Behavior Bummers Logo

Does your trail horse paw, walk off when you mount up, or go at an inconsistent speed? Correct these behavioral woes with these techniques from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.


Horses behave in the way they’re most motivated to act at the moment. Sometimes, what we might call “bad” behavior is simply what your horse has been trained to do — or what he’s been allowed to get away with.

If your horse thinks he’s in charge or that there’s no penalty for behaving badly, his behavior may turn from annoying to dangerous.

When I’m trail riding, I want to relax and take in the scenery. I want a horse that’s calm in his new environment and isn’t pawing as we get going or taking off too soon when I saddle up.

I also want a horse that goes at the speed I choose. I may want to relax and ride slowly, or pick up speed and have a little fun when the terrain allows.

You have to be a strong leader for your horse to act as your partner, and follow your lead and expectations. You have to teach him what you expect and be consistent with your rules so he knows how you expect him to act on and off the trail.

When your horse knows you’re the leader, you won’t have to micromanage him on the trail. You’ll gain confidence, knowing he’ll be a patient, willing trail partner.

Here, I’ll explain my three top pet peeves when it comes to trail-horse behavior. I’ll tell you what caused the behavior, why it’s annoying, and how to avoid or fix the behavior so that it doesn’t detract from your riding enjoyment.


Before You Begin

Don an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet. Practice these skills at home, on a flat area with good footing. Set up productive training scenarios geared toward success on the trail. When you’re ready to test your horse’s skills on the trail, go alone, without riding buddies, so you can concentrate on reinforcing good behavior.

Behavior Bummer #1: Impatient Pawing

What caused it: Pawing is a gesture that horses use to communicate that they’re frustrated and wish they were moving. Many horses get frustrated when they’re asked to do something that they don’t want to do. Your trail horse might paw when you hold him back from moving on with a big group of horses. He wants to get moving and stay with the herd. He might also paw when he’s bored, and you’re not paying attention to him, such as when he’s tied inside or to your trailer, or during a riding break.

Why it’s annoying: If your trail horse is highlined, his pawing can harm the terrain. Inside the trailer, pawing is loud and distracting. He can injure himself if he’s allowed to continue and throw a fit.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: Using the technique I describe below, teach your horse to stand tied without showing any signs of frustration or impatience. Teach him to stand quietly as you groom him, tie him to a post, and during your designated training time.

Your horse will soon learn that there’s no sense in getting frustrated or showing impatience — pawing doesn’t lead to a release or a reward. He’ll learn not to waste energy if pawing has no reward.

To teach your horse to stand tied, start teaching him to ground-tie every time you work with him. Outfit him with a rope halter and 15-foot training lead. Holding the lead in one hand, turn and face him. Give a verbal cue to “whoa.” If he stands quietly, lay down the middle of the rope. (Maintain your hold on the end of the rope if you must correct your horse often.)

If your horse moves a hoof or turns his head too far to the side, correct him by moving the rope in a snapping motion toward the halter, and return him back where he started.

When your horse knows he must stand still, lay the rope on the ground to test him even more. (Note that this process takes time to develop.)

When your horse understands that you have authority and that he must follow your voice command, the cue to stand still can carry over to any time he’s tied. Tie him, tell him “whoa,” and walk away. If he paws, avoid approaching him to give him any kind of attention. You must expect him to do what he knows how to do — stand still.

If your horse paws often, make sure he spends time tied at home in a safe environment before expecting the behavior to diminish on the trail. He should stand tied for up to an hour (making sure he’s in the shade and has access to water and before and after).

During the time your horse is tied, leave him alone; don’t approach him if he paws. Attention of any kind would reward him for the behavior. If you run back to your pawing horse, and give him attention, he’ll think his pawing caused you to come back.

If your older horse has an ingrained pawing problem while standing tied, ask a professional trainer to help you train your horse to stop pawing by using soft, rebraided cotton hobbles. Use caution, and make sure your horse is monitored by someone who’s done the process many times.

Note: If you’re under saddle and your horse begins to paw, you mustn’t hold him still. He’s having an emotional meltdown and won’t be able to keep his feet still. Instead, move him in turns from right to left to keep him moving but focused on you. When he seems calmer, ask him to stand again. If he doesn’t stand still, turn him to the right and left again — making it a challenge not to listen and easy to stand still and be patient.

Behavior Bummer #2: Walking Off as You Mount Up

What caused it: A horse should learn from the very first time that he’s ridden that mounting doesn’t mean “go.” Most horses that walk off without a cue either never learned the skill as a colt or have been untrained by the rider.

This movement without a cue annoys me, because I want the horse to see me as the leader. If he steps off without a cue, he thinks he’s in charge from the first step of our ride. I don’t want that first interaction to be one of disrespect and disobedience.

Horses constantly look for patterns in your cueing and, if allowed, may come to their own conclusions about what they should do next. If you never require your horse to stand still when you mount up, he’ll quickly learn a new pattern — a person sitting in the saddle means “go.”

Why it’s annoying: Your horse soon learns to step forward as soon as you sit down or put your foot in the stirrup. The trend worsens until you have trouble stepping into the stirrup without your horse walking off.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: This problem is easy to prevent. Don’t allow your horse to step forward at all until you actively give a cue to step forward.

If your once-well-trained horse suddenly decides that he should step off without a cue, go back to ground work, and ask him to stand perfectly still with a rope halter and long training lead (similar to the ground-tying lesson described earlier).

Ask your horse to stand still by pointing your toes toward his shoulder and giving a verbal cue to “whoa.” Then correct him every time he takes a step or moves his nose to the side. Wave the lead rope toward the halter as a correction.

When your horse will stand still on command with a halter and lead, saddle up, and place his bridle under the rope halter with the lead attached. (Never correct your horse by pulling on the bit or bridle reins — the pressure from the halter and lead is enough and prevents you from harming his mouth.)

Keep your expectation that your horse will stand still as you start to mount up. Mount slowly, with the lead line in hand. Watch for the moment he begins to move. If he takes a step, step down, and correct him, requiring him to stand still.

If you get so far as to sit in the saddle, your correction switches to controlling your horse with the reins. Keep your reins short enough so that you can control him immediately if he takes a step. If he does take a step, sit back and pull back on the reins, and require him to stand still.

If your horse is agitated and anxious, and continues to move his feet, put him to work. Circle to the left; circle to the right; circle again to the left. Then allow him to stop and take a break. Reward him if he stands still. If he wants to walk off again, repeat the circling exercise. Show him that standing still is what you asked for and is the easiest option.

Sometimes a horse that won’t stand still may be uncomfortable because of the rider’s static weight (horses are built for strength while moving, not while standing still) or because his saddle doesn’t fit. He may shift from side-to-side and fidget. You might get the impression that he’s attempting to stand still, as he’s otherwise not showing impatience or seeming to want to do something different.

If your horse fidgets from side-to-side rather than walking forward when you ask him to stand, consider checking saddle fit and consulting a veterinary chiropractor.

Behavior Bummer #3: Going Too Slow or Too Fast

What caused it: You’re not in control of your horse’s speed, and therefore, not in control of your horse. In the saddle, there are two things you should control — speed and direction. If you don’t control how slowly or quickly your horse moves, you aren’t the one in charge. If he hasn’t been trained to follow cues to go at the speed you

dictate, you need to train him now.

Why it’s annoying: Riding a trail horse that only moves slowly or takes off at full speed (with no middle gears) is annoying for you and for anyone riding with you. Other horses have to work to keep up so the group can stay together. A horse acting badly can get the whole group amped up to go at a fast speed that no one really wants. If you’re dealing with a speed demon, you might feel frantic and out of control.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: If your horse ignores your speed cues — and takes off at a pace that you don’t want — first make sure you know how to perform the emergency-stop cues. (To learn how to safely use a pulley rein, and perform the one-rein stop, go to

Practice a one-rein  slow-down  technique at home in a flat area with good footing. Turning a horse quickly with the one rein stop on the trail can cause him to lose his balance and fall. Also, not all trails have the space needed for a horse to turn. When you practice this turning technique at home, you’ll soon teach your horse that he can continue to move forward, but at a slower pace.

When your horse speeds up, pick up one rein, and pull it up and back toward your opposite shoulder. This will cause him to turn and disengage the hindquarters.

Any time your horse speeds up without a cue, slide your hand down one rein and start to pull up and back. With enough repetition, you can teach the horse that when you slide your hand down the rein, you’ll be slowing or stopping him, and he should slow down. He doesn’t have to make a full turn. He knows what’s coming next and will learn to slow his gait while moving ahead. Soon, your horse will slow down easily when you pick up slightly on one rein.

You can also  check and release  your horse. Pull up and back on the reins as you sit deep into the saddle, then immediately release when your horse slows. He’ll learn that you want to slow down.

Be very careful not to pull on the reins with constant pressure — that will actually teach the horse to pull against you and continue to move fast. If you don’t release at the first hint that he’s slowed, you’ll cue him to fight against you and cause a tug-of-war.

Horse Illustrated Julie Goodnight Q&As – Bit Tips Logo

Q: I just purchased a seven-year-old gelding. The previous owner was riding him in a single-jointed snaffle bit. Now, I’m looking for a bit for him and he has responded badly to a D-ring snaffle, O-ring snaffle, and a Tom Thumb. He avoids begin bridled then gapes his mouth, yawns and rubs his face on his leg. He won’t bend well to either side and he has even threatened to buck when I ask him to turn. His teeth have been checked. Is he a good candidate for a hackamore? Or what bit would be best?


A: With bits, it’s important to remember that the mouthpiece is what the horse feels, the cheek piece is about how you, the rider will give cues (and how subtle your cues need to be). More simply put, the sidepiece is for the rider and the mouthpiece for the horse. From your question, it seems that you have changed the sidepiece but not the mouthpiece when testing different bits.


The single-jointed mouthpiece can be very unpleasant to many horses. With the snaffle sidepiece (snaffle simply means direct pressure), the single-jointed mouthpiece pinches the jaw and squeezes the tongue. In general, horses hate tongue pressure. Most horses gape open their mouth with the Tom Thumb (a bit that is often mistakenly called a snaffle). The Tom Thumb has the same single-jointed mouthpiece but has a curb-style sidepiece. That means it has more force (leverage) on the horse’s tongue when you pull on the reins.


If this horse has lots of training in the past, I’d look for a mouthpiece that relieves pressure from the tongue. It could be that he is fighting the bit because there is too much tongue pressure with all the bits you have tried. The sidepieces may have made the bits look different, but to the horse, all those bits would feel the same.


Find out what professional training your horse has had. Remember that a bit can’t train your horse or create the movements that you want. Your horse needs to be trained to flex and give to pressure no matter what bit he has in his mouth. Make sure that you’re releasing pressure as soon as he gives at all during lateral flexion work. You’ll need to reward the slightest try when working in any bit.


Since your horse is prone to occasional bouts of disobedience, I’d probably have a bit in his mouth instead of moving to a hackamore. I would be unlikely to use a hackamore on a horse that had refused to turn and tried or threatened to buck.


When getting to know any new horse, it’s great to do some basic, rudimentary training from the ground and the saddle. This time will help you establish leadership from the ground and from the saddle and will help your horse understand how you cue. Take time to make sure the horse understands how to respond correctly to the cues you give.

If you came to me for help, I would use a Myler 3-ring Combination bit with the MB04 mouthpiece. This bit takes pressure off the mouth and puts it on the nose, giving the horse the opportunity to respond before he gets mouth pressure. From what you describe, the horse does not like mouth pressure and needs a relief. The mouthpiece on this bit is double-jointed (so it doesn’t collapse in the middle) and has a very low port, giving a small amount of tongue relief.


Once the horse is responding well and is obedient to my light aids, I would move him to a medium-low ported bit (in the combination format or a snaffle or curb), to give him even more tongue relief. You can change the sidepiece later, but your horse will continue to feel better with the tongue relief.


A side note about hackamores: While many feel that a hackamore is less severe because there is no bit in the mouth, not all hackamores are created equally. There are many different types of hackamores and like bits, they may work either off direct pressure or leverage. The side-pull is a type of training hackamore, like the bosal and is a direct pressure device like the snaffle. It can be used with great effects for horses who are willing and trained. The mechanical hackamore has leverage (like a curb bit) and can be quite severe. The mechanical hackamore is not very useful in training the horse to bend, as you need to be able to work the sides of the horse’s mouth independently as you lift the shoulders.



Stop In An Emergency



The Trail Rider ~ May/June 2016

Riding Right


Stop in an Emergency

The one-rein stop is often taught as the go-to aid for slowing and stopping a rowdy horse. But on a straight and narrow trail, turning may not be a safe option. Learn the pulley rein stop with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight and stop any horse who is truly bolting and out of control on the trail. 


By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco ~ Photos by Heidi Melocco


Have you ever ridden a horse that spooked and bolted—and was ready to run fast and far? Bolting is a normal part of a horse’s flight response after he has spooked. To safely control the horse, you have a fraction of a second to choose your cues. If you are on a narrow trail without room to turn, it may be best to employ the pulley rein stop. This stopping cue is extreme and not meant as an every day method to halt—but in an emergency on a narrow trail, it just may save your life.

“What’s a true emergency?” trainer Julie Goodnight asks. “There’s a distinct difference in an emergency and a horse that just goes a little bit too fast. The pulley rein stop isn’t to be used when your horse is just going faster than you’d like. To me, an emergency is when the horse is out of control or the rider has lost their balance and someone is in danger of getting hurt. If you need a last-resort way to stop, knowing the pulley rein can help you stop any horse–no matter your size or the horse’s size.”

Goodnight says most riders are first taught to sit back and pull back on the reins to stop. That simple cue can be fine if your horse just needs to slow down. But if your horse is bucking and running off, simply pulling back is not going to stop to the emergency. A horse that is running off may brace his neck, pull back against you, grab the bit and continue to run off in response to your two-handed pull. “You can’t win that tug of war with a 1500-pound horse; the horse will ‘run through’ bit pressure alone if he is panicked and bolting,” she says.

Goodnight says many riders are also taught the one-rein stop. That is a great tool to help your horse slow down if you have the space to allow him to turn. However, the cue isn’t always the best option if your horse is moving at a great speed—turning a horse that is truly running off can cause the horse and rider to get off balance and to fall. If the trail is narrow or along a ledge, you don’t want your horse to turn.

“The one rein stop is something I teach in every clinic and it’s a great tool to teach your horse,” she says (see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding for how to teach the one-rein stop). “With practice, you can teach your horse to stop off one rein without turning—to respond to your one-rein cue to stop while staying on a straight line. But out on the trail, I may not want to take the chance the horse won’t turn–when stopping promptly is critical.”

“I’d like to teach you a rein aid that is only used in emergencies and that can stop any horse—trained or untrained to the cue. It is not the stop you should do every day. It is a rein aid to know to help save your life and your horse’s life if he is truly bolting and you are on terrain that does not allow you to turn or move to the side. ”

Practice Preparation

          If you’ve had an accident, need a confidence boost or ride on narrow trails, it’s important to know this skill. It boosts confidence to know that you can stop any horse. However, practicing this stop can be hard on your horse because you pull on the mouth to stop. Instead of teaching this skill while riding fast, Goodnight recommends learning while sitting still on your horse. Learn the hand motions without pulling hard or at all. You do need to practice on a horse, as your hands need to be in specific position on the horse’s neck.

Goodnight says that when she’s teaching the pulley rein, she teaches riders at the stand still, then, “once the rider knows the hand movements, we’ll move out into an open space where any horse may feel strong—especially when pointed back toward the barn. I watch closely to make sure that no one is excessively hard on the horse and is only practicing enough to get the hand movements memorized.”


Step 1. Shorten the First Rein

Put your hands out in front of you while riding with two reins. You can choose which hand moves first, but for illustration purposes, we will start with


the left.  Shorten the left rein by sliding your hand down that rein until it is quite short. Keep holding the rest of the reins if loop reins) or your opposite rein (if split reins) with your right hand.


Caveat: Get the first rein short enough. This first rein must be short enough to stop the horse from turning his nose right, when you pull the right rein. Make sure your hand is directly over the horse’s neck. If not, the horse will pull your hand down. You must be centered so that you have a place to push into the horse’s neck.


Step 2. Plant your Hand



With your shortened rein in your left hand, push your knuckles down into the center of horse’s mane—at the notch just above his withers. Your left hand will stay braced against the horse and continue to push into the horse’s neck. Imagine that this arm is the forward hand if you were holding a bow and arrow. It pushes forward and keeps your horse from turning his head.


Step 3.  Shorten the Second Rein.







Grab the tail of your second rein with your right thumb and slide your hand down the right rein.  Keep your left hand pushing forward into the horse’s mane.


Step 4. Pull Back, Sit Back.



Pull back and up with your right rein while your left arm pushes forward. Your arms must work in opposition. Pull back with your right hand like an archer pulls a bow just before he shoots it; push forward with your left arm to create opposition. As you pick up and back with your right hand, sit back with your whole body weight. If you are using this aid, you are in an emergency and you need to put your whole body weight into the stop. Release the cue immediately when your horse stops. Otherwise, the horse may go backwards or could rear.

Caveat: Many times Goodnight says she sees riders pull the left rein while also pulling the right rein. You must keep the left rein pushing in and the right rein pulling back.

Watch this emergency stop in action with Goodnight’s free Certified Horsemanship Association video: and type in “pulley rein video.”

Please note: Practicing the pulley rein is hard on your horse so only practice to help yourself learn the moves–without applying full force. Be gentle and don’t practice often. When you get it right, you will immediately feel the power you have. You’ll boost your confidence when riding in open spaces or on unfamiliar horses—as you have the means to stop a horse in an emergency.  [BUG]

For video how-to lessons and tips from Julie Goodnight, visit


For more information on equine behavior, including how to perform the one-rein stop, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from Thanks to Melissa Arnold for demonstrating the techniques.


Emergency Dismount

When should you stay on and stop the horse with the pulley rein versus dismounting and getting out of harm’s way? The risk of injury to the rider makes the emergency dismount a questionable skill for some to practice. Jumping from a horse can cause sprained ankles or falls. While children love to learn this skill while jumping from short ponies, those with joint pain may find practice difficult or dangerous.

Goodnight says that often, out on the trail, it is safer to stay on the horse than to dismount from a tall and fast horse onto unknown footing. However, she says the emergency dismount is great to know and there may be an instance where you choose to dismount safely instead of staying with the horse.

“I only want to jump off in a scenario where I will be safer if I am not with the horse–if a horse is running off with me and heading toward a barbed wire fence or a cliff, or some other instance where staying on the horse is more dangerous than the risks of falling as you vault off. I put this teaching—as well as teaching the pulley rein—in the category of ‘good to know, good to practice, hope you never need to use it.’”

If you need the skill, here’s what to do. For safety, consider practicing on a vaulting dummy or stack of hay bales instead of from your tall horse. Practice the rhythm of the vault so you know exactly what to do in what order.

  1. Kick your feet out of the stirrups. That seems obvious, but it is not your first instinct when you are panicking. kick

2. Place your hands on the pommel or on your horse’s neck. Use one hand to protect your stomach from the horn if riding in a Western saddle.



3. Let go of the reins and kick your right leg high up and over the saddle’s cantle. Be careful not to kick the horse in the back. If your horse is out of control and you’re dismounting, you don’t need to hold on. Holding onto the reins while dismounting could cause your horse to fall over onto you as you land.



4. Swing your legs together and land facing forward with your knees bent. The more you can move in a sweeping, athletic, flexed vault, the more likely you are to land on your feet without pain.


The Pully-Rein Stop Logo

The Trail Rider ~ May 2016

Ride Right with Julie Goodnight


To watch Julie Goodnight demonstrate how to perform the pulley-rein stop, go to


The Pulley-Rein Stop

Learn how to stop a bolting horse on a narrow trail using a pulley rein with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight’s four-step technique.

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco ~ Photos by Heidi Melocco


If you’ve had an accident, need a confidence boost, or ride on narrow trails, it’s important to know the pulley-rein stop. Read on to learn Julie Goodnight’s four-step technique.

Have you ever ridden a horse that spooked and bolted — and was ready to run fast and far? Bolting is a normal part of a horse’s flight response after he’s spooked. To safely control a spooked horse, you have a fraction of a second to choose your cues.

You might be familiar with the one-rein stop, in which you use one rein to turn and stop. (For how to perform the one-rein stop, go to However, if you’re on a narrow trail with no room to turn, or the horse is truly running away with you it might be best to employ the pulley-rein stop.

You won’t use this extreme stopping cue as an everyday method to halt your horse, like you would the one-rein stop, but in an emergency, with nowhere to turn, it just may save your life.

“There’s a distinct difference in an emergency and a horse that just goes a little bit too fast,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “Don’t use the pulley-rein stop when your horse is just going faster than you’d like. The one-rein stop is for that.

“To me, an emergency is when the horse is out of control, or the rider has lost her balance, and someone is in danger of getting hurt. If you need a last-resort way to stop, knowing the pulley rein can help you stop any horse — no matter your size or the horse’s size.”

Goodnight says most riders are first taught to sit back and apply backward rein pressure to stop. This technique can be fine if your horse just needs to slow down. But if your horse is bucking and running off, simply pulling back isn’t going to stop him. A horse that’s running off may brace his neck, pull back against you, grab the bit, and continue to run off in response to your two-handed pull.

“You can’t win a tug of war with a 1,000-pound horse,” notes Goodnight. “The horse will ‘run through’ bit pressure alone if he’s panicked and bolting.”

And, as noted, the one-rein stop isn’t always the best option if it’ll cause your runaway horse to lose his balance and fall, or if you’re on a narrow trail.

“With practice, you can teach your horse to stop off one rein without turning,” says Goodnight. “But on the trail, you might not want to take the chance the horse won’t turn, especially when stopping promptly is critical.”

If you’ve had an accident, need a confidence boost, or ride on narrow trails, it’s important to know the pulley-rein stop. No stopping technique will work in every single emergency situation, but it’ll boost your confidence to know that you’ll likely be able to stop any horse, when you master this skill.


Before You Begin

Practicing the pulley-rein stop can be hard on your horse, because you’ll pull on the mouth to stop him. So you’ll practice this technique while you’re sitting still on your horse’s back. In this way, you’ll learn the motions without pulling hard or at all. You do need to practice on your horse, as your hands need to be in a specific position on his neck.

“After you know the hand movements, you can move out into an open space where any horse may feel strong — especially when pointed back toward the barn,” says Goodnight. “Make sure you’re not being excessively hard on your horse and are only practicing enough to memorize the hand movements.”

Before you begin, don an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet. Tack up your horse in his usual bridle and saddle. Find an enclosed area with good footing. Mount up, and take a rein in each hand.

Step 1. Shorten the First Rein

Riding with two reins, put your hands out in front of you. You can choose which hand moves first, but for illustration purposes, we’ll start with the left hand (Photo 1A).   Shorten the left rein by sliding your hand down until the rein is quite short (Photo 1B). With your right hand, hold the rest of the reins (if you’re riding with loop reins) or the opposite rein (if you’re riding with split reins).

Caveat: Be sure to shorten the left rein enough to stop your horse from turning his nose right when you pull the right rein. Also be sure you position your hand directly over his neck. If you don’t, he’ll pull your hand to the side. You must be centered so that you have a place to push into his neck.

Step 2. Plant your Hand

With your shortened rein in your left hand, push your knuckles down into the center of your horse’s mane, at the notch just above his withers (Photo 2). Your left hand will stay braced against your horse and will continue to push into his neck. Imagine that this arm is the forward hand if you were holding a bow and arrow. It pushes forward and keeps your horse from turning his head.

Step 3. Shorten the Second Rein

Using your left thumb, grab the tail of the right rein, and slide your right hand down the rein. With your left hand, keep pushing forward into your horse’s mane .

Step 4. Pull Back and Sit Back

Pull back and up with your right rein while your left arm pushes into the neck. Your arms must work in opposition with each other. Pull back with your right hand like an archer pulls a bow just before she shoots it; at the same time, brace into the neck with your left arm to create opposition.

As you pick up and back with your right hand, sit back with your whole body weight. If you’re using this aid, you’re in an emergency situation, and you need to put your whole body weight into the stop.

When your horse stops, release the cue immediately. Otherwise, he may backup, rear or even go over backward.

Caveat: Don’t pull the left rein while also pulling the right rein. You must keep pushing in the left rein and pulling back on the right rein.

Practicing the pulley rein is hard on your horse, so only practice to learn the moves and don’t apply full force. Be gentle, and don’t practice often. When you get it right, you’ll immediately feel the power you have. You’ll boost your confidence when riding in open spaces or on unfamiliar horses as you have the means to stop a horse in an emergency.

For more information on equine behavior, including how to perform the one-rein stop, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from



The Emergency Dismount

When should you stay on and stop your horse with the pulley rein versus dismounting and getting out of harm’s way?

The risk of injury to the rider makes the emergency dismount a questionable skill for some to practice. Jumping from a horse can cause sprained ankles or falls. While children love to learn this skill while jumping from short ponies, those with joint pain may find practice difficult or dangerous.

Julie Goodnight says that on the trail, it’s often safer to stay on your horse than to dismount onto unknown footing. However, she feels the emergency dismount is a key skill to learn, as there may be an instance where dismounting is safer than staying with your horse.

“Only jump off your horse when it’s safer to jump off than stay on,” says Goodnight. “An example might be if your horse is running off with you and heading toward a barbed-wire fence or cliff.

“I put the pulley rein and the emergency dismount in the category of ‘good to know, good to practice, hope you never need to use it.’ ”

Here’s how to perform the emergency dismount. For safety, wear an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet, and consider practicing on a vaulting dummy or a stack of hay bales. Practice the rhythm of the dismount, so you’ll know exactly what to do and in what order.

Step 1. Kick your feet out of the stirrups. That seems obvious, but it’s not your first instinct when you’re panicking.

Step 2. Place your hands on the saddle’s pommel or on your horse’s neck. If you’re riding in a Western saddle, place your right hand behind the horn to shield your stomach from the horn.

Step 3. Release the reins, and kick your right leg high up and over the saddle’s cantle as you push off with your hands. If your horse is out of control and you’re dismounting, you don’t need to hold on. Plus, holding onto the reins while dismounting could cause him to fall on you as you land. As you vault off, be careful not to kick him in the back.

Step 4. Swing your legs together, and land facing forward with your knees bent. The more you can move in a sweeping, athletic, flexed vault, the more likely you are to land on your feet without pain.

Q & A – How To Introduce Kids To Horses And Riding Logo

Q: What are safe tips to introduce my kids to horses and riding? I want them to love riding but don’t want to do too much too soon and end up pushing them away. –Mya Web, via email

A: The great thing about riding is that it is a lifelong sport. However, it is not a great sport for very small children. To ride safely, your child needs to be big enough and strong enough to carry the weight of a helmet and needs to be old enough to follow instructions and pay attention. Usually organized lessons start for riders at least five years old and some stables require children to be seven or eight. If your children are younger than five, make sure that all experiences with horses are fun, highly supervised and safe, and short enough to match their attention spans.

Remember that no horse is bomb proof. If you start too soon or trust a horse too much, you may inadvertently set your youngster up for an accident. If a child learns to fear horses because they seem so big when they are so small, it can be difficult to reignite the riding bug later. The danger of falling is directly proportionate to the height of the fall. Matching a smaller child to a pony is an important safety consideration.

All that said, there’s plenty you can do to make horses and ponies fun and safe for kiddos. I started lessons when I was six years old. When my father saw that I had a passion he made sure that I got the best education possible in the sport of horses. I can attribute a big part of the success I’ve had in my career to the great horse and riding education from classically trained instructors when I was a child, as well as the life lessons learned from horses.

Speaking as a mother who hoped desperately to have a horse crazy child, I found that it was important to have an appropriately sized horse (pony). Brushing and picking up feet and being able to do things yourself can be really important to a child—especially a horse-crazy kid. If they feel they can take part, they’ll want to do it more.

When my son, Hunter, was young, I first thought of riding as a privilege for him. “You can ride as soon as you clean stalls or earn this right.” I rethought that parenting strategy rather quickly. I was the one that wanted him to love horses and riding. I changed my thinking to make riding fun. I rearranged my schedule so that I’d have time to ride with my son. If a friend was coming over, I made sure to saddle up the pony and make riding a fun treat for the visiting children. I packed picnics and ponied my son out to a favorite lunch spot.

Don’t confuse your agenda with your child’s horse agenda. You may love dressage but they may want to go fast and barrel race. Hunter thought that picking out the horses’ feet and hanging out with the farrier was fun. I got him farrier chaps and a farrier’s tool box and allowed him the time to do that I loved that he wanted to be around the horses so supported whatever interest he showed.

Q & A – How To Make Picking Hooves Easier Logo

Q: Sometimes when I’m picking out my horse’s hooves, she pulls it down onto the floor. If I hold it tightly, she tries to jerk it away. How can I make picking out feet easier?

A: Picking a horse’s feet up is not the hard part. Training him to hold his feet up as long as you want him to is a much bigger challenge. Many people focus so much on the picking up that they don’t notice they are inadvertently training the horse to jerk his foot out of your hands whenever he feels like it. Handling a horse’s feet properly takes skill and experience and it is easy to make mistakes.

Start by making sure your horse is standing square and will shift his weight off whichever foot you intend to pick up with a light cue to the shoulder or hip. Then run your hand down to the fetlock, breaking it forward as you lift the foot. Then, make sure you point the hoof toe-up– this is the mistake many people make. If the tow is pointed toward the ground as you are holding the foot up, it is very easy for him to pile-drive his foot to the ground. You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t stomp on your foot at the same time.

Always keep the toe of the hoof curled up toward the sky as you hold the leg. Make sure you are stabilizing his balance with your whole body, but do not let him lean on you. Picking the foot up too high can cause great discomfort to the horse if he has any arthritic changes to his joints– it’s not a natural position for him. So try to keep the foot closer to the ground (toe-up) if your horse seems uncomfortable.

When training a horse to have his feet handled, it’s critically important from the very first time you ask him to pick up his feet (even with foals) that you teach him to hold his foot up in a relaxed manner, letting you have complete control of the leg until you gently place it back to the ground. Every time he succeeds in jerking his foot away, he is instantly rewarded and has learned the wrong thing. Mature horses that have not had good handling can be very challenging to retrain, not to mention the physical risk, and may require someone with the skill and experience to tackle the job safely.

Extended Trot Instead Of Canter Cue Logo

Julie Goodnight Q&A

Q: How do I get my horse to move out at the trot without breaking into a lope? He’s a western horse learning dressage and the extended trot is part of the pattern we are working on. — Jen Vieira via Facebook

A: Horses differ in their physical abilities. Remember that a horse can only extend the trot as much as his physical conformation and athleticism allows him. How far the horse will extend differs with each horse. You’ll need to find out how much you can extend the gait. You’ll push him to the limit of what he can do to extend then you’ll need to back off on your cues and not ask him for more than that. You’ll only find out how far your horse can extend if you push him to the point that he feels the need to canter. In that process, you’ll find the defining moment. When he does start to canter clarify with a half halt (a momentary application of all the aids to rebalance the horse) then immediately go back to the trot. Ask for the extended trot once again.

What’s the cue for the extended gait? To ask the horse to move into an extended trot, start from the slow sitting trot. Reach forward with both hands to give the horse somewhere to go. Your center of gravity comes slightly forward as your legs move back and close on the horse’s sides. Move into a posting trot to drive him forward with your seat. You’ll be pushing as you rise in the trot and as you sit, your legs will close on his sides to ask him for more impulsion. As you reach forward and drive him on, he’ll extend. It’s your job as a rider to find out how much you can extend the trot gait without cantering.

Keep in mind that all training occurs in transitions. Once you find out how much you can extend the trot, alternate between a slow sitting trot and an extended posting trot. Over time, you’ll ask him to hold the extended trot for longer and longer—conditioning him to hold the new gait.

Be sure to use the entire arena. It will be easiest for your horse to move out on the long sides and diagonal lines of the arena. Practice your extended trot on the long lines of the arena then move to a slow sitting trot as you round the corners of the arena.

Q: I’d like to work my new gelding in the round pen and have him focused on me. Instead, when I turn him loose, he begins trotting or cantering around quickly before I even give a command. Why does he do this and how can I help him slow down and tune in? –Tammy Buffing, via email

When it comes to horses that are speedy or downright out of control in the round pen, there are two common reasons for the behavior. Either the horse doesn’t want to be there and is herd bound—he looks outside, kicks out and carries on to show you that he really wants to get back to his herd. It’s also possible that before you got this horse, someone inadvertently trained him to run. Some people think round pen work is simply a time to run a horse around in circles– to wear him out before riding. But the truth is, there is a lot more to round pen work than that. In that scenario, the horse may learn to run around in circles as soon as he’s turned loose. He thinks that’s what he’s supposed to do.

Either way, you have a horse that is not paying attention to you and probably has no regard for you. . First in the round pen, I want to control the horse’s direction and speed. To control the horse’s movements, you need to understand the horse’s driveline. Imagine a plumb line down from the horse’s withers. If you look or step in front of that vertical line, you cue the horse to stop and or turn around (because you are blocking his path). If you aim your eyes or body behind that line, you’re pushing the horse forward. You use your position to either drive the horse forward or cut off his direction..

Use caution, the round pen can be a pressure cooker for the horse. You have him confined, but you’re chasing him as if he was out in the open. That can cause a horse to be emotional, to kick out, to try to jump out of the pen, or to simply feel uncomfortable until he understands what you’re asking for and accepts your authority. Be careful; it’s easy get kicked or run over in the round pen.

Any time you’re in the round pen, make sure to have a flag or stick with you to help you pronounce your cues and to defend your space. If you’re working a horse in the round pen, it’s probably because you need to get his attention and establish that you are in charge. The flag will help you get your horse’s attention and if he disagrees with your leadership, it’s possible he could charge you; make sure you have a tool to defend your space if needed.

I like a flag so that I can wave it and I have a way to signal the horse visually without touching him. If the horse were to become aggressive, having the attached stick helps me defend my space. I have been charged in the round pen by a several horses. Sometimes it is predictable, sometimes not. You can’t predict how a horse will react when he is learning to follow your round pen cues. Kicking and charging are normal horse behaviors and you need to be prepared.

Your speedy horse is probably looking anywhere but at you. To slow a speedy horse, you’ll need to change his direction a lot. And to change his direction, you’ll need to visually block his way and get him to notice you. You’ll need to cut him off and send him in the opposite direction. You can’t just step directly in front of him or he may run you over. Plan ahead and visualize where the horse will be when he continues three quarters of the way around the pen. Then walk to that point of intersection. That gives him plenty of time to see you and stop and turn.

If you start turning the horse around every time you lose his attention, he will start thinking about you more. Turning around is extremely difficult. When the horse turns into the fence, he has to stop abruptly, roll back onto his haunches and launch forward—that uses lots of energy. If you turn him and after a few strides he starts going too fast again, turn him around again. Soon, he’ll get tired of turning. He’ll start to focus on you to see when he’ll have to turn around again. If he seems tired, see if he’ll stop instead of stop and turn.

If he’ll stop, I’ll walk to the fence that is away from the horse and talk to a friend. If your friend is close enough to watch, it’s interesting to hear about what the horse does as your back is turned. As long as he’s looking at you, allow him to stay still and rest. If your friend reports that he has looked away, put him back to work.

As soon as he looks outside the pen or speeds up, turn him around. You’ll see results in the first session. If he starts benefitting from looking at you—by being allowed to slow down or to stop and rest—he’ll give you his attention for longer and longer periods.

There’s a whole lot more to round pen work than a casual observer would ever see or understand. There’s so much communication and purpose in this complicated work. There are specific steps to take in the round pen—first drive the horse away, then control direction, then control speed. Even people who own horses don’t always realize how much is going on and may think that a round pen is just a place to chase a horse around to wear him out before a ride. Make sure to study the body language of horses and to learn all the ways you can communicate with your horse in this setting. If done correctly, the round pen can be a place where you establish your leadership and show the horse great rewards for listening and seeing your cues.

–Julie Goodnight

Cinching Up Just Enough – Julie Goodnight Q & A Logo

Q: How tight should I tighten my horse’s cinch—and what is the right process. I don’t want to hurt my horse and I want to make sure he never becomes cinchy. –Pam Friend, via e-mail


A: How tight the cinch needs to be depends on the shape of the horse, the type of riding you plan to do, and the skill and size of the rider. The cinch and girth are interchangeable terms—depending on your saddle type. If you ride English, you probably say girth and if you ride in a Western saddle, you say cinch. The girth is also a term to identify the horse’s body part.


The cinch needs to be tight enough to allow you to mount and dismount without causing the saddle to shift. You want to keep the saddle balanced, but you don’t want to tighten a cinch more than needed—that can cause discomfort to the horse and can cause the horse to resist the saddling process.


A less experienced, or out-of-balance rider may need a tighter cinch. If they shift when a horse spooks or turns quickly, they may torque the saddle and cause it to rotate. A small and unbalanced rider may not be able to move the saddle that much, but an adult who is off balance can easily move a saddle that is not adequately secured with the cinch. If you are cutting or rounding barrels, you want to make sure your saddle doesn’t shift as the horse performs tight turns.


The horse’s conformation plays a role, as well. If you have a round horse with low withers, you may have to tighten the cinch quite a bit. Higher withers can help keep a saddle in place. The type of pad and the material the cinch is made of can also affect how tightly you’ll cinch up. If the material is smooth or shiny, it won’t help the saddle stay in place.


Let’s talk about the process. It’s best to untie a horse before tightening the cinch. Your horse doesn’t have to be totally loose, but if he becomes uncomfortable during the process, you don’t want him to be tied hard and fast to a hitching rail or cross ties. He could pull back and panic, which may lead to tying problems later on. Lay the lead over a rail so that he knows not to move, but perceives he is tied and will stand still.


I like to rub the horse’s girth area before I bring the cinch into place. With my head facing the horse’s head (to keep it out of the kick zone), I bend to reach for the cinch and attach the cinch with the buckle. At this point, I only attach the cinch enough so that the saddle will stay in place. Then I’ll move the cinch up one hole, wait a moment and cinch up one more hole. Then I walk the horse a minimum of five steps to allow the saddle to settle on to his back. Then I’ll tighten the cinch enough so that I can get on. If the saddle slips as I get on, the saddle is too loose. As my horse warms up, the tack will settle onto his back again. Check your cinch again 10 minutes into your ride or before you canter.


To check the cinch, reach between the horse’s front legs and check at the horse’s centerline. You should be able to put one index finger in to your finger’s first joint. If you can reach in at the back of the cinch more than that, it’s probably too loose. If you can’t fit a finger in at all, it may be too tight. Checking the cinch behind the horse’s shoulder may not give you an accurate reading. Most horses are concave there, just below your saddle. The cinch will always feel loose there. Tip: don’t expect your horse to always use the same hole on your cinch or latigo; it will change somewhat as he changes in age, fitness and hair coat. Go by what you notice and how it feels, not by a counting the holes.


Q: How do you train a horse to go from direct reining (two hands) to neck reining with one hand? Kim Ridgeway, via e-mail


A: When I start training a young horse, I lay the groundwork for neck reining later. I believe that all horses should be able to neck rein—English and Western. You never know when you need to ride with one hand. The training for one-handed riding starts by practicing with two hands.


To start, you’ll keep both hands on the reins and make sure your hands are in front of the pommel. Keep your hands to the sides of the horse’s neck—so that your hands are far apart with about a foot of space in between. For proper position, imagine a straight line from your elbow to the corner of the horse’s mouth. Start cueing for a turn with the leading rein. Many riders learn on trained horses and first learn the direct rein—when you pull back in the direction you want to go by pulling the rein toward your hip. The direct rein is a “rein of opposition” and interferes with forward motion. You cannot use a direct rein when you are riding a young horse—or you will stop him from moving freely forward. When you’re riding a young horse you want him to learn to move ahead. You don’t want to train him to get “sticky feet” and stop too often, so forward motion is critical.


Instead, you’ll use the leading rein. Instead of pulling back, you open your hand out to the side in the direction you want to go (imagine a hitch-hiker’s thumb). It helps the horse know to turn without stopping his forward motion. That’s the movement you’ll do with your inside hand. As a secondary rein aid, you’ll close your outside hand against the horse’s neck. Move your outside hand toward the horse’s neck, but never across the midline of the horse.


Step 1: When I’m starting a young colt, this is exactly how I cue him to turn from the very first ride. With the leading rein, I can direct the horse by opening the rein in the direction I want to go and I’m reinforcing what will be the neck rein with my outside hand. I lay the groundwork for the neck rein from the start and he begins to associate the feel of the rein on his neck with a turn.


Step 2: I continue to practice turns by starting with the leading rein and adding the neck rein as the secondary cue. However, when he begins to turn, I release the leading rein (moving my hand back toward the midline of the horse) while keeping the neck rein in place. My goal is to hold the horse in the turn with the neck rein. At any time (still holding the reins with two hands), I can reach down and bump (do not pull or hold pressure) with the leading rein to help him know to continue turning. That’s the second stage of training. After practicing this stage for a week or more, I’ll see if I can initiate the turn with the neck rein.


Step 3: Next I will start the turn with the neck rein. If that doesn’t cause the horse to turn, I’ll immediately bump with the leading rein to remind the horse of what I’m asking. I’ll continue asking my horse to turn with the neck rein first and then reinforcing with a bump of the leading rein until he turns consistently off of the neck-rein cue.


Step 4: Once you’re initiating and holding the turns as long as you want with the neck rein—and the horse is moving lightly off of the neck rein—you’re close to riding with one hand. At this point, I continue to ride with two hands, but I move my hands closer and closer together. Soon, I’m holding my knuckles together so my hands are together as one. The horse feels what he will feel when I move to one hand, but I can quickly reinforce if needed. I then move to a trainer’s hold on the reins—where there’s a bridge of the reins. Then I’ll switch to the pistol grip on the reins—riding with only one hand.


Depending on your horse’s age and experience, your level of skill and the amount of time you have to ride, this process can be taught in as little as three weeks or as long as several months. A colt that has just started learning any cues will take a long time to learn the different rein aids. He needs to stay at the beginning levels for quite some time to make sure he has all the fundamentals. If you are riding a trained horse that knows the leading rein well and just needs a reminder of the neck rein, you may be able to work through a step per week. If at any time you need to step back and remind the horse of the new cue, switch back to two hands.


A note about timing: A reinforcement or reward (release) must come within three seconds for the horse to learn, but the sooner in the three seconds, the faster the horse learns.


For instance, if you lay the neck rein on the horse and wait too long for him to turn before reinforcing with the leading rein, he won’t learn the neck rein as fast as if you reinforce that cue immediately. If the release or reinforcement comes within a second, the horse will learn quickly.

–Julie Goodnight


My Horse Consistently Breaks Gait From A Lope To A Jog On The Right Lead. Q & A Logo

Q: My horse consistently breaks gait from a lope to a jog on the right lead. What may be causing this? –Haley White

A: This is an interesting question—and I wish I had a few more details. If the horse only breaks gait on the right lead and not on the left lead, that makes me suspicious that there may be a physical problem. If a horse breaks gait on both leads, that makes me think that the horse is lazy and disobedient.. However, an obedience issue doesn’t usually happen only on one lead.

By and large if you’re cantering and the horse breaks down to the trot, it’s an obedience issue. The horse should not be allowed to choose the speed and direction—that’s the rider’s job. Many riders just re-cue for the canter and don’t admonish the horse when he breaks gait. So the horse doesn’t know that wasn’t right, he just thinks that if he slows down, he’ll get a break then canter again. You have to break that cycle by adding an admonishment to let him know that breaking gait was unacceptable.

Since Haley writes that it’s only the right lead she’s having trouble with, it makes me think that disobedience may not be the only problem and there may also be a physical component. Plus, it seems that the horse will pick up the right lead and just not maintain it, which would be unusual for a horse that is in pain But, the horse may feel some pain on a leg that is prominent when traveling that direction or may lack conditioning and coordination on that side. Think about the motion of the canter: The legs work unevenly at this gait. On the right lead, the left hind and the right foreleg are enduring the most stress. If the horse is picking up the right lead then not wanting to sustain the gait, he may not be conditioned on that side or he may be feeling pain after the initial canter departure.

I wonder if Haley’s horse has an old injury. After an accident, there could be a coordination or a conditioning issue affecting one side for some time. I’d want to see the horse’s movement in the pasture—will he move on both leads without a rider present? That can tell you what the horse’s preferred lead is and if the horse does pick up the right lead, it would be interesting to see if he keeps the right lead on his own.

This could also be a training issue. Team-roping horses always come out of the box on the left lead because they will eventually turn to the left. Racehorses may only pick up the left lead as they always bend around to the left on the track. I find that many horses also prefer the left lead naturally. So if a horse is trained that the right lead is wrong, or if a horse has never been trained to pick up a specific lead, he may just pick the lead he wants. Horses that were trained for the trail often aren’t taught to pick up specific leads—they just canter on their favorite lead. If the horse has never worked his muscles and been conditioned to work on the right lead, it may take some conditioning and riding at a full gallop to help the horse develop strength and balance in that gait.

Keep in mind that the gallop is the natural gait and the canter is the collected, man-made version of the movement. If the horse has never had to hold himself with a rider while cantering to the right, he may be willing to pick up the lead, but may not be conditioned to keep the lead.

All those thoughts considered, this could be a physical issue or a training issue. My gut tells me that we have to rule out pain first. I’d want to have this horse evaluated by an equine chiropractor who is also a veterinarian. I have seen horses that have a rib or spinal issue not want to canter or just seem “off.”

If the horse doesn’t appear lame on one leg, but isn’t moving how he should, a few treatments may help. Starting with this step would rule out the pain. If it still happens after chiropractic treatment and conditioning, it’s time to go back to basic obedience. If you have asked the horse to canter, he should stay in that gait until you give a different cue.

I’m curious to know what Haley finds out. It’s a curious question and one that’s interesting to think about!

–Julie Goodnight

Feed-Time Aggression Q & A Logo

Julie Goodnight Q&A
Feed-Time Aggression; Maintaining the Right Lead

Q: Why do some horses feel threatened when it comes to their food, and in return behave in an aggressive way at meal times? What can I do to prevent food-time aggression and stay safe at feeding time? –Chloe Martin

A: A horse’s aggression at feed time may be as major as pinning his ears, baring his teeth and charging you or as minor as grabbing the hay out of your arms when you arrive to distribute dinner. Horses may behave this way to establish who’s dominant in the herd—and if you are present with food, you’re part of the herd for the moment! When horses establish who’s in charge in the herd, they show they are dominant by controlling space and controlling resources. The resources are food, water and shelter. With food aggression, the horse is often simultaneously invading your space and taking away the food. That’s his way to control space and resources all at once. Keep in mind that he doesn’t know the difference between horse food and people food—he doesn’t know you won’t eat it. He knows he wants it and he can take it from you.

Why does your horse think he’s dominant over you? Hand feeding treats can lead to the horse thinking he is in charge and allowed to take food from your hand. He also learns that by pushing into you he can control where you stand and where you’ll go. Sometimes horses develop food aggression just because their dominant behavior has been tolerated in the past; it becomes worse over time. Sometimes aggression develops when feeders don’t go into the pen with the horse at all. When horses are fed only twice a day (instead of eating all day long like nature intended) there is a lot of stress and anxiety over when the next meals comes.

Some horses will be so anxious that they start acting out, like pawing, pinning the ears or baring teeth, then when the feeder dumps the hay in, the horse comes to believe his aggressive gestures are causing you to feed him. Even though you aren’t going into the pen so his gestures don’t concern you, to him it is as if he intimidated you into dropping the food and leaving, so his aggressive gestures were rewarded.

There is also herd stress if you’re feeding in a group and only feeding twice a day—horses may be worried about getting their food and also worried if another horse will allow them to eat. Those two factors—the herd and the limited food resource—may make the horses aggressive toward one another and just agitated to anyone present at feed time. That kind of stress in addition to only being fed twice a day causes a competition for the food. In that case, I would recommend separating them for feeding to reduce the competition for food. Or feed more often. Giving horses free access to hay 24 days, seven days a week will virtually eliminate all food aggression.

If a horse is acting out against you as you bring the food, that’s easy to fix. I would use a flag whenever I approach the horse’s pen, whether I intend to go into it or not. Wave the flag at the horse to back him up. Once he yields his space, he will then look forward at you to see what is going to happen next. While his ears are forward and after he has backed up, drop the food and walk away. If his aggressive antics don’t get him what he wants, he will stop acting that way. Make sure you have a flag or stick to make sure you can defend yourself.

Remember, he doesn’t have to act well for long—just has to be acting right at the moment you feed him. It’s not that the alpha horse never lets the other horses eat—they get to eat when she walks away from the food.

3 Leadership Activities Logo

By: Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight

Top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight gives you three fun activities designed to enhance the bond you have with your horse and solidify your role as herd leader.

During cold winter months, you likely trail ride less frequently than you do in warmer months. You might even turn your horse out on winter pasture. And all year long, there are times when you just can’t get out to ride as often as you’d like.

You can take a break from riding, but you still need to keep your horse tuned up so he maintains his respect for you as his herd leader, especially if he’s pastured with other horses.

As a prey animal, your horse instinctively looks for safety and comfort in a horse herd. If he doesn’t also feel safe and at home with you, he’ll feel unsafe, insecure, and alone when you pull him out of his herd.

“Unless and until you can replace those feelings of safety and comfort that your horse gets with his horse herd, he’d rather stay with his buddies,” notes top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

“Your horse will leave with you only if he thinks you can give him safety, security, and comfort. You have to be a herd of two.”

If your horse doesn’t feel safe with you, he might become herd-bound, barn sour, buddy sour, and even appear to forget his training.

It may be tough to ride your horse every day, especially in the winter. But you can make sure that each interaction you have with him is meaningful and shows him you’re his herd leader.

“It’s all about relationships,” says Goodnight. “You have to consistently work with your horse to maintain a good relationship. Some horses need to be handled every day. The good news is that helping your horse feel safe with you can be fun.”

Here, Goodnight will explain the importance of tuning up your horse’s training all year long. Then she’ll give you three fun activities designed to foster your relationship and bond with your horse so he’ll look to you as his trusted leader.


Tune Up His Training

First, understand how your horse thinks. He understands authority and leadership. He’s always testing you. If he finds he doesn’t have to follow the rules with you, he won’t.

Every time you handle your horse, you’re training him to do something, either acceptable or unacceptable. Over time, tiny inconsistencies can erode your authority with him, but you might not notice that you’re no longer the leader until something big happens.

Consistently keep up your horse’s training, whether you bought him trained or trained him yourself. If you allow him to break the rules, and abandon the structure and routine he’s learned, his training is likely to unravel. He’ll lose his respect for you as the herd leader, and may even resist leaving the pasture.

For instance, let’s say you’ve trained your horse to stand still during grooming. Over time, he starts taking a step or two toward you as you brush him. You don’t bother to correct him. Then one day, he takes three steps and actually bumps into you.

You thought those small steps were little infractions not worth correcting. But your horse took your inaction as a sign that you’re not in charge and not even worth noticing.

Teach your horse to respect your personal space. Every time you lead him, make frequent stops and starts, requesting obedience. Remind him where he should be. Don’t allow him to get ahead of you. Make sure he stands still when asked. Correct him if he bumps into you or takes a step away from you.

Another example: You’ve trained your horse to ride out alone. But then you start allowing him to turn his head to look back toward the barn. Left uncorrected, he soon attempts to turn back toward the barn, and balks when you turn him toward the trail.

To keep up your horse’s training, correct him with confidence every time he looks back toward the barn. He’ll remember that first-trained skill.

Goodnight says that in her experience, middle-aged horses, no matter how well-trained, are more likely to become herd-bound than other horses. There are variables in personalities, but that’s a time to make sure you interact with your horse and maintain your leadership.

Five minutes of training here and there can go far to help you maintain your relationship with your horse, especially if the relationship is firmly established.

And the more you spend time increasing your leadership and enhancing the bond with your horse, the more relaxing and enjoyable your trail rides will be. When your horse trusts you and sees you as his herd leader, he’ll more readily follow your cues, and you’ll have a more productive and relaxing time in the saddle.

Following are three short, fun activities you can do with your horse to help keep up his training and enhance the bond you enjoy with him.

Activity #1: Find His Sweet Spot

A fun activity to do with your horse as you groom him is to rub and scratch his “sweet spot.” When something feels good to a horse, he’ll pucker his lip and even raise or stretch out his neck to show you his appreciation. This reaction is related to allo-grooming(mutual grooming). When two horses stand facing one another and groom one another with their teeth, they’ll pucker when the other horse has found the “sweet spot.”

Only horses that are bonded will participate in mutual grooming. In that pair, one is still more dominant; the dominant horse will start and stop the process.

To find your horse’s sweet spot, start at his withers, and rub in a circular motion up his neck with a deep massaging or scratching motion. When you find the sweet spot, he’ll move his lips or even stretch out.

Scratch your horse’s sweet spot after you’ve asked him to perform a maneuver, such as stopping, backing up, or taking a step to the side.

Be aware that you’re working to maintain your leadership within the herd. By initiating and stopping this routine, you’re showing him you’re the herd leader.

Sometimes horses that are allo-grooming will bite each other, so you’ll need to thwart any mouthy behavior. Your horse should never put his lips on you. If he does reach out to groom you in return, acknowledge the kind gesture, but gently push back his nose back to stop him.

And don’t allow your horse to become rude or demanding of the grooming or reward. If he becomes demanding, be demanding back, and tell him that it’s not the right time. Never reward this behavior.

Activity #2: Play the Bravery Game

Ground work builds your relationship with your horse. One fun groundwork activity is the “bravery game,” which teaches him to replace his flight response with a calm alternative.

This is a great skill to have when you’re on the trail. If your horse sees something that scares him, he’ll know that he’s brave enough to stop, turn, look, and draw closer to the scary object.

For this activity, you’ll work with your horse’s instinctive behavior. By nature, he’s investigative and curious. If he sees something new, and he’s unafraid, he may seek to touch the object with his muzzle and even lick it. Your horse is also instinctively a flight animal. However, he can’t act on both of these instincts at the same time.

Here’s how to replace your horse’s flight instinct with investigative behavior when confronted with a scary object.

Step 1. Find a novel item. Once a week or so, find a novel, noisy, visually stimulating item to present to your horse, such as a pinwheel, pom-pom, or plastic toy with moving parts. Place the item behind the barn or next to an out-of-the-way building, where it’ll surprise him.

Step 2. Lead your horse. Outfit your horse with a rope halter and training lead at least 12 feet long. Ask him to walk obediently beside you, stop, back up, etc. Then lead him past the item.

Step 3. Ask him to face the item. As soon as your horse sees the item, ask him to stop. If he moves, correct him with the lead rope. Then ask him to face the item.

Step 4. Praise him. As soon as your horse stops and faces the item, praise him with long strokes of your hand and with your voice. Such praise will calm him. Just relaxing near the novel stimulus will help eliminate his flight instinct.

Step 5. Ask for a step or two. If your horse stays calm, ask him to take a step or two toward the item, then ask him to stop again. If he stays put, praise him for his bravery. Continue to ask him to take one or two small steps forward, but don’t let him walk far. Stop him after he goes only a short way.

Step 6. Encourage investigative behavior. The moment your horse pricks his ears forward and shows forward interest, ask him to walk another step, then stop him again. Going slowly and stopping him piques his investigative instinct, and gives him a chance to take in the new stimulus. It also gives you a chance to praise him and help him to stay relaxed.

This activity is a game as well as a training session. It’s fun for your horse, because he wants to be told he’s good. He doesn’t like being afraid, so when you help him replace fear with bravery, he feels good.

The ultimate point in the game comes when your horse reaches out and touches the item with his muzzle. He wins! Praise him copiously with long strokes of your hand and your voice

If you only have five minutes, do a shorter version of this activity. Place a piece of noisy plastic in your pocket, then take it out, crinkle it, and show it to your horse. If he stays relaxed, praise him. If he becomes nervous, ask him to calm down and face the item.

You can also do the bravery game while you’re riding — even when your horse is accidentally startled. Simply follow the same steps you performed on the ground.

The more often you do this activity, the more often your horse will stop and look instead of thinking of bolting. He may still be startled, but he’ll learn to turn and look instead of taking off.

Activity #3: Ride With Friends

If you make small efforts to constantly improve your horsemanship, you’re horse will be happier, because you’ll learn how to better communicate with him. To keep on a regular schedule, set aside a dedicated time, and include your friends.

One way to do this is to start a once-per-month riding club. Rotate the leader who’ll prepare a lesson that’s fun and educational.

The leader needs to be aware of every member’s skill level so he or she can design exercises that are meaningful for all involved.

The leader will first show the rest of the group what to do. Then everyone else will follow. Afterward, you’ll all talk about what worked, what didn’t, and why.

If time is short, perform ground work, then hold a brief contest. For instance, see whose horse will ground-tie the longest. Give a fun prize to the winner. When you have time, serve after-lesson refreshments.

For more information on equine behavior and trail-riding tips, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available at

Choose The Right Reins Logo



Online extra! For Julie Goodnight’s tip on using color-coded reins for kids, go to


Choose the Right Reins

Learn how choose the right reins, and use them safely on the trail, with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.



On the trail, your reins need to be safe and functional, and help your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue.

And, your reins need to be comfortable. If your reins are too long, too much to hold, or are just uncomfortable, you’ll tend to shorten your trail rides. If they feel good to you, you’ll relax in the saddle and enjoy long rides.

Your horse is highly attuned to how you hold and cue with the reins. When you move along at a casual pace, he appreciates a long rein to give him room to move. Your reins also need to be long enough so that your horse can reach down to drink.

At the same time, when you speed up, you need to be able to easily shorten the reins to collect your horse and give a more direct cue when necessary.

Here, top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight will first cover rein quality, types, and attachments. Then she’ll tell you the best ways to attach your reins to the bit and how to rein your horse. Next, she’ll give you ground-tying safety pointers. Along the way, she’ll give you riding-glove tips for safety and control.


Overall Quality

“It’s all about quality,” Goodnight says. “The heavier the rein is, the easier it’ll be for your horse to feel what you’re doing with your hands and the more subtle a signal you can give.

“Plus, when the reins are made from quality leather or rope, your horse will feel the rein release right away, so he’ll learn to be more responsive.”

Riding with well-weighted reins will remind you to give your horse enough slack, because you’ll feel the downward pull of gravity. He’ll feel the rein’s weight, and your cues will be amplified because of the weighted drape.

If you use reins made from inexpensive, lightweight material that flops around, your horse won’t feel the rein and may have a tough time feeling your rein aids. This means you may find yourself pulling on the reins more than should be necessary (and therefore applying undue pressure to your horse’s mouth) to get a response to your cues.

To experience what your horse feels when the reins are weighted just right, stand up, and place your arms straight out in front of you with your palms up.

Imagine you hold a penny on your right index finger and a feather on your left index finger. Now think what it would take to balance the item on each finger.

You likely imagine that you’d be able to balance the penny easily, but need to shift your finger to keep it under the feather. The same law of physics applies to how your horse feels and balances himself within the weight of your reins.

If your reins are made from lightweight leather or nylon webbing, there isn’t much weight, and it becomes difficult for him to feel the reins and stay balanced.

With high-quality leather or a thick marine-type rope, your horse will be able to feel your hand movements and balance himself more easily. He’ll know what you’re asking because the weight of the reins echoes the slightest movement from your hand.


Rein Types

Here’s a rundown of common Western rein types and how to use them. Find reins that feel best in your hands and as you ride on trail.

* Split reins. If you opt for split reins, choose quality leather. Split reins are long and versatile — you can make them long or short, and use them independently or ride one-handed. Split reins can be great for trail riding, because you can easily ground-tie by laying the reins down on the ground. But some find them cumbersome and they can be easily dropped.

You can hold split reins in a variety of ways. You can choose how you hold them and where you hold them to cue your horse.

The traditional pistol-grip hold is the rein hold used for competition. Hold both the reins in one hand with your index finger in-between the two reins.

The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of your horse’s neck, crossing the reins over each other, and holding one rein in each hand or both in one hand. Hold your hands as though you’re holding bicycle handles, while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over your horse’s neck. This allows you to ride with two hands and work each side of the bit independently. You can also use a bridge while riding one-handed.

When riding Western, the traditional rein hand is the left hand; it’s assumed you’ll need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope, open a gate, rope, etc.

If you’re riding with split reins, make sure the bight (the tail of your reins) lies on the same side of your horse’s neck as your rein hand so his neck doesn’t interfere with your cues.

* Continuous-loop reins. If you choose to ride with continuous-loop reins, choose high-quality, heavyweight rope for trail riding. These reins fill your hand for comfort and control. They’re easy to use when you’re following a trail and don’t need to guide your horse’s every step. Rope reins are easy to hold onto, as well as to shorten and lengthen.

Hold rope reins right in the middle to ride on a loose rein. “The reins I’ve designed have a marker in the middle so you can easily check to see your reins are even,” Goodnight says.

Consider length. On the trail, your horse needs to be able to drop his head to drink and move in a relaxed frame. Most trail horses do well with a 9-foot rein. However, if your horse has a very long neck, you may prefer a 10-foot rein. Find a length that also helps you ride on a loose rein with a relaxed hand.


Rein Attachments

Traditional Western reins can also include a mecate or romal. Here’s what you need to know.

* Mecate. The mecate is a long lead on a continuous-loop rein that comes off of the left side of the bit. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate; off the horse, there’s built-in lead line. But others find the extra rope bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle,” Goodnight says. “I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle.

The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of your horse’s neck, crossing the reins over each other, and holding one rein in each hand or both in one hand. Hold your hands as though you’re holding bicycle handles, while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over your horse’s neck. This allows you to ride with two hands and work each side of the bit independently. You can also use a bridge while riding one-handed.

When riding Western, the traditional rein hand is the left hand; it’s assumed you’ll need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope, open a gate, rope, etc.

If you’re riding with split reins, make sure the bight (the tail of your reins) lies on the same side of your horse’s neck as your rein hand so his neck doesn’t interfere with your cues.

* Continuous-loop reins. If you choose to ride with continuous-loop reins, choose high-quality, heavyweight rope for trail riding. These reins fill your hand for comfort and control. They’re easy to use when you’re following a trail and don’t need to guide your horse’s every step. Rope reins are easy to hold onto, as well as to shorten and lengthen.

Hold rope reins right in the middle to ride on a loose rein. “The reins I’ve designed have a marker in the middle so you can easily check to see your reins are even,” Goodnight says.

Consider length. On the trail, your horse needs to be able to drop his head to drink and move in a relaxed frame. Most trail horses do well with a 9-foot rein. However, if your horse has a very long neck, you may prefer a 10-foot rein. Find a length that also helps you ride on a loose rein with a relaxed hand.


Rein Attachments

Traditional Western reins can also include a mecate or romal. Here’s what you need to know.

* Mecate. The mecate is a long lead on a continuous-loop rein that comes off of the left side of the bit. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate; off the horse, there’s built-in lead line. But others find the extra rope bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle,” Goodnight says. “I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle. This means there’s less to hold. And when you tie your horse, you aren’t tempted to tie with a rope that’s connected to the bit.”

* Romal. A romal is attached to the set of closed reins; the entire assemblage is called romal reins. The romal was developed to help a rider move cattle. Romal reins are held without a finger between the reins, so you have less ability to articulate with the reins than you might with split reins. You ride with two hands — one hand cues your horse, while the other holds the romal. These reins are best used on a well-trained horse that neck reins well.


Bit Connections

Goodnight advises against using a metal snap to attach your reins to the bit. Although convenient, the metal-to-metal connection can annoy your horse. The metals rub and vibrate, which he feels constantly.

A rope or leather bit connection gives you a better feel and helps you know when your horse moves or makes a change. You don’t need to change the bit or reins frequently; take a few extra moments to tie on your reins or otherwise secure without a clip.

“A leather or rope connection is fine,” says Goodnight. “Although I’m not a fan of decorative slobber straps — they’re too bulky and don’t allow me to finesse the reins. Plus, they’re cumbersome to put on and take off.”

The ideal connection for a continuous-loop rein is a corded quick connect, says Goodnight. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, and also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with your horse.”

A split rein will usually have a tied-on connection — a kind of slobber strap made from the same leather as the rein. The leather piece is a breakaway and may save your horse from getting hurt if you drop a rein and he steps on it. If that piece does break, it’s easy to repair while on the trail.


Holding the Reins

Whether you ride with one hand or two depends on the type of bit you use, and your horse’s training level and his obedience.

Snaffle bits (bits without shanks) are designed to be ridden two-handed with a direct rein (applying pressure directly from rider’s hand to the mouthpiece of the bit). Riding in a snaffle bit with one hand causes the bit to collapse around the horse’s tongue and pinch his jaw in a nutcracker effect.


Curb bits (bits with shanks) are designed to be ridden one-handed However, if the bit is designed so that the shanks move independently from each other, you may also ride with two hands when your horse is in training.


Ground-Tying Safety

When you dismount and lay the reins on the ground, a horse trained to ground tie knows that means he should stand still. Laying the reins on the ground should only be done with a split rein, not a continuous-loop rein.

Split reins have no dangerous hoof-catching loop. In the worst-case scenario, your horse may break the split-reins’ leather, but he won’t get caught up or pull excessively on the bit with a material that won’t break.

Never drop loop or continuous-rope reins in front of your horse. Rather, hold loop reins in your hands or over your arm to keep the loop far from your horse’s feet.

If you want to ground-tie with a loop rein, keep the loop over your horse’s neck, or attach a lead rope to a halter beneath your bridle, and allow this lead to hang down. Or you can use the traditional neck rope for this purpose, known as a “get-down” rope.

For safety’s sake, make sure that some part of your reins, bit, and headstall is made of a breakaway material. For instance, if you have rope reins, connect them to a leather headstall. Something needs to give in case of an emergency.



Riding-Glove Tips


Well-fitted leather gloves are handy on the trail when reaching to ride beneath branches.


When should you wear riding gloves? You’ll need gloves if you’re riding a fast-paced trail or endurance challenge, as you’ll hold the horse with contact and you’ll feel friction on your fingers. You may also want gloves if you’re riding in heavy brush and you’ll need to reach up and break branches.

“I always want gloves on if I’m ponying a horse or doing any kind of rope-pulling work,” notes Julie Goodnight. “I always make sure there are gloves in my saddlebag in case I need to help pony a horse in an emergency.

Consider glove material. “I like a leather glove for the feel,” says Goodnight. “The new technical fabrics are great, though, too.

No matter what the material, fit is key. “If the gloves fit well without extra fingertip length, you’ll be able to feel the reins better and not lose the feel of the reins as you’re shortening and lengthening them,” notes Goodnight.


On the trail, your reins need to be safe and functional, and help your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue. Here, top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight will help you choose the reins that are right for you. Shown are Goodnight (right) and Twyla Walker Collins riding with split reins.




Leather split reins are long and versatile, and best for ground-tying. But some riders find them hard to use, and they can be easily dropped. (Note the leather-to-metal connection at the bit, rather than a metal snap, which would annoy your horse.)




If you use continuous-loop rope reins on the trail, make sure they’re long enough to allow your horse to ride in a relaxed frame, turn and bend without constant contact, and reach his head down far enough to drink.



Rope reins are easy to hold and convenient on the trail — especially if you’re worried about dropping a split rein. The reins can be held in one hand or two, depending on the bit and your horse’s training level.


The ideal connection for a continuous-loop rein is a corded quick connect, says Goodnight, who designed the reins shown. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, and also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with your horse.”




With romal reins, you ride with two hands — one hand cues your horse, while the other holds the romal attachment. These reins are best used on a well-trained horse that knows how to neck rein.


A Safe Handle On The Reins Logo

A Safe Handle on the Reins


By Heidi Nyland Melocco with Julie Goodnight


Learn how to safely use your reins on the trail with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. She’ll explain how to hold and use both rope and split reins, plus how to stop and ground-tie.


When you’re on a long trail ride, you want comfortable and functional reins to hold. It’s important that the gear you choose helps you feel comfortable, keeps you relaxed, and helps your horse quickly and easily understand the slightest cue. If you’re dealing with reins that are too long, too much to hold –or are just not comfortable for you– your ride time may be impacted by your tight grip. If you find the reins you can easily shorten and lengthen and that feel great to you, you’ll relax in the saddle and enjoy your ride.

While your horse may not care if you have the trendiest gear, he does care about how you hold and cue with the reins. When you’re moving along at a casual pace, he wants to know you can easily lengthen the reins to give him room to move. When you want to speed up, you’ll also want a rein that you find easy to shorten so that you can give a more direct cue when necessary. It’s important to consider what material feels best in your hands. It’s also important to make sure that your reins are long enough to allow your horse to relax and reach down to drink.

Here, top trainer and clinician, Julie Goodnight will help you understand your rein options and talk about how to hold different types of reins. She’ll help you understand how reins work to communicate clearly to your horse and she’ll also give you safety pointers to help you avoid common mistakes when bridling and when stopping for a rest during a trail ride.


A Weighty Issue

“It’s all about quality,” Goodnight says. “The heavier the rein is, the easier it will be for the horse to feel what you’re doing with your hands and the more subtle a signal you can give. Plus, when the reins are made of quality leather or rope, the horse will feel your hands’ release sooner.”

Riding with well-weighted reins will help remind you to put slack in the reins because you’ll feel the downward, gravity pull. Your horse will feel the rein’s weight and also feel any movements of your hands amplified because of the weighted drape. When reins are made of inexpensive and light-weight cording that flops loosely, the horse doesn’t feel the rein and may have a tough time feeling your slight rein aids. That means you may find yourself pulling on the reins more than should be needed (and therefore applying undue pressure to the horse’s mouth) to get a response to a turning cue.

What difference does your horse feel when the reins are weighted just right? Goodnight suggests this visualization. Stand and place your arms straight out in front of you with your palms up. Picture a penny on your right index finger and a feather on your left index finger. Now imagine. What would it take to balance the item on each finger? Which is easiest to balance?

You’d probably be able to balance the penny easily and you’d shift and move to keep your finger under the feather. Goodnight says that the same law of physics at work with the penny and feather applies to how your horse feels and balances himself within the weight of reins. If your reins are lightweight leather or nylon webbing, there isn’t much weight and it becomes difficult to feel and balance.

When there is more material (such as a high quality leather or a thick marine-type rope) the horse will be able to feel the movements you make with your hands and will balance himself more easily. He’ll know what you’re asking because the weight of the rein echoes the slightest movement from your hand. No matter what type of rein you choose, this weight and quality consideration applies.


Rein Types

There are many variations of each rein type, but here we’ll stick to the traditional Western rein types. Split reins are commonly used for Western riding—and what you’ve probably seen for years on old Western movies. Today, loop reins, mecate, and traditional romal reins are all fashionable for Western events and on the trail. Here’s a little bit about each….

Split Reins

Today’s choice in Western tack is most often to ride with split reins. Leather reins are long and versatile—you can make them long and short, use them independently or to ride one handed. They can be great for trail riding because you can easily ground tie by laying the reins down on the ground. But while these reins are a common choice, Goodnight says some riders may find them cumbersome on the trail and they can be easy to drop.

Split reins can be held in a variety of different ways—that’s what makes them versatile for training or for showing. You can switch how you hold and where you hold to cue your horse in different ways.


The traditional pistol-grip hold is the rein hold used for competitions. Hold the reins in one hand with your index finger in between the two reins. The trainer’s hold or bridge is made by laying one rein on either side of the horse’s neck crossing the reins over each other and holding both reins in both hands or one hand. You’ll hold your hands the same position as if holding bike handles while making a “bridge” with two pieces of leather as the reins cross over the horse’s neck. This allows the rider to ride with two hands and work each side of the horse’s bit independently.

The traditional rein-hand is the left hand when riding Western—that’s because it’s assumed that you may need to use your dominant right hand to hold a rope or open a gate, shoot a gun, etc. If you are riding with split reins, the bight of the reins needs to lie on the same side of the horse’s neck as the hand you are using.



A romal is attached to the set of closed reins and was developed as an attached tool to help the rider move cattle with an aid. The romal is held without a finger between the reins and you have less ability to articulate with the reins than you may with split reins. You ride with two hands—but one is holding the reins to cue the horse and the tail of the reins (or the actual romal) is held in the opposite hand. These reins are best for a horse that is very well trained and knows how to neck rein without needing corrections.

Continuous Loop Reins

Holding a single loop rope rein is the easiest for most riders. This rein is easy to use and comfortable to hold when you’re following a trail and not needing to guide a horse’s every step. You can hold the rope rein right in the middle—to allow your horse to ride on a loose rein. The rope rein fills up your hands and is easy to hold onto. The rope is easy to shorten and lengthen (compared to split reins).

“The reins I designed have a marker in the middle so you know where the middle of the reins is and can easily make sure your reins are even,” Goodnight says. “A corded quick connect allows you to put the reins on easily, but it also allows the reins to drape and easily communicate with the horse.”

There are all different lengths of continuous loop reins for different jobs. A roper or barrel racer may ride with a continuous loop rein, but they ride with a short length—maybe only five or six feet. Out on the trail, you want your horse to drop his head and move in a relaxed frame so you want to make sure you have a longer rein than may be used in fast sports. Goodnight says that most horses do well on the trail with a nine-foot rein. If your horse’s neck is long, he may like a 10-foot rein—and this isn’t about how big your horse is, it’s about his neck length. That length allows the horse to reach down and drink and inspires you to make sure to ride on a loose rein and not have constant grip on the reins.


The mecate is the long lead that comes off of the left side of the bit—and is attached to a continuous loop rein. The reins are usually attached with slobber straps. Some trail riders love the convenience of the mecate—allowing them to dismount and hold onto their horse, with the built-in lead. To others, the extra rope can be bulky and a lot to handle.

“I prefer a halter and lead separate from the bridle—I either tie my halter and lead onto the saddle or sometimes ride with the halter beneath the bridle,” Goodnight says. “This means there’s less to hold and when you tie your horse, you aren’t tempted to tie with a rope that is connected to the bit.”


One Handed or Two?

Whether you’re riding one handed or two handed depends on the type of bit that you’re using and on the training level and the obedience of the horse. If you’re riding in a snaffle bit, you should ride two handed. Riding with one hand in a snaffle bit causes a jointed snaffle to collapse in what’s called the nutcracker effect. The bit collapses around the horse’s tongue and pinches the jaw.

A curb bit is designed to be ridden with one hand. However, if the bit is designed so that the shanks move independently form each other, you may also ride with two hands for training scenarios.


Connected to the Bit

Goodnight says she does not like a metal clip on the end of her reins. It may be convenient to the rider to be able to click the reins to the bit, but the metal-to-metal connection can be annoying to the horse. The metals rub and vibrate—a vibration your horse feels constantly. A rope or leather connection to the bit gives you a better feel and helps you know when your horse moves or makes a change. You don’t need to change the bit or reins frequently; take a few extra moments to tie on your reins or otherwise secure without a clip.

“I like a quick connect, but one that isn’t metal,” Goodnight says. “Leather or rope connections are fine. Though I’m not a fan of , decorative slobber straps—they’re too bulky for me and don’t allow me to finesse the reins. Plus, they ar cumbersome to take on and off.”

A split rein will usually have a tied-on connection—a kind of slobber strap made of the same leather as the rein. The leather piece is breakaway and will save your horse from pain if you drop a rein and he steps on it. If that piece does break, it’s pretty easy to repair while out on the trail. .


Ground Tying Safety

When you dismount and lay the reins on the ground, a well-trained horse knows that means he should stand still. Laying the reins on the ground should only be done with a split rein, not a continuous loop rein. If your horse were to step on the long leather rein, he won’t step into a loop and get caught up. The worst-case scenario is that the horse may break the leather of a split rein, but he won’t get caught up or pull excessively on the bit with a material that won’t break.

Make sure never to drop loop or continuous rope reins in front of your horse—you should always hold loop reins in your hands or over your arm to keep the loop far from your horse’s feet. If you want to ground tie with a loop rein, keep the loop over your horse’s neck or use a lead attachment to a halter beneath your bridle and allow a lead to hang down there.

For safety’s sake, make sure that some part of your reins, bit and headstall is made of a breakaway material. If you have rope reins, connect them to a leather headstall. Something needs to give in case of an emergency.


No matter what rein material and type you choose, make sure you’re making the best choice for you—what is comfortable and safe for you and your horse. Only you know where you’ll ride and what configurations, tying, and riding you’ll need to do along the way. Opt for comfort for you and your horse over any perceived notion of what must look right out on the Western trails.




Reins for Kiddos

First and foremost, make sure that any rider—no matter their age—has reins to hold. If you’re giving a pony ride to a young child, make sure reins are attached to the halter or that you lead from a nylon halter beneath the bridle. Even though you are leading the horse, having reins present will help you teach the child to cue for directions long before they are ready to take full control of the reins—and you’ll empower any rider to make sure they feel in control, even when they’re being led.

Make sure that the reins you choose for a child are slim enough to fit easily in their hands. Also make sure there’s not too much extra rope to hold onto. Keep it simple! You may opt for continuous loop reins with a narrow diameter or rainbow training reins which allow you to give clear directions and allow the rider to easily visualize how to keep their reins even. You can say, “put your hands on the yellow section to shorten your reins,” or “make sure to hold on the green with both hands to make sure your reins are even.”

In any bridle, make sure there’s some breakaway component to make sure you don’t get tangled.




When do you wear gloves? If you’re riding a fast-paced trail or endurance challenge, you’ll be holding the horse with contact and you’ll feel friction on your fingers. You’ll need gloves then. You may also want gloves if you’re riding in heavy brush—if you need to reach up and break branches.

Goodnight says “I always want gloves on if I’m ponying a horse or doing any kind of rope pulling work. I always make sure there are gloves in my saddlebags in case I need to help pony a horse in an emergency.

“I like a leather glove for the feel. The new technical fabrics are great, though, too. The fit is the key no matter what the material. If the gloves fit well without extra fingertip length, you’ll be able to feel the reins better and not lose the feel of the reins as you’re shortening and lengthening.”















Decoding Your Trainer, Part 1 Logo

Understand elusive riding terminology to get the most out of your ride time

Concept and Written by Julie Goodnight ©2013

You know the feeling. You ride in a lesson and think you understand just what to do then suddenly the trainer throws in a phrase that just doesn’t make sense. The direction is restated as if you should know just what to do. “I asked you to gather him up. Lift his ribs. Get him supple.” You want to do your best and you know your trainer has your best interest in mind, but what do the phrases really mean? The concept is confusing and elusive.

You’ve heard the phrases a hundred times and you’re sure everyone else knows what it means, so you keep your mouth shut and proceed. The truth is, many horse-training terms and phrases are vague and confusing. While your trainer probably isn’t trying to confuse you or sound pious, the language commonly used in horse training circles can prove a difficult code to crack.

What if every term and directive you got from your trainer had a clear and simple definition and could be executed with clarity?In this series, we’ll look at often used, but seldom defined terms in horse training. You’ll make connections between riding theory and practical application.

Once you know the lingo, you can carry out the task. Top trainer Julie Goodnight helps you understand the elusive terms, explains exactly what you and your horse should look like, and teaches you to achieve the look or correct the problem your trainer/instructor first prescribed.


What you’ve heard: “Gather your horse up.” “Frame him up.” “Lift his ribs. “Lift the shoulders.”

What it means: All of these comments refer to your horse’s profile as he’s moving. When your horse is in a natural and relaxed “frame,” his top-line is fairly level and his head is low. This is also called a “low and level” frame. For collection, your horse transfers his weight from the forehand to the hindquarters as he rounds his frame, brings his nose in toward his chest and lifts his back at the withers. This drops his croup and brings his hindquarters underneath him, while elevating the forehand.

Why you want it: The purpose of collection is to shift the balance of your horse onto his hindquarters–where his power is–and lift the shoulders to free them up for movement. In this “frame,” he has the potential for more power and athleticism. The posture is similar to what happens when you string an archer’s bow. You round the frame and suddenly there’s much more opportunity for power compared to when the bow was straight. Any time you need more power or responsiveness from your horse, you may need to ask for collection. The frame is desirable when you’re going down a steep hill, cutting a cow, jumping an obstacle or performing a difficult maneuver. In the show ring, the desired frame shows the judge that your horse has athleticism and is obedient to the rider.

How to do it (in simple terms): Ask your horse to collect by driving him forward with the rhythm in your seat and legs then gently restricting his forward movement with your hands. You’ll push your horse’s body forward then ask him to round his back in response to the bit’s pressure. When he’s collected, he will lift his back and shift more weight to the hindquarters.

Apply soft, pulsating cues with your seat, legs and hands in time with your horse’s feet. At the walk, sit back and feel the right-left swinging in your horse’s back—that’s the rhythm of his hind legs. As he pushes off with his right hind leg, the right side of his back muscles contract, causing your right hip to lift (and visa versa). When your hip drops, your horse is bringing that leg forward and that is the correct time to use your leg aid—when it you feel it naturally close on your horse’s side.

To ask for collection, use alternating leg and seat aids to drive your horse forward before you apply resisting rein pressure. While keeping track of the right-left rhythm in your head, add alternating rein pressure (slight sponge squeezes with your fingers), in timing with your legs. When your right leg closes on your horse, your right fingers close on the reins. Make sure you count the rhythm and feel when your leg closes because getting the rhythm wrong will make it nearly impossible for your horse to collect and in fact will interfere with his movement.

What you’ve heard: “Make sure your horse is supple before you attempt the next task.” “Your horse is stiff and bracing—supple him up.”

What it means: Suppling refers to the flexibility and bending ability of your horse and the willingness to respond to soft cues. You most often hear talk about suppleness as if it is something you train your horse to do, but in fact, all horses are very supple; just watch him swing around and bite a fly off his belly. Really the questions are can you bend and flex your horse on cue in response to light aids? Do you have total body control of your horse? Can you shape his body the way you want it and move him in all directions—forward, back and sideways? Does your horse stiffen and brace in response to pressure from the rider?
Why you want it: Your horse can bend and flex both laterally (side to side) and vertically (dropping his head and rounding his back). You want your horse to be relaxed and willing to stretch and flex so he can move his body in any direction or manner you ask. You also want your horse to yield (or give) to the slightest pressure of your aids (your seat, legs and hands).

How to do it (in simple terms): If you slide one hand about half-way down the rein and slowly lift, your horse should bend his neck around and bring his nose toward your foot, creating slack in the rein. That is lateral flexion and it is an easy cue to teach your horse with a little repetition. How quickly he learns this depends totally on the timing of your release.

In the beginning, as your horse learns to give to pressure from your hands, you may have to slide your hand down the rein then lock your hand on the pommel. With this static hold, he’ll feel constant pressure instead of the changing pressure of your moving hand. As soon as he voluntarily puts slack in the rein by flexing laterally, you’ll immediately release the rein and pet him on the neck. In short order, he’ll learn to give softly when you pick up one rein.

Lateral flexion leads to vertical flexion (such as used for collection). If you apply pressure with both reins, your horse should flex vertically and break at the poll and bring the plane of his face toward vertical. This is known as vertical flexion or “longitudinal flexion.” Typically lateral flexion precedes vertical flexion in the training process. Because of this training sequence, once your horse gives laterally to one rein, it’s easy to get him to drop his head and break at the poll when you pick up both reins out to the side, releasing as soon as he drops.

Use your legs along with your hands. When you apply seat and leg aid on one side of your horse at the middle position—right where your leg normally hangs, your horse should bow his ribcage away from you and arc his body from head to tail. Use your leg at the girth area to move his shoulder away from your leg and move your leg farther back to move his hip away from your leg. Remember that when you close one leg against your horse’s side, you should move the other leg away or “open” it to give your horse somewhere to move. Both legs closing on your horse means go more forward.

When your horse can flex both laterally and vertically in response to light rein aids and bend softly in his body from poll to tail and you can move both his shoulder and his hip to the side, he’s considered supple and responsive to your aids.

The language of horsemen can at times be cryptic. Never be afraid to ask, but don’t be surprised if the answer leaves you more confused! Understanding the theory behind skills of horsemanship takes study and persistence—it is a life-long pursuit. Join us on Facebook to let us know what terms you’d like to hear about next.

Horses Need Horses Logo

Relationship Fix Series


By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco


Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how horses gain a sense of calm and necessary interaction with the herd—and how their time with other horses can benefit your time together.


Horses Need Horses

Do you want your horse to be happy, relaxed and ready for your next ride? For your horse to feel his best, he needs time with other horses when you can’t be around.

Horses need the herd. They are social animals and they only exist in natural settings in a herd—horses are never alone for long in the wild. They depend on the herd for social stimulation as well as a sense of security.

Horses actually depend on the herd for a feeling of wellbeing. In the herd, they exist cooperatively: they stand head to tail to help keep pests away; they guard one another so that they can feel safe enough to sleep. If a horse is alone, he may never fully relax. He’ll always be the one that has to watch the horizon— constantly on guard.

When horses are alone, their behaviors can change and they are often depressed. They may begin repetitive stress behaviors—such as weaving or pacing in a stall.

While not all horses can always be with a herd, you can make housing and turnout choices to include his socialization needs. If you have a small property, a performance horse that needs to be kept safe, or a horse with health or behavior issues, you may need to keep alone for part of the day. That’s OK, as long as you do your best to provide natural elements.

A horse would rather be with other horses (envision how mustangs live in the wild as what your horse would choose for himself). A horse wants wide-open spaces so that at any moment he can flee from a predator. While humans think that a small, warm space with high walls is comforting, horses are comforted by seeing the horizon and accessing open spaces. Your horse wants turnout time outside with other horses. It’s time to think like a horse and think about how your horse wants to live.

Horses Home Alone

If your horse is an only horse, I think you have a responsibility to provide 24-hour-a-day companionship. At the very least, your horse will feel more comfortable if he can see other horses. If possible, make sure your horse shares a safe fence line with a neighboring horse. However, he will be most comfortable if he can touch another horse. Touching, nipping, grooming, swishing tails and even being able to bite is important to a horse’s overall well being.

If you are the only one your horse has, make sure to enrich his life. In addition to riding, stimulate his mind and occupy his time with long walks. You may also give him obstacles and novel items to interact with in his paddock.

Ideally, getting a buddy horse is the best answer. A miniature donkey or even a goat can be a great companion. I’ve even seen a horse bond with a duck or a cat! Your horse can even bond with a dog, but that doesn’t work if you take your dog inside. Your horse can get companionship from any animal and that companionship is best provided by another horse or a similar species.

Horse Boarding Choices

My horses are together outside all day then come into stalls with runs in the evening. That separation time works for us because that’s how we feed separately and manage their different supplement and diet needs. At that time, they can all see one another, touch each other through openings in the dividers and access their outdoor runs so that they can see the horizon. They are all ready to go out first thing in the morning. They don’t tend to stay in their stalls unless they are seeking shelter from rain or snow.

If you board your horse, the most ideal scenario is having your horse turned out with other horses. Choose as much outdoor access and herd time turnout as possible.

Horses can learn to like their stalls, but I say learn purposefully. If your horse is stalled, choose a stall with a window that allows him to see the horizon. New, high-class barns have indoor walls made of mesh so that horses can see one another and even touch through the walls. That is more preferable to a solid wall.

Choose an attached run so he can move in and out –to see other horses. That is preferable to a stall that is dark and inside only.  A long and narrow run is preferable to a square pen. A long run is designed for the horse’s benefit because he wants to play and act out his flight response and run in a straight line. A square pen that only allows him to run in a circle is not satisfying to the horse.

No matter where your horse lives, take a moment to evaluate his interaction with others and his ability to see the horizon. Build in as many natural views and interactions as possible and you’ll have a healthy horse—and a healthier relationship with your relaxed and calmer riding partner.

Master Each Gait Logo


Master Each Gait
What can you do to speed up a slow-walking horse and slow down a horse that’s too fast at the trot? And should you ever canter on the trail? Follow top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight’s advice to master each gait and ensure that your horse is responsive and always travels at the speed you choose.
By Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight — Photos by Heidi Melocco

You and your horse should be prepared to walk, trot and canter when you’re riding on the trail. While the walk and trot will be your primary “go-to” gaits, it’s important to know that you can feel confident and in charge no matter the speed.
“The walk is your primary trail gait when walking in unfamiliar terrain and tumultuous footing–and to cover long distances, the posting trot is the best way to ride,” Goodnight says. “You may canter on some flat and well-groomed trails and you want to know that you can control the faster gaits in case your horse does spook and bolt.”

Here, Goodnight provides tips to help you stay in control at each gait. She’ll help you understand how to
cue your horse to travel at the speed you dictate and to listen to your body cues no matter how fast you choose to travel.

If you’re helping young children learn to ride, Goodnight also shares teaching tips. She’ll help your young rider learn to walk and trot on command using patterns to help prepare for the upward transition to the trot.

Walk Out
Your horse is packing you around at this slow but most-used gait. Make sure that you are balanced in the saddle. Double check that your saddle’s horn is aligned with the middle of your horse’s neck and back and that your weight is equally balanced from side to side.

Make sure to sit up straight and avoid riding with your legs out in front of you. You may be comfortable at this gait, but you’ll make it easiest on your horse if you are balanced as he carries you over the trails.

When it comes to how fast your horse walks, there are two kinds of horses: those with too much whoa and those with too much go.

“If your horse walks like he’s going to his own funeral, you want to speed up,” Goodnight says. “If the horse is ready to go all the time and prances and is jiggy, you need to know how to slow him down. Either way, if your horse isn’t going at the speed you dictate, he’s being disobedient. You need to set the speed and take charge.”

Too Much Slow: Goodnight reminds you that you can’t make a slow and steady Quarter Horse keep up with a Tennessee Walking Horse that walks faster than he trots. That’s an unrealistic expectation.

However, if you are walking with other horses that should match your horse’s speed and only your horse is walking too slowly, it’s time to evaluate your cues and make sure that you’re in charge.

“Horses are clever,” Goodnight says. “If it’s a horse who already is on the lazy side and he’s pointed in a direction he doesn’t want to go, he will walk slower and slower until he’s almost halting between every step.”

That’s the horse that can train you to “pedal” or constantly re-cue for the gait you’re already riding. When a horse has trained the rider, he continually threatens to stop and the rider continually cues him to go. It’s a workout for the rider and it is a disobedient and manipulative act on behalf of the horse.

“That’s not a healthy relationship—he’s threatening disobedience and you’re enabling him by constantly re-cueing,” Goodnight says.”

An obedient horse goes at the speed you dictate when asked and until another cue is provided. If you have already asked for the walk, your horse should keep walking without prompting. If the horse slows down, it’s time for a verbal admonishment or a tap with the bight of your reins or a crop.

Often one admonishment and a reminder to “straighten up” is all it takes for a trained horse to move out and know that you are in charge.

“Keep in mind that one firm correction with the reins or a stick is much kinder to the horse than constantly nagging him by kicking and cueing after each stride.”

If you want to increase the speed of the walk, increase the rhythm in your seat and legs, reach forward and drive the horse forward. Once you have reached the pace you want, he should maintain that speed without prompting. It’s up to you as the leader to decide what the best and possible speed is. If he does slow down on his own, address that with admonishment instead of simply cueing him to move forward again.

Too Much Go: If your horse walks too fast and often steps into the trot on his own accord, that is also an act of disobedience.

“Many times, I see riders who just start to ride the trot if the horse chooses the gait on his own,” Goodnight says. “As soon as you start to ride the trot, you’ve told the horse that his actions are OK.”

If your horse speeds up without a cue, you must immediately and abruptly correct him and slow him down to the speed you have dictated. Take hold of the reins hard, sit back and verbally admonish your horse for breaking gait with a “whoa.”
Trot On

You can ride the trot sitting, posting or standing with weight in the stirrups. Most of the time on the trail, you’ll want to post or lift your seat slightly by transferring weight to the stirrups. A slow, sitting jog trot isn’t useful on the trail as it’s harder on your horse’s back and it isn’t the form of the gait that helps you cover ground quickly. If you’re trotting on the trail, you’re probably trying to get somewhere!

The posting and standing trots are the most comfortable for your horse. As you post or stand, you are balanced over your horse’s center of gravity and it allows your horse to move easily beneath you.
Posting is not just for English riders—all riders should know how to post. Posting is the best way to ride the long trot, the extended, ground-covering version of the trotting gait.

How should you post? Posting is a forward and backward motion, using the lift in your horse’s back. It’s the same motion you need to start to get up out of a chair. Notice what it takes to move up and out of a chair (without support from your arms) then sit down immediately. First you rock forward, then back to sit down once more. That’s the same motion you’ll need in the saddle.

Make sure not to post by pushing off the stirrups; the motion comes from rocking your pelvis forward and rise from your thighs, not from pushing off the stirrups.

If your horse has a rough trot, standing slightly to lift weight off yoru seat bones, while keeping your joints and muscles relaxed will be most comfortable for you, too. Standing the trot is commonly seen on endurance rides. It helps your move easily and it is a great test of your balance.
Trot Troubles: Your horse should only trot when you ask for the gait—not because the other horses you’re riding with are starting to trot. If your horse speeds into the trot without your approval and without a cue, immediately correct him and start over.

Canter and Whoa
Cantering will cover ground quickly, but a horse can trot greater distances than canter. Plus on some trails, cantering isn’t an option because of the steep or rocky terrain.

“Here in the Rocky Mountains, I can’t imagine cantering on some of our trails,” Goodnight says. “It’s too rocky and steep.”

That said, Goodnight recommends that all riders know how to sit and control the canter—even if it isn’t a gait you would usually use on the trail.

“Any horse is capable of spooking and bolting when you’re on a ride. If you’re riding in an uncontrolled environment, you should have the ability to ride every gait—in case you do need to control a horse who canters away when spooked.”
If your trail is level and well groomed or you know of a flat and low-cut meadow where cantering can be safe, it can be a fun choice to canter on your ride. Check out the footing and conditions before you ask for this gait.

If your group decides to canter, make sure to have an established signal so that all riders know when the group will start and stop the faster gait and that the groupd stays together. No single rider in the group should canter without approval from the entire group. All the horses will want to canter if one begins. If even one rider doesn’t want to canter, no one in the group should speed up to the faster gait. Always ride to the level of the least-skilled irder in your group.

Canter Concerns: Make sure not to canter down a hill and make sure not to canter back toward the barn. Cantering downhill makes it too difficult for a horse to control his balance with a rider aboard.
Cantering away from the barn can help control speed because a horse most likely won’t want to move quickly as he heads away from home. If a horse knows that he’s headed for home and becomes spooked, he can increase speed easily and make the gait too difficult to control.

Trot Transitions
When you’re teaching a young rider to cue the horse for a trot, make sure that your teaching is precise and the rider and horse learn to do the right thing. Here, we want to teach a young rider to trot for the first time. You’ll teach the trot by talking to the rider about the cue—what she’ll do when she asks for the trot. Then you’ll help the rider understand that the horse must keep the new gait until he’s asked to do something else. Finally, you’ll help her slow the horse down after a short trot.

Use cones or some visual marker to help the rider know where and when to cue for the trot then the walk. Set up two cones about 20 feet apart. With a halter and lead line under the horse’s bridle, the young rider will have control and you can lead the horse loosely to make sure all goes smoothly. You don’t want the young rider to stop the horse inadvertently by pulling back on the reins too soon.

Teach the Cue
First you reach forward with your hands and say “trot”…
Then you shift your weight forward…
Then bump with your legs…
At the Cone
When you reach the first cone, it’s time to apply the newly learned sequence.
Ride the Trot
Encourage the rider to keep her hands forward and her eyes forward so that she doesn’t inadvertently cue the horse to stop before the second cone.
End Cone
When you reach the end cone, sit back, relax and allow the horse to walk.
In this simple exercise with just two cones, you’ll teach three great skills: cueing, maintaining speed and the downward transition.

Stupid Human Tricks Logo

Relationship Rescue with Julie Goodnight
Stupid Human Tricks: Unsafe Mistakes We Make Around Horses

If you get too comfortable around a horse (even one that you have a great relationship with), you may put yourself in an unsafe zone. The result? What I like to call “Stupid Human Tricks.” These are the moves and injuries that could end up on America’s Funniest Videos, but really didn’t need to happen at all. While you’re more likely to be safe around a horse that you know well, it’s also easy to forget your manners and do things you would never do around a horse that was new to you.

If you operate with awareness and with safety in mind, you’re less likely to be hurt. Keep in mind that there’s no such thing as a horse without a flight response. Something can spook a horse that you may have no control of.

If you ever have the voice of consciousness in your head asking “Should I do this?” you probably shouldn’t do it. It only takes a few added seconds to do things the right way—and if you choose the safe way you’ll have an overall and longer relationship with your best buddy.

I’m not naïve enough to think that you will never again do anything on this list. However, it’s important to know that these moves are risky. It’s up to you to know the possibilities and choose how much risk to take. Here are my top “Stupid Human Tricks” and details about why you really shouldn’t perform them….

Ducking Under: Don’t duck under a lead rope when a horse is tied and never lead another horse under the cross ties beside a horse that’s tied. If you duck under the horse and the horse spooks or pulls back, it’s easy to get trapped between your horse and a wall. Why do we do it? It’s just an instance of being lazy. You’re in his blind spot when you are under his neck. Even a horse who usually minds his step might not know where you are. Plus, if the horse is tied loosely, he could drop his head quickly and bat into you when he moves. You don’t want to be so close to a horse’s head and in a compromising position.

Not Taking Time to Halter: Just because your horse will stand still while you put on or take off a blanket, it doesn’t mean that it’s good to do. If at any time the horse is startled while you’re in the middle of a task, you have no way to control him. What happens? He gets caught up in the blanket, tears the blanket, or just learns that he can get away whenever he wants to. If what you’re doing could remotely be uncomfortable to the horse, he may learn that he can run away when he wants. That is a hard lesson to un-learn. Personally, I’d rather spend time riding and doing fun events with my horses instead of working through a behavior issue that I caused. Take the extra time to confine your horse with a halter before you pick his feet, put on or take off a blanket or before you get to work.

Sitting or Kneeling: It’s easy to put a knee down when you bandage a horse or if you’re just waiting. Don’t do it. This one is near to my heart. When I was 14, my friend sat down in the pasture after our ride—just to watch the horses eat. My horse came up and tried to take the grain away. The horses picked a fight and she was in the way—and sitting with her legs crisscrossed. She couldn’t get out of the way in time and was kicked in the abdomen. She bled to death. There is a tried and true rule for this—you should be at least two horse lengths away from a horse before putting a knee down. The average horse is 8 feet long—so that means no sitting within 16 feet. It’s all about how fast you can get up. If you can’t get to your feet, you can’t get out of the way. It’s just a lazy move and it’s not worth it. I might be guilty of ducking under a lead rope now and then when I trust the horse, but this isn’t one that I ever put up with.

Holding the Halter: If you’re leading a horse with a halter on, there should be a lead rope attached. A horse can toss his head quickly—think of how quickly he can reach back to bite at a fly. If your hand is in the halter and he shakes his head, you may not have time to let go and you’ll injure your fingers. Your arm is up and in an awkward position when you grab a tall horse’s halter—it’s too easy to dislocate a shoulder or get pulled on and cause a severe shoulder injury. Worse, your arm could be pushed through the halter and then you’ll be attached to a horse that will likely spook at having you move with him. People lose fingers when the strap or dee-ring on the halter suddenly is tight (as a related safety note, when you do use a lead line, make sure that it never wraps around your hand). Plus, if you could let go of the horse when he jerks away, you have no way to confine him and you’ll teach the horse that it’s easy to pull away from you. This move can mean losing a digit or facing a long re-training session for your horse.

Dropping the Reins: Single loop rope reins may not break if the horse steps on them. You should never allow your rope reins to hang down from your horse’s bridle. If you’re saddling up, lay the reins over your arm. If you’re planning to ground tie in the middle of a ride, leave the loop reins over your horse’s neck; use a halter and lead if you need a line on the ground. You can ground tie your horse in split reins with the reins hanging down, but never with loop reins. If the horse steps through the loop, he’ll get tangled and hurt his mouth. You hurt your horse’s mouth and you’ll probably break your bridle. With a loop rein, keep the reins over your horse’s head and secure around the saddle horn (in a Western saddle) or through a stirrup leather (in an English saddle).

Flip Flops at the Barn: When I see people leading a horse in flip flops, I think “clearly that person has never had their foot mashed by a horse before.” In the best circumstances with the best horses, it’s just too easy to get your feet close to the horse’s feet. It’s not hard to fix—go put on shoes. Tennis shoes are OK if you’re on the ground around a horse but I choose a smoother and more protective covering like leather. And when you’re riding, there’s no choice except boots and a smooth sole and ½ or 1” heel. How many of these “Stupid Human Tricks” have you done in the past? Now that you know the risks, take a moment and do things the right way. You’ll spare yourself and your horse pain and you’ll be ready to go have fun!

Julie Goodnight shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her Monday night RFD-TV show, Horse Master (also online at, and through clinics and horse expos.
Heidi Melocco ( is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer.

Saddle Fit Guide Logo

RIDE RIGHT WITH Julie Goodnight

Saddle Up

By Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight — Photos by Heidi Melocco


When did you last check your horse’s saddle fit? Many horses change body shape and therefore saddle fit frequently; changes in your horse’s fitness and shape can make a saddle that fit at the start of the season be ill-fitted just a few months later. Make sure to check your saddle’s fit often with these tips from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.


Trail horses often log many miles and work hard as they travel up and down hills. Saddle fit is so important for trail riders because that hard-working horse needs to feel comfortable and have optimum weight distribution throughout those challenging rides. Saddle fit isn’t just about your comfort in the saddle’s seat—be sure to think about the top (your side) as well as the bottom (the portion that fits your horse). The saddle must fit your horse’s back first and foremost.

“As riders, we often think most about how we feel—and have to make time to think about how the horse is feeling on the trail,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “When it comes to saddle fit, your horse is a silent partner; it’s your job to remember to check out his saddle fit and make sure he is moving in comfort. Each year your horse’s body shape can change as he matures, changes condition or gains or loses weight. Your horse can’t tell you in words if he has a problem with his saddle. It’s up to you to be a detective and make sure that your saddle fit is a good fit.”

Saddle fit is something to check constantly. If your horse has not worked for a while, he may be out of shape, not toned and have excess fat. Your usual saddle may not fit a horse that is currently out of shape. When the horse gains muscle during the riding season, he loses fat and changes shape. With these fast changes in body type, a horse’s shape and therefore saddle needs can change within the riding season. Saddle fit also changes as a horse ages. Just as you probably don’t wear the same clothing and belts you wore in high school, your horse’s body shape can change over time.

What can you do to ensure good saddle fit when your horse is constantly changing? Here, Goodnight will explain what your horse’s body may be telling you about his saddle’s fit. Then she’ll help you analyze your saddle fit and provide tips to help fix common saddle fitting struggles.


Bad Fit Signs

Your horse may not speak, but his body can give you clear signs of his saddle fit woes. Start by looking at your horse’s back while he’s resting or in the pasture. Have you ever seen a solid colored horse with white marks on his back? Some people think those are color markings, but they’re really formed from pressure points that cause the hair follicles to stop producing color. Those white spots can appear quickly if there’s a saddle fit issue. If they just appeared, you may be able to correct your saddle fit before the hair permanently changes color. If the horse has had a pressure point for many years, it’s possible that the hair will stay white –even with a saddle fit change. Worse, those permanent white marks may mean that the horse has experienced pain for long periods.

Look at your horse’s back after he’s been ridden. If your horse was sweating, you should see an even sweat mark from front to back in the area where the saddle tree contacts the back. Make sure that there’s a dry area over your horse’s spine—that area should have airflow as you ride. If you see dry marks under the tree, it indicates that there was pressure in that place. Also, if you pull the saddle after a ride and see that the horse’s hair is roughed-up, note that your saddle may have been moving around more than it should. That’s another sign that the fit isn’t right and the saddle is rubbing.

Goodnight says she sees horses “speak” with their bodies through these visible marks and by making agitated movements.

“In my clinics, I often see horses that should be standing still and resting with a rider on their back. The horses that aren’t comfortable with their saddle fit will begin shifting their weight and rocking from side to side–attempting to move the saddle’s pressure points,” Goodnight says. “In the worst cases, horses try to communicate their pain by acting out. I’ve seen horses bolt, spook and buck because of poor saddle fit. If your horse is in constant pain as you ride, he will be spookier. He’s already at his limit so he’s on guard to spook more. Almost any behavior problem could be attributed to saddle fit. If the saddle doesn’t feel good to the horse, he won’t be able to do his best and move his best. It’s always good to check saddle fit and rule that out before addressing any training issue.”


Frequent Check Ups

Goodnight says there are two types of horses when it comes to saddle fit—the average horse that is easy to fit and the horse you know will be a saddle-fitting challenge.

For both horses, you’ll need to check the saddle from front to back and top to bottom—ensuring that the horses have room to move and clearance from the tack in all places except where it should conform to the back along the bars of the tree.

First, make sure that there’s enough clearance under the saddle’s pommel—allowing your hand to fit above your horse’s withers and below the pommel. This area, called the gullet, shouldn’t sit down on your horse’s withers. If there is only room for one finger, or the bottom of the gullet is touching the horse’s withers, the tree may be too wide to fit the horse.

By the time you sit in the saddle and compress the pad, the saddle will move down onto the horse’s back. Make sure there’s plenty of clearance to allow for this compression while still leaving room to clear the horse’s withers.

Also check the horse’s shoulder blades. Make sure that the forward point of the saddletree doesn’t interfere with the horse’s shoulder. If the saddle’s tree digs into the horse’s shoulder, he won’t be able to move forward without pain. Feel beneath your saddle’s skirt at the horse’s shoulder.

Behind the shoulder and below the wither is called the “pocket” in saddle fit terms. That’s where you want the saddle to sit to avoid impeding the shoulder’s range of motion.

There’s a screw in both western and English saddles below the pommel that shows where the forward point of pressure from the tree of the saddle is. When you place the saddle on your horse’s back without a pad in place, you can tell where that screw is and make sure it’s behind the shoulder blade, in the pocket. This is a common area to see white marks on a horse—that happens when the tree places pressure onto the shoulder.

Also make sure to look at the rear configuration of the saddle. Make sure that the horse’s spine is protected from pressure from the saddle. The saddle’s skirt shouldn’t put pressure into his loins or cause the saddle to dig into his hip as he moves. The back of the skirt should sit in front of his hip, with enough room for the horse to bend and turn without his hip running into the skirt. You can opt for a saddle, such as Circle Y Saddle’s Wind River, that has a rounded skirt to keep the saddle from hitting the hip. If your horse is very short backed, you may opt for a gaited horse saddle or an Aussie saddle that is made with a short tree.

Now step back and note the saddle’s position and levelness. The saddle seat should look level to the ground while on the horse’s back. If the saddle looks uphill, it may be too far forward; if it looks downhill, it may be too far back.


The Challenges

If your horse is a known saddle fit challenge, he may have conformation issues that affect saddle fit. This doesn’t mean that your horse has bad conformation, Goodnight says. Many great horses have conformation that makes saddle fit a challenge. If your horse has asymmetry in his shoulders or hips, has a short back or has a slight sway in his back, you may find saddle fit more of a challenge.

With these conformation types, bridging is a common problem. Bridging happens when there’s excessive pressure on the front and back of the saddle and no pressure being applied in the middle of the horse’s back. That creates pressure and white marks below the withers or chafing at the horse’s hip. That means that the saddle’s tree isn’t touching along your horse’s entire back.

Custom saddles can be wonderful for some horses and riders, but many horses change shape so often that a custom saddle won’t fit for more than a season or two. In general, saddle trees are made to fit average horses. If your horse is not average or has asymmetry, no saddle is made to fit that body type. That’s when you find the best fit you can and pad out the best with specially made bridge pads.


Tree Size and Shape

When you have a bigger seat size in your saddle, you also have a longer saddle tree. That means that there’s more room to distribute weight along the bars of the tree. If you are concerned about the amount of weight your horse is carrying (with the saddle, bags and the rider), make sure that you chose a seat size that is correct for you and made to distribute weight.

Western saddles offer more weight distribution for a horse than an English saddle or a saddle with a short tree. If you start a young colt with a Western saddle then switch to an English saddle, you often see a little crow hopping when the horse feels a higher concentration of pressure on his back.

In addition to having room to distribute weight, the saddle must have bars angled to match the angle of the horse’s anatomy. You’ve probably heard of a “regular” or “wide” tree. The different tree sizes refer to the angle of the tree’s bars that sit under the saddle skirt and along the horse’s spine. The difference between a regular tree and wide is only 2 degrees, but that difference in angle can mean a totally different fit for the horse.

If the saddletree is too narrow for the horse, it cannot be helped with pads. A tree that is too narrow for a horse will perch on top of the horse’s withers and cause pinching to his withers and spine. A saddletree that is too wide will sit down too far on the horse’s back and cause pressure to the horse’s topline.

Possible Solutions

“Switching to a saddle that fits is an instant relief for the horse,” Goodnight says. “If I found a saddle that fit, I would never ride the horse in the ill-fitting saddle again.”

But how do you find the best saddle and fit for your horse? If you checked your horse’s saddle fit and found that his current saddle isn’t fitting, consult a professional. Your local tack shop may suggest a professional saddle fitter who can try several saddles on your horse to see what fits best.

If a new saddle is out of the question or your horse usually fits in his saddle but just had time off, adding a bridge or shim pad can be a helpful answer. Asymmetry or bridging issues can be helped by adding a special pad that is designed to fill in areas where the saddle tree needs support. It means adding a therapeutic pad in a precise area—not adding a bulky pad under the entire saddle. Too much padding is never good and only accentuates saddle fit problems when horses are pinched beneath an ill-fitting saddle and a thick pad.

Choosing a saddle with a flexible tree (a current model instead of the first “trial” models of this unique tree) can help alleviate pressure points and help a horse move easily beneath a tree that is strong yet slightly flexible. For horses with a slight bridging problem, often the flexible tree is all you need.

“My horse, Dually, performs much differently in a Flex 2 tree versus a solid tree. With the flexibility of the saddle, he relaxes his back and uses his hindquarters more. He doesn’t keep any discomfort a secret. He is much more fussy in a rigid tree saddle. You can ride him, but he is more fussy.”

You can also affect your saddle fit by changing how you “rig” it to the horse. The saddle’s rigging is how the saddle is strapped on to the horse. The dee ring where the latigo attaches can be positioned in different ways. A “full” rigging is attached directly under the pommel. A 7/8th rigging brings the pressure slightly farther back along his spine and a ¾ rigging attaches the farthest back, closer to the center of the saddle. In a flexible tree, if you attach the saddle farther back the horse will have more room to move through his shoulders. If your horse is sway backed, attaching the saddle with a center fire rigging or a 3/4 rigging could help conform that saddle to the horse’s back.

Check your saddle’s fit often and learn more about fitting options at for more tips and PDF guides.

“We owe it to the horse to make sure that he’s as comfortable as possible when we ride,” Goodnight says. “Just by changing the saddle, you can see an instant difference. It is worth it to find the saddle that your horse feels good and moves well in.”



Should You Ride Bareback?

Riding bareback can be a fun balance exercise for the rider. It helps you feel how the horse move and improves your balance. However, on the trail, you may be asking your horse to move athletically over varying terrain. The saddle’s main job is to distribute weight over the horse’s back. If there’s no saddle, there’s no weight distribution. That said, if you choose to ride bareback, you probably won’t ride the horse as hard or ask as much.

If you’re just learning to ride, I recommend starting in a saddle. Riders who began riding bareback often have habits that are tough to break once they ride in a saddle. They often grip with their lower legs and perch forward. If you ride in a saddle first, you’ll learn to balance without gripping then can apply your balance skills to bareback riding.


Choosing A Children’s Saddle

You want the saddle that you’re teaching a child to ride in to help promote balance and life-long riding postures.

There are many kids saddles on the market—but buyer beware. Make sure that the saddle you choose has a tree that is made for the size of horse that will carry it. A saddle made for a pony may not fit a full size horse. Many small children’s saddles are made with inexpensive materials. You don’t want a saddle to sit down, flat on the horse’s spine—even with extra padding the tree must fit!

Make sure that the saddle you choose has a good tree that will fit your horse. Look for the best quality small saddle then mitigate the stirrup length for a child. A saddle with a 13-inch seat that is designed for a horse will fit your horse well and allow a child to use the saddle for a long time. Choosing a seat that is a little too big will allow the child room to grow and help with your saddle budget (rather than purchasing a new saddle every few years).

You may opt to add short stirrups (the saddle shown from Circle Y can be purchased with semi-custom short stirrup fenders that may be replaced later). You can also get kid’s stirrups that attach over the pommel with webbing or replace the Western stirrup fenders with English stirrup leathers that can be easily adjusted to a short length. That’s a great way to help teach balance.

Trail Tips: When To Water, Lead Across Obstacles, Don’t Allow Your Horse To Eat With A Bit Logo

Trail Tips: When to water, lead across obstacles, don’t allow your horse to eat with a bit

Take Water Breaks
Horses should have access to clean water at least twice a day. Normally, a horse will drink 8-12 gallons of water a day, but that can increase to as much as 20 on a hot day. Planning the daily riding schedule so that horses can drink along the trail will reduce the amount of time spent watering horses in camp.

Riders should not stop to water along the trail whenever they feel like it, thus holding up the rest of the ride. Other horses will want to rush to catch up. If possible pick a safe, designated watering spot with good footing. Excerpted from the Certified Horsemanship Association Trail Guide Manual (available at

Get Off and Lead
It’s okay to dismount and lead your horse when you come to difficult situations on the trail. In fact, it’s the right thing to do when safety and control are at stake, such as when crossing a bridge. In a precarious situation, it’s better to have a safe, successful outcome than to fight with your horse, putting you both at risk of an injury.

You’ll have more confidence on the ground. And your horse will gain courage when he sees you crossing the obstacle safely ahead of him. As herd animals, horses naturally follow other horses and feel safer if another horse is in front of them.

By leading your horse, you’ll accomplish the immediate goal of safely crossing the obstacle. You can then address the training issue in a safe environment.

Lead your horse from the side, if possible, in case he rushes forward. If he’s skittish, use the lead rope to keep him from pushing into your space. He might try to jump into your space out of fear, thinking that the spot in which you’re standing as the only safe place.

Slowly lead your horse across the problem obstacle, one step at a time. Then mount up, and continue on your way.
— Top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight (

Remove the Bit
When you stop for lunch along the trail, take an extra few minutes to remove the bridle and bit, and allow your horse to graze wearing just a halter.

Even if the bit you’re using allows your horse to swallow and relax as you ride, the bit isn’t made to allow him to eat comfortably. The forage has to get past the bit — and his tongue is already filling his mouth and palate.

Plus, your horse could step on the reins while grazing (if you ground-tie with a split rein), then pull up on the bit, damaging his mouth.

Have a halter underneath the bridle, take a halter with you in your saddlebags, or invest in a halter-bridle that allows you to drop out the bit, and you’ll avoid causing your horse discomfort.
— Dale Myler, Myler Bits

Fear Management Logo

What do you do if you have ridden successfully in the past but a scary incident or injury replaced fun with fear? I hear from many riders who were once confident and after an accident or a life change suddenly have a new sense of fear around horses.

In moderation, fear can help keep you safe and know your limits. But if fear is keeping you from doing what you like to do, it’s time to make a mental shift and return to riding with goals that allow for small, but meaningful changes.

It’s easy to feel a sense of loss when an activity that you once loved is suddenly a burden to even think about. It’s a grieving process. Grief leads to guilt that you should be doing something more—riding more, visiting the barn more.

Grieving the Fun
If this sounds like you, you have not permanently lost your ability to enjoy horses. Your sense of grief may be unfounded because you still have the ability and knowledge you once had (of course, once healing and doctors’ orders are obeyed if you had an accident). You haven’t lost the skill, you’ve just temporarily misplaced it because fear is overwhelming.

Psychologists often say that fear plus grief equals debilitation. It’s too much to handle the emotions of fear and grief. Remind yourself of what you have done in the past and what you are capable of doing. Read some books about riding or watch videos—say to yourself “I can do that!”

The Plan Against Fear
Fear can be overwhelming and can make you feel like you have lost skills. I know hundreds of riders who say they have worked on their fear and overcome it. To be successful, you have to have a plan, think ahead and work slowly and meticulously on your plan.

How do you put a fear-conquering plan into action? Control your thoughts. There’s a mind-body-spirit connection. One part of the trilogy affects all the others. Once the emotion of fear takes over, there are physical effects in your body and your mind devolves into negative thoughts.

If you allow yourself to think “what if he falls,” or “he’s going to spook,” you’re focusing on the negative. That’s allowing fear to take over. Instead of allowing your mind to pollute, sing a song, or visualize what you want your ride to be like. If you have video of yourself riding in the past, watch that. Or watch a favorite rider and notice how confidently they sit the canter. Get those wonderful images in your mind to replace the negative.

Once your mind is in check, you’ll have more access to consciously direct your body. If your body is stuck in fear, you may subconsciously ride in a forward, hunched and gripping position. Once you can calm your thoughts, you can choose to take a breath and control your posture. If the fear can’t control your mind or your body, it can’t affect your whole life.

Comfort Zone
When you visit the barn, target the exact moment you become fearful. Start to notice your body’s reactions to even the idea of riding. You may think you’re fearful of cantering, but do you really feel your body shake when you saddle up?

Once you know the point that causes your fear, also identify your comfort zone. You may feel peaceful when you catch your horse, but when you saddle him, that’s the moment fear enters. Stay in the comfort zone as long as you need–for days, weeks or months. Repeatedly walk out to catch your horse then groom and let him go.

Soon you’ll be ready to do a little more—maybe saddle and walk. Just do a little more when you feel like it and celebrate your successes. Small ventures outside your comfort zone will help you move on. Don’t push and always feel okay about staying within your comfort zone to build confidence.

If you have a setback, go back to a known comfort zone and start creeping ahead again. Soon, you’ll find that you want to do more as long as you build up to it in small increments. At some point, you’ll feel your old comfort level and your old confidence pop back in and your desire to ride will return.

Don’t let anyone else prompt you to do more than what you want. Don’t push yourself because of peer pressure.

Healthy Habits
When you do reach a new level, share with friends and take a moment to praise yourself. Mastering fear is a lot of work; make sure to treat yourself well. Eat right and get in better shape—it will really help! What you do to make yourself healthier, build strength and improve balance, will help your confidence in general.

Pay attention to how you’re feeling emotionally before you approach your horse. If your day is already going downhill, don’t push yourself on your fear-mastering plan. On those days, take your horse on a walk or do some groundwork. If you’re feeling good and the weather is great, those are the days to push yourself a little more and consider stepping out of your comfort zone—and toward your long-term goal of enjoying your horse once more.

Surviving First Canter Lessons Logo

Teaching Techniques

Surviving First Canter Lessons
By Julie Goodnight

Canter: Sometimes, the mere mention of the word is enough to send riding students into panic and cause high blood pressure in the instructor. And it usually isn’t much fun for the school horses either. But there is a great allure to cantering, whether the rider is mortified of it or not, and it is the stuff of their dreams– cantering off into the sunset with their trusted steed.

Before even thinking about introducing your students to the canter, consider this age-old wisdom of classical horsemanship: the best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot. I tell this to riders in my clinics all the time. Don’t get in a hurry to canter; keep working at the trot until you are ready. When the rider can ride the trot well; posting, sitting and standing; circling and going straight; making effortless transitions up and down; it is time to introduce the canter.

There are many different opinions on how to teach the first canter and there is no one right way (although there are many wrong ways, like starting them all at the same time). After 30 years of teaching and working with thousands of riders, I have come up with some dos and don’ts that have served me well over the years.

First and most important Do–always check the cinch or girth before starting any canter work. In normal circumstances at the canter (with an experienced rider) the rider’s weight shifts into the outside stirrup (when the horse is on the correct lead) and the saddle can get crooked. Add to that equation a loose cinch and an off-balance rider and it is highly likely someone is going to eat dirt.

Although I know of instructors that have had success teaching the canter on a longe line, personally I would never do it that way. learning to ride the canter on a straight line is much easier than turning. Where you tend to lose riders is in the corners or on the turns. Even on a straight line at the canter, the rider’s weight is shifting to the outside if the horse is on the correct lead. The centrifugal energy created by putting the horse on a longe line exacerbates his problem. Many beginner school horses don’t have the training and conformation to canter a small circle in a balanced way, making it ever harder for the rider to learn. It’s not to say that it can’t be done safely; it can– with the right horse and a suitable environment. But for me, I like to keep them on the straight away at first.
I think it is really important to prepare your students well before their first canter. I like to talk about how it is different from the walk and trot, talk about what suspension is and how the gait feels and how your body moves at each gait, particularly the differences between the trot and canter (more vertical–up and down movement at the trot and more pumping/circular motion at the canter).

“I like the beginner riders to only canter the long straight line of the arena and to bring the horse back to trot before the corner.”

The single biggest mistake beginner riders make is leaning forward and closing the pelvis at the canter, causing them to get thrown up and out of the saddle in a posting motion each time the horse comes into suspension. So I really emphasize sitting back, even slightly behind the vertical. This is why “pushing the swing” is such an effective analogy for the canter.

I think it is critically important to have a good demonstration of what it looks like to ride the canter, before they do it, so they have a good visual image of how to ride the canter. I also think it is important in the demonstration to show what happens
to the horse’s head as he canters (moving down with each stride) and especially how far he drops his head on the very first stride as he is launching his entire body weight off the ground. I spend a lot of time explaining what happens to the horse if the rider does not give an adequate release and causes the horse to slam his mouth into the bridle. This is a particular concern for fearful riders who may flinch and suck up on the reins when the horse first starts to canter. When this happens, the rider is punishing the horse for doing something she asked the horse to do. That is very unfair to the horse and at best will prevent the horse from cantering and at worst will make the horse fear the canter departure and distrust the rider.

How you set up your riders for the first canter depends a lot on the number of riders in the group, the horses, the size of arena, and how much help, if any, that you have. There are many acceptable ways to do it– each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. Do you keep the horses in the middle and put them out to the rail one or two at a time? Do you line them
up on the rail and proceed around one at a time to the end of the line? Do you keep the line moving and play “catch up”?

For me, since I teach in the clinic setting, with 15 riders of varying ability levels, some very advanced and some having never cantered, I have certain parameters I must work within to keep all the riders active and happy. I like to keep all the horses on the rail, moving at a walk or trot, and ask two or three horses at a time to canter, coming to the inside track while all the other horses stay glued to the rail. I start with the advanced riders first so that the newbies can watch and so that their horses can see that horses are cantering and start thinking about it.

I like the beginner riders to only canter the long straight line of the arena and to bring the horse back to trot before the corner. This helps them stay better balanced and in control. Trying to canter the turn rarely works for the first time anyway because the rider tends to pull back with both reins to turn causing the horse to break gait. Cantering around the turn is a great next goal, once the rider is getting the feel of the canter.

Cantering short distances seems to work well at first. often you’ll see riders sit the canter pretty well for the first few strides then they gradually tense up and start bouncing, which leads to more tension and a downward spiral. Instead, I have them just go a few strides down the long side then come back to trot and get their composure back before trying it again. Besides, another important classical wisdom is that all of training occurs in transitions, so they are learning greater control at the same time.

“Always use gate gravity to your advantage.”

Riders that are nervous about cantering have a hard time convincing the horse that is what they really want. Their hesitancy and ambivalence is clear to the horse and since the horse probably doesn’t want to canter anyway, he’ll side with the part of the rider that says she doesn’t really want to canter. Also, most beginner horses have been hit in the mouth by the rider at the canter, so they aren’t all that enthusiastic about it anyway.

To mitigate this problem, I often set up the horses the first couple of times at the opposite end from the barn or gate, so at least the horse is headed in a direction he wants to go. If the horse is more energetic and eager to canter or might go too fast, I set them up to canter away from the gate. Always use gate gravity to your advantage.

If a horse has not been asked to canter in a while, he has long since stopped thinking about it and may be difficult to transition into the canter. In this instance, and in the instance of a fearful rider, it often helps if I get on the horse and ask it to canter a few times. This puts the cue and the thought of cantering fresh in the horse’s mind and is often reassuring to the fearful rider that the horse can indeed canter without the horse running off or pitching a bucking fit. But no good deed goes unpunished because sometimes I end up being asked to canter almost every horse in the clinic, which is time consuming, not to mention tiring!

The main things I don’t do at the first canter, is have everyone go all at once or push a rider to canter when they are reluctant. Even when I know most of the riders in my clinic are experienced and comfortable at the canter, I want to watch them each closely the first time to make sure all is as it should be. once I am comfortable that the riders and horses are in control, I’ll let them canter as a group. I also don’t worry too much about leads– that comes later, as we work on control at the canter and better cueing.

like all things with horses, the more experience you have, the easier it becomes. An experienced instructor can even keep track of the horses behind her back, unconsciously listening to the footfalls to let her know when the horses are traveling at a slow steady speed or when the footfalls sound suspicious.

As Mark Twain said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a whole lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Proceed cautiously and learn from the mistakes of others, so you keep your bad judgments to a minimum.

On The Rail: Q And A Logo

I work as a therapeutic riding instructor at a facility that has about 20+ horses. We have all types of horse behavior issues that creep up before we know it. I’ve seen a gelding go from being sweet and easy to handle to now sour and ready to bite his leaders. Another gelding we have has a terrible habit of trying to bite his leader while he is trotting with a rider on his back. Another pony tries occasionally to cow kick the side walkers that walk alongside the riders. Several try to bite leaders while going through a mounting block for loading our riders. Then several are cinchy and try to bite during saddling. You can just imagine how disconcerting this all is to trying to teach therapeutic riding lessons, but we have eager volunteers and are trying to maintain a professional happy horse facility. Can you help? – Rebekah Holt

Dear rebekah, thanks for your question. You have described in a nutshell the problems that most therapeutic riding (tr) centers have with their horses, the causes of these undesirable behaviors and the aftermath that occurs once the horses learn that there are certain times and places where they will not be corrected.

In 2010, I did a groundwork training session for tr horses at the national convention for PATH (then NARHA) in Denver. It was an interesting and productive session and I wish I’d had all day to work with the six different tr horses. they were all representative of the problems you describe and honestly, every tr center I’ve ever worked with has these types of problems. It is somewhat inherent in the equation.

why do these horses get so cranky? It’s not so much the clients on their backs they are bothered by, most tr horses love the clients and take good care of them.

Primarily, these problems stem from the hovering crowd of people around them all the time, eager volunteers that do not have good horsemanship skills, crowding the horse’s face, clamoring for the horse, pulling constantly on the rope held too tightly at his nose (as if the horse has no idea how to go around the arena), micro- managing every movement the horse or rider makes. Giving the horse his space and leaving him alone to do his job is what the horse wants.

Why do the horses begin to disdain the handlers? because it is a revolving door of people, most of whom know less about the therapeutic riding operation than the horses do, bossing the horse around when they have no relationship with the horse, interjecting authority when they have no standing. Pretending to be a leader, but in the horse’s mind, it’s all a sham. horses know true leadership when they see it. It cannot be faked.

When people (in any setting) try to assert authority when they have none, the horses begin to disdain that person. “who do you think you are, coming in here once a week and pretending to be my leader? then at other times showing a total lack of leadership?” horses cannot be fooled and they disdain fake leaders, usually getting increasingly aggressive. “You think you’re the leader? I’ll show you…”

Furthermore, horses are relationship oriented animals— they live in a herd where membership and standing are conditional. horses prefer to meet, greet, and get to know their handlers—know what to expect from them and trust in their leadership. respect and authority aren’t given carte blanche by horses. You have to earn it.

It’s hard enough on a regular school horse to always be changing riders—many horses cannot tolerate the constant change. but at least regular school horses have the consistency from the professionals that handle the horses. the therapy horses get handled by people that arrive out of the blue and know little about handling horses.

The biggest tragedy occurs when horses learn that there is a certain context in which they will not be corrected and so can get away with anything they want. unfortunately, this cannot be unlearned and once again, horses are not easily faked with “planted” riders. this may work once but rarely twice; horses are very discriminating. this can happen to show horses and performing horses too. the most effective key is prevention. If horses are handled appropriately, this should not occur. Sometimes horses that learn these things have to move on to a new career.

I do not know how to fix these endemic problems in tr except to change the very nature of the operation, using more permanent paid staff and fewer volunteers. horse handlers would have the same level of experience and competency that the instructors do; excellent leading skills, knowledgeable and competent at groundwork and training. the side walkers would have to learn good horsemanship skills too and start being sensitive to the horse’s claustrophobic nature; earn the horse’s respect instead of expecting it.

So perhaps doubling your budget for paid staff would solve your problems! Many large tr centers have learned the value of having professional horse trainers on staff, but many more do not have the budget for it.

In lieu of that, the best we can do is educate people about the nature of horses and their behavior and teach the volunteers natural horsemanship skills. Good luck and keep up the good work! Educating people and creating greater awareness of the horse will help.

By Julie Goodnight – CHA Spokesperson

Integrating New Horses Into Lesson Programs: Q And A Logo

The camp where I work mainly serves kids which have never ridden before, and some of our horses will have 15 different riders in a week between campers and horse lessons. Some of our newer horses are not ready for kids, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on how I can teach the new horses how they are to behave with a new rider on them, who won’t know how to discipline their horse.

Horses in beginner group riding programs should be taught to adhere to a strict routine. Fortunately, horses are easy to train to a routine and pattern and in fact, they find it quite appealing. Think about how easy it is to train a pattern of behavior into a horse (for better or for worse). For instance, if you pick up a horse’s feet in the same order every day when you clean them out, in just two or three days, your horse is picking up the next foot as soon as you place down the previous one. Horses are very much creatures of pattern and routine and it gives them a sense of security when they know what to expect.

First, you need to thoroughly evaluate each new horse that comes into the program. Have a staff member assigned to each horse and make sure they have the time to catch, groom, saddle and ride the horse each day for at least a week. That should be enough time to assess the horse’s individual quirks, to learn its strengths and weaknesses and to make sure the horse is suitable for your program.

Consider the horse’s ground manners and work with the horse to make sure they are solid. Stands quietly, keeps its nose where it belongs (in front of his chest), is respectful of the handler’s space, picks up his feet for cleaning, compliant and relaxed while saddling and bridling, leads in a mannerly way (keeping a reasonable space from the person leading and does not try to get in front or lag behind too much). If the horse needs work on his ground manners, this is generally a very good investment of time. Some horses have just never been taught how to act properly and if he learns to follow rules from the ground, he will be much more compliant while being ridden.

As you are evaluating the horse, make sure you do all the obnoxious things that the horse might encounter from a beginner rider– jab your toe in his belly when you mount, put your knee in the flank, drag your foot over his rump, slam down hard in the saddle when you sit, bounce around, shift your balance, flap your arms, scream, drop a water bottle, etc. Don’t be too concerned if this bothers the horse at first. These things are easily desensitized.

Next, you need to teach the new horses the routine used in your program. From the moment the horses are fed or brought in each morning to the time the lights are turned out each night, make sure the new horses follow the exact routine you expect of them. The more consistent each aspect of your routine is, the better the horses will do. For instance, bring the herd into the barn in the same order, tie or stall them in the same place, groom and tack systematically, line them up to ride in the same order for each lesson. Do the exact same things in the same order every day and your horses will quickly acclimatize.
Have a staff member ride the horse in some real lessons, acting as if she were a student. Pay very strict attention to make sure the horse learns and follows the rules in the arena, whatever they may be– stay in line, do not pass, don’t fraternize or interact with another horse in any way. Teach them the regular pattern of your lessons, like standing in the middle for tack checks, lining up to trot one at a time, riding around the cones, etc.

The staff person will strictly discipline the horse for any infraction of the rules and that will help the horse learn what is expected of him. When not actively disciplining the horse, the staff person should ride very passively, as a beginner student would– floppy and sloppy in the saddle. Most horses will fall into the routine fairly quickly, assuming you are starting out with a suitably trained and tempered horse.

Most of the large group riding programs I have worked with, do not allow students to discipline the horses; it is doubtful that a beginner rider could effectively discipline a horse and allowing students to do so can often lead to more problems. Besides, if you have authorized a student to discipline a horse, you have publicly admitted the horse has a problem. That could easily come back to haunt you.

Therefore, the new horses should be fully assimilated into your program’s routine by a staff member and should not be ridden by students until the staff person is no longer making any corrections with the new horse and the horse has settled into the program.

In the last decade, behaviorists have reversed their opinion on whether or not horses learn from other horses. It was previously thought that this was impossible but now it has been demonstrated in many different experiments that horses can and do learn by watching other horses. So make sure your new horses are paired up with a seasoned school horse that knows his job well and let your other horses lead by example.

Julie Goodnight, CHA Master Instructor

Teach –Ride At Will During A Lesson Logo

Riding lessons are all about imparting information and developing rider skill, but sometimes students are over-loaded with information. It’s helpful to plan practice time in each lesson– either at the end of the lesson for about 10 minutes or after each topic or exercise. During this time, your students can ride at will, practicing the things you worked on in their lesson. Often this is when questions arise, as students process the information on their own. I always tell riders at the end of each session to practice on their own, ask questions if they have them and that I will just watch and offer suggestions as needed. I think this “soak in” time is really important in the learning process

Tack – Cheek Piece Logo

For many horses, particularly in the winter when the hair coat is very thick, pulling the bridle over the ears is a tight fit and can cause a lot of momentary discomfort in the horse’s mouth. If you drop the cheek piece down a few holes before you bridle, it is much easier to pull the headstall over the ears and then it can be adjusted back up to the right place. It only takes a few seconds to loosen then readjust the cheek piece but it can make a huge difference in the horse’s comfort and may help prevent bridling problems.

Herd – The Frog Sloughs! Logo

The frog of the hoof grows continuously and is an important structure of the foot. Traditionally, farriers would trim the frog back, keeping it very neat and trim, but increasingly farriers are leaving the frog natural so that it provides better cushioning and support for the foot and better circulation. When left natural, the frog will periodically slough off, either in many little pieces or in one frog-shaped piece. The sloughing is perfectly normal, but may be alarming to people that have never seen the frog in its natural state.

Tricks Of The Trade Logo

By Julie Goodnight

Lingo – Ventral Edema

A horse showing signs of ventral edema may have compromised health. Swelling is typically seen on the ventral midline of the horse’s belly and is characterized by puffiness, bumps or fluid build-up. Often in geldings, sheath swelling or puffiness can also be seen. These signs can be indicators that a horse is fighting infection (maybe from an unseen puncture wound), having metabolic issues– allergies, snake/insect bite, or toxic reactions, circulatory issues, parasites, Potomac Horse Fever and other issues.
Monitor the edema, check vital signs (checking for signs of fever) and look for other signs that may indicate the horse’s health and vigor such as appetite, soreness and alertness. Inspect the horse from nose to tail for signs punctures or sores. Exercise the horse lightly to see if the edema is reduced after exercise. If the horse shows signs of fever or other signs of sickness, if the edema persists over a long period or gets worse, call the vet.

Top Tips To Prepare Your Senior Horse For Winter Logo

What defines a senior horse? While there is no consensus among experts about what constitutes a “senior” horse, most agree that it is not based on chronological age but on physiological age. Some horses may start to slow down at 15, while others are still fresh and frisky well into their 20s. No matter what your horse’s chronological age, if he’s starting to show signs of aging such as stiffness, difficulty maintaining weight, or decreased immune response, it’s time to start thinking of him as a senior.

Cold weather can be hard on all horses, but it is especially challenging for seniors. Even if your senior horse has weathered previous winters without any trouble, he may need extra care and support to stay happy and healthy this year. Luckily, there are simple steps you can take to make sure that your senior horse is ready to take on winter.

Check His Body Condition
Help your senior start winter off right by making sure he’s at a healthy weight this fall. Experts recommend that senior horses get two physical exams each year, so your horse’s fall physical is a great time to ask your veterinarian to show you how to evaluate his body condition (if this isn’t something you already do). Once you know his body condition score, consider whether you need to make any adjustments to his diet now.

Schedule a Dental Exam
It’s important to monitor your senior horse’s teeth all year round, but it is especially critical heading into winter. If your horse can’t chew properly, he’s not going to receive the full benefit of the food you’re providing. Every horse needs an annual dental exam, and seniors may need one twice a year. Schedule a dental exam this fall to ensure that your horse’s teeth are in top shape before winter arrives.

Make Sure He’s Warm and Cozy
Even if you didn’t blanket your horse when he was younger, it may be a smart choice to start now that he’s a senior since older horses may have more trouble regulating their body temperature. Some older horses can benefit from the warmth and protection from the elements that blankets provide. Just don’t forget to remove the blankets for regular inspection of your horse’s skin and body condition, and to give him a good grooming!

Keep Him Going Strong
Making sure your senior horse moves every day is one of the best ways to ward off stiffness and discomfort in cold weather. Provide as much daily turnout as possible and consider hand-walking for additional exercise. If you still ride your senior horse, aim to keep him in consistent work year-round, as older horses have a harder time getting reconditioned after time off.

Get His Immune Defenses Up
Your senior horse’s immune system may not work as well as it used to. A healthy immune system is necessary for your horse to withstand stress in the environment, and a less efficient immune system means that seniors are more prone to illness. To make sure your horse’s immune system is ready to take on the stress of winter, consider adding an immune supplement to his program.

Weather the Winter
You want to share as many years with your horse as possible, so don’t let the worries of wintertime be a challenge for your horse. By giving your senior the right care and support, you can ensure he has everything he needs to brave the cold weather. You can find all the products you need to help keep your senior healthy at

NOTE: Thanks to SmartPak for these tips. SmartPak carries Nutramax Laboratories products including Cosequin.

Julie’s Tips On America’s Horse Daily Logo

Find Julie’s tips from the AQHA publication.
Tips about riding a rough trot, dealing with a head shy horse, links to safety videos, cantering tips, manners at feed time and more. Videos and articles await>>

Horseback Riding Basics: Using Your Aids, Part 2 from AQHA Daily Logo

Clear, consistent communication is the key to smooth transitions with your horse.

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight explains that your horse comes to understand how you’re moving with how he’s moving and that you can use this concept to have seamless transitions.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight in America’s Horse

In Part 1 of this series, AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight explained the importance of natural aids and focused on the seat as the most vital of the natural aids. In this final part, she moves on to cover transitions and keeping the attention of your horse. Read more>>

Your Horse’s Quiet Place; Teaching the head down cue Logo

Getting your horse to drop his head gives him a serene, quiet place to be. It’s a great horse-training technique.

From AQHA Professional Horsewoman and Certified Horsemanship Association instructor Julie Goodnight.

Your horse’s head is like a needle on a gauge – it can signify your horse’s mental state. When his head comes up in any increment, the horse is tensing; when the head lowers, he is relaxing. When the horse is poised for flight, the head is all the way up, and when he is most relaxed, his nose is all the way to the ground. Signs of relaxation in the horse are synonymous with the signs of subordinance, because once the horse accepts your authority, he can relax and doesn’t have to worry, think or make any decisions.
Dropping the nose to the ground signals a horse’s willingness to accept your authority and his desire to be allowed into your herd. When you show good leadership to your horse, you should see this gesture often, and you should learn to watch for it.

We can teach the horse to drop his nose on command, giving him the same feeling of relaxation and subordinance. This cue comes in handy especially for highly nervous or irritable horses.

The Method

    • With your horse in a rope halter, simply put two fingers on the fiador knot (below the horse’s chin) and put light pressure on the halter. The amount of pressure you apply is equal to just putting your index and middle fingers on top of the knot. Don’t try to pull the horse’s head down – just apply a tiny amount of pressure and wait for the horse to give you the correct response to get the release.
    • When the head drops in any increment, even just a fraction of an inch, release the pressure and praise him, then ask again, releasing the pressure immediately at the first sign of movement in the right direction.
    • The first 4-6 inches of head drop are the hardest to get, but if your release is immediate, your horse will quickly understand what you want. Then, you can hold the pressure a little bit longer until you get more drop. Soon, his head will plunge all the way down with the lightest pressure.
    • In the beginning of this training procedure, squat down as your horse lowers his head, praising and comforting him. But don’t kneel or sit around a horse; you should always be on your feet so you can get out of the way if things go wrong.

In-Depth Thoughts On The Combination Bit Logo

Why would you use a rawhide nose band to achieve results with a lighter touch? Why not just do the training to have the horse understand the lighter pressure with a softer nose band? Rawhide is tough and rough and hurts.

A: Just like with a bit in the mouth, it is only rough and tough in the wrong hands. To me, the horse will actually be lighter in the rawhide and you will almost never use mouth pressure because the horse will respond softly to the lightest feel of the rawhide noseband—making it very easy to ride with lightness. Often horses will lean and pull on a flat/soft noseband which ends up with a very heavy-handed rider, using a lot more pressure to get an inferior response.

Why jump straight to a myler combination? My mare absolutely hates an eggbutt snaffle bit and prefers the simple myler that I have, so I’m not against myler at all. But a combination bit seems like you used a gadget to overcome a gap in training instead of just doing to training.

A: Although it has the look of a gadget, it is actually greatly simplifying the cues to the horse because it allows you to ride off of nose pressure only—the simplest of pressures. Probably the two greatest things about the combo is that it takes pressure off the mouth (which is a godsend for many horses), and that it gives you more control with less stress (those two things turn out to be critical in many cases—especially with sensitive or hot-blooded horses) .The reason why I say if I could only have one bit to ride every horse in the world—this would be it, is because even a well-trained horse without a bitting problem would love the combo because of the comfort and reduction of mouth pressure. Remember, often times reducing stress is the most important thing for moving a horse’s training forward.

Also, shouldn’t the wonderful happy contact with your hands cause a little salivation? Excessive saliva is a bad thing. And saliva produced from the metal of the bit is covering up that your hands didn’t make a happy connection.

A: Horses salivate 24/7 no matter what you do but the tangy-ness of the bit can be pleasing to the horse. While I hope my horse is tolerant of my soft hands, I am not sure any horse is really happy about contact. Yes salivation is good; drooling is not. A horse that is drooling is doing so because he cannot swallow. That means either he is choking or the bit is causing him to not be able to swallow—could be because of too much pressure on the tongue or it could be because the horse is sucking his tongue up into his throat to avoid the bit pressure. That’s why horses usually do better in bits with tongue relief.


More info at:

The Dish On Discipline Logo

In a perfect world, horses would never bite, kick or misbehave. You know you need to correct your horse, but how do you know what is appropriate or too much “in the moment?” Here, top trainer/ clinician Julie Goodnight helps you understand discipline and praise.

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco

Horses need structure and discipline—otherwise how would they know how to act toward people? What you may think of as bad behavior is not the same as what a horse thinks of as being naughty.

For instance, horses bite and kick at each other in the herd. That’s appropriate behavior for them when turned out together. But that’s not appropriate behavior when humans are present. Horses shouldn’t interact in that way when people are around and you have to teach your horse what isn’t acceptable in your presence.

Horses that don’t have rules to follow and ramifications for bad behavior are just like spoiled children. They are poorly behaved and not much fun to be around. The opposite is true, too, if your horse has rules and structure and you are willing to admonish as well as praise your horse, you’ll have a partner that’s wonderful to be around. Horses are the most amazing animals because of how hard they will work to please you if they see you as the leader. That’s the most satisfying relationship to have with a horse—to know a horse looks up to you, feels safe with you and tries really hard to please you. To reach that relationship level, you’ll need to understand a bit of horse psychology and understand how and when to correct and praise your horse.

Horse Psychology

Because horses are herd animals, they seek out acceptance. If you watch a new horse being introduced into the herd, you’ll see that it isn’t a friendly encounter. The horses are brutal and mean to the new horse. With body language, the herd will tell the new horse that he isn’t accepted and that he should go away. The new horse is chased away, bitten, kicked at and more. But still, no matter how mean the herd is, the new horse will keep going back for acceptance. The horse’s survival depends on being accepted and becoming a safe part of the herd. Over time, if the new horse is contrite and consistent, the herd will allow him in and he’ll be able to work his way up in the pecking order.

In your herd of two, you need to be the leader and understand how your interactions with your horse mimic what is taught in the herd. Make it clear to the horse that you are a firm leader (not rough, but worthy of respect) and he’ll soon be requesting your acceptance and working hard for you.

If you try to start a new relationship by pampering and giving treats, that goes against everything he knows in the herd. He won’t seek out your acceptance if your acceptance comes for no reason. If you’re begging him to be in your herd, his herd-instinct tells him that it must not be a herd worth being in.

Once the horse knows that you are willing to dish out the pressure in a correction when it is deserved, you may never have to discipline him again. He’ll learn to be a little more careful around you. He’ll also want to gain your respect and your praise.

Positive or Negative?

So how should you correct or praise your horse to have the best relationship? Let’s review the scientific definitions of positive and negative reinforcement. Keep in mind that negative reinforcement isn’t punishment. Negative reinforcement just means removing pressure. Positive reinforcement means adding an incentive.

No matter which type of reinforcement you offer, you need the horse to associate your response with what they did. Make sure to give the correction or reward within three seconds of the behavior—and the closer to the behavior you can give the reinforcement within that three seconds, the better. Timing is everything when you’re training horses—horses live in the moment and they need the correction or reward to be fast.

What does negative reinforcement look like in action? I recently worked with a young horse owner and her newly-off-the-track Thoroughbred. The horse was kicking out if anyone touched her around the stifle or any time Chloe attempted to wash this sensitive area. I taught her to hold her hand (or the water) on the area as long as the horse was picking up her foot and threatening a kick. As soon as the mare relaxed and accepted the pressure of the girl’s hand or the water, we took away the pressure and gave the horse a rest. Taking away the pressure is negative reinforcement because you took away the pressure when the mare did the right thing. Horses feel pressure keenly and respond well to this method.

In positive reinforcement, you have to wait for the horse to have the correct response, then reward it. You may offer a verbal praise, petting and stroking or even giving a treat or a click. A horse will work hard for praise even when a treat isn’t included. In working with Chloe and her mare, we made sure to praise the mare with soft cooing and strokes on her neck when she tried hard and didn’t offer to kick or pick up her foot. She did the right thing, so got a positive reinforcement immediately.

Time for Praise

It’s so important to praise your horse—and horses will work hard for your praise. However, praise only means something if it’s offset occasionally by admonishment. If you only dish out praise for your horse (if it’s earned or not) and he never gets scolded for doing something bad, why would he keep working hard to earn your praise? If your praise comes too easily, there’s no reason to try to earn it. Just as he needs praise for doing something really well, he needs to be admonished when he does something wrong.

I am very tuned in to effort. I always want to praise the horse for making an effort. I don’t expect my horses to try hard every minute on every ride, but if I ask something more challenging and the horse tries his best, I want to reach down and stroke his neck. Or the best reward you can give is to allow your horse to take a break and to leave him alone. If I’m working on rollbacks with my young horse, Eddie, and he’s done a great job and been responsive, I’ll give him a break and allow him to just stand there and take a breather with no further interaction from me.

Firm But Kind

Every horse is different in temperament and sensitivity. What is a harsh scolding to one horse may go unnoticed to another horse. If your horse is eager to please and is sensitive, the slightest correction will affect him. If your horse is insensitive and strong-willed, you may need a stronger correction. Plus, each situation is different—what the horse did that needs a correction, what prompted the behavior and how motivated the horse was to act that way.

The science based theory of training says that however the animal is acting right now is how they are motivated to act. And if you want to change that behavior, you have to find the amount of pressure it takes to motivate change. And keep in mind that pressure can be mental pressure, a move in his direction, a hand signal, a verbal cue or actual physical pressure to touch the horse. We’re not talking about whips and spurs. An admonishment could be speaking harshly or as I call it, “hissing and spitting” at the horse. I make a hissing sound and stomp my feet and the horse understands that I don’t like his behavior at the moment.

Whatever pressure you use, it needs to be enough pressure to motivate change. If you correct your horse over and over for the same behavior, you’re not using enough pressure to motivate change. What’s more, you’re teaching the horse that you aren’t worthy of respect. He can ignore you without consequence.

Let’s put that in concrete terms: you’re riding around the arena and the horse pulls toward the gate on every lap. If you merely steer your horse away, you are only cuing him and not admonishing him for his disobedience for stepping off course. He’ll continue to veer toward the gate because there was no penalty.

How much pressure should you use? Well, how sensitive is your horse? I err on the side of using more pressure at first to see what reaction I’ll get, in the hopes that I will never need to do it again. You stand to lose more by under-correcting instead of over-correcting. If the horse misbehaves and you use one strong correction, you may never have to issue a second correction. If I under-correct, I may have to correct again and again and that’s a really bad start to a relationship. He won’t be cued in and listening to me.

Fear Of Bugs? Logo

Does Your Horse Have A Fear Of Bugs? Check out this Q and A with Julie Goodnight.

My horse has a fear of bugs, over the last year it has steadily gotten worse to where I am worried he might hurt someone. Do you have any suggestions on how to fix this problem? With horseflies and bees. Even the sound of them makes him want to buck and bolt. Please help!

Julie: Your horse’s fear of bugs that bite and sting is understandable, but it does not give him license to break the rules and do whatever he wants, when he wants. The agreed upon rules of riding are that he goes where you want at the speed you dictate without questioning; he signed onto this deal when he was trained (hopefully). The fact that this has gotten worse over time means you have gone along with his reactions and relinquished control and authority. Step back and take a big-picture long-range view of your relationship with your horse. Are you clearly the leader in all things with your horse? Analyze your interactions and try to understand your horse’s point of view. It’s likely either you are in charge of him or he is in charge of you—that’s horse behavior. Looking at the big picture may give you some more valuable insights. For the immediate fix, I would put the horse to immediate hard and intense work when he starts becoming reactive—do not stop to gather yourself—move forward expeditiously, at a working trot, then start issuing directives— turn right, turn left, turn right, speed up, slow down, circle right, circle left, go over here, now let’s go over there, etc. I would stay in that mode until my horse was breathing heavily and relaxing throughout his body and was totally compliant. Then let him stop and rest. If a bug sets him off again, repeat this process. The most likely mistake you’ll make if you are not a proficient rider, is stopping him too soon—before it was too uncomfortable for him. The goal is that he makes the decisions that his over-reactions and disobedience are not worth the trouble.

To Buy Or Not To Buy Logo

To Buy or Not to Buy?
Do you have your eye on a stock-horse breed for your next surefooted trail horse? Follow top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight’s seven expert horse-evaluation steps to help ensure a successful purchase.
By Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight — Photos by Heidi Melocco

You’ve found your dream horse. He looks perfect from afar, but now it’s time to meet the horse to evaluate his suitability.
“When shopping for any horse, top factors to consider are training, temperament, experience, and conformation,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
As a trail rider and equestrian traveler, you also need a horse that will easily load into the trailer and travel calmly to your chosen destinations, Goodnight adds.
To help you make a purchase decision, Goodnight will walk you through seven horse-evaluation steps: (1) trust first impressions; (2) ask key questions; (3) evaluate conformation; (4) consider compatibility; (5) observe ground work; (6) go for a trial ride; and (7) make an offer.
In each of these steps, Goodnight will provide green flags and red flags in especially critical areas.
Are you getting the next generation saddled up, as well? Goodnight will also tell you what to look for in a kid’s first horse.

Step 1. Trust First Impressions
“Trust your first impressions about the horse and the seller,” says Goodnight. “Take note if anything doesn’t feel right or seems sketchy. It’s a big step to buy a new horse. You want to feel good about the process and your new trail partner.”
Here’s how to get the most out of your first impressions.

Environment. Start observing the minute you step onto the property. While there can be great horses in less-than-stellar conditions, the overall environment can provide clues about how the horses are cared for. If the place is neat and tidy, it’s a good bet that the horses have a regimented routine and health-care plan, as well. Green flag: Clean, orderly grounds, pastures, stalls, and barn. Red flag: Poor footing, murky pens, ill-kept structures, and barn hazards.

Horse. On your first approach, how does the horse react? Does he seem well cared for? Green flag: A clean, happy horse that lifts his head to greet you. Bonus points if he walks over to say hello. Red flag: An ill-groomed, poorly kept horse that hangs his head, seems depressed, turns tail, and ignores you.

Step 2. Ask Key Questions
As you inspect the environment and greet the horse, ask the seller the following key questions.

Why are you selling the horse? Listen closely to the answer. Green flag: The seller just doesn’t have time for the horse, has too many horses, or has new interests. These answers typically mean the horse just needs to find a new home. Red flag: The seller pauses, or seems to be covering up a health or behavior issue. Keep asking questions until you get at the truth.

What is the horse’s medical history? Ask specifically whether the horse has colicked. Colic is the number-one killer of horses. And horses that tend to colic tend to colic again. Ask also if the horse has taken time off for an injury; length of time can indicate severity. Green flag: The seller reports an unremarkable, colic-free, injury-free history. Red flag: Repeated colic issues, long periods of injury recovery, and signs of evasion.

Are medical records available? Ask to see the horse’s vaccination, deworming, and other medical records. If the seller is organized and has records available, you’ll have a sense of how the horse was treated. Green flag: The seller is open about the horse’s medical history. Red flag: No medical records are available or the records appear incomplete.

What’s the horse’s training history? Ask how the horse has been trained and how many days of professional training he’s had (for example, 30, 60, 90 days, or more). A well-trained horse is typically less costly in the long run than paying for training. Green flag: Any professional training. Professional trainers are typically consistent and clear, leading to a willing, responsive horse. Red flag: A horse that’s been ridden by one rider or has no professional training.

What’s the horse’s current job? Find out what the horse has been used for in the past. Green flag: Trail-riding experience is ideal. But note that if the horse has been shown, that means he’s an experienced traveler and has been exposed to a variety of sights and sounds. Red flag: The horse’s experience doesn’t dovetail with your needs in any way.

Step 3: Evaluate Conformation
You might have fallen in love with your prospective horse via photos on paper or onscreen. Now is the time to step back and consider the horse through an objective lens.
Conformation is one thing you can’t change, so let’s take a closer look at this key consideration.

Balance. To determine balance, stand at the horse’s side and mentally draw lines from nose to withers, withers to croup, and croup to tail. These three sections should be as equal as possible. Then look at the horse’s shoulder angle. A horse with a straight shoulder may provide a bouncy ride.

Back. An optimal back length makes for a strong trail horse, especially on steep hills. Ideally, the horse’s topline (from base of withers to croup) should be half the length of his underline (from girth to stifle).

Hips. The length and turn of the horse’s hips are critical to his athletic ability. In general, larger hips provide more power to propel the horse forward. Each hip should be about the same length as the back. Hip slope should roughly match shoulder slope.

Legs. Look for a horse with straight legs, but note that few horses are perfect. A little crookedness can be acceptable. Consider how high in the leg any crooked angles appear. Green flag: The horse toes in a little bit. Red flag: The horse is crooked in the knees or hocks.

Hooves. Goodnight has found that black hooves are often tougher than white hooves, which can be more prone to stone bruises and chipped walls. Consider hoof quality. Ask to see the horse’s farrier records. Talk to the horse’s current farrier, if possible.

Overall conformation. Overall, weigh conformation pros and cons. If the horse has other favorable factors, but has, say, a slightly long back, that may be acceptable, considering your purpose and budget. But if the horse has too many red flags, move on. If the horse is well-conformed, determine whether he’s the right match for you, in terms of his age, temperament, and condition.

Age. Be wary of young horses unless you’re an experienced trainer. A young horse can seem well-trained, but he may not be consistent as he matures. He may need many more saddle hours to become the reliable trail partner you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a reliable mount, find a horse 8 years old or older.

Temperament. Choose a horse whose personality and temperament match your own. If you’re laid back, look for a mellow mount. If you love to be on the go, look for a spirited, but not spooky, animal. Tip: Through the ages, horsemen have found that a horse with large, wide-set eyes and a flat forehead is often kind and willing. A forehead bulge can mean the horse is more ornery. Green flag: A horse with a steady, kind, generous personality. Red flag: A spooky, nervous horse.

Condition. If the horse is out of shape, you’ll need to condition him for long rides and rough terrain. If the horse is very thin, it’ll also take time to get him in top form. Consider how much time and patience you’ll have for this process. Green flag: A fit horse that looks like he can tackle the trails. Red flag: An obese horse that may have insulin resistance or a history of founder. Only a veterinarian can rule out these lingering effects.

Step 5. Observe Ground Work
You can tell a lot about a horse’s behavior, temperament, and training even before he’s saddled up. Here’s how to evaluate a horse on the ground.

Handler clues. The moment you drive up, watch the handler for clues to the horse’s basic behavior. Green flag: The handler invites you to watch as the horse is collected from the pasture or stall. Red flag: When you drive up, the horse is already tacked up and sweaty; this can mean the handler has worked off the horse’s excess energy for a calmer ride.

Ground manners. Watch the horse as he’s caught, led, groomed, saddled, and bridled. Observe the horse’s reactions to handler cues and willingness to stand still. Pay attention to how the horse reacts when the handler cleans the hooves. Ask the handler to tie the horse. Green flag: A horse that’s well-mannered on the ground and stands calmly when tied. Red flag: A horse that resists being handled, and is put in crossties or is fidgety when tied. This behavior can be difficult to fix

Tacking-up clues. Watch how the horse reacts when he’s saddled and cinched. If he pins his ears or fidgets, he could have back pain or saddling issues. Before the saddle pad is on, note any white marks on the horse’s back — white hairs from saddle rub are a signal that the horse has had saddle-fit issues that could have led to soreness.

Trailer-loading ease. Ask the handler to show you how the horse loads in the trailer. As you watch the process, note that it may not be a red flag if the horse doesn’t load easily, especially if the handler’s body position or loading style stopped the horse from going in. If you feel you’d do anything differently, ask to work with the horse yourself.

Step 6. Go for a Trial Ride
The horse is tacked up and you’re ready to go for a ride. As you prepare to ride him, and while in the saddle, follow these guidelines.

Be cautious. “Never get on a strange horse that the owner isn’t willing to ride,” Goodnight advises. “It could be okay, but the seller could be scared of the horse. Gather more information before you mount up.” Be sure to wear an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified helmet and sturdy boots.

Watch another rider. Ask to watch someone else ride the horse, first. Is the rider relaxed and riding with a loose rein? Or is the rider gripping on the reins and looking tense? If the rider is tense, how is the horse reacting? Notice the rider’s habits and decide what you’d do differently. Green flag: A horse that shows patience when a rider grips and pulls on his mouth. Red flag: A horse that reacts poorly to a tense rider, creating an escalating cycle of harsher cues and increased tension. Decide whether it’s safe for you to ride such a horse.

Stay close. When you first mount up, stay close to the barn, or ride in an arena, until you feel comfortable on him.

Become a passive rider. After you’ve ridden the horse a bit, find out what happens if you become a passive rider — that is, relax the reins, and still your seat and leg cues. Green flag: He continues in the direction you’ve asked of him. Red flag: He moves off on his own or pulls to the gate.

Become an active rider. Switch styles, and become an active rider — that is, pick up the reins (while being gentle on his mouth), and cue him with your seat and legs. Ask him to turn left and right; ride him as though he were yours. Is he responsive and willing?

Ride off. After you’ve tested the horse in a safe environment, find out how he acts when you ride off by yourself. You won’t have to go far to find out whether he’s barn sour or skittish on the trail.

Go back to the barn. If you’re at all concerned about the seller’s honesty — or if the horse was saddled and ready for you to ride — stop by unannounced to find out whether the horse seems the same as he was on your first visit. Ask the seller if you can catch, groom, saddle, and ride the horse as though he were yours.

Step 7. Make an Offer
If the horse meets all your criteria and you think he’s a good match for you, take action right away. Good horses usually don’t last long on the market.
Ask for a trial period, but note that if the seller says no, that’s not necessarily a red flag, according to Goodnight.
“It’s often a liability issue to allow someone else to handle a horse when the owner can’t be present,” she notes. “And if the owner knows he has a good horse, he knows others will be eager to make an offer.”
After you make an offer, but before the sale is considered final, make an appointment for a prepurchase veterinary examination with an objective veterinarian in the area. Book your own appointment, and be present for the exam. Obtain any needed documents before you hand over a check.
Trust your instincts, and act fast when it feels right.

7 First-Horse Tips
Here are seven things to consider when shopping for a kid’s first horse or pony, according to top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

Consider age. Older is better. The Rule of 20 says that the age of the horse plus the age of the rider must equal at least 20. Often, you can find a well-trained, experienced horse best suited to a child (and also reasonably priced) in the 18- to 22-year-old bracket.

Consider experience. Look for a horse that’s set in his ways, experienced, unflappable, and used a lot. You want a horse that’s done many different things and worked hard for a living. This horse will be a solid citizen and won’t want to work any harder than he has to. If he’s traveled frequently, all the better. There’s probably nothing that will surprise this horse.

Consider temperament. Babysitter wanted! Look for a temperament of solid gold — a horse that’s calm, friendly, and willing, with an eagerness to please and a cautious approach. Ideally, find a thinking horse that will act as a supervisor when you’re not present. Look for a big, kind eye, a flat forehead, and a calm awareness.

Consider size. Find a horse or pony that’s the right size for the child. If the youngster can brush, clean feet, and saddle up all by herself, she’ll learn to be an independent rider.

Disregard discipline. Don’t worry about the job the horse has done up until now. Emphasize safety and fun. A well-trained, experienced horse from any discipline will fit this bill.

Don’t get cheap. Spend as much as you can to get the best, safest horse possible. Look up the cost of one trip to the emergency room. Add this amount to whatever you were planning to spend on the horse to help ensure a trustworthy, reliable mount.

Save your pennies. If the child is seriously smitten, her first horse won’t be the last. Kids outgrow their first horse after a couple years — not so much in size, but in performance. The child’s second horse may be more expensive as the budding rider moves into more advanced activities.

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Finding a Kid’s Horse
Older is Better—You want a horse that is set in his ways, experienced and unflappable. The Rule of 20 says that the age of the horse plus the age of the rider, must at least equal 20. Often you can find better trained and very experienced horse that is best suited to a child and also very inexpensive in the 18-22 year old bracket.

Been there, done that. Look for horses that have been used a lot, done many different things and worked hard for a living. He’ll be more solid and he won’t be looking to work any harder than he has to. If he has done activities that required him to travel off the farm—all the better! There’s probably nothing that will surprise this horse.

Babysitter wanted! You want a temperament of solid gold. Calm, friendly and willing, with an eagerness to please and a cautious approach. A thinking horse that will act as a supervisor to your child when you are not present. Look for a big, kind eye, a flat forehead and a calm awareness.

Size matters. Try to find something ‘right-sized’ for your child. If they can brush, clean feet and saddle themselves, it will be much better for everyone—but all the stuff above matters more than size.

Discipline doesn’t matter—for a starter horse, what you care about is safety and fun. A well-trained and experienced horse from any discipline will fit this bill—she’ll get more serious later on.

Start saving your money now! If your child is seriously smitten, her first horse will not be her last one. Plan on her outgrowing her first horse after a couple years—not so much in size but in performance. Her second horse may be more expensive as she moves into more advanced activities.

Don’t get cheap. Sad but true: the least amount of money you will spend on this horse is the purchase price. Spend as much as you can to get the best horse (again, buying an aged–but sound horse may give you more bang for your buck). Factor in the cost of one trip to the emergency room and spend that much more money on the horse for your child, in the hopes that you will avoid the doctor bills!

The Secret? Keep It Simple!

July 30, 2015

The Secret? Keep It Simple!
By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.

We know they’re out there. Horses who are enjoying life. Horses who are brimming with health – strong muscles, shiny coats, hard hooves, good digestion, normal metabolism, strong immune function – just plain healthy! How does this happen? What is it about their care and feeding that gives them such wellbeing?

We’re always searching for answers. Our typical approach is to study sick horses. But that only helps us to understand disease. We look at fat horses to understand fat horses. We look at horses with pain, metabolic problems, and digestive ailments to understand those who are experiencing the same hardships. While such research is worthwhile, wouldn’t it also make sense to evaluate fit, hearty horses so we can strive to make our own horses be more like them? Shouldn’t we be looking at what healthy horses experience?

Here’s the basic “recipe” for a healthy horse:

Avoid feeding excess calories. Obesity is a real problem and it comes from piling on the calories, combined with lack of physical activity. Forage should be the dietary staple and it should flow steadily throughout the horse’s entire gastrointestinal tract. Pounds and pounds of concentrated feeds can shorten a horse’s life.

Prevent winter weight gain by imitating nature. In a natural setting, feed would be sparse during the winter months. The horse would graze continually, but on fewer calories, so he wouldn’t become overweight. Then, when the spring grasses come, he enjoys them without the risk of developing laminitis because his body has not been unnaturally put in a state of insulin resistance (through too much body fat). To imitate this cycle, the horse should be helped to stay trim by being fed all the quality, varied forages he wants, and only enough concentrates to meet his supplemental needs. Keep up with your horse’s exercise regimen throughout the winter—think of it as substituting for the way a horse in the wild will move over large expanses in search of winter food.

Keep stress to a minimum. The hormonal response to stress is capable of doing terrible things to a horse’s body – making it more likely to develop infections, allergies, and skin disorders, and to become insulin resistant. Stress produces free radicals that potentially damage every tissue in the body, including the brain, blood vessels, hooves, eyes, skin, and digestive tract. Stress also contributes to a horse’s poor attitude. Limiting stressors helps prevent ulcers, laminitis, and colic, and promotes an amiable, willing attitude. So a horse should be able to eat when he wants, and not be bound (stressed) by the owner’s schedule. Forage (preferably fresh grasses) should be available all throughout the day and night so the horse can self-regulate his intake of grasses according to his instincts, which include an innate need to graze, roam, socialize, and eat a variety of plants. He should be unencumbered by contraptions that inhibit his natural way of living. And he should have company. Companionship protects him against threats (real and perceived), keeping him calm, allowing his digestion to work properly, and permitting him to truly rest.

Be an educated owner. Learn the details about the equine digestive system and why forage must flow continually through the horse’s system.

Fill the nutritional gaps and build a strong immune system. Grass when dried for hay loses nutritional value, so supplement a hay diet by giving the proper vitamins and minerals as well as omega 3s. Feed a variety of protein sources to supply a large enough amino acid pool for the body to produce and repair tissues, keep blood proteins where they need to be, and naturally fight off disease.

Make movement a part of the horse’s daily life. Confinement is stressful and debilitating. The horse’s sense of safety depends in large measure on being able to move in response to fear. Furthermore, standing in one place wreaks havoc on his body. If stall housing is necessary, make sure the horse gets plenty of exercise every day – exercise keeps the digestive system healthy and without it, the horse can develop ulcers and colic; his hooves can become weak and thin; his joints deteriorate; and his overall natural healing ability is diminished. Movement also inhibits weight gain; exercise not only burns calories, but it makes the cells more receptive to insulin, allowing the body to burn fat.

Meet the horse’s evolving needs as he ages. Exercise maintains muscle and protects aging joints, so the wise owner encourages movement and feeds enough quality protein, vitamin C, and omega 3s to slow down the progression of arthritis. Care for your horse’s teeth and check his blood for proper kidney and liver function. Since saliva production diminishes with age, moisten your horse’s food so he can chew better, and feed at ground level to help prevent choking, a common problem with aged horses.

Variety is the key to balanced nutrition. Eating the same thing day in and day out, even if it is nutritious, can lead to nutritional imbalances. A pasture that is thick with one type of grass is not going to keep a horse healthy. To thrive, the horse needs different types of grasses, lots of weeds, bushes, berries, flowers, and trees; this is the ideal, to which all you would need to add is water and salt. Most of us do not have this amount of land to offer our horses, and must rely on hay. Choose a mixed grass hay, but realize that hay provides only basic forage for a healthy digestive tract; it is missing so many key nutrients that you must also feed a good vitamin/mineral supplement and provide a source of omega 3 fatty acids. You may also need to improve the protein quality by adding other protein sources.

Keep it simple

We are so busy micromanaging our horses’ lives and their diets that we have forgotten the basics: Fresh air, water, companionship, freedom to move, and fresh grasses and plants. Your horse will thank you. And you can have the satisfaction of knowing that you are giving your horse a lifetime of vibrant health.

Permission to reprint this article is granted, provided attribution is given to Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. No editorial changes may be made without her permission. Dr. Getty appreciates being notified of any publication.

Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide U.S. and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices.

Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available at — buy it there and have it inscribed by the author, or get it at Amazon ( or other online retail bookstores. The seven separate volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered Spotlight on Equine Nutrition series are available with special package pricing at her website, and also at Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts.

Find a world of useful information for the horseperson at Sign up for Dr. Getty’s informative, free e-newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Reach Dr. Getty directly at She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements.

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Relationship Fix Series


Bonding Dos and Don’ts


By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco


Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how to show your horse affection without deteriorating your leadership in your herd of two.


How do you show your horse affection while also maintaining respect? There’s nothing wrong with having a bond with your horse. In fact, it’s desirable. But you have to show your affection and bond with your horse in a safe way and in a way that your horse appreciates. Horses don’t think like we do—especially when it comes to how to bond and show affection. Be aware and make sure not to instill human affection behaviors on the horse—such as kissing on the lips. Instead, find out what your horse likes.

We, as humans, are so drawn to the head of the horse. The head and lips are so soft and smell so good. You may want to get your head next to his and love on him. But horses have blind spots around his head and many horses don’t like to have you so close to their heads. For the most part, the head is a good place to stay away from. The horse’s head is big, weighs a lot and moves quickly. I can personally vouch for several concussions and some busted teeth from having my head too close to a horse’s head. Even if it’s a horse you know well, he may accidentally turn quickly and spook–moving with force.

Affection in Horse Terms

Kissing and hugging are human ideas of affection. Horses do spar (play fight) and bite at the lips but that’s more of a reason not to kiss on the lips. That’s a reason to keep your horse’s lips away from your lips. You don’t want him to think you’re playing and be bitten.

Horses only have one known affectionate behavior that isn’t associated with reproduction. Allo grooming (also known as mutual grooming) occurs when two bonded horses face each other and give one another a deep massage with their teeth. Horses mostly groom around the withers and down the neck and back. The more dominant horse in the pair will tell the other horse when to start and stop the grooming sessions and both horses will let each other know where they like to be groomed. .

When I show affection to my horse, I like to mimic this grooming behavior by approaching the horse as another horse would. Then I like to find the horse’s “sweet spot.” If I’m bonding with a new horse, I approach the horse slowly then put my hand out (palm down) to allow him to sniff me. That’s just polite to the horse. Next, I go to the withers and rub him to show him I’m friendly.

Scratching and rubbing on the horse’s favorite “sweet” spot is a great way to show your affection. How do you find this spot? Horses pucker their lips when they feel pleasure. With your fingers all pressed together, dig in with your fingertip pressure in a circular motion and rub around your horse’s withers, neck and chest. When you find a spot he likes, you may see your horse slightly move his lips or you may see your horse reach high in the air, wiggle his lips and show his teeth. Many horses like a deep pressure—if he doesn’t like that deep of a pressure, he’ll let you know by moving away.

Sometimes I give my horse a hug at the withers. On a rare occasion you’ll have a horse that wraps back and hugs you as you stand at his shoulder. That could be another affectionate behavior of the horse but it is less studied. I have had that happen just a few times in my life but it does feel like a bonded and sincere behavior. I’ve heard of a few other similar reports and would love to see research about it!

Know the Consequences

What happens if you pamper and kiss on your horse without first setting boundaries? Your horse may become oblivious to your actions and disrespectful of your space. He may at first turn his head away from you. Then he’ll bump into you. That’s not accidental, that’s sending you a message. If your horse is oblivious to your existence, that’s not a relationship that is bonded from the horse’s perspective.

Horses want a leader and respect and want to bond with a leader. If the behavior is allowed to go on, the horse may escalate from turning away to more aggressively dragging away or turning and biting. Make sure to pay attention to your moves and think about who “owns” the space at any given moment. I can invite a horse into my space but he can never come into that space without permission. Be very aware of space when you’re around your horse. Make sure your horse is conscientious about your space and careful not to crowd you.

Boundaries have to be established before you choose to be “touchy feely” with your horse. If you don’t set boundaries, horses can push you around and run you over. Horses can also manipulate and “train” the people around them. They may train you to give them attention if they paw or reach for your hand with their lips. Think of a Golden Retriever that comes over to you when you sit down. He’ll bump your elbow with his nose until you start to pet him. He has trained you to pet him when he asks for it. Similarly, your horse may be training you to be subordinate by using horse language—moving you out of his space instead of understanding that he must move from your space. You may not be in danger when a dog trains you. When a horse is in charge, there are safety risks.

Your horse being the dominant in the herd of two becomes a problem when you want to ask a horse to do something he doesn’t want to do. If he’s the boss from the moment you enter his stall, he’s not likely to follow your leadership as you tack up or from the saddle.

Pay Attention and be Affectionate

Notice when horses move into your space and make sure to move them out of your space immediately. You want your horse to be careful about your space and conscientious of your moves. This doesn’t mean making your horse fearful, but using visual and corrective pressure to move the horse out of your space so that you maintain your safety.

Of course I’m all for affection. There’s nothing wrong with being affectionate and offering praise—when it’s deserved. Once you know the rules and establish boundaries, you will know your horse and you can stretch the rules if you want to. Make sure the affection you give is appropriate for the horse and is something they will appreciate. If your horse is mindful of your presence, your affection is appropriate to how horses communicate and you don’t reward bad behavior, you’re on your way to a respectful and bonded relationship.

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First Aid


Sometimes it seems like a horse could hurt himself even if you locked him in a padded stall. Running and playing with other horses keeps your horse happy but may mean he occasionally gets scuffed up. Being flight animals and very social animals, means that wrecks and injuries can happen. With time and experience, you will learn how to deal with minor first aid issues and you’ll know when it is important to call the vet. When daily care and treatment is required, your vet will show you what needs to be done, but there are a few skills that are important for horse owners to have.

First Aid Supplies:
Make sure you have all the first aid supplies on hand that you might need, before you need them. Here’s what I like to keep on hand, readily available in my barn:

Betadine surgical scrub and Hydrogen peroxide for cleaning wounds

Witch hazel (a cleaning stringent that does not sting)

Alcohol and cotton balls (for cleaning implements and for use with injections)

Saline solution (for irrigating eyes or any mucus membranes)

Skin ointment like Corona, for minor scrapes

Medicated ointment like furason (for cuts and wounds)

Blue lotion (spray or liquid, for scrapes and small cuts)

Lubricating gel, Vaseline

4×4 sponges (or gauze pads) for cleaning and dressing wounds

Bandaging supplies: cotton, rolled gauze, vet wrap, Duct tape
Disposable diapers (infant size; great for girth sores or foot bandages)

Disposable gloves

Large syringe and mastitis needle (for irrigating puncture wounds)

Digital thermometer

Bandage scissors



Drugs (issued by vet): bute, banamine

Scrapes—losing a bit of hair but not breaking the skin happens all the time as horses bite and kick each other or run into branches or fences and you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Keep the scrape clean and rub a little ointment on the skin to help encourage the hair to grow back. If there’s an abrasion but not through the full thickness of the skin, I might use Blue Lotion to help dry it up and protect the skin.

Cuts—first determine if the cut is deep enough for sutures or in a place where it needs suturing, like the face or lips. When in doubt, call the vet. To treat cuts, wash the wound with a mild disinfectant soap like betadine (diluted to the color of iced-tea). Scrub around the edges of the wound (you might need to clip away hair) briskly to encourage good blood flow and make sure all foreign matter and scabs are washed away. After it dries, use a medicated ointment like furason and keep the cut dry and clean and exposed to the air when possible. Bandaging is sometimes required to keep the wound clean, but it should be done by someone that knows how. If the wound needs sutures, your vet will give you treatment instructions.

Puncture wounds– are really common, like for instance when a horse runs into a branch and jabs a stick into his flesh. Punctures may be hard to recognize since from the outside the wound is very small but on the inside it could be big. Puncture wounds must heal form the inside out—to be kept clean and irrigated to keep a scab from forming. If a puncture wound is not kept clean and draining, it can turn into an abscess. Look for signs of a puncture wound which may be small on the outside but deep or bigger on the inside and may have debris inside. Wash thoroughly, clip away all hair from the edges of the wound and try to prevent a scab from forming over the opening. Use a mastitis needle and syringe with a mild betadine solution to irrigate the wound daily to insure that it heals from the inside out. Consult your vet if you suspect foreign matter may be in the wound or if the horse may need antibiotics.

Hoof abscesses are common in horses, particularly in wetter/warmer climates. They are characterized by sudden, acute lameness where the horse may not even be weight bearing on the affected foot and/or is pointing his toe. Always consult your vet on lameness but if it is thought to be a hoof abscess, you may need to soak the foot in warm water with Epsom salt a couple times a day for a few days, until the abscess bursts and drains—which should give the horse immediate relief of pain. In some cases, the hoof may need bandaging after the abscess comes out, to prevent further infection. Always follow your vet’s advice.

Cleaning, dressing and bandaging wounds: Usually it’s best to keep wounds clean, dry and exposed to air and sunlight. But sometimes wounds are really hard to keep clean and they may need to be bandaged to promote better healing—let your vet decide. Bandaging horses is tricky and if done incorrectly, the bandage may come off or, in worst case scenarios; the bandage could cause discomfort or further injury to the horse if it gets too tight and cuts off circulation.

Wounds should be cleaned, dried and medicated before bandaging. Only some places on the horse can be effectively bandaged and the most common place is the feet and legs. All bandages on the legs should be padded so as not to disrupt circulation and they should be wrapped well above and well below the injury. Make sure there is an even tension all the way around on the wrap—not too tight. Usually you will have to wrap all the way to the foot to keep the bandage from slipping down. Sometimes a ballistic layer needs to be added at the end to keep the bandage from ripping or being torn off by the horse. Duct tape can be handy. Consult your vet on how often the bandage should be changed and what medications to use.

For your own safety, always keep in mind that a sick or injured horse may be more dangerous or react in ways that aren’t typical for that horse—so use extra caution. Always wear disposable gloves for your own protection from chemicals, medications and infection.

What Supplements I Feed My Horses Logo

With a high-quality forage, horses may not need concentrates or supplements at all, but all my horses get supplements because I want them to look and feel their best. For the most part, my horses get the same type of health supplements that I take for myself.

Vitamins: I give a general vitamin supplement to all my horses because it helps their coats shine and keeps them healthy. Vitamins are especially important for breeding stock. Vitamin supplements can make-up for certain deficiencies that may be in your forage, so the specific vitamin supplement you use should help balance out his diet.

Probiotic-prebiotic: Many horses are fed a probiotic or prebiotic, for their digestive health, including my own horse, Dually. Horses are “hind-gut fermenters,” making the whole digestive system very fragile, in terms of flora and fauna. In horses, the balance of good and bad bacteria is a delicate one and for many horses, a probiotic will make a huge difference in their over-all health.

Joint health: Research shows that glucosamine not only helps repair joint damage, but also helps prevent joint damage in younger horses. Like humans, the older a horse gets, the more arthritic his joints become. A heavy work load and high-impact activities causes wear and tear on the joints. All my horses, young and old, get a high-quality joint health supplement every day. With joint health, you get what you pay for. I use Cosequin because it is tested to have the highest grade glucosamine.

Fat: Adding fat to your horse’s diet will help you add calories, without adding too much energy. I prefer an Omega 3 fatty oil, because it has cardiovascular and immune benefits. A few ounces of fat added to your horse’s grain daily, will bring a sheen to his hair coat, bring out the dapples and help bind the powdered supplements to his grain, preventing waste.

There are many other nutritional and health supplements on the market, often these are designed for use in special circumstances. Your veterinarian should be able to help you determine what’s best to feed to your horse. Just make sure you don’t go over-board on supplements and give your horse stuff he doesn’t really need—it’s a waste of money and it may not be helping your horse.

Horse Illustrated – Julie Goodnight Q & A Logo

Cheating the Circle During Round Pen Work; Following the Herd Hierarchy at Feed Time

Q: How can I get my horse to longe or round pen in a complete circle? He keeps cutting in to the middle and making his circles too small. –Amber Verbena

A: This is a common occurrence in the round pen and your horse may show the same “cutting corners” behavior when you’re riding. Your horse is only obedient if he goes on the path that you choose. If he is veering off course—no matter how you’re working him–he isn’t paying attention to you and he thinks he can go where he wants.

When you work in a round pen, it can be intense for the horse and it’s possible that he’ll have an emotional outburst. Because of that, make sure that your round pen is made of a solid material that won’t bend or shift if he moves toward it and that it is at least five feet tall. Also make sure you have a tool (such as a stick and flag) to defend your space and direct your horse.

Ask your horse to trot in the round pen and be aware of when and where he starts in to the middle. He knows that he is cutting in and h finds that he benefits in some way. Is he being lazy and wanting to make the circle smaller? Or is he chopping off one side of the circle so that he is closer to the gate or to the herd? Watch his path closely. Either way, the fix is to take away the benefit for him and to teach him that it will be easiest to follow the path you dictate. You’ll change his direction to get him working harder at the moment he was choosing to go off course.

As soon as he comes off of the track, take a step to cut him off (using your body language and position to change his direction while staying safely out of his way) and use your stick to cue him to turn toward the fence then let him continue in the opposite direction. Watch again for his feet to come off the path and at that point, turn him into the fence again. Turning is difficult for the horse—it’s not easy to stop, roll back to his hocks and turn toward the fence.

Soon, he’ll learn to take the path of least resistance and stay to the outside of the pen instead of cutting in because it’s physically easier. When he turns toward the fence, it is the opposite direction from what he wanted, so you have taken away his benefit. That means he loses ground and realizes that you are choosing the direction and that he is not in charge.

If you’re working on a longe line, you can’t turn the horse away from you, but you can move more aggressively toward your horse’s shoulder and point your flag toward that point. You’ll drive him forward and make him speed up any time he steps in toward you. Your new posture and cue to move out and forward takes away the benefit for him. He no longer finds it easy to cut in to the middle; in fact, he’ll have to work harder if he tries that again.


Q: Knowing my horses and which is more dominant— should I feed in a specific order at feeding time and turn them out in a certain order? –Sherry Patron

The pecking order of your herd matters and it’s helpful to observe the order and note any changes. That’s great info to know, but it shouldn’t dictate everything that you do.

I want to know the hierarchy in my herd so I can watch to see if those at the bottom of the pecking order need help. Those horses may need to be separated for the night (to have a rest from a dominant or bully horse) or for feeding time (to make sure that they have access to food). Plus, if you see a change in the pecking order, it may indicate a change in health. If a horse that is usually alpha is suddenly lower in the order, it may mean he has a health issue and needs attention. I have seen a dominant horse move from the top to the bottom of a herd in a matter of hours and it was indeed a sign that he was getting very sick fast.

With my own herd of horses, I want to make sure that as soon as I step into the pen, they see me as the leader. The pecking order should change as soon as I step in– and suddenly I am the one they should be paying attention to. And my horses gladly obey, because they are happy to be in the herd and want to stay on good terms.

We train horses so that they don’t get to display herd behavior when a human is around. That’s a safety rule. I don’t want a horse to treat me as a new horse when I enter the pen or attack another horse who then runs over the top of me. That’s not a safe way for horses to act around humans.

I don’t want herd hierarchy to dictate how I go about my horse chores. If I want to feed them in an order that goes against the pecking order—by walking down a barn aisle and feeding in order of the pens—I want to be able to do that without making my job more difficult. I wouldn’t feed the alpha horse first if his pen was halfway down the row. He’ll need to be patient and have manners, just like everyone else.

I also don’t want to make my job harder than it needs to be. If I bring horses in from the pasture and they know that they’ll be fed in their pen when they return, I may allow the dominant horse to come in first. It may cause more problems than it’s worth to work out of the herd’s natural order in that scenario.

No matter their place in the herd, horses will learn the routine; they are very good at learning manners and following rules. They can learn to be respectful and patient and learn the process. Make sure that no matter what order you feed horses in, they are patient and acting properly at the moment you give them food. I want the horses to stand back respectfully and wait for the food (even if I am on the other side of the fence).

Horses often display anxious and aggressive behavior at feed time. All horses will nicker to you at feed time—the nicker means come to me and they know you will bring them food. But it is important not to let a horse control your actions or your emotions. Don’t stop what you are doing and feed them just because they are being demanding.

If a horse is displaying dominance and you walk by and throw hay, he may think that his behavior caused the food to appear.Some of my horses are on fee-choice hay access and 24/7 turnout—this is the most peaceful and least stressful feeding situation in the herd because everyone takes their turn eating and the omegas can steer well clear of the alpha/betas and eat without being harassed.

If a horse has learned to display dominant behavior at a scheduled feed time (such as pinning his ears, moving into me, pawing, or even charging) I would approach that horse with a flag and stick in my hand. I would wave the flag at any horse that approached me and encourage him to back up, out of my space. He doesn’t have to act perfectly for long, he just has to pay attention and be calm at the moment that I relinquish the food. If he backs up and stands still, I can give the food and know that he saw me as the herd-member to respect.

After I leave and step away from the food, the horses will go back to their own pecking order. But while I’m present, I want to make sure that no horse is moving into my space and acting disrespectful. Again, the horse doesn’t have to act right for long, he just has to be acting patiently and attentively at the moment you give the food. With a flag in hand, you’ll teach the horse that backing up, moving out of your space and being patient will cause the food to appear.


–Julie Goodnight,

Expert Trailer-Loading Fix Logo

Expert Trailer-Loading Fix
Learn how to avoid common trailer-loading mistakes, and load your horse every time you ask, with these steps from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

Have you ever had trouble loading your horse into the trailer — even when he’s loaded successfully in his past? There’s a chance you may unknowingly be contributing to his trailering issues.

“It’s easy to train your horse to resist trailer loading,” notes top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “Chances are, you may not even realize how you’re contributing to his behavior. It can take years to train a horse to do the right thing, but only moments to ‘un-train’ him.”

Here, Goodnight will help you examine the innocent mistakes you might be making. Then she’ll show you how to squelch a behavior problem before it escalates. She’ll also give you three things to avoid

Before You Begin
Wear sturdy boots and leather gloves, for safety. Outfit your horse in a rope training halter for control. (Caveat: Switch to a gentler, flat halter for trailering.)

Find a quiet place with good footing. Consider backing up your trailer to the barn, close to the fence, so that your horse’s options are limited and the only way to go seems to be into the trailer.

In any case, avoid wide-open spaces that might encourage your horse to think about freedom instead of stepping forward onto the trailer.

Step 1. Perform Ground Work
Begin with ground work. How well your horse handles from the ground will impact how well you can handle him in a difficult trailer-loading situation.

If your horse suddenly decides he doesn’t want to get into the trailer, you need to know that you have fundamental handling skills intact. If he doesn’t normally have good ground manners (for instance, he pulls back, balks, drags you to the grass, and doesn’t stay in step with you), you need to work on instilling those manners before you work on trailer loading.

Make sure your horse will stand still on command. A horse that will stand still on your authority has decided he must abide by rules of behavior. He’s respectful. If he won’t stand still, work on that skill first.

Step 2. Correct Unacceptable Behavior
Does your horse look away from the path you choose? Do you allow him to look away without correcting him? Does he walk in front of you or look where he wants?

These are all signs that your horse isn’t paying attention to you. He thinks he can look and go wherever he wants.

Address those small acts of disobedience away from the trailer — and before the looking-away behavior leads to a turn-and-bolt. Once he learns he can get away from you, it can’t be unlearned.

If your horse has learned to get away from you or turn his nose to the side to go where he wants, he may display these behaviors when trying to avoid something he doesn’t want to do, such as approaching the trailer.

If your horse displays the turn-and-bolt behavior when you’re trailer loading, examine your leading techniques and his behaviors when you’re working away from the trailer.

The first time your horse ripped the rope out of your hand and got away, it may have been an accident. But then he thinks “wow, I got free.” It’s a terrible thing for a horse to learn, because he’ll forever know that he can overpower you. You can dissuade the behavior and remind him not to do that, but he’ll always remember that it’s possible.

That’s an example of “un-training” a horse that once knew the right thing to do but now has learned a new thing. By not correcting him and allowing him to look away, the behavior escalated to getting away. Once he got away, that was a reward for him. You trained him to pull away and be rewarded.

To fix this behavior, do your homework with your horse and have a solid relationship from the ground. He’ll remember that you’re in charge when you approach the trailer.

Caveat: If your horse has escalated his behavior and knows how to get away, you may need to enlist the help of a knowledgeable horse friend or qualified trainer to work through the trailer-training process.

Step 3. Be Confident and Aware
Your horse will always turn away from what he doesn’t like and toward what he does like. He’s transparent. Just pay attention to his focus. Watch his ears to see what he’s “pointing” at. His long neck makes it easy to see any movement toward what he’d rather be doing.

Horses are also keen on your determination and intention level, so pay attention to your own attitude and body language.

Here’s how to project confidence, and read your horse’s intentions and make corrections early on, so the behavior doesn’t escalate.

Be confident. When you approach the trailer with your horse, there should be no doubt in his mind that he’s going in. That’s the one and only option. Be a confident leader. Conduct yourself in a way that tells your horse you both are walking straight in the trailer. Project confidence and determination so he knows the best thing to do is to follow your lead rather than make choices on his own.

Watch your horse. If you’re having a trailer-loading issue, evaluate your entire approach to the trailer to pinpoint what your horse is thinking and what he’s paying attention to. Determine the exact moment when he sees the trailer and realizes that’s where he’s going.

Catch the look-away. If your horse doesn’t want to load up, he’ll tense and look away long before he’s close to the trailer. Be prepared for this reaction. One of the biggest mistakes made in trailer-loading is allowing a horse to look away from the trailer. After you’ve lined him up and are ready to load him, he should look only straight ahead at the goal.

If you don’t notice that small glance away, your horse may look right and left to plan his evacuation route. Correct your horse the second he looks away, before he escalates his plan and balks, turns, or even bolts.
Keep his nose straight. When you approach the trailer, keep your horse’s nose pointed straight ahead. If he even tips his nose to the side, bump the rope to remind him that he’s only to look straight ahead. Out of the corner of your eye, watch his eyes to see whether he’s even thinking of moving back, not forward.

Step 4. Avoid Circling
If your horse is “experienced” in throwing tantrums before trailer-loading, he may learn that if he does turn his head, balk, or even wind up completely out of position, you’ll circle him and approach the trailer again.

Never circle your horse when trailer-loading. It’s a fatal mistake. If you turn him around and allow him to face the direction he wanted to go, he’s gotten his own way for a few steps.

You may think you need to get a better approach by circling back and starting again. But your horse only associates his behavior with what happens within three seconds after he acts. He wanted to turn away and he got the reward of stepping in the direction he wanted.

You’ve unknowingly trained your horse to throw a tantrum by allowing him to turn away. Horses are more in the moment than we are. In the moment, your horse wanted to turn away, and you allowed it. Turning away reinforced the tantrum, so he’ll certainly do it again.

If your horse throws a tantrum and gets out of position, let him figure out how to straighten up and get his feet in line without circling. Then follow the guidelines in Step 3.

Step 5. Stay Out of the Way
Think about your position as you enter the trailer. Horses are trained not to invade your space, so avoid stepping up into the door of the trailer before asking your horse to step up. If he were to follow your request, he’d have to walk on top of you.

A smart, well-trained, agreeable horse will wait until you walk forward and get out of the way to load up. However, a horse that doesn’t want to load will take your placement as a reason not to move forward and to think of an alternate destination.

You may think you’re out of the way, but your horse sees your position as blocking him. Ideally, you don’t want to step into the trailer with him, but some trailers are designed so that you have to step in and lead him to the right place.

If you’re stepping up into a long slant-load trailer, go in the door well ahead of your horse. Keep walking straight ahead, then step as close to the wall as possible to get out of his way. Show him there’s a path to move forward.

Step 6. Retrain Your Horse
If your horse has been known to balk at entering the trailer, approach, then ask him to stop before he enters. When he stops, praise him for listening and looking forward at the trailer. If he looks away, correct him to remind him he’ll be moving straight ahead. When he looks at the trailer, praise him.

Why stop along the way? When you stop, your hose will show you what he’s thinking about. You’ll have an opportunity to praise him for looking forward and looking at the trailer.

Stopping him also keeps your horse in a compliant mind-set — he’s being praised for moving and stopping on command. It keeps him interested in moving forward and discourages him from thinking about an escape.

Your praise instills confidence in your horse. You’ll have an opportunity to maintain obedience. Plus, you’ll encourage his forward interest and his investigative behavior.
For more trailering videos and tips from Julie Goodnight, visit
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from

If possible, don’t trailer-load alone. A travel buddy can help snap the butt bar and close the trailer doors, so your horse never learns he can back out before you can secure him.

What Not to Do
Here are three things to avoid when loading your horse into the trailer.
1. Train your horse on the road. Don’t fight with your horse because you need to get on the road right away. If you’re in a hurry, you may be tempted to resort to different and inconsistent tactics to get him loaded.

Instead, schedule plenty of time (days and weeks) for trailer-loading practice sessions. Let your horse know he’s going in the trailer; there’s no time constraint.

Don’t use a rope or whip. Julie Goodnight has seen many different trailer loading techniques and some major wrecks and injuries. Though a lifetime of experience, she understands that it’s a lot better to teach a horse the right response than to try and force him into the trailer.

To do this, your horse has to be thinking about moving forward. Therefore, avoid touching him with anything from behind, including a rope or whip. As soon as you touch him from behind, his attention is immediately transferred to his hindquarters. Using a rope or whip could also scare him; a fearful horse isn’t going to learn what you’re trying to teach him.

Teach your horse that he should move freely forward. Let him know that you want him to think through the problem and learn that the easy answer is to go forward.

If your horse needs extra encouragement to go forward, enlist a helper to snap a training flag. This technique applies mental pressure that tells him backward isn’t the direction to go. The noise helps your horse associate quiet and easy with forward movement and an unpleasant sound with thoughts of backing up. You’re not physically touching him or applying constant pressure.

Don’t trailer-load alone. If possible, ask a traveling buddy to go with you to help you load your horse. After your horse walks into the trailer, your buddy can snap on the butt bar, close the doors, and help you tie your horse, all in the correct order.

You need to close the back door before you tie your horse, for safety. You don’t want your horse to learn that if you’re alone, he has time to back up before the butt bar is snapped and the door closed.

Before you start each trailer-loading session, outfit your horse in a rope training halter for control. Switch to a gentle, flat halter for trailering.

When you approach the trailer, your horse needs to know that you mean business. Point his nose straight ahead. Don’t allow him to look from side to side.

Keep your horse’s nose pointed at the trailer — no matter what.

Avoid circling. When you circle back around, your horse learns that he can get his way — if only for a moment.

Stay out of your horse’s way as you load him. Don’t stand in front of him.
A well-trained horse will wait until you walk forward and get out of the way to load up. However, a horse that doesn’t want to load will take your placement as a reason not to move forward and to think of an alternate destination.

Horses That Graze on Pasture All Day Eat More Slowly Logo

Feeding Tips from Dr. Juliet Getty

Horses that graze all day on Pasture eat more slowly

If you let your horse out to graze on pasture for only a few hours each day, and provide hay the rest of the time, you’ve likely noticed how he approaches the grass like a vacuum cleaner, barely lifting his head the entire time he is outside. On the other hand, horses who graze on pasture 24/7 are more relaxed, eating less grass at a slower pace, taking time to rest and interact with buddies.

Researchers at North Carolina State University were interested in just how much pasture horses consume at varying combinations of pasture and hay availability. What they found confirms what we have all witnessed. At varying levels of pasture turnout, an 1100 lb (500 kg) horse will consume the following amounts of grass dry matter (all horses were given free choice hay when removed from pasture):

  • 24 hours/day: 0.77 lb per hour (0.35 kg/hr)
  • 9 hours/day: 1.32 lb/hr (0.6 kg/hr)
  • 6 hours/day: 1.65 lb/hr (0.75 kg/hr)
  • 3 hours/day: 2.2 lb/hr (1.0 kg/hr)

The less time you allow for pasture grazing, the more excited your horse will be at the opportunity to have fresh grass and will eat nearly three times faster than if he had access to pasture 24/7.

Note: To convert lb/hr to kg/hr, divide by 2.2


Which should be fed first – hay or grain?  If you’re feeding correctly, this issue is truly a moot point because the horse should have access to forage (hay and/or pasture) 24/7 with no gaps. Therefore, when fed concentrates, the horse’s digestive tract should already have hay flowing through it.

If fed starchy cereal grains (oats, corn, barley, etc.) on an empty stomach, the horse will produce even more acid (potentially leading to ulcers) and it will be leave the stomach quickly. When this happens, there is a risk that it will not be fully digested in the small intestine (especially if large amounts are fed), and end up in the hindgut where starch can be fermented by the bacterial population. This can lead to endotoxin-related laminitis.

If hay is present in the stomach first, it creates a physical barrier for the grain to move out of the stomach as quickly. Starch does not get digested in the stomach so the grain is simply mixed and churned into a semi-liquid mass, which enters the small intestine where it can be digested down to glucose. If there is hay present, fiber mixes with the starch and the whole mass enters the small intestine. Fiber is not digested until it reaches the hind gut, but its presence slows down the digestion of starch, and obstructs the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, leading to a less dramatic rise in insulin.

One thing to note – there is more water involved when hay is present (from increased drinking and saliva production). This is a good thing since digestion within the small intestine cannot take place without water.


“For an adult horse with moderate activity, feed .75 to 1.0 lbs per 100 lbs of body weight.” These are the feeding instructions for a popular commercially fortified feed. If your horse weighs 1100 lbs (500 kg), you’ll need to feed 8.25 to 11 lbs of feed per day. For enough calories? Enough protein? Enough vitamins and minerals?  Yes, to all of the above and more. That’s a lot of feed!  That could amount to three to five two-quart scoops (depending on the weight of the feed) per day. And you’ll need to divide it into multiple feedings since meal size should never exceed 4 lbs (your horse’s stomach is small compared to the rest of his digestive tract).

Chances are excellent that you don’t feed anything close to the suggested amount.  Does it matter? Yes. Most of what you pay for when you buy a fortified feed, are the fortifications. You pay for the vitamins, the minerals, and any special ingredients such as flaxseed and soybean meals to provide omega 3s and protein. The only way your horse will benefit from these nutrients is to feed according to directions. Modify them and you’ll need to “supplement the supplement.”  For example, this feed provides 100 IUs of vitamin E per lb. If you fed half of the recommended amount, say 5 lbs, your horse would only receive 500 IUs per day. That’s the bare minimum, according to the National Research Council, for a 500 kg horse. Most equine nutritionists agree, however, that this horse at maintenance would do better at amounts closer to 1,000 IUs per day. Furthermore, as activity increases, so does the vitamin E requirement. Therefore, supplementation would be appropriate.

Other nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A and D, minerals such as copper and zinc, and a host of feedstuffs provided to offer enough fat and protein, may need to be supplemented when less than recommended amounts are fed. As you can imagine, it becomes very tricky to figure out just how much to supplement. You could simply give half the supplement dosage if you are feeding half the fortified feed dosage. But to do this accurately, you should figure out how much your horse would have gotten if fed the recommended amounts, and then calculate how much supplement to feed to make up the difference. If you’re not comfortable with crunching numbers, your best source of information would be a qualified equine nutritionist.

Bottom line… pay attention to labels, weigh your feed using a scale, not a scoop, and keep your calculator handy when making adjustments that supplement the supplement.


Regardless of the weather, horses require a daily supply of salt. In cold seasons, salt helps promote enough water consumption to prevent dehydration. In warm seasons, salt replaces what is lost from perspiration. A full-sized horse requires at least one ounce (two level tablespoons or 30 ml) of salt each day for maintenance, this much provides 12 grams of sodium. Heat, humidity, and exercise increase the horse’s need.

There are several ways to accomplish this. The best ways include offering free-choice granulated salt, or adding salt to your horse’s meal (for palatability, limit the amount to no more than 1 tablespoon per meal). A salt block should be available should your horse want more. A plain, white salt block is preferable, but many horses do not lick it adequately since it can be irritating to the tongue. Mineralized blocks often go untouched due to their bitter taste; however a natural sea salt block is often preferred.

Calculate the amount of sodium your horse is getting from any commercial feeds or supplements and add salt accordingly. Always have fresh water nearby.

Ride Right With Julie Goodnight: Confidence on the Trail Logo

It’s easy to lose confidence on the trail if your well-trained horse has defied you or refused to go forward. A threat to bolt or rear can make a confident rider worry and, in turn, contribute to the problem.

In that moment of refusal, you can choose to head for home or to step up and take charge.

If your well-trained trail horse suddenly throws a fit and refuses to ride out alone, chances are, you’ve allowed little acts of disobedience before this blow up.

It’s time to stop putting up with blatant acts of disrespect and confidently ride ahead.

“I’ve seen horses get away with little acts of disobedience and thus start to think they — and not the rider — are in charge,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

“Soon, instead of simply turning to look back toward where he wants to go, the horse escalates his threats. He might raise his front end as if to rear, or he may simply balk and refuse to keep moving down the trail.”

When a formerly well-trained horse starts with this type of behavior, Goodnight says riders often lose confidence and fear the worst will happen — that the horse will actually rear or turn and bolt.

If you turn for home, even just momentarily, instead of riding ahead, your horse learns just what to do to manipulate your emotions and “win” a chance to stop working.

“Your horse may just need a reminder that you, the rider, are in charge,” says Goodnight. “He may’ve been testing you, diminishing your confidence and manipulating your ride time. Stop the cycle by showing him you’re calmly in control.”

Here, Goodnight helps you observe your horse’s behavior patterns so that you can identify disobedience at its most subtle level and correct it before your horse has an all-out tantrum.

She’ll help you understand how the behavior escalated, how to fix your focus, and what to do to retrain your horse so he’ll move ahead willingly on the path you choose.

Goodnight will also explain to kids how to watch a horse’s ears to learn what he’s focused on.

Inside the Behavior
Understanding your horse’s motivation and behavior will boost your confidence and help you formulate a plan.

“Horses can threaten a lot of scary behaviors,” Goodnight says. “As much as we love them, horses can be willful and obstinately refuse to move forward. They’re master manipulators if they’ve learned that they can succeed with their antics of turning, stopping, threatening to rear, etc.

“If your horse can get you into an emotional state, he can learn that if he rears or threatens to rear you may turn for home — and he doesn’t have to work. To him, that means he has won points in a game called Let’s Go Home.”

When Goodnight was called in to help a horse-and-rider pair in Tucson, Arizona, she’d planned to observe what happened on the trail. However, she soon realized that the horse wasn’t even willing to leave the barn.

The rider, Liz, reported that she’d ridden her horse on the trail successfully in the past — he was a tried-and-true ranch horse. But lately, his tantrums kept Liz from riding out alone. He wouldn’t step forward; he’d turn his head and circle back to the barn.

“Liz had great riding position and was an experienced rider, but she’d allowed her horse to be disobedient without knowing it,” Goodnight says.

“Every time the horse turned his head to look back at his pen, Liz allowed him to turn in the direction he wanted to go before circling him back to the trail.

“While to Liz it seemed as though she was in control and pointed her horse where she wanted to go, her horse thought he ‘won’ with each step he got to take toward the barn.”

Goodnight explains how your horse keeps score of his steps and your ability to confidently direct his speed and direction.

“Say you want your horse to go right, toward the trail. He refuses, so you circle him around to the left. He has won. To him, his refusal paid off at the moment you turned him the way he wanted to go, to the left.”

In Liz’s case, she’d allowed the turn back to the barn too many times, so her horse thought he was in charge — each time she circled him, he ended up closer to the barn.

When Goodnight took the reins, the horse tried his antics only once. He quickly realized that he wasn’t going to get his way and walked obediently forward.

“This was a trained horse that had learned to test and threatened to throw a fit,” Goodnight says. “He’d learned that the game worked with Liz and that he would get his way when Liz would give up and go home.

“With me, he learned the game wouldn’t work and quickly was reminded of his training. It was time for Liz to break the cycle and teach her horse that his antics wouldn’t control her emotions and confidence any longer.”

If you’re observant, you can tell what a horse is thinking and feeling. Your horse is also very keen on your current emotional status.

Horses are quick to learn how to push your emotional buttons. They learn that when they get a tense, emotional response, they’ll get to turn home in just a few minutes.

Goodnight notes that horses are transparent in their communication. If your horse turns and looks toward the barn, that’s where he wants to go. If he’s whinnying, he’s calling out to find his friends, saying he wants to be back with the herd.

If your horse whinnies, you may be embarrassed, but it’s just horse behavior. It’s an expression of his emotion. He’s saying he feels alone, and he wants to be back with the herd. You can’t punish him for having that emotion, but you [ITAL]can[ITAL] correct the behaviors that follow that emotion.

Here’s how to regain your status as herd leader.

Step 1: Regain Your Confidence
How do you break the cycle and tell your horse that you’re in charge? The key is to put him into action and to make sure you know what to do in advance.

“As soon as Liz knew that she couldn’t allow her horse to turn toward his pen and the barn, she was on a new path,” Goodnight says. “With less than an hour’s practice, she was riding down the trail and away from the barn.”

Horses are great at detecting when your confidence lessens or your determination to move forward down the trail wanes, Goodnight explains.

“When you ride, your body is in close contact with your horse,” she says. “Your horse can feel when you’re tense and when you’re relaxed. If he begins to refuse or starts a temper tantrum, you may tense your body or simply shift your focus down onto him instead of where you want to go. He can feel the difference between when you look ahead. Your posture suggests you’re ready to move ahead on the trail. When you’re tense, you send the opposite message.”

Here’s the fix.

When you start to feel tense, keep looking ahead to where you want to go. Keep your eyes focused — not in a blank stare —and observe what’s in front of you on the trail.

Start to put your horse to work. Turn right, turn left (always turn away from the barn; never circle in the direction your horse wants to go), speed up, slow down, then turn right and left again.

Just changing your horse’s direction will give you more control and therefore more confidence. Any time you change direction, you remind him that you’re in control of where he can go. He’s not in control of the direction he goes.

Step 2. Break the Cycle
Both you and your horse need to make a big change if your horse is going to learn that you’re in charge and that he can no longer throw a fit to get his way.

How long this process will take will depend on how many points your horse has scored in the past. If he has a history of getting his way, it’ll be harder to correct your score.

The moment you step in the stirrup, let your horse know that you expect him to keep his nose in front of him and stand still. Basic obedience and control come first. As the rider, you control his direction and speed.

At first, work close to the barn in an area where you are more confident and feel at ease issuing a command. Chances are you’ll be more worried the farther you are from home. When you’re farther away, your horse will be thinking more about heading home, too.

To make a correction for turning his nose, pick up and bump with the opposite rein, using enough pressure to point his nose back toward the trail and dissuade him from doing it again.

If your horse turns his head toward the right, bump his head back to the left. Don’t allow him to turn to the right, and definitely don’t allow him to circle to the right to get back toward the trail.

If your horse looks back toward the barn (or his friends or the trailer) multiple times, put him to work.

When you ask him to change direction, stop, back up, trot circles one way then the other, etc. He then won’t have time to think about what’s behind him and will start to tune into your cues.

As you ride around the barn, always turn away from the barn each time you change direction. If you feel your horse’s focus shift to the barn and away from you, turn away from the barn and pick up the trot.

“If your horse throws a tantrum, he’ll soon learn that if he’s disobedient, you move him farther from the barn,” says Goodnight. “To expedite the training, I turn a horse toward the barn only when he’s calm and listening. I want to teach him that if he’s obedient and willing, he may get to go home and have a break.”

Gradually work your way farther from the barn. If you consistently insist on obedience, you should be able to work farther and farther away without having a big blow up. You horse will know that you’re now in charge.

Step 3: Get Back on the Trail
If your horse tries his antics on the trail, practice the same skills. Be sure to end your rides when you’re in charge and your horse’s training is on the upswing.

Horses are all different. If your horse has a short fuse or has had much success getting you to turn for home, it may be more of a challenge to ride out on the trail.

If your horse became more obedient when you worked him close to home, quickly changing his attitude, it may be time to push him when you’re farther from home.

If you have a problem away from home, dismount, and perform ground work with a rope halter and lead. Turn him left, turn him right, and make him move his feet.

Keep your horse’s motivation in mind, and don’t reward bad behavior. Even if you have to dismount, if you do that ground work, you’re ending on a good note. You’re letting him know he won’t get a break by pulling his usual antics.

Once you remind your horse that you’re in control, you may even be able to step back up in the stirrup and ride more.

Once your horse is compliant, you can head for home, knowing you’re not losing points.

But be careful — don’t throw in the towel and let your horse get everything he wants. You’re the herd leader. If you feel him (or yourself) getting tense, look confidently where you want to go, and remember that you have a plan.

Once you control your horse’s direction, you’ll boost your confidence and your horsemanship.F

For more on-the-trail skills every rider needs to know, check out  my book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with free bonus DVD, It includes:

  • Balance & Posture in Steep Terrain
  • Safety: Emergency Brake, Stand Still for Mounting, & Reprogramming Spooky Behavior
  • Training: Get Your Horse to Go the Speed you Ask—Every Time
  • Jigging: Stop That Forever
  • Sidepassing Skills
  • Gate Opening & Closing
  • Water Crossing
  • Ground Tie
  • Ponying
  • Much More

Behavior Tip: Watch the Ears

Horses point their ears toward what they’re interested in and what they’re looking at. When you’re riding on the trail, watch your horse’s ears to tell whether he’s focused on the trail ahead and listening to you or thinking of heading home.

Practice paying attention to horses’ ears. Make it a game to find out what’s holding their attention. It may be a visiting deer or a horseback rider passing by.

Whenever you pass a field of horses, note what they’re paying attention to. This skill will transfer to your time in the saddle, helping you notice what your horse is paying attention to and thinking about.

When you ride, make sure your horse is looking straight ahead on the path you’ve chosen.

Canter Malfunctions Logo

Top trainer Julie Goodnight helps you analyze your riding posture and prepare you for the perfect canter. Find out how rider errors contribute to wrong leads and more.

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco


Cantering is the topic of choice at many of my clinics. Riders want to know how to ride the complex gait with confidence and what they can do to canter more easily. I often hear “my horse will never pick up the right lead,” “what can I do to stop this horrible fast trot that comes before my horse will canter,” and “my horse won’t keep cantering once we get the gait.” These are my top three cantering complaints and the easiest problems to fix—with a little bit of rider awareness, a new plan to make cantering cues clear, and an attitude shift to help riders know that they are in charge and can expect their horses to do what was asked.

When a horse is well trained and has cantered many miles in the past, I believe that ninety-nine percent of canter concerns are rider induced—there’s always something the rider can do to make their ride better and to help their horse know exactly what they expect. Here, I’ll help you understand how your body position, tension and timing may be telling your horse something different than you think. You’ll have the tips and tools you need to step into the canter with a clear cue and knowing that you’re sequencing your cues so that your horse can easily understand your requests.

Cantering Leads

Why does the lead matter? It’s difficult for the horse to balance himself if you ride around a corner. If your horse is following your exact cue, he should take the lead that you ask for—not just start cantering and choose a lead himself. Plus, for competition, there’s often a required lead depending on the direction you’re tracking or according to the pattern. All that said, if you’re riding straight down the trail or the middle of the arena, there is no correct lead to take. But to be a better horseman, it’s best to know what you’re asking your horse to do.

When riders come to clinics and they want to work on leads, I first ask if the horse takes the wrong lead when traveling both directions. If the horse misses his leads in both directions, there’s most likely a cueing problem. The horse isn’t clear about what lead you want him to take and he isn’t set up to take the correct lead.

What goes wrong with a cue? Many riders can’t state what they do to cue for the canter. Because you have to cue for a specific gait and cue for a lead, there are lots of variations in cues and there’s lots of confusion.

The horse pushes off into the canter with the outside hind leg. If you’re asking for the right lead, the horse first pushes off with the left hind (and vice versa).

Use your outside leg to reach back a few inches and apply pulsating pressure there with your Achilles tendon. To prep for a right lead, move your left leg back. A well-trained horse will step his hips to the right. This movement is done at the walk or while standing still. I practice this move at the walk in a relaxed and easy frame without thinking about adding speed. You need to be able to reach back and get the horse to yield his haunches. That needs to be a cue to move the haunches and not just a cue to speed up. I like to walk straight down the long side of the arena, reach back, if the horse yields his hip, release him and pet him. Do that over and over until the horse knows that the cue to move his hip. Once your horse can proceed with a canter cue. The horse is now set up for the correct lead. That’s called “haunches in.”

For me, the canter cue is outside leg to move the haunches in, then I lift up and inward with the inside rein to keep the horse from diving in, then the actual cue to canter comes when I curl my hips in the canter motion (which is a move like pushing a swing.) I also like to use a kissing sound. It’s all about the sequence—outside leg, inside rein, push with the seat and kiss. I would guess that 80 percent of people who think their horse has a lead problem find that the problem goes away once they clarify their cueing sequence.

Caption: Practice “haunches in” at the walk and trot so that you know you can control your horse’s hips before adding speed and cueing for the lead at the same time.

If your horse is still having trouble with leads after working on “haunches in,” try cueing your horse right before the turn to the short side of the arena. Make sure to cue before the turn and not during the turn. If your horse enters the turn, he’ll actually turn his hips to the outside and he may take the wrong lead as his hips pop out. This is why circling isn’t a great way to teach a horse to pick up a lead. As you pull your horse into the circle, the horse pulls his hip to the outside, he can’t pick up the correct lead, but if you’re going straight then just start to turn, he’s still moving correctly at that moment.

Caption: Cue your horse for the canter just before you turn to help him place his hips correctly to pick up the correct lead.

If the horse will only take one lead, there’s a chance that there’s a physical issue. This is true especially if your horse usually takes the correct lead and suddenly isn’t so willing. If that’s the case, I want to rule out physical issues and have the horse evaluated by a veterinarian or veterinarian who’s also an equine chiropractor. If it’s an old injury, especially on a hind leg, the horse may have learned to compensate and just isn’t as strong when traveling to one direction.


Trotting into the Canter

Cueing can be the culprit again. If you release the horse from the cue at the wrong time, the horse will learn to do whatever he was doing when he got the release. I typically see two types of horses who become afraid of the canter. If the horse becomes afraid to canter, the rider may be reluctant. The rider picks up on the reins or pulls back at the moment of cueing. Even if the rider is reluctant in their mind, the horse may pick up on that.

Other times it is a cueing issue. If you think you’re cueing for the horse to canter and instead he just trots faster and faster and faster, you’re probably releasing the cue at the wrong time. Compliant and trained horses can learn to take the cue to canter as a cue to trot faster. If the horse mistakes the cue and you start riding a fast trot—by posting or by sitting the trot—you are condoning the trot and telling the horse that he’s doing the right thing. Or, the rider stops the horse because he trotted instead of cantered. Once the horse gets a break, he thinks he’s been rewarded and he did the right thing. The horse doesn’t want to canter, he wants to work as little as possible.

If the horse mistakes your cue, make sure that you have a clear cue. If you’re confident of your cue sequence and your horse still trots faster, let him know that isn’t what you’re asking for. Stop him abruptly and immediately recue him for the canter. If he does it again, abruptly slow him down with a stop cue using your seat and reins then immediately ask again. Make sure not to give him a break and keep applying the pressure of the whole cueing process until he gives you the right answer and starts to canter. This is the same training sequence you’d use if you want to alleviate the trot or even a step taken before the horse begins to canter—to teach the stop to canter or walk to canter.

Caption: This young horse had not cantered often and thought a cue to speed up meant to trot more. Notice that I am sitting deeply and not posting with the trot. Soon, he understood and picked up the canter

Note that when the horse began to canter, my hands are forward and low, in front of the saddle horn. This position lets him know that rein pressure won’t mean too much pressure on his mouth when his head moves down into the canter.

Make sure to praise your horse when he picks up on your new, more precise cues.

Avoiding the canter: The horse’s nose dives down with every stride of the canter as he’s lifting his back and hindquarters and stretches his nose down. This happens especially on the first stride when he moves from no impulsion to full impulsion. If you as a rider don’t actively give a release with your reins, with each stride and at the beginning, the horse hits the bit. If you’re even just tense and don’t relax your hands to help the horse get a release of the reins, you can be adding to the problem. If your horse has a lazy demeanor and hits the bit, he takes that as full permission to stop cantering. If your horse is sensitive and nervous, he may hit that bit and get scared and therefore lose trust in you as a rider.

Whether it’s because of a cueing problem or because the horse has felt the bit in his mouth, the answer is the same. As soon as you step into the canter and with every stride of the gait, you need to reach forward and down (not up, that can still hit the horse in the mouth as your horse’s head goes down). If your horse is reluctant to canter –they actually become afraid to canter and throw their heads in the air and run in a panic. When I’m attempting to break that habit, I over exaggerate and reach farther forward than necessary to show the horse that he can trust me.

If you don’t think you can make an exaggerated change to break this habit with your horse, consider asking a more experienced rider work with your horse to show you how the canter can look and to remind the horse that stepping into the canter doesn’t have to mean getting hit in the mouth. You’ll still have to make an exaggerated change when you’re back in the saddle because he knows the difference between riders. You’ll have to focus on fixing yourself, but you’ll get a boost of confidence to see someone else riding your horse and knowing what your horse can do.

Trotting into the canter can also be a problem if you haven’t cantered your horse for a long period of time. If you haven’t cantered recently, your horse might think that your go faster cue just means trot and trot faster. It will take your horse a few times to understand what you’re asking for and it’s important to cue your horse with precision.


Breaking Gait

Once you’re already cantering, it’s the horse’s job to keep doing what you asked for until you tell him to do something different. He should keep cantering and not choose to slow down on his own. However, horses don’t necessarily want to canter around and carry a rider –it’s hard work! Some horses will look for any mistake by the rider and use it as an excuse to stop.

Stopping Saddle Squeaks Logo

Stopping Saddle Squeaks
There’s nothing worse than riding around the arena in a saddle that’s so loud that everyone can hear you coming. The solution is simple. Take some baby powder and sprinkle it between the layers of leather up where the leather meets the tree and also underneath the saddle. It will help with noise and will also help your stirrup fenders spin more easily when you adjust your stirrups.
–Julie Goodnight

Ground-Work Exercises Logo


Ground-Work Exercises

Hone your horse’s manners and your leadership skills over the winter for a better ride in the spring with these tips from top trainer/clinician

For more on how to ground-tie with guidelines from Julie Goodnight, go to


Unless you’re in the Sunbelt, winter means less trail-riding time and more turnout for your horse. Until the ground thaws, you’ll need to keep him focused on you with targeted ground-work exercises.

The more you work with your horse over the winter, the more he’ll be focused on you when it’s time for more saddle time in the spring.

Plus, you’ll keep up your own horsemanship skills and learn to be aware of how your body position and sequencing of cues help your horse to learn quickly and easily. You’ll then be able to teach your horse most anything for great trail rides.

Here, top trainer/clinician Goodnight will first explain how the herd mentality your horse can develop in winter turnout can present training challenges.

Then Goodnight will give you three ground-work exercises to work on throughout the winter to keep your horse looking to you as his herd leader: (1) Practice body awareness; (2) teach the standstill; and (3) teach leading manners.

Goodnight will also provide a rope-halter-tying tip that kids can practice inside this winter.


The Herd Mentality

When your horse is turned out for the winter, he may quickly revert to a herd mentality. In that mode, he’ll follow the herd’s cues, rather than keep tuned in to your leadership.

“You may undermine instead of boosting your leadership if, in the winter, your horse is turned out with his buddies and you only see him at feeding time, or when you step in to rub on him and bring him treats,” says Goodnight.

“It’s not that you’re never going to hug on your horse or love on him, but respect has to come first. Think about how you’re interacting with him every time you’re near him.”

How long does it take a horse to be turned out and become part of the big herd instead of part of your horse-and-human herd of two?

Goodnight says that as horses approach middle age, they may become more herd-bound, but individual horses react differently with more or less time away from work.

To be safe, perform ground work all year long to help keep your horse looking to you for leadership. He’ll continue to be (or will become) a respectful partner who looks for your leadership and permission.


Before You Begin

You can do ground work in a small space — in your barnyard or even inside the barn. You need only a small, fairly level area with good footing.

Outfit your horse in a rope halter and a long training lead with a rope-to-rope connection at the halter. A rope halter better translates your cues than a flat nylon halter does.

Over the winter, do these exercises as often as possible. Once per day is ideal, but once per week or even once per month is much better than not working with your horse at all.


Exercise 1: Practice Body Awareness

This body-awareness exercise helps your horse tune in to your body/sign language, and begin to have more deference for your leadership — and your personal space.

A horse’s spatial awareness is acute — he has a greater appreciation for body/sign language than humans do. It’s your job to mind your position and body language and make sure that you’re aware of your posture and consistent cues.

Step 1. Define your personal space. Every time you’re near your horse, stretch your arms out around you in all directions. That’s your space — space your horse shouldn’t enter without permission.

Free yourself of the need to be in your horse’s space all the time. That’s satisfying for you, but not helpful for your relationship with him. If you enter your horse’s space all the time — kissing and hugging — your horse won’t have a clear idea about your personal boundaries.

While you sometimes want to love on your horse, start with a clear boundary. Only allow that closeness after you have set up a clear expectation of his space and yours.

Step 2. Practice your body language. Practice submissive and more aggressive postures in front of a mirror.

If your shoulders are rounded, your toes are pointed away, and your eyes are diverted, you’ll appear unthreatening to your horse.

If your shoulders are up, your chest is puffed, your chin is high, and you look straight at your horse, he’ll take that as an aggressive or admonishing posture.

Match your body language to the situation; always be aware of when and how you’re moving.

Adopt less threatening body language if you want to give your horse a break and not be reactive to your every move (or help him know you’re not an aggressor when you’re trying to catch him).

Appear active and confident when you get ready to move with your horse.


Exercise 2: Teach the Standstill

When you get back in the saddle this spring, you’ll want to know that your horse will stand still. This is an important trail skill.

You’ll want your horse to stand still for mounting, and in case you need to hop off to help another rider. The standstill also is the basis for learning to ground-tie.

Learning to stand still also reminds your horse to focus on you and get in the habit of reacting to your cues, rather than looking for something else to focus on — and possibly spook at.

Your horse needs to look at you and think before making a move. Teach this mind-set on the ground, and this lesson will carry over to your under-saddle time in the spring.

Add the command “whoa,” and you’ll teach your horse to stop and focus on you no matter where you are.

When you’re on the trail, this command will solidify your horse’s ability to focus on you. If he does spook when you’re riding, he’ll know that “whoa” means “stop now.” You’ll program in a command that may keep him from running off. Instead, he’ll focus on you.

Note: If your horse has been confined, start with another exercise that allows him move around. If he’s turned out all day, this is a great place to start.

Step 1. Place your horse. Ask your horse to stand still like a statue and not move a hoof without your permission. Place him where you’d like him to stand, then turn, and face him. Avoid standing too close. You don’t want to hold him still; you want him to know that he must listen and choose to stand still.

Step 2. Move away. Stand about six feet away, and point your toes toward his left shoulder. Make sure you’re not standing directly in front of him, but just off to the left side of his body.

Step 3. Correct him. If your horse moves a hoof or turns his head so that his nose passes his shoulders, issue an immediate correction by sending a wave through the lead rope so that it puts pressure on the rope halter. Use the amount of pressure needed to get his attention. Some horses need only a small movement of the rope to remind him to listen; others need more pressure.

Your horse will quickly learn that every time he moves a foot without your authorization, he’ll get in trouble. He should learn this lesson quickly, in the very first session, if your timing and corrections are effective.

Step 4. Heighten the challenge. When your horse obeys, heighten the challenge. Step farther and farther away. Eventually, lay the middle of the rope on the ground while you hold the end. Even if you only ask him to stand for 30 seconds, you’ll strengthen your relationship as your horse looks to you to know what to do and how to act.

Step 5. Teach the ground-tie. When your horse is listening well, lay down the rope, and teach him to stand still with the rope on the ground. Work up to 10 to 15 minutes of practice a day, and you’ll have a horse who can successfully ground-tie before spring.

Step 6. Increase the challenge further. Ask your horse to stand still when he’s antsy, such as before it’s time for turnout or when other horses are moving into the barn to eat. He needs to listen to you no matter what the horse herd is doing around him. When he knows the lesson, it won’t matter how much energy he has — he’ll stand still when asked.


Exercise 3: Teach Leading Manners

Leading manners are paramount on the trail. You might find yourself riding in an uncontrollable environment and need to dismount. You might need to dismount, and lead your horse across difficult terrain. You might need to pony your horse.

If your horse will obediently follow you when you lead him, you’ll likely both stay safe on the trail, even a narrow one carved into a sheer cliff.

With this exercise, sequence your cues, so that you always do the same thing in the same order, step-by-step: Look up, lean your shoulders forward; move your feet; pull on the lead, if necessary.

When you sequence your aids, your horse will quickly learn and respond. You’ll carry the leadership role that you’ll develop practicing this exercise into your spring riding.

Here’s how to apply this sequencing to teaching your horse how to maintain a respectful position as you lead him.

Step 1. Gain his focus. You’ll first need to teach your horse to focus on your movements and maintain a position on your side, regardless of your speed and direction. He’ll need to learn to stay in the correct position and within the acceptable boundaries. He shouldn’t move into your space or ahead of you. To gain his focus, move deliberately, and be consistent with your body language.

Step 2. Walk on. To initiate the walk, lean your shoulders forward; this tells your horse you’re about to move. Then move your feet, and say “Walk on!” or cluck to him. Give him these cues before you pull on the lead.

Step 3. Apply lead-rope pressure. If your horse doesn’t walk when you give him the above cues, reinforce them with lead-rope pressure. Lean your body weight into the rope if necessary.

Step 4. Release lead-rope pressure. As soon as your horse takes one step forward, release the lead-rope pressure, and continue walking. Hold the lead loosely so that he learns to follow your body language without expecting a pull. You want to teach him to move with you, not depend on constant lead-rope pressure.

Step 5. Correct him, if necessary. As you walk your horse, don’t let his nose move past your lead hand, and definitely don’t let his shoulder move past yours. If he crosses the boundary, snap back hard on the lead rope, turn around and face him, stomp your feet, flap your arms and back him up while admonishing him with your voice.

Use the amount of pressure that causes your horse to think: What did I do wrong? What can I do so that doesn’t happen again?

Some horses may only need you to turn and look at him sternly; other horses may need more pressure. If your horse falls into the latter category, stop, turn, and back him up a few steps with authority.

If you use enough pressure and good timing, your horse will very quickly learn the precise place he should be. Soon, he’ll learn that the moment you lean forward, he better be ready to move.

Tip: If you find yourself constantly pulling or initiating a correction multiple times, check to make sure your corrections are consistent. Slightly escalate the pressure, and add a verbal admonishment.

Step 6. Don’t hold him back. Don’t pull back on the lead rope to hold your horse back. If you pull on the lead all the time, he’ll forever rely on that pressure to tell him where to be. Instead, give him the responsibility to keep himself in the proper place, using the correction outlined in Step 4.

Step 7. Regulate his speed. If your horse lags behind your walking pace, change your body language. When you move your shoulders forward then move your feet, your horse should step with you. If you have to also pull on the lead rope, bring your arms in close to your body and lean forward hard on the rope.

If you lean forward quickly as a correction, not as a constant pull, you’ll teach your horse to pay attention to the body language that came first instead of waiting for the pull.

Tip: Avoid turning and swatting your horse with the end of the lead rope to propel him forward. This action can confuse him, because you’re actually turning around and changing your direction. Simply continue the correction outlined in Step 4.

Step 8. Change direction. At the walk, ask for a change of direction. To turn, simply walk toward the direction you want to go. Be sure to move your horse away from you and out of your space; don’t pull him toward you.

If your horse doesn’t move, pick up your hands, stomp your feet and defend your space by waving your hands just behind your horse’s eye without touching him.

Step 9. Ask for the trot. To pick up the trot, lean your shoulders forward, then start trotting while saying “Trot!” If he starts to trot, praise him. Then go back down to the walk, and ask for the trot again. Just trot straight lines; don’t trot around turns.

Step 10. Change it up. Escalate the challenge by changing speeds, turning, then turning at different speeds and degrees. Soon, you’ll be able to walk in all directions with little to no pressure on the lead rope and only with your body language.

Step 11. Use just a neck rope. If your horse leads well with the halter and lead rope, try working with him in a safe, enclosed area with just a neck rope. With this gear, you can test your horse’s obedience while maintaining a way to correct him, if needed. [BUG]


For more training tips from Julie Goodnight, and to access her free online library, go to


For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from





How to Tie a Rope Halter fasten/put on? Does this sound like you are going to make a rope halter from scratch?

Rope halters are great training tools, but unlike nylon and leather halters, you need to tie them onto your horse’s head. This can be a challenge for anyone.

Julie Goodnight says she often sees rope halters tied with an incorrect knot. She also sees halters with the tail aimed toward the horse’s eye instead of his rear end.

Practice tying a rope halter correctly, so when you catch your horse, you can secure him quickly and get the knot undone easily. A correctly adjusted and tied halter will also translate your lead-rope cues more precisely to your horse than a sloppy halter will

Practice haltering a stuffed horse, or have a friend hold the halter as if it were on your horse’s head.

Here’s how to tie the halter knot:

> Adjust the halter so that the throat knot is all the way up to the horse’s throat.

> Bring the length that comes down from the crownpiece (the part that lies behind your horse’s ears) down through the halter’s loop on the left-hand side of his face.

> Tie this length around the bottom part of the loop, making a figure-eight.

> Make sure the excess length is pointed toward your horse’s tail.

> Watch Goodnight tie a rope halter on this video:

My Horse Goes Where He Wants To Go Logo

Does your horse always cut the corners in the arena? Does he veer around little obstacles—such as puddles—even though you told him to go straight through? Do your circles become smaller and smaller as you ride, or are they oval instead of round? Are you constantly begging your horse to go back to the rail so that he ends up counter-bent with his nose to the rail and his hip to the middle? Does your horse dart into a turn right after you jump—instead of going straight until you ask him for a turn?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse; it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and disobedient behavior then give you steps to take with your horse so that he goes obediently in the direction you dictate. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that acts like a champ and respects your authority.

The Reason
Riding a horse when you’re constantly struggling for authority is not fun and will lead to an increasingly disobedient horse. Furthermore, if you cannot control your horse’s direction and speed (see last month’s article about controlling your horse’s speed as you approach the gate) you’re clearly not the one in charge, leaving your horse with the authority to make decisions with which you may not agree.

To horses, authority (or dominance) is black in white. You’re either in charge of him or he is in charge of you. If you’re the absolute authority figure in his eyes, he’ll follow your directives without question. If you find yourself compromising or negotiating with your horse on issues like what direction he goes or how fast he
gets there, then you’re compromising your authority.

Often, us easy-to-get-along-with humans will let our horses get away with little things like cutting corners and dodging around mud puddles, instead of pushing the point and making him do exactly what we asked. From the horse’s point of view, this simply means that you do not have absolute authority and gives him license to do what he wants. Eventually, his behavior will deteriorate to downright refusal, being barn sour and even running off with you.

The Solution
First, realize that your horse’s “problem” stems from your lack of authority. It’s time to take charge. Your horse is taking unauthorized actions—testing you to see who commands the ship and sets the course. Any variance to the charted course that goes unanswered is further evidence that you’re not in charge.

Horses are trained to know that once they’re told to do something, they should keep it up until the trainer gives a new direction. Once I tell the horse to trot in a certain direction, he should continue trotting, at that speed and in that direction, until I tell him to speed up, slow down or turn. I should not have to tell him every stride to keep trotting and I should not have to constantly correct his direction. He should continue doing whatever I told him until I have told him to stop. If you’ve set a different precedence with your horse, it’s time to make a change.

If your horse looks up to you as the leader—the captain of the ship—then he’ll not question you or argue with your directives. To become the absolute authority figure in your horse’s eyes you’ll have to become 100% diligent about his obedience under saddle. The Captain does not command a course to his first mate, only to have him argue and then settle on a compromise.

Keep your eyes always focused ahead to the exact direction you intend to go and then ride there with precision. If you feel your horse vary in direction or speed, correct him immediately. To correct his direction, first make sure his nose is pointed in the direction you want to go then make sure his body follows, using your hands and legs as reinforcement.

When going in a circle or around the arena, rather than turn his nose toward the outside (thus allowing his body to drift inward), lift up and in with your inside rein, using the ‘indirect rein in front of the withers.’ To apply this rein aid, you’ll turn your inside hand, like you’re turning a key in the door, so that your pinkie comes in and up, thus creating an upward diagonal pull on the rein. Open your outside hand out to the side to encourage his shoulder to move in that direction. The indirect rein in front of the withers moves the horse’s shoulder away from the rein aid. Your inside leg at the girth or at the ribcage will encourage him to move his body with his shoulder. That way he’ll be bent in the direction of the turn but be moving his body to the outside, or opening the circle.

If you’re going in a straight line and your horse veers off course, you’ll need to correct it immediately—before he has completed the first unauthorized step. If he veers left, simply lift your left hand up (not back), in an effort to block the movement of his shoulder. At the same time, close your left leg on the horse—in the middle position, right where it normally hangs—to move his ribcage back on the trajectory you asked him for.

If you find that you’ve to constantly correct your horse, it means that either you’re not correcting him consistently or you’re not using enough pressure to motivate him to change. Remember that he is being disobedient when he makes an unauthorized decision like changing directions or speed. Don’t be afraid to increase the pressure of the correction (spank him with the reins, boot him on the shoulder with your foot, bounce your leg hard off his ribs) so that he is motivated to change and so that he has a reason to not want to get in trouble again.

It will help to challenge your horse on this subject, especially when you first mount. If you’re riding in an arena, make him go deep into the corners or even go straight into the corner, stop and turn around and go the other way. Don’t let him learn to make assumptions about where you’re going. He should only turn around the corner of the arena if you cue him to; and you should cue him to turn at each corner as you proceed around the arena.

If you’re riding out on the trail, point him right toward that mud puddle and make him walk right through the middle. Do not compromise—be the absolute authority figure and insist that he walk right through the middle. As you walk down the trail, focus on straightness and apply small corrections with your legs and hands anytime any part of his body veers. And by all means, insist that he keep his nose right in front of his chest—no looking around.

Other very useful training exercises can be utilized by putting some markers in your arena or riding area. Put a cone in the middle of each short end, so that you can walk in a straight line down the center from cone to cone. You’ll be surprised at how difficult it’s to keep your horse on a perfectly straight line without the guidance of the fence. This simple little exercise will show you a lot about how obedient and responsive your horse is and will show your horse that you mean what you say and that you expect him to do exactly as you say.

Once your horse understands that he does not have a say in the matter and that you’ll be diligent and persistent, he’ll cease the arguments and compromise and simply go where you say. What he needs most is your leadership and consistency.