Horse Illustrated – Julie Goodnight Q & A

JulieGoodnight.com 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, JulieGoodnight.com

Feeding Frenzy

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Dear Julie,
I have just taken in two mares, ages 27 and 20. Both were well trained as performance horses in their youth, but have recently been neglected and poorly fed (pastured on 140 acres and left to fend for themselves). The older mare is smaller, but is the alpha. She’s very skinny right now. At feeding time she becomes aggressive toward the younger mare—charging around her feeding area. The two mares are in separate areas, but the older mare is out of control until there’s something in her bucket. When she has her food, she settles down for a bit. Then when she’s finished, she attempts to ram into the other feeding area and to make the other mare (who’s a much slower eater) nervously leave her food.
Fed Up, via e-mail

Dear Fed Up,

Feeding is an anxious time for domesticated horses–food is a resource that determines which horses are dominant in the herd. If your horses have been recently deprived of food, their anxiety over feed is probably even greater than usual—and much greater than it would have been in the wild.

To illustrate the point a little more, let’s look at how horses act in the wild and how those conditions change in our pastures and paddocks. In the wild, horses eat all the time–grazing up to 20 hours a day. They eat a little and walk a little and will sometimes cover as much as 20 miles in a day to find good forage and water. In domestication and confinement we have drastically changed these eating habits to give them two lump sums of very rich food. Domesticated horses typically gobble up their rations in an hour or less, leaving the rest of the day to stand around and wonder when they get to eat again. Horses can get very frustrated and anxious at feed time because they have gone so long without eating and because the food comes to them without them having to work to get it. This explains why bad behaviors tend to develop around feed time.

Your older mare is probably reacting to this natural feed-time stress. Her dominance and recent deprivation are likely compounding to create very visible and agitated behaviors. Aggression at feed time is often related to dominant behavior. The dominant horse in the herd controls the resources of the herd (food, water, shelter) and even the other horses. Controlling the resources of the herd is one of two major factors that determine a horse’s dominance (the other factor is controlling the space of the subordinate horse).

At feeding time, when a horse displays aggressive behavior, it is in an attempt to take away the food from a subordinate and thus reinstate her own dominance. Horse owners often train horses to be dominant and aggressive at feed time by feeding a horse when she is displaying aggressive behavior. In the horse’s mind, she thinks she took the food away from you and therefore you must be subordinate. (Tip: this is why hand feeding treats isn’t a good idea. See Communicating Clearly with Julie Goodnight “Paw Power” in the previous issue.)

At my ranch, the feeders are under strict orders not to feed any horse that is displaying aggressive or unwanted behavior. When the feeders are approaching the pens or stalls with feed, the horses are expected to back up and wait patiently and politely for their food. If we have a horse that is displaying aggressive behavior, we will use a stick or rope to wave at the horse and back him away from the food. Once the horse has backed-off and is showing respectful behavior, we will drop the feed in and walk away. This insures that the horse does not think he is taking away the food from you and keeps him in a subordinate frame of mind.

In your situation, your older mare is frantic because the natural order is upset. If she is dominant, she should be eating first. That is a fundamental rule of herd behavior. I would suggest that you separate the horses even more. Make sure they can’t see each other while eating. Also make sure to feed the more dominant horse first. You’ll be respecting the horse’s natural behavior and herd instincts.

To recap: make sure your horse’s aggressive antics aren’t aimed at you and that she doesn’t think she is taking away food from you. Second, do not reward the horse with feed when she is displaying unwanted behavior. Be patient and wait until she is acting in a desirable way and then give her the feed.

Until next time,
Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

Teach Your Horse To Slow Down

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Speed Demon: Teach your horse to slow down on command

Dear Julie,
My 12-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse is always in a hurry—even to get around the arena! I’m always pulling back on her mouth to slow her down, but she speeds up again right away. We’re in a constant battle. My friend suggested I use a stronger bit, but I hate the thought of putting even more pressure on her mouth. What can I do to help her slow down so we can both have a relaxed and peaceful ride?
Searching for Slow

Dear Searching,
Sometimes it seems like there are only two kinds of horses in this world: horses with too much go and horses with too much whoa. In the overall scheme of things, a slow horse is easier to fix than a fast one, but there are some important things to know about slowing down your fast horse.
Since speediness is related to the horse’s flight response, it’s safe to assume that the speed demons are sensitive horses; they’re often anxious. They just have that wound up temperament—just like a person who’s prone to worrying. If you can show your horse a better way to be—he’ll gladly relax and slow down.

Because being speedy has to do with his overall temperament, a stronger bit probably won’t help and may make matters worse. When your horse feels the increased pressure on his mouth, he may become even more anxious. And guess what horses do when they become anxious? Speed up! That’s the flight response by definition. In the wild, a horse would flee the scene if he felt insecure or worried. Under saddle, your horse speeds up and attempts to avoid the worrisome experience.

Many riders don’t know what to do with their speed demons—so they pull back on their horses’ mouths. It sounds like this is the frustration you’re explaining. When your horse is speedy, you ride with the reins tight all of the time—never giving your horse slack. In essence, it’s like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brakes. Your horse is already to accelerate and—although you think you’re telling him to slow down—he hasn’t felt a release (what he needs to experience in order to learn another way) to tell him to do anything but keep going at his current speed. If the release never comes (even if it’s only momentary when he slows down at the tiniest of increments), he’ll never learn the right response. This fear-causing scenario may cause you to pull back more and your horse to speed up even more. You may also be inadvertently cueing your horse to go faster if your body becomes tense and you lean forward to pull harder on the reins. Your body tells your horse to go-go-go while you think you’re telling him to stop. Volume two in my Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD series explains how your weight/center of gravity cues your horse and rates your speed.

And let’s think about the mechanics of what happens in your horse’s mouth when you get into this pulling fest. Even with no pressure on the reins, it’s not pleasant for your horse to have a metal bar in his mouth. Any pull on the reins brings uncomfortable pressure. I like to empathize with the horse by thinking what it’s like to have x-rays of my teeth taken at the dentist. The slightest pressure on my gums or roof of my mouth with that little cardboard piece of film makes me cringe. Keep in mind that horses have nerves in their lips, gums and palate just like we do and the pressure can be sharp and may come without any warning. Some horses tolerate pressure on their mouths better than others. For a sensitive, anxious horse, more pressure on the mouth makes him more anxious and therefore faster.

The correction: When I work with “speed demon” horses, I start by placing a milder bit in his mouth and riding with a loose rein. You’d be surprised how many horses will be cured—slowing down immediately—with those two simple steps. If you’ve become fearful of your horse and going fast, you may ask an experienced horse person or local trainer for help during this initial step.

If a horse is still speedy, I teach him that slow is good. When he slows down, he’ll get the release he’s looking for. Here’s how:

1. For this exercise, work in an enclosed arena and outfit your horse in a mild snaffle with a nice long rein (a single-loop rope rein works well for this exercise, see www.juliegoodnight.com for the recreational rein I designed). Keep in mind that the worst thing you can do is pull back with two reins at the same time. That makes a speedy horse brace his neck, lean into the pressure and go faster.

2. Start by walking your horse on a totally loose rein. There should be a huge loop in the reins and your knuckles should be down on the horse’s neck (there must be a dramatic difference between contact and loose rein so he can figure it out). If he won’t walk with his head down on a loose rein, continue to practice the rest of the exercise at the walk until he lowers his head and shows you that he understands that he’ll get a release when he’s slow and relaxed.
When your knuckles are in contact with the horse’s neck, he’ll always relax because he knows you can’t pull on his mouth as long as your hands are on his neck. He’ll learn to modify his behavior in any way if it makes you put your knuckles on his neck and give him a loose rein.

3. Give your horse a gentle, soft cue to trot (some speedy horses you don’t have to cue to trot, but just think trot). If your horse lurches into the trot like he was shot out of a cannon, you’re probably over-cueing him.

4. Out of habit, he’ll start going too fast. Instead of hauling back on two reins and falling into your same old trap, slowly slide your hand down one rein (either one), then slowly lift that hand up and in just a little, asking the horse to flex his neck to that side. You aren’t trying to slow him down with your hand, just asking him to flex his nose around toward your foot.

Over-flex his neck, allowing him to turn with the outside rein totally slack. Keep him over-flexed on the turn until you feel him slow a little, then immediately drop that rein dramatically, and put your knuckles on his neck with a totally slack rein. He’ll probably speed up again. Slowly and gently pick up the other rein and over-flex him in the opposite direction, giving him a giant release (allowing slack in the rein) as soon as you feel his rhythm slow. Whenever he speeds up, pick up one rein and flex him (always alternate reins); whenever he slows, give the giant release. You’ll teach him to hold himself in a steady speed, without your constant nagging.

The outcome: Since going in a small circle with his neck over-flexed is really hard and going straight slowly is really easy, he’ll figure out how to move ahead easily at a slow and rhythmic pace. It’s not the turn that slows him down so much as the flexing his neck from one side to the other.

Depending on how good your timing is and how quickly your horse learns (those two things are directly related) it may take him a few repetitions or a few weeks to learn. With consistency, your horse will learn that all he has to do is go slowly and he can go straight on a loose rein.

Good luck with your horse and with a little work, you can teach your horse a better way so that you’re both happier! There’s lots of information on my website, www.juliegoodnight.com that can help you along the way.

Enjoy the ride!

Overcoming Fear: How To Be In Control And Feel Safe

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question: Hi Julie,

I am a beginning rider, and have been taking lessons twice a week for about three months now. I have wanted to learn to ride since I was a little girl so this is a dream come true for me (I am 37 now). Initially I was very nervous approaching the horses, but more frequent visits have helped. I’m no longer afraid to get on the horse, but after we’ve walked around the ring a couple of times the horse will start testing me (either that or I’m not giving good cues but she parks at the barn and sidesteps across the ring). I end up yanking on the reins to get her back on track. Then I get tense and the whole thing makes me frustrated and I want to give up. I don’t want to jerk the horse around by the mouth to teach her who is boss but I can’t make her do what I want if I don’t. She is a 9-year old mare and an experienced trail horse. I want to move to faster gaits, but I can’t even get her to trot around in a circle. The men I ride with are naturals and don’t understand why I can’t just get on and ride. I can’t just “get on and ride” because I know I can’t control the horse and that makes me very anxious. I know if I could gain confidence through experience I could relax because then I would feel safer, but I can’t do that if I have to fight the horse every time. I wrote to you because I have read many of the articles on your web site and I think you are brilliant. I hope you can help me realize my dream of cantering across a field unafraid. Thank you so much.

Rachel

Answer: Rachel,

You have a lot of different issues in your question and they are all very common issues that beginners everywhere are dealing with. I will attach another Q&A that I just wrote along the same lines (Gate Gravity), which may help you with your issues of control.

Without fail, the biggest mistakes I see people make when having control issues with a horse is two things that come instinctively to the rider but are the worst things you could do for the horse and only exacerbates the problem.

The mistakes are:
1. Pulling back with both reins at the same time,
2. Turning the horse in the direction he wants to go and then circling him back.

When the rider feels like she is losing control of the horse, she instinctively pulls back with both reins, sometimes with a turning motion. When the horse feels that much pressure on his mouth, he locks up, leans into the bit and generally does the opposite of what you want– if you want him to slow down, he speeds up, if you want him to turn right, he turns left. It is known as “running through the bridle” or “running through the shoulder” and are common responses of the horse when he feels steady and unrelenting pressure on both sides of his mouth at the same time. This horse becomes very defensive of his mouth and sticks his nose out and begins to feel to the rider like he has a steel pipe down the middle of his neck.

Sadly, this horse is often labeled “hard mouthed,” like it is his fault. In my opinion there is no such thing as a hard mouthed horse and I have never yet found a horse that could not be rehabilitated to become a very light and responsive horse, and we get a lot of these horses in training. Also, I have seen many school horses learn that all they need to do is get the rider riled up emotionally so she freezes up with both reins and then the horse knows he can have his way with the rider and go where he wants. When you lock up into a tug o’ war with the horse, he will always win because it becomes a pound-for-pound race.

Always try to use your reins one at a time and in rhythm with the horse, in a pulsating or dynamic fashion, not a static white-knuckle pull; always be quick to offer the release. Learn to ride through problems, not lock up on the reins. Your horse mirrors your emotions so when you feel frustrated, you horse is feeling the same thing. Try to keep your emotions in check. Some horses learn that all they have to do is challenge you a little so that you get emotional and lock up and then they know they can do anything they want.

When turning right, first slide your hand down the right rein, then slowly pick up on the rein toward your chest, releasing with the opposite rein. The slower you move your hands, the softer the horse will become. The outside rein should be totally slack– do not try to turn with that rein too, because as soon as you start pulling with both reins, the horse stiffens and you lock up. Keep the horse moving forward in the turn by reaching forward with your hands and closing both your legs on the horse’s barrel in a pulsating fashion. Don’t pull BACK on the rein to turn, that will interfere with his forward motion; gently lift the rein up or to the side.

The second problem is that when the horse becomes nappy and will not turn in the direction you are asking, most riders will give up before the horse does and turn the horse the other way, planning to circle back around to that spot you wanted to go to begin with. Although it often works long enough for you to get the horse positioned where you wanted him to begin with, you have just trained your horse to be disobedient by letting him turn the way he wanted to go and he most certainly will do it again. In the horse’s mind, he only knows he got to turn the way he wanted; he will not make the association of having to go back to where you wanted because too much time has elapsed in his brain. He was rewarded for refusing the rider.

The other problem you mention is with confidence on your part, which exacerbates the control problems that you have with your horse. This is a huge issue and I guarantee there are thousands of people out there that know exactly how you feel. There is an article on my website on dealing with fear that should be helpful for anyone. There is also a book coming out soon called “Ride with Confidence!” in which I am one of five contributing authors. The book is being published in England and should be out this fall and I think it is going to be a good one. I’ll be sure to publish it in my newsletter when the book is available.

One of the most important components when dealing with fear is to surround yourself with understanding, empathetic and supportive people that can help you reach your goals. Also, you should pick the company that you ride with carefully. If you do, you’ll gain confidence more quickly, with more good experiences. I hope you can find a riding instructor or friend to help you work through this control problem. Read through all my Q&As because you’ll probably find other issues that relate to the problems you are having. Don’t worry, you’ll get there, just be persistent.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.