Six Points To Consider Before Using A Calming Supplement

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by Juliet M. Getty Ph.D. | Apr 29, 2015 |

Travel and competition season is upon us, and “show nerves” are common, even in horses. Agitated, nervous horses that are normally well behaved may benefit from a calming supplement. These products can contain vitamins, or minerals, or herbs, or amino acids. So, which to choose and how best to use them? Before making a decision, consider these important points:
•An empty stomach is the main cause for behavioral issues—forage (hay and/or pasture) should be available at all times.
•Magnesium deficiency may be the issue, since most horses don’t get enough of this mineral—if this is true for your horse, supplementing 5,000 mg of magnesium per 500 lbs of body weight will make a positive change in demeanor.
•A borderline B vitamin deficiency will affect behavior and can result when the hindgut microbial population is compromised by stress, high starch diets, illness, or antibiotics. Thiamin (vitamin B1) has been shown to be especially effective at high doses (1 mg per pound of body weight). Prebiotics that feed existing microbes also result in more B vitamin production.
•Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, leads to serotonin synthesis in the brain and can be useful in soothing a nervous horse. For this effect to occur, it is best to offer tryptophan as a paste between meals. When added to a meal, tryptophan will not be used for serotonin production and the calming effect will be significantly diminished
•Caution! Herbs such as chamomile, valerian, black cohosh, ginger root, and passion flower may have an over-tranquilizing effect, interact with other medications, and have side effects. Consult with your veterinarian before using.
•Additional caution to you competitors out there: Always check any supplements for ingredients prohibited by competition rules. Valerian is such an example.

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 American 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 www.GettyEquineNutrition.com–buy it there and have it inscribed by the author. Or get it at Amazon (www.Amazon.com) 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 www.GettyEquineNutrition.com: 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 gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com. She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements.

This spring! On May 2, 2015, hear Dr. Getty address issues in horse nutrition at the Kirkland House Foundation in Delta, British Columbia, sponsored by “Hay…Girl!” For more information on this event, contact Pam Janssen at precioushaygirl@gmail.com or call 604-961-7265.

Shut Down

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Dear Julie,
I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem, since I didn’t find that our instructor found the right thing to do. Instead of finding an answer, he did what a program told him to do.

I have a friend whose horse is a 16-year-old QH gelding and a former roping horse. He still has some trust issues in my opinion and he’s very brace-y when he gets upset. He will lope with her riding him, but he tends to have this “I’m running away from you” lope. He has a hard time in the corners and on a circle, but he will lope. I noticed that she tends to brace in her knees and ankles and that she has her ankles to far forward which of course doesn’t help the horse to lope confidently…

Now, when she tries to lope him on the ground with the 22-foot line, he starts his race trot and carries his head as high as he can and he simply will NOT lope. They were working with him the other day (together with the instructor) for about 40 minutes and all they got was maybe a quarter circle at best at a lope. Her horse was soaking wet and I really didn’t see any real success.

Here’s what they tried: Trot the horse towards the fence and then put pressure on when he leaves the fence. Did NOT work at all! He just ran at a faster trot. Then they tried to bring the horse closer, “reel” him in, lift line, step out, swing and touch hard on his shoulder if he didn’t leave. The horse would make a few jumps and then would race around at a trot, so immediately bring him in again and start the whole thing over etc.

WHAT I SAW:
The horse obviously “shut down” and did not respond anymore besides “running at a trot for his life” (in his opinion anyway). I think his previous owner/s literally beat the crap out of him. It looks to me as if he was abused mentally and probably physically and he somehow learned to live with it by shutting down. I believe that in this state he’s absolutely UNABLE to learn. He braces and tightens up and it makes it even harder for him to get into a lope. I have to add that I’ve been watching the owner for a few months now. I don’t want to say that she easily gives up; she rather thinks she has to live with his antics and makes excuses for him. This of course doesn’t help to turn her horse around. I find that the horse is a mix out of fear and bully, which seems to me especially difficult.

I would really appreciate your input. The owner was heart broken, the horse looked like it’s going to have a heart attack any minute and I really don’t think anything got accomplished! I tried to put myself in her situation and I’m sure I would have told the instructor to stop. At one point he actually got a decent lope off with a few additional steps but he missed the release and felt that he had to “stop on a good note”.

Looking for the Answer

Dear Looking,
You have made some very astute observations with this horse. When a horse shuts-down mentally, he is no longer thinking about his situation and looking for the right answer that will get him the release. Some horses shut down more easily than others. There are many team-roping horses out there with trust issues and a lot of baggage from the high-stress work that they do and the sometimes harsh and heavy pressure put on them. These horses respond well to slow, quiet and clear handling and do not do well with pushing them beyond the boiling point. A team roping horse that has not been trained and worked in a balanced fashion (schooling on fundamentals of bending, turning, collection) and is only blown out of the box, running hell-bent for leather, only taking the left lead and only turning left when it reaches the steer, doesn’t really know how to do anything else. In some instances, the horse has had so much physical pressure put on his mouth and sides and so much mental stress on him waiting in the box and blowing out after the steer, that he has a total melt down when asked to perform. These horses can have a lot of baggage. But it doesn’t have to be that way; there are many excellent rope horse trainers that school their horses more holistically.

When the rider braces any part of her body, especially the knees and ankles, the horse will always become stiffer, hollowed out in the back and more anxious. The reason why is that the rider is no longer absorbing the motion of the horse’s movement and instead is opposing the motion and bouncing on the horse’s back and bracing on his mouth. Bracing or stiffening joints causes the riders legs and hands to become jerky. The increased pressure causes the horse to tense; at the same time the rider is sending a message of tension through her body to the horse (you have to tense muscles and lock joints to brace). Horses will learn that when the rider tenses and braces, that pain in the mouth and back will follow. A horse’s natural response to discomfort is to run away from it, so these horses will generally speed up in a effort to run away from the discomfort. Unfortunately, that will generally cause the rider to brace even more and the downward spiral spins out of control.

In clinics when I am teaching groundwork, I am constantly telling people to move slowly and progressively and never give the horse the sense that you are chasing him. You always want him to be thinking for a way out of his problem, the problem being the mental or physical pressure that you put on him when you ask him to do something. If the pressure (either mental or physical) becomes too much for the horse, his mind shuts down and he kicks into his survival/flight (or fight) mode. From this point, you have very little to gain and much to lose.

In the situation you are describing, it sounds to me like damage was done to this horse and certainly there was no positive benefit from the training session. Perhaps there would have been if the person had capitalized on the horse finally doing the right thing by removing all pressure and leaving the horse alone for a while.

It is an old-school of thought but one in which I believe very strongly: whenever you have trouble with a horse getting something (which probably means you are not a very effective teacher to your horse) always return to something more fundamental so that your horse can find some success and be in a better frame of mind.

There is a dilemma because once you have asked a horse to do something, if you don’t reinforce your request and follow-through; you have trained the horse to ignore you. However, if you are not as effective in teaching your horse or communicating with him and you keep asking something incomprehensible to him over and over again, and putting more and more pressure on him until his mind shuts down, you have taught the horse to be frightened and reactive to you, but he hasn’t learned the skill you were hoping for. Knowing when to push and when to back off a horse is a pre-requisite for being a good horse trainer.

There is no one system that could ever account for all the variances and intricacies of horses. The judgment and horse sense you need to train horses comes from the experience and wisdom gained from working with many, many different horses.

Timing is another essential skill needed to train a horse effortlessly. Although you hear a lot about repetition in training horses, if your timing is good you’ll need little, if any repetitions to train a horse a new skill. It is hard enough to teach people the physical skills they need to work horses from the ground or from the saddle, but to teach them timing is really difficult. Getting people to understand that to the horse, it is all about the release- of both mental and physical pressure. I’ll bet that with this exact scenario, if they had just stopped the horse and let him chill out for a few minutes here and there during the session when the horse made some kind of effort in the right direction, he may have made some progress toward the goal.

Of all the training systems, programs and techniques in the world, the one thing that they all have in common is that ability to give a timely and significant release to the horse and the judgment to know when to press your horse and when to back off. You only have 3 seconds with a horse to reward, release or correct, in order for him to make an association between his actions and the release/correction. It is a well-documented fact that the sooner within those three seconds the release/correction comes, the more meaningful it is to the horse. So by the time you have to think about what the horse did or what you should do to correct or reward, you are well past the optimal time period for training your horse.

Unfortunately, there are lots of horses out there like you describe, with baggage from bad handling. These horses will turn around dramatically, in the right hands with a trainer that is competent, clear, consistent and kind.

One final thought has to do with asking the horse to canter on a 22′ line. This is an awfully small circle for a horse to execute at a slow and balanced canter; it would be less than a 15-meter circle. There are some articles in the Training Library on my website that detail my opinion of cantering a horse (unmounted) in a round pen, which is closer to a 20 meter circle. For most young horses and for all un-athletic horses, this is very difficult, even when they are at liberty. A much smaller circle and the interference from the human on the other end of the rope make it hard for the most athletic of horses to canter, especially if they are untrained. In my experience, you are more likely to cause balance problems with the horse or problems with its purity of gait by working at the lope on a line or in the round pen.

I hate to pass judgment on a person when I have not personally witnessed the event, however, since I have known you for some time and know that you are an astute student of horsemanship, I am taking your descriptions of the event at face value, and it does not seem like the horse left the training session a better trained horse.
–Julie Goodnight

Fearing The Transition

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In Devon Danvers’ “Lost in Transition” episode of Horse Master, I helped a teenager who was ready to stop showing—and riding—because his horse exploded into the canter and just wasn’t fun to ride. The episode was my favorite shot during the Arizona series. Devon and his horse made so much progress and had a dramatic turnaround. When I watched Devon as we filmed his “before” footage, I could see the very obvious problem. When Devon cued his horse, the horse would explode into the canter–sometimes bucking and always running off. He was nervous and jiggy and anticipated the cue. “Rocky” was a very handsome horse Devon bought with the hopes of showing. However, his behavior made showing impossible. Interestingly, it wasn’t obvious to me what Devon was doing to cause this kind of reaction. He was a nice rider and didn’t appear to over-cue the horse.

I got on and rode Rocky and found the key to smooth transitions was to slow the cue down. I didn’t even need leg pressure—just the movement of my seat would change Rocky’s gaits without sending him into a frenzy. Amazingly, Devon was able to change the way he rode this horse right away and the results were tremendous. Both Devon and his mom were thrilled with the progress they made.

Read on to learn about how to cue your horse for a calm and collected canter. The lesson is good for you if you if your horse anticipates the canter or if you want to make sure you’re giving the correct signals. Be sure to watch the “Lost in Transition” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight May 4, 2009 on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html or http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight and choose “Horse Master with Julie Goodnight 212 Lost in Transition, Teaching Segment”

Many horses become afraid of the canter cue after they’ve been hit in the mouth too many times when a rider asked him to canter. A fearful rider may ask for the canter, then immediately pull back on the reins to slow down—causing the bit to hit the horse hard in the mouth. If you’re having trouble at your canter transition, always rule out a tooth/mouth problem first. However, it’s likely that your horse threw a fit because of a physical problem, he would keep up the reaction while cantering and not just at the transition.

At the very first stride of canter, and every stride thereafter, the horse’s head drops down as he lifts his hind legs off the ground. If the horse is not given a release when you ask him to canter, then when he drops his head down, he hits the bit and in effect, he is punished for doing what you asked him to do. After a while, he is afraid of the canter cue and either throws his head in the air, runs off or both.

As I said, this is very common. I see it in every single clinic I teach. Many riders are a little intimidated by the canter, so they tend to clench up on the reins at the moment the horse departs into the gait. Or, the rider is concerned about the horse going too fast, so she pulls up on the reins at the same time she is asking the horse to go more forward. Or sometimes, the rider’s hands are just not moving with the horse as he drops his head in each stride.

When you cue a horse to canter, you should reach up toward his ears with both hands to give him the release he needs to drop his head in the stride. With each and every stride of the canter, your hands should extend forward as your hips move forward to give the release he needs with every stride.

Your horse has already learned to fear the transition, so you’ll have to really exaggerate the release for some time and eventually he’ll come to trust that you will not hit him in the mouth and he does not have to be afraid and throw his head up in the air.

All of these issues—how to cue, how to ride the canter and dealing with problems—are addressed in Volume 4 of Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Canter with Confidence. In addition, it covers refining the canter, lead changes and collection at the canter.
–Julie Goodnight

Leg-Sensitive Horse

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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
www.juliegoodnight.com

Issues From The Saddle: How To Relax A Spooky Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have broken my arm from the fall. We have snow on the ground and I didn’t want my horse {a forward horse} to run home. I needed to get off my horse when I saw that I was not going to be able to take control. I thought twice about getting off and walking home because of the long walk that was ahead of me. I am a new horse owner with my husband and we have a lot to learn. As soon as I am able I will be working on “drop-your-head-cue” in the saddle. He drops his head with ground work. My horse is a nervous, 16 year old, 13 hand racking horse. He loves to run home. This is not allowed of course but when the trails are narrow I cannot do the circling {relaxing for my horse} game. I am limited with my education in tight situations. I have to be careful with the circling exercise with my horse because he can dart into the turns. My friend says that he is a sports car running a race and cuts his corners well. I am now looking for your Q/A three step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I have looked but cannot find it. I have your new ground work DVD’s and have learned from them. Thank you for everything…your teaching style is easy to understand.

Philly

Answer: Dear Philly,

I am attaching the Q&A on the three-step circling process to calm a fractious horse and make him more submissive and attentive to you. I am glad you are enjoying the DVDs on groundwork. There is lots of information there on the horse’s natural behaviors and how you can make him more focused and obedient to you.

Often when people use circling work to establish more control over a horse, it is done with harshness and quick jerking movements. This will only serve to make a horse more anxious, not less; faster not slower. Speed and harshness will always exacerbate a horse’s emotions and may trigger the flight response.

With any circling or disengagement of the hindquarters, it is imperative that it is done calmly and quietly, encouraging the horse to slow down and soften. If it is done with fast, reactive movements, it will cause the same reaction in the horse. Remember, horses are programmed to mirror the emotions of the animals around them. Therefore, if we let our emotions (fear, anger, frustration) get involved in training, it will always cause more problems.

Training with softness and with a calm and objective demeanor will lead to success in your horse. Also, when you are calm and objective versus reactive and emotional, it is easier to see the ideal moment for the release. Make sure that whenever you give a horse a cue, you release the cue the instant the horse begins to respond; do not wait until you get the finished result or it may be too late. Whatever the horse is doing when you release him, is what you are training him to do. When you are caught up in emotions yourself, it is almost impossible to have the right timing; and timing of the release is everything with horses.

Sounds like you have been through a lot with this horse and I admire your persistence and determination to resolve the problems. Keep the faith and be careful in the process.

JG

Excerpt from Q&A on Three-Step Circling:

“My inclination with this horse would be to use the “three-step circling” process every time you feel her falling apart on you. You mentioned that you could tell when she was going to do her thing; if you have a replacement behavior, then every time you feel her coiling up, you can ask her for the replacement behavior.

3-step circling involves a small circle at a walk, with your hand in three different positions that causes the horse to bend three different parts of her body. You will only use the inside rein; it is imperative that the outside rein is totally loose. It is also imperative that this is a slow smooth circle; do not jerk the horse into a circle or make any harsh movements. When this exercise is done correctly, the horse follows your hand with little or no contact on her mouth.

Step 1, put your horse onto a small circle (3-4 meters) and drop your inside hand down on your knee, with very light contact and with open fingers, flutter the rein until the horse breaks at the poll and you can see her eyeball. As soon as she gives, stop fluttering but leave your hand in the same position, so that she finds slack in the rein. As long as your hand is down on your knee, she should break at the poll and bend her nose toward your hand and hold herself in that position until you move your hand to step 2.

It is important to actually lay your hand on your knee so that it is in a consistent position and to prevent you from pulling back more on the rein when she gives (if you pull more when she gives, you are not rewarding her for the proper response). You are teaching the horse to give to light rein pressure and to seek out the slack in the rein. You must live up to your end of the bargain and let her find slack when she gives.

Step 1 is important because it gets your horse’s attention on you. When she gives in step 1, her inside ear will be back on you and you will be able to see her eyeball. Step 1 causes the horse to bend in the poll and to give her attention to you.

Step 2, still circling, SLOWLY lift your hand straight up, still out over your knee. Now your hand is out to the side over your knee, your elbow is at your side and at about a 90 degree angle. It is imperative that you are not pulling back on the rein but gently lifting up. Make sure you keep your hand in a consistent position and let the horse find slack when she gives to the rein pressure. Step 2 causes the horse to bend in the shoulder and all of her focus will come onto you. Step 3, from the position of step 2, slowly bring your inside hand in and up toward your opposite shoulder. That is the direction of the pull, upward and diagonal; your hand will not make it all the way to your shoulder. Be precise in the direction of your hand; it is an upward diagonal movement toward your opposite shoulder (for some reason people really struggle with this movement). It is a motion like crossing your heart.

Step 3 will cause your horse to bend in the hip and disengage her hindquarters (cross the hind legs). Disengagement causes submissiveness in the horse, so step 3 will bend your horse in the hip and cause her to be submissive, even if only for a moment. You will distinctly feel the horse’s back bend underneath you when she disengages.

Step 3 is very difficult for the horse, so make sure you do not ask her to hold it too long. Also, watch the tips of her ears to make sure that they remain level. If you over-bend your horse, she will begin to twist in the neck and her ears will no longer be level, and you will be teaching her the wrong thing.

After you have done all 3 steps on one side, give your horse a little break and do the other side. Make certain to move your hands slowly and do not pull on the rein, but gently vibrate or flutter the rein until the horse gives; it should be very soft with very light pressure. Make sure the horse finds slack when she gives so that she learns self-carriage and so that she is rewarded for the right response by the release.

Again, this is a slow bending exercise, not a fast, harsh punishment or spinning in a circle. Make sure you use your hands in a precise and consistent place; once the horse learns this exercise, she will automatically bend into position as soon as your hand moves into position. Once the horse is responsive, you can go through all 3 steps in one or two circles; at first, you will probably be making several circles in each step.

This is a great exercise that has many, many benefits to both horse and rider. I teach this exercise in clinics all the time and 100% of the time, even beginners can get their horses to disengage and can feel the horse’s shoulder and hip bend. It is also highly beneficial to the horse as it teaches her to give to rein pressure and seek out the slack in the rein. The mental benefits are tremendous too because with each progressive step you get the horse’s attention, focus and submission. We use this exercise on all the colts we start; generally we begin and end every session with this simple little exercise. It keeps your horse soft and focused.

I would suggest you practice this exercise on another horse while yours is still laid-up. Then when you are ready to get back to her, you’ll have a good feel for how this exercise works. You’ll want to teach it to her during the good times so that when you feel her coil up, you can fall right into this exercise and she’ll know what to do. Then every time you feel a spook or scoot coming on, just gently fall into this exercise until you feel her soften and focus, then let her go straight.”

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

Issues From The Saddle: How To Deal With A Spooky Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hello Julie,

I was glad to see you are doing a clinic in my area in NH. I have a 10 year old who was born on my farm who from day one has been an ADD/spooky horse. He has been a challenge and although we have made progress, I’m always back to square one. I have done so much with him, my background is in dressage, but I do a lot of ground work, some round pen, longeing, I take him places, clinics and shows now and then, but I still struggle with getting his attention. Is it possible that he doesn’t like ring work, he does like trail riding with his buddies, but is still spooky and inattentive most days, once in a while he’s kind of relaxed. Progress is very slow. He knows all the Pat Parelli ground exercises etc. But I can’t get beyond the inattentiveness to really start being able to school him. Any suggestions?

Answer: Holly,

It sounds like you have already tried a lot of different things with this horse with some success, but the progress has been slow. At 10 y/o he ought to be getting pretty mature and reliable especially with all the work you have done. I would like to have an opportunity to see your horse and work with him a little, but in lieu of that, here are a few things I might try with a horse like this.

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. So the first cardinal rule is that when the horse stops and faces when he is afraid (instead of spin and bolt) he gets a reward. He gets a rub on the neck and gets to stop and relax. Then I will gently encourage him to move toward whatever he is afraid of; I ask him to move forward one step at a time, stopping him with each step (so that I remain in control, issuing the orders) and rewarding him. 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 can practice this on the ground too.

One big problem with a horse like this is that they do not focus on you and do not look to you for leadership. This kind of relationship (focused and obedient) is best accomplished with groundwork, both lead line and round pen. It sounds like you have done a lot of this already, but in my experience, I have seen a lot of people do the ground work but without succeeding in getting the horse’s total focus. For instance, the horse may run well around the round pen and do turns and stops, etc., but if his total focus is not on you almost all the time, then the round pen work may have been meaningless chasing of the horse.

Once the horse is moving away from me well in the round pen and I can control which direction he goes, then I want to establish a line of communication with him so that he is constantly looking to me for directives. If his focus wanders outside the round pen, then I put him to work. Not harshly and not chasing him but asking him to do something like go faster, go slower, turn this way, turn that way, etc. When his focus is on me because he has to see what I am going to ask him to do next, I let him stop and relax. This same concept can be applied for lead line work and mounted work. Just be careful that when you ask the horse for more focus, that you are not getting fast and reactive to him and escalating his tension but just quietly issuing directives to the horse and reinforcing what you ask of him. It is very important that you have and keep control of the horse’s nose, both on the ground and especially in the saddle. Most people let their horse’s nose wander all over the place and look at whatever interests them. This is a root cause of many behavioral and obedience problems. Usually, the very first indication that a horse is thinking about doing something he shouldn’t is when the nose leaves its position from in front of his chest. We work very hard with our colts and any older horses that come for training with behavior problems to teach this very, very important rule, “Thou shalt keep your nose directly in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you or riding you.” If you set this very simple rule with your horse and then enforce it 100% of the time, within minutes, your horse will become obedient.

I think it is important to master this rule on the ground first, but I also work on it riding from the get go. From the ground, all you have to do is ask the horse to stand (that is another very important ground rule we set right away, “Thou shalt not move thy feet unless I tell you to move them.”) and then step back away from the horse. He should stand there on his own volition, not because you have a choke hold on the halter rope. Correct his nose with a gentle bump of the halter rope every time he moves his nose away from you and point at his nose or twirl the tail of the rope toward his nose every time he moves the nose toward you. Just put his nose back where you told it to stay every time it moves; be slow and calm with your corrections but always consistent and firm when necessary. If he moves his feet when you correct his nose, put him back where he was and tell him whoa (standing still is another rule that must be reinforced in the same way). Work on nose control standing in an open area for 5-10 minutes and the horse will learn his parameters. Then I want to reinforce this rule at the hitching rail and at all times I am working around the horse.

When a horse moves his nose toward you, unasked, that is an invasion of your space and an indication that the horse does not respect your space (often because he has been hand fed treats and this has caused major disrespect, see the article on my website called “Trick or Treat”). So when he moves his nose toward me that is a greater infraction than moving the nose away. Depending on the horse, that might get a harsher correction from me, especially if it is a horse that has proven his lack of respect by walking all over me or ignoring me or even being aggressive.

Carrying over this rule (nose control) to the saddle is very important for a spooky horse. When he learns to obey this rule he will not really be able to spook and his focus will remain on you. He can pick his head up and look at anything he wants to, as long as his nose stays in front of his chest. If it moves to either side, I will correct it with a gentle and slow bump of one rein (if he is turning his nose to the right, use the left rein and visa versa). Again, it is not a pull or a jerk, but a slow gentle bump up on the rein and I will keep bumping (not pulling) until the nose comes back to center. If you set this rule and then enforce it, in short order the horse will learn to keep his nose centered. He may still make the occasional mistake and you will have to correct him consistently for some time.

One common scenario I see in horses like this is a co-dependent relationship with the rider. It goes something like this: the horse is spooky or fractious and the rider gets uptight and since horses reflect our own emotions, the tension escalates on both sides. Then the riders, knowing the horse is going to do it again, keeps a tense and tight hold on the reins and begins to look for the next spooky object, telegraphing to the horse that “I don’t trust you and there must be something out there to be afraid of.” Again, horses reflect our emotions so the horse becomes more tense and irritated from the rein pressure, causing an escalation in the rider’s tension that leads to irritation and anger in the rider. So now the rider is getting mad and frustrated at the horse and jerking and hitting, instead of calm and consistent correction, and the horse, again reflecting our emotions, gets frustrated and mad too. This is a terrible dynamic that can go on for days, weeks, months or years but at some point, either the horse or the rider will reach the boiling-over point and a major problem may ensue.

This negative dynamic must be stopped at some point, the sooner the better. When a rider is resentful, angry or emotional toward the horse, the horse is typically reflecting those same emotions right back at the rider and this is a terrible dynamic that has little chance for success. At this point, it is important to look for a way to change the dynamic and do something different. Often, the rider needs to take a deep breath, summon up some patience and most importantly, relax and SLOW DOWN your corrections and communications to the horse. Hopefully you and your horse have not yet fallen into this trap and some of these things may help you break the dynamic. To me, if I can teach the horse to respond to some basic rules and he can trust that I will enforce the rules, his life becomes more predictable and safe and he will relax and know that as long as he follows the rules everything is good and his focus will be on me as his leader. Good luck with this horse and I hope I get the opportunity to work with you both in person sometime.

Julie Goodnight

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