Sharing Your Passion For Horses With Kids

There is much about life to learn from horses and the lessons learned are too important not to share with as many youngsters as we can—be it your children, grandchildren or the neighborhood kids. If I have learned anything about children in my lifetime, it’s that they will find their own path, their own dreams and their own passions.

Hunter Goodnight and Fire

Horses have always been part of my life. I knew from the start that I wanted to give my own child the love of horses. I was pregnant when you didn’t know what gender your baby was until the day it was born. So for nine months, I dreamt of having a horse-crazy girl who would live, eat and breathe horses, just like I did when I was a kid. When my son was born, I was not deterred. Sure, probably 10:1 are horse-crazy girls to boys, but we would buck the odds. I imagined my son teaching clinics alongside me, helping me start the colts and what a great trainer he would one day become, taking over my business when I retire! After all, it’s far easier for a boy to make it in this business than a girl, right?

 

I am one of four kids that all grew up in a family with horses and the same set of parents, yet I was the only one who took to the sport. My father had the passion and he recognized it early-on in me. All of us kids had the opportunity to ride horses throughout our lives, but I was apparently the only one that was horse-obsessed. My father felt strongly that no matter what you choose to do in life, you should do it right and do it well. He was a no fuss, no muss horseman who had an intensive focus on safety, but a compelling need to have fun. Without question, my father was the most influential human in my lifetime journey of horsemanship.

 

One of my father’s favorite activities was hooking up our driving ponies and driving through the neighborhoods that surrounded our farm, letting any kid pile on for a ride. I often wonder if he inspired a passion for horses in any of those kids, whose names we did not even know.

 

My father always said: It’s our job as parents to guide their path, but not to dictate it. It’s our job to provide opportunity and options. Creating a “mini-me” is not really the goal of parenting. As my father once so eloquently said, “We raise our children to be independent thinkers, so you cannot complain when they are!”

 

From the time my son was two weeks old, he went to the barn with me every day. I was running a full-service boarding/training/lesson facility at the time, as well as offering guided trail rides to tourists; there wasn’t much of an option for maternity leave, since I was self-employed. If my child had the horse-crazy gene, there would be plenty opportunity for its expression. But still, I found that if I wanted to instill a passion for horses in my son, I had to work at it, and couldn’t take it for granted.

 

There were certain things I learned by trial and error about parenting and horses, that would help set the stage for my child’s future with horses. Here are my tips to help foster a love of horses….

Five Tenets of Horses and Parenting

  1. Make it safe.

Although the school of hard knocks couldn’t damper my own passion, I know that if something happens to cause fear or injury, that it could staunch even the most ardent passion. I’ve seen in again and again—a passion flaming out from fear. My oldest sister once confided in me that she had the same love of horses as me, but a scary fall had squelched it. Much more common in adults, who naturally have more fear; it is particularly heart-wrenching to see in children. Do not cut corners or take unnecessary risks; seek help if you aren’t sure how. Certified Horsemanship Association is an excellent resource for parents and CHA certified instructors (of which I am one) are tested on their safety awareness.

 

When my son was about 7, he insisted that he should ride “Cochise,” a flashy, energetic Paint from our trail string, in spite of the fact he was one of our tougher mounts. After much persuasion, I agreed to let him ride the gelding on a short ride with his buddy, with me in the lead, keeping a close eye on Cochise. To my great relief, the ride went off without a hitch, until I stopped to talk to a friend in the driveway, a mere 50 yards from the barn. My eyes bored into the back of the gelding’s head as he sauntered past and no sooner was he beyond my reach than he took off like a bullet for the barn. He ran straight to his spot on the hitching rail and did a 90 degree pivot as he slammed on the brakes. Hunter stuck to him until the bitter end then landed in the mud in a heap of tears and snot. Although he was not hurt, his passion for horses simmered down a little that day. Proving once again, the most important thing I learned from my father about horses—always plan for the worst-case scenario.

 

  1. Size it up.

A good pony can be hard to find, but well worth the effort. First, the closer you are to the ground, the better. A fall is considered potentially fatal if it is greater than your own height. The higher that kid’s head is off the ground, the worse the fall. There’s also a matter of width—the smaller the kid’s legs, the narrower the horse should be. Picture the toddler on a draft horse with his legs doing the splits—don’t bother trying to teach the kid leg aids. Good kid’s saddles can also be hard to find, but important to a young rider’s success.

 

My son really enjoyed brushing, cleaning the feet, saddling and bridling his own horse and being able to tie on his own BB gun. Having a right-sized horse was really important to him because he liked to do things the way adults did them. Our naughty Welsh-Shetland cross was his pal for years and they combed the woods surrounding the stables. “Surprise” was his name (and he was always full of them) and he went on to raise kids in several other families after my son outgrew him.

Hunter Goodnight and Surprise
  1. Make it fun, not work.

Since I was in the horse business, horses represented a lot of hard work to me. It’s a demanding job, D2D/7 (dawn to dusk/ seven days a week); well-suited for work-aholics. My first inclination was to make the kids clean stalls and do the chores first, but I soon realized that if I wanted my son to love horses, it dang sure had to be fun!

I learned that sometimes, I had to take a break from my busy work schedule to have fun with the kids. If that meant dressing up like cowboys, stalking the woods for bears and shooting at ground squirrels, then that’s what we did. There were lots of picnics, lots of belting out songs as we rode down the trail and lots of mounted games involving toilet paper. I never grew tired of listening to kids laughing and singing on a horse. I learned that it’s not a privilege for a kid to get to ride; it’s a privilege for an adult to be able to offer this awesome experience to a child.

Hunter and Surprise
Hunter and Surprise

 

4.  Invite friends.

Like many activities, riding is more fun when shared with a friend. I was a very shy and solitary kid and for me, horses were the only friends I needed growing up; but my son was clearly a very social animal from early-on. Because we were in the horse business and horses were available to my son to play with all-day, every-day, I noticed right away that it seemed a lot more fun when other kids wanted to ride with us. Looking back on it now, I also realize how important it is for all of us that have horses to give as many kids this amazing opportunity as we can, and that there is no telling how even a brief experience with horses can shape a child’s life in a positive way.

Fortunately, Hunter’s best childhood friend did have the horse-crazy gene, but his parent’s did not have horses at the time. The two boys spent countless hours and days on-end playing “Lonesome Dove” with the horses, in the foothills of our small mountain town. Both boys grew up to be avid backcountry enthusiasts. Darby’s family eventually bought a ranch, where his passion for horses grew stronger. Today, Darby is still in touch with his passion for horses, spending his summers guiding luxury pack trips into the Colorado wilderness, while he’s in graduate school for architecture.  Horses have been a steady influence his whole life and he enjoys sharing it with others.

5.   Find your child’s unique passion and exploit it.

My father recognized the spark in me and even though he was a straight-up Western kind of guy, my dream was to ride jumpers, and he let me do it. My father was a big believer in getting the best education/coaching you can, so I first started hunt seat riding lessons the summer I turned seven. I was immediately the star pupil of my sage old riding instructor, who was probably the second most influential person in my horsemanship journey. She was a salty, bow-legged, hunched-backed, chain smoker (filter-less Camels) and I worshipped the ground she walked on. She gave me a solid foundation in my riding (I went on to win countless blue ribbons in equitation) and an insatiable desire to learn more (which continues today). From her, I also learned to pay close attention to one’s posture (particularly as we age) and I never smoked cigarettes.

 

Although my idea of a good time was to ride, ride, ride, my son’s interest was the farrier. He thought our farrier hung the moon; he loved to clean out feet and by the ripe old age of 7, he had his own farrier tool box and he was learning how to hold and shape feet. My father got him his own set of chaps, which touched the ground when he was 6, and then morphed into above-the-knee chinks by the time he was 14 (those very chaps decorate our guest house now). We made sure he spent plenty of time with our farrier, who was a great role model and happy to mentor my son.

Hunter Goodnight and Buck
Hunter Goodnight and Buck

Lessons Learned by Mom

When my son was little and I had to stop whatever seemingly important task I was doing to get a horse out for him or watch him shoot a target from the back of his pony, I never imagined how important horses would be to him as an adult. By the time he was a teenager, and my business had evolved to the point I was on the road 30 weekends a year, I was reliant on Hunter to feed the horses and do chores at home. Now, he is grown up and independent and he still takes care of my horses. His eye is keen and he handles them with care; his devotion to horses is obvious.

 

You don’t have to be a rider to have a passion for horses. We should all be doing what gives us the greatest satisfaction; every day. Explore every corner of horsemanship and get good instruction along the way. Never under-estimate the value of learning on safe and well-trained horses, but don’t get pigeon-holed into a discipline. When I was a kid, I lived to jump. As a young adult, I had to ride in the back country. Later, it was all about working cows. I have done many disciplines and each one has broadened my knowledge in significant ways. It’s all about opportunity—and giving a young one lots of chances to find their own way with horses.

 

 

 

Hunter and the boys aug 2015
Hunter and the Boys

 

 

 

2016 February Blog – It’s About Time

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It’s About Time
Most things in life that are important, take an investment of time—an education, a career, a relationship. Mastering a skill or a sport, starting a new business, overcoming setbacks; none of this comes quickly. Horses are not the best sport for instant gratification. It takes time to set your goal then to work diligently to identify all the steps necessary to work up to the bigger dream. Whether you’re working on a riding goal or to condition your horse, one thing’s for sure: it takes time.

With horses, after about 30 days of daily work, you start seeing physical changes in the horse’s fitness level—a flatter underline, more muscle definition, more energy. After 90 days, your horse is looking pretty fit and after 120 days your horse is ripped like a body builder.

Thirty-day increments of training are standard in the horse industry, whether we are talking about fitness levels, the time needed for the horse to perfect skills or for the cost of training. Many trainers, myself included, would say that 90-days is minimum to accomplish much of anything with a horse and we are talking about years of training for the truly finished horse.

Our society’s fast-paced, on-demand culture seems to sprinkle over into horse training. We want it all fast and right away. I hear this need-for-speed from riders, too. When looking through the applications for my TV show, Horse Master, I often see riders who want to work on flying lead changes. However, the horse they are riding is young or they themselves haven’t mastered the canter departure yet. Many skills precede flying lead changes—like haunches–in, leg-yielding, head-to-tail body control, halt-to-canter departures, counter-canter, then master the simple lead change, then learn the principles of the horse’s movements and how to cue for a change on the fly.

We want the end result—the pretty, finished picture—and we want it now. But to honor the horse, we must allow time and we must break down our lofty goals into smaller, attainable, slow steps.

Breaking down the training process
When my young horse Eddie, was very green, we struggled with leads at the canter. He always seemed to over-think it and he second guessed himself a lot (pick up the correct lead, switch to the wrong, then switch back—all in three strides). He got tense and hollow whenever it was time for a canter transition and needed some extra time to understand. I started breaking things down more and more, working more on haunches-in at walk and trot, sequencing my cues more clearly, giving lots of pre-signal and setting him up very definitively for the correct lead. Fortunately, I had no deadline or reason to rush through his training; I just asked for a little more each day. For months, I only asked for one departure on each lead a day, and by taking the time he needed and preparing him as best I could, he became very solid on his leads and his walk to canter transitions were great by the time he was four.

Whatever time it takes, is what it takes for a horse to learn something and while Eddie eventually did learn flying lead changes, none of it came easy—especially the next step. Once Eddie and I had a clear understanding of which lead I was asking for and he was batting a thousand with his leads, I thought it was a good time to introduce the counter-canter (going intentionally on the wrong lead)—a very important obedience and cueing exercise in preparation for lead changes. It blew his mind so badly he thought surely the world was ending. It was almost comical how wrong Eddie thought the counter-canter was and once again, it took a long time to convince him otherwise. Months, not hours.

Allowing recovery time
Healing takes time too. Lots of it and usually more than you think. Whether it’s from an injury or illness to you or your horse, or from a broken heart or a tragic loss; healing takes time and it should not be rushed. I’ve known of many horses that have been able to make big comebacks from terrible injuries or sickness, because their owners were willing to invest time and resources and have waited patiently for adequate healing to occur. Sadly, I have known many more horses that have been rushed back into training and performance, with predictable and disappointing results.

When my horse, Dually, torqued his back, I called in all the possible help. He had chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, a full veterinary exam, pharmaceuticals and nutra-ceuticals, physical therapy, and I doubled the healing time that was recommended. I wanted to make sure he was ready to return to work before asking him to perform. This was not as easy task as this is a horse who wants to work! He hated when I would walk into the pen and halter Eddie instead of him. When he did return to work, he was ready to go even though I knew I wanted to have a safe and steady plan for his re-entry to arena and performance work.

When it was time for him to return to exercise, I started by turning him loose in the arena and watching closely as he moved around voluntarily. Dually is never shy about letting you know if he hurts. Good results there, so I started ponying him from my other horse and just letting him walk it out. After a few days we added the trot; after a week or so, we started longeing over ground poles and backing him up in-hand, to get him to stretch and lift his back. After a few weeks, as Dually got stronger, he also got more confidant and energetic and soon I started riding again—but bareback. I spent four months riding bareback, to be easier on his back and so I would not stop and turn as hard. All told, it was about a year and a half before we were back to pre-injury levels.

Anyone who has ever suffered an injury from riding or handling horses already knows that well beyond the physical healing, it also takes time to rebuild confidence when it’s been lost. Whether we are talking human flesh or horse flesh, confidence can be lost in an instant, but takes a long time to rebuild. The same thing could be said of trust; it takes time to build it but you can lose it in a heartbeat. Trusting a horse, the horse trusting you, trusting that you can not only survive the situation, but control it—these things take time to reconstruct.

It has been said many times, when it comes to horses (and life), patience is a virtue. Having realistic long-term goals, slow and steady plans to get you there, investing the time, being patient, not afraid of failure and committed to the outcome, will almost certainly insure your success—both in life and with horses.

Julie Goodnight

Eddie’s New Saddle – How Saddle Fit Changes Over Time

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IMG_5913julieduallyeddie
I bought Eddie in the spring of his 3 year old year; he was a handsome and sensible youngster with a great pedigree. A very ‘typey’ stock horse, he stood 14.2 hands and weighed in at about 950; now he is seven years old, 14.3 hands, 1200 pounds and counting. He has matured from a gawky adolescent into a beefcake (think line-backer) —having filled out more than up in the last couple years. And with all these physical changes, he managed to outgrow his saddle this year.

Eddie as a 3 year old
Eddie as a 3 year old

A horse’s body shape changes drastically every year, especially when they are young. If you think about how the human body changes from birth to old age, you know that our bodies change a lot over time as well. But the horse’s body changes three times as fast. If you’ve ever raised foals, you know that it if you sit still and watch long enough, you could practically see them grow.

Growth, stage of life, condition, weight and conformation can all affect saddle fit. What fits your horse today may not work next year, so it is important to analyze your horse’s saddle fit regularly. For the last three years, I’ve ridden Eddie in my favorite ranch saddle, with a regular sized, rigid tree and it fit him well. Until the day it didn’t. Perhaps I was a little slow to notice the subtle changes in his performance as his saddle became uncomfortable, but when the tell-tail white hairs started appearing below his withers, I knew it was time for a change.

Horses are instinctively stoic animals and may work day-in and day-out in discomfort, without much complaint. There may be subtle clues of discomfort in watching the horse work and some horses will let you know if they are uncomfortable, but many will remain silent. Eddie, true to his ranch horse heritage, is very stoic. My other horse, Dually, not so much. If there is so much as a hair out of place, he will be sure to let you know.

For decades I have been traveling around the country and around the globe to help people with their horses. I have often seen horses in my clinics that are hollowed out and inverted (arching their backs and star-gazing instead of rounding) simply because the saddle was causing them discomfort. Lots of things can cause inversion, including the rider, but an ill-fitted saddle can make it downright impossible for a horse to round its back. Adjusting tack, mitigating the fit with pads (when possible) or changing saddles (when it’s not) can often have an immediate and dramatic effect on a horse’s performance.

In Eddie’s case, he had filled out so much (as horses do between 6 and 7), and he had developed heavy muscling over the shoulders and below the withers. Eddie is a classic stock horse type—short, stout and heavily muscled. Sired by Sixes Pick, the world champion ranch horse stallion from the 6666 Ranch, Eddie has taken on the handsome and rugged looks of this classic Quarter Horse. When it comes to tree size, the only part of the horse that matters is from the withers, about 7 inches down; in Eddie’s case, this was the culprit.

The height of the horse or even the width of the horse’s back doesn’t matter much—it’s only what’s going on at the withers, and this is an area that changes a lot over time. Age, fitness and body score (fat deposits) can make a big difference in what the withers looks like. Do not be lulled into thinking that because you have a wide or heavy horse, like a draft or draft cross, that you automatically need a wide tree. Many big horses have prominent, V-shaped withers and need a regular tree. Height and body width aren’t the issue.

There’s lots of confusion on tree sizes in Western saddles, which is one reason why saddle makers are getting away from the baffling terms like ‘Semi quarter horse’ and ‘Full quarter horse bars,’ and instead call them Regular and Wide trees. It matters not at all whether you have a quarter horse, a Haflinger or a gaited horse.

Looking at the front of the saddle, under the pommel at the bars of the tree, the regular tree is generally a 90 degree angle and the wide tree is usually 92 degrees. That’s not a lot of difference to see (or try and measure) but it can make a huge difference in fit. If the saddle tree is too narrow, it will perch on top of the shoulders instead of sitting ‘in the pocket’ behind the shoulders and put undue pressure at the top of the shoulder blade (where white spots often appear). Although a majority of horses, even Quarter Horses, fit in a regular sized tree, some horses will need the extra width. If the tree is too wide, the saddle may sit down too low and there may not be enough clearance at the withers.

When I bought Eddie as a 3 year old, I did not buy a saddle for him, since I already had a tack room full of saddles that I loved. For the past three years, I’ve been using my Rocky Mountain Ranch saddle (a working saddle designed by me and made by Circle Y) with a wooden, Kevlar reinforced, regular size tree, which fit him well. Until the day it didn’t. It’s a beautiful and functional saddle which looked very handsome on my honcho ranch horse.

Eddie as a 5 year old in the Rocky Mountain Ranch Saddle
Eddie as a 5 year old in the Rocky Mountain Ranch Saddle

If I had bought the saddle just for Eddie, I would’ve bought a wide tree, knowing there was a very good chance that he would need it in the future, given his type. When in doubt, it is not a bad idea to go with a wide tree, because if it is a little too big, you can usually pad out the fit. But if your tree is too small, there’s no fixing it. It’d be like wearing a pair of shoes that were too small and then putting on extra thick socks to try and fix the discomfort.

Once it became clear that Eddie had outgrown the regular tree, and I was going to have to buy a new saddle for him, I decided to switch him to the Circle Y Monarch Arena/Trail saddle with a Flex2 tree in a wide size. I designed this saddle for comfort, balance and close-contact communication with your seat and legs. It helps center the rider and has a narrow twist with memory foam in the seat. I’ve been riding my other horse, Dually, in this same saddle (regular tree) since I designed it, nearly a decade ago.

On my very first ride on Eddie in the Monarch, I was astounded at the change and wished I had switched sooner. With the right size tree and the additional comfort that the flexible tree provides, Eddie was immediately more relaxed, lengthening in the neck and lifting his back. Not only that, his rough gaits were significantly smoother, not only because he was relaxing and rounding more but also because the Flex2 tree provides shock absorption that is easily felt by both horse and rider.

I’ll admit, Eddie is definitely more handsome in the ranch saddle, as is befitting of his heritage. But I will trade that for comfort and performance any day of the week. The Monarch is also a beautiful hand-tooled saddle that any horse looks great in and once I am up there, it only matters how it feels—to both my horse and me!

Enjoy the ride,

Julie

First Aid For Horses

I’ve been taking care of horses for half a century and during that time I’ve seen hundreds of injured horses, from mild scratches to cuts that need stitches to deep-tissue lacerations, punctures and impalements. As most experienced horse owners know, some horses could get hurt even if they were locked in a padded stall.

Over the decades I’ve gotten pretty good at basic first aid for horses—knowing what injuries I can handle myself, when I need to call the vet and whether or not it is truly an emergency. I’ve nursed horses for months on end through the most horrific, seemingly career-ending injuries, and seen the horse come back to full health with barely a scar. Over the decades I’ve learned what supplies, medications and tools to keep on-hand, and how to deal with the typical injuries that horses get.

Recently, on one of the first blustery winter days, I saw the horses running around like their tails were on fire, across the fields and the through the thicket of trees. Later, as I brought the horses in for the evening, I gave each of the horses a good visual once-over, as we do each morning and evening, looking for any signs of injury or illness. It was then that I noticed the blood on Eddie’s muzzle. Once the horses were secured in their stalls for the night, I grabbed a flashlight and clean rag and headed to his stall to investigate.

With my rag damp, I wiped away the dried blood from his muzzle and discovered no injury there. Not surprising, since horses often rub or scratch wounds with their muzzles. Running the flashlight beam up and down his legs, it didn’t take me long to find the cut, up high on his right forearm. It was a jagged, one inch laceration with a puncture wound that looked like it could be deep and/or have some debris in there. No doubt, he ran into the stub of a broken branch when running pell-mell through the trees earlier.

The injury itself will often give evidence as to the cause or “mechanism of injury.” In this case, the jagged puncture and location high on his forearm were common clues to that type of injury, caused by tree branch. Looking at a wound—from minor to serious—may help you discern the cause, and hopefully eliminate it. The mechanism of injury may also be a clue as to how serious it is and/or how it should be treated. A wire cut or metal cut may have cleaner edges and a deeper laceration; a puncture wound might only have a small opening but swelling below could be a clue to a deeper problem.

Like many experienced horse owners, at my ranch we treat most minor injuries without calling the vet. But everyone that works for me knows, when in doubt, call the vet. I’d way rather have a small vet bill than a big problem later on. When I am evaluating the wound, to see if I need to call my vet, my main concerns are suturing, the potential for infection, joint damage and/or lameness. If tranquilizing is required to clean, suture, flush or drain the wound, or the wound is near a joint or involves lameness, I call the vet.

If infection is a concern and I think I might need antibiotics, I call the vet. I prefer to use oral antibiotics, even though they are more expensive, in order to reduce the number of injections the horse may need and I get that from my vet. If the wound is fresh and has clean edges and it is located in a place where stitches would hold and/or where it could be wrapped, suturing may be useful, so I call the vet.

Fortunately, on this day, it was an injury I could easily handle myself. Over the past 5 decades, I have had many opportunities to treat puncture wounds on horses. I suppose their flight response has something to do with the frequency of puncture wounds seen in horses. Equally fortunate was the fact that my horse Eddie was very well-mannered, trained to stand still when asked and very easy to handle from the ground. Tranquilizers would not be needed—just someone that would hold and distract him while I cleaned and flushed the wound.

I headed to the barn to get the supplies I needed—betadine solution, a handful of gauze sponges for scrubbing, scarlet oil, a small pail of warm water, some clean dry rags, a towel, the mastitis needle and irrigation syringe and the cordless clippers. While my assistant haltered Eddie, I laid out my supplies on the clean towel and got them ready, in the order in which I would need them.

With any wound that has fully penetrated the skin, I like to clip away the hair from the area to make it easier to clean and to prevent the hair from being matted in the wound. I use a mild diluted betadine solution (about the color of iced tea) for cleaning wounds initially, whether it is a puncture or open laceration, but the first order of business is to scrub away any scabbing, debris or matted hair that may be covering the wound and expose the edges fully.

With any kind of puncture, there is always the possibility of foreign matter inside the wound which can cause infection and abscessing. The critical issues for treating puncture wounds are to flush the wound daily, allow it to drain for as long as needed, and keep the outside of the wound open to allow it to heal from the inside out. After scrubbing the outside of the wound and probing and flushing the inside with the mastitis needle (a blunt ended irrigating needle), I then squirt a little scarlet oil deep into the wound to keep it draining and to help prevent infection. Every day, until it is healed, I will clean away scabbing and flush the puncture again and monitor the amount of drainage. When the drainage stops, the wound is usually ready to heal and close.

Whether or not to bandage a wound can be an easy decision—there are many places on a horse that cannot effectively be bandaged. I prefer to keep puncture wounds un-bandaged to promote drainage as it heals. Indeed, in many instances, wounds will heal better when exposed to air and sunlight but there are many extenuating circumstances with horses—how clean the wound will stay, how easily it will reopen, whether or not there sutures to protect, can the scar be minimized, will insects or foreign matter be a problem, will the bandage stay put? I like to err on the side of keeping a non-puncture wound clean and protected, so I will bandage the wound when I can.

Bandaging wounds on horses requires some skill and know-how, since mostly we are talking about legs– keeping it on without cutting off circulation and causing additional damage can be a challenge. Changing the bandage, cleaning and redressing the wound will have to be done on a regular schedule, again, by someone that knows what they are doing. I always keep plenty of bandaging supplies on hand—vet wrap, rolled gauze, trauma pads, cotton batting (necessary for cushioning to allow for circulation when wrapping legs), polo wraps and duct tape. I like to keep a package of disposal newborn baby diapers in my first aid kit, which can come in handy for wound dressing and saddle sores. A large box of disposable medical gloves, sharp bandage scissors and good clippers are must-haves.

When it comes to ointments and medications for treating wounds, I like to keep it simple and all-natural when possible, so I use a lot of Redmond First aid clay as a topical ointment when I need protection from the elements in a minor wound that will go un-bandaged. It will act as a drying agent and will form a protective layer over the wound to keep out insects and debris. For un-sutured wounds that will be bandaged and do not need to drain, I will pack the wound in the clay and it will stay moist because of the bandage and help the wound heal. I also use the clay mixed as a mud poultice for bruises and swelling on the legs and for packing feet.

Sometimes a medicated ointment is needed to prevent infection in a wound—let your vet decide what is needed, but be careful what you use, because some of the most common medicated ointments traditionally used on horses have carcinogens in them (check the label). Make sure you always use gloves when treating wounds of any kind, to protect yourself from infection and from harsh chemicals.

Keeping the “dry” supplies on-hand and plentiful is a good investment and a no-brainer—they will not expire and will be there when and if you need them, if stored well. I prefer to avoid having a lot of medications sitting around that get old and expire—I will get them from my vet when needed. Redmond First Aid ointment and pure coconut oil get the most use around my barn on a daily basis, but we also keep betadine, scarlet oil and blue lotion on hand. A smaller first aid kit will all the basics is kept in an airtight container in my horse trailer for when we are on the road.

Of course, my hope is that my first aid supplies will never be needed. But after a lifetime with horses, I know that sooner or later, one of them is going to get in a wreck. It pays to be prepared!

Feed-Time Aggression Fix Q & A

Feed-Time Aggression Fix
Q: Help! What do I do, my horses are crowding me when I go into their pen to feed them and it’s just scary to have them so close and on top of me. Plus, I want my husband to help with feeding, but having the horses so pushy and not allowing you space to get from the gate to their feeders is making him too scared to help with chores. What do I do? —Kate Brenday, Alabama
Julie’s Answer: Entering a pen full of horses, even just to catch one can be quite risky and at feed time, it can get really dangerous! You are smart to be afraid– interactions between dominant horses and their subordinates can be lightning quick and very violent and you don’t want to be caught in the middle of that. Often, with large groups of horses, the herd dynamics escalate fast and the horse that is trying to get away from another aggressive horse can easily run right over the top of you.

Not only that, but one way in which horses establish dominance in the herd is to take away food from other horses, so food aggression is common, especially if the horses are only fed once or twice a day and go stretches with no food. If you walk into a pen full of horses with feed and they are crowding you and trying to attack the food, it is incredibly dangerous and your horses have no manners and little regard for your authority or well-being.

Sometimes unsafe food-based aggressive behaviors can develop even if you don’t go into the pen with the horses to feed them. Often handlers will ignore the aggressive gestures of the stressed-out horse and drop the feed over the fence into the pen, but the horse comes to believe his gestures are making you give him the food so the same sense of dominance and rude behavior may develop in the horse.

I am very particular about how my horses behave at feed time since it is such a contentious issue and relates to dominance and therefore aggression. Whether my horses are being fed individually or in a group, I expect them to back away from me as I feed and watch patiently wait for me to set the feed down and they should not approach until I indicate that it is okay, by walking away from the feed. Crowding, rushing, vying for position or trying to take the feed out of my hands is absolutely not allowed because I do not want that to become their habitual behavior.

Along the same lines, I’ve seen some boarding situations where horses are kept in large groups and may be rowdy or jealous or jockeying for position when you go into the pen to catch your own horse, outside of feed time. When I walk into a group of horses, with feed or without, I like to be well-equipped to deal with fractious horses, should the herd dynamic get rowdy and I expect all the horses in the pen to show some deference toward me (“Better be careful, the boss is here!”).

My tool of choice for keeping this kind of order in the pen would be a flag. The 4’ long rigid stick with a nylon flag on the end allows you to wave the flag as hard as needed to get the horses attention and should a horse come close enough to endanger me, I can tap him with it to get him out of my space. Because horses are flight animals and highly sensitive to all sensory input, the sound, color and movement of the flag makes it an excellent attention getting device, even when the horses are getting wild.

For safety reasons, we try to limit the situations where you have to walk into a pen full of horses with feed—either by laying out the feed before the horses are turned-out, or while they are out of the pen or stall or by putting it over the fence. But I realize in some situations you may have to enter the pen with the feed; and in these cases I would always carry a flag, especially if it is a group pen.

When I hire new people on my barn staff, no matter their experience level, we always discuss feed-time behavior and how important it is to not allow horses to rush you or act aggressively when you feed. If the new-hire has little experience or a lack of confidence, I make sure they carry a flag and see how easy it is to keep the horses back and acting respectful.

Around my farm, we have quite a few flags, strategically located to be handy when you need them. I’ve found that if a person has to go all the way back to the tack room and rummage through the bin for a flag, they won’t do it. But if the flag is handy—hanging on the gate where it’s needed, it will get a lot more use.

There’s one in each horse trailer I own (to help with trailer loading if needed); one in the indoor arena for groundwork; one on the round pen gate and one on the gate that leads to the big turn-out pen. They hold up well to weather although the flags will deteriorate over time if they are in direct sun—like the one on my round pen. After 6-7 years, I may have to replace the flag (the stick holds up fine) but I figure that is a very small price to pay for that many years of convenience.

I’d suggest you get a flag or two and wave it vehemently at your horses when you approach their pen with the feed. Cause them to back off and pay close attention to you and only let them approach the feed after you have relinquished it and are ready to walk away. You don’t have to make them wait forever—just make them back off a little, then they will turn and look at you to see what is going to happen next. If you walk away while the horse is looking at you and before he approaches, he will learn to be patient and respectful.

It shouldn’t take long for you to teach your horses some safer feed-time manners; when the feed is used to reinforce the right behaviors, they will learn the right things quickly. Then you can give your husband the flag and show him how safe and easy it is to control your horses with the right tool in hand.

Good luck and be safe!
Julie

Julie’s Training Log: November 2015

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As I write my articles for November’s newsletter, Equine Affaire is quickly approaching! Hard to believe, one of my favorite expos is so close. Equine Affaire is November 12-15, 2015 http://www.equineaffaire.com/massachusetts/ and I will be there doing presentations all four days on various subjects including behavior, bits, riding later in life, soft and clear cueing, and leads. I will also be the Emcee for the Versatile Horse & Rider Competition, a fun event you’ll enjoy watching. There will be lots of other educational presentations, along with a renowned trade show full of shopping opportunities. Please stop by my booth #3021 and say “HI.” I will have two of my Peak Performance saddles on display along with lots of other merchandise-old favs and new exciting products.

My number one horse Dually, is sure keeping me on my toes these days. Although he was fatally ill in the spring, he is fully recovered now and getting sassier by the day! Any time a horse gets that sick, just like with people, there are lingering effects, recovery can be slow and rest and a low-stress lifestyle will promote faster healing. We’ve been nursing him along for a while now, but gradually Dually has come back to full health. We have slowly increased his exercise over the past few months, but recently he has been showing me that he is ready for more. I love it that my dearest and most athletic horse is back to feeling frisky—showing off and acting cocky at times. He’s a sprinter in his heart and I just love it when I feel the incredible burst of speed that he loves to give me when I ask, but only if he’s feeling good. So now we are getting back into a more normal training routine, but I am still deciding what out winter training goals will be.

I haven’t had as much time to ride my own horses lately, having been on the road most of the month so far. But with the holidays approaching, I’ll be at home more. Fortunately, I have a trusted rider and barn manger, Mel, who works our horses and takes care of them as if they were her own, in sickness and in health. It’s very important to me that my horses stay fit and well-tuned in their training, since riding is such an important part of my job and my horses are crucial to my success. And since a passion for horses is what drove me to my career in the first place, the health and well-being of my horses is very dear to my heart, as it is to most horse owners.

As the holidays approach, I know I will have more time at home, to reconnect with my horses and to keep the ideas flowing in my head, so that I am better at what I do—helping horses, one human at a time.

Enjoy the ride,
Julie

Note from Julie: October 2015

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Dear friends,

We’ve just returned from an incredible 4-day ranch-riding clinic at the C Lazy U Ranch and soon I am headed to Spanaway, Washington, for my last 2-day horsemanship clinic of the year, then I get to go back to C Lazy U for the riding and yoga retreat (treat is the operative word!). Soon we will be releasing my 2016 clinic schedule, but you can always check my website for details on my full clinic and expo schedule.

I am also excited to be going to Amarillo, Texas, in October for the CHA International Conference and to visit the AQHA Hall of Fame; to Springfield MA, in November for Equine Affaire; then on to Las Vegas with the good folks from Cosequin for the equine vet tech conference, held in conjunction with the AAEP conference and the National Finals Rodeo (this is the time of year that Sin City becomes Cowboy Central).

We’ll be doing our fall TV shoot at the Grove River Ranch in Georgia the first week of November. I’m excited to head south to my old neck of the woods! This is a gorgeous facility and a place where you can trailer in to stay at their cabin, fish and ride!

The fall is always busy for me but I still manage to get some good riding time on my horses. Dually, my number one horse (and the most high-maintenance horse we own) is fully recovered from his near fatal bout with Colitis in the spring. In fact, he’s gotten a little cocky and full of himself—a good sign that he is feeling better but also a sign that we need to get back to more structured training. It’s back to school time for Dually!

Eddie’s Pick is my junior horse and he would love to step  into the number one spot. He comes off the renowned 6666 Ranch, by their World Champion stallion, Sixes Pick. Eddie, a handsome reflection of his daddy, is one of the most eager-to-please and hardworking horses I have ever ridden. Now, as a 6 year old, he has matured physically and mentally (especially the latter) and is becoming a good working partner for me. I don’t know that he could ever fully replace Dually—those are some BIG shoes to fill—but he is sure giving Dually a run for his money!

Although I was sad to say goodbye to summer, I love the fall and getting back on the road and working with horses, and their humans, is very rewarding for me. I enjoy getting to know all the horses I meet, even the naughty ones. Maybe especially the naughty ones—helping horses and their humans get along better is a fun challenge to embrace. I hope to see you on the road this fall and together we will talk horses!

 

Enjoy the ride,

Julie

 

For No Apparent Reason: Learning to understand why horses behave the way they do

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When folks tell me about problem behaviors, I hear one phrase often. I admit I’ve even said it myself when I was a young trainer. “For no apparent reason, my horse….” You can fill in the next part with any frightening horse behavior. Choose from a list such as: bucked me off, kicked me, bit me, ran away, spooked, refused to get in the trailer, refused to go in the arena, reared. The list of behaviors that follows this phrase is long.

This one little phrase—for no apparent reason—seems to absolve the human of all responsibility. Surely the horse was to blame for his unexpected reaction. The phrase implies that there’s something wrong with the horse’s behavior. But there’s an important word buried within this phrase: apparent. Just because the human doesn’t yet know what caused the behavior, doesn’t mean the horse didn’t sense something real. It wasn’t apparent to the handler, but the horse knows what caused the behavior. It’s our job as horsemen to find out what was apparent to the horse.

Behaviors Have Purpose

All behaviors have a reason or purpose. There is always some purpose or meaning behind the behavior that a horse displays. It doesn’t always seem purposeful to us, but it is to the horse. You cannot watch a horse more than a minute without seeing behaviors.

Let’s get this fact straight: just because we do not like a horse’s behavior doesn’t mean that it is a bad behavior. For instance, a horse that kicks is not a bad horse; he’s a horse—they all kick. Horses may kick when they are startled or feeling the need to defend their space—or to ward off a predator. Or it may be an aggressive move to gain dominance. Kicking does not make him a bad horse and it is not a bad behavior from the horse’s point of view. He actually finds it quite useful. It’s just a behavior we humans don’t like, so we think of it as bad.

There should not be any value judgment when observing a behavior. Behaviors that are undesirable to us humans are not bad they just are. The challenge we as horse people have, is to promote the behaviors we want and try to eliminate, or extinguish the behaviors that are undesirable, unsafe or unmanageable– not to get caught up in the horse’s drama and react in an emotional way or take his behavior personally.

I talk a lot in my clinics about horse training—teaching the horse manners, cues, obedience and responsiveness. We are all horse trainers—anytime you interact with a horse, you are either training him or un-training him. It’s just that some people are better at training –or promoting the good behaviors– than others.

Find the Motivation

To me, after a half-century of training horses, the most effective way to have an impact is to first understand the natural and instinctive behaviors of horses. Then try to understand the motivation for the specific behavior. Only once you have an idea of the motivation, employ well-known, science-based training techniques that are proven to be effective (such as classical conditioning, operant conditioning, negative and positive reinforcers, replacement training vs. punishment, finding the amount of pressure needed to motivate change, etc.). If you understand the behavior first, you’ll see that it doesn’t come “out of the blue.” You’ll think of reasons that may have caused the behavior and choose your plan to teach the horse to act another way.

You will always be more effective in changing a horse’s behavior if you can understand the origins of that behavior: is it instinctive or learned behavior; how is the horse benefitting from this behavior; how motivated is he in this behavior; and how engrained or habitual is the behavior (how long has he been doing this)? These answers are sometimes hard to know, but the more you understand about the horse’s behavior, the easier it is to affect change.

Calm and Carry On

Noticing the horse’s body language and state of mind can only happen if you’re calm and paying attention. There is often a mystique around some horse handler’s ability to “read” the horse. You know, some people are nicknamed “horse whisperers.” But reading a horse and understanding his language doesn’t have to be confusing or mystical. If you understand the communicative language of horses (they speak through postures and gestures), they are actually pretty transparent. But you do have to be aware and pay attention. Even a person that has no experience with horses ought to be able to look at one and tell you whether it is relaxed or nervous, attentive or distracted, agitated or content. The information is there—all you have to do is observe and think about what the horse may be sensing.

But keep in mind that because they are herd animals–and prey–they are hard-wired to take on the emotions of the other animals in the herd—and that includes you! If one animal becomes frightened—all the horses in the herd will tend to respond the same way. So when things get tough, it is incredibly important that we humans try to keep our emotions in check. No matter how you feel on the inside (scared, angry, frustrated) keep your body language and emotions in check and remain calm. No need to throw gas on the fire.

Instincts Rule

Recently, the results of scientific research into horse behavior proved something that horsemen have known for centuries. Horses are prey animals and as such, they instinctively hide their pain. Think about it—which horse gets eaten first by the predator? It’s the one in the back of the herd—the slowest, sickest or lamest horse. Horses don’t want to show pain if they can mask it because showing pain shows weakness. This one fact of life explains a lot about horses.

Some horses have a very high threshold of pain and will mask any discomfort they feel (while others, like my horse Dually, will let you know if a hair is out of place). That means it is up to us to become the investigator, to know each horse as an individual, and also we have the responsibility to address every problem as a pain issue first, and rule out any possible physical cause for undesirable behavior before we address it as a training issue. After more than three decades of training horses, I can tell you that more “training problems” originate from physical problems than most people realize.

Also, related to this same instinct, is the horrific instinctive fear that most horses have about being left behind. If you only have two horses at home and you take one out of the pen to ride, it is the horse that is left behind that throws a fit. If you try to hold your horse back in a group trail ride while the others gallop off into the sunset, you are picking a huge fight with your horse that you may not win. The horse’s desire for safety and to be part of the herd is strong.

Horses are herd-bound according to their instinct—it is called gregarious behavior. They simply want to be friendly and be around the herd. Yet we tend to speak of herd-bound, barn-sour behavior as an affliction. The behavior is deemed bad by humans, but it’s simply a typical horse behavior. It is a simple fact of horsemanship that unless and until the horse gets the same sense of security and comfort from you that he gets from the herd, he is not going to want to leave with you. It is not the horse’s affliction—it is your lack of leadership and authority that is at issue; you have to change, not the horse.

Listen to the Horses

We owe it to our horses to understand their behavior and learn more about effective training techniques and to be the strong leader that they need, including accepting responsibility for our own actions or failures. Nothing happens “out of the blue.” Nothing happens “for no apparent reason.” The horses are telling us something with their behavior and we need to help them by finding out what doesn’t feel right.

A great example of this concept happened at one of the shoots for my TV show. In this instance, it would have been easy to blame the horse, but he indeed had something to tell us. His behavior only seemed “out of the blue.”

Several of us were fussing with a horse to get him ready for the segment we were taping (wiping his nose, adjusting the tack, checking the microphone on the rider, etc.). Several people rushing around a horse at one time is a recipe for disaster indeed. But this was a horse we knew and he’s known to have a calm and accepting attitude. Still, it’s just too easy to not notice something that you would see if you were the only one checking tack and doing all in a slow, intricate order. We were saddling the horse with brand new tack—fixing the cinches, adjusting all of the new leather. In the mix and chaos, one of my crewmembers was suddenly kicked.

Some may have said the horse’s kick was “for no apparent reason.” It did seem out of the blue for this horse. But a little investigating showed us it was us humans, not the horse who needed a lesson. As it turns out, the new saddle we placed on the horse had a back cinch that wasn’t connected to the front. In the chaos and hurry, we hadn’t noticed that the hobble had come untied. The back cinch slid back to an uncomfortable position for the horse. It was in the position of a bucking strap! To the horse, the reason for his behavior was obvious. His kick was a behavior to get that out of his space.

Later that evening, my crewmember called his wife—who happens to be a horse trainer. He told her he had gotten kicked. I’m sure he was expecting her to say, “OMG, are you ok?” Instead, her response was, “What did you do to the horse to make him kick you?” (A woman after my own heart!) The fault was with us humans. What wasn’t apparent to us was apparent to the horse. And we now have practices in place to make sure that we slow down and check details instead of being in such a rush to hit record. Only two crew members attending to a horse at any given time. It was a lesson for us to learn. Slow down, notice, and think about what the horse is experiencing.

We, as humans, must accept responsibility for understanding horses better. We must think about why and how our interactions with horses work or don’t work. Horses will never study human behavior or effective training techniques. It’s our job to learn about them. Embrace it—horsemanship is a journey— and the more you learn, the more rewarding it becomes!

Enjoy the ride,

Julie

Ready For Winter?

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Tips for making your horse-keeping life easier this winter…

Here in the high mountains of Colorado, where my horses and I live, winter comes early and hard. Our preparations begin before the summer is technically over and our efforts then will make a huge difference in how happy or miserable our winter horse-life will be.

Hay: I prefer to buy my hay for the entire year in the fall, when prices are stable and the hay is cured and stored in a barn. For our 5 horses, I get about 20 tons of the best grass hay I can find. You can best budget your hay by the ton, not the bale, since a bale could range from anywhere from 50 to 1500 pounds. It’s simple math to figure out how much hay you need for the year for the average horse: 1/3 ton per month per horse, or 4 tons a year per horse. In buying for a year in the fall, I am sure to have plenty of hay next year if the earlier crops are not good.

Leather and tack room: Climates vary greatly but generally either your leather is too dry or too wet. Try to take care of your leather accordingly, but keeping it cleaned and conditioned is always important. My climate is extremely dry and very cold, often below zero. So we heat our tack and feed rooms, up to about 50 degrees, to make sure everything from leather to bits to medications aren’t frozen. Tip: if your tack room is prone to occasional mild freezing, a dorm-sized refrigerator (set as warm as it will go or even turned off) is a good place for meds, ointments, etc. that you don’t want to freeze. The fall is a good time to go through all your tack and check for wear, repairs needed, to clean and condition heavily so it is ready for next year and going through the winter in good shape.

Blankets: Clean and repair winter blankets during the summer. If the dirty blanket has accumulated hairy-grime, use a metal curry to clean it off and loosen caked-on grime before washing. Wash heavy blankets at a laundromat that has big machines. Use soap made for horse blankets—it really helps dissolve the grime and is safe for your horse’s skin. We re-fit, re-assign and re-label the blankets for each horse each fall. We use white duct tape and a marker to make the label and then put it on the chest of each blanket, so it’s easy to find the right blanket. For western saddle pads, I use wool-felt pads and I wash them once a year in the fall at the car-wash (rinse only), then we hang them out in the sun until they dry (which may take days).

Most horses don’t need blankets—they are incredibly adaptable to any climate. I live near South Park (yes, it is a real place), where it is sometimes 20-30 below zero for sustained periods (weeks not days). Anyone driving through the valley can see large herds of horses on snow covered, huge pastures, and they manage just fine with a windbreak, water and hay, but no blankets. However, not all horses are that tough. If your horse is old, thin, sick or growing, he may need a blanket. If he is in heavy training or showing, he may need a blanket to keep his hair-coat short. We ride our horses just as hard in the winter, but we are riding indoors in a warm environment; a long-coated horse will sweat buckets and a wet horse with temps below zero is a big problem. We keep several full-body, wicking fleece coolers on hand for keeping a sweaty horse from becoming chilled while he dries. Our horses stay blanketed throughout the winter mainly to manage the winter riding sweat, not to mention the occasional blizzard. Consequently, each horse has several garments: both mid and heavy weight winter turnout blankets (breathable/waterproof), a turnout sheet (breathable, waterproof with turtle neck, but no insulation), plus a UV/fly sheet for summer. For the most part, this is not because my horses need them, but because of the way I want my horses to look (my horses earn their living as TV, magazine and video models and they have to be ready for a photo shoot at any time).

Winter Chores: I need heavy-duty waterproof rubber work gloves, for breaking ice and dealing with water in the winter. I hate cold hands and wet gloves. I want good shovels of every kind—snow, an aluminum scoop, and a flat-bottom shovel and a pointed shovel. And occasionally we will pull out the heavy steel pick to break up frozen manure piles or ice. Around my barn, we have to breakout the heated water buckets and check the heaters in the automatic-waterers in October. The harder your winter the more serious your concern in this area but if water lines freeze, it could make your horse-keeping life extremely hard. So be prepared and consider having a back-up method for watering your horses, should you encounter problems with your primary water source.

Trailer: In the late fall, after my last trip before the holidays, we clean and power-wash each trailer inside and out, pull the mats up until the floor and mats are dry, close up the vents and windows and cover the wheels. I do my annual trailer maintenance in the spring before I start my travel season.

Horses: Although we use fecal egg-counts to determine when horses need deworming throughout the year, I always like to deworm with ivermectin after the first really hard frost for a final purging of pests and worms. We also pull shoes before winter sets in and before the ground is really frozen. Hard frozen ground can be like walking on rocks for a tender-footed horse, so I leave a little extra hoof-length to help prevent foot soreness, should the temperatures plummet suddenly. I like to leave my horse’s barefoot as much of the year as possible for hoof-health. I do teeth exams and vaccinating for my horses in the spring, but in some areas and in some situations, your horse may need fall vaccinations too—consult your vet.

Human: I approach winter knowing I will, at some point, be out in the barn in the coldest, nastiest winter weather, so I want to be ready. After 30 years of living on a horse farm in the mountains of Colorado, I’ve learned how to keep warm in the worst weather. I like insulated leather gloves for all-purpose riding and chores (finding a good fit can be a challenge for women with small hands like me). I keep a case of disposable hand-warmers for the worst times. I wear insulated canvas coveralls (Carhart makes women’s) with an insulated canvas jacket for outer-wear, with silk long johns and sweat pants underneath. And a must-have is an insulated, water-proof boot with a heel for safe riding. I also wear a thin, wind-proof neck gaiter (look at a ski shop or outdoor store), which doesn’t choke me and fits well under a hat or helmet. Not only does it keep me warm, but it also keeps the hay from going down my shirt collar. For riding on cold days, I wear winter-weight, wind-proof fleece jodphurs by Irideon—black ones to soak up the sun!

After 30 winters of taking care of horses in the Colorado mountains, I’ve learned a few things to help make my horse keeping life easier. Hopefully, some tips here might help you this winter. I’ve experimented with just about everything I can think of except for moving to a southern, low-altitude climate. But I think I’d rather deal with the cold than give up the mountains.

Confidence From The Core

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As we age, our balance, core-strength and posture can be negatively affected and all of these things have an impact on your confidence. If you think of the image of an elderly person tottering down the street, the posture is hunched forward, with rounded shoulders, looking down and a shuffling gait. Now picture Superman’s posture. Posture and confidence are closely related, as are age and posture.

The good news is that we can reverse the ageing process, or at least slow it down, by building core-strength and correcting bad habits in your posture. Every day, I try to make myself taller by lengthening my spine, lifting my shoulders and flattening my upper back. Even though I am an older person, I don’t want to look like one. I work hard to maintain my core-strength and improve my balance by choosing workouts that focus on these areas.

There is an important connection between fitness and confidence, and I can prove it to you. Have you ever, at any point in your life, set a goal to lose weight and/or get in better shape? I do, almost every year, usually around January 1st. Let’s say you decided to power-walk a mile every day after work; so on the first day, you come home, put on your trainers and hit the tarmac. After your walk, you come home, grab a cold drink and already you feel better about yourself. There’s no better feeling than being done with a workout. You feel better about yourself, and therefore are more confident—even though you are in no better shape than you were an hour ago.

So it is not being fit and buff that gives you confidence, it is the simple act of doing something to better yourself and to build strength that makes you feel better and stronger. The beautiful thing about workouts that focus on core-strength and balance, is that by the second day you can already feel a difference and after a week or a month, the difference is tremendous. Knowing that your balance is better and that you can move with the horse easier, most definitely will give you more confidence when you are stepping onto that keg of dynamite (I mean, horse).

Strength Leads To Confidence

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Strength Leads to Confidence

By Julie Goodnight

“That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” By and large, these are good words to consider when it comes to horses. Confidence is such a prevalent issue in horse sports, and with good reason—a horse can build your confidence over time, or take it away in a heartbeat.

After three decades of training horses and riders, I am not sure a day has gone by that I didn’t work with confidence—or a lack thereof—in either horses or their humans. Whether it’s a spooky horse and a clutching/gripping rider; or a calm and wise school-master patiently training a novice rider; or a strong handler settling a horse who is in the midst of an emotional melt-down, confidence always comes into play, for better or for worse.

Fear as a Teacher

Fear is a powerful emotion for both horses and humans and a complicating factor in all horse sports. It’s kind of crazy if you think about it—sitting on top of a thousand pound prey-animal whose number one response to danger is flight, is a little bit like strapping yourself onto a keg of dynamite. Some horses have longer fuses than others, but they all eventually explode.

Horse sports are uniquely challenging in the emotional department because horses, being herd animals and prey animals, are psychologically programmed to adopt the emotions of their herd mates—when one horse in the herd becomes frightened, the others respond in kind. So if my horse and I are a herd of two and I am frightened, my horse may respond in-kind.

Therefore, one of the most valuable skills we stand to learn from horses is to control our emotions and develop our patience. “Fake it until you make it,” is a phrase I use often to remind people to show confidence in their posture, breathing, focus and actions, even when you’re scared spit-less. When you are in control of your posture and body language, you will have more confidence immediately.

One of your greatest tools in fighting fear is to look up, stay aware of your environment, take deep breaths and adopt a confident posture like the Superman pose. The mind-body-spirit connection is strong and if you can control yourself physically and mentally, the emotion of fear doesn’t stand a chance.

Strong Bodies

As we age, our balance, core-strength and posture can be negatively affected and all of these things have an impact on your confidence. If you think of the image of an elderly person tottering down the street, the posture is hunched forward, with rounded shoulders, looking down and a shuffling gait. Now picture Superman’s posture. Posture and confidence are closely related, as are age and posture.

The good news is that we can reverse the ageing process, or at least slow it down, by building core-strength and correcting bad habits in your posture. Every day, I try to make myself taller by lengthening my spine, lifting my shoulders and flattening my upper back. Even though I am an older person, I don’t want to look like one. I work hard to maintain my core-strength and improve my balance by choosing workouts that focus on these areas.

There is an important connection between fitness and confidence, and I can prove it to you. Have you ever, at any point in your life, set a goal to lose weight and/or get in better shape? I do, almost every year, usually around January 1st. Let’s say you decided to power-walk a mile every day after work; so on the first day, you come home, put on your trainers and hit the tarmac. After your walk, you come home, grab a cold drink and already you feel better about yourself. There’s no better feeling than being done with a workout. You feel better about yourself, and therefore are more confidant—even though you are in no better shape than you were an hour ago.

So it is not being fit and buff that gives you confidence, it is the simple act of doing something to better yourself and to build strength that makes you feel better and stronger. The beautiful thing about workouts that focus on core-strength and balance, is that by the second day you can already feel a difference and after a week or a month, the difference is tremendous. Knowing that your balance is better and that you can move with the horse easier, most definitely will give you more confidence when you are stepping onto that keg of dynamite (I mean, horse).

Get There

Gaining confidence is a journey. If you need a confidence boost, start with focusing your attention on the current moment. Then make sure to add physical activity to your day. Schedule in a daily walk, boost your active time by taking the stairs. With a combination of mental focus and physical determination, you’ll soon feel stronger and ready to take a step forward toward your horsemanship goals.

Do you want some inspiration along the way? Check out my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv and free online group called “Julie Goodnight’s 5-Pound Challenge.” That’s the place to announce your own confidence and fitness goals and to get some positive feedback along the way!

Enjoy the ride,

 

Julie Goodnight

Imagine A Career With Horses

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Imagine a Career with Horses

Not once in my childhood, in high school nor college, did it ever occur to me that I might have a career in the horse industry. Certainly, in my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined teaching horsemanship as a career for nearly three decades. The first time someone paid me to ride a horse, I was 14 years old and I could not believe my lucky stars—that someone would pay me money to ride a horse! But even then, I never thought of a full-time career with horses. Little did I know that all I did then was preparing me for what I’m doing now. Little did I know then that there are so many ways to work with and around horses. I love that I can combine my love for horses with a career that helps horses—and horse owners.

I have been asked many times if I think there are good career options within the horse industry. While I may not have thought of a career in horses when I was young, I know now that the horse industry is full of great opportunity—if you are willing to take initiative and be creative. You don’t have to ride broncs or muck stalls to be a part of it. People who are smart, educated, passionate and motivated will find opportunity in abundance. Any opportunity you can imagine in the “real world” is most likely available with a horse slant. For individuals who are driven, have dedication and focus, it is possible to combine what you love with what you do. You don’t have to be a hot-shot rider or have calluses on your hands and strong back muscles to find great success in the horse industry—there is opportunity aplenty for those who seek opportunity.

My First Horse Education

My horse training career started at a young age—even if I didn’t know it yet. I grew up on a small horse farm in central Florida with horses, ponies, sundry farm animals and the occasional exotic creature. I was smitten with the horses from the earliest age and I was privileged to have the opportunity to grow up with them and have a father that loved horses and adventure of all kinds.

I delved hard into horse sports as a youth rider and my father, recognizing my passion and my dedication, made sure I got the best education as a rider that he could. He made sure I always had safe and talented mounts and a good trainer to guide me along the way. Although my father is a true Western guy, he allowed me to pursue my dream of riding jumpers and made sure I had the training and education that I needed to do it right. Thus, one of the cornerstones of my career was being formed before we knew it—the solid foundation of classical riding.

Horse activities were something we did for fun—and how could something fun possibly be work? Didn’t work, by definition, have to be something that you didn’t want to do?

It wasn’t until after I graduated from college and got offered a job running a respectable training and breeding farm, that it first occurred to me that perhaps horses were a career option. That was, by the way, after working my way through college riding race horses. The horse industry found me; I didn’t really go looking for it. But honestly, even if I had planned from an early age to be in this business, I am not sure I would have done it any other way. I focused on education first then kept horses close as a hobby and side job. Soon, the two would combine as one career.

Educated Equestrians

What you do need, even if you are a hot-shot rider, is a good education. Like any industry, we in the horse business want to hire people that have good communication skills, good business savvy and an awareness and understanding of the horse industry at large. We are looking for people who are hardworking and dedicated and want to learn and grow—instead of those who are star riders for a fleeting moment.

Even if you are a good rider, getting a college education is paramount to success. If I could do anything over again in my career, I would have majored in business in college. What sets apart successful horse people from the mediocre is their business acumen. Finding employees that are good with horses is not hard; finding people that also have good business sense is what makes employers excited. For me, all the good riding, training and teaching talent I have would have meant nothing without also having good business management along the way.

The horse industry encompasses a huge, diverse spectrum and the more parts of it you know and have experience with, the more your opportunities expand. For me, riding and training in many different aspects of horse sports and horse breeds was a huge contributing factor for success. Although I never planned it that way, having diverse experience (with different breeds, disciplines, associations and areas of the country) not only has taught me a lot about horses, people and the industry, but it has opened many doors for me as well.

Key Advice and Reality Check

The two most common pieces of advice I offer when asked about careers in the horse industry, are to get a college education—preferably business or science-based— and to get as much experience in as many different areas of the horse industry as possible. That may mean volunteering, seeking internships (paid and unpaid), attending shows and offering to help, asking people you admire how they got to their station, and asking to shadow those you admire. Combine that drive with passion and dedication, and you will be unstoppable—whether you ride or not.

For many young people, a career riding and training horses seems appealing. I’ll admit, riding and training are a big part of my passion and a big part of what I do, but it has its downside. Riding, training and the hands-on side of the horse industry involves a lot of hard physical work, long days and long weeks for little pay. When you are in your 20s and 30s and riding 6-10 horses a day, it doesn’t seems so bad, but make sure you have a realistic future ahead of you. You may not want that fast pace and furious work for your body a little later.

As much as I love to ride, I learned fairly young that 1) there weren’t enough hours in the day for me to ride enough horses to get anywhere in my career, and 2) I wasn’t going to last riding the horses that no one else wanted to ride and I needed to take care of my body. I needed to pick the horses I ride wisely and guide my career in a direction that was profitable in the long run. I did not want to end up destitute in retirement, like many of the trainers I saw. Even though I was pretty good at training horses, I needed to diversify and have greater vision for my future.

On a daily basis, I work with colleagues in the industry that have great careers (read that: good pay, good benefits, room to advance) who are not riders, trainers, barn managers or instructors. Like almost any industry, we have great need for business managers, marketing, accounting, journalism, manufacturing, sales, fashion, nonprofit administration, medical technicians, nutrition, facility management, event planning and all things digital from social media to website design and maintenance.

Having a solid education and meaningful experience in as many different aspects of the horse industry as possible will almost certainly guarantee success. I’ve enjoyed working with several different universities that offer programs for equine majors and staying involved in what it takes to produce successful graduates that are wanted and needed by those of us in the horse industry.

There are many great college programs for equine majors that include horse education as well as practical business management courses. I encourage young people to look at the programs, such as Colorado State University, that are aligned with business administration and are science-based. Getting a broad-based traditional education will serve you well. In my opinion, you can get your hands-on horse experience at the barn—go to college to get a college education in all the other important stuff.

To get a job in the horse industry, you’ll need a love of horses, experience with horses and the willingness to work hard. But to have a successful career and thrive in the industry, you’ll need a college education, a broad-based view of the industry at large, ambition and dedication. If that sounds like you, buckle your seatbelt and hang on for the ride, because you are going far!

 

Dually Recovering from Colitis

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It’s been a rough few weeks around our barn, but I am pleased to report a happy ending. My number one horse, Dually, has always been a high-maintenance horse, with digestive issues, performance injuries, tendency toward ulcers—you get the picture. He is also extremely important to me, my most precious horse—and everyone who works for me feels that pressure when I am out of town (Dually, please don’t get sick on my watch!). My husband, Rich, freely admits to our friends his second-place standing in the order.11174394_10152710669652181_909998351562014715_o

A couple weeks ago, when Dually crashed, I was out of town at an expo. I got several calls and texts on Sunday that Dually had diarrhea, was not eating and was cold and lethargic. The only thing worse than a sick horse is one that gets sick when you are out of town (as is usually the case with Dually). By Monday morning, there was little improvement so once my plane landed in Denver, I mobilized Rich and Melissa to get Dually ready to transport to the closest critical care facility, Littleton Equine Medical Center, a mere 2 1/2 hour drive north, through the mountains.

I headed south while they headed north, and we met along the way so I could jump in the truck with Rich and accompany Dually to the hospital (in my airplane clothes). He was in critical condition, with septic shock, severe dehydration and a compromised circulatory system.

Without medical intervention, he would have died within 48-72 hours—it’s a downward spiral that happens fast and even with intervention cannot always be reversed. He has colitis, which is inflammation/infection in the colon without a known cause (50-70 percent of colitis cases are from unknown causes; known causes include antibiotics or a viral infection like salmonella or clostridium, but Dually had none of those).

11088599_10152710670027181_499968741940279423_oDually wasn’t colicky but he did have diarrhea. He had a low body temperature (from dehydration and circulatory compromise) and a fast heart rate and was extremely lethargic, anorexic, drinking and urinating excessively. When colitis attacks the lower gut, it basically shuts down the digestive system and the horse is no longer able to absorb any nutrients or water—thus excessive drinking just led to excessive urination and he continued to dehydrate by the minute. This shut down happens very fast.

Once in the hospital, the immediate treatment was to get him hooked up to an IV and pump massive fluids into him and plus an array of antibiotics to attack the apparent infection and plasma to boost his circulation. While waiting to see how he would respond to these treatments, there was a secondary concern of laminitis due to the high toxicity level in his system. He was put in ice-boots and his digital pulses were monitored throughout the days and nights, but thankfully no signs of laminitis emerged.

Dually was in the hospital with critical care nursing and heavy duty pharmaceuticals and probiotics (translation: very expensive) for four days. It was really hard to leave town on Friday, the day he could come home, but I had a clinic in GA. Thankfully Rich and Lucy were on the spot and while I headed for the airport, they made the journey—knowing it would be a long and anxious ride home, winding through the mountains.

Saturday, Dually was in a very weakened and depressed state. Melissa and Rich watched him like a hawk through the weekend; he wasn’t eating and felt quite puny but they nursed him through it. We’ve been monitoring his vitals closely and administering medications and mega probiotics (Proviable) twice a day. His vital signs are stable, his heart rate still elevated but trending down slowly and his appetite has finally gotten back to normal. His manure is absolutely picture perfect and his attitude is greatly improved, although he’s quite tired of being poked, prodded and having stuff crammed down his throat.

FullSizeRender[1]Now that I am home, I am spending more time with Dually, massaging his sore neck (from injections) and taking him on leisurely strolls around the farm to munch green grass. I imagine it will be a few weeks before he is totally feeling great and may be ready to get back to work. In the meantime, we are grateful that he pulled through, and we are optimistic about his full recovery.

Here’s a helpful article to know what to look for, in case you ever have to deal with colitis. Please do make sure you know how to take your horse’s temperature, heart rate and perfusion and be sure to call the vet any time you see a horse with diarrhea–better safe than sorry and better sooner than later! Please read and share this vital sign info–and make sure to post it in your barn so everyone knows how to check vitals and what numbers are good!

Riding Bridleless (Without a Bridle or Bit)

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Bridle-less Riding

To me, the ultimate sign of true unity, trust and respect between a horse and the rider is when you can remove the bridle, have nothing on his head, and have the horse perform as well or better than he did in the bridle.

While I do believe you need the bridle to train your horse to a high level, once your horse has proven himself to be obedient and responsive, it is not the bit that is making him act that way. Most well-trained horses will work as well or better without the bridle; but not all horses.

The ideal bridle-less horse is well-tempered and well-trained. He has a calm and willing attitude, a strong work ethic, good manners and he hates to get in trouble. He tries hard most of the time and is sensitive to the aids of the rider. He accepts your authority and generally tries to please you. Although no horse is perfectly behaved all of the time, the ideal bridle-less horse is well-behaved almost all of the time.

Before riding bridle-less, you should be an advanced rider, comfortable at the walk, trot and canter, in an arena and out in the open. Your position should be good, with ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, with a soft and relaxed back and low and relaxed arms. You should have good knowledge on how to use your natural aids effectively and especially how to use your seat/weight as the primary aid. You should have a good understanding of how to use your leg aids in different positions to control different parts of the horse’s body.

If you need to work on your riding in these areas, my riding DVD series, Goodnight Principles of Riding will fill in all the gaps.

You don’t just take the bridle off one day–there is much preparation work that must be done. Take your time and go through all of the steps. If you have any doubts about your horse’s obedience or responsiveness, do not move on to the next step. Keep working where you are until you have complete confidence in your horse.

Your time frame for accomplishing all of these steps depends entirely on how well-trained and obedient your horse is, how effective you are as a rider and how reliant you are on your hands for control. Realistically, I’d expect you to spend at least a week at each step but it could take you much longer if your horse is green or if you find your horse is not as obedient as you thought. Be sure to read the caveats at the end of the outline to help you avoid mistakes along the way.

No matter how long it takes–a month, a year or longer–you’ll be making progress at each step and you’ll enjoy the journey. When you get to the point that you take off the bridle, it is incredibly exhilarating and rewarding–that’s when the fun really begins!

Good luck and be safe!

Julie


Step One: Preparation and Obedience

a) This is the longest stage of training for bridle-less riding. For me, it begins on my first ride with the horse and depending on the horse’s level of training and how well he’s been handled (how much he has gotten away with), it may go faster or slower.

b) Before riding bridle-less, you must have 100% authority over your horse. If he challenges your cues, if you regularly reprimand him, if he spooks, speeds up or slows down without a cue from you, if he cuts corners or veers off-course, pulls toward the barn or is herd bound or if he is simply is so green that he doesn’t understand cues and basic obedience, you will be spending a long, long time at this phase.

c) What is obedience? A well trained and obedient horse goes in the direction you dictate, at the speed you dictate, without question or compromise or challenge to your complete authority. If you have to constantly correct the horse’s speed and direction, he is not obedient. An obedient horse should not be co-dependent with the rider. For instance if your horse will only stay on the rail because you constantly pull his head to the rail–you have a co-dependent relationship, your horse is constantly challenging your authority and you are constantly enabling him. If you find that your horse is not 100% obedient, you have a lot of work ahead and the longer he has been allowed to act this way, the longer it will take to fix. Visit my Training Library for information on more remedial training. You must address these obedience issues before moving forward.

d) To test your riding and your horse’s obedience while riding in an arena, simply put him on the rail at a walk and once you have him headed down the long side, just drop your hands down on his neck (I usually wrap one of my fingers around the saddle pad to make sure my hands stay there), thereby negating the use of your hands. If he stays on the path you dictated and does not change speed, you have an obedient horse! If he doesn’t, drop your hands, expect him to continue on the path and reprimand him when he doesn’t. Find the amount of pressure that makes him think harder about being obedient and then immediately drop your hands back down on his neck and expect him to stay on course. Continue correcting him until he stays on course with your hands down on his neck.

e) Next, with your hands still down on the neck, see if you can make some reverses, circles and ride interior lines of the arena like coming down the centerline or across the diagonal. Your goal is that you can do all of this without ever picking up your hands from his neck. If you can steer around the arena without using your hands, you are ready for the next phase. If not, you need to continue to work on developing body cues for turning and straightness that do not involve the reins.

Step Two: Loose Rein Riding/Hands Down

a) Remember, once you lose the bridle, you cannot really control the nose of the horse and collection becomes extremely difficult, some would say impossible (which is why my horse loves to go bridle-less so much–total freedom of his nose and no collected work!). So in preparation for bridle-less work, you will have to ride a lot on a totally loose rein–draping in slack. You will have to drop your hands down on the neck or saddle pad to neutralize your hands so that you can develop more control with your seat and legs.

b) Riding with the bridle, your horse learns to listen only for the rein cues, not bothering to concentrate or listen more closely to your other aids, because the reins will always tell him what to do. In fact, if you’ve been riding with your reins as your primary aid–as most riders do, your horse may have learned not to listen to your other aids at all but just wait until he feels his mouth pulled on. Now you have to re-program your horse that the reins will be the last aid you use and then only if needed for reinforcement when he doesn’t listen to your other aids. Read that sentence again and make sure you understand it. From this point forward, all of your cueing will come from your seat and legs and you will only pick up the reins as reinforcement when the horse does not listen to your seat and leg cues. If the reins always come last in your cueing sequence, soon you will not need them.

c) Steering: with your hands down on the neck, you’ll have to use all of your other aids and your whole body to signal a turn to your horse. Turn and look in the direction of the turn, open your shoulders in the turn, twist through your torso so that you feel your outside leg wrap around your horse’s ribs and your outside seat bone becomes weighted. To help your horse clearly understand the cue to turn, you should also open with your inside leg–think of drawing your horse toward the turn with your inside foot. Be very careful NOT to lean in the direction of the turn–that will confuse your horse and block his turn. Tap your outside fingers on his withers if he isn’t listening before you pick up the reins to correct.

d) Practice reverses, circles and straight lines; first at the walk and then at the trot with your reins very loose and your hands down on the saddle pad or touching his neck. If you are confused about how to use your body correctly in the turns, you should watch volume 2 in my riding series: Communication and Control in the Saddle.

e) Speed control: the cues for going faster, or upward transitions, are not a problem when you are not using the reins–it’s the downward transitions that can be difficult. Before riding bridle-less, you should have a clear understanding of how to use your seat to slow down or stop your horse. If not, consult my online Training Library or watch volume 2 in my riding series. See the section below about developing cues that don’t involve the reins.

f) Practice many upward and downward transitions with a loose rein and your hands down on the neck–making sure you do not pick up your hands, except in correction if the horse misses the cue. Practice walk-trot-walk transitions, trot-canter-trot, trot-halt-trot and canter to halt. Your goal is to never have to lift your hands off the neck to slow down or stop. See the section below for developing better speed control without the reins.

Step Three: Tie Reins to Saddle

a) In this stage, you will do all the things you did previously but with the reins actually tied up–attached to your horn or saddle. BUT KEEP YOUR HANDS IN THE NORMAL REIN POSITION–JUST IN FRONT OF THE SADDLE. Do not throw away your hands and arms by dropping them down to your side–YOUR HORSE GETS VALUABLE INFORMATION ON WHAT YOU ARE ASKING HIM TO DO BY THE MOVEMENT AND POSITION OF YOUR ARMS. You have trained him to listen for cues with your arms in very specific positions when they were holding reins–if you change your arm position you will drastically change the cue the horse knows. Even when riding without the bridle, your hands will remain in proper position, making the same movements as if they were attached to reins.

b) Practice the same turning, circling, straight lines and patterns that you did in the previous step.

c) Practice stopping and slowing down at all gaits.

d) Developing special cues for riding bridle-less: The cues that are the most difficult to do without the bridle are turning, stopping, slowing down and backing. There are a few special things you can do to help make these cues easier for your horse to understand without reins…

  • Turning: Always use your eyes first but turn and look as if you have a neck brace on so that it exaggerates the turning in your body. Open your inside leg slightly as you turn and open it more as the turn becomes smaller. Tap him on the withers with your outside fingers if he is not hearing the cue. Only give him a second or two to respond before your reinforce with the reins–if you wait too long before a correction, it teaches him to ignore your aids. If your horse has already learned to pivot on the haunches, turning should be relatively easy.
  • Stopping: Make sure your horse understands that “whoa” means–stop dead in your tracks. Horses that are voice trained are easy to stop. In preparation for bridle-less riding, I like to teach my horse to stop off three different aids–none of which are the reins. First the voice–riding along at the trot, I’ll do nothing else but say “whoa” then give my horse 1-2 seconds to stop dead in his tracks. If he doesn’t, I pick up the reins abruptly and back him up harshly in reinforcement of the voice cue. Go right back to trot and after a moment, ask again with the voice; repeat with the reins as necessary. If the reins always come last, and with enough pressure to motivate the horse to change or try a little harder, he’ll learn quickly to stop abruptly when he hears the magic word.Next I’ll use the same process to teach my horse to halt only off of my seat aid–using the reins as reinforcement and only after I’ve used my seat first. I am waiting for that moment of understanding from the horse that if he stops off my seat, I won’t use the reins at all. Give him lots of praise and let him rest when you don’t have to use the reins. If you are not sure how to use your seat in the stop, you have some remedial work to do on your riding–refer to volume 2 in my riding series, Communication and Control.Finally, I’ll use the same technique to teach the horse to stop just from my leg position–when I bring both my legs forward of the cinch, he should slam on the breaks. DO NOT STIFFEN OR BRACE YOUR LEGS. Coincidentally, you cannot do this without also using your seat aid, but the goal is to train your horse to watch for movement of your legs forward to signal him to stop or slow down. By applying the aid and waiting 1-2 seconds before reinforcing with the reins, your horse should quickly learn that if he listens for and responds to the first aid, you will not use the reins at all.
  • Slowing down: Once you have taught your horse to stop off of your seat and leg position, you should be able to use both aids in smaller increments for slowing down. Legs on means go, legs off means stop. If you slowly bring your lower leg slightly forward, your horse should begin to slow down in preparation for the stop. The farther back you sit and the more forward you put your legs, the slower he should go. Once he slows down to the speed you want, relax your legs so that they come back to his side and are hanging straight down. Your horse should learn that when your center of gravity moves forward and your legs move back, he should increase speed and when your center of gravity moves back and your legs forward, he should slow down.To really slow down the sitting trot, sit well back and think of pedaling a bicycle backwards. At the walk and trot, practice controlling speed with the rhythm of your seat–go from regular walk to extended walk by just increasing the alternating right-left rhythm in your seat and legs, then slowing down the walk by slowing the rhythm in your seat and legs (not by pulling on the reins). Soon your horse will learn to adjust his rhythm to yours.
  • Backing: You’ll have to teach your horse a specific cue for backing that does not involve the reins. To be consistent with everything else I’ve taught my horse, I teach him to back up when my legs are forward of the cinch. For me, the cue to stop really means back-up. So if he were trotting and I put my legs forward of the cinch, he would first stop, then start backing. I’ll tell him when to stop backing by relaxing my legs and putting them back underneath me, touching his sides. I may tell him to stop backing after one step back or after 20.If he already knows that your legs forward of the cinch means to stop, this should be easy to teach as a back-up cue using the same technique outlined above. From a halt, shift your weight back, put your legs forward of the girth and waggle them. Give him 1-2 seconds to respond, then pick up the reins and back him up vigorously. Step him forward, halt, then cue again–weight back, feet forward–then pick up the reins if necessary. Repeat until he totally gets it that if he backs up from your weight and legs that you will not use the reins. Give lots of praise and rest when he gets it.
  • You may spend a lot of time riding with the reins tied up and developing your cues for turn, stop, slow and back that do not involve reins. This is actually the hardest part and the rest is much easier!

 

Step Four: Use the Neck Rope

See Julie’s instructions for using the neck rope>>

Get your own neck rope>>

a) After completing all of the steps above, you’re ready to lose the bridle but you have one more step to make sure you are safe and have control before taking off the bridle.

b) With the reins tied up and stowed safely away, put your neck rope on, adjusted so that there is a loop around his neck that is loose enough for you to hold onto but not so loose that it hangs down and interferes with his shoulders (like an ill-fitted breast collar). Hold the neck rope in two hands, keeping your hands low down by the neck.

c) You can use the neck rope to turn, stop, slow down or back up. Remember, don’t just trade reins for the neck rope. Try to ride using your seat legs and arm position to cue the horse and only using the neck rope if needed for reinforcement when your horse needs help hearing your cues.

d) With the neck rope, you should find that you actually have MORE control than you did when you had the reins tied up and nothing in your hands. You can slide the rope up the neck when you need more turning or stopping power. IF YOU DO NOT FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE PLENTY OF CONTROL WITH THE NECK ROPE TO TURN, STOP, SLOW DOWN OR BACK-UP, do not take the bridle off yet and continue to work on all the previous stages. You should not have any doubts at this point about taking off the bridle. If you do, keep practicing with the bridle on.

Step Five: Take Off Bridle

a) This is the stage you’ve been waiting for! When everything falls into place and you have accomplished all of the stages detailed above, you are ready to remove the bridle and have the ultimate ride on your horse. There is nothing that matches the trust and unity you display when you ride without a bridle or without anything on the horse’s head.

b) Make sure you always warm up with the bridle and put your horse through some paces, focusing on his absolute obedience and responsiveness. Only remove the bridle when you have the neck rope on and feel that your horse is working well.

c) When you first remove the bridle, start with asking your horse to do simple stuff that he knows well. Avoid the more difficult maneuvers until you are confident in your horse’s response. Always check your brakes before stepping on the gas pedal.

d) Your horse needs LOTS of praise and comfort (rest) when working without the bridle. Remember, he has to concentrate harder on your signals to figure out what you want.

e) A normal bridle-less riding session would begin with the bridle, focusing on your horse’s obedience and responsiveness with minimal use of the reins. Then take off the bridle, using the neck rope as needed, making simple transitions and patterns. As you gain confidence, attempt more difficult maneuvers but only after practicing them with the bridle first.

f) Be careful not to push your horse into the point of disobedience or cheating without the bridle. If you become too demanding or take off the bridle at times that you horse is not working his best, he may figure out that he does not have to be obedient without the bridle. This would be a tragedy. Always go back to schooling with the bridle and monitor your horse for signs of cheating.

CAVEATS:

  • Without question, taking off the bridle puts you at greater risk and there is no guarantee that your horse will always be in control. If you have any doubts at all, stay in the previous stages working on obedience and responsiveness. You should have no doubts about your horse when you take the bridle off.
  • Always ride in a confined area with safe footing when riding without the bridle or preparing for bridle-less riding. This is not an appropriate activity for riding in the open or trail riding.

 

  • Riding without the bridle does not mean riding without your hands. Use your arms just as you would when holding the reins. If you change the way you ride, your horse will have a much harder time understanding your cues.
  • Riding without the bridle–no matter how well your horse responds–does not mean you will never use the bridle again. You must keep your horse schooled and responsive with the bridle, to keep him responsive without.
  • Keep your horse honest. If he begins to cheat without the bridle, go back to the bridle and school him. Review all of the steps listed above and find out where the holes are in your training. Do not push him so hard bridle-less that he begins to look for ways to cheat. It takes a lot more concentration on his part to respond to your cues without the reins. Give him lots of praise and reward when he tries hard but be ever vigilant for disobedience.
  • Try not to become reliant on the neck rope. Your ultimate goal is that you have complete and total control without even the neck rope. Only use it for reinforcement–not as the initial cue.

Horses Living Alone

Julie's herd

I first started riding horses more than half a century ago. I was a shy and introverted kid, so growing up on a small horse farm was like heaven to me. The horses in the pasture were the only friends I needed and I learned a lot about their herd life from my tree fort, in the shade of a towering live oak tree in our pasture—a favorite hangout of the herd on hot days.

That was way back in the day when kids were left free to climb any tree that was climbable and play outdoors without supervision, as long as you were home by 6:00 for dinner. It was also only a few decades removed, one generation really, from the time when horses were work animals—beast of burden, helping to pave the way to civilization.
The human relationship to horses was much different back then and I have seen my own philosophical outlook change through the decades, as horses have acclimated to new societal norms wherein horses fill a much different role in our society.

Just as our knowledge of human psychology, the brain and human behavior has grown exponentially in the last half century, so has the study of animal behavior evolved. It wasn’t long ago that behaviorists believed that animals did not feel pain and suffering, or that animals may share the same emotions as humans—like happy, sad, angry, bored or frustrated.

It’s only been in the last decade that some behaviorists have begun to accept the idea that animals can form friendships—defined as a reciprocal altruistic relationship between two animals of the same species that are not related by blood. A friendship based on, “I’ll get your back if you get mine,” or benefitting others at a cost to yourself. Not all species demonstrate this kind of relationship, but research has shown that horses do. This comes as no great surprise to anyone who has been around horses a lot.

Thirty years ago, if you asked me if it was okay to keep your horse at home alone, without the companionship of other horses, I would’ve said, “Sure, he’ll get used to it.” Today, my answer would be much different.

Horses are incredibly good at adapting to their environment and to changes in society. They are the most sensitive domesticated animal and the most easily DE-sensitized. They can adapt rapidly from a hot climate to a cold one; they can get used to the most disturbing stimuli in minutes. Over the millennium, their relationships with humans have evolved from a source of food, to transportation, to mechanisms of war, to sport, to entertainment, to items of luxury, to powerful tools of therapy.

Today, our use of horses is much different and our understanding is much greater. Plus, we have the undeniable luxury of not being reliant on our horses for surviving and thriving. We can afford more perspective on the horse’s well-being.
Indisputably, horses are herd animals. They get great comfort and security from the herd and they are very tactile animals—rubbing and massaging each other, nipping and biting, providing shade and tail swishing to each other.

Their herd behaviors are very distinctive and the structure of the herd is quite complex—rankings within the herd, cooperative behavior, bonding. Seeking acceptance into the herd is a huge instinctive drive of horses and banishment is the ultimate punishment. Simply put, horses are happiest in the herd, where they can touch other horses, push each other around and give each other comfort.

There’s safety in numbers and all horses know that. He feels safest when other horses surround him and he may only lie down to sleep if another horse remains standing. He relies on the senses of the other horses in the herd to help keep him safe, so that he does not have to be hyper-vigilant at every waking moment.

I’ve known horses that have adapted well to living alone. I’ve also seen horses that are frantic or severely depressed. Often, circumstances dictate the living arrangements for the horse and not ideals. Not all horses can run free 24/7 in belly-deep grass with a herd. Many horses are separated from the herd for their own health or well-being. Some may be separated because they are aggressive or dangerous. Often health and nutrition, as well as daily usage, means that our horses are separated part or most of the day.

Location and logistics sometimes limit the choices we have, but what most horses want is life in the herd. So how would I answer the aforementioned question today, about whether or not it is okay to keep your horse alone? I’d say, you owe it to him to provide some sort of 24/7 companionship, even it if cannot be another horse.

A companion horse is best—they share the same behaviors and motivations. An older horse that needs a home, an infirm horse that can’t be ridden, better yet, a friend’s horse that will share chores with you or off-set your costs. A miniature horse is perfect, since they don’t eat much, but the upfront cost may be high. A miniature donkey can fill the bill as well.

There are lots of options to fill the horse’s need to live in a herd and deciding what is right for you and your horse may be challenging. If all else fails, get a goat, a duck or a pig. I’ve even seen horses bond with barn cats, but a similar species is best.

Goats have long been used as companion animals for race horses that are kept in stalls. To help keep the racehorse calm in his isolated stall, you give him a goat for a roommate. The term, “Get your goat,” refers to the nasty trick of stealing your opponent’s goat the night before the big match race, thus leaving the horse frantically pacing all night and exhausted on the day of the race.

The biggest downside to horses living in the herd is their undying mission to stay with the herd. This is an instinctive behavior of horses, but highly inconvenient and sometimes downright irritating to us humans. Barn sour, herd-bound, tantrum throwing, nappy horses are a drag. Fortunately, not all horses are that bad.

To me, the ultimate honor my horse can bestow on me, comes with his willingness to leave the herd with me—happily and voluntarily. To do as I ask, take me where I want to go and respond to my signals, because I give him the same sense of safety and security he gets from the herd. To get that kind of relationship with your horse, you must give him fair and strong leadership, give him the comfort, the structure, the praise and the discipline he deserves. Once again, horses make us better people.

But in his free time, let him be with other horses as much as you can. As much as I want my horses to look up to me and work hard for me, I know I can never replace the contentment he gets from being a part of the herd.

Helicopters And Horses: Achieving A Subtle Cue To Master Motion

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I get very “zen” when I am riding—my mind is clear and my thoughts are carried along with the horse’s movement. Riding is my sanctuary, my restoration and where I come up with my best ideas. I wouldn’t be as good at teaching horsemanship to others, if I didn’t have a personal journey with horses myself. It is while I’m riding my own horses—Eddie and Dually—that I have the time to relax, be creative, and think about new ways to describe the feel of riding a horse.
And so it was while I was riding Eddie in my indoor arena (I sometimes feel more thoughtful and “heady” when riding inside than when distracted by the scenery and trail obstacles outdoors), that I had an interesting thought: riding horses at a high level is just like flying a helicopter. Random, you think? Let me explain my thought process.

A History of Flight
My father was a highly accomplished pilot; it was not his profession but it was his passion (one of many including horses, boating and the great outdoors).. After a few years of flying fixed-wing air ambulance out of Jackson Hole in all weather conditions because my dad thought it would be the ultimate experience as a pilot, he decided flying helicopters would be a good next accomplishment.
I remember him telling me about this experience decades ago—how different a fixed-wing craft is from a whirly-bird and how complicated it was to fly this machine. Since I jokingly refer to myself as “my father’s only son” (at least until my much-younger brother came along), I was the one who was with him for all his flying pursuits. I had learned to fly at a very young age (as well as saddle a horse, bait a hook and dock the boat). When other kids were being taught to parallel park, my dad and I were doing touch-and-go’s in a Cessna 150 and he was yelling at me for landing at too high a speed.

I’ve never piloted a helicopter but I have watched skilled helicopter pilots navigate the back country and mountain terrain while flying with them to heli-ski. What an experience and what a flight to watch firsthand. The maneuvers are amazing; a pilot’s hands know instinctively where to guide the fast-responding aircraft.

What strikes me most about the comparison between helicopters and riding? I remember my dad saying: to fly a helicopter, you have to make constant adjustments to attitude and altitude with two hands and two feet—each one adjusting in a totally different way. That is the precise comment that makes my mind wander and continually compare helicopters and riding horses.
For decades, I have pondered my dad’s comments–especially after he declared that flying helicopters was too challenging for him and he would prefer to stick to fixed-wing aircraft. When I heard my dad say that, after a lifetime of convincing me he could do anything he set his mind to and handle any adverse situation, it made an impression on me. There was something in this world that seemed too much of a challenge. If my dad thought that, it must be a challenge worth thinking about.

Controls in the Arena
Fast-forward to the other day when I was riding my young hose Eddie, snug in the cocoon of my cozy indoor arena—in a hypnotic state of bliss—working at a collected sitting trot in a soft and balanced frame. It felt as if he were on his tippy-toes. Eddie, built more like a line-backer than a ballet dancer and almost finished in his training, was holding himself in this frame, upon my request, with no contact at all on the reins. We were making beautiful, small and bendy circles.

At that moment, he was truly an extension of my body and I felt like I had as much control over his torso, limbs and his feet as I did over my own. To maintain this balance, I would occasionally make the slightest, most imperceptible adjustments with two feet and two hands. My left hand doing something different than my right; my right leg doing something totally different than my left—not with any conscious thought but totally by feel—to adjust attitude and altitude. Release here, constrict there, shortening and lengthening, giving and taking.

That’s when the helicopter association entered my mind. Whether riding at a fine-tuned level or piloting a helicopter, there is finesse and a precision of controls. There is no room for jerking, no room for sharp reactions. While I’d love to compare notes in detail with a helicopter pilot, I think that my own analogy can help you understand and envision the movements and level of control you should strive to have while riding.
Imagine you were up in the air, hovering or flying low and slow, adjusting to the contours of the land. There would be a constant and steady balancing and attitude adjustment of the vessel for acceleration, deceleration, turning or adjusting vertical altitude. To hold that attitude, you would delicately make subtle adjustments with the steering and pedals—someone casually observing probably wouldn’t even notice your slight adjustments—it would all look very smooth. When you’re riding, you are one with your horse and constantly making small adjustments that the finely-tuned horse is quick to respond to. Top riders who look like they aren’t moving at all really are making small corrections and giving the horses subtle cues that the horse is highly tuned in to receive. That ultimate connection and ability to almost “whisper” a cue is the highest level of horsemanship.

I had a very astute student in a clinic who was, in fact, an astronaut and the pilot of two space shuttle missions, who once told me, “Riding a horse is a lot like flying a fighter jet or the space shuttle; it is not the mechanics of using this control or that, but the feeling of strapping the machine onto your own body and flying it as if it were a part of you.”

As you are learning to ride, you must first learn to adjust your balance and rhythm to that of the horse and to use your aids to control his movement—these are mechanics and they must be learned in order to progress–and that takes time. Once you have mastered the mechanics, you and the horse start moving as one and developing the feel of each other and that’s when subtlety and lightness comes into play.

When you watch a highly trained horse and rider perform or see a helicopter land and take off in the most precarious situations, it is as if you are watching a dance between pilot and vessel. Subtle and perfectly timed corrections are at work and the two are moving as one.

Reaching this level in your riding takes time and persistence and a concerted effort to be in better balance with your horse, to communicate better and with softer aids. But even relatively new riders, as they learn to move in concert with their horse and adjust their aids to the horse’s level of response, can learn to feel the thrill of becoming one with their horse. Keep the imagery in mind and make it a goal to give your horse the softest, most precise and meaningful cues—guiding (piloting) your horse with precision.

Enjoy the ride,
Julie