. Surprisingly, many horses will tolerate this pressure without much protest, resulting in the horse possibly being ridden for years in an ill-fitting saddle.

Keeping in mind that horses change body shape every year from birth to old age (three to four times as fast as a human), a saddle that fit your horse perfectly when he was four, may not fit at all when he is 8. This was the case with my horse Eddie, who I started riding as a three year old. Then, he fit perfectly in a full-skirted saddle with a regular sized Circle Y Flex2 tree. By the time he was seven (when horses really mature), he not only needed a wide-tree version of the same saddle, but he also needed a shorter skirted saddle. We moved him from the Monarch saddle to the Wind River in my line of saddles—the design is almost the same, but the skirt is a bit shorter and rounded in the Wind River. We continue to experiment with denser but thinner pads for him to accommodate his heavy muscling.

If a horse is experiencing too much pressure at the shoulders, he could need a wider tree or the saddle may be bridging (this occurs when the bars of the tree touch in front and back but not in the middle). If the tree is too narrow for the horse, he needs a wider tree saddle; there is nothing you can do to pad that out (it would be like putting on an extra pair of socks when your shoes are too small). But if the tree is bridging, often a configuration of pads will help. Look into bridge pads, shim pads or sway-back pads. Be wary of pads with built up shoulders, since that may just shift the fit problem off the shoulders and onto the loins.

Sometimes I see horses with white marks on their backs caused simply by placing the saddle too far forward. Look for the screw that sits right at the base of the pommel in both English and Western saddles. This screw shows you the forward point of pressure from the tree and it should sit behind the shoulder blades in the “pocket.” Depending on the slope of the horse’s shoulders, the prominence of his withers, the length of his back, and how the saddle is rigged, the saddle may sit farther back on one horse than it does on another. Sometimes people try to position the saddle by lining up the cinch behind the elbow, but that doesn’t really work. Depending on how your horse is built and how the saddle is rigged, the cinch may be farther back on some horses.

To check the saddle fit in regards to the shoulder, put the saddle on the horse without pads and without cinching. Holding the saddle in place with one hand as someone else leads your horse at the walk, slide your other hand up under the saddle until you feel the top of the horse’s shoulder blade. As he walks, you’ll feel the shoulder move back; make sure your fingers aren’t being pinched between the tree and the shoulder blade as the horse walks.


The Loins

How the saddle fits at the loins, behind the saddle, is more of a concern in Western saddles but it is an area that tends to be over-looked by all kinds riders, when it comes to saddle fit. The Western saddle is generally longer than the English saddle, giving a greater potential for problems at the loins, but both English and Western saddles can be out of balance on a horse, causing an increase of pressure on the horse’s back.

Once the horse is saddled, with the horse standing on level ground, step back and look at the horse from the side. The seat of the saddle should appear to be level—not inclined uphill or downhill. If the saddle appears to be going uphill, it may be out of balance and putting too much pressure on the loins of the horse, as well as throwing the rider out of balance and into the “backseat” position. Often, moving the saddle back a little will help level it out or using back pads or shim pads may help.

Since the Western saddle is generally longer than an English saddle, it’s important to check how the saddle fits all the way at the back of the skirts. Horses can be quite different in shape at the loins—the spine may rise up there and/or the horse may not have enough flesh to protect the spine. Make sure the saddle accommodates the shape of the horse’s back at his loins and is not pressing down into the back. Keep in mind that whatever you see from the ground could be much different or worse for the horse once the rider is mounted.

Often Western saddles will have a ‘V’ shape behind or the skirts are laced together in such a way so as to not press into the horse’s loins. In the case of very short-coupled horses, you may need to look at a saddle that is shorter in overall length—with a rounded skirt or a saddle that is specifically designed for short-backed horses. ‘Hybrid’ designs (cross between English and Western) or endurance style saddles tend to be shorter in overall length than a traditional Western saddle.


Keep Up the Good Work

It’s important to assess your saddle fit every year. Mark it on the calendar and check. It’s so easy to get complacent and overlook developing problems if you don’t check often. Many riders don’t notice a problem until it’s been there for a while, until it causes behavioral issues, or until someone with fresher eyes sees it (this is a big advantage of going to a riding clinic). These three areas—the withers, the shoulders and the loins, are easy to check and I try to assess it on every saddled horse that comes in front of me.

While most horses can fit into readily available saddles, some horses will always be a challenge.  A custom-made saddle or an unconventional type of saddle made for a different discipline may be the right choice.

Think of it this way: shopping for a saddle is a lot like purchasing shoes for yourself. If you wear a size 7, most size 7 shoes will fit—right off the rack.  Some will be a little snug and some too big. Sometimes, with the right socks, all can be comfortable. That’s what we want to do in regards to saddle fit— choose the saddle that’s best for your horse and see what you need to do to make it a perfect fit. Consider all the options. Find the best shape for the horse, and if it’s not perfect, pad it out to make the fit as comfortable as possible.


Designing Saddles to Fit

There’s no one magic saddle that fits every horse, that’s why I decided I had to have different types of saddles in my own line. The saddles had to be available in regular and wide trees and I wanted to make sure there were different lengths of skirting to fit the longer and short-backed horses. The design of the tree was most important. I wanted to make sure that there was a substantial tree that would distribute weight well. I ultimately chose Circle Y’s Flex 2 tree as it has some give for the horse—allowing him to move comfortably without a rigid tree, but is strong enough to carry weight without bowing. Other flexible trees could not make this claim and having a rigid tree made it more difficult to fit many horses during my travels.

My favorite saddle in the line is the Monarch—it has a more traditional, longer skirt and room to attach bags and jackets for the trail. The shape matches the traditional Western saddle look. The same saddle with a rounded skirt (better for short-backed horses) fits my horse, Eddie better than a longer skirt would. Having the tree widths available in wide and regular (with a 2-degree difference) helps fit the high withered and the stocky horses. Plus, having a tall gullet and opening at the back of the saddle keeps weight off of the horse’s spine. It’s got other comfort features for both the horse and rider, making a more comfortable ride for both. Check out all of my saddles at

We owe it to the horses to get the best fit possible. Get expert advice whenever you can. Professional saddle fitters are well worth the expense and are experts not only in fit, but also in how saddles are constructed and what options are available. I prefer certified saddle fitters. Often horse trainers, riding instructors and veterinarians can help with saddle fitting advice, in lieu of a saddle fit expert.

Enjoy the ride,

Julie Goodnight


Editor’s Note: See Goodnight’s full list of clinics at and ride during the 2-day clinic weekends across the country. Goodnight has her own saddle with her at each event and offers a test ride to anyone looking for help with saddle fit.


Keyword: saddle fit pains

Making Time for Horses

Julie Riding

Julie RidingWhen I was a kid, horses and ballet lessons were the only non-school activities I did. I went to the barn every single day to ride my horse. Life was uncomplicated then and time was on my side; carving out time to spend with my horse wasn’t a problem. That sure has changed–you grow up and life fills in all your free time if you allow it.

You’d think being in the horse profession, finding time to ride my own horses would be easy. But did you ever hear of the cobbler’s children going barefoot? Like most adults, the demands on my daily schedule are intense; between family, work, and personal commitments, my horses sometimes have to take a back seat. But quality time with my own horses is a high priority for me so I’ve made it a point to organize my life in such a way to make it happen.

As I work with the riders enrolled in my Interactive online study program (, I hear a lot of frustration over how much time they have to be with their horse. When you join the program, one of the first tasks is to fill out a personal profile, which tells me about your time commitment, your experience, your horse’s level of training and your dreams. Putting all of those things together to come up with goals and a workable plan to achieve them is indeed a challenge!

Setting realistic goals with your horse, making the commitment of time and energy, getting organized and efficient with your precious time and planning ahead will make amazing things possible, even when you are short of time.

Make an Appointment with Yourself

Scrutinize your schedule and analyze your lifestyle and make a standing appointment to meet with your horse. Even if you can only commit one hour, one day a week, commit to it and make it a priority in your life. “I don’t have time,” is one of the most lame excuses ever made. If you want it, make it happen.

Find time in your schedule by organizing your life better, work-sharing with friends, hiring help or adjusting in other places, combining it with other projects (“I’ll do that on my way home from the barn.”). Combine your workout time with horse time by making it more of a workout (think posting without stirrup and power-grooming). Make horses a priority in your life, inform those around you of your newfound intentions and get creative!

For myself, it works best to actually schedule a specific time every day to ride and block it off my calendar. Plus I look at my schedule a week at a time, a week ahead of time, to plan out what days I will ride. I also consider the number of days I will ride over a longer period (and what days I will need my assistant to work my horses), in consideration of meeting my future goals. By committing to future events with my horses, it’s easier to find the time that I know will be required to meet the challenge.

Even if you can only realistically commit to one hour, one day a week, commit to it and plan your life around it. Then when you do find that extra hour in the week, it’s a lovely bonus and time you’ll appreciate even more.

Be Realistic

How much time is enough? What is not enough? These are important questions that relate to your riding goals, your horse’s level training and his age/temperament, not to mention your own life demands. It’s a complicated formula, but to make it work, you must be realistic. Your time commitment has to jive with your horse.

Certainly, a mature, well-trained horse requires less time than a green horse or a horse that has had bad experiences or abusive training. To maintain the training of a well-trained horse doesn’t take much time; if you are lucky enough to be in this category, riding one day a week may be enough. But to progress a horse’s level of training, let’s say from baby-green to finished (whatever your chosen discipline), requires daily work and may still take months and years to accomplish. A horse that needs remedial training to undo his past fears and challenges may require an even greater time commitment.

Horses are extremely fast learning animals, for better or for worse, and how quickly they learn the right things is entirely dependent on the skill of the handler (teaching them the wrong things takes no skill at all). Be realistic in factoring in your time commitment and your level of experience when considering the progress you can make with your horse. It’s best to have a horse that matches both your time commitment and ability level, not to mention your confidence level.

Be Organized

Whether it’s how you choose your wardrobe for the day, packing a lunch and eating on the fly, saving your phone calls for the drive to the barn, having a “go bag” packed with your riding clothes or turning your car into a mobile tack trunk, being organized and prepared to ride on a moment’s notice will give you more time with your horse. Keeping your apparel, gear and tack organized and easily accessible means more time in the saddle.

Thinking six months or a year ahead in where you would like to be with your horse will help you set goals, which in turn, will help you get better organized.  With future goals in mind, you can make a road map to give you some direction and then you can plan all the small stops along the way and how much time you will need to get there.

Set Goals

Horsemanship is a journey, not a destination. No matter how hard you work at it, you will never know it all and you will never be a perfect rider. However, there is a lot to learn and thousands of skills to master; setting realistic goals to work toward, will help keep you focused in your training time.

Your horsemanship goals might range from attending one horsemanship clinic in the next year, to winning a year-end highpoint award in your saddle club, to going on an overnight trail ride, to competing on trail obstacles. Maybe your goals involve regaining enough confidence to canter your horse or being able to ride out alone on your horse or be able to haul your horse in a trailer.

Whatever the goal, be it small or large, it should be a challenge for you and your horse, yet attainable. Your goals should be well defined and easily measured so that it is abundantly clear when you have accomplished them. It’s important to look at least six months to a year in advance and assign a realistic time frame for accomplishing the goal. Horse sports are not known for instant gratification; most worthwhile things take the time to achieve. Looking ahead helps you set a course and develop a good training plan for you and your horse.

Once you’ve defined a goal, make a “project list” to outline all the smaller steps that you will need to accomplish to meet the goal. Take a blank sheet of copy paper, write your goal at the top in big, bold letters, and then list all the intermediate steps to get there, including any equipment, knowledge or skills you will have to acquire along the way. By keeping it all in one place, you can assign a reasonable time frame to your plan and check off the steps and /or add new ones as you progress.

One of the first assignments in my Interactive study program is to fill out a personal profile on you and your horse, to analyze your time commitment and ability levels for you and your horse so that we can come up with reasonable goals and a plan to get there. It’s amazing how getting this stuff in writing helps you find not only time, but also the focus needed to achieve goals that you never thought possible.

Make the Most of the Time You Have

Life happens and some days we have more time than we planned, while others we have less. Don’t let reality get you down, just roll with the punches and make the most of the time you have. If you are short of time, you are better off reducing your expectations than trying to rush and cram in too much. Rushing rarely works well with horses.

Horses don’t operate on human time; horse-time is altogether different. Horses can get very irritable when you get in a hurry and it’s far too easy to make mistakes, cut corners and do unsafe things. If you find yourself short of time, cut back your plans and do something meaningful and positive with your horse—less is often more. Do a little ground work instead of riding. Take your horse on a relaxing walk; give him some extra spa treatments—enjoy some quality time with your horse and be happy with that. Hurrying to cram in more often ends in a frustrating and aggravating way, for both you and your horse, and neither one of you will look forward to next time.

Look for products and gadgets that make your horse life easier and your time more efficient. Clean your saddle with disposable tack wipes while it’s still on your horse. Portable tack racks and grooming totes help keep you organized and keeps your stuff readily accessible. I am always on the lookout for anything that helps me be organized and more efficient with my horses.

Share chores with a friend—take turns bringing the horses in or feeding or watching the kids so you can devote more time to your horse on some days. Consider joining a riding club (or forming your own) or joining an online program like my Interactive study club, so that you have structure and goals and commitments. The social aspect will make it more fun and the structure will keep you focused and making progress.

Making time for horses in your life can be a real challenge, but the payoff can also be huge. What you gain in satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, vigorous exercise, and mental challenge is worth the effort. For many of us, having a meaningful relationship with a horse is worth a lot of sacrifice in other areas of our lives.

Getting organized, making a commitment and setting goals will make it possible to accomplish things with your horse that you never imagined, even if you have a busy life and no time to spare. Looking to the year ahead, it’s a good time to make a resolution, make a commitment to yourself and to your horse and make things happen!

What time-management tips do you have to share? Post them and tag #JGHorseTime to share your ideas on Facebook Twitter and Instagram.

–Julie Goodnight

Resistance to Canter

Julie Cantering

Julie CanteringWhat do you do when your calm and cool horse doesn’t want to move out at the trot or canter? Resist the urge to peddle and make sure your horse will listen to your cues. Find out how Julie helped this rider work with her slow and steady horse—first ruling out pain then making sure the horse follows her leadership.

I have a four-year-old gelding. He has a wonderful jog and walk. When he is asked to canter or do anything faster than the jog he displays a bad attitude—complete with pinned ears and curled nose. I know he does have a very nice canter, because he will do it out of the arena in the fields where we ride (and sometimes he still has attitude with that, but he will move out more). What are your thoughts on this? –Claudia

It sounds like your horse is resisting forward movement. There are two types of horses: the ones with too much whoa and the ones with too much go; you find that depending on the horse you must always push-to-go or pull-to-whoa. You are blessed with a horse with too much whoa–which makes him easy to ride. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he will try to get out of work if he can. He would rather stand still or amble along at the slow and steady gaits. When he pins his ears and fusses, it is likely because he does not like the thought of working harder and he is protesting.

That said, do make sure that you have his back evaluated and make sure that the saddle fits well—those factors can cause an otherwise willing horse to resist the speedier gaits. If they feel pain, they won’t want to move. Once pain and saddle fit is ruled out, you must work on his disobedience to move faster as a training issue. And even if he did start the resistance because of pain, he’ll need to know that he is expected to move past the pain memory once all is well.

Cantering is Work
The canter has much more suspension (all four feet off the ground) than the trot (the walk has no suspension at all) and therefore requires a lot more physical effort on the part of the horse. He is okay with working at the walk and trot but the canter represents more effort than he is willing to put out. His hope is that by protesting (threatening gestures) you will not ask him to do that. I suspect there are some other areas where he might display this resistant behavior but maybe you have not become aware of this yet.

Work from the Ground
One thing I would do is address this issue of obedience from the ground. I would put him in the round pen and put him through his paces and see if I could make him canter from the ground. Chances are, he will resist that as well. Use a stick and flag to apply mental pressure (by waving it) and ask him to canter in the round pen at your request. He may kick and resist, so make sure you keep a safe distance from him. Ask him to canter, enforce it with the flag, ask him to canter a few strides and then let him trot or walk.

There is an old saying in horsemanship that says, “All of training occurs in transitions.” It is not so important that he canters around the round pen ad nauseum, but that he obediently picks up the canter when asked. As soon as he appears to be cantering without resistance, go ahead and let him trot or walk, even if he has only gone a few strides.

Also, working from the long training lead, you should be able to move the horse around you in a circle at the trot (it is too small a circle to ask him to canter) without any resistance from him. You will have to use a long lead. I use a rope halter and 15-foot training lead for this type of work (available at Use your flag to help you move the horse out in a circle around you. This is similar to longeing a horse and it helps if you have previous experience doing this. It is important that you stay behind the horse’s balance point (girth area) and drive him forward and away from you. Many people have trouble driving a horse away from them because they try to lead him in a circle or they stay in front of the balance point. You have to stay behind the balance point to get a horse to move away from you.

Back in the Saddle
Once the horse will move out willingly in the round pen and on the lead line, he should be more willing and more obedient when you are riding. Be prepared to enforce your cue to canter with a crop or the tail of your reins if needed. While I don’t endorse whips for horses, reinforcing your horse with one quick tap is much better than constantly kicking him into the canter gait. If he learns he must follow your direction, you won’t have to constantly kick in the future.

Another concept in horse training is “Ask, Tell, Command.” This means that you ask once lightly and politely, then tell with a reprimand. Usually with a lazy horse I go right from ask to command because they will take every opportunity you offer not to do the work. He will learn the sequence quickly then not need a command in the future. The most important thing is that you reinforce your cue and do not ask, ask, ask, and ask; which only serves to prove to the horse that you do not really mean what you say and that there are no ramifications if he does not respond.

Make sure that when you ask him to canter, you are giving an adequate release of the reins, so that you are not contradicting your signal and giving him a legitimate reason to complain. When a horse canters, his head drops down with every stride. Often riders do not give an adequate release when they cue the horse to canter and the horse tries to pick the canter up, drops his head into the bit and stops. This is very frustrating to the horse and is a good reason for him to resist. Reach your hands toward his ears and give him room to move forward.

Once you have asked the horse to canter and he does, wait until he is cantering willingly, relaxed and forward before you ask him to stop. Do not canter to the point of diminishing returns. All of training occurs in transitions, so it is the asking and the compliance that causes positive training, not how far or how long you canter. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight
Trainer and Clinician

The Big Comeback

Julie riding Dually.

Julie riding Dually.Confidence is tough to regain after a fall. It’s much easier to work through your fears when you trust the horse you ride when your fears are still actively surfacing. Make sure that the horse you choose to ride is an important part of your comeback strategy.

I hear the worry at every clinic I do. Clinic riders tell me, “I used to ride like the wind, and now I feel sick to my stomach when I even think about getting on my horse. I just wish I could enjoy riding again.” Fear has taken away their enjoyment of horses and riding. It’s a terrible place to be—with the sickening feeling of having lost something you once loved.

Don’t give up! With a plan in place—and the right horse to help you—you can get back in control of your emotions and ride like the wind again. You must have a horse you can trust to guide you through your recovery.

Dreams Damaged
After an incident or injury with horses, it’s normal to have some trepidation. When you put yourself in a similar circumstance as the one that caused your accident, you’re likely to relive the fear. When we humans sustain an injury (a mental injury, a physical injury, or both), a “fear memory” is formed in the brain, and its sole purpose is to try and subconsciously dissuade you from doing that thing again. It’s a built-in self-protection mechanism. Often, you think you are “over” the fear but then when you find yourself in the same situation that caused the accident, out of the blue, the panic appears.

As time goes by, you begin to dread riding, knowing that this fear will surface and attack at the most inconvenient time. Soon you’re making up excuses for not riding—which you know in your heart is avoidance behavior—so then you start feeling guilty. Eventually, the all-consuming emotion of grief kicks in, because you feel like you’ve lost the ability to ride a horse—that you’ve lost something you loved. It is a downward spiral of conflicting emotions—fear, guilt, frustration, and grief. That’s a lot of negative emotion associated with horses to be rolling around in your head.

If any part of this scenario rings true for you, it may be time to take action and get those negative emotions in check. Your love of horses and your ability to ride is still there, ready to be unleashed, once you rein in those negative emotions and take positive steps in the right direction.

Repair Time
Many riders have regained their confidence and returned to the sport they loved by using relaxation strategies (visit and use keyword confidence). Before rebuilding your confidence, it’s important that you give yourself all the time you need to heal, both physically and emotionally from your accident. Do not rush this process and do not allow yourself to be pressured by others; it could take some time before you are ready to make the commitment and muster the courage to ride again.

Before coming back to riding, make sure you understand your emotions. I like to call this intellectualizing or objectifying the fear. Knowing the origins of your fears, when to expect fear memories and how to override them, and how fear affects you and how to countermand those effects is critical to your success.

Taking the Reins
No matter how you lost your confidence, to rebuild it securely you need a horse that can help you. The horse is such a critical component in regaining your confidence—for better or for worse—the horse can either build your confidence or take it away in a heartbeat.

This may mean that your current horse (or the horse you got hurt on) is not appropriate. In order for the healing to begin, first the injury has to stop. A horse that scares you or challenges you on a daily basis, will constantly reopen the wound and cause it to fester. Think about your horse—does he need to get his confidence from you, or is it the other way around? To overcome your fear, you may need a horse that gives to the equation, not subtracts.

These are not easy questions to ask. Sometimes the answers are painful to accept and challenging to pull off, but riding a safe and trustworthy horse gives you the greatest chances of success when it comes to regaining confidence lost. That may mean re-homing or selling your current mount (he may be happier with a more suitable rider) and finding a horse that realistically meets your needs (preferably one that oozes confidence and has a been-there-done-that attitude– because he has). Or maybe you temporarily lease an ‘easy’ horse and send your challenging horse to a trainer. Don’t let the task be too daunting—analyze, consider all the options, make a plan, and move forward.

Be realistic with your riding goals and the type of horse that will best suit your needs. Your fitness and ability level, plus the time commitment you will make on a daily and weekly basis all have a huge bearing on the kind of horse that will work best for you. Your horsemanship goals and your needs in a horse will change over time, as you gain experience, skills and knowledge—and dabble in different disciplines.

Sometimes I meet people in my clinics that are riding a horse that I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding (after more than 30 years of riding professionally). Sometimes I wonder if they really know how much fun it is to ride a horse you are not afraid of. Although I’ve trained horses professionally for more than three decades, what I personally want in a horse is a well-trained, safe mount that I can have fun on from day one. I don’t have time for a project. Realistically, I know I have limited time to enjoy my horses, and selfishly, I want a horse that I can have the best ride of my life on every day I ride—even if I haven’t ridden him in weeks (which often happens).

Life’s too short and I love riding so much—I want every ride on my horse to be safe, fun and carefree. Finding the right equine partner isn’t an easy job, but it is an important one. Take your time, be smart and objective and seek professional advice. Remember, you didn’t get into horses to create more stress and aggravation in your life. Finding the right horse—one that builds your confidence instead of taking it away—is a huge part of the equation.

Regaining your confidence after an accident is not an easy task but with some work and dedication, I know it can be done—I’ve seen it happen again and again. But you cannot shirk the hard questions and you cannot move forward without a plan. Do the introspection needed to get your head in the right place and make a plan to expand your comfort zone (for details on how to do this, check out my online resources). Then take an honest look at your horse. Determine if he is the right mount for you at this time in your life, and how you can put together a plan that will ensure you the greatest success in this challenge.

Enjoy the Ride,
Julie Goodnight

Horses are Survivors Logo

By Julie Goodnight

Have you worked with a rescued horse or a horse with abuse in his past? The lessons learned from working with these troubled-but-not-disposable horses are priceless. If you let them, these horses can help us understand horse and human behavior

Like humans, horses can carry some heavy emotional and physical pain “baggage’ from their pasts. As horse handlers, we may or may not get to know about that past pain. The burden of this past-trauma (real or imagined) has a tendency to surface unexpectedly and may spiral out of control quickly. The best we can do is help the horse feel safe, try to comfort him as best we can and direct his energy in a more positive direction–in the hopes that his mind will calm and he’ll be able to think his way back to some sense of normalcy.

At a recent clinic, I met a horse who reminded me what it’s like to feel out of control—and he taught me what can be done to create a place of calmness where learning can occur.

It started like any other clinic, with about 15 horses and their handlers meandering into the large arena, each equipped only with halter and lead. As usual, most of the horses were looking around, assessing the situation showing mild to moderate interest in the other horses, but hanging tight with their human. Some horses gave the distinct impression that they were thinking, as they looked my way, sizing me up (all 5’4” of me, mic’d up, talking 100 words a minute and pacing a rut in the middle of the pen). “Uh oh, looks like we’re at another horsemanship clinic; do nothing to draw attention to myself and conserve all energy, because I think I might be here all day!”

Other horses were too busy looking at all the unknown horses and cycling through a range of emotions from excitement, to flirtatious, to intimidating, to cocky and strutting like a peacock. Some horses had the appearance of a well-heeled dog–keeping one keen eye on their handler so as not to miss any cues or expectations. At the same time, these horses took in as much information as possible from the other horses and the unfamiliar environment. A few of the older, seasoned horses stood quietly, half asleep and giving the occasional stink eye to the ‘uncivilized’ horses.

But one horse was very distressed. He was a mess: Pawing, stomping and head butting his handler, screaming at the top of his lungs, tossing his nose in the air and hurling himself to the right and then to the left, bouncing off the end of the lead when he hit it. The handler was doing an admirable job of hanging onto the end of the lead with a few strides of dirt skiing here and there. Looking at the horse’s face as he called out, I could see deep lines of fear-sweat around the eyes–in spite of the cool morning temps in the mountain air. The whites of his eyes were visible much of the time and occasionally his eyes gave the appearance of rolling back in its head. This horse was desperately trying to send a message. “I do not want to be here. In fact, I would rather be ANY WHERE ELSE ON EARTH than here or with you!”

As I got the rest of the horses and handlers moving about the arena in an orderly fashion, I asked the woman with the troubled horse to tell me about him. “I have no idea what’s wrong with him! He’s not normally like this at home,” she cringed in embarrassment, like a mother whose kid just threw a wall-eyed fit in a restaurant.

“How many times have you taken him to a strange place to ride him?”

“Well never, really,” she started. “You see, I’ve only had him for a few months and this is our first attempt at a road trip. He came from a rescue, so I don’t really know much about his history, but I think he was abused.

“When I ride at home with my husband, he’s perfectly calm and does everything I ask,” she said with exasperation. “This is the first time I’ve tried anything like this and we thought it’d be better to leave my husband’s horse at home, so we could get some confidence on our own.”

One thing was very clear to me, this horse was stressed out way beyond the point of thinking and his owner was certainly not getting any more confident. She looked like she’d be happy to tuck her tail and run out the arena gate–gladly forfeiting the tuition and chalking the whole thing up to lessons-learned  if I gave her even the slightest opening.  Meanwhile, the horse was reaching back into his most basic survival instincts. He forgot everything he knew about his training and was getting more angry and frustrated by the minute. He cried out for help in every way he knew how.

Creating Calm

No horse is happy in this state and no horse wants to feel this way—it’s just the only way they know how to feel. They don’t know how to get rid of that bad feeling except to fight or flee. I feel like it’s my job as a horsemanship clinician, to give the horse (and human) what he needs in the moment to feel safe and comfortable. Because only when his mind is calm and relaxed, is he capable of learning and growing. Without question, the same can be said of humans too—when the mind is in a state of stress and turmoil, it’s hard to get much clear thinking done.

Before the horse owner could get any closer to the exit gate, I asked her if I could take her horse for a few minutes to see if I could help him. It only took 10-15 minutes of guiding his energy, telling him where to go, how fast to get there and how to act in the process. I provided him with structure,  guidance and praise–making all the decisions for him so he didn’t have to think, until he began to soften.

As the horse began to understand the very simple things I was asking and the clear and quiet directives I was giving, things made sense to him again. He could trust me and realized that it might benefit him to listen to what I had to say—especially since leaving was not an offered option. Once his focus came onto me, I stopped him to let him rest and turned my back to take away all the pressure. It wasn’t long before he exhaled deeply, lowered his head and rested his very busy mind and body. Soon he was licking his lips and dropping his head as his eyelids went to half-mast.

Horses are emotional animals, perhaps more emotional than even humans. Maybe it’s because of their sheer size or because of their exceptional capabilities when it comes to fight or flight. But when a horse has reached his limit and his emotions boil over, it can be a scary and daunting challenge for us humans. In fact, most of us would be so uncomfortable around a horse like that, we would want to look the other way or shun the horse as bad. It’s far easier, and sometimes safer to get rid of the emotionally troubled horse than it is to be empathetic and to work through the problem to help him feel safe and find some peace. But there was good in this horse, he didn’t need to be ignored or shunned.

This horse needed to be understood. He needed kindness, patience and a release of pressure.

The Horse-Human Connection

Horses and humans can both feel this sense of “out of control.” I’ve learned from personal experience that when people are in turmoil–mentally or emotionally–they are in a very lonely and desperate place and what they need most in that moment is kindness, patience and a release of pressure.

I understood this next concept with horses long before I came to understand people are the same way—when they are struggling with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress or any number of mental health issues. It’s far easier to cross the street to get away from that angry/frustrated/volatile being than it is to look him in the eye and ask sincerely how you can help.

Because horses and humans share this common emotional connection, it comes as no surprise that horses can help humans who are struggling with mental health issues of any kind. Horses are especially good at helping those who feel stress and fear. No human is more empathic than a horse when it comes to understanding your fears and no human is more honest in reacting to your own emotions than a horse. That’s why the therapeutic value of horses is so high.

Horses have survived in our society for thousands of years—long after their usefulness in “paving civilization,” they have adapted and survived and made themselves valuable to us in so many different ways–from sport to entertainment to therapy. Today, perhaps one of the greatest gifts we get from horses is the mental health benefit that we –all riders and handlers get. Whether an autistic child, a wounded warrior, an abused spouse, a person with a physical handicap, or a person struggling to control their emotions, there is help with horses. They understand.

Horses make me a better person—they teach me patience, emotional control, clear communication skills. And they make me look within myself a lot—even when it is not comfortable to do so.

Horses have a unique way of giving us exactly what we need in the moment to find our place, to quiet our minds, to rise to a challenge and to be a better person. Just like the horse in my clinic, horses are beautiful teachers. They are survivors; and if we pay close attention and understand what they need, they can help us all to survive in this often-crazy world.