Summer came to a screeching halt around our ranch, just two days after record heat on Labor Day, when we were hammered with well over a foot of snow and temps in the low 20s and highs in the 30s (yes, Fahrenheit). We went from fly sheets to mid-weight winter blankets in one day (we save the heavy artillery for true winter). We will certainly still have some warm, summer-like days ahead of us (I hope), but most likely our nights will get colder as the days shorten.
My young horse Pepperoni and I, alongside Rich and his horse Casper, took a trip to my friend Lucy’s ranch where we did some high-mountain riding in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. I was super pleased with Pepper’s performance on the rough, steep and (at times) treacherous trail. He was strong, sure-footed and willing; we rode in every position in the line-up—he even led bravely the descent. The trip inspired me to write a blog series on the making of a great trail horse.
Normally I haul two horses (Pepper and Annie) to clinics at C Lazy U, where I am in the saddle all day. But I’ve decided to take only Pepper to the next clinic—a sure sign of his maturity and reliability. It’s a good thing Fall is such a glorious time of year here in the Rockies, because I’ll be in the mountains, conducting horsemanship clinics for the next month.
I have three programs at the C Lazy U Ranch in northern Colorado and one in Jackson Hole Wyoming, for the winner of the Equus & W.F. Young Win A Day contest. I’m excited about the two new programs we are offering in October—The Fall Getaway (a fun mountain vacation hosted by Barbra Schulte and her husband Tom, and my husband Rich and me) and Horsemanship Immersion (an education-intensive program for insatiable learners, covering equitation, groundwork, training, health, saddle fit, etc.). If you are looking for an adventure—there are still a few openings in both programs. Find out more.
My little mare Annie (14.0 hands in high heels) still carries the load when it comes to media production. She’s a finished cow horse, in her prime, and still my go to horse (although Pepper is creeping up on her). Last week we recorded video for some virtual events this fall. The Certified Horsemanship Association’s annual conference has gone virtual and is happening on October 30th. The conference is open to anyone, and will offer educational horsemanship clinics—both English and Western—from a variety of nationally known presenters, including yours truly.
My clinic is called Lead Changes: Simple and Flying, and we recorded the riding portion last week. I rode Annie in the clinic, plus I had two English riders and one Western rider. The horses (and one pony, not counting Annie) and riders were all at different training levels, from a youth rider to a pro rider. In spite of having about 15” of heavy wet snow on the ground the day before and high winds during the shoot, we pulled off a great clinic! Certified Horsemanship Association’s Virtual Conference is open to anyone. It’s chock full of horsemanship education, and you can participate right from the comfort and safety of your own home! You can register here at the discounted member rate by entering the priority code JG ($60 off!).
Here in the high mountains of Colorado, there’s not much left of summer. But I’m looking forward to a fabulous fall riding season and getting back on the road with my horses. It’s certainly been a strange year, and one we all look forward to seeing in our rearview mirrors. I think many of us horse lovers are grateful to have the stability, connectivity and grounding that horses and the accompanying (never ending) chores give us. I know I am.
This fall brings a transition like no other. Normally, I take a break from business travel in the summer and ease back into full swing, traveling to horse expos, clinics and conferences in September. Of course, this year, I’ve had a five-month stretch with very little business travel. Like a lot of people, back in March I went from shock, to wandering in circles, to settling into a new normal. I love traveling, meeting new horses and helping them with their people. At first, I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I couldn’t travel—all I could think about was when things would get back to normal. Then came a period of adjustment; then came a new normal. I’m sure many of you can relate.
Now it’s time to dust off my suitcases, pack my bags and hit the road again! Although a part of me has become content staying at home, I’m super excited to get back to what I do best—teach horsemanship! Although my fall schedule does not look like it used to, I’ve still got some trips on the books, and I’m excited to get back in the arena with three clinics at the C Lazy U Ranch, plus my Equus Win-A-Day clinic in Jackson Hole, WY. Apparently, many of you are eager to travel, too, since our clinics at C Lazy U are filling fast!
The Ranch Riding Adventure in September is full but the Fall Getaway (co-taught with Barbra Schulte), October 8-12, still has a few openings. This is a new, vacation-oriented program, where guests can pick their own agenda each day, choosing from all the ranch amenities (riding and non-riding), plus lessons with Barbra and me each day and plenty of social activities (outside and social distancing). Bring your spouse or a non-riding friend for this fun, action-packed outdoor program. October 22-26 is Horsemanship Immersion—a program you’ve asked for, specifically designed for insatiable learners. This will be a hands-on, 4-day program that covers riding skills, groundwork, health, first aid, conformation, saddle fit and bits, behavior and training, plus trail riding in the Rocky Mountains. These clinics are filling fast, so if you’re ready to venture out, check out these fabulous programs.
This month I’ll be conducting a recorded clinic for the CHA V-Conference on October 30th. The conference is open to anyone and will offer educational horsemanship clinics, both English and Western, from a variety of nationally known presenters. I’ll be offering a clinic on lead changes, which will be pre-recorded and viewed on October 30th, with live commentary from me. The Certified Horsemanship Association is a nonprofit organization that promotes safety and effectiveness in horsemanship instruction. I’ve been a proud member, spokesperson, and certified Master Instructor with the organization for decades. This virtual conference will certainly be chock full of high-quality horsemanship instruction. Please join us!
This year has been like no other. We’ve learned a lot about human nature and how quickly our society can change and how well we can all adapt. I’ve found some unexpected treasures, with more time to do the things I love. I’ve found new strength in my ability to pivot. I’ve had a lot of fun with the Daily Doses of Horsemanship Homework and found a lot of satisfaction in foster-training Doc Gunner (please visit MyRightHorse.org to find out how you can help horses in need). If you asked me back in early March if I would be willing to give up traveling, I would have said no. But now that I see that even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, we can find joy in the smallest things ,and opportunity where we didn’t know it existed. I have a new perspective. I know many people are hurting, and I am heartened by the kindness and generosity of others. As we ease back into “normal” life, there will be more bumps and recalculations, but I do have faith in the positive outcome and I hope you do too!
I’m not sure whether I’m sad to see summer wane or glad to see this year halfway behind us. The not-knowing-what’s-next is hard for everyone, myself included. I miss helping horses with their people. I miss the hundreds of horses I encounter in-person each year. In fact, I consider it a perk of my job and I want it back. How else does a trainer master their craft, other than working with thousands of individual horses?
When will we get back to the horse-business-as-usual? Who knows, really, but I think for large events like horse expos, it’s looking like 2021 will be a remake of what we’d planned for 2020. It’ll be like we skipped a year; sort of like suspended animation. For 2021, I’m booked at all the events I planned to attend this year, and I am looking forward to that day! See my full schedule here.
In the meantime, and maybe permanently, I’ll be doing a lot more private/small group clinics. There’s nothing quite like working with horses and their people, up-close and personal, and seeing the dynamic between them. After all, if the person could articulate to me what they were doing wrong, we could handle it on the phone. Without seeing the interaction between horse and human, I miss a lot of information that I need to help solve problems. If you think you and your horse are ready for a house call, get more info on private clinics here.
This fall, I’ll be teaching three “vacation clinics” at the renowned C Lazy U Ranch, near Granby, Colorado. This “5-Spur” guest ranch is operating at reduced capacity this summer; with almost all of the activities outside and with well-established covid precautions, they are staying safe while offering outstanding family vacations. I was there in June for a clinic I co-taught with Barbra Schulte and everyone was smart and we had a great time. While my September program at C Lazy U is full, the two October programs still have openings. So if you’re ready to venture out, this may be your ticket…
Ranch Riding Adventure, September 17-21. Includes trail riding, daily lessons with Julie, trail obstacles and cattle work. This clinic is full for 2020; if this program fits your needs, call and ask to be on the waitlist for 2021.
Fall Mountain Getaway, October 8-12. Join Julie Goodnight, Barbra Schulte and their husbands for a vacation for fun-loving adults. Plan your own schedule each day, choosing from a menu of activities, including lessons with Julie and Barb, incredible trail rides, plus many fun activities for riders and nonriders alike.
Horsemanship Immersion, October 22-26. With a laboratory of over 200 horses to play with, this program is for insatiable learners of all ability levels. It involves concentrated study and hands-on practice, including riding, groundwork, conformation, behavior & training, saddle fit & bits, health & first aid.
As spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association, I’m excited to be participating in their virtual conference, on Friday, October 30th. The CHA Conference is geared toward horse professionals, but is open to anyone and is often attended by non-professionals that wish to expand their knowledge. For the v-conference, I will pre-record a clinic with both English and Western riders called, “Simple and Flying Lead Changes,” (a tall order). I’ll present the video of the clinic on the 30th and answer your questions.
If you’re an English rider interested in bringing your horse and riding with me at my ranch in Salida, Colorado, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is much about life to learn from horses and the lessons learned are too important not to share with as many youngsters as we can—be it your children, grandchildren or the neighborhood kids. If I have learned anything about children in my lifetime, it’s that they will find their own path, their own dreams and their own passions.
Horses have always been part of my life. I knew from the start that I wanted to give my own child the love of horses. I was pregnant when you didn’t know what gender your baby was until the day it was born. So for nine months, I dreamt of having a horse-crazy girl who would live, eat and breathe horses, just like I did when I was a kid. When my son was born, I was not deterred. Sure, probably 10:1 are horse-crazy girls to boys, but we would buck the odds. I imagined my son teaching clinics alongside me, helping me start the colts and what a great trainer he would one day become, taking over my business when I retire! After all, it’s far easier for a boy to make it in this business than a girl, right?
I am one of four kids that all grew up in a family with horses and the same set of parents, yet I was the only one who took to the sport. My father had the passion and he recognized it early-on in me. All of us kids had the opportunity to ride horses throughout our lives, but I was apparently the only one that was horse-obsessed. My father felt strongly that no matter what you choose to do in life, you should do it right and do it well. He was a no fuss, no muss horseman who had an intensive focus on safety, but a compelling need to have fun. Without question, my father was the most influential human in my lifetime journey of horsemanship.
One of my father’s favorite activities was hooking up our driving ponies and driving through the neighborhoods that surrounded our farm, letting any kid pile on for a ride. I often wonder if he inspired a passion for horses in any of those kids, whose names we did not even know.
My father always said: It’s our job as parents to guide their path, but not to dictate it. It’s our job to provide opportunity and options. Creating a “mini-me” is not really the goal of parenting. As my father once so eloquently said, “We raise our children to be independent thinkers, so you cannot complain when they are!”
From the time my son was two weeks old, he went to the barn with me every day. I was running a full-service boarding/training/lesson facility at the time, as well as offering guided trail rides to tourists; there wasn’t much of an option for maternity leave, since I was self-employed. If my child had the horse-crazy gene, there would be plenty opportunity for its expression. But still, I found that if I wanted to instill a passion for horses in my son, I had to work at it, and couldn’t take it for granted.
There were certain things I learned by trial and error about parenting and horses, that would help set the stage for my child’s future with horses. Here are my tips to help foster a love of horses….
Five Tenets of Horses and Parenting
Make it safe.
Although the school of hard knocks couldn’t damper my own passion, I know that if something happens to cause fear or injury, that it could staunch even the most ardent passion. I’ve seen in again and again—a passion flaming out from fear. My oldest sister once confided in me that she had the same love of horses as me, but a scary fall had squelched it. Much more common in adults, who naturally have more fear; it is particularly heart-wrenching to see in children. Do not cut corners or take unnecessary risks; seek help if you aren’t sure how. Certified Horsemanship Association is an excellent resource for parents and CHA certified instructors (of which I am one) are tested on their safety awareness.
When my son was about 7, he insisted that he should ride “Cochise,” a flashy, energetic Paint from our trail string, in spite of the fact he was one of our tougher mounts. After much persuasion, I agreed to let him ride the gelding on a short ride with his buddy, with me in the lead, keeping a close eye on Cochise. To my great relief, the ride went off without a hitch, until I stopped to talk to a friend in the driveway, a mere 50 yards from the barn. My eyes bored into the back of the gelding’s head as he sauntered past and no sooner was he beyond my reach than he took off like a bullet for the barn. He ran straight to his spot on the hitching rail and did a 90 degree pivot as he slammed on the brakes. Hunter stuck to him until the bitter end then landed in the mud in a heap of tears and snot. Although he was not hurt, his passion for horses simmered down a little that day. Proving once again, the most important thing I learned from my father about horses—always plan for the worst-case scenario.
Size it up.
A good pony can be hard to find, but well worth the effort. First, the closer you are to the ground, the better. A fall is considered potentially fatal if it is greater than your own height. The higher that kid’s head is off the ground, the worse the fall. There’s also a matter of width—the smaller the kid’s legs, the narrower the horse should be. Picture the toddler on a draft horse with his legs doing the splits—don’t bother trying to teach the kid leg aids. Good kid’s saddles can also be hard to find, but important to a young rider’s success.
My son really enjoyed brushing, cleaning the feet, saddling and bridling his own horse and being able to tie on his own BB gun. Having a right-sized horse was really important to him because he liked to do things the way adults did them. Our naughty Welsh-Shetland cross was his pal for years and they combed the woods surrounding the stables. “Surprise” was his name (and he was always full of them) and he went on to raise kids in several other families after my son outgrew him.
Make it fun, not work.
Since I was in the horse business, horses represented a lot of hard work to me. It’s a demanding job, D2D/7 (dawn to dusk/ seven days a week); well-suited for work-aholics. My first inclination was to make the kids clean stalls and do the chores first, but I soon realized that if I wanted my son to love horses, it dang sure had to be fun!
I learned that sometimes, I had to take a break from my busy work schedule to have fun with the kids. If that meant dressing up like cowboys, stalking the woods for bears and shooting at ground squirrels, then that’s what we did. There were lots of picnics, lots of belting out songs as we rode down the trail and lots of mounted games involving toilet paper. I never grew tired of listening to kids laughing and singing on a horse. I learned that it’s not a privilege for a kid to get to ride; it’s a privilege for an adult to be able to offer this awesome experience to a child.
4. Invite friends.
Like many activities, riding is more fun when shared with a friend. I was a very shy and solitary kid and for me, horses were the only friends I needed growing up; but my son was clearly a very social animal from early-on. Because we were in the horse business and horses were available to my son to play with all-day, every-day, I noticed right away that it seemed a lot more fun when other kids wanted to ride with us. Looking back on it now, I also realize how important it is for all of us that have horses to give as many kids this amazing opportunity as we can, and that there is no telling how even a brief experience with horses can shape a child’s life in a positive way.
Fortunately, Hunter’s best childhood friend did have the horse-crazy gene, but his parent’s did not have horses at the time. The two boys spent countless hours and days on-end playing “Lonesome Dove” with the horses, in the foothills of our small mountain town. Both boys grew up to be avid backcountry enthusiasts. Darby’s family eventually bought a ranch, where his passion for horses grew stronger. Today, Darby is still in touch with his passion for horses, spending his summers guiding luxury pack trips into the Colorado wilderness, while he’s in graduate school for architecture. Horses have been a steady influence his whole life and he enjoys sharing it with others.
5. Find your child’s unique passion and exploit it.
My father recognized the spark in me and even though he was a straight-up Western kind of guy, my dream was to ride jumpers, and he let me do it. My father was a big believer in getting the best education/coaching you can, so I first started hunt seat riding lessons the summer I turned seven. I was immediately the star pupil of my sage old riding instructor, who was probably the second most influential person in my horsemanship journey. She was a salty, bow-legged, hunched-backed, chain smoker (filter-less Camels) and I worshipped the ground she walked on. She gave me a solid foundation in my riding (I went on to win countless blue ribbons in equitation) and an insatiable desire to learn more (which continues today). From her, I also learned to pay close attention to one’s posture (particularly as we age) and I never smoked cigarettes.
Although my idea of a good time was to ride, ride, ride, my son’s interest was the farrier. He thought our farrier hung the moon; he loved to clean out feet and by the ripe old age of 7, he had his own farrier tool box and he was learning how to hold and shape feet. My father got him his own set of chaps, which touched the ground when he was 6, and then morphed into above-the-knee chinks by the time he was 14 (those very chaps decorate our guest house now). We made sure he spent plenty of time with our farrier, who was a great role model and happy to mentor my son.
Lessons Learned by Mom
When my son was little and I had to stop whatever seemingly important task I was doing to get a horse out for him or watch him shoot a target from the back of his pony, I never imagined how important horses would be to him as an adult. By the time he was a teenager, and my business had evolved to the point I was on the road 30 weekends a year, I was reliant on Hunter to feed the horses and do chores at home. Now, he is grown up and independent and he still takes care of my horses. His eye is keen and he handles them with care; his devotion to horses is obvious.
You don’t have to be a rider to have a passion for horses. We should all be doing what gives us the greatest satisfaction; every day. Explore every corner of horsemanship and get good instruction along the way. Never under-estimate the value of learning on safe and well-trained horses, but don’t get pigeon-holed into a discipline. When I was a kid, I lived to jump. As a young adult, I had to ride in the back country. Later, it was all about working cows. I have done many disciplines and each one has broadened my knowledge in significant ways. It’s all about opportunity—and giving a young one lots of chances to find their own way with horses.
Written by 30 professional horsemanship instructors from the United States and Canada. This four level manual contains a complete program for all levels of riders, with many illustrations by noted author and illustrator, Susan Harris. Available as separate level manuals or all four levels in this Composite Manual. Has a written test and riding test patterns at the end of each level.
Horses have their own gravity. If you’ve loved them in the past and been pushed away because of an injury or accident, it’s possible you’ll be drawn right back to their beautiful, sleek, powerful sides. Gravity pulls you back even if your worries or fears make you wonder why, even when our biological responses to fear tell us not to go back to a dangerous situation. Here’s a look at why I think horsemen want to overcome the very natural fears that enter in after accidents with horses.
I often wonder why we want to be around horses when horses step on your feet, bite, kick, and buck you off. Have you ever had your foot stepped on by a horse? Been bitten? Been kicked? Have you ever fallen off or gotten bucked off your horse? Have you ever started out on a ride and ended up at the Emergency Room? I ask these questions to rooms full of horse people and just about all raise their hands.
Why do we do this? Gravity. Horses have a power to draw us in, make us learn from our mistakes and prompt us to keep trying.
I hope that you are never hurt by horses—physically or physiologically. I do believe that if you are conscientious, systematic and methodical about safety, the chances of getting hurt are greatly reduced. I’ve worked with many large riding operations through the Certified Horsemanship Association (a nonprofit organization focused on horsemanship safety and excellence) and seen many of them that have almost zero incident rates. That’s not luck— that’s by design. But I realize accidents do happen. Horses are powerful beings with their own minds and strong bodies.
Let me go on record here: I DO NOT believe that getting hurt should be an expected or accepted outcome with horses. I DO believe that most, if not all, accidents are preventable and no matter how wild and unpredictable we think horses are, if you really analyze an accident, you’ll find a way you could’ve prevented it. I know for myself that when I look at the horse wrecks I’ve been in, they all started with me doing something stupid or going against that little voice in my head that tried to warn me.
Still, even when we make a commitment to safety, things happen. Horses are big and flighty animals and it’s a given that bumps, bruises and scrapes will happen–even in the best of circumstances. And when you are perched on top of a half-ton of live and somewhat volatile horseflesh with a balance of its own and–more significantly–a will of its own, you will on occasion have an unscheduled dismount. I’ve sure had my share, but fortunately I’ve never had more than a few broken ribs to contend with. But that was enough to mess with my head. With my chosen profession and my love of horses, I had to work through the worry.
Biology of Fear
I’ve known plenty of riders who have had incidents with horses that resulted in serious injury– I’ve heard stories that are so horrific that I wonder why the person would ever want to ride again. But amazingly, they do. Gravity.
Our hard-wired biological responses after a traumatic event can be hard to overcome, but overcoming is possible. Our love of horses makes us want to overcome. When an accident or injury occurs, a “fear memory” is lodged in your mind; it’s purpose is to remind you of this injury so it doesn’t happen again. Fear memories are supposed to prevent us from doing a stupid thing again, like reaching out and touching a hot wood stove. But when coming back after a riding accident, sometimes fear memories get in our way of hopping back into the saddle.
Fear memories can not be deleted, but you can learn to manage them. If you were bucked off and hurt one day when you asked your horse to canter, the next time you canter (or even think about it) that fear memory will surface— it’s a biological fact. So don’t let it surprise you and don’t let it take control. Expect the fear memory to surface and have a plan to keep it at bay.
I think it is really important to “intellectualize your fear” after an accident. When enough time has passed and you have healed both physically and emotionally, it is important to thoroughly analyze what happened. What went wrong and what you might have done to prevent it from happening?
Learning from your mistakes and understanding the situation better should help diffuse your fear. If, for instance, you ignored an earlier warning sign, then you can make up your mind to never do that again. Knowledge and understanding of how an accident may have been prevented—and establishing concrete actions you can take in the future to prevent a repeat–will lead to more confidence.
Fear is a powerful emotion and it is generated from a subconscious part of the brain. But you can learn to control your fear. It’s not always easy; it’s something you have to work at, but it can be done. Coming back after an accident will require some work and self-discipline on your part, but I know many, many people who have done it. Their love of the sport, the way of life and the love of their horses seems to drive them to face that fear and create a plan to overcome.
Answer this: Why?
After you’ve had an accident or mishap, it is critically important that you do some serious introspection to determine why you are doing this horse thing. Why are horses important to you and why do you want to keep riding? These are not easy questions to answer but the answers are critically important to your comeback. You have to decide if horses are pulling you back. You have to know if you are being pulled by their gravity or just think you “should” ride again.
“Why?” is always the most difficult question to answer; how and what are much easier. But there are reasons why you are committed to coming back to riding and it is important to get in touch with those reasons, because of this simple fact: purpose leads to courage. If you can really come to terms with why you want this so badly, then you remind yourself of that purpose when things get tough, your purpose will give you courage.
Plan of Action
Your fear can come back to you like gravity just like your love of horses. Fear has a way of finding its way in—especially if you don’t have a plan to subdue it. When coming back after an accident or injury, it is important to practice mental control. Know that your fear memory will surface— don’t let it take you by surprise or dictate your actions. Your thinking, your body language and your emotions are all connected: mind, body and spirit. When the emotion of fear takes over, your mind devolves into negative “what if” thinking and your posture starts to reflect the emotion too.
Here is the secret key to overcoming your fear– keep your mind operating in a proactive and positive way (plan ahead of time what you will think about or what song you will sing; disallow negative thoughts and replace them quickly). If you think of falling each time you mount up, make a list of all the wonderful rides you’ve had and focus on those memories. Feel those wonderful rides. Make that memory a reality in the present. Make sure your body language shows confidence (sit up straight, square your shoulders– look tough!). By keeping control of the mental and the physical aspects of your being, the emotion doesn’t stand a chance.
A recap and to-do list: Analyze what happened to cause your fears, know what lessons can be learned and make a commitment to safety. Gain a better understanding of why you are doing this; the ‘why’ is your purpose, your “gravity. ” Purpose leads to courage. Finally, make sure you have a plan of action when you ride: practice deep breathing, keep your eyes focused and your mind engaged in a positive direction, and keep your body language strong and confident.
You can do it! I hope your love of horses pulls you back to the fun of the sport.
In “Shop ‘Til You Drop,” the Horse Master episode taped at my ranch in Colorado, I helped my friend Sddita Fradette begin the horse shopping process. She’s a skilled rider and NARHA riding instructor but doesn’t have her own horse at the moment. She wants to make sure she has the know-how and strategy to start shopping with confidence. We talked about the importance of conformation, breeding, size, temperament, training, sex and more during the show.
Be sure to watch the episode on RFD-TV, log on to watch the extra footage at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghGuPH_bLOI then read on to find out more about finding your own perfect horse. The show is part of a new series of episodes shot at my ranch (we’ll shoot in Colorado again in late summer 2010 if you’re close and would like to apply to get help for you and your horse: http://www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/apply.html). In the new shows, there’s help if your horse refuses to approach obstacles, if you’re a new rider and want help learning how to work with your new horse, if you’re horse shopping, if your horse won’t accept a bit and bridle without raising his head, and if you want help finding the proper bit for your well-trained horse. Here’s more about horse shopping….
Horse Shopping 101
When it’s time to look for a new horse, you want to be an educated buyer—understanding what to look for and what questions to ask as you shop for your dream horse. You’ll want to find the safest and best-trained horse that your money can buy. You will love a horse that makes you feel safe; get one that you can build confidence with instead of constantly re-building.
It’s very important to identify exactly how you plan to use your new horse because you cannot fit a square peg into a round hole. Spend some time thinking about what your short and long term goals are; be realistic in terms of your time commitment and physical ability. If your time commitment is limited, you’ll need a very well-trained and seasoned horse that can stand around for days or weeks and still ride easy, not a “project” horse that is young or poorly trained. If your goals include competitive riding, you’ll need a horse that is the right type, with good athletic ability and solid training. The more demanding the competition, the more type, pedigree and training play a role.
It may be that you want an all-around horse that you can do a variety of things with, from casual trail riding to dressage, both English and western. If so, realistically rank all the activities you plan and what is most important to you and set up a list of priorities so that you can evaluate individual horses and rate their best qualities.
Realize that one horse may not suit your long-term goals and you may out-grow this horse, particularly if you plan to compete regularly. If you are just starting out as a beginner, you need a steady, solid mount that has a lot of patience; these horses are typically not the sharpest athletes. As you reach higher levels of riding, you’ll need a horse that can move up the levels with you. Maybe you’ll need a starter horse and in a few years you’ll be ready to move up to a highly bred and trained performer that will propel you to the highest levels (start saving your money now!). Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you’ll keep every horse you have for the rest of its life; horses are not like dogs. While it is possible that you may keep one horse forever, you may find that the horse you buy does not turn out to be the best horse for you in the future and you may need to sell him and move onto another.
In a booklet I wrote for the Certified Horsemanship Association (a non-profit organization that promotes safety in the horse industry, http://www.cha-ahse.org) called Ready to Ride, I cover when to buy a horse, purchasing vs. leasing, and the many and varied breeds and disciplines to consider. I also cover finding a riding instructor and trainer, setting realistic goals, etc. If you haven’t owned your own horse before or are looking for a horse for a young rider, the booklet helps you consider all the aspects of horse ownership—costs and extras you might not have added to your budget and plan. Here’s information from Chapter 10, “Should You Buy a Horse:”
“When you consider the purchase price, boarding, health care, and equipment needed, owning a horse is clearly more expensive than simply riding school horses. Owning a horse requires a substantial investment of time and energy and a serious long-term commitment.
Owning or Leasing a Horse Many stables offer leases and half-leases on horses, which gives a good introduction to horse ownership, without the capital investment. Often leases are available for the cost of board and maintenance, so it is a more affordable first step to horse ownership, without the long-term commitment. However, the purchase price may be the least amount of money you will spend on a horse; the maintenance costs can be considerably higher in the long run….
Many naïve horse lovers make the devastating mistake of buying a young horse for their first horse. Horses are not like puppies; you cannot effectively train a young horse without years of experience and a young horse is much more dangerous than a little puppy. Between the horse and the rider, it is imperative that one of you knows what you are doing. Unlike puppies, horses can become big dangerous animals in a heartbeat; it requires a competent and experienced horse person to raise and train young horses.
Horses are not really mature until they are about eight years old and they are in their prime in their teens. Most good beginner and novice horses are 14 or older, although some may be younger. The older a horse gets, the more he has learned about life, humans and his job. You want a horse that can teach you; not a horse that needs an education.
Look for a stable with a program that teaches good horse care and knowledge as well as riding skills. Volunteer for horse chores at a stable; allow your child to take advantage of the opportunity for character development. Horses are not machines and one of the most important things a child can learn is personal responsibility.
Some stables offer full care only, while others give you the choice of providing some of your horse’s care yourself. There should be a regular schedule for feeding, watering, stall cleaning/manure disposal, farrier, and veterinary visits….”
It’s crucial to consider all the costs and think through where you’ll keep your horse and how you’ll keep him safe and healthy before you buy. And no matter if you’re shopping for your ultimate dream horse or your first horse, take the time to research your purchase and seek out support for your shopping trips. Find a trainer that specializes in the discipline you’d like to work in or seek out a friend that has more horse experience than you do to help you weigh your options throughout the process. There are seller’s agents and buyer’s agents. You need a buyer’s agent that you can pay his/her regularly hourly fee to look at horses with you. Or you could engage a trainer to look for horses for you for a finder’s fee (be wary of commissions for buyer’s agents since that encourages the trainer to look for an expensive horse). Most often what you encounter is the seller’s agent (like with real estate), who is receiving a commission on the sale (usually 10%); therefore you may not get all the info you need about the horse. Be very leery of double-dipping agents (taking a commission from both buyer and seller). It’s best to have an objective third-party agent who has no motivation other than to give you his/her honest opinion.
Check out even more horse shopping tips and strategies in my Horse Buyer’s Guide PDF available free at www.JulieGoodnight.com. And visit the horse sales page on the site: http://juliegoodnight.com/horses.
I have a 13-year-old daughter who has been in 4H since she was eight years old. She has become a great rider and is interested in learning how to become a professional rider of reining, cutting…or any western type horses in shows. What kind of advise would you give her as far as working towards that goal? She dreams of making it into the publications some day. She is also interested in becoming a clinician and has already begun training young horses with natural horsemanship. She would love shadow someone during her summers. What would make her a better candidate for these types of goals?
Mother of a horse-crazy daughter
Answer: Dear Mom,
First let me say that I admire your daughter’s perseverance, determination and passion. I think it is wonderful when a child has that kind of focus and drive; horses are such a wonderful tool for developing focus, responsibility and accountability in youth.
When asked this question by youth or parents, I am not typically eager to encourage this career path. While there are many great opportunities in the horse industry, becoming a trainer means that you will work long and hard for very little pay (and even fewer benefits) and not many trainers make it to “the big time.”
What I would encourage her to do is to go to college and get a degree that could be useful whether she decides to be in the horse business or not, like a degree in business, journalism or animal science. There are lots of opportunities in the horse industry for people with these skills (and an interest/knowledge of horses), whether it be managing a breeding farm, writing for a magazine or working in the nutrition, pharmaceutical, retail or marketing fields. With a “real” job, she can afford to continue to enjoy horses on the level she is now—as a participant, rather than as a worker.
I work closely with the Colorado State University Equine Program and they offer a variety of degrees and their curriculum is one of the best in the country. It is aligned closely with the CSU business school and in fact, you can get a bachelor’s in equine science with a minor in business, then come back and get a MBA in one year. If I had it all to do over again, this is what I would do. You can get your hands-on horse experience lots of places, but nothing replaces a college education. What makes most horse trainers fail is a lack of business savvy.
Becoming a trainer is a great career for some people, but you have to recognize that it is very physically demanding—long hours and hard days, not to mention hazardous. In the beginning you’ll be riding a lot of tough horses and the toll can be high. With hard work and determination she may get to a level where she can pick and chose the horses she rides, but not everyone makes it that far.
If she is determined to make a career as a horse trainer, I recommend that she get as much experience in as many different aspects of the industry as possible, in order to make her skills more marketable—English, western, racing, breeding, teaching, colt-starting, trail riding, etc., to round-out her experience. Working hands-on will help build her resume and get her the references she’ll need to get somewhere (it is very much a word-of-mouth business), but these positions can be difficult to attain.
Most successful trainers get constant requests for apprenticeships and many of those people are willing to work for nothing just to gain the experience. To get the attention of a successful trainer, you’ll need to be persistent, humble and willing to work hard in any role. Most trainers will initially say no, but if you are persistent, you may get a foot in the door. But what most trainers have learned is that few people have the work ethic and stick-to-it-ness to actually last. So you’ll have to be willing to pay some dues before you get any where.
One thing that will jump-start her plan is to get certified as an assistant instructor when she is 16. CHA offers a hands-on certification that will teach her a lot about how to teach lessons and keep people safe around horses and this could set her apart from the hundreds of other people trying to get their foot in the door as an apprentice. To read more about this process, visit http://www.cha-ahse.org/cert.htm#standard.
Your daughter will need to develop a realistic plan that will involve years of hard work at the not-so-glorious jobs like grooming horses, warming up horses and even doing basic chores like feeding and cleaning stalls. If she can prove herself in these areas, she may get some opportunity to ride some nice horses, but it will probably be a long time before she gets a chance to compete on those horses. It’s pretty easy to get to the “big time” if you can buy your way into the show scene; not so easy to get there based on hard work and desire—but not impossible.
Becoming a “clinician” is something that many young people strive for these days because they see the popular clinicians out there it seems like a cool job. Being a clinician is not really a career in and of itself, but an outcome or result of a career. A clinician is just a trainer or instructor that has years of experience riding hundreds or maybe thousands of horses and teaching hundreds or thousands of riders. A clinician is an instructor or trainer that travels to teach in different venues, instead of teaching regular students in one place.
It would be a great goal to have, to be a clinician, but there are many years of very hard work for very little pay in order to get there. The horse industry is one of the few lines of work where you are expected to work 6+ days a week—you can’t just shut down the barn on the weekend. All successful trainers have very strong work ethics, in addition to their strong passion for horses.
Right now, your daughter has only been involved in the fun side of horses. If she is serious about having a career in the horse industry, she’ll have to see the working side too—the not-so-glamorous side—and decide if this is really something she wants to do. If it is, hard work and determination will get her there—eventually. As Pat Parelli is very fond of saying, he is a “twenty –year over-night success!”
I wish her all the success in whatever path she chooses.
Question: Hello Julie, I have a 4 year old registered paint gelding, Zippo Pine Bar bred, tall and gorgeous that I have had for just over a year! But, he is terrified when I step near or into the saddle. I bought him knowing he had a troubled past, but I can’t seem to make any new progress with mounting. I have done a ton of groundwork and desensitizing which he does great with.
The problem comes in when I am on the mounting block. His body gets very tense, his lower lip will quiver with concern and his eyes look terrified. I usually stand on the mounting block doing stretching exercises and touching/patting him all over until he relaxes, which sometimes doesn’t happen! If I get on without using my stirrup he is OK, still nervous but stands fine. However, if I even start to put weight in my stirrup he will bolt away from me, and once that has happened I will not be able to mount that day (he gets way too freaked out).
Strangely enough though, once I am on you would never know he is such a challenge to get on. He rides like a dream, still green, but a wonderful 4 yr old! I have all the time and patience in the world for this horse, he truly is an amazing animal that was damaged by an uncaring human by no fault of his own. I just want some direction on where to go with him!
Thank you so much!
Answer: Nichole, Sounds like your horse was lucky to find you! It is not hard to make drastic mistakes in the process of starting a horse under saddle. There are many steps at which things can go very wrong and there are many stupid mistakes to be made by people in the complicated process of training a young horse to be ridden.
Who knows what happened with your horse in the past, but chances are it was entirely preventable. That’s why I always encourage people to hire a professional to put a good foundation on your young horse—it is a time that can make or break a horse’s riding career. In your case, it seems like his previous training left him broken, but not broke.
During the process of introducing a horse to the saddle, to mounting, to balancing the weight of the rider, to taking cues from the rider, there are many crucial steps that, done wrong, can turn into a very negative training experience for the horse which may cause problems for the rest of his life. Something went wrong with your horse—either something hurt him physically like an ill-fitted saddle or something scared him so badly that his reaction caused him to get hurt (a self-fulfilling prophecy to the horse).
So now you are left to undo the damage that was caused when the horse was “broke.” Good training and many, many repetitions (until the good experience far outweighs the bad) will fix this horse. The good news is that he is young and still impressionable. It’s really good news that he is working well under-saddle—it tells me if you find the right technique, he will be entirely fixable.
It’s critical to make sure your saddle and/or poor mounting technique is not causing the problem. If it is digging into his wither or shoulder when you mount, he has good reason to react poorly. Unfortunately, the fear of pain may have originated from his previous training so even if your saddle is not currently causing a problem, in his mind, he may think mounting will always hurt him.
After you’ve ruled out a physical problem, only time and patience will reprogram your horse. You need to retrain the mounting process as if you were starting from the beginning, only it will take much longer. It always takes much longer to undo training mistakes than it does to train a horse right to begin with. Wouldn’t it be nice to know about all the potential mistakes you could make in training a horse before you actually do it?
We have four new episodes of Horse Master coming out in February 2012 about starting a young horse under-saddle—each step you take, how to do it right and what mistakes to avoid. This same info is also available in my full-length training DVD, Ready to Ride. One whole section is on mounting and I would use the same process on your horse. It is my hope that this information will help people avoid making the mistakes that were made with your horse.
Based on the info stated in your question, the first thing I would do is get rid of the mounting block. It is possible that it is contributing to his fear and I would want to see what his reaction to mounting was without it. I’ve seen a lot of training problems that involve a mounting block.
Of course, this means you have to be very good at mounting from the ground and getting your weight centered over the horse’s back as soon as possible, so as not to hurt his back. I have also seen many mounting issues caused by poor mounting technique on the part of the rider.
Next, you’ll break down the mounting process into tiny steps and then use a process known as pattern conditioning, where you repeat a certain pattern over and over until the horse has a conditioned response that is relaxed and accepting. Your horse already has a conditioned response to being mounted, but it is not a good one. Breaking it into small steps, releasing the pressure on the horse when he responds correctly and repeating this pattern again and again, will fix your horse.
There are a lot of articles in my Training Library, http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php, on desensitization and dealing with fearful behavior. You may want to read some of them—even if the articles are not exactly the same as your horse, you will likely find some info that helps. It is important that you fully understand the process of advance and retreat desensitizing and when you give the release.
Also, be sure to tune in to Horse Master on RFD-TV in February to see the episode on first mounting. If you don’t get RFD, you may want to order the DVD, Ready to Ride. It is the fourth DVD in my “From the Ground Up” series and covers the very critical stage in a young horse’s training when you first begin riding him. BTW- the previous three videos in the series are pre-requisite to this stage and cover round pen work, lead line work and training the horse to respond properly to bit pressure.
Take your time, have lots of patience and you will get past this problem with your horse. He sounds like a good egg—he just needs some reprogramming.
Enjoy the ride!
Find more free articles to read and refer to in Julie’s Training Library: http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php and watch Horse Master on RFD-TV every Monday at 12:30 and 10:30p EST —Direct TV channel 345, Dish Network channel 231 and on many cable outlets. Then visit http://www.horsemaster.tv and http://www.juliegoodnight.com/clinics for the clinic schedule, articles related to each episode, the gear used in each show, and for training DVDs and publications. Plus, see clips from each show at: http://www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com and check out specials and even more clips on Goodnight’s Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at: http://juliegoodnight.com/emailsignup.php. Goodnight is proud to recommend Myler Bits, Nutramax Laboratories, Circle Y Saddles, Redmond Equine, and Bucas Blankets. Goodnight is the spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association.
Question: I have heard different opinions on whether or not to leave stirrup bar safety latches open on English saddles? What do you think?
Answer: CHA advocates always leaving stirrup bar safety latches in the open position. It is highly unlikely that the stirrup leathers will come loose from jumping or any other activity when the latch is open and even if it does, the result is far less dangerous than the potential for being drug by a horse.
The releasable latch on the stirrup bar is called a ‘safety latch’ and is intended to be used in the up position and release in the event a rider falls and the rider’s foot is stuck in the stirrup. However, if the latch is not regularly cleaned and oiled, it freezes in the up position and does not function properly, therefore it becomes a hazard by locking the stirrup leathers into place. Since few riders will properly maintain the safety latch, it is best to leave the latch open.
Perhaps very high level cross country jumpers and open jumpers may choose to leave the latch closed, to prevent the possibility of the leather releasing unintentionally, but novice level riders and all children should err on the side of safety and leave the latch open. It is highly unlikely that the leather will release during the normal course of riding. Many English saddles made today do not even have the latch and instead have a curved stirrup bar that will cause the leather to release in the event of a dragging.
Question: My niece is 4 years old, and small for her age, but loves horses and riding. We would sit her on a horse from the time she was able to sit up, being held by an adult for a short lead-line ride. When she was two we got her a toddler helmet and adjusted it to fit her head well, and someone would lead her around while I taught her how to hold her reins, correct leg position, and steering. At three she began competing in shows, assisted, of course, did well and won some ribbons. My question is this: Was doing this unsafe, and should I stop? I hate to make her stop riding now that she is addicted; nor do I want to do risky things.
Answer: I think what you are doing is just fine. While I cannot go so far as to say there is no risk or that it is a safe thing to do, you are mitigating the risk as much as possible and therefore doing it as safely as it can be done. You are knowledgeable and experienced and have looked at every avenue you can control and made the best decisions on horse, equipment and support.
Unfortunately not everyone has this much judgment and experience, so you can see why we can’t come right out and say, “sure, it’s fine for your toddler to ride, you go right ahead.” There are many great instructors that specialize in riding and horseplay with young children. The most critical factor is that it is at least one-on-one and for children under five, there should be at least a two-to-one ratio of adults to child. At its best, riding is risky and for toddlers and children under six, it is even riskier because of their size and vulnerability and lack of coordination and judgment.
We take many risks daily around horses. What is important is that first, the risk is a worthwhile risk that we are benefiting from it in some way; and second, that we mitigate the risk as much as possible. For instance, while riding without your hands on the reins may be a worthwhile risk when certain safety considerations are met; it would be a pointless risk to not have a hand on the reins when you are standing around waiting for something. If there is not a direct benefit, don’t take the risk. And if you take the risk, mitigate it by riding a safe horse, securing the reins, wearing a helmet, riding in a confined area, etc. Riding without reins certainly increases the risk to a rider but if we address the potential risks first, the fact that it will make a better rider of you makes the risk worth taking. Having enough experience to have the judgment to determine what the potential problems are in the first place is the part most people are lacking.
I must confess that my son started as a toddler, well, as a baby really; but like you, I looked at every possible risk. Except there was that one time when he was about three and we carefully planned out his first “trail” ride. Two people tacking one horse is never a good idea…. Sure enough, whichever one of us was supposed to tighten the girth before we hoisted Hunter up, didn’t (and we routinely left the cinches loose when we first saddled, and waited until we were ready to mount the rider to tighten). With my trusted protégé ponying Hunter on his very nice older Welsh-Shetland cross, I was riding directly behind Hunter on my trusted mare, with the eyes of an eagle on its prey (or should I say, on its offspring).
Hunter squealed with delight on the ride and chattered and sang the whole way (one of the great joys of life is to watch a young child on their first ride bubbling over with joy). Approaching our first little hill, I ran my eyes over the pony to check the gear and to my horror, there was about two inches of daylight between the cinch and the horse’s girth. Luckily a steady, smooth gaited and balanced pony kept the saddle from slipping and I rectified the situation post haste. It was a stupid mistake that could of caused a wreck but we got away with it. Anyway, the short answer to your question is, yes, you are doing it right. Good job! Keep it safe.
Post-script: Literally five minutes after finishing this article, I received a phone call from a woman who was looking for a horse for her daughter and was told I might be able to help. When questioned further, I found out that the family had never owned or really ridden horses other than at a trail barn and that they were looking for a horse for their three-year-old daughter to start barrel racing on. No kidding. You can see why CHA has to stick with the statement that toddlers and small children should not ride!
Question: Are bicycle helmets as safe as riding helmets? I saw a news program that said they are safer than riding helmets, is that true? Some parents don’t want to purchase a helmet until they are sure the child is going to stick with riding. I was told that I could be arrested for letting the student ride with a bike helmet.
Answer: Thanks for your very important question, which will be an important addition to our website and magazine column. In fact, I just returned from Equitana USA, where I was doing several workshops for professionals, and this question was brought up there too. It is critical that the helmets your students use are SEI/ASTM certified FOR EQUESTRIAN SPORTS. The Safety Equipment Institute certifies all kinds of safety equipment for different purposes. They use detailed studies about the types of head injuries common to the sport for which they are certifying the product for and the specific types of impacts sustained. They certify equipment for safety in relationship to the specific activities and injuries common to that sport. As you may have noticed, a bicycle helmet looks quite different than an equestrian helmet, as they are designed to protect from different types of impacts. An equestrian helmet provides much lower protection on the back of the head, which is more commonly needed in horse related head injuries (basal skull fractures). Also, I believe riding helmets are made to sustain harder impacts, such as a kicking hoof, which may explain why riding helmets can cost more than bicycle helmets. From a legal standpoint, if you condone the use of a helmet that is not certified for riding, you are more liable than if you allowed the student not to wear a helmet at all. The same is true if you allow a rider to ride in an improperly fitted riding helmet. The way the legal system would view this particular form of negligence is to say that you clearly knew that the rider should have been wearing a helmet, so why didn’t you do it right? You should make this minimum requirement of all your students. You should have helmets on hand for the students that do not have their own. Let them use the riding helmet as a bike helmet 😉 Thanks again for asking this important question. Product Advice: If you want a discount on helmets, you can save 20% when you order through Julie Goodnight and have a CHA membership. Call 800-225-8827 to order by phone.
Question: I am the parent of an 11-year-old girl who is serious about horses. She’s been riding for 5 years in California, and we just moved to Michigan. For two months now, I’ve been looking for a good stable and instructor. Her former teacher in CA was CHA certified. Should I be limited to finding a CHA certified instructor? I will review your web site to understand all that it means. What other questions should I be asking to insure her safety with a new instructor? My daughter is riding English with focus on Eventing. I’ve been asking what their level is (i.e. beginner, novice, prelim, intermediate, advanced). What level should they be to be an instructor?
Answer: Thanks for your question, it is a good one. While I would have to say that certification is important and CHA certification is probably the best (I’ll explain why in a minute), it is also important to realize that there are many good instructors out there that are not certified. Instructor certification is relatively new to the industry (even though CHA has been doing it for 34 years); the industry is just now getting to the point that certification is valued, in fact, required in some states. But still, the more established a person is in their career, the less likely it is that they are certified. This is because they have been successful for so long, they don’t view certification as something they need. If you think about it, why would I, as a successful trainer/instructor with a barn full of clients, take the time to go get certified? But more and more, people like this are beginning to take the time to get certified because astute clients like you are coming to expect it. Also, insurance companies are pushing certification. So, having said that, why is CHA certification better? Because it is the only hands-on certification process. That’s why the insurance companies like us so well. Other certifications only require candidates to take a written test and send in a video. We require instructors to demonstrate their ability with live horses and live students, for 40 hours of clinic time, and demonstrate their ability in at least four different lessons. This is why insurance companies view CHA certification as better, because it is a face-to-face, hands-on process. Also, interestingly, CHA is the only not-for-profit, board-run organization that certifies instructors, giving us the appearance of greater objectivity and stability. As for the level, that may depend more on the individual instructor. Certainly if your daughter is interested in eventing, you need an instructor qualified to teach jumping.
However, there are many instructors that specialize in the beginning and intermediate levels and although they might not have a real high level of certification, they are sometimes more effective at the lower levels than an instructor that is more used to teaching the highest levels of riders. This would be an instructor that your daughter might only work with a year or two until she is ready to move on to a higher-level instructor. Typically, these instructors are very upfront about how far they are able to take the student and when the student is ready to move on. One more idea that I will give you as food for thought. There is a theory in English riding that says that children should be focused on developing equitation skills, and thus they would do better to ride in Hunter shows as a youth rider and then pursue eventing as a young adult. I am a believer in this school of thought, as I recognize how much I personally benefited from this approach. I was an equitation rider until I was 18 (I started a little eventing at 16). By then I had such solid and proper riding skills that I could (and did) choose any number of disciplines to compete in. Eventing is a discipline that focuses more on the horse and the competition and less on the development of the rider. Certainly, riding and training in one area would not preclude the other, but just something for you to think about. It sounds to me like you are discriminating enough to ask the right questions and make the right observations of a potential instructor. I would recommend that you ask to observe a lesson or two, take a look around their facility and talk to existing clients. There are many little indicators about how safety-conscious the trainer is. Are there safety rules posted? Do all riders wear helmets? Are students thoroughly supervised? Is the place neat and tidy? Do the horses look content and happy? Do they require waivers and/or customer contracts? Are these documents professional and do they state safety concerns? If possible, you might be able to ask other clients about the safety record- do they know of any students that have had serious injuries? How many years experience does the instructor have? Are school horses owned or leased? Experience and knowledge of the individual horses in the program are important for operating safely. Good luck to you and your daughter. It is good to hear from a parent that recognizes the need to assess the ability and qualifications of an instructor. It always amazes me how rarely this happens. Let me know if you have other questions.
Question: How can I make sure I ride with my stirrups at the correct length?
Answer: Appropriate stirrup length is critical for all levels and disciplines of riders. It is important for safety, for rider balance and for the effectiveness of the rider in developing correct riding skills. Time and time again in CHA clinics, we see riders participating in a lesson with stirrups mal-adjusted. Developing a keen instructor’s eye for knowing when the stirrup length is appropriately adjusted is a learned skill and one that clearly separates the lower and higher levels of instructor certification.
For starters, an instructor must know what the appropriate stirrup length is for the style of riding, or disciplines, such as English/Western, Dressage, Reining, Saddle seat, Cutting, Jumping, Roping, etc. One should know that Dressage and Saddle Seat are the longest lengths, while jumping is shortest. Roping is short, while other western disciplines need longer lengths.
Fortunately, there are some commonalities between all disciplines of riding that will help an instructor determine if the length is correct for the rider.
For balance, the rider must be able to sit comfortably in the balanced position of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment. If the stirrup is too long, no matter what discipline, the rider will have to reach with his toes for the stirrup and this will cause her to ride in the heel-up position. No matter what the discipline, when the heels are up, the rider is not balanced, anchored on the horse or able to use his leg aid to communicate effectively with the horse.
Check the stirrup length visually from both in front of the rider/horse (with his feet out of the stirrups and saddle square) and from the side, perpendicular to the horse.
Always check that the stirrup length is equal on both sides. Uneven stirrups are amazingly common. I usually clue into this problem when I find myself looking at a rider one moment, thinking his stirrups are correct and at another moment, thinking the stirrups are too long or too short. After a few times of this indecisiveness, it occurs to me that every time I reverse the riders, my opinion changes. So I bring the rider in off the rail and ask my assistant to have him square his saddle and then drop his stirrups, so my assistant can determine by looking from in front of the horse, if the rider’s stirrup length is level or not.
The stirrup length may need to be fudged one way or the other depending on the horse’s build. Awkward scenarios like a big person on a little horse or a little person on a big horse or a narrow person on a wide horse may have a bearing on which way you fudge the stirrup length.
My two favorite ways to judge by eyesight if the rider’s stirrup length is correct, are to 1) look at the angle of the rider’s leg between the thigh and lower leg, and 2) by comparing the angle of the rider’s thigh and the horse’s shoulder.
1. From the center of the ring, the angle of the rider’s leg, between the thigh and lower leg, should be an equal angle. If the angle of the leg is not equal, it usually means that the rider’s stirrup is too long and the lower leg is hanging straight down while the angle of the thigh is more or less at 45 degrees, making the angle unequal.
2. Looking from the center of the arena, the angle of the rider’s thigh should be more or less parallel with the angle of the horse’s shoulder (the line from mid-withers to point of shoulder). This handy eyeball check is helpful for insuring the best ride when the rider is mounted on a choppy horse. In general, the steeper the angle of the horse’s shoulder, the rougher the horse’s gait. When the horse is rough gaited, the rider needs a longer-than-normal stirrup length to help anchor the rider onto the horse’s back.
Conversely, if the angle of the rider’s thigh is high compared to the horse’s shoulder, it is easier for the rider to ride in a more forward position and get up off the horse’s back. This might be important for riding jumpers, racehorses or for roping.
There are a few measurements that I know of that you can use to guage appropriate stirrup length. One is to measure the stirrup length compared to the rider’s arm, from the ground. To do this, the rider puts his fingertips on the stirrup bar and pulls the stirrup into his armpit.
This gives you a ballpark figure on which to judge proper length; the length of the stirrup should be about the length of the rider’s arm. It is best not to mount the rider until the stirrups are at least in the ballpark of the correct length. The horse could turn into a thousand pound scared rabbit at any moment and if the rider must rely on the stirrups for balance (which most rider’s do) the feet should be in the stirrups. The stirrup length may still need some fine-tuning when this method of measuring length is used.
Another way to measure stirrup length, once the rider is up on the horse, is to have the rider hang his leg straight down and see where the bottom of the stirrup is in relation to the anklebone. If the stirrup hits right at the ankle bone is a good length for most riders. Once again, this will provide you with a ballpark figure, but fine-tuning of the length may still be in order.
Personally, I am not a fan of the third technique for measuring the rider’s stirrup length, although many instructors are. This measurement is taken by having the rider mount, then stand in his stirrups to see if you can fit your fist between the rider’s seat and the seat of the saddle. For one thing, it is not a great place to be putting your hand, in a place that it doesn’t belong.
The other problem with this technique is that unless and until the rider can properly stand in the stirrups, this measurement is useless. If the rider rises in the stirrup by pushing up off the stirrup, straightening the knee and lifting the heel (as most beginner through intermediate riders do), there will always be plenty of room between the crotch and saddle. Only when the rider uses correct rising technique and rolls onto his thighs while the leg and heel lengthens, will this measurement be accurate.
There is one way to judge stirrup length that is inappropriate and risky. That is to judge the stirrup length by the equipment. In other words, if the saddle is not the right size for the rider and the stirrups will not adjust to the correct length, you should not compromise the safety and comfort of the rider by letting him ride without stirrups. Again, think of the worst case scenario. While very advanced riders should be balanced enough on the horse to survive an upset, most beginner and intermediate riders are at a much greater risk of falling when riding without stirrups.
As you can see, there are many methods to judge the proper stirrup length for your students and there are many variables that affect the proper length, such as the rider’s build, the size and gait of the horse, the saddle and the activity the rider is participating in. It is less important which methods you use, and more important that you systematically make these assessments each and every time you put a rider up.
The time you take to evaluate your student’s stirrup length does not have to be lengthy; an experienced instructor can make these assessments, without missing a beat of the lesson. Once a rider is mounted, the instructor should be looking from all directions to determine if the stirrup length is correct. If you think an adjustment or a closer look at the length is needed, bring the rider in off the rail and ask an assistant to assess and fix the stirrup length.
If you do not have an assistant, you’ll have to perform this task while continuing to watch the other riders and simultaneously giving directions to both the riders on the rail and the rider you are fixing. This is a point in time when the instructor needs eyes in the back of her head and the ability to multi-task.
Here is a helpful hint for participants in a CHA Instructor Certification course. If you have mounted a lesson and have all the riders out on the rail at work, but you notice that a rider has an inappropriate stirrup length (for real or for role-playing), bring the rider in and ask your assistant to fix the problem. If the tack will not adjust, stipulate to the clinic instructors that in “real life” you would have an assistant get another saddle, rather than compromise the rider’s experience. During the CHA clinic, for the sake of time, the equipment may not be changed, but the clinic instructors will be aware of your knowledge and adherence to standards. If you let an unfixable problem go on during your lesson without stipulating that you would fix it, the clinic instructors can only assume that you did not know it was risky or ineffective to continue under such circumstances.
The moral of the story when it comes to judging stirrup length is to know what you are checking, know how to check it and to check it systematically every time you mount a rider. The more you teach, the better you’ll get at seeing it.
Question: How can I remember how to use natural aids properly? Do you have images you use to help students remember the correct positions, etc.?
Answer: From the very first time you mount a rider on a horse, she needs to know how to use her primary natural aids, the seat, legs and hands, to communicate to the horse what she wants him to do.
I think we do riders a huge disservice by teaching them in the beginning to pull to whoa and kick to go, when there is really much more to using the aids than that. If riders learn from the beginning to use their primary aids together as a unit, use all the aids all the time, then they will develop proper skills and reach a higher level of understanding, sooner rather than later.
I find that the more I can use mental images, word pictures and analogies, the easier it is for my students to learn. A good instructor will always have several ways to explain any one skill, since there is no telling what idea will make an impact on a given rider. I spend a lot of time trying to come up with new images to use in teaching and I always keep my ears alert to any new ideas that are useful. Here are a few of my favorite images that I have shared from time to time in this column:
* Pushing a swing- the motion for sitting the canter
* Bouncing your bottom on a trampoline- the motion of posting trot
* Pulling your cat-tail (from Sally Swift)- how to open your pelvis
* Sitting on your pockets- using your seat to stop
* Two-pronged electrical plug- is your seat bones and your horse is the electrical outlet you plug them into to stop
* Fred Flintstone stop- putting your weight in your heels when you ask the horse to stop
* Turning a key in a door- the motion of the indirect rein in front of the withers
* Windshield wiper legs- how you use your lower leg and heel to apply pressure to the horse’s sides
The analogies and images are endless and I hope that a few of you will be willing to share your ideas too. One of my all time favorite images to use has to do with learning to connect and coordinate your primary natural aids to control the horse and channel his movement is a given direction. It goes like this….
As you sit on your horse, close your eyes and imagine that you horse is a long narrow hallway, from which there are six exits. There is a door at each end and two doors on each side. The doors represent all the directions that your horse can move. He can move forward out the front door or backward out the rear door. In addition, he can move forward and to the side, moving through his shoulder, to the left or to the right. He can also move backward and sideways right or left, moving through his hip.
Using you seat, legs and hands to control and guide the horse is simply a matter of opening and closing doors to direct the horse in a given direction. For instance, if I want my horse to move straight forward, I will open the front door by reaching forward with my weight and both hands, and close all the other doors by closing both legs on my horse’s sides; the horse moves forward out the front door. If I want my horse to back, I will close the front door with my hands by picking up and back on both reins, close the side doors by closing both legs on his sides and open the rear door by shifting my weight back; the horse moves straight back.
Moving laterally (to the side) is a little more complicated than going forward and back, but by thinking through the opening and closing of doors, it is a little less complicated. If I want my horse to move sideways in a side-pass to the right, I need to close the doors on the left, close the door in front and open the doors to the right. So, I will bring my left rein against the horse’s neck (neck rein or indirect rein in front of the withers), close my left leg against his side right in the middle of his ribcage and press down with my left seat bone. In the meantime, my right hand will open to the side (leading rein), my right leg will come slightly off of the horse and my right seat bone will be lightened (since when you make one seat bone heavy, the other one lightens).
If my horse does not move straight sideways, I may need to adjust some doors. For instance, if he moves sideways through his shoulder but leaves his hip behind, I can adjust my right leg forward to close that door and block the flow through the shoulder and move my left leg back toward the hip to close the left-hip door and encourage movement out the right-hip door. At the same time I can move my left hand up and back toward my opposite shoulder (indirect rein behind the withers) to move his hip right and bring my right hand forward to slightly close the right-shoulder door and slow down the movement through his shoulder. Your aids will constantly adjust to open and close doors, depending on where you need the horse to move.
A more advanced and illusive image, but one that has helped me tremendously in my riding, is the concept of “riding your horse through the tunnel.” I learned this concept well over twenty years ago, so it’s source is long since forgotten. The concept of riding your horse through the tunnel means that your horse is moving through a tunnel created by your seat, legs and hands. To change the direction of your horse, you must change the shape of the tunnel. I like to imagine that I have headlights on the front of my hips and that I am shining the headlights down the tunnel. If the horse is to turn, I have to shine my headlights in the direction of the turn to reshape the tunnel.
Every image will not help every rider, but try them on for size and you may find one or two that fits you well, both as a rider and as an instructor. Riding with your right brain—the more creative side of your brain—will really help to bring your riding together and help you develop feel for the horse.
A good instructor will constantly be searching for and trying out new ideas for teaching and improving her own personal equitation skills. Sitting on a horse and thinking of exactly what something feels like or what exact procedure you use to gain a certain affect from the horse will help you reach your students more effectively.
My challenge to all CHA instructors is to explore your own techniques, put them into words and think of some creative images to use in teaching that particular skill. I hope that you will share your favorite ideas with us so that we can print them in The Instructor and help to fulfill our mission of promoting safe and effective horsemanship.
If you are interested in this topic, you might like to purchase this Goodnight educational product: “Principles of Riding Part 2”