Horses are Survivors Logo

By Julie Goodnight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Calm

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

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

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

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

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

The Horse-Human Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Spurs Logo

Question: Dear Julie,
My understanding is that spurs are to be used to back up a request if the horse is not responding or to make a cue more clear as in lateral work. I was watching one of Julie’s DVD’s regarding the 3 positions of the use of the leg. It is hard for me to picture how to not have the spur contact the horse, especially in the most forward position when cueing with one’s leg. In general, should leg cues be given with the inside of the calf to avoid hitting the horse with the spur rather than turning the heel inward?
Mariposa CA

Answer: Casey, Thank you for your well-thought out question. The use of spurs has become a controversial subject and maybe a topic that would be good for a discussion on my blog. Like any training aid, spurs can be used correctly and incorrectly. But just like with bits, whether they are ultimately harsh or gentle for the horse is ultimately up to the rider.
Spurs have been used for millennium in the training of horses and throughout that time there have been those that have brutalized horses with misuse of the spur. But the spur has also been used throughout time as a high level training aid to help motivate the horse to perform difficult maneuvers and reach a higher level in his training.
Artificial aids (manmade items that aid in controlling the horse, like the spur, whip and tie-downs or martingales) should be used to reinforce the natural aids (seat, legs, hands, voice); in the case of the spur, it should only be used to reinforce the leg aid. I am not a fan of using the spur on lazy horses to make them go—I’d rather see these riders use a crop. Incorrect use of the spur could be inhumane use or it could be using the spur as a cue rather than as the reinforcement.
A horse is said to be “spur trained” when he has been ridden by a rider that uses a touch of the spur as the cue, instead of using the natural aid first. I have ridden many horses that are trained this way and if you do not have spurs on, it is as if they are deaf to any cue. You don’t have to use the spur hard on them; they just have to know you have them on. Not the kind of horse I like to ride—but there are enough of them out there that I have become trained to always bring my spurs with me to expos, where I’ll be riding an unknown horse in my demos, and don’t have time to teach him to listen to my leg.
The primary part of your leg that you should use for cueing the horse to move is the inside of your calf first, then your Achilles area, and then finally the spur if the horse is not responding. It is never correct for your heel to come up to cue a horse for anything—whether you have spurs on or not. Your lower leg should always remain long, with your heel down and the spur well away from your horse’s sides, whether you are using the leg in the forward, middle or backward position. A rider that is competent enough to use spurs should be able to ride through any circumstance without ever accidentally touching the horse with the spur. Unless and until the rider has reached this high level of riding, spurs should not be used.
Most of the time I wear spurs when I ride my horse, but rarely would I ever touch him with them and I am not hostage to them—he’ll work just fine without. If the spur is used to reinforce a leg aid, my calf was used first, then a stronger (lower) leg aid; about 99% of the time, that’s more than I need to get a good response from my horse. If I didn’t, I might touch him lightly with the spur as a reminder that I can apply more pressure to motivate him to work harder if I need to. If he still is not responding with enough effort, I may bump him with the spur. But each time I cue the horse again, I’ll always go back to the lightest possible leg aid, high up in my calf.
When aids are consistently sequenced from light to firm, the horse will learn to respond to the lightest aid because he knows the reinforcement will come if he doesn’t. That is why many trainers, particularly those training high-level performance horses, always wear spurs—you never know when a horse might need a little reminder to respond to a light leg aid. And since they have 100% control of the spur, it is never applied haphazardly or inadvertently.
To me, the spur should not be used as an aid to make a lazy horse go faster, but to achieve high levels of performance. I am more likely to use a spur on a not-lazy horse. Using the spur on a lazy horse may end up training him to only respond to the spur. Also, since most lazy horses are insensitive, they may learn to ignore the spur just as much as they ignore the rider’s leg. And since these insensitive and lazy horses are more likely to be beginner’s horses, the use of the spur is questionable because the rider has inadequate skill.
For the lazy horse, I’d rather see the rider use a crop and give the horse a few spankings to reinforce the leg aids. Always ask the horse to move forward with a light leg aid (combined with a shift of your weight forward and a release of the reins); if he does not respond, put your reins in one hand and give him a sharp spank with the stick right where you cued him with your leg. He will likely leap forward (make sure you hold on and don’t snatch him in the mouth for doing something you told him to do) and the next time you ask politely, he should march off enthusiastically without an argument (if you used enough pressure with the spank). Make sure you don’t jerk back on the reins as you spank, inadvertently pulling back on the reins when you want him to go.
As you advance to doing lateral work, you may find that your horse is not as responsive to your leg aids, now that what you are asking of him requires more effort on his part. The more effort that is required of the horse to comply with what you are asking of him, the longer it takes to train that response and the more pressure is required to motivate him.
As you begin lateral work with a horse, you are at the beginning stages of higher performance and you should be riding at an advanced level; you may find you need spurs. But still, the correct way to use the spur is only as reinforcement, after applying the leg aid with increasing pressure first. Then give the horse a warning that the spur is coming, followed by a bump of the spur if needed. But find the amount of pressure that motivates the horse to respond to the lighter leg aid and make sure you have good timing with your correction.
Be careful not to become dependent on the spur—if you have to use it every time you ask the horse for lateral movement, you may not be using it correctly. Either you are not using enough pressure to motivate the horse to try harder, or you may not be using the right timing with the correction from the spur. For the horse to associate the bump of the spur with the initial light leg aid, the correction with the spur must follow within three second of the initial cue—and the sooner the better.
Spurs should never be used inhumanely—that’s brutal and poor horsemanship. At no time should there ever be any evidence after riding that a spur was used on the horse. If there is swelling, welts, raw skin or blood or if the horse flinches when being touched, it is an indication that the spur has been abused by the rider. It is highly likely the horse has become resistant because he is totally confused over what the rider is asking or the rider is demanding more than the horse is capable of giving.
There’s lots more articles in my Training Library that relates in some way or another to this question and I have two riding videos that would help clarify the use of the natural aids and also lateral movements and more advanced maneuvers. They are Volume 2: Communication and Control and Volume 5: Refinement and Collection, in my Principles of Riding series.
Good riding!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host

My Horse Spooks At Traffic Logo

Dear Julie,
I rescued a Standardbred mare two years ago. She was badly abused by her previous owner and has shown some residual signs of fear. The problem that I now have with her is I find she can be very stressed in traffic. I try not to ride her to close to the road but I find some cars scare her no matter where we are. We also have to pass some traffic to get to trails and the main riding area. I try to talk to her calmly to relax her but that only works sometimes. I love her to bits but it scares me because I don’t want her to get spooked and have her get hit by a car. I don’t want to get hurt, either. What can I do?
Traffic Jam

Dear Traffic Jam,
To desensitize your horse to traffic, you will have to be very supportive of her and reassure her constantly. It’s difficult to tell what a once-abused horse may have experienced in or around traffic. To help erase the fearful memories, you’ll need to be a calm and supportive leader—directing her every step and letting her know she’s safe in any environment. It sounds like you are making some good progress already if she is sometimes accepting traffic. Here are a few more guidelines:

Begin by working on the ground in the spook-causing area. You’ll be safer on the ground and can be confident there, too. Make sure to outfit your horse in a rope halter with a long training lead attached—so that you can control her movements and let her know she can’t get away while also making sure you have room to get out of her way. Work on your advance and retreat skills. Ask a friend to drive up to you and your mare slowly as you work on despooking your horse to vehicles. I like to teach spooky horses to face their fear and as long as they face it, they can stop and relax–with lots of reassurance from me. The cardinal rule is that when the horse stops and faces something (instead of spinning and bolting), she gets a reward. She gets a rub on the neck and gets to stop and relax. Then I will gently encourage the horse to move toward whatever she is afraid of—moving one step at a time and stopping in between each step (so that I remain in control, issuing the orders) and taking time to reward.

This eventually becomes a game to the horse and he loves to work for the reward. He gets the ultimate reward when he will actually walk all the way up to the scary object and reach out and touch it with his nose.

You’ll work with a technique called “Advance and Retreat” (you can find more about this training technique at when clicking on “Training Library). With any scary situation, lead your horse near the frightening place. When she turns to look at the scary thing and is calm and relaxed, praise her. When she appears tense, make her work. As soon as she shows signs of relaxation, you can let her stop. After many repetitions, she’ll learn that being relaxed is the easy solution. Being tense doesn’t make the stimulus go away. Make sure you’re not praising your horse for being tense. Many people train their horses to be fearful and tense when they speak softly and rub their horses at the moment of highest tension. Save your praise for the moments you see your horse’s head drop, or her muscles relax.

When you’re ready to ride, do so in the company of a well-seasoned horse and rider. Make sure the other horse is confident around traffic. Horses are programmed to act like the horses around them so a good role model for her will be helpful. Always turn her to face the oncoming traffic so that she can see it coming during your ride. Give her lots of reassurance by petting her and soothing her with your voice before she reacts or feels tense. Sometimes it is better to allow the horse to keep walking rather than hold her still. Horses sometimes need to be able to move their feet when they are frightened. But do not let her break into a trot.

Go to the new “Training Library” on to read the article called “Advance and Retreat” that talks about a process for desensitizing a horse to a frightening stimulus. Most of all, she needs your confidence and leadership.
For a wealth of information on this and many other topics and to purchase educational videos and training equipment, visit my website,

Leg-Sensitive Horse Logo

Leg-sensitive Horse
Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have been given a 12 year old gelding that I am very much attached to and enjoy riding. The problem is that he has had some past abuse issues and under saddle he is a nervous wreck. On a trail ride, he will mainly jig the whole ride, like he wants to run. However, he is not a ‘hot’ horse by nature. It seems he has been “trained” or it seems more like abused to the point of acting this way. We have come a long way in respects to ground manners (he is now an angel when it comes to handling) and even have some progress under saddle, as he is not bolting anymore. He is highly sensitive to leg pressure (actually, he is highly sensitive to everything), to the point that I only ride with my weight because leg pressure sends him shooting off into a tizzy. However, when I am on the ground with him and I put pressure on his side with my hands (to ask him to step sideways or move over), I get zero reaction. I would like to teach him to yield to my legs and bend, eventually going into side passing and pivots. I would also like to teach him to go on the bit rather than behind it. (His old bolting habit was to go behind the bit and run.) So far, asking him with my seat and legs down into the bit has not worked. In fact, this results in a hyper, hopping mess of a nervous horse. I ride in a loose ring snaffle and I really stay off his mouth when I ride (Western horse, light to no contact). He is not very responsive to this bit and responds better to weight in respects to stopping when working in an arena. (He responds to the tiniest half-halt) On trail, I have to haul on him to stop him much of the time. I need suggestions as to what I should do next? I am continually working on relaxation under saddle using half halts. Also, how do I teach a calm-down cue under saddle?

Thanks so much for some advice!

Answer: There are quite a few questions here, but I’ll give it a crack to try and suggest some solutions to your problems. First, I should say that it sounds like you have made a lot of progress with this horse, so you should feel good about that and continue on whatever path you have been on to this point. Secondly, let me say that I learned a long time ago that it’s very difficult to make a diagnosis and recommendations on horses when I am not actually seeing your horse’s behavior. I have always found that the rider’s interpretation of what is happening and what he or she is actually doing is not always the same as what I might observe if I were there in person. But what I’ll do is answer your question in terms of what I most commonly see when people are dealing with issues such as you describe.

First, I’ll address the jigging on the trail. Most often, when your horse jigs, the rider picks up on the reins to make him stop, but then does not release the reins (or only releases minutely) the instance your horse walks. And/or the rider does not trust your horse to walk and so keeps hold of the reins and pretty soon your horse is jigging because he is anxious about his mouth because the rider is holding the reins too tight. Also, in anticipation of the jig, the rider is typically perched forward in a tense position, with her center of gravity in front of your horse and your horse associates this position with trotting. At this point, it’s a chicken or egg scenario and the rider thinks she is holding the reins tight because your horse is jigging and your horse thinks he is jigging because the rider is holding the reins too tight.

The solution that I have always had success with is to pick up high on the reins (sitting back on your pockets at the same time) when he breaks into the trot, and the instant your horse walks, drop your hands dramatically to your horse’s neck with a very loose rein, your hands actually laying on your horse’s neck so he can feel them. He may only walk a step or two before he trots again, then pick up and release dramatically (the rein drop has to be very dramatic so that your horse notices). Soon he will associate walking with a totally loose rein and that is what he wants (that is what any horse wants). Also, it really helps to concentrate on the walk rhythm and really sit down on him hard and make sure you’re not tensing in your seat in anticipation of your horse breaking into trot. Often in this situation, people tense in their seat thinking that your horse is going to break into trot and pretty soon, your horse thinks he is supposed to be trotting because he feels the rider’s weight shifting forward. So make sure you’re sitting well back on your seat bones with loose and relaxed joints. Trust your horse to walk on a loose rein. If you feel him tense up like he might trot, just sit relaxed. Do not correct him unless he actually breaks into a trot. That way he learns to trust you too and he learns that he is only corrected if he actually trots. Don’t get sucked into the vicious cycle of you pulling all the time and him jigging all the time.

Your horse sounds very sensitive. Another way of describing a “hot blooded” horse is one that is highly sensitive to environmental stimuli. That means ALL stimuli (sight, sounds, smells, touch, weather, movements, etc.). With horses that are sensitive to leg pressure, the temptation is to always brace your leg out away from their sides to keep your leg off them. This is the worst thing that you can do for two reasons. One, when you do use your leg, it feels like a real jolt to him (it requires a big movement of the leg). Secondly, when you brace your leg it causes you to tense and that leads to jerky motions on your part, which will make a sensitive horse reactive to the leg. Keep your legs relaxed and soft and always in close contact to your horse’s sides. This will not only help desensitize him to leg contact but also remove the shock factor that happens when the leg is held off his sides. Again, make sure that you’re sitting well back on your horse and not perching forward in anticipation of his forward movement. This is very common but the result is that your horse wants to move more forward when your weight is forward, in an effort to get back under your center of gravity. So sit back on your pockets and down on your horse’s back and keep your legs relaxed and close to his sides.

If your horse is going behind the bit, it’s likely related to all the other problems and stems from your horse being pulled on too much. Forward or sensitive horses fall into this trap easily. Because the riders are less than confident on them, they tend to sit tense (forward) and clutch on the reins. Which increases your horse’s anxiety (from the pressure on his mouth) and the tense position makes your horse want to move more forward. Horses are herd animals and as such, when their rider is tense, they will tense. Herd animals are programmed to act like the animals around them. So, before your horse can learn to respond properly to the bit, he needs to learn to trust the rider and work on a loose rein (way loose). I would spend a lot of time with this horse working him on a loose rein with a low and level frame. Once he works steady and calm in this frame, only then would I ask him to come up onto the bit, with the lightest amount of contact possible. Contact is contact, whether it’s one ounce or ten pounds in your hands. A very sensitive horse will likely only tolerate very light contact. I might try riding your horse in a rope halter, a bosal or a bitless bridle at first to get him to relax and accept contact without pressure on his mouth. When you’re ready to ride on contact with a bit, you may want to try a fixed ring snaffle, such as a D-ring, egg-butt or full cheek. These bits make it a little easier for your horse to balance on the contact than a loose ring snaffle does.

For a calm-down cue with hot horses, I like to use two techniques. First teach your horse to lower his head on command both from the ground and mounted. A horse has to relax when his head is down low. There are many techniques for doing this. Light pressure on the poll will teach your horse to drop his head from the ground (be sure to release the pressure at the first hint of a drop). The rope halter is an especially useful tool for teaching a horse to drop his head. The first few inches of head-drop may be tough to get but after that he will make big drops all the way to the ground. Be sure to release the pressure immediately and lavish praise on your horse when he drops so that he becomes addicted to this calm state. Once your horse learns this from the ground, it’s much easier to do it from the saddle. Teach him a rein cue for a head drop. Lift up lightly on one rein (make sure the other rein is totally loose) and wait until your horse drops his head slightly to release. Be sure to drop your hand as he drops his head so that he does not hit the bit and punish himself for dropping his head. Then go through the same process of release and reward so that he learns to drop it all the way.

The second calm down cue would be the one-rein stop and disengagement of the hindquarters. Disengagement happens when your horse crosses his hind legs and all forward motion ceases. Disengagement takes away your horse’s flight response and therefore puts him in a submissive and calm state of mind (even if only for a moment). To do this, lift the rein up toward your opposite shoulder so that it’s an upward, diagonal pull (it’s essential the other rein is loose). Pull slowly and softly, this is not intended to be a harsh or quick movement. Hold the rein up until you feel his hindquarters disengage and then drop the rein all the way down to your horse’s neck and he should stop. If not, repeat. So every time your horse gets squirrelly, pick up on the one rein until your horse disengages and stops. Soon, your horse will begin to slow and relax when you just begin to lift one rein. The one rein stop is far superior to pulling on both reins, which causes your horse to stiffen his neck and jaw and lean into the pressure.

It’s sad but true that many horses that have been trained using brutal and relentless training methods, have terrible emotional baggage when being ridden. Even if those techniques are no longer used. Imagine what it’s like for a horse to be constantly criticized and tortured with inhumane apparatus, day in and day out. He will learn to do what he needs to do in order to survive this treatment, but he will be emotionally scared, possibly for the rest of his life. Be understanding and patient and try to make his training as drastically different as you can, using as little in the way of artificial aids as possible. Consider some of these ideas and they may help you make even more dramatic progress with your horse. Good luck and let me know how it goes!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician