A Devoted Horse

horse running in the round pen

Horses rise or fall to your level of expectation, no matter how high or low. If you think he’s going to spook at something, he generally will. If you think he is going to throw a fit about getting in the trailer, he will oblige (especially if his emotional outbursts have gotten him what he wanted in the past). On the other hand, when your expectations are high, and you have clear parameters of obedient and compliant behavior, he steps up.
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that horses will respond to your expectations. After all, they’re herd animals— instinctively drawn to the herd, which provides the comfort and security they yearn for. Keep in mind that membership in the herd is not automatically granted—each horse must earn it; and once granted, a horse must follow the rules of the herd and be a good herd mate (meet expectations) in order to maintain his status. A good citizen is one that respects the hierarchy of the herd and lives up to the expectations of the leader.
Keep in mind that horses not only live in cooperative groups, they’re also extremely communicative. While us humans rely heavily on the spoken/written word to communicate (often believing words more than the physical evidence before us), horses communicate primarily with postures, gestures and actions. And horses never lie.
Learning to have clear and lofty expectations of your horse, to convey those expectations with consistent and unambiguous actions, to control your own emotions and be aware of the body-language message you present your horse, is all it takes to have a compliant and willing horse that worships the ground you walk on.
My Herd, My Rules
Horses know leadership when they see it; they seek out authority, because it makes them feel safe. Having been around horses well over half a century, literally working with thousands of individuals over the years, I’ve learned to first have expectations and boundaries, and then convey them to any horse I encounter—immediately. The first part of the equation is critical—knowing what behavior you expect from your horse, and therefore knowing when he is compliant and when he is not. That seems easy, right? But if I asked you to state three simple and clear expectations of your horse right now, could you?
Because I am abundantly clear on my personal boundaries and I have a few fundamental rules of behavior that I expect from any horse, a horse learns my rules within a couple minutes of our first interaction. Horses love clarity and consistency; they’re lightning-fast learners, given the right conditions for comprehension (timing and pressure). So in a few short minutes, a fussy, tantrum-throwing horse can become a model citizen, looking to me with deference and willingness, because my expectations have become clear and his compliance is non-negotiable.
Horses are good at following rules, when rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, because that is what life is like in the herd. But long before you can “enforce” the rules or “enforce” a boundary, you have to know the rule, be clear on the boundary yourself and have high expectations of your horse’s behavior.
One reason we do groundwork with horses, is to establish these rules and boundaries and to build a relationship with your horse wherein he looks to you for direction and eagerly does your bidding. Whether it takes you minutes, days or weeks to become the leader in the eyes of your horse, depends on you. Horses come along quickly when presented with consistent and fair leadership.
Talk the Talk
Once you know your own boundaries and have clear expectations of your horse’s behavior, it’s time to convey those expectations to your horse. The message needs to be simple, clear and consistent and conveyed without emotion. Both reward and correction are meted out fairly—his actions have consequences, for better or for worse.
For instance, a very basic expectation I have of any trained horse, is that he moves his feet when I ask him to and stands like a statue if I ask him to. I’ll ask him to stand without moving in the exact same way 100% of the time (facing him with my toes pointed at his shoulder and saying, “Whoa.”). And 100% of the time, I will correct him appropriately if he moves (a scolding and a bump of the rope) and I will always reward him when he complies (by giving him the greatest gift—leaving him alone). Because my message is clear and the reinforcement or reward comes quickly and has meaning, even a tyrant of a horse will become complaint quickly.
Because horses crave authority, they’re also quite eager-to-please animals, if you have the same respect and admiration they give the herd leader. Because horses want to be accepted in the herd, they’re good at following rules. But for a rule to become law, it must be consistently enforced, and compliance must be mandatory. Sometimes horses understand what behavior is expected of them, but if they learn that reinforcement is lacking, and/or they can employ clever tricks to circumvent the rules and manipulate the human, compliance becomes optional.
To be the maker of the rules and the enforcer of the rules is not easy; to do it with consistency and clarity is even harder. Throw into the mix a thousand-pound flight animal, who may physically intimidate you and who easily learns to push your emotional buttons and being the leader can get downright grueling. The trick is to keep your own emotions in check; as you single-mindedly convey your expectations to your horse. The more emotionally charged your horse becomes, the more granite-like your emotions must be.
Explain the simple rule (don’t move your feet unless I tell you to) or define the boundary (stay behind my shoulder as we walk), then reinforce immediately and with meaningful pressure when the horse breaks the rule; leave the horse alone and take all pressure off the moment he is correct. Reinforcement should come quickly (within a second of the infraction) but should be over just as fast (one and done) and should never be done in anger or retribution. A true leader strives to always be in command of her emotions, to always set a good example and to always speak the truth.
Walk the Walk
It’s hard for a horse to look up to you as a strong and benevolent leader, when you present the picture in your body language of a lost tourist in a foreign land. Words mean nothing to your horse, but your actions, your emotions and your body language tell him everything he needs to know.
Horses crave authority because it brings order, regularity and peace to an otherwise chaotic world. It’s not enough to have expectations, to convey and enforce the rules, you also must comport yourself in a manner that you look like the one in charge, at all times. It’s my goal to make my horse think I am not only in control of his actions, but I control everything in the environment, too. In his eyes, I want to be the supreme commander of the universe. With that, comes not only his trust, but his compliance and willingness, too.
Everyone has self-doubt at times. Everyone. It’s what you do with yourself in that moment that separates leaders from followers. Taking mental and physical control of your emotions, reminding yourself, “I’ve done this before and I can do it now,” and then pushing through that moment of self-doubt, will get you everywhere with your horse (and in life). When you allow self-doubt to creep into your ground-handling or riding of a horse, you become passive and convey the picture of that lost tourist. The horse sees this as a giant opening to either 1) start a mutiny, or 2) abandon ship.
Once you’ve asked a horse to do something, you should continue to ask, with steadfast determination, until you get the right answer. If you’re not committed, or you cannot reinforce the command, it’s best not to ask. Your horse is very keen to your level of confidence, intent and determination. He can see it—or lack thereof—in your body language (where you look, your posture, your gestures, even the look on your face and the way you move).
The key is to act confident on the outside, even though you don’t always feel that way on the inside. Fake it ‘til you make it; never show your weakness on the outside. It’s not that you always feel confident and in-control, just don’t let that negative emotion take over your mind and body. The mind, body and spirit (the mental, the physical and the emotional) are inextricably intertwined. Controlling your mind with positive thoughts and your body language with a show of determination, will keep the negative emotions at bay.
Be the Captain
Of course, you cannot just strut around like a leader and expect someone to follow. You must also be true to your word, consistent and predictable in your actions and have sound judgment in all matters. Say what you do and do what you say. You must recognize the horse’s effort and willingness, just as quickly and vehemently as you offer criticism and reinforcement.
Often, in a moment that really counts with a horse, humans are too caught up dwelling in the past and fretting over the future to notice a horse’s behavior in that instant. Horses exist in the moment—when three seconds go by, it’s like a whole different day to the horse, and the moment is lost forever. Sadly, humans tend to linger in the past (he spooked here before) and jump to the future (what if spooks up there), instead of directing our horse like a true leader, in the moment of his greatest need.
It’s a tall order, what your horse needs from you to feel safe and comfortable in your presence. He needs to know what you expect of him, that rules exist and will be enforced fairly and consistently. He needs you to be strong emotionally, in-control of yourself and others, clear in your intent and consistent in your actions. He needs you to make good decisions, to recognize his efforts and reward his compliance. It’s a lot to for him to ask, but the price is well worth paying, because once you become a true leader in the eyes of your horse, he will reward you with obedience, respect and devotion.

Horse Turns Toward Gate And Stops Working

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Common Complaints

My horse heads for the gate and stops while we’re working.

Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to teach your horse ignore the gate and work steadily.

If your horse thinks turning toward the gate is his cue to slow down, ride with a purpose and direct him straight past the opening.

Does your horse slow down as you pass the gate and speed up when you turn toward home? Does he break gait again and again in the same place in the arena? When leaving the barn, do his legs suddenly become leaden and you feel like you’re dragging a ship’s anchor?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and disobedient behavior then give you steps to take to teach your horse to work steadily around the arena and leave the barn at the same pace he returns. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that acts like a champ and respects your authority.

The Reason
Gate gravity is actually herd gravity; it’s a horse’s nature to be herd-bound—staying safe by remaining close to his fellow horses. The instinct is strong. Whether this problem occurs while you’re riding in the arena, trail riding or working on the ground, your horse is being disobedient and making unauthorized decisions. Your horse needs to see you as his trustable leader and know that he’s safe in a herd of two with you.

What horses seek beyond all else in life are two simple things: safety and comfort. When you ask your horse to leave the safety and comfort of the herd to go out and work, you’re asking a lot of him. He may feel alone and vulnerable.

Horses are also instinctively lazy, preferring to conserve their energy for flight, should it be necessary. Your horse doesn’t really want to lope circles and leap obstacles in the arena. He’s looking for any relief available and thinks he may get a break if he heads to the gate. He’s always thinking about going back to the herd; if he can get away with slowing down or stopping for a moment or two, he may think he’s made progress and that you’re allowing him to head for home.

Horses also challenge for hierarchy within the herd. When your horse challenges you—by stopping at the gate—he’s testing to see who’s really in charge. Within the herd, each horse is either dominant over or subordinate to every other individual. One horse is at the top (the “alpha”) and one is at the bottom (the “omega”), with all the other individuals fitting somewhere in between. Subordinate horses respect and admire the leader of their herd and will willingly go with them anywhere; the alpha can herd and direct subordinates and the latter will go at any direction or speed dictated by the boss.

If your horse respects your authority as the leader in your herd of two, he’ll go in a direction and speed that you indicate—without making any unauthorized decisions such as slowing down or speeding up. You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re taking the helm and accepting the captain’s seat and that he’ll either toe the line or be swabbing decks.

Whether your horse just slightly slows down at the gate or gives you a constant battle leaving the barn, there are some simple steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, you have to realize that your horse’s “problem” stems from your lack of authority. It’s time to take charge.
Examine other areas within your relationship with your horse. Is he responsive to you on the ground? Does he respect your space? Does he focus on you, looking to you for directives and guidance? Is he peaceful and docile in your presence, knowing you’re in charge? Or is he looking at the herd and whinnying? When you ride, is his head down and his nose pointed in the direction you have asked for? Or is his head up and is he changing his path and speed impulsively?

If you’re nodding your head, you and your horse are good candidates for a systematic series of groundwork exercises. You’ll have to teach him to accept your authority on the ground first then carry your newly found authority to mounted work. My groundwork DVD called Lead Line Leadership will take you through this process with step-by-step explanations. The Complete Groundwork Package includes two DVDs and all the equipment you need for groundwork.

After spending some quality time with your horse from the ground, you’ll also have to address your authority with your horse from his back. You must act like the captain and your horse must accept his position as first mate. As captain, you dictate both the direction and speed of the ship and your first mate carries out your orders. The captain makes all of the decisions and any insubordinate behavior from the crew is met with strict consequence.

Your authority in the saddle starts when you put your foot in the stirrup to mount and ends when you hop off.

Professionals teach horses that they should keep doing what they’re told until they’re told differently. If you allow small infractions, such as making the unauthorized decision to slow down at the gate or veer from the dictated path, you’re eroding your authority. Once your horse realizes that you don’t have complete control, he’ll push the limits and the erosion continues until the dam gives way.

As soon as you mount, begin by not letting your horse walk off without a cue (see last month’s issue about standing for mounting), then take him directly to the rail and deep up into the corners. Immediately correct the smallest infraction of direction or speed until your horse gives it up and just does what he’s told to do. Depending on your assertiveness, this process may take one time around the pen or a few weeks.

Make sure your corrections are adequate to motivate your horse to change his ways. If he stops at the gate or breaks gait at any time, there must be ramifications and the punishment must involve enough pressure to motivate your horse to change. If the ramifications are insignificant to your horse, he’ll happily endure it if it means he gets to rest for a moment.

In this case your corrections might range from more leg pressure to a bump with the spur or a spank with a crop or the tail of your reins. If he breaks gait with me at the helm, I’ll make sure he not only gets a spanking, but that he has to work harder. I only allow him to stop or slow down when he’s working willingly forward, without me having to push him.

Each horse is different in the amount of pressure it takes to motivate him to change, but you’ll know if it’s enough by his reaction to the correction. If he blows it off with an expression meaning “so what?” then you didn’t use enough pressure. If his head comes up and he jumps to attention with a look on his face like, “what do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” then you’re making an impact. I don’t want you to cause your horse undue pain. However, you’ll need to use enough of a correction to let your horse know you’re in charge. If your horse doesn’t see you as a leader, you may be in much more danger later on.

There’s an old saying in horse training that says it always gets worse before it gets better. That means that if your horse has been getting away with things for a while, he’s not going to immediately give it up the first time you lay down the law with him. If he has been stomping on your authority for a while, he’ll challenge your first attempts to correct him by threatening you with a kick or buck. Make sure you have the ability to ride through his resistance or engage the help of a more qualified hand to help you. Never let his antics get to you emotionally—if he learns he can control your emotions, he’ll keep pushing your buttons. Instead, be calm, firm and persistent in your request for obedience.

Once you learn to be the 100% authority figure that your horse needs, he’ll gladly do what you ask. To reach this point, you’ll need leadership and consistency.

With repetition, good timing and lots of enforcement on your part, your horse will soon be steady, responsive and obedient.


For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit www.juliegoodnight.com.

My Horse Is Herd-Bound And Barn Sour

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My horse is herd-bound and barn-sour–calling to others constantly

Would your horse rather stay with his buddies? Is he letting his voice be known? Follow Julie Goodnight’s behavior and training advice to help your horse willingly leave the herd and be focused on you as the center of his universe.

Does your horse refuse to respond to your aids and throw a wall-eyed fit if you try to ride him out of the barnyard alone? Does he scream in your ear, calling to his herd mates every time you take him out of the pen? Is he unruly in-hand when you take him away from his buddies, stomping his feet and ramming into you?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to make your horse want to be part of your herd–willing to go with you anywhere.

The Reason
Horses are herd-bound animals. The behavior known as gregarious—defining animals who live in groups and have a specific social order. A herd-bound tendency is one of seven instinctive behaviors a horse acts out—the others center around flight, reproduction, combat, investigation, ingestion and elimination. Being herd bound is a survival skill for horses. They need the protection of the herd for comfort and security–which they want more than anything else in life.

The whinny, one of four audible communications a horse makes, is a high-pitched scream, sometimes ending in a nicker. It’s the loudest and longest audible a horse makes and can be ear-splitting, carrying over long distances. Like all four audible communications, it has specific meaning. The whinny is a social call; a searching call. It means, “Where are my friends,” or “Is anyone out there willing to be my friend?” When a horse is separated from his herd and feels vulnerable and exposed, he will whinny and search frantically until he finds it or a suitable replacement.

The leader of the herd–the alpha individual–is responsible for maintaining the safety and comfort of the herd. As long as the leader is in charge, her subordinates can relax, live in peace, munch grass, roll in the mud and commune with their buddies. Life doesn’t get any better.

You and your horse comprise a herd. At least that’s what you’d like your horse to believe. Due to the hierarchy of the horse herd, within your herd of two, you have two choices: you can be the leader or the follower. There’s no option for equality. Just wanting to be the leader of your herd of two doesn’t make it so; your horse is very adept at detecting leadership skills–or lack there of. In his mind, his very survival depends upon good leadership.

Unless and until your horse can look up to you as his leader, trust that you’re in charge of the universe and able to make him feel safe and comfortable, he’ll not be willing to go anywhere with you and will always be drawn back to the herd he knows.
The Solution

You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re in charge, that you’re a worthy leader. He’ll need to know you can be trusted to enforce rules, keep order in the herd and that you direct all his actions. You’ll tell him when to eat, when to sleep, when to work, when to rest, when to be alarmed, when to be relaxed. You’ll teach him that when he is quiet, obedient and focused on you, you’ll make him comfortable; when he is not, you’ll put him to work. He won’t have to make any decisions because you’re the leader, the Captain of the ship, and you make all decisions. That’s a tall order to fill!

Horses establish dominance in the herd with swift and certain actions, by controlling space and resources. The alpha individual of the herd owns the space of all the subordinate herd members; she can enter their space at any time—and the herd will move judiciously out of her way. A subordinate can never enter her space. Horses are very spatially oriented (unlike us humans) and highly respect the space of their leader. In natural horsemanship, we do groundwork with horses to control their space and actions, gain their respect and focus, until the horse is hooked-on, following with admiration because he feels safe and comfortable in your presence.
Resources include anything the herd values, like food, water, shelter or other horses, and the dominant horse always controls the resources. The quickest way to determine the pecking order of any herd is to watch when they are fed; the alpha always eats first, followed by the beta horse; the last to eat is the omega, if he gets anything at all. Be careful when you feed horses, that you do not reward rude or bullying behavior, even when there is a fence between you and the horse; if he comes to believe he is taking the food away from you and controlling your actions, he believes he is dominant. For this reason, I’m not an advocate of hand-feeding treats to horses; it doesn’t take long before he’s calling you to him by nickering (the second of the horse’s four audible communications), controlling your actions and your resources (keep in mind he doesn’t know it’s horse food and humans won’t eat it).

Do groundwork exercises with your horse every time you get him out, so that he is in the habit of listening to you. There are many excellent exercises outlined in my groundwork DVDs, Lead Line Leadership and Round Pen Reasoning (available at JulieGoodnight.com or 800-225-8827).
If you invest some time in groundwork, your horse will learn to accept you as a suitable leader. Once he begins to accept your authority, do your groundwork further and further away from the barn so it becomes habitual behavior for him.
When you’re riding, be aware of barn gravity and be diligent for any disobedience from your horse, no matter how small. If he cuts corners, slows down going away and speeds up coming back, breaks gait or deviates from the path and speed you have dictated and gets away with it, you’re telling the horse you’re not in charge; not a worthy leader. If you’re in charge, you’re the Captain, there should never be any negotiation, compromise or turning a blind eye to his bad behavior– no matter how minor the infraction.
I ride literally hundreds of different horses each year; between clinics and expos, I sometimes ride or work with as many as 10-15 different horses a week on a one-time basis. In five minutes or less, what I call “the golden moments,” I can convince the horse that I’m in charge by simply controlling 100 percent of his actions and demonstrating my leadership ability. Horses figure this stuff out quickly.
When people come to look at one of my horses for sale, I want to make sure they start off in the Captain’s seat. I tell them to take the horse directly to the rail and go all the way around keeping the horse right next to the fence and controlling every step he takes; then thy can start telling him to do something: stop, go, turn, etc. A well-trained and obedient horse (the only kind I sell) knows immediately that you’re a worthy leader and falls happily into the role of your first mate, eager to carry out your orders without challenge.
When your horse accepts your authority without question, and feels safe and comfortable in your presence, he will no longer be herd bound and you’ll b able to take him anywhere you want to go without so much as a whinny or nicker.

To learn more about teaching your horse to respect your authority and accept you as his leader, check out Goodnight’s groundwork training package with the DVD series, Round Pen Reasoning, and Lead Line Leadership and other training tools at www.JulieGoodnight.com.

Horse Behavior: Do Horses Prefer Male Over Female Riders?

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Hi Julie,

I’ve got a question about our five-year-old Paint gelding. My wife swears that he prefers men riders to women riders. I’m almost to conclude the same thing, even though I really am skeptical about that. It seems the women who have ridden him, including my wife, have had him act up consistently, and are fearful of him.

Another question following the first of gender preference…If it is true there is such a thing, is there a way to “unlearn” this behavior over time and how would you suggest I help him accept women riders?


Answer: Neal,

Although many horses respond differently to men and women, I do not believe it is because they intellectually know the difference between men and women. I think that they are responding to the way they are handled and whether or not the handler has good leadership skills. The horse is responding to the body language of the human, which tells the horse whether or not the human is confident and potential leadership material. Most humans are not fully aware of their body language and the messages that they are constantly sending to the horse. A horse that has been abused will be reactive and frightened of a human that approaches him with what appears to be aggression (as many men do); while a horse that has learned to be dominant over a human will react in a dominant way when a person approaches him showing a lack of confidence and uncertainty (as many women do). I talk a lot in my clinics about the first 10 minutes of your ride being the ‘golden moments’ where you show your horse your ability as a leader. And during that time, the only conversation you should have with the horse goes like this: “Hello. This is your Captain speaking!” Most people allow constant small erosions to their authority over the horse by doing things like letting him walk off without a cue to walk or letting him cut the corner in the arena, come into the middle of the arena, speed up or slow down, etc. In the horse’s mind, either the rider is in control of the ship all of the time or she/he is not the Captain. Horses are quick to learn this about any given rider (by testing) and an opportunistic horse will generally take advantage of the situation. Many riders have already flunked the test before they have any clue whatsoever that there was a test.

Unfortunately it is impossible to unlearn this behavior. Your horse knows too much already and it cannot be unlearned. This is a common problem with young horses that have been trained by a professional and then are handed over to an amateur rider. The horse quickly learns the difference between riders and will begin to test the rider to see how much he can get away with. This is something we work very hard to prevent by making sure the amateur rider has a through understanding of what it is like to ride a green horse; then hopefully the horse will never learn that he can act differently for different riders. Better training for your horse will help but the rider will have to step up to the plate and prove to the horse that she is indeed a capable leader and the captain of the ship. Unless and until that happens, the horse will continue to take advantage of a passive or subordinate rider.


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