Off To A Good Start Logo

Off To A Good Start

Are you raising a foal or young horse? Make sure you’re setting up a good relationship with respect from the start. To start your young relationship off on the right path, you’ll need to consider how a young horse thinks and envision how you want your horse to act later in life. All that training starts now. Your expectations must be clear and you must set about systematically to teach the horse what you think of as “good” behavior. In his young world, good behavior includes kicking, biting and running hell-bent for leather in any direction he pleases. That’s not how you want your young horse to act, so start teaching the new rules soon.


Horses know how to act like horses; that’s it. If we want them to act in certain non-horsey ways when we handle them, they have to be taught the proper response. We call that horse training. However, in the horse’s herd, he learns in the first days of life to recognize dominant horses and dominant behavior. He learns to respect authority and respect the space of others. He has trouble with the latter, even in the herd, so he gets spanked regularly (by kind but firm “aunties”). Because of this, young horses can be easily taught to respect your space and follow the rules. They can also be easily taught the opposite if mishandled.


I am not a big fan of over-handling baby horses—I’ve seen too many foals become insensitive spoiled monsters with many bad habits that must be “un-trained.” And I’ve seen how easily and quickly you can train 2 or 3 year olds that have never been handled; who have no preconceived notions about people. But, if you are going to handle young horses, there are basic manners and expectations of behavior that they should learn early on.


Spatial issues are huge with horses of any age. Just because the foal is young and cute, doesn’t mean he can’t run you down or kick your teeth out. Often, when inexperienced people are raising foals, big mistakes are made early on and the behaviors are well-engrained in the horse, long before the person has an appreciation for the scope of problem. Foals love to be rubbed and scratched and will quickly learn to lean and push on you to get your attention. Next thing you know, you have a horse that pushes you around and has learned to lean into pressure instead of move away from it. Those are bad traits when you’re riding a horse.


Because young horses are very oral by nature—constantly exploring their environment with their nose, lips and tongue—biting can be a big problem when handling youngsters. There’s a progressive set of behaviors in horses in which lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) leads to biting (the most aggressive and deadly behavior of horses). These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries. Just as with human toddlers that may test out biting, this behavior should be “nipped in the bud,” as early as possible in the progression.


It has been my experience that people bring these behaviors on themselves by allowing horses to be in their space and by nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you’ll be the dominant leader and one of you’ll be the subordinate follower in your “herd of two.” It’s best to set this pattern early on in the relationship you are developing with your young horse.


If you establish basic rules of behavior (respect my space at all times, follow my lead, stop when I stop and stand still when I ask) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn these important ground manners quickly. Also, any time any part of his body moves toward you, vigorously back him out of your space, so he learns where your space begins and ends. This will help him to learn to keep a respectful and safe distance from you and to be respectful of your space.


If you are raising a young horse or even retraining an older horse that missed out on learning good manners, it’s important to know what your expectations of his behavior are so that you can set clear rules and boundaries. If you’re not certain what your expectations should be, get some help. You only have one chance to make a good first impression on your horse.


Doing it right from the beginning may be critical in your horse’s success later in life. You have to be the leader and the enforcer and not coddle, cuddle or condone. When he is a teenager with 800 pounds of exuberance, you’ll be glad you did.



–Julie Goodnight

Dale Myler’s Visit to the Ranch; Personal Bit Clinic

I’ve been having too much fun this week taking a private bitting clinic from Dale Myler, of Myler Bits USA. Dale was kind enough to come and give us his undivided attention for a couple of days to impart a lifetime of information on bits and bit design. I invited a several friends—all riders and/or trainers and over the course of two days, we worked with 15 different horses. Everything from an unbroke three year old who never had a bit in his mouth to Rich’s finished bridle horse—with a big variety of training levels in-between .

It was the most fun with horses I’ve had in a while and I don’t have enough time today to write all the things I learned (hence the fun). I fell in love with Myler bits years ago when they first came out and gradually through the years, they became the only bits to hang on bridles in my tack room. I knew intuitively why I liked them, knowing from the beginning that they had an ergonomic shape and must be more comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Although I was the only one in our group that had much experience with Myler bits, we all figured out right away, from Dale’s power point presentation, why the bits would work. It wasn’t until we were in the arena trading horses and bridles like crazy, that we could see the results first-hand.

What I got the most from the clinic, was learning why I love the Myler bits so much. First off, looking at a dental picture with the horse’s teeth closed but lips opened by a speculum, you can see that the tongue fills the entire mouth when his teeth are shut—just like yours does. Having your tongue up in your palate is normal and feels good. It is not possible to put a bit in a horse’s mouth without it being pressed into the palate by the tongue. Pressure on the tongue does not feel good and if you don’t believe it, try poking your finger into your tongue.

Everything a horse can do to evade bit pressure has to do with him looking for relief from tongue pressure—whether he throws his head up, roots the reins, gapes at the mouth, sucks his tongue up in his throat, puts his tongue over the bit, comes behind the vertical. He’d rather have pressure anywhere than the tongue and by going through these gyrations, he always finds tongue relief. Even the bars of his mouth can take a lot more pressure than the tongue (try pressing on your bars—behind your molars and you’ll see what I mean). Myler bits are designed to relieve tongue pressure and distribute the pressure to other areas (like the nose, chin, poll, bars) in order to make the horse more comfortable and relaxed so that he is trainable and can perform to his fullest.

Here’s another interesting thing Dale said, a rider will never learn to have quiet and soft hands until she rides a soft and relaxed horse. That makes so much sense. If your pulling and struggling and hanging on for dear life, where’s the feel comes from? What I learned was that sometimes we can bit a horse differently so that he can tolerate the rider’s uneducated or inarticulate hands. Because I sell a lot of finished horses to novice riders, I already knew this and it’s one reason why I always send the horses to their new home with the right bit.

What was fun about the clinic was switching bits on horses and seeing instant results. I was pleased to learn that the bit I was already using on my horse Dually was probably the best thing for him but I realized I can get the same mouth piece in a snaffle side piece when I want to do more schooling on him. Rich had bought a Myler hand crafted reined cowhorse bit for his new horse a few months ago and Dale felt it was the ideal bit for him for show and we tried a few different bits on him for home-use. It was really interesting to feel the different bits on a very finished horse—a small change in the bit would be very noticeable in how Diggs responded and we settled on the same bit that I use on Dually for Diggs.

A lot of people these days seem to be asking, “why use a bit at all?” While many, if not most broke horses will work okay in a halter, a bit can provide the communication and precise cues that will help you achieve great performances. When used improperly, the devices can be treacherous, but with education and proper, kind use, a bit can help you better your communication and control. There are many things that compel us to use bits: more control, subtle communication, training to a high level of performance or maybe because the rules for your discipline compel you. What about you? What do you think about riding in a halter only or riding bridleless and without a bit? And are you happy, or more importantly, is your horse happy with the bit you use? Every time I’ve given a presentation on bits, the room has been full of people with lots of questions. I find it’s important to ask horse owners a few questions, too: How and what have you learned about bits? Why are you using the bit you use? If you have reasons beyond “that’s what someone told you to use,” do the reasons make sense? It’s a big subject! Post your thoughts here!


My Footing Fetish: All About Arena Footing Logo

10301438_10152447964382181_585494177246004039_nIt’s time to dish some dirt—about dirt. I figured out that I stand, walk or ride in more than 50 arenas each year. Over several decades of riding horses and teaching clinics that means I’ve visited thousands of arenas. I’ve worked in indoors and outdoors, some home-made and some highly engineered, some heated and air-conditioned, some with most any footing you can imagine– sand, clay, stone dust, fiber, rubber from tires, rubber from tennis shoes, leather, wool, waxed sand. I’ve worked in arenas in all 50 states plus several other countries. I’m not sure what constitutes expertise in arena footing, but I know what I like and especially what I don’t like.


Some arenas are wonderful with little dust and just the right amount of cushion; some are sloped and maybe need some leveling or dust help. I’ve worked in arenas that can have a puddle in one end and be dusty and hard at the other end. In good arenas the footing is not only level but a consistent depth—consistency you and your horse can rely on; while others have deep pockets here and there and hard or slick spots elsewhere. Firmer or softer, it’s the consistency that counts.


This past year, I have thought much more about footing than usual. I decided last winter –after years of dissatisfaction with the footing in my indoor arena– that I would splurge on new footing. Living in the high mountains of Colorado, our winters aren’t exactly easy. We are relegated to riding indoors for about four to five months—more than a third of the year, and with all the time I spend in there, I want it to be perfect!


Have you thought about the ground your horses are working on lately? I sometimes worry that we pay so much attention to what goes on our horses legs and feet and backs, but little attention to what the horse is actually stepping on. If you ride out on the trail, you have to be ready for anything, but if you’re riding in an arena, it is important to think about what you’re asking your horse to perform on each day.


I want my horses on a surface that will allow the horse to work to the best of its ability with the least amount of stress and strain. And I want it to be level, consistent and dust-free. Plus, it must stand the test of time, holding up to the daily pounding of horse hooves and the regular grooming that makes it look and feel brand new.


Form to Function: 

Think of taking a jog or working out on different surfaces. Do you think you feel different after a workout running on concrete versus a clay athletic track? Now how do you feel after a barefoot run on the beach? Your horse adapts to each footing that he’s asked to run upon just like us humans, but some surfaces are better than others.


I used to live in southern Colorado, just north of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. I know many of you live in places where you would kill to have an unlimited supply of sand, but when your arena sits on top of a sand dune, it’s too much of a good thing. It was a great pen for riding colts, because they were working too hard to even think about bucking or running off!


Even the slightest slope in an arena will cause changes of balance in your horse as you ride. I’ve worked in lots of arenas (including my own outdoor) that have gradual slopes. Most people would not be able to see the slope, but it affects the horse’s balance. With a green horse, you’ll be checking his speed on the downhill slope a good time to work on slow trot is on the uphill track. Be sure to think about any gradual slopes the next time you feel your horse speed up or slow involuntarily. The footing has an impact!


Footing is critical to the horse’s ability to perform, the stress and strain on his limbs, his respiratory health and his willingness to work. And for me, nothing is more pleasing than awesome footing and a freshly groomed arena.


The Bad:

I know what I didn’t want—straight sand, rocks constantly working their way up, uneven depth or too much depth. I knew I didn’t want materials that were so fine it would be dusty or sticky or clumpy. I didn’t want dust or slippery when wet.


I’ve ridden horses for half a century and a lot of that time has been spent in dusty arenas. I knew I didn’t want a material that would lead to high dust. The rider is not nearly as prone to sucking in the dust as the horse is (or the trainer that is standing on the ground). Respiratory problems in trainers and riding instructors are clearly an occupational hazard—lots of us are sporting inhalers by the time we reach the pinnacle of our careers. And I know lots of older horses with the heaves too; dust can be a huge contributing factor to these conditions. Whether you water for dust control or use a dust reduction product like I do, the materials you choose will have a bearing on your ability to control the dust.


The Good:

Constructing good footing for an indoor arena can be quite different from an outdoor, but in my experience, the sub-base in any arena is the most important layer (and the easiest layer to mess up). That’s where the leveling, layering and machine compaction takes place. Also, the sub-base is the important layer for drainage. If you have drainage concerns, it pays to have an expert build your sub-base with drains, crowning and/or a slight slope so that your arena stays useful in all conditions and dries off quickly.


For me, the sub-base for my indoor arena footing had to be laser-level, with a geo-textile fabric barrier between the native subgrade (the rocks) and the finish footing. We needed a chemical binder added to substitute for the lack of clay available in this area, in order to provide more compaction. The end result was as smooth and level as a marble counter-top but had good traction and would hold up to the constant beating of hooves.


For my finish footing, I knew I wanted a combination of sand and clay in my indoor arena. As I mentioned, straight sand is too hard on the horse if he has to push it. A little bit of clay, machine blended into the sand, will give enough compaction to give the horse some rebound and slide, but too much clay will cause the footing to get too hard too fast. Finding the right mixture for the type of riding you do is no easy task, but we have sampled and tested different blends and come up with what I think is the perfect formula.


How it’s Made:

While working to get my own new footing, I’ve learned a lot about dirt and constructing perfect surfaces. I guess at first I thought that if you wanted a mix, you just got a load of sand and a load of clay. I wasn’t imagining how that would mix. It doesn’t really work to take your kitchen mixer out to the arena. You can’t just add a load of sand to a load of clay and mix it in place easily.


Instead, my new finish footing was machine blended to an exact ratio, at a pit about 150 miles away where clay was available. A huge system of vats and conveyor belts, controlled by a computer and blended and tested to meet a rigid standard. They hauled it to us in rear-dump semi trucks—five loads, 150 tons.


Then the dirt had to be hauled by dump truck into the arena and placed carefully, using a frame and a bobcat to screed the footing evenly without driving on it so that the depth and compaction was even throughout the entire building. The builders of my new arena footing were meticulous and conscientious, never cutting any corners and taking great pride in their work.


Getting Help:

Working with experts in arena construction, materials blending and surfaces for sports has taught me a great deal. You wouldn’t think there was much to arena dirt, until you talk to experts—it was a thrill to meet people that were more passionate about dirt than I was. The folks at G&S Sports Solutions taught me a lot ( or on Facebook at /GolfandSport—please hit like). I knew what I wanted for the end result, but I had no idea how to get there.


There are so many considerations in building good footing for your riding arena. The type of riding you do will have a bearing on the depth and firmness you want; the drainage you need, the cushioning and support, the dust and dust reduction methods you use, the natural materials available and the native soil conditions will all have a bearing on how your footing is built.


One thing I’ve learned, from building my own arenas and working in so many others, that this is no place to cut corners or take advice from anyone who is not an expert. I’ve had well-meaning advice from dirt-moving guys that know nothing about riding or horses and as a result, I’ve wasted a lot of money. Doing it right and getting expert help along the way always pays off in the end.


Already, G&S has made what I thought were big projects into easy work. They act fast and know their dirt. I highly recommend checking them out and learning more about the footing options (and how to clear space and prepare for your own riding arena.) If you’re farther from their “pit”, they can still help you find the right mix and the right way to get started in your area.


Stay tuned for more information about how to set up your own riding arena with the perfect footing. I’ll share more thoughts and suggestions as I get to ride on my own perfect footing.


Work Ethic: How Your Determination (And Your Horse’s Consistent Work) Leads To Dreams Fulfilled

A strong work ethic ensures an individual’s success—for both horses and humans. Whether you are bussing dishes or doing brain surgery, a good work ethic will make a difference in the rewards you reap and how far you will go in your career. For horses, it is no different.

Horses do better when they are gainfully employed and regularly worked—useful, fit, skilled and purposeful; healthy and gratified, they would even show up for work on their day off if you asked. Like humans, when horses are instilled with a strong work ethic from an early age, they strive to work hard and reap the rewards of a purposeful career and their individual talent is developed to its fullest potential.

I’ve never known anyone that was inherently lazy to be successful with horses—it’s a lot of hard work! If you have horses at home or have been in charge of a stable full of four-legged friends, you know that working with horses is a dusk to dawn, seven day a week job. Holidays don’t matter; horses still have to be fed.

The Human Drive

I’ve known the importance of a strong work ethic since I first started my career–over 30 years ago. The importance is magnified when you work for yourself. Working with horses is the only job I know of where you normally work six days a week–but you only get a day off if you pay someone to cover for you.

I first started into business as a young, independent trainer, starting with an initial capital investment of zero. I opened my doors with a dozen or so horses in my barn. Some were boarded, some in for full training, but they all had big mouths to feed. It was during that time that I worked the hardest—but also learned so much.

I was going through a ton of hay per week but I couldn’t afford to buy in bulk or get it delivered. So every Saturday I would coax a friend to come with me to help stack 30 bales precariously on my over-loaded truck, drive it back to the barn and unload it. I went through a lot of friends.

It was a year before I could afford to start buying hay by the semi-load and from that point forward, I vowed to always get my hay delivered and stacked, no matter how much more it cost– a promise to myself that I have kept. The horse business entails a lot of hard work, dedication and persistence but the rewards are great.

I am one of four siblings and all of us are blessed with strong work ethics. I’ve long known that a huge part of my success being self-employed, has to do with my work ethic and I’ve often wondered what is it about our upbringing or genetics that has led us all to this trait?  We were raised on a horse farm where we knew that lives depended on the chores we were assigned to do. We were taught from an early age that there was time for play, but that taking care of the animals came first.

Within the chores we had to do, we knew there were consequences for not doing the job correctly. If a gate was left open, horses were in danger of getting loose (and they did). If a gate that should have been open was closed, a horse may not have access to water (thankfully no one died).

We saw our own parents have dreams and business goals that they regularly tended and saw through to fruition. There’s no one parenting strategy I can point out, but I know a combination of teaching showed me that there was a benefit to my hard work. My parents taught us that we should love what we do and enjoy life to its fullest every day and that if we wanted something, no matter how far-fetched, it was within our power to make it happen, even though it may take a while. And that fairness and a sense of objectivity are very important in all matters.

As parents, we think about these things—how do you help a child learn a good work ethic in today’s culture of instant gratification and risk-averse attitudes? I believe teaching young humans about horses is one step we can take to keep the term “strong work ethic” in the vernacular. I am a huge fan of the “Time to Ride” initiative, designed to help introduce horses to the younger generations. Not only is it critical for the growth of our industry, but it is important to our youth because of the life skills that working with horses brings.

Horses and Work Ethic

While we as humans need to be dedicated to our horses and have a strong work ethic for our riding and horse goals to flourish, it’s also important to think of the horse’s work ethic. While horses definitely need turnout time to “just be horses,” I have found that most horses do better when they have regular and purposeful work.

In my long and varied career training horses, I have found that it is best to teach a work ethic when a horse is young, just like teaching a toddler to pick up his toys. A mature horse that has never been worked is a challenge to train– like training a 30 year old man, who had never had a job, cooked a meal or picked up his dirty clothes off the floor in his life to be a good husband. Sure, it’s possible, but brace yourself because you may be in for some resistance.

Learning a good work ethic starts with learning good manners and how to follow the rules—that you will be rewarded for compliance and that noncompliance will not be tolerated. This is kindergarten for horses. Well before a horse is started under-saddle, he should learn to respect authority, be careful not to infringe on his handler’s space and to look for the cues that tell him what he should do. As a yearling and 2 year old, he’ll also learn to stand and wait patiently while tied, knowing full-well that he could be there all day, so best make yourself comfortable. Patience and stick-to-it-ness is a virtue.

As the young horse progresses toward being ridden, at some point he must learn the cold, hard facts about working for a living—that sometimes he has to work when he doesn’t feel like it, to do what he’s told and to meet certain expectations that his job requires. But that he will always be rewarded for his efforts.

This is easily taught to the horse while doing ground work and the horse learns to go where you direct him without argument, at the speed you dictate, until you tell him to stop. I can teach this on the lead line in one session by setting rules and boundaries for the horse—you cannot get in front of me, you cannot crowd me with your shoulder, and you cannot drag behind me like an anchor. That there are rules I expect to be followed, ramifications if you don’t and comfort when you do. That it is your responsibility to know and follow the rules and I won’t remind you or count to three. Oddly enough, horses learn these things quickly and they take great comfort in knowing the rules.

When we advance to the round pen or circling on a long line, I’ll teach the horse that I expect a ‘yes mam’ response when I ask him to step out and that he should keep going until I ask him to stop. This is a critical stage in training a work ethic, both on the ground and in the saddle—a horse must learn that once I tell him to do something (like trot at this speed), he must continue on his own (without prodding, pleading or pedaling) until I give him the signal to stop. I run across horses every day in my clinics that have never learned this lesson (or actually been taught the opposite) and stop or take off whenever they want.

By nature, horses are an incredibly impulsive species. Take the flight response, for example—clearly a react-first, think-later behavior. Imagine if horses could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted while you were riding them. Lazy horses would go nowhere and do nothing. Energetic horses would go faster and faster. Nervous horses would spin and bolt whenever their fancy struck them. A cranky horse might kick or bite you just for getting in his way or break in two bucking at the slightest provocation.


Horses and Humans

No matter what their default behavior type, all horses can learn to work and it is critical to their success—be it a world champion or the best trail horse ever. Learning a good work ethic and that there are rules to follow, ramifications if we don’t and certain expectations of our behavior, is a critical stage of training in horses and humans both—best taught at an early age! It’s also about learning the great satisfaction and reward that comes with working hard and a job well done. Even if I have to stack a ton of hay again someday, I know I’d be satisfied when I was finished at the tightness of the stack and the good workout I got!

Horse Guilt: Focus On Your Personal Riding Goals And Ditch Any Guilt About Not Riding Enough Logo

My friend Nancy is a life-long rider in her 60s and a pretty good hand with a horse. One day while practicing her reining patterns in the arena, her horse spooked ‘out of the blue’ and she lost her balance and fell. Her injuries would’ve been minor for someone several decades younger. It wasn’t a terrible fall, but it was a fall and she deeply injured her psyche.

Nancy felt lots of pressure to get back to riding from a horse-loving family, and a network of friends she often rode with. But her injuries gave her deep reservations about riding–especially returning to the level she had been riding. Before long, Nancy found it easy to make excuses to skip riding. The house, the job, the husband, the grandkids, the charity work—all provided her with great excuses not to ride. When she ran out of excuses from her personal life, she started blaming her horse—“the farrier didn’t come, he seems off today, he’s got a bite on his back, I think he is depressed.”

Eventually Nancy realized her excuses for not riding actually boiled down to avoidance. And once she was avoiding her horse, she had tremendous feelings of guilt. She came to me for help and together we took a long hard look at her situation and how she got there and developed a plan for change. Nancy took control of herself and her personal journey and set about to enjoy horses on her own terms, even if it meant not going along with everyone else’s idea of what she should be doing with her horse. It was time to set her own goals and let go of the guilt.

It’s now a whole new era in her horse life and Nancy is enjoying every minute of it. She consciously chose to let go of others’ expectations about how much she should ride again or at what grand level of showing. She actually gave up showing and got into trail riding and driving minis with her grandkids. And she loves it. She has new goals and ambitions that bear no resemblance to her old ones and her friends and family are all happy for her and supportive. What a success story!

There are lots of reasons you might feel guilt when it comes to your horses—not riding as often as you should, not fostering the relationship as you should, or letting your busy life get in the way of your personal fulfillment. Do you feel guilty for not achieving some unrealistic goals you set for your horse or not doing as much as you thought you would? The initial ideas we have about riding or showing might change after having horses for a while. And that’s OK.

While guilt can eat you up from the inside out, it can be useful if it propels you to action. The great thing about guilt is when you own it, analyze it and rectify it, the oppressing emotion goes away. The sooner you get started, the better!

Own It!

Think through your guilt enough to define it, figure out where it is coming from and what you wish would change. First and foremost, who is making you feel guilty? Is it coming from inside your own head or pressure from others? It’s quite possible you are doing this to yourself.

Get specific about what makes you feel guilty—do you wish you had more time to spend with your horse, or because of promises or commitments you have made to others, because your goals have changed, or because you are making excuses for not riding due to fear issues?

These can be painful questions to answer and may require some deep introspection on your part, but until you get to the bottom of your guilt and define it, the emotion will continue to haunt you and pollute your horse life.

Analyze the Guilt

Often people feel guilty for no good reason. If it is out of your control, you shouldn’t worry about it. But sometimes people feel guilt because of an underlying conflict within you or an underlying conflict with others.

Starting into horse sports is a little like deciding what to major in at college. Sometimes you know early-on and you think you are sure that is what you want, but by the time you graduate, things look a little different. Sometimes you pick your major based on other’s expectations—your parents’, your friends’. If you’re expecting yourself to ride at a level that your spouse, your friends or your trainer chose for you, it may be time to choose your own adventure. Following someone else’s plan may work for a while, but later-on, when you have more experience, your ideals may change. That’s okay! Change is good.

Time for Change

Be realistic about what time you can dedicate to your horse and make it happen. Address the excuses you have for not riding and make a commitment to change. If your horse needs more work than you can realistically provide, find a solution. Pay a teenager to ride a couple times a week, hire a trainer, share your horse with someone or consider trading in your youngster for an older horse that needs less work.

If you found that your guilt is because you’ve been avoiding your horse due to an underlying fear, there are many things you can do to prevail. The important thing is to make a plan to build your confidence—it is a slow and steady path and requires patience. This may mean you don’t ride for a while to stay within your comfort zone long enough to build confidence. Check out my website ( for more information on developing your own plan of action to overcome your fear and build confidence with horses.

If your time is short and/or you need to build more confidence before going back to riding, there are many things you can do to make your horse time more productive. Maybe you’ve only got 20 minutes of quality time with your horse—make the most of it by grooming your horse thoroughly and spending a few minutes on his ground manners.

There are many great ways to enjoy horses without riding at all. If you spent 15 minutes on groundwork every time you were with your horse, you would make tremendous progress. Basic lead-line work is excellent for developing your relationship and building your confidence and leadership skills. If your time is short, you can make a much greater impact on the relationship with your horse with groundwork, instead of rushing through a ride that neither of you enjoys.

When it comes to horses, you always need to be open to change. If you’ve analyzed your guilt and come to the conclusion that you are in the wrong discipline or that what you thought you wanted is not cutting it anymore, consider a change. It’s okay to change your goals. I’ve reinvented myself numerous times during my half a century of riding horses and each time the change has been positive and has reinvigorated my passion for horses.

Enjoy the Horse Life

I’ll never forget a comment from a clinic participant some years ago. She was a very high-level executive in a high-stress job and she was attending one of my “fear management for riders” seminars. We were talking about getting in touch with your passion and understanding your purpose when it comes to horses—this is not as easy as it sounds.

The high-powered executive admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that all she wanted to do at the end of a long hard day at work, was to get her horse out of the stall, lead him to the grass and listen to him munch grass contentedly as all her stress melted away. Turns out that was what she needed from her horse at that time in her life.

But you know what? We got into horses for personal pleasure—not to add more stress in our lives. If you have time and enjoy daily riding and working toward difficult goals—go ahead, achieve all you will! But if that isn’t your path now, that’s OK. Do what gives you the greatest satisfaction and relish it—whatever time you have. Do not pollute your mind with useless feelings of guilt or let yourself be high-jacked by what others think. The only two opinions that matter are yours and your horse’s.

Horses As Our Teachers Logo

chavoIMG_8662For better or for worse, you can learn something from every horse that you ride—whether it is a skill or a life-lesson. Sometimes you learn something you should always do, or something you should never do. I’ve been fortunate that in my lifetime, I have ridden thousands of horses. From them, I have gained invaluable experience. While the old-time wisdom says you are fortunate to have one good horse in your lifetime, I know am very blessed to be on my fourth. This month, I said goodbye to Chavo– one horse that will always leave a mark on my life. His passing made my mind reel with old scenes of all of my dear horses.

My first true love was my childhood horse—Minnie. She was a pretty bay Morgan mare that would take me anywhere and do whatever crazy-kid thing I asked. From her, I learned to stick on the back of a horse and gained all the confidence I would ever need in life. Some horses will give you confidence; some will take it away.

Next came George—an off the track Thoroughbred turned hunter. My dad bought him for me when I was 14 and he totally “made” me as a rider. He was a push-button equitation machine, always in the ribbons, and we paid the un-heard of sum (at the time) of $1500 for him! George taught me the finer points of riding a finished horse and on him I mastered the important principles of classical riding.


Pepsea came into my life after college and stayed with me for a couple decades. She was a high-powered classic Morgan show horse and it was just through luck and circumstance that I got her—I could never have afforded her as a young horse trainer. Pepsea was hot-blooded, sensitive, athletic, smart and brave. True to her breed, she could do anything—and she’d do it better and faster than any other horse. These are the principles that helped shape my career. Together we climbed mountains, led pack strings, sorted cows, jumped, ponied colts and taught many, many clinics. I had her for almost 25 years, until she laid down and died peacefully earlier this year at the age of 29.

My current horse-of-a-lifetime is Dually, an athletic cow-bred Quarter Horse with an amazing temperament and undying eagerness to please. We have been a team now for eight years and he is absolutely perfect for me at this point in my career. He’s awesome to teach off of at clinics and he is a super-model when it comes to photo shoots, TV shows and expositions. He has taught me so much about willingness, the intensity of cow horses and about high-level athletic maneuvers. He and I will be making more memories for quite a while.

The horse I’m remembering most right now was an incredible lesson horse. While he wasn’t just mine, he was a horse of lifetime. I have worked with some incredible school horses throughout my career— I call them “The Professors” –and Chavo was the best of them all. Where would our sport be without the professors? From the gentle beginner’s horse that babysits her rider, to the intermediate horse that provides just enough challenge to force the rider to step-up, to the higher level school masters that teach refinement skills to experienced riders—school horses keep our sport going.

chavoScan0003[2]Chavo was such a horse—a “School Master” for all levels of riders. He came my way about 20 years ago, because his owner could no longer care for him. He was a handsome and balanced grade horse with a temperament of pure gold, so I was happy to give him a try. Unusual for a school horse, he would work equally well for any level rider—from the never-ever to the advanced—trail, arena, jumping, cows, you name it, he would do it. Here at my farm, he taught literally hundreds of riders, including my son and my husband– for whom Chavo will always have a special place in their hearts.

I remember watching my son, all decked out in his Charlie Goodnight outfit, with BB gun slung over his shoulder, riding out alone on the trails around our house with Chavo. How many horses could you turn your 8 –year-old son loose with and know he would be safe as he rode around the pasture, pretending to be a Wild West gunslinger?

My husband first learned to canter on Chavo. For him, the horse was a teacher who inspired him to keep learning. After Chavo’s patience with him, Rich went on to compete on versatile ranch horses and win championships. He still credits Chavo with getting him started and giving him the skills and confidence needed to ride more high-powered horses.

About 10 years ago, I decided to no longer have clinics here at my ranch, making our school horses obsolete. By then, Chavo was ready to be semi-retired and I found a great home for him with two young boys that he would babysit, and we said our sad goodbyes. Little did I know that he would come back home 10 years later.

When we heard that Chavo needed a home, we were more than happy to bring him back. Old and frail, in his mid-30s, he was still alert and always happy to see anyone that walked in the barn. Long past the age where he could be ridden, Chavo still loved people and clearly wanted to be useful. Whenever we had our working horses out, Chavo would always come stand at the hitching rail with them– I suppose with fond memories of having a daily job.

Chavo touched an incredible number of people in his long and illustrious career. He has a special place in the hearts of many people and it was with both sadness and a sense of peace that we recently saw him off to greener pastures.

I’ve encountered some great horses in my lifetime and I know how valuable it is to learn and grow on horses that provide you with just the right challenge, at the right time in your life. Some horses cooperate with the rider and tolerate our mistakes; while others throw tantrums at the slightest provocation. Some are shy and reticent—in need of our softness; while others require our boldness and direction. Take time to learn whatever lesson your horse is teaching you. Horses are our greatest teachers and all we have to do is listen to the lesson.


C Lazy U, Part 3

Good day!

I am enjoying another perfect summer day here at home. Even managed to get caught up on some gardening projects and household chores. I have one more major reorganization project to tackle here in the office, then it’ll be time for a ride.

I’d better finish the Memorial Day weekend story or I’ll soon be more than a week behind my life. My last post took us to the middle of the second day of VRH clinics and our turn at the Working Cow clinic. We were thrilled to have one of the top clinicians in the country, Sandy Collier of Buelltin CA, .

Sandy has a talent for getting a lot of information across in a short amount of time. She explained the procedures for “boxing” the cow on the end of the arena and showing how your horse can control the cow (it’s similar to cutting except that there is only one cow and you are holding him on the fence). In VRH, after you have boxed your cow, you take him down the long wall of the arena, past the middle marker, turn him back on the wall, run him past the middle marker again and turn him again. This usually is high-speed and thrilling (or sheer terror for some).

Before starting the live-cow work, we did an exercise with two horses—one rider pretending to be the cow, one being the horse/rider herding the cow. I discovered that this exercise only works when your partner knows how to act like a cow 😉 but it helps you gel the theory in your mind before trying it on a cow.

We practiced moving the cow by putting your horse’s nose at his flank and circling the cow by putting your horse’s nose at the cow’s ear. I learned a key exercise for my chargey, over-zealous cow horse that relates back to what I learned about him in the cutting clinic—the reward is the cow. If Dually makes a frantic charge at the cow, instead of stealthily sneaking up behind him to turn him, I immediately take him off the cow, put him directly behind the cow and just let him push the cow around the rail into the corners. We’ll continue at that pace, just following the cow, until he is relaxed and then try sneaking up on the cow again. Every time he gets chargey, we start following the cow, pushing him down the rail instead of turning. Once he makes two good turns on the cow, we quit.

Still trying to preserve my horse’s back for the schooling competition the next day, I only worked him once on a real cow. I was proud of my determination not to over work him, but as I took him back to the trailer I had a nagging concern that I perhaps had not worked him enough and he would be too fresh tomorrow. But since Dually was on a heavy dose of Alleve, I felt it prudent to err on the side of caution since twice before I have been unable to compete on him after a two-day clinic.

I tried this rail work exercise yesterday, training here at home, and it worked great! We also roped a little and I had two good catches and stops J I guess I am going to have to finish his story in a fourth part, because now I have to get some work done and so I have time to ride my horse. Next I’ll share what competition day is like in VRH and let you know how we all did at the competition.

Until then, ride safely!


Please visit Goodnight’s sites for more information and training tips:

Riding With Awareness Logo

A group of seven of my horse-loving friends decided to get together and ride each Wednesday evening this summer. Our group consisted of new riders as well as pros, green horses and finished show horses. Our goal was to have fun riding together and to practice skills so that we would keep advancing our horsemanship. Everyone one can keep learning and riding together with friends helps keep us all motivated. Our rules were simple: show up if you can, have fun, and take turns organizing the horsemanship practice topic for the meeting.

The riding club nights were a highlight of the summer and I learned something new during each ride. One night, the lesson learned was about awareness. Becoming aware was the goal for new riders and learning to teach with awareness was the goal for the more seasoned equestrians. Teaching a new rider to be aware (and learning when even the most seasoned horse is testing you) is a skill that will advance your horsemanship. Being aware of your horse is more important than simply learning new cues and directions.

The Scenario:

It was the inaugural meeting of our summer riding club. For most of us, the evening ride got off to a great beginning, but for some, it was a rocky start.

Our friends and neighbors, Jack and Cheryl, were part of the club and we were all excited to have the husbands join in our fun. Cheryl is a seasoned and dedicated rider and the owner of two well-trained and mature horses. But up until now, Jack’s horse experience was limited to feeding and doing chores when Cheryl was out of town. Nonetheless, Jack was enthusiastic to be part of the club and at least half interested in getting comfortable enough on a horse to accompany Cheryl on the occasional trail ride.

The rest of the club members were already mounted and warming-up in the outdoor arena as Jack and Cheryl casually rode up the driveway to join us. Cheryl was leading the way on her older mare, Lakota, while Jack was bringing up the rear on Gracie– a lovely palomino mare who was heavily shown as a rookie reiner. This is a horse you’ll see in my advanced riding DVDs and is a horse pretty much anyone can ride. But, as we found out this evening, you do have to ride her.

As Jack and Cheryl approached the arena, Gracie took one look at all the horses who were already working, stopped, turned around and casually headed back down the driveway toward home. She didn’t take off but she sauntered up the drive as if Jack wasn’t even with her. Jack wasn’t the captain of this four-legged ship. A mutiny was taking place and Gracie thought she was in charge.

I am not sure who was more shocked by this turn for home; Jack couldn’t believe Gracie would turn on him and Cheryl was appalled that her amazing Gracie was misbehaving. Cheryl started shouting instructions to get Gracie back on track. I could see the frustration and irritation building on both Jack and Cheryl’s faces. It didn’t take much to get Gracie turned around– all Jack really had to do was take charge and give a few clear cues.

But by the time they made it to the arena, Cheryl’s emotions were stretched thin and her constant orders (“do this; don’t do that; now do this,”) were wearing equally thin on Jack. My husband, Rich, and I decided an intervention was in order– not only to prevent marital strife, but so that Jack would have a good time and want to join us for future meetings. We were worried that his new-found interest in riding would disappear if he didn’t have fun after that mutiny event.

Rich stepped up to the plate and took over for Cheryl. Rich and Jack are fast friends, and as we all know, spouses do not make good riding coaches. In no time, Rich helped Jack understand why Gracie thought she was in charge and helped him understand that he had to be aware of her every step and correct any small disobedience from the start—instilling the idea that Jack was indeed the captain of the ship and Gracie needed to be the willing and obedient first mate. Rich soon had Jack walking a straight line up and down the centerline of the arena—an exercise that makes the rider pay strict attention to the horse’s straightness and learn when to correct a testing horse from pulling toward the gate. In short order, Jack was reprimanding the well-trained-but-testing mare as needed (it didn’t take much) and using his hands and legs together to guide her on the path he wanted.

Jack’s sense of accomplishment was great– especially given the mutiny at the beginning of the ride. Jack and Gracie have attended every one of our meetings since then and so far Jack has ridden a western dressage test (at the walk), completed a trail course and learned how to properly open and close a gate from horse back. Not bad for only four evenings of “social” riding!

Becoming Aware

Jack had a shift in awareness when he rode that straight line up and down my arena. It wasn’t that he learned a new riding skill, he learned that he was in charge. It wasn’t what he did, but his awareness about what the horse was doing (or attempting to get away with). That awakening to be aware of your horse and to awaken the leader within you is a milestone for riders. It’s a goal I work on with riders at each clinic I give.

It was not the technique that Jack used to ask the mare to go, stop or turn (the instructions that Cheryl offered as immediate solutions— “pull the right rein, loosen the left rein, kick her with your left leg… ”), but it was the change in his awareness that impacted his ultimate success. He had to understand the horse’s point of view, her motivations, and what actually constitutes obedience in a horse in the first place (following willingly in the speed and direction asked).
Obedience is very black and white to me. If a horse is trained and knows the correct response, he should follow directions. It is all about direction and speed—if you control the horse’s exact direction at all times, without challenge from the horse and if you control his speed so that the horse goes the speed you dictate without argument or your constant interference, you have an obedient horse.

Some horses are obedient 100% of the time and will always do what you ask without challenge. Some horses are obedient most of the time, but occasionally have meltdowns or just flat-out refuse to do something you’ve asked. Often riders in this circumstance will come to an unspoken agreement with their horse—if you never ask me to go past that place of horror again, I will be good the rest of the time. Negotiating is rarely a good idea with horses, because by negotiating you agree that obedience is optional.

But for many horses, small disobediences rapidly lead to bigger ones. First the horse starts cutting the corners of the arena, then he won’t go into a trot until the rider asks six times. In short order, the horse is standing in the middle of the arena refusing to move at all no matter what the rider does. Or the trail horse that first just balks momentarily while leaving the barn yard and in a few weeks is throwing full-blown tantrums about leaving the herd.

Training takes years to complete and only a few moments to unravel. Horses are quite clever this way—extremely adept at manipulating people, who often have no idea they are even being manipulated.

Being aware of the horse’s level of obedience and his motivations for disobedience (maybe lazy, maybe herd-bound, seeking comfort or scared and seeking security), is especially important when riding a well-trained horse—they are quick to recognize a skilled rider vs. a passive rider and will often use this information to their advantage. All horses are very tuned into the motivations, intentions, competency level and emotions of their human and will use that information as needed.

Teaching Awareness

Another salient point is how you go about helping someone and how seemingly impossible it is to “help” your spouse (who usually feels more like it’s criticizing and judging rather than helping). Trust me when I tell you I’ve spent lots of time thinking about this one. I think after about 30 years of teaching horsemanship, I can honestly say, I can teach just about anyone. Anyone except my husband and my son. Now that cannot be all their fault can it?

That is a subject for much more discussion, but in a nutshell, the relationship you have with your spouse or child is not one of teacher/student or leader/follower; with your spouse it is a relationship of friends/lovers and with your son or daughter the relationship is about parenting. Although I always felt that my son and husband did not accept my instruction well, I also knew I had unreasonable expectations of them (how many times have you heard me say that?) and I tended to cut corners (sure, you can handle this green horse). Bottom line is, in most instances it is better for everyone involved to have an objective third party do the coaching.

One more thing about this story that I think a lot of horse owners can relate to, is how frustrating it is when someone is riding your horse and it misbehaves–even if it is not the horse’s fault. Kind of like when your kid has a screaming tantrum in the grocery store. You want your horse or child to reflect your time and investment in their training and act like you expect them to act, but we don’t really have that control of another being.

As is often the case, Cheryl badly wanted Jack to have a great time, to think her horse was as wonderful as she does (or at least she did, before the mutiny), and to want to ride again with her in the future. Maybe she wanted all those things at once—and that’s a lot of pressure!

It’s a lot to think about, isn’t it? The whole “problem” with Gracie only lasted a moment, and was really rather minor (compared to what we all know horses are capable of). Yet you could spend years thinking about the implications. That’s what I love about horses—they keep you thinking!

Our inaugural meeting of the neighborhood riding club was a huge success, leading to many other fun and productive meetings. Jack and Gracie look more like a team than combatants now and Cheryl is proud of her husband and her mare. We all remain committed to having this kind of fun together, growing in our horsemanship, while doing and sharing something we love with our friends, for some time to come.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Enjoy the ride,

Nurturing The Try In Your Horse Logo

I have lived with and worked with horses for more than half a century. And the older I get, the more appreciation I have for horses and their willingness, generosity and ability to forgive. It never ceases to amaze me how they tolerate some of the crazy things we humans do and how they will keep on trying to please.

Over the decades, I have learned that horses thrive on structure, consistency, praise and discipline. They crave leadership and authority and they feel safe and content in its presence. Leadership is very black and white to a horse and he knows it when he sees it. There is no faking leadership to a horse.

In domestic herds, groups of horses that are forced together, sometimes there are unqualified horses in the alpha role and the other horses know it—they agree to the terms, but do not have respect or admiration for the stand-in. Being a bully does not make you a leader and although a more subordinate horse will defer to the space of a more aggressive herdmate, he does not respect the bully as his leader and certainly does not like him.

A true herd leader is not a bully, but is willing to dish out discipline when it is needed. The true leader of the herd is responsible for the herd’s safety and for insuring that all the herdmates are good citizens of the herd—sometimes that means disciplining an unruly horse.

Horses recognize true leadership—fairness, courage, authority, confidence, intelligence, honesty, responsibility. When horses find a true leader, they have the highest respect and deference for and come to worship the ground their leader walks on. They trust and want to be with their leader and are always on the lookout for ways to please—to stay in the good graces of the one in charge.

To me, this is the ideal relationship to have with a horse and it makes me a much better and stronger person to live up to the ideals of my horse. When your horse thinks of you as the supreme leader, he will go anywhere with you, trusting you to look out for his well-being, having faith in your decisions and knowing you have his best interest in mind. He will work hard to please you and will get his feelings hurt if he thinks you are unhappy with him. But that attitude comes at a price—you have to earn it– and it is easily lost if you fall down on the job.

Once your horse recognizes the qualities of a true leader in you, it means that he trusts you to be fair, consistent and protect him from anything that could hurt him. That trust can be lost in an instant by asking the horse to do something that causes him to get hurt or frightened. This is an important obligation of the leader and should never be overlooked.

Horses are herd animals and as such, are instinctively drawn to the herd; but membership into any herd is not a guarantee. In the domestic setting, a new horse introduced an existing herd will automatically be shunned and treated harshly, as if to say, “We do not want you—go away!” Once the new horse shows a certain amount of contrition and a willingness to respect the hierarchy of the herd, he will be allowed provisional membership. But he is treading on thin ice and knows that if he is not on his best behavior, he could be once again banished from the herd.

Acceptance into a herd means that you are willing to abide by the rules of the herd and be a good citizen to the herd. Horses are very good at learning and following rules and as long as rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, horses will follow the rules religiously.

There are many important lessons for us to learn from life in the horse herd. To be accepted as the leader, you have to establish authority right away and not worry about being liked—that will come later. You have to take charge, establish the rules and demonstrate your willingness to enforce them. Then your horse will come to accept your authority, feel safe in your presence and be eager to please you.

You cannot bribe or pamper your horse into thinking of you as a leader. That is not within his frame of reference. If you start out your relationship by begging him to be your friend, you automatically put yourself in the subordinate position. Horses crave authority, not pandering.

If you are the leader in your herd of two—you and your horse—then it is up to you to set and enforce the rules. Always. You lead—he follows. If your leadership skills are inadequate, your horse will step into the leadership role and start making all the decisions, like where you both go and how fast you get there. In that case, sooner or later, your horse will make a decision you don’t agree with.

It is a hard thing for some people to accept, but horses thrive off both praise and discipline; he gets a lot more of the latter in the herd. Praise is only meaningful to the horse if he has earned it and if he thinks of you as his leader and someone he wants to please. And without discipline, rules have no meaning and the horse will not make an effort to please you. If there are no rules, there is no leadership.

Discipline and praise go together and the horse needs both. If you constantly shower praise on a horse, without him making any effort to earn it, why should he keep trying to please you?

Your horse needs to know when you are pleased with him and know when you are not. Often just a stern word is all it takes, especially when the horse has an attitude of wanting to please you. But just like a child, the horse needs structure and rules to follow and ramifications to be meted out if he disobeys a rule. Otherwise, you end up with a very unpleasant animal—whether it is two-legged or four.

All of my horses, selected by me largely for their temperaments, fall into the category of very willing and eager to please. That does not mean that they are always perfect, never make mistakes or never misbehave. Since humans have been breeding horses more for pleasure and recreation than for beasts of burden for nearly a century, as a rule, horses are much better tempered than they used to be.

But this eager and willing attitude can turn into the likes of a tantrumming toddler in the presence of inadequate leadership. Recognizing when a horse is trying his best, when he is goofing off and when he is blatantly breaking the rules, is the first step in nurturing the “try” in your horse.

When I issue a directive to a horse, it is not his actual response or performance that matters—it is the effort he makes to do the right thing. If he tries, he gets rewarded and praised. If he doesn’t, he gets scolded and put immediately back to work. He doesn’t have to be brilliant, but he does have to make an effort.

Although praise is a great motivator for horses and scolding is a great dissuader, the best motivator of all for horses is comfort. When my horse puts out a good effort in response to something I have asked him to do, I always acknowledge it by whispering sweet-nothings to him, rubbing him on the withers and leaving him alone for a moment to let him rest and think about how good it feels to be a good horse. When he cheats me or doesn’t try hard enough, I put him immediately back to work. When he makes an exceptional effort, I might just stop what I am doing and immediately put him away.

Equine behaviorists have long known that safety and comfort are the greatest motivating factors of a horse’s behavior. Often people are surprised to learn that it is not food, as it is with dogs. Horses can find the food on their own—they don’t need a leader for that.

Horses only feel safe in the presence of a strong and committed leader who is fair, in-control and makes all the important decisions. Horses are comfortable when they are allowed to take it easy and have the satisfaction of feeling appreciated. Pampering, indulgence and a lack of rules and structure can turn a good horse bad in a matter of hours.

If you watch for and acknowledge the try in your horse—his effort to do the right thing or to please you– and recognize and reprimand when he is disobedient or distracted, he will work hard to stay on your good side and he will feel safe and content to be with you and to do your bidding.

All the money in the world cannot buy this kind of respect and devotion from a horse—you have to earn it by being a strong leader and recognizing your horse’s effort, be it good or bad. This is a tall order—that’s why horses make us better people.

Enjoy the ride,

Bitless Or Bridle-Less? What Is The Difference? Logo

Bitless or Bridle-less? To me, there’s a big difference. Often when I write about riding my horses bridle-less, people confuse it with the issue of riding bitless. To me, they are totally different subjects.

At expos and clinics, I am often asked, “Is it okay for me to ride my horse bitless?” It is presumed in this circumstance that you will use headgear of some sort– be it a rope halter, side-pull, hackamore or bitless bridle.

When I talk about riding bridle-less, I am referring to what I personally feel is the ultimate bond with my horse—to be able to ride complex maneuvers and patterns with nothing on his head and no reins or physical control of the head and no way to physically restrain the horse.

To answer the question of whether or not you should ride your horse bit-less (with some other form of headgear), I would ask you three simple questions: Do you ever have trouble stopping or turning your horse? Is your horse ever disobedient? Does your horse ever spook and bolt? If the answer to any of these question is yes, then personally, I would not want to be riding that horse bitless.

Truth is, most well-trained horses will work just fine bitless. Many horses actually work better bitless—with a rope halter, hackamore or bitless bridle for control–because they do not have the added stress of a rider who is inarticulate or unskilled with her hands or the harsh pressure of a totally inappropriate bit, both of which happen a lot more often than you might think.

There are many good reasons to ride a horse in some sort of bitless headgear—from dental issues to scarring on the tongue; from a young green horse to a sensitive horse with a heavy-handed rider. As long as you have adequate control of your horse at all times, there’s certainly nothing wrong with going bitless.

Limitations may come into play when you are training a horse without a bit, when you ask for more difficult things like collection, jumping, rollbacks, etc. The more difficult it is for the horse to comply with your request, the more likely he will be to ignore the pressure on his nose. He may well make the decision that he’d rather live with the pressure on his nose than do the more difficult thing that you are asking.

The bit is one tool that riders use to allow you to put enough pressure on the horse to motivate him to do things he isn’t otherwise motivated to do. Sort of like a person being willing to work overtime if he makes time-and-a-half, a horse is more motivated to do hard stuff in order to avoid pressure on the bit.

For myself, my ultimate goal with my horse is to be so bonded, so in-sync with, so in-control of him that I don’t need any head gear at all. When my horse is so obedient that he says, “Yes sir Captain! Your wish is my command,” and he listens intently to my body position and gestures for cues as to the direction and speed of the course I have chartered for us, it is truly an accomplishment.

This is not a relationship that develops overnight; however, with a horse that is already well-trained, experienced and willing, it can be accomplished quickly, if the rider has enough skill. A horse that is responsive, compliant, willing and eager to please, that is finished in his cues, can perform complex maneuvers, has a good work ethic and is respectful of authority, is years in the making and usually involves a bit and a skilled rider.

Once I start riding a horse bridle-less, I still constantly revert to riding with the bridle, to reinforce as needed to keep my horse honest, sharp in his responses and to develop new skills.

The bit, or more accurately, the rider’s hands, can be the cause of many, many training problems. The wrong bit in a horse’s mouth can cause problems as well and the right bit can resolve lots of problems, as you may have seen on many episodes of Horse Master. A bit cannot train a horse, only a skilled rider can; but it can sure cause a lot of problems.

On the other hand, the bit is a communication tool that when used properly— not as a cue, but as reinforcement of a cue and only as needed—can assist the rider in developing the performance and cooperation of the horse. To me, the bit allows us to develop a fine line of communication between horse and rider—so fine that the horse can perform incredible maneuvers, cued only from the rider’s seat, legs and gestures and without the need of any type of bridle.

Enjoy the ride,


PS- I always enjoy your comments here in my blog– thank you for contributing to an interesting discussion!

To Shoe Or Not To Shoe? Logo

To me, this is not a simple yes-or-no, black-or-white answer. Just as there are many good reasons not to shoe your horse, there are many reasons why you might want to shoe. There are few things with horses that are absolute—always this way or never that way.

I am generally suspicious when someone takes an unmovable stance on an issue. I worry that such an outlook may indicate a closed mind and an unwillingness to consider other points of view. I love to keep learning and to do that, you have to have an open mind to listen, consider and relate what you hear to what you already know. Having a firm stance can be a very slippery slope when it comes to horses. If you ever think you have all the answers, a horse will come along and prove you wrong. Usually, they’ll prove you wrong in some kind of humiliating way.

The Barefoot Reasoning: There are many compelling arguments not to put steel shoes on a horse’s feet. The hoof naturally expands when the horse’s weight comes down on it, increasing circulation in the hoof, pumping blood up the leg and acting as a shock absorber. The rigidity of a metal horseshoe inhibits this natural expansion and may decrease the circulation of blood in the foot and limb.

Also, horses that are shod are more prone to injuring to themselves and others when the hard shoe comes into contact with soft flesh. Unshod horses have better traction in many slick conditions and the hoof tends to be healthier. Putting holes in the hoof wall is not without risk and should never be taken lightly or done for no reason. Leaving horses shod indefinitely can lead to weakened and misshapen hoofs and even lameness.

There are many excellent arguments for leaving a horse barefoot, not the least of which is the monetary cost of having a horse shod!

Yes to Shoes: There are also many good arguments for putting shoes on your horse, if shoes are needed. Therapeutic shoeing is perhaps one of the most compelling reasons. There are many conditions that a farrier can treat with shoes that can make the horse more comfortable and prolong his useful working life. Navicular disease, severe laminitis, thin-walled hooves, foot-related lameness, under-run heels, arthritis, bruising, stabilizing cracks, injuries and conformation flaws, just to name a few.

Depending on the workload of an individual horse and the terrain and/or surface he is ridden on, he may or may not need shoes. Often horses that are ridden hard every day in abrasive or rocky conditions will simply wear their feet down faster than they grow. Hoof boots can help, but they aren’t an answer to every shoeing need. Shoeing can prevent foot soreness and stone bruising, enhance performance (such as sliders on a reining horse) and help improve traction when specialized shoes are used (like borium or cogs).

Hoof Boot It: Using hoof boots can be a great mitigating factor to keep your horse barefoot but still ride him hard in rugged terrain or to give the hoof time to toughen-up. Hoof boots might allow you to keep your horse barefoot, or make him more comfortable when his feet get sore, and generally they provide good traction on rocky or slick terrain. But there are some disadvantages too. Hoof boots can be difficult to fit, hard to put on, yet somehow they manage to come off at the worst possible moment. Some hoof boots will allow mud and debris to sneak inside, which can cause irritation and discomfort to the horse, just like gravel inside your shoe would. If you choose to use boots, read the reviews and choose a pair that doesn’t collect dirt.

For performance horses, hoof boots are generally too bulky and clunky for the horse to make difficult athletic maneuvers. It’s like expecting a ballet dancer to perform in hiking boots. It’s not that there is anything wrong or bad about hiking boots, in and of themselves, but they are not the footwear of choice for all activities. Again, there is rarely one right answer when it comes to horses.

All Things Considered: For me, making the decision to shoe a horse or leave him barefoot is never taken lightly and always in consideration of the individual horse, his workload and his unique needs. Individual factors include foot health and strength, the terrain he will be ridden in, how often and how hard he is ridden, the type of work he is doing (trail or arena, performance or pleasure) and what is at stake if he gets foot sore or a stone bruise and has to be laid-off to recover.

In my barn, we have horses that are barefoot, horses that are shod with front shoes only (the front feet carry more weight), horses that are shod with hind shoes only (sliders for our competition horses), and horses that are shod all the way around. All of our horses go at least half the year without shoes (some for the entire year), to help improve hoof health and to give them better traction in the ice and snow.

Horses can be conditioned to go barefoot all the time, but it takes about a year to grow a new hoof and to toughen up the feet enough to endure hard work every day on hard ground. Sometimes it’s hard to sacrifice the time off or a lesser workload that toughening of the feet requires. Although there is nothing natural about putting shoes on horses, there is also nothing natural about putting a heavy rider and gear on their back and forcing them to go into terrain where they would not voluntarily go.

There are many parts of the country where the ground surface is very conducive to horses being barefoot and there are some places where it is not—like where I live. I always say, there is a reason why they call it the Rocky Mountains. But still, even living here in the Rockies, I have some horses that can stay barefoot with heavy workloads, and some that get foot sore easily, even riding in the arena. There are some areas that we trail ride that are so rocky that even shod horses can get foot sore on long, multi-day rides, and terrain where getting off to retrieve a hoof boot that has fallen off would be downright dangerous.

To me, the bottom line is that I would never choose to shoe a horse if it weren’t important–considering all of the factors and options. I never take putting holes in the hoof wall or the rigidity of steel shoes lightly. I do, however, consider all the factors, the pros and cons of both shoeing and barefoot, each individual horse’s situation, and his overall health and well-being before deciding to shoe or not to shoe.

As usual, when it comes to horses, there is no one right answer, and whenever I hear someone saying ‘never’ or ‘always,’ it gives me pause for thought. To me, keeping an open mind and considering other points of view allows me to learn more and grow.

Enjoy the ride,

Julie Goodnight

Barn Rules, Cleanliness & Respect At Feeding Time

IMG_3439Like most horse trainers, when it comes to my barn, I run a tight ship and I like things very orderly and very systematic. Even though my barn is totally private—no outside horses for training, no boarders, no clients—for my horses and my staff, I have high expectations.

Rules for Horses:

Having happy, well-behaved horses is a high priority for me. The health and care of our horses is the absolute highest priority in my barn and, honestly, they have it pretty good. They have a clean, comfortable place to sleep every night and all the high quality food and supplements they can manage. They get to frolic in the fields all day with their friends and are only subject to forced exercise, with their own personal trainer, five days a week. In exchange for this country club treatment, there are certain things I expect in return.

Good manners from my horses are of utmost importance. Waiting politely and patiently for their room service to be delivered is a minimum expectation of mine. It’s okay if they are happy to see their food delivered and enthusiastic about its arrival, but crowding, demanding, stomping and aggression are not tolerated. If you deliver the food when a horse is acting poorly, you reinforce that behavior. Instead, our horses know that they will only receive their food when they are acting politely. Please and thank you gets you more. At our place, the feeders are under strict orders not to feed any horse that is displaying aggressive or unwanted behavior. When the feeders are approaching the pens or stalls with feed, the horses are expected to back up and wait patiently and politely for their food. If we have a horse that is displaying aggressive behavior, we will use a stick or rope to wave at the horse and back him away from the food. Once the horse has backed-off and is showing respectful behavior, we will drop the feed in and walk away. This ensures that the horse does not think he is taking away the food from you and keeps him in a subordinate frame of mind.

When I approach my horses, whether in the stall or in the field, I expect to be greeted by a happy horse, eager to see me and eager to be haltered and led away. Of course, I cannot force this kind of emotion from the horse, but I can create the conditions that make them feel that way. My horses know what follows being haltered and led away is our undivided attention, a pleasant and thorough grooming and a training session during which there will be lots of praise and acknowledgement of their efforts, followed by another nice rubdown. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Since our horses are happy to be with us and comfortable with our leadership, they walk quietly beside and behind us, matching us step-for-step. They ground-tie whenever and wherever asked and they do not act like they are caught or restrained and trying to escape—they want to hang out with us. This kind of willingness does not come for free—you have to earn it by being a confident leader, setting boundaries and trusting your horse.

I expect my horses to stand quietly and patiently when tied, no matter how long it might be. Our horses spend lots of time at the hitching rail and it is actually a very comfortable and content place for them. We keep them in the shade when it is hot and in the sun when it is cold and we make sure there are no flies to bother them. Just like little kids have to learn to sit quietly at their desks when they go to kindergarten, horses have to learn to stand tied by being tied often and for long durations. We start our yearlings learning to stand tied by getting them out with the mature working horses and letting them find their place at the hitching rail. Horses will learn by watching other horses—be it good or bad. So make sure there are always good role models present.

Finally, I expect my horses to try hard and put forth their best effort when I ask them to. I am not overly demanding, but I do ask for their best effort at times. I nurture the try in my horses by having high expectations and most importantly, by acknowledging their effort. If you can notice when your horse is trying, and reward it by letting him rest, leaving him alone, and offering your praise, he will work hard to please you. Who amongst us doesn’t want to be acknowledged for our efforts? If you miss the try in your horse and keep pounding away at him, even when he has put out his greatest effort, he will soon quit trying. On the other hand, I am ever vigilant for when my horse is cheating or trying to get away with something—and that gets my acknowledgement too. Praise is important, but so is admonishment when it is deserved. Your horse will rise to your level of expectation—be it high or low.

IMG_3343Rules for People and the Place:

Just as I have high expectations for my horses, I also have high expectations for my staff and anyone who enters my barn and has reason to handle my horses. I am so very fortunate to have awesome people working with me—they take as good care of my horses as I do. Knowing that I can leave town (as I do 130 nights a year) and never have any concern about the horses is quite a luxury!

Everyone in my barn knows that the horses are the number one priority—their health, their well-being and their comfort. I expect my staff to be highly observant of the horses—their mood, their appetite, their level of alertness. I expect each horse gets a stem-to-stern inspection every morning, looking over every square inch of his body for any scrapes, bumps or swelling. Observations are made on how much the horse did or didn’t eat, and whether or not his stall looks like he had a normal night. Each horse behaves differently in his stall at night and you should know what his stall normally looks like in the morning and it will tell you if there was a problem during the night.

Communication is a key component of a well-run barn, especially when more than one person manages the horses. We have a big white board front and center in the barn and all details get written down. Everyone knows to check the white board first and foremost when they arrive, to get updates on what went on and/or what needs to be done. Any boo-boos are noted, any changes in feed, or medicine given or any tasks that need doing. Good communication between all of the people involved is paramount—not only do you have to look for any notes, you have to acknowledge that you saw it and also be forthcoming with any information you might need to share.

Having a clean and orderly barn is extremely important to me. Not just cleaning the stalls every morning, but also picking up manure in the arenas, turnout pens and hitching rails. Our manure gets spread every day to help keep the flies at bay and to recycle the manure back into the fields.

I expect the barnyard to be raked and the aisle-way to be blown off. I’ll admit that my need for a neat and clean barnyard borders on obsessive-compulsion, but it makes me happy to walk into a beautiful barn. I gave up the tedious task of raking the barnyard in a herring-bone pattern a long time ago when I finally realized I had better things to do with my time and that no one else really cared. But a raked barnyard still pleases me.

I also expect an un-cluttered barn and for things to be put away in their rightful place. It’s amazing how junk accumulates in a barn if you let it. I travel a lot to different barns around the country and the junk and clutter, or lack thereof, is always something I notice. To me, it is important that the aisle-ways are free of obstacles and that we all know exactly where things are. I have learned to let go of silly things like making sure all of the halters and lead ropes are hung on each hook exactly the same way, but I do expect that the blankets are all folded and removed in a specific way, so that the next person doesn’t have to refold it before putting it on. Not all obsession are silly.

I expect the tack to be cleaned, the bits to be rinsed and the bridles be wiped down, each time they are used. While some might think this borders on OCD, I have a huge investment in my equipment and taking good care of it is important to me. But not just the tack—the horses too. Nothing erks me more than to see a horse put away with sweat marks on him; if we’ve made him sweaty, the least we can do is get him cleaned up and comfortable before putting him away.

Certainly not all horse trainers are highly particular and bordering on anal, but I have noticed that it is a common trait of our breed. Horses are not simple animals and riding is not a simple or easy sport. The people that are drawn to these animals and to this sport tend to be ones that embrace a challenge and have high personal standards as well as high expectations of others. When these qualities are absent, things fall apart rapidly with horses.

Horses thrive when there is a strong sense of order and sameness—it makes them feel safe and content. This is a luxury for a prey animal, who never knows what danger lurks around the corner. A sense of order is important to me too, so I guess that’s why I get along well with horses and why horses bring out the best in me.

Enjoy the ride,

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Trailer Loading Training Techniques, Finding A Trainer Logo
Question: I am an intermediate rider and have had my very first horse for the last year now.  She is 18 years young and a great trail horse. I don’t know much about her past, but from her highly adverse reaction to seeing a whip when I first got her and her constant need to anticipate what more I am going to ask, I can only imagine what it was like. 

I have a trainer helping me with trailer training, and I have some concerns on the method being used. My horse starts to shake when coming up to the trailer and lifts her leg to beg for release. We got her in halfway through patience and asking calmly, but when my mare wouldn’t go further my trainer ran the long line through the stall (the trailer is a straight load) out the escape door and tied it to the outside trailer hook. Then she got behind her with the whip (didn’t even have to touch her with it) to get her to go in. 

Now the problem I have with this is that before she went in, she thrashed violently to get away from the whip (not the trailer) and ripped her halter off her head Yes, it broke! She even got a bloody lip.  Even though my trainer didn’t even use the whip, other than to hold it, this was the outcome. The horse did load, but in a panic. Then when it was time to come out, she backed out in a rush. 

My question is—isn’t there a better way, or is this normal? If it’s best to use another trainer for professional help, what do I need to look for, and what questions should I ask?  Please help, thank you!

Renee S., asked on Facebook
Yes, I believe that there is a better way. I want to train the horse to walk willingly forward into the trailer with a calm focus—forcefulness and fear are counter-productive to the outcome desired.
I have heard of the loading technique you describe more than once, though. You are lucky nothing more than a broken halter and bloody lip resulted. Sometimes when you are by yourself and must get the horse in the trailer, it is easy to get to a place of despair and “try anything.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say you need to fire your trainer, but I do know there are better techniques to use—focusing on teaching skills of obedience and encouraging willingness.
I want a horse that calmly and fearlessly walks into any trailer when I present him to it—without hesitation or drama. I also want a horse to stay in the trailer unless and until he is asked to back out—then proceeding slowly and cautiously, one step at a time is the best way. I like to train my horses with these intended outcomes in mind. If you force a horse or pull him in, are you teaching him to stay?
With horses in general, and with trailer loading specifically, I do not use any techniques that involve forcefulness with ropes or contributing to the panic and claustrophobia that the horse is already feeling. When attempts are made to “winch” the horse by pulling his head forward with some leverage, usually bad things result and an explosion occurs.
Anything touching the horse from behind when trailer loading discourages his forward interest and makes him worry about his hind end. Anything touching his hindquarters or hind legs, is a distraction to him walking willingly forward into the trailer. It goes without saying that this includes whipping—for the same reasons as above. Causing pain and fear does not give the horse a happy feeling about the trailer.
I also do not employ trailer loading techniques that allow the horse to back out of the trailer whenever he wants. This is a cardinal sin to me and can become highly dangerous. Ever had a horse launch backwards out of the trailer right as you were trying to latch the door? I know many successful trainers that have luck with this technique, but prefer techniques that teach the horse to stay in the trailer until asked to unload.
My favorite trailer loading technique requires two people—both must be equally competent at their jobs and concentrate 100% on the horse and his reactions. One handles the horse’s head, preventing him from going right or left (but not pulling the horse into the trailer); while the other person is back behind the horse, fading into the background, to discourage any backward movement. Through a progression of approaching then stopping, approaching then stopping, the leader controls the nose of the horse and the background person disallows backing, with the use of a training flag, to say, “No, backing is not an option.” The flag is not there to touch the horse, but to discourage the horse’s thought of backing up with an unpleasant stimulus. Through this process, the horse learns that turning right is not an option; turning left is not an option; and backing up is definitely not recommended. The horse learns to make the choice to move forward in the direction you ask, where he finds a lovely reward.
Horses are such clever animals. Once they decide right left and back are not options, their focus immediately goes forward. And this, of course, is rewarded with a release of pressure. Soon, he walks willingly forward into the trailer and is thrilled to find a food-based reward when he gets there. How long it takes the horse to come to this decision depends on the timing of the handlers and how promptly the release of pressure comes (be it physical or mental or sensory).
As for finding a trainer that you can work with, that is the most difficult question for me to answer. Word of mouth is probably the best way to find a horse trainer. Remember, nothing qualifies or regulates a person to be a horse trainer: You are one if you say you are. It is your responsibility as a horse owner to find the right trainer for your horse. Reputations count for a lot, but there are very successful trainers who use techniques that may cross a line for you, even though they produce results.
Watching a trainer work with other horses before you decide to hire him/her may help you decide if his techniques mesh with your ideals. Keep in mind that your ideals must be realistic. You cannot train horses to do difficult things without putting some kind of pressure on them. A trainer must use the amount of pressure necessary to motivate change.
When you visit the trainer to observe him working with other horses, take a look at all the horses in the barn. Are they healthy, happy and vibrant? Or are they dull, listless and wary. Keep in mind that you want your horse to get a lot of work when he is with a trainer, so I am not bothered to see horses worked up into a sweat or lean of muscle or very mellow because they’ve worked hard every day (a good horse is a tired horse). But when horses are over-stressed mentally, it shows in their eyes, their coats and their demeanors.
Trailer loading is one of the most challenging things we can train a horse to do. After all, what horse would willingly walk into a mobile bear den (which is the way he naturally thinks of it)? But by using the techniques to offer choice instead of force—techniques that encourage the correct response and reduce resistance—a horse can let go of his fear and even enjoy loading in the trailer (that’s one reason why we feed our young and inexperienced horses in the trailer—to teach them it’s a good place).
Find out more about solving trailer-loading woes on my new DVD, Stress-Free Trailering. I have a section all about how to load, how to teach a horse to back out, how to make sure you are safe before you head down the road and some more tips (including driving and backing a trailer) collected over a lifetime of trailering horses. Hope you’ll check it out in my online shop!
–Julie Goodnight
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Annual Check-Up: Saddle Fit Logo

Annual Check-up: Saddle Fit Each year, about this time, I make it a point to look with fresh eyes at each of my horses to see if any saddle adjustments are necessary. Horses that I have had for years (riding in the same tack) can suddenly outgrow or change enough to need a new saddle or pad. Time Will Tell A horse’s body shape changes drastically throughout his life each year can bring a whole different shape. If you think about how much the human body changes from birth to 80 years, then consider that a horse’s body matures three times faster due to their shorter life span, it’s no wonder we see such drastic changes. If you raise a foal from birth, each day and week brings big changes. Just think about a young horse’s withers the baby foal seems to have no withers, but by the time that same horse reaches 25, he is beginning to look like a camel with ultra high withers. Experienced horsemen can look at young horses and know ages without asking. A yearling looks much different than a two year old; big differences occur between 2 and 3 and again between 3 and 4. In a horse’s middle years, we don’t see as many rapid changes in body shape. As he gets into his teens, the changes increase again. Other factors besides simple aging also affect saddle fit. As the horse’s weight fluctuates, tack problems can come and go.
His fitness level can also have a huge bearing; both weight and body condition can change dramatically in a year. Even a custom-made saddle can cause problems for a horse down the road, when his body shape changes because of physical maturity, weight or condition. Injury or asymmetry in his body can cause problems, and as one side becomes stronger to compensate, his conformation changes.Checking for Fit For all of these reasons, re-examine your saddle fit at least once a year. Put it on your calendar annually in the spring. >My main areas of concern for saddle fit are: clearance at the withers; pinching or constricting at the shoulders; whether or not the bars of the tree are contacting the back evenly; and how the saddle fits at the loins. The Western saddle can be a little trickier in the fit department, because it is longer and affects a larger area of his back. Wither Clearance: As the horse ages, his withers become more prominent and his back may drop lower. If you add to that a loss of weight and/or condition, you may find your horse develops a clearance problem at the withers, even though he never had one before. One of my geldings, Doc, is currently experiencing this problem. As a six year-old, when I bought him, he was almost mutton withered. Now, at 13, the clearance problem is minor, so we are experimenting with different types of pads to see if we can improve his comfort.The Bars: How the bars of the tree distribute the weight of the rider over the horse’s back is important. It’s hard to see what is going on under there once everything is covered with pad and saddle. Looking for even sweat patterns on the back, for roughened hair under the saddle or white hairs below the withers are all important indicators of how your saddle is fitting. Bridging” occurs when the front of the bars and the back of the bars are contacting the horse’s back, but not the middle. My number one horse, Dually, has problems with bridging, unless I ride him in a Flex2 saddle. His far-setback withers and short back are wonderful for athleticism, but challenging for saddle fit.
The Flex2 tree allows just enough flex to fix the bridging problem for Dually, and the difference in the way he works is remarkable. Since it is the job of the tree to evenly distribute the weight of the rider over the largest area possible, evidence of bridging means the tree may not be fitting right. Look for signs of uneven pressure under the saddle in front or back. Often, the use of bridge pads or shim pads can help resolve bridging issues. Loin Pressure: The back of the saddle, where it sits over the loins, is another area I like to watch to for problems. Depending on how the saddle is cut in the rear, it can be riding up too much or digging down into his loins. In either case, it is not a good fit for the horse. Sometimes rebalancing the saddle on the horse’s back (moving it slightly forward or back) can help. A more specialized pad may help. Sometimes, if the saddle is not fitting in the loins, it also may not be fitting somewhere else — it may be time to look at a different saddle. Well Padded Specialty pads can help improve saddle fit: bridging pads, shim pads, wither pads, etc. Sometimes lifting the front or middle will help balance a saddle, but you have to be careful not to trade one problem for another (like lifting the front for better clearance over the withers but causing more pressure on the loins). Just remember, if the saddle is too tight or pinching at the withers, more pad will not help (imagine wearing a thicker pair of socks when your shoes are too small). I most often choose a ¾-inch wool felt pad. Not too thick; not too thin. Wool has some nice qualities in both hot and cold weather and over time, it shapes and conforms to the horse’s back. I like a pad that is contoured like the horse’s back and I always make sure to pull the front of the pad well up into the gullet before I cinch, to ensure there is no pressure on the withers and to create a channel of air over the horse’s spine. Many horses of today are quite short backed, Quarter Horses, Arabs and gaited, especially. They can be tricky to fit because of both bridging and interference with the hip because the saddle is too long. The evidence you look for is point tenderness or rubbed hair at the hip. Our sweet little Quarter Horse mare, Annie—a small cowhorse, is very short in the back and long in the hip (a conformation trait I love). She does fine in a rounded skirt, like my Wind River saddle, but a fully skirted saddle is too long for her and digs into her hip when she bends and stops. The shortest saddle in my line is the Blue Ridge Gaited saddle; it also has Y rigging, and a Flex2 tree, which helps prevent bridging. This saddle is not only popular for gaited horse owners, but for many non-gaited, short-coupled horse owners too. Fit Advice. I remember reading an article on saddle fit about 20 years ago that has stuck with me all this time. The prominent vet that authored the article compared saddle fit to buying a new pair of shoes. You look at all the shoes that are offered in the store and you pick out the shape and size that comes closest to fitting your foot. It may not fit perfectly, like a custom made shoe would, but it should fit well enough. If there are serious problems with the fit, you probably bought the wrong pair of shoes. Finding the perfect saddle fit for any horse is a challenge, and for some horses it is downright difficult! But finding a saddle that fits well enough is not too hard for most horses and the fit may be enhanced by employing specialty pads. But even if your saddle is a perfect fit for your horse this year, next year things could be totally different. Start each spring by looking at your tack with fresh and objective eyes. Check out”> for more info. Enjoy the ride, Julie Goodnight Please visit Goodnight’s sites for more information and training tips:

Setting Training Goals Logo

This time of year, reflection and goal setting comes naturally. I’ve always been a big fan of making New Year’s resolutions and more often than not, I keep them. For me, the secret to keeping resolutions is to make them attainable—don’t set unrealistic goals.

I’ll admit that I am a goal-oriented person by nature—I love the sense of accomplishment. I’m a list maker, too, and at any point in time, I may have up to half a dozen different to-do lists scattered between my home, my office and my briefcase. Sometimes I even put things on my list that I have already done, just for the sheer satisfaction of crossing it off.

Here in the high mountains of Colorado, this time of year also means that it is too cold and/or too icy to ride outside. We are relegated to going round and round, day in and day out, in the indoor arena. It tends to focus my training on attaining specific goals with each of my horses. We’ll be stuck inside for about 90 days, which turns out is an ideal amount of time to attain a major training goal with a horse.

For horse training in general, 30 days will get a horse started on a certain course, 60 days is when you see real progress, but 90 days marks the point at which the skill is usually fully trained. When I was starting a lot of colts, we always hated the “30-day-wonder jobs” because we knew if we could just keep the colt for 90 days or more, he would be very solid and much more likely to get along with the owner.

So each winter, when we move indoors for 90 days or more, I like to set some short-term goals with my horses—things I can realistically accomplish in the time frame. Bigger goals that can be broken down into smaller steps, and a slow-steady progression in training. I like to have more than one goal to accomplish so that I am not pounding and drilling my horses on the same thing every day—the monotony of that, combined with the monotony of riding indoors, makes for sour attitudes.

Between my husband and I, we have seven horses. Two of them are old retirees, but the other five are working horses that get ridden about four times a week (fortunately I have a great staff to help me both when I am home and on the road). Although we have goals for all the horses, it is my two personal horses, Dually and Eddie, that I personally focus on the most. They are very different horses and therefore their goals are quite different too.

Dually is coming 14 (how can that be?) and is a finished bridle horse, meaning he is trained to the full curb bridle and riding one-handed—the Western equivalent of a high-level dressage horse. He’s a seasoned reined cowhorse, very light and responsive, and we’ve had plenty of time over the past eight winters to master various skills. He really doesn’t need more training, just maintenance to keep him sharp. For Dually, my goals have more to do with me than with him.

This year, I plan to ride Dually bareback all winter, aiming to ride a bridle-less/bareback reining pattern by the end of the winter. This will improve my balance and fitness a lot, plus help me refine my bridle-less cues. It’s been a few years since I had the winter goal to cut cows on Dually bareback. Then, I hadn’t ridden bareback in about 20 years and the first day, I thought I might fall off just trotting a straight line. By spring, I rode him bareback on the cutting machine at a pretty high speed. What a progression!

My biggest goal in riding Dually bareback this winter is for my own balance and fitness. I’m 54 years old and although I’ve been a professional rider all my life, I’ve noticed a decrease in my balance over time. That’s a normal part of aging, dammit. But the good news is that balance is a skill that can always be improved through balance-challenging exercise. My balance is pretty good in the saddle; to really challenge my balance, I have to take it away.

This goal will also be good for Dually and give us a nice progression of challenges. Right now I just want to get re-acclimated to riding bareback and strengthening my muscles and balance, so for now, I’m just working at the walk-trot-canter on circles and transitions. In another few weeks, I’ll start adding reining maneuvers (with the bridle on) to my workouts. Then later we’ll work on those same maneuvers without the bridle. I’ve already done a lot of bridle-less reining with Dually, but always with the saddle. So again, this will be more of a challenge for me than Dually, but will definitely help me refine my cues and be a better rider.

Eddie is my young horse and an entirely different animal than Dually, which is reflected in my goals for him. He’ll be five this year and he is really coming into his own both physically and training-wise. With Eddie, it wasn’t so much the challenge of coming up with more training goals, but more a matter of keeping it down to a reasonable level.

My long-term goals with Eddie are to develop him into a versatile ranch horse for competition. That is what he is bred for and where his greatest potential lies. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the time to show him but I’d really like to develop his potential, even if it is for someone else to show. He had 90 days (there’s that magic number again) of cow work in 2013 and we worked hard over the last year to develop his lightness, collection and reining maneuvers, as well as other ranch horse skills. He’s nearly ready to make his debut on the show scene– it’s just a matter of putting it all together.

My short-term winter goals for Eddie include perfecting his flying lead changes and roll-backs, developing more slide in his stop, increase the one-handed riding and see if he has any potential as a bridle-less horse. By the end of the winter, I expect to be riding a complete reining pattern one-handed and I hope to be able to take the bridle off for some basic work at the walk, trot and canter.

I believe very strongly in slow and steady progress on my horses—not cramming and jamming. With a 90-day schedule ahead of me, it’s easier to be patient. I also think it is important, particularly in the arena, to do a variety of things with my horses, to keep their attitudes fresh and to avoid monotony. I try to use a variety of exercises that break skills down; I try not to work on the same things every day so that my horses don’t get bored or anticipatory.

Both of my horses have an extreme amount of “try” in them and I work hard to preserve this most valuable characteristic. I pay close attention to when they try hard and when they are slacking and I make sure I reward the try with praise and rest. I also dissuade the slacking-off by making them work harder and being a little more stern. Most importantly, when my horses try hard, I always notice it and shower them with copious praise; sometimes I even hop off and put them away.

Setting short-term and long-term goals with my horses helps me stay on a steady course of improvement and gives me the greatest sense of satisfaction. There’s nothing better than attaining a goal and then setting the bar higher. My horses and I can always get better—you can too! Just remember to keep your goals reasonable and give yourself plenty of time to accomplish them.

My horses help me be a better rider and a better person too. As I set my goals for my horses, I am also setting goals for myself too, because no matter how well-trained I am, I can always get better too. This year, my personal goals are to always assume positive intent in everyone around me, especially those closest to me (who sometimes get the short end of the stick); and to do more to give back to my community. How about you? Have you set your goals for your horses and yourself this year?

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Bratty Behavior In Horses Logo

Recently, I gave a training clinic with this very title at a horse expo. Since I do not travel with my own horses, I am reliant on the expo producers to find appropriate horses for my presentations. For this, I requested trained horses that had become disobedient, out-of-control, and prone to fits. Be careful what you wish for!


As usual, I first laid eyes on my demonstration horses and their riders about five minutes before the presentation. I was adjusting my microphone, my helmet and my stirrups and preparing to mount the horse I had ordered for myself to ride—a well-trained and experienced western horse, when an Appaloosa mare made her dramatic entrance at the arena gate.


She was stomping mad, threatening to rear and running all over the handler as the rider attempted to mount amidst this turmoil. The mare’s eyes were rolled back in her head and I’m pretty sure there was smoke coming out her nostrils.


By pulling the mare in a frantic circle around her, the rider was able to do a perilous mount-in-motion and miraculously landed squarely in the saddle, immediately jamming her feet into the stirrups. Clearly, they had all done this before. But as the rider took up the reins and the header stepped away, the mare made it very clear that she wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything. She was rearing (a blatant refusal to move forward), and stomping the ground. All this, while I mounted my horse and the announcer was introducing me to the audience of over a thousand people.


My mic went live as I was instructing the header to lead the horse to the far end of the arena and stay with the rider until the mare settled. My opening remarks to the audience, in the midst of all this drama, was that I was ambivalent about the title of this presentation. I knew everyone would have an idea of what “bratty” behavior is, which is why I picked the term. But the title seems to place blame on the horse, when anyone who has ever known bratty children can tell you, it’s not the child’s fault; it’s often the result of poor parenting.


In the case of the spotted mare, although her blatant disobedience may have been the result of poor handling in the past, we needed to get some stuff sorted out right away. As I coached the current rider, I explained to the audience what an obedient horse is: one that goes in the direction you ask, at the speed you dictate, without any argument. This mare was far, far from obedient.


I had the rider start turning the mare away from the gate and into the fence, constantly changing direction. This simple exercise can have a huge impact on a disobedient horse. First and foremost, it keeps forward motion going. And as this mare had aptly demonstrated when they tried to get her into the arena, forward motion is the basis of all training. If the horse won’t move forward, you cannot train it.

Changing direction also gets your horse in a more compliant and submissive frame of mind—it’s a technique horses employ when establishing dominance in the herd– controlling the horse’s direction by herding him one way, then the other.


And most importantly, when you change direction by always turning the horse away from the gate (or away from the direction she wants to go), it is reinforcing that you dictate the direction, not her. If you allow her to turn toward the gate, she is momentarily rewarded by getting a little bit closer to her objective.  In short order, the mare began to settle down and go to work. Now it was time to work on the rider.


First, the rider needed to sit back, take a deep breath and relax! Riding difficult horses always leads to defensive posturing in the rider, which leads to defensive posturing in the horse. With horses, it is usually a good idea to sit back, take a deep breath and relax. Start riding your horse as if she is behaving normally, and she soon will. Ride her as if you think she is about to explode, and she will. This is good advice for all riders in all difficult situations.


Secondly, the rider needed to have much greater awareness of the horse’s motivations and actions, instead of just fighting with her. From the moment the mare laid eyes on the temporary arena built inside an enormous trade show hall full of thousands of people and hundreds of booths, she made it clear she wanted no part of it and was refusing to go inside. She had one goal—leave this place now! Understandable, yes, but unacceptable in a trained horse. Either you call all the shots or the horse calls them all; either you are the leader, or the horse is. It was up to the rider to take control.


It was obvious in everything the mare did—looking at the gate, veering toward the gate, whinnying at the horses outside the gate, speeding up when going toward the gate, balking when turning away. When you turn the horse toward the gate, she thinks she is getting closer to her goal and her antics are working.  Every time you turn her away from the gate, you are controlling her direction and turning her away from her objective; her antics are no longer working and you are establishing more control.


Soon the mare was relaxing, putting her head down and becoming compliant while I talked about the most common mistakes riders make when faced with a fractious horse—mainly pulling back incessantly on two reins at the same time. This will cause fractious behavior faster than anything I know. When you want the horse to move forward, you must reach forward. When you want the horse to bend his neck and turn, you have to release the outside rein. How could something so simple, be so hard to do for a rider that is nervous and feels like she is losing control?


The rider did an excellent job of listening to my coaching, all the while she is just trying to stay on the topside of her fiery mare and get control of the situation—this in front of thousands of people who are forming their own opinions of her horse and her. Brave woman. Soon the mare was going straight and relaxed on a loose rein and we began to work on dictating the path more precisely, now that the mare was being cooperative.


About 75 minutes into the 90 minute clinic, the mare was doing so well that I looked around the arena to see what other challenge we could offer her. There was a tarp and a few ground poles, so I asked the rider to take the mare over the poles and next to the tarp to see if she would remain straight and obedient to the path the rider dictated. She crossed the poles just fine but as soon as she headed toward the tarp, the mare steamed up and became defiant. Turns out, earlier this day the mare had been in a trail obstacle clinic and in 90 minutes of fighting with her, they never got her over the tarp. With 15 minutes left, now was not the time to start a seemingly insurmountable challenge with this mare that was just now starting to work well. Fundamental horse training lesson– don’t start something you can’t finish and always end on a good note.


I told the rider, “Don’t point her in a direction that makes her think you are asking her to go over the tarp, but take her in an obvious line next to the tarp and insist that she goes straight. After 2 or 3 passes, the mare was walking obediently next to the tarp. Then an amazing thing happened. The mare began to look at the tarp as she obediently walked next to it. It was clear that she was drawn to it.

It was a defining moment. My horse and I sauntered over to the tarp and stood on it casually as I talked, trying to send vibes to the horse how great it was to be standing on the tarp. It was increasingly obvious that she wanted to go over the tarp and eventually, it was as if she couldn’t stop herself; she had to go over. And over she did, as the crowd erupted into cheers, spooking all the horses momentarily.


What timing! It was the end of my presentation and the mare had made an exceptional turnaround. I told the rider what I’d do if it were my horse— I’d get off, praise her like she just won the Olympics and lead her out of the arena. Leave on a high-note. She had been fighting with the mare for so long, that the mare had forgotten how great it felt to be a good horse. She needed to know how good it feels.


I ended my presentation with my head swimming. What just happened? And what can I learn from it? Once again a horse was teaching me something really important. And once again, it was a simple lesson and one I’ve learned from challenging mares before. Don’t pick a fight with a horse.


By asking the mare to stay obedient but not walk over the tarp, just next to it, we had taken away the fight. She’d been fighting about this tarp for some time, and fighting solely for the sake of winning. But it takes two participants to fight. Once we took away the argument, she was immediately onto a new line of thought. Then her willingness kicked in.


I don’t know what happened after the horse and rider left; I didn’t see them again. I wish I had the chance to debrief her and tell her what a great job she did and to let me know how things progress with her mare. But I’m certain she learned something and I am hopeful that she and her mare have a better understanding of each other now. I know I learned something. And I enjoyed every minute of it.


Enjoy the ride,



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