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

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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: HorseTrainingHelp.com

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 http://JulieGoodnight.com/bridgepads 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 http://JulieGoodnight.com/saddles.

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 http://JulieGoodnight.com/clinics 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 (http://horsetraininghelp.com), 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.

QUESTION:
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

ANSWER:
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 JulieGoodnight.com). 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 JulieGoodnight.com/search 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

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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.

Explosive Canter Departures: Learning to let go and allow the horse to move forward

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I’ve learned to recognize the signs of the horse who’s afraid of the canter departure. I’ve seen it many times throughout my career: A “forward” horse (with too much go) works just fine with the rider at the walk and trot, but when cued to canter throws a wall-eyed fit. 

To me, an “explosive” canter departure is one where the horse–when cued to canter–throws his head up in an emotional fit, grabs the bit and takes off at a gallop (crow hopping and bucking as he runs increasingly faster). Often the horse will settle into a nice steady canter after 6-8 strides of crow hopping if you ride through the initial drama. That is the hallmark of the horse that is afraid of the cue–it’s not cantering that bothers him, it’s just the moment of departure.

The Cause

If a horse does this, he has learned to fear the cue and distrusts his rider. Of course you must rule out any kind of physical issue or saddle fit problem–which may be contributing to the problem. After that is ruled out as an issue, an explosive canter departure is often caused by one of two things. Either the rider has grossly over-cued the horse, or the rider has inadvertently hit the horse in the mouth on the very first stride. Often it’s a combination of both.

A really forward-moving horse requires very little cueing and probably no leg cues at all. A novice rider learning the canter cue and trying to follow the complicated instructions in an uncoordinated way will almost certainly over-cue a forward horse. Some horses are so easy to get into the gait that cueing them should be more of an “allowing” them to canter than actively cueing for the canter. For those horses, as soon as you start riding it, they canter; as soon as you think canter, they step into it. Many riders have trouble bringing the cue down to the horse’s level of sensitivity; and instead, they over-cue and end up with a canter departure that looks like the horse was shot out of a cannon.

When the horse goes into the canter, he first lifts up and rocks back on his haunches, then lunges forward, pushing off with his hind legs as his nose dives down into the bit. If the rider is afraid to canter, she freezes up–at the moment the horse lifts up to push off into the first stride and clinches the reins. This causes the horse to hit the bit hard as he lunges forward and hurts his mouth. In that moment, the rider has essentially punished the horse for doing what she asked. So you can see how that might make a horse a little emotional and it would make it hard for the horse to trust the rider.

Fearful Horses

Recently, I met a horse and rider who were the poster children for this combination of training problems. It was indeed a very forward horse—one you only need think into the canter. He was a very handsome and kind-looking sport horse and he worked beautifully for his rider at the walk and trot. I knew as I watched her warm up, first with groundwork and then mounted work, that she was afraid to let the horse move forward and she seemed obsessed with control—stopping every-other step. Go-stop-go-stop.

The best thing you can do with a forward horse is let them move forward. A lot. Make them think it’s your idea. After all, forward motion is the basis of all training. Watching her, I knew that she was afraid of the horse’s forward energy and she was obsessed with controlling and containing it rather than just letting the horse move out with some freedom (and trust). I was not surprised when she declined to ask the horse to canter; she was sure he would go ballistic at any moment. That wasn’t the same impression I had of the horse—he seemed kind and willing.

Yes, her horse had a history of bucking at the canter departure. Indeed, it was the very problem that brought him to be a cast member on my Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV show. All the signs pointed to a horse that was emotional at the canter departure because he had been over cued, then halted with heavy hands as soon as he took off into the requested gait. The rider had no reason to trust the horse, but the horse had even less of a reason to trust the rider. After being asked to move forward, then hit in the mouth by her halting rein cues, he learned that the canter was something to fear. It was going to hurt. With this riding pattern, she constantly reminded her horse not to trust her. Asking him to do something then criticizing him when he did it would understandably cause resentment.

For the rider, her obsession for stopping was about wanting to make sure she had control. Ironically, she would have far more control (and far less emotionality) by letting the horse move forward.

The Answer

When I got on the big, warmblood gelding, my plan was to move him out at a strong trot, changing directions frequently and flexing his neck a lot, to get some of his forward energy in check. He was very responsive and it wasn’t too long before I was the one pushing him forward and he was thinking slower might be nice. When I felt he was ready, I reached way forward with both my hands, sat on his back and then gently started moving my seat in the canter rhythm. His first transition with the new canter cue was a bit exuberant, some might say explosive. He crow hopped and offered a small buck. But in just a few strides, he settled into a lovely working canter in a soft and rounded frame.

At that moment, I knew my initial suspicions were correct. He had been afraid of the transition. He wasn’t unwilling to canter. A soft cue and teaching him that I would not touch him with my rein aids allowed him to gain confidence and start to trust me.

With each subsequent transition from trot to canter, he was smoother and smoother as he came to understand two important things. First, that I would not hit him in the mouth or snatch up the reins when he did what I asked (me reaching extra far forward with my hands as part of the cue was my promise of that). Secondly, I would not “yell” at him (over cue) when I asked for the canter.

Turned out that the Reach-Sit-Pump cue was fine for him—he required no leg aid and hardly any seat aid to canter. Soon, the horse was stepping nicely into the canter with a very relaxed back when I reached and sat (no pumping of the seat required). He quickly gave his trust to me; horses are amazing that way—if you change the way you are doing things, they come right along with you.

Learning to Trust

Getting him to trust his owner, and her to trust him, was a greater challenge. It is a huge dilemma; when you are riding a horse that feels too fast and you have visions in your head of the horse running away with you, it is very hard to give him his freedom and let him move forward. But that is exactly what the horse needed. Time and time again, when horses are going too fast, loosening of the reins is what causes them to slow down. But it takes a lot of willpower, when you are afraid, to trust the horse and give him his freedom.

The horse that is bucking or crow-hopping at the canter needs to move forward at the canter until he relaxes his back and then allow him to stop (stopping a bucking horse only serves to reward his bucking). Nothing could be harder than to let go of a tight hold on a horse that you think you cannot control, but this rider did an incredible job. She was an excellent rider—certainly more than qualified to be riding this horse. And she totally understood the logic of the situation; but summoning up the courage to actually do it, was the challenge. And she did it!

It will take time for these two to learn to completely trust each other, but I am confident it will happen. Horses in general are happier when you let them move forward—especially a high energy horse. The key to good horsemanship is controlling the forward movement not trying to staunch it.

The underlying lesson for all of us is, that when our horses are acting emotional or resistant when we are riding, we must consider what WE are doing that is contributing to the problem. Often it is a “chicken and egg” scenario—is the rider afraid because the horse bucked or is the horse afraid because the rider contradicted herself by asking then snatching up the reins to stop? In the end it doesn’t matter which came first, because the dynamic is there now. But only one of you is capable of breaking the cycle.

You have to analyze and understand the problem, figure out the solution and then summon the courage to execute the solution. Breaking old dynamics is very hard but the outcome can be extremely rewarding, as it was in this case. We have several videos in the Horse Master with Julie Goodnight Academy site on this very subject. Hope you’ll check out the videos there and that you’ll join our Academy to watch: http://JulieGoodnight.com/search and enter key word “explosive canter.” You can watch this very horse and rider in the episode, “Let it Go,” when the new shows are posted there, too.

Enjoy the ride

—Julie Goodnight

Becoming The Leader

Abby on Skippy with Julie standing beside them.

Abby on Skippy with Julie standing beside them.I love when kids are interested in riding. Most of the time the best horses for learning are the lazy and slow ones. Even if they are usually well-behaved, these horses can learn quickly that –when kids are aboard– they don’t have to stop, go, turn, or do much of anything. If youth riders want to move forward in the horse industry, they need to learn how to be in charge–even when they are learning the basics. Here’s some advice to help your youth rider stop being frustrated, and start gaining control.

Question: I need advice for my daughter and her horse. My daughter is 10 years old and very interested in riding. However she lacks confidence in riding. Her horse has come to figure this out. Cheyenne is a very sweet and gentle horse and a tab bit on the lazy side. I would like to find out information or suggestions on how to teach my daughter to win her horse’s respect and have him respond to her commands. When she asks him to walk he refuses. He cocks his back leg and stands there no matter what she does. Also once she does get him to move he begins to pull her in the wrong direction and when she tries to bring him back he resists her. When I ride him he does perfectly. What can I do to help her? She is very frustrated and so am I.

Answer: Horses are herd animals and the social structure within the herd is known as a “linear hierarchy.” The definition of a linear hierarchy is that each individual in the herd is either subordinate to or dominant over every other individual in the herd. Since this is the only way that horses know to act, it is also how they relate to their human herd members. We need to think of the horse and its rider as a herd of two. So we have a choice, we can either be the dominant member (or the leader) or the subordinate member (the follower). There is no equality in a horse herd.

Clearly, in the case of your daughter’s horse, she is subordinate to the horse, while you are dominant over the horse. The horse has already made up his mind that this is the way it is and there have probably been countless little things that has lead the horse to this conclusion. So how do we change this? Well, I can think of a few options.

Only your daughter will be able to step forward and take the leadership role with her horse. You riding the horse will not affect the relationship between horse and daughter, as clearly the horse does not question your authority. I do not recommend that your daughter take an aggressive approach (do this or else), because in the situation where the rider has a history of being subordinate, a challenge could prompt the horse to be fractious and start bucking or worse. Instead, your daughter needs to get inside the horse’s mind and learn to control ALL of his actions.

Becoming the Leader

First, your daughter will need to make up her mind to resolve this situation and accept the fact that it may take some time. She will need to have an assertive, but patient attitude. I recommend that she address the issue of respect on the ground first. She needs to have a sense of awareness of her horse and she must take control of every move he makes. That means, when he is tied to the hitch rail, he should stand exactly where she told him to. If he steps sideways or back or forward, she should gently but firmly put his feet exactly back in the spot that she first asked him to stand. The horse should learn to respect her space and yield to it.

She should be able to walk, trot and halt the horse at halter, back him up and disengage his hindquarters (make him cross his hind legs). All of these are examples of controlling the horse’s space and when the horse does these things without question, he is respecting her leadership authority. Disengaging the hindquarters is really important both on the ground and mounted, because it forces the horse into a subordinate frame of mind. When his hind legs are crossed, his number one line of defense (flight) is taken away from him, so subconsciously he becomes more dependent.

Your daughter must learn to only ask what she can enforce and ALWAYS enforce what she asked the horse to do. So for now, that probably means backing up and enforcing her control in areas where she can be successful. So often, I see people ask something of their horse, let’s say to turn right, and the horse resists and refuses, so the rider caves in and lets the horse turn left.

The rider thinks that she is winning because she got the horse where she wanted it by circling it all the way around to the left. But the horse sees it differently. He does not have the capability to realize that the rider got him where she wanted anyway. All the horse knows is that he didn’t want to turn right, he wanted to go left and if he refuses, the rider will cave into his wishes. To us humans, these little battles seem unimportant, but to the horse, the littlest things have big meaning.

Every time the horse gets his way, he scores a point and is further convinced in his mind that he is in charge. It sounds like your daughter’s horse has scored a lot of points. What your daughter will have to understand and commit to is that she has a lot of points to score, before she pulls ahead. She needs to realize that the tiniest things count toward this score: the horse moving around at the hitching rail, not trotting on the lead line, the horse taking a step toward the person, the horse nudging the person with his head, taking one step off the rail in the arena, or not going when asked. The rider that is dominant and in control is the one that controls every movement the horse makes. The more she can make this horse yield to her, the more points she will score. But start small and build up to the big issues. If she can gain some respect from the ground, it may be a little easier for her.

To address the specific problem in the arena, your daughter should look for the areas that she is still in control and focus on those and reward the horse when he responds. If the horse is balking, the issue is to get his feet moving. Usually the easiest way to do this is to turn him in a tight circle (this has the added advantage of disengaging the hindquarters). Be sure to reward him when he responds (even if he responds reluctantly) and immediately take control of the situation. How? As soon as she gets the horse to move, she should ask him to stop.

Why? By doing this she has accomplished two things: she has rewarded his response by asking him to stop (which is what he wanted to do), but more importantly she has taken control by issuing a command and getting a response. It does not matter that the horse wanted to stop anyway, because he stopped on her request, not his. By successfully getting a response to a command, she puts the horse in a responsive frame of mind. So, she will get the horse to move (by turning a tight circle if she has to) and once the horse has taken a few steps, ask him to stop and reward him with a pat on the neck and leaving him alone for a few minutes, then ask again. Initially, when the horse had responded a few times, find a good stopping point and put him away. Gradually build on what she asks the horse to do.

It is critical that once she has asked something of the horse that she insists upon his response. This does not mean that you kick or hit harder and harder, but that you continue to apply the aids until the horse responds. Sometimes children do not have the strength to keep legging the horse until he moves and the horse learns that the rider will get tired and give up before he does. If this is the case, she might need a stick or spurs. HOWEVER, use these artificial aids with caution because this could drive the dominant horse to more drastic and fractious responses. Whatever aids she is using to make the horse go (and it should be all of the aids), she should continue to apply them until the horse goes. Not necessarily harder and harder, but with persistence. Eventually, the horse will learn that the only way to make that annoying action go away is to move forward.

Treats Versus Training

A couple of more thoughts, if you or your daughter feed treats to this horse, stop immediately. Chances are, the horse has become demanding and rude and this has contributed to his dominance. When horses are subordinate (whether to you or another herd member), they will always yield to the space of the dominant individual. When people feed treats, the horse learns to move into the space of the person and thus you are yielding to his space, therefore he is dominant. Every treat that is fed, reinforces his dominance.

And now having said that, I have one more thought that seemingly contradicts what I just said. There is a form of training called “clicker training” that is being used on horses although it was originally developed to train marine mammals. It uses a clicking device as reinforcement and the first step is to make the horse associate the clicker with positive reinforcement (grain).

Then, just like in Pavlov’s Response, every time the horse hears the clicker, he associates it with good thoughts (grain) and knows he is doing the right thing. I have seen this training method used specifically in the same situation that your daughter is in, with good success. So it might be worth looking into. You would have to do the clicker training and then would be able to use the clicker to control the horse’s mind while your daughter is up. The clicker and grain reinforcer just gives the horse a different motivation for doing the right thing.

My personal preference would be for your daughter to establish herself as the leader of their herd of two by doing the groundwork and gaining her horse’s respect. But the clicker method might be worth looking into. There’s an audio MP3 on my Academy site (http://tv.juliegoodnight.com) called Building Confidence with Horses. It gives a pre-ride meditation and some tips to help you look at horses in a new light.

I hope that might help, too.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host

http://www.juliegoodnight.com 

Video Help for Youth Riders

Need more help? In the Horse Master with Julie Goodnight episode, “Not Gonna Take It,” Goodnight helps a youth rider, Abby, gain confidence and stop her horse, “Skippy,” from pulling the reins from her hands. Watch this video (plus many more educational videos, articles, podcasts, and more) by joining the Horse Master Academy. Go to http://horsetraininghelp.com to watch now.

Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Success

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Anyone who has ever invested in the stock market has seen this disclaimer: Past performance is no guarantee of future success. Yet when we invest our resources into a well-trained horse, we expect a guarantee that the way he is today, in his current reality, is the way he will be a month or a year from now.

I wish I had a dollar for every person that has told me that the horse they bought was misrepresented to them by the seller in some nefarious way, “Surely, he must have been drugged when I rode him before purchase!” The horse was perfect at the trainer’s barn then a “different horse” as soon as the check cleared and the trailer parked at his new home—or so the new owner believes. The truth is, a horse’s training can unravel quickly when he is mishandled or when his life-circumstances change—like when he’s in a new home, around new humans, in a new herd, getting used to a new training regime. These are considerable stressors for a horse and he’ll act much different in the new setting. If a horse was in a regimented training barn or with a trainer and suddenly doesn’t have to obey rules, he may challenge the new order and act up in the new setting.

“Anti-training,” or teaching the horse the wrong thing, is quite easy to do. And since horses are extremely fast-learning animals, he can learn the wrong thing the very first time you make the mistake. A common example is circling a horse when he throws a fit about leaving the barnyard. The moment you turn him toward the barn, you have reinforced his fit. It doesn’t matter that you circle back away because he knows how to fix that, he just throws another fit so you’ll circle him again. Even a well-trained horse can be anti-trained in short order.

I would like to say that it is easy to un-train a horse, but the truth is, you cannot unlearn information. Once a horse knows something about you (that you won’t enforce the rules, you will not discipline him even when he deserves it, you won’t make him work if he threatens you, you won’t push if you get scared), he knows it. The only thing you can do is change you.


Dodger’s Challenge

Dodger and Julie
Dodger & Julie

I remember selling one of our horses to a good friend, a number of years ago (and we are still friends). Dodger was an admittedly quirky horse–although a very well-trained ranch horse—an experienced pro in all matters of ranching. He lived 13 years as a working horse on a big ranch in Texas, then two years on my ranch, then we sold him and he was taken to live in the city of Denver (an old part where horses were still allowed). Poor Dodger thought he had landed on another planet and was understandably nervous in his new urban setting. But what happened on the first day there, set some serious unraveling in motion.

Dodger was not happy in his new box stall and when she went to get him out the next morning to head to turnout, he plowed right over the top of his new owner– forcing her out of his way. How she handled that moment was critical to setting the tone of their brand new relationship. Instead of scolding him and backing him up and insisting that he remember his manners and be respectful and patient, she felt sorry for him (“he was nervous in his new home”). She decided to overlook his momentary indiscretion. But the next day, he did the exact same thing (of course), since apparently the rules in this strange new place were different than what he had known all of his life. Soon, he was pushing all sorts of boundaries and making up his own rules.

When I called a week later to see how my old horse was getting along with his new owner, I was appalled to hear how badly he was behaving! Turns out one thing led to another and in just a few days this perfectly mannered horse had become an ill-mannered pig on the ground. We talked it through and I told her what to do to fix it. In short order, Dodger turned back into the horse he knew how to be.

What horses want most is the safety and the comfort that the herd provides them. Life in the herd involves respecting authority, following rules and routines, earning the acceptance of the leader and being treated fairly. Well trained horses in particular, tend to be handled in a strict regimen and worked daily, living up to the high expectations of the trainer. Horses love structure, routine and sameness; it makes them feel safe. Horses crave and worship leadership, so going from a strong leader to a passive one is a change any horse would notice. You cannot buy respect from a horse and you cannot buy a relationship with a horse; you can only earn it.

Adjustment Time

Horses in transition to a new owner and a new home, need time to adjust to and get comfortable with their new surroundings and new handlers. It is unreasonable to expect all horses to perform at the same level in a new place with a new rider. But it is important to start your new relationship off with structure and to build your horse’s respect and trust.

All my friend had to do was scold Dodger and spend 10 minutes doing some groundwork to remind the horse that he had rules to follow and authority to respect. And that if he acts the way he is trained to act, things will be safe and predictable for him. Right away Dodger snapped out of his bad manners and after taking the time she needed to establish a meaningful relationship with the horse, one he could trust, he reverted back to his old trained self.

When starting a new relationship with a horse, make sure you get off on the right foot and build a relationship based on trust, respect and authority. This is easily gained through round pen and lead line work from the ground, if you follow a systematic approach like I outline in my From the Ground Up series. If you don’t know how to do effective ground work, get help; enlist the services of a trainer. If you buy a well-trained horse, it is probably worth getting lessons from the trainer, to protect your investment.

The best trainer in the world can train a horse to do almost anything for him, but he cannot train him to do it for you. You would have to build your own relationship with the horse, learn his cues, make your expectations/intentions/determination/capabilities clear to him and then lead in a way that makes him want to follow you. That may take an hour or a month or a year—that depends on you, not on the horse’s past performance.

You and only you are responsible for the investments you make and past performance is no guarantee of future success. But if you are smart, aware, take responsibility and give guidance, your investment should grow. Treat any new relationship with your horse as a serious investment; be smart and accept responsibility for your own actions and make sure your investment is growing.

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Trust Is A Two-Way Street

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Trust is an elusive thing, both to give and to get. You cannot force or implore someone to trust you, you can only earn it. If you feel as though you have been wronged by someone else, unjustly criticized, punished or lied to, it’s really hard to give them your trust.

Lately, I’ve been working with a lot of people, in my clinics and in my Interactive Academy, who list developing trust from their horse as an important goal in their personal horsemanship journey. It is a good goal, maybe one of the best. Because a horse that trusts you and wants to please you will jump the moon if you ask him. But trust is a two way street.

Although the clients I work with don’t often state this goal (never that I can think of), I often find myself telling riders and handlers they need to develop trust in their horse. I know it’s hard to do, especially if the horse has done some scary stuff in the past, or when the rider/handler lacks confidence. But if you do not trust your horse, why would he trust you?

By and large, horses want to do the right thing. They are willing animals that seek out acceptance to the herd, respect the hierarchy and obey the rules (wait your turn, stay out of the boss’s way, be a good citizen of the herd). Horses recognize strong and fair leadership; they crave it more than anything else in life.

The greatest motivating factors in a horse’s behavior is to feel safe and comfortable. He feels safe knowing he is accepted into a herd, that there is a strong leader watching out for his safety, maintaining order, making good decisions. He gains comfort from having the security to rest, socialize and relax in peace even though the world is full of predators.

I want my horses to give themselves over to me completely and to trust me enough to follow me wherever I go and do whatever I ask. In exchange for that huge gift, I promise to be fair, make good decisions and trust him to do the job I ask without me second-guessing and doubting him. When it comes to trust, it has to be a two-way street.

Can Your Horse Trust You?

Horses can spot a strong leader a mile away, because in their minds, their very life depends on it. I always say, if horses could vote, we would not have the mess in Washington DC that we have today. It’s easy to fake leadership to humans, especially since our lives don’t depend on it—we are far too eager to believe the words coming out of the politician’s mouth, disregarding his actions and judgment. But you cannot fake leadership to a horse; your actions speak louder than your words.

A true ‘Alpha’ horse is propelled into the leadership role by the other members of the herd. I remember a leadership quote that reminds me of horses; “Leadership is borne from the needs of those who follow.” The leader of a horse herd is responsible for the safety of the herd, motivating the herd to flight when necessary, leading the herd to food and water and maintaining discipline within the herd. Horses worship their leader because she’s fair and consistent and gives them a sense of safety and comfort.

To lead, one must have good awareness of the environment, its hazards and its opportunities; plus have the ability to foresee and steer clear of danger. The leader defines and enforces the rules of the herd and disciplines unruly herd mates when necessary. A true alpha horse is not a bully; she’s strong and firm, but fair. I see people fall down on these obligations all the time, with little awareness that they are eroding their horse’s trust in them.

People are often on their own agenda and totally unaware of the environment, so they ask the horse to do things the horse perceives as dangerous, like passing between the wall of the arena and another horse. From the horse’s point of view, that’s highly dangerous, it could result in injury to him and if he questions the rider’s judgment, he gets punished for it. The erosion of your horse’s trust in your leadership ability begins with little things like this.

I’ve seen riders and handlers from the ground both, cueing a horse to back-up when the horse knows there’s a fence or another horse behind him. He perceives the danger of what they are asking of him and he starts to doubt their leadership ability. Same thing with circling and longeing in an arena with other horses—it’s quite easy to end up on a collision course with another horse but the human doesn’t see it. The horse does see it and now he’s pretty sure your judgment cannot be trusted anymore.

People get tunnel-vision and stuck on their own agenda and forget their responsibility to be aware of danger and make good decisions. Then we wonder why a horse challenges our authority and questions our leadership.

Sometimes riders give conflicting messages to horses that leave them not only questioning the rider but feeling confused and frustrated too. How many times does a person have to lie to you before you won’t trust anything coming out of his mouth? One of the saddest examples of this occurs when a reluctant rider asks the horse to canter, then at the moment the horse begins to canter, the rider freezes on the reins and the horse hits the bit hard. The horse feels like he’s been punished for doing the very thing he was asked to do (and he was) and the rider is left wondering why this stupid horse won’t go into the canter anymore.

The same contradiction occurs frequently when a rider asks the horse to go, then pulls him abruptly into a one-rein stop because he was going too fast. Riders are constantly asking horses to go more forward, then punishing him in the mouth when he does. Or asking the horse to turn or flex his neck to one side, then hitting him with the outside rein when he does. This starts feeling like a trap for the horse, not only eroding any trust he may have but also leading to an adversarial relationship.

If we can begin to think from the horse’s point of view and what makes sense to him, then it’s easier to see the mistakes you are making. If a horse is constantly challenging your authority, it’s likely he does not view you as the leader because you are not always acting like one. Rather than looking to change the horse, we must look within to see how we can change and be a better leader to the horse.

Can You Trust Your Horse?

I’m not saying horses are always perfect and never try to get away with anything, but for the most part, they are kind, generous, willing animals that want to be good citizens. But I’d be willing to bet that most everyone reading this article thinks of themselves that way too—a good solid citizen. Yet occasionally we drive a little over the speed limit, run a yellow light or call in sick to work because we want a play day.

Although horses occasionally try and get out of work, for the most part they are willing to do what we ask. Horses prove again and again that they are willing to let you ride them, willing to stop, go and turn when you ask. Any horse is capable of ditching the rider at any moment, yet they not only let us ride, but a horse that trusts you will try and jump the moon if you ask.

On a daily basis, I see riders taking a death-grip on the reins, micro-managing every move that the horse makes—asking him to go, then restricting his ability to move forward with the reins; asking him to turn, then impeding his ability to bend his neck with the outside rein. I see handlers from the ground so afraid the horse is going to leave that they are holding onto the horse’s face with a tight lead (or worse, clamping on the reins, putting his mouth in a vise grip). These are constant ongoing messages to the horse that you do not trust him one little bit.

When a rider/handler does not trust the horse to do the right thing and begins to micro-manage, it sets up a very bad dynamic that leads to frustration and aggravation from the horse and a co-dependency of behavior. An obedient horse goes in the direction the rider dictates and the speed the rider requests. He’s perfectly capable of maintaining whatever direction or speed the rider wants without constant interference. When the rider tries to hold the horse in a direction or hold the horse in a speed, it absolves the horse from any responsibility and tells him that you don’t trust him to do the right thing.

Once I’ve asked my horse to do something for me, I trust him to do it, I give him the freedom he needs and I let him do his job. I praise him and let him rest when he does it well. I correct him if he makes a mistake and ask him to try it again. But I never try to prevent him from making the mistake. If I ask the horse to trot and he misunderstands and takes a canter instead (because I was not clear), I don’t get mad or hold him tighter, I just clarify the cue, correct him and move on. Just like us, the horse learns from making mistakes. But the next time I ask, I have to trust him to do the right thing and let him do his job.

When the rider lacks confidence or has reason not to trust the horse (maybe the horse has bucked or spooked or done something to frighten the rider), it’s really hard to let go and give him the chance to do the right thing. But when the rider sends a constant message through the reins, through her posture and through her actions that she is afraid and thinks the horse is going to be bad, you can see how the horse might have a hard time accepting the rider as the leader.

On the other hand, it’s amazing how willingly a horse will follow your lead when you trust him and treat him as if you are 100% certain he will do as you ask. Horses are incredibly keen to your level of intention, determination and trust, be it high or low. When we doubt ourselves, the horse sees it and begins to question our leadership ability.  When you doubt the horse, he feels it and starts questioning if he really does have to do what you ask.

Think of it like raising children. We educate them and teach them how to follow the rules and make good decisions but at some point we have to give them the freedom to make their own decisions, right or wrong. By making mistakes, we learn to have better judgment. If you are afraid to trust your horse and you never give him a chance to do the right thing, he cannot learn from his mistakes and he is reliant on you forever to tell him what to do.

The End Game

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about developing trust in horses and it’s something I’ve worked hard for all of my life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes with horses—we all do—but realizing the mistake, owning it, and learning from it so that you never make that mistake again, is the important part. Realizing and understanding the mistake in the first place is the hard part. You have to know you are making a mistake before you can own it. On a daily basis, I see people making inadvertent mistakes with horses that they have no idea they are making.

Most anyone who has been around horses for very long comes to see that 99% of horse “problems” are rider-induced. Yet we as humans have a never-ending capacity to always blame the horse, “my horse has a problem with his canter leads.” Really? Last time I saw him running out in the field, he took the correct lead every single time. Maybe the problem is in your inability to communicate the lead you want to the horse.

When the rider understands that as the true leader, she is not only responsible for her own actions but also for the actions of those who follow her, then real progress can be made. What am I doing that is causing this response in my horse? How am I falling down on the job of leader and causing my horse not to trust me? If I can recognize my own mistakes and take responsibility for my own actions, not only will my horse trust me more, but my horsemanship will drastically improve too. When the rider/handler improves, the horse always gets better.

Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

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Identify holes in your horsemanship training and continually seek new information

An assignment from my first riding instructor—assembling a bridle from scratch—at first seemed like an easy task. But what seemed easy turned out to be daunting. I knew what a bridle should look like, but I hadn’t gained enough wisdom to know how each piece fit together. I finally I got it right, but I was humbled in the process.

This was the beginning for me. I realized that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve come to believe this is especially true of horses. The more you learn, the more you know what you don’t know. It’s important to make sure you know more than just how to do something—to understand the “whys” of horsemanship and to continually seek a better understanding.

That early lesson helped me understand that I needed to know how the bridle worked and why each piece was important. That first lesson helped me form my own teaching style—making sure to teach riders why they do a task instead of just teaching how to do it. When you understand the whys, you’re drawn into horsemanship and you yearn to know more. Learning why you should move a rein a certain direction or why you shouldn’t greet a horse by rubbing on his muzzle helps you understand horse behavior and make sure you continually learn.

The First Lesson

As a youngster, I took riding lessons from a wise old trainer, Miss Valla. I was her hungriest and most dedicated student, albeit one of her youngest riders, and I worshipped the ground she walked on. I finagled way more than my allotted lesson time with her–coming early and staying late, endearing myself to her by spit polishing the horses and being her gofer, when I wasn’t in a lesson. It was a mutually beneficial relationship (the barn rat to the old master), although I thought I was incredibly lucky to be under her tutelage.

One evening when I was only nine or ten years old, Miss Valla gave me a challenging homework assignment to be completed before I could ride again the next day. She handed me the English bridle from my favorite school horse and made me sit down in front of her and take it apart until every single little piece was in a pile. Then she shoved all the pieces in a bag, along with a rag and a bar of glycerin, and told me to take it home, clean every piece, and then reassemble the bridle. Only when the bridle was completely together correctly, should I even bother to bring it back for her approval–and only then would I be able to ride again.

“Piece of cake,” I thought, as I jumped on my bike and headed for home, thrilled to bring a piece of tack home with me. I was sure I would have the task perfectly completed well before my bed time; I would bring it to her bright and early the next day, proving once again what a talented student I was. After cleaning and scrubbing every square centimeter of leather and washing and polishing the bit, I was left with a jig-saw puzzle of pieces, with no idea how they fit together. I must have put that bridle together and taken it apart at least a dozen times before I got it right. I knew what it looked like when it was right; I just didn’t know how to get there. Although I had previously memorized the parts-of the-bridle, I didn’t really know what each piece was and how it all fit together.

By the time particular this exercise was over, I knew everything I needed to know about the bridle and it was a skill-set that I would draw on for the rest of my life. It taught me the importance of fully understanding tack, not only knowing the proper terminology for its parts, but also what each part does and how it fits together. I also came to understand the value of studying basic information. I never again complained about the worksheets we had to fill out on parts of the tack, horse breeds or common equine diseases. For a kid that absolutely hated school work, I would dive nose-first into every homework assignment I got from Miss Valla.

I was fortunate to have a great classical education in horsemanship as a youth rider and this upbringing shaped the way my career unfolded and I believe it is responsible, in part, for my success. I learned early on in my career, first as an instructor, and later as a clinician, that without a solid foundational layer in your knowledge, it does no good for me to teach you higher level skills.

Understanding the WHY

When I first started teaching clinics, about 20 years ago, I realized that a lot of very experienced horse people often have gaps in their knowledge when it comes to horsemanship. It doesn’t do you any good to work on flying lead changes if you don’t understand leads, footfalls and the canter cue. It doesn’t do you any good to try a certain groundwork exercise if you don’t understand what behavior you are trying to change and what signs to look for when the horse is responding correctly.

I learned a long time ago that just because someone can DO something, doesn’t mean they understand WHAT they are doing and WHY it works. I also learned, as most good teachers do, that many people will never tell you when they don’t know what a certain term means or when they don’t fully understand. So I define and explain as best I can, whether they ask or not—never assume the student knows or will ask if they do’t. To teach successfully, you must break down the lesson and help the student learn why each step is so important.

Backing Up to Move Forward

With horsemanship and with horse training, it is important to have a solid understanding of the basics—in all matters. Sometimes we have to go back to fundamentals before we can move forward, even with an experienced horse or rider. When I teach any given topic, I work hard to cover it from A to Z, never leaving out the important  fundamentals before moving onto the higher level application. It’s amazing how often the more experienced riders will comment how grateful they are to have the gaps filled in their knowledge. In many instances, it is the fundamental information that was the missing link that makes everything come together with your horse.

So I ask you, do you know the parts of your bridle? If someone handed it to you in a pile, could you whip it together right away? Do you know the parts of the saddle, what type of saddle it is and what the pros and cons of that saddle design are? If I asked you to check to see if your horse’s gaskins were equal, would you know where to look? Do you know what the term ‘collection’ really means and could you define it for someone that had no idea? If not, it’s time to study! Come to one of my clinics and we might talk about all of this!

My favorite part of horses and horse sports is that it is a life-long pursuit and there is always another challenge ahead of you. I’ll never grow tired of learning more about horses and riding, and I love sharing my passion and knowledge with others. This is why I created my online resource library for horse enthusiasts, Horse Master Academy.

I hope you’ll join me, either online, or up-close-and-personal at a horsemanship clinic or horse expo near you, in the pursuit of more horsemanship knowledge. Until then…

Enjoy the ride,

Julie

 

 

 

 

5 Pound Challenge Monthly Post

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February 

 

My husband reminded me that we are going on a beach vacation soon— Yikes! The double whammy! Vacation calories plus skimpy clothing and bathing suits. If that doesn’t motivate me to lose weight, then what will? What was I thinking planning a beach vacation in the middle of winter? After the beach trip, I am headed to Arizona for the TV shoot and it’s true what they say about TV—it is not flattering to the figure (hence, the most common comment I get about the TV show—wow, you sure are smaller in real life!). So now I have incentive to keep trim; and lots of it! But seriously, I am way more concerned about how I feel about myself and my own health than I am about what others may think of me. I want to feel good about myself when I look I the mirror and I like the personal satisfaction that I feel from self-improvement, whether it be in the form of eating better, working out more or even reading a self-help book. What motivates you to skip that dessert, eat the salad instead of the lasagna or run the extra mile?   Does internal pressure get you motivated or are external pressures more effective? Are you good at calorie deprivation and self-control or do other kinds of diets work well for you?

March

Moving more is a big part of losing weight. It’s half the equation of calories-in/calories-out! And getting more fit will also help you ride better and handle your horse chores with ease. That’s why I did some groundwork alongside my horse yesterday. Dually had been a little off after slipping on the ice a few weeks ago, and since I had been away for a week (and also I had sunk a boatload of money into chiropractic, acupuncture, laser and pharmaceutical treatments), so I wanted to see how well he was moving before planning my week’s training schedule. I could have hooked him on a longe line and stood in the middle while Dually did all the work, but one glance at my Fitbit (my activity tracker) told me I needed to move more! Plus, I really wanted to see him moving on straight lines to see how evenly and how deeply he was tracking up. So I worked him at liberty and I walked alongside as he went all the way around the arena at the walk, trot and canter. I got 15 minutes of  great workout in deep footing and Dually and I shared a certain solidarity as we worked together. A bonding moment that burned some calories– it doesn’t get any better than that! I try to find something every day that causes me to get more exercise than I would have otherwise—taking the stairs instead of the escalator, walking to the mailbox, doing a few squats if I have to reach down to pick something up, some pliés while I am cooking donner.

What’s your idea for moving more?

April 

I started the 5 Pound Challenge and number of years ago with my friends and crew members, Lucy and Cheryl. On a walk one morning, the three of us made a pact that we would weigh ourselves that day and that we would work together to lose five pounds each. Not 10, not 20, just five. Then, we would do what we love to do the most—celebrate! We would celebrate together one evening and we would each give ourselves a treat, which we discussed at length, before settling on delightful prizes. It was about doing something positive, setting realistic goals and having a lot of fun in the process. Motivating and supporting each other was a big part of the plan. Years have gone by and we still adhere to the challenge—usually there’s five pounds to lose (or better fitness to gain).

 

Gradually we expanded our club online and encouraged anyone who wanted to play to be a part of it. Now, as I travel all around the country, I get to talk to “members” of the 5#C, as they share with me their solidarity. Thank you all for being a part of it! Today, the original founding members of the Five Pound Challenge, Julie, Lucy and Cheryl, got together for a 5 mile hike up a mountain road, and I snapped this picture. I’m not sure when our official anniversary is, but I’m happy to celebrate it now! Won’t you join us?

Lucy, Cheryl and Julie