On The Rail: Teaching Horse Behavior To Youth: Q & A

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By Julie Goodnight

Q: Dear Julie,
I am a big believer in natural horsemanship and how effective it is to handle horses with an understanding of their natural behaviors. I’d like to instill these principles into my teaching and I wonder if you have any ideas for getting my youth students interested in studying horse behavior? Seems like all they want to do is ride! ~ Mary

A: Dear Mary,
I applaud your efforts to instill good principles in your students and an awareness of what life is like from the horse’s point of view. I have found it fascinating to study horse behavior, even as a child when I had no idea I was studying it. Learning behavior through observation is a valuable tool; but I think there are lots of ways to stimulate their interest. One of my most popular demonstrations is about reading the language of horses and I think that once you give people (and for the record, I don’t teach kids much differently than adults) clues to look for in understanding and “reading” a horse’s language, they love it. Even non-horse people enjoy watching horses, when they have a basic understanding how they communicate.

Horses communicate primarily with postures, gestures and body language; however, some of their communication is an audible language. I find that once people become aware of this, almost anyone, regardless of their experience level, can start understanding the horse’s language. Just by pointing out a few basics, your students can observe a group of horses and start calling out the communications they see, “Back off! “Gee, that looks interesting.” “Warning, warning!” “Come here and feed me!” “Stay away from me.” “Do you want to be friends?” I have written much about behavior and the Training Library on my website has hundreds of articles that elaborate on both the instinctive and learned behaviors of horses. A few of the fundamentals I would teach before playing this basic observation game with your students include postures, gestures and audible expressions. A horse’s head is entirely indicative of his emotional state—when the head goes up he is tensing, when the head lowers he is relaxing. As you ride and as you observe horses, watch their head level for indicators how they are feeling. The same thing is true of his tail—all the way up shows excitement/flight/prideful behavior; a cowering horse will tuck his tail like a dog.

Horses have numerous gestures—some of them we may not want to know about! The head drop/bob shows submission; ears back shows anger; baring teeth is a threatening gesture. Horses gesture a lot with their feet— cocking a foot can be a kick threat; pawing means “I’m frustrated and I want to be moving;” stomping feet means “that makes me mad!” A toss of the head with the nose moving in a circular motion is a defiant gesture that teenagers would get in trouble for doing. Horses have many gestures that have meaning if you know what to look for.

Horses are limited to just a few audible expressions that they use to communicate: the squeal, whinny, nicker, and snort. Each has a specific meaning and I find students of all ages and even non-horse people are interested to learn about these behaviors and interpreting them as they watch horses.

Squeal: The squeal is a high-pitched outcry, which acts as a defensive warning or threat. It tells another animal to be ready for a stronger reaction if further provoked. Squeals are typical during aggressive interactions between horses, during reproductive encounters when the mare protests the stallion’s advances, and when a pre- or early-lactating mare objects to being touched anywhere near her sore teats.

Nicker: A nicker is a guttural, low-pitched pulsating expression that means “come closer to me.” It occurs most often just prior to being fed and announces the horse’s presence and anticipation. Stallions will also nicker at mares during a reproductive encounter and seems to signal the stallion’s interest in the mare. Mares typically give a third type of nicker to their young foals when the mare is concerned about the foal.

Whinnies or Neighs:  Whinnies or neighs are high-pitched calls that begin like a squeal and end like a nicker. It is the longest and loudest of horse sounds and is distinctive for each horse (you can learn to recognize the sound of your horse’s whinny). The whinny seems to be a searching call that facilitates social contact from a distance. It’s a form of individual recognition and most often occurs when a foal and mare or herd peer companions are separated, or when a horse is inquisitive after seeing a horse in the distance.

Snorts and Blows:  Snorts and blows are produced by forceful expulsion of air through the nostrils. The snort has a rattling sound, but the blow does not. The snort and blow communicate alarm and apparently serves to alert other horses. The snort may also be given when a horse is restless but constrained; in this case, it should be taken seriously as a sign that the horse is feeling trapped and alarmed and may become reactive.

Getting your students started on understanding the horse’s communicative behavior is a good place to begin. Once they are engaged, the sky’s the limit on the lessons you can teach and the lessons that horses offer us every day. Studying their emotional behaviors, the seven categories of instinctive behaviors of horses, doing groundwork exercises to build a better relationship with the horse and studying the herd dynamics we see every day will be as interesting to your students, as it is to you.

Relationship Fix Series

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Relationship Fix Series

 

Bonding Dos and Don’ts

 

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco

 

Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how to show your horse affection without deteriorating your leadership in your herd of two.

 

How do you show your horse affection while also maintaining respect? There’s nothing wrong with having a bond with your horse. In fact, it’s desirable. But you have to show your affection and bond with your horse in a safe way and in a way that your horse appreciates. Horses don’t think like we do—especially when it comes to how to bond and show affection. Be aware and make sure not to instill human affection behaviors on the horse—such as kissing on the lips. Instead, find out what your horse likes.

We, as humans, are so drawn to the head of the horse. The head and lips are so soft and smell so good. You may want to get your head next to his and love on him. But horses have blind spots around his head and many horses don’t like to have you so close to their heads. For the most part, the head is a good place to stay away from. The horse’s head is big, weighs a lot and moves quickly. I can personally vouch for several concussions and some busted teeth from having my head too close to a horse’s head. Even if it’s a horse you know well, he may accidentally turn quickly and spook–moving with force.

Affection in Horse Terms

Kissing and hugging are human ideas of affection. Horses do spar (play fight) and bite at the lips but that’s more of a reason not to kiss on the lips. That’s a reason to keep your horse’s lips away from your lips. You don’t want him to think you’re playing and be bitten.

Horses only have one known affectionate behavior that isn’t associated with reproduction. Allo grooming (also known as mutual grooming) occurs when two bonded horses face each other and give one another a deep massage with their teeth. Horses mostly groom around the withers and down the neck and back. The more dominant horse in the pair will tell the other horse when to start and stop the grooming sessions and both horses will let each other know where they like to be groomed. .

When I show affection to my horse, I like to mimic this grooming behavior by approaching the horse as another horse would. Then I like to find the horse’s “sweet spot.” If I’m bonding with a new horse, I approach the horse slowly then put my hand out (palm down) to allow him to sniff me. That’s just polite to the horse. Next, I go to the withers and rub him to show him I’m friendly.

Scratching and rubbing on the horse’s favorite “sweet” spot is a great way to show your affection. How do you find this spot? Horses pucker their lips when they feel pleasure. With your fingers all pressed together, dig in with your fingertip pressure in a circular motion and rub around your horse’s withers, neck and chest. When you find a spot he likes, you may see your horse slightly move his lips or you may see your horse reach high in the air, wiggle his lips and show his teeth. Many horses like a deep pressure—if he doesn’t like that deep of a pressure, he’ll let you know by moving away.

Sometimes I give my horse a hug at the withers. On a rare occasion you’ll have a horse that wraps back and hugs you as you stand at his shoulder. That could be another affectionate behavior of the horse but it is less studied. I have had that happen just a few times in my life but it does feel like a bonded and sincere behavior. I’ve heard of a few other similar reports and would love to see research about it!

Know the Consequences

What happens if you pamper and kiss on your horse without first setting boundaries? Your horse may become oblivious to your actions and disrespectful of your space. He may at first turn his head away from you. Then he’ll bump into you. That’s not accidental, that’s sending you a message. If your horse is oblivious to your existence, that’s not a relationship that is bonded from the horse’s perspective.

Horses want a leader and respect and want to bond with a leader. If the behavior is allowed to go on, the horse may escalate from turning away to more aggressively dragging away or turning and biting. Make sure to pay attention to your moves and think about who “owns” the space at any given moment. I can invite a horse into my space but he can never come into that space without permission. Be very aware of space when you’re around your horse. Make sure your horse is conscientious about your space and careful not to crowd you.

Boundaries have to be established before you choose to be “touchy feely” with your horse. If you don’t set boundaries, horses can push you around and run you over. Horses can also manipulate and “train” the people around them. They may train you to give them attention if they paw or reach for your hand with their lips. Think of a Golden Retriever that comes over to you when you sit down. He’ll bump your elbow with his nose until you start to pet him. He has trained you to pet him when he asks for it. Similarly, your horse may be training you to be subordinate by using horse language—moving you out of his space instead of understanding that he must move from your space. You may not be in danger when a dog trains you. When a horse is in charge, there are safety risks.

Your horse being the dominant in the herd of two becomes a problem when you want to ask a horse to do something he doesn’t want to do. If he’s the boss from the moment you enter his stall, he’s not likely to follow your leadership as you tack up or from the saddle.

Pay Attention and be Affectionate

Notice when horses move into your space and make sure to move them out of your space immediately. You want your horse to be careful about your space and conscientious of your moves. This doesn’t mean making your horse fearful, but using visual and corrective pressure to move the horse out of your space so that you maintain your safety.

Of course I’m all for affection. There’s nothing wrong with being affectionate and offering praise—when it’s deserved. Once you know the rules and establish boundaries, you will know your horse and you can stretch the rules if you want to. Make sure the affection you give is appropriate for the horse and is something they will appreciate. If your horse is mindful of your presence, your affection is appropriate to how horses communicate and you don’t reward bad behavior, you’re on your way to a respectful and bonded relationship.

Ride By The Seat Of Your Pants

Dear Julie,

I have been riding and taking lessons for two years. I am steadily progressing but sometimes it seems like the further I get, the less I know! I was originally taught to squeeze with my legs to make the horse go and pick up on the reins to make him stop or slow down. Now I am riding with a new instructor, who I really like. He tells me I should be using my seat to ask the horse to stop and go, although he can’t seem to tell me how. What is the secret to using my seat instead of pulling on my horse’ mouth all the time?

Sitting it Out

Dear Sitting it Out,

I rode at a very high level as a youth competitor and it wasn’t until I was pretty far along in the game before I found about how to use aids correctly. In my youthful bravado I felt cheated that information had been withheld from me until the ripe old age of 14, but I am sure my trainers, in their wisdom, felt like they would teach me when I was ready to learn more theory and advanced use of the aids. Knowing the aids has influenced my teaching tremendously. I have always made it my goal to teach people more theory and advanced concepts early on in their riding. Here are some important concepts that I teach in every clinic. The info may help you put all of your training together.

The natural aids are the best tools you have to communicate with the horse. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat (weight), the legs, the hands and the rider’s voice. I prefer to teach riders that there are seven natural aids. In addition to the traditional four aids, I add the rider’s eyes (which assist in turning), the rider’s breathing (which helps for stop and go) and the rider’s brain (it helps to learn to think from the horse’s perspective). When all of these aids are used together, your horse receives clear and consistent communication—he’ll know what you want him to do.

All of the natural aids should be used in unison and should always originate–or be connected to–the use of the seat. No one aid gives a cue to the horse (you don’t stop by pulling on the reins or go just by kicking). All the aids working together will guide the horse toward the appropriate response.

Seat Aids
By far, the most important aid is your seat; it’s in the most contact with the horse. Not only are you sitting on a very sensitive part of your horse’s back, but you’re also positioned over his center of gravity. He can feel your shift of weight easily. Because your horse can feel every move, it makes sense to use your seat more than any other aid.

For instance, asking the horse to stop or slow down isn’t simply a matter of pulling back on the reins. To ask the horse to stop using all of the aids in a connected fashion, first you must drop your weight onto the horse’s back by opening and relaxing the pelvis and plugging your seat bones into the saddle. As your seat drops down on the horse’s back, a connection is made between your elbows and hip. Then the shift of your weight and opening of your pelvis will cause increased pressure on the horse’s mouth through your arms, hands and reins. In other words, the pressure the horse feels on his mouth is connected to the increased weight on his back and the pull comes from your entire body, not just from your hands.

Practice at Home
You can see how this feels by sitting in a chair pulled up to a table. With both feet flat on the floor and your back straight, put both hands on the edge of the table. As you exhale and rotate the seat bones down and forward (opening the pelvis and plugging the seat bones into the chair), pull on the edge of the table so that your seat bones get even heavier on the chair. This is how you cue the horse for a stop or to slow down by using your weight aid first.

The Gears of Your Seat
You have three gears to your seat: neutral, forward and reverse. Forward tells the horse to speed up; reverse tells the horse to slow down or stop. Neutral gear is that gear that you should ride in 99 percent of the time; neutral tells the horse to keep doing what he is doing, until you tell him something different.

That’s the way professional trainers teach horses to be obedient–once I tell you to walk, you should keep walking straight ahead until I tell you to slow down, speed up, turn right or turn left. You shouldn’t have to pedal your horse by constantly telling him to keep walking.

Neutral. For neutral gear, you’ll ride sitting straight up in correct position and in balance with the horse (ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment). Make sure all of your weight is on your two seat bones and your pelvis is level. When you want the horse to speed up, you’ll shift your center of gravity slightly forward–so that your pelvis tips forward. Since you’re sitting right over your horse’s center of gravity when you’re in neutral, he can feel the shift in your weight just like you could if you were carrying someone piggyback.

Forward. You horse knows that when your center of gravity shifts forward you intend to speed up. Your hand and leg aids, simply follow along with what your seat is telling the horse. Keep in mind that the position of balance with the horse occurs when you have ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment in your body; in neutral gear, that line is vertical; in forward gear, the line is canted slightly forward, causing your hands to give a release to the horse’s mouth, at the same time your legs move back and close on the horse’s sides. So all three of your primary natural aids, your seat, legs and hands, are giving a clear and connected cue to the horse.

Reverse. Reverse gear is basically the opposite of forward gear and tells the horse to stop or slow down. In reverse gear, you simply exhale, drop your shoulders down towards your hips and let your center of gravity fall back. As your pelvis tilts backwards, your seat bones sink forward and down, pressing into the horse’s back; your legs relax off of the horse’s sides and your hands come slightly up and back. Again, all of your primary aids are giving a clear and connected signal to slow down.

Now let’s use all the aids in a connected fashion to ask the horse to turn. First look in the direction of the turn–your eyes and body will initiate the turn. As your head turns slightly in the direction of the turn, your body will follow, swiveling slightly in the saddle and shifting your weight to your outside seat bone. Again, your legs and hands will follow the movement of your seat and not act independently. Your outside leg will sink down and close on the horse’s side, shutting the door to the outside.

Your inside leg will lift up slightly as the inside seat bone lightens, opening “the door” to the inside and keeping the horse’s inside shoulder elevated in an arcing turn. As your seat swivels slightly in the saddle in the turn, your elbows, arms and shoulders will follow (make sure your upper arms are in contact with your ribcage), giving a release with the outside rein and increased pressure to the inside rein, thus supporting the horse’s head, neck and shoulders in the turn.

Using your whole body to communicate with your horse–having all of the aids combining to provide an exact signal– is a very effective and results in what looks like invisible cueing and seamless transitions. These concepts are explained in more detail in my training videos, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Volume 1-5. Volume 3 in this series, Perfect Practice, includes 24 different mounted and unmounted exercises to improve your balance and communication. Volumes 2 and 4 (Communication and Control and Refinement and Collection) explain basic use of the aids as well as advanced use of the aids.

Enjoy the ride!

Riding Skills: Connecting And Coordinating The Natural Aids

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: How do you teach riders to use all the natural aids together–leg and rein aids?

Answer: The natural aids are the best tools the rider has to communicate with the horse. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat (weight), the legs, the hands and the voice of the rider. I prefer to teach seven natural aids, which in addition to the traditional four aids includes the rider’s eyes, the rider’s breathing and the rider’s brain. When all of these aids are used together, it gives a clear and consistent communication to the horse of what you want him to do and sets your body up to naturally give the correct cue. All of the natural aids should be used in unison and should always originate, or be connected to, the use of the seat. No one aid gives a cue to the horse (you do not stop by pulling on the reins or go by kicking), but all the aids working together will guide the horse toward the appropriate response.

For instance, asking the horse to stop or slow down is not simply a matter of pulling back on the reins. To ask the horse to stop using all of the aids in a connected fashion, first the rider must drop her weight onto the horse’s back by opening and relaxing the pelvis and plugging her seatbones into the saddle. As the seat of the rider drops down on the horse’s back, a connection is made between the rider’s elbows and hip, thus the shift of the rider’s weight and opening of the rider’s pelvis will cause an increase on the pressure of the horse’s mouth through the rider’s arms, hands and reins. In other words, the pressure the horse feels on his mouth is connected to the increased weight on his back and the pull comes from the rider’s entire body, not just from the hands.

You can see how this feels by sitting in a chair pulled up to a table. With both feet flat on the floor and sitting up straight, put both hands on the edge of the table. As you exhale and rotate the seatbones forward (opening the pelvis and plugging the seatbones into the chair), pull on the edge of the table so that your seatbones get even heavier on the chair. This is how you cue the horse for a stop or to slow down by using your weight aid first. You should feel a connection from your arms to your seat bones, as they press into the chair. If your seat bones lighten and your upper body moves forward when you pull back on the reins, your aids are not connected. Practice this exercise until you feel the connection between your seat and hands, and then try to feel the connection on a horse.

To use all of the aids in a connected fashion to ask the horse to turn, the rider must first look in the direction of the turn and use her eyes and body to initiate the turn. As the rider’s head turns slightly in the direction of the turn, the body will follow, swiveling slightly in the saddle and shifting the rider’s weight to her outside seat bone. Again, the legs and hands will follow the movement of the rider’s seat and not act independently. The outside leg will sink down and close on the horse’s side, shutting the door to the outside. Conversely, the rider’s inside leg will lift up slightly as the inside seatbone lightens, opening the door to the inside and keeping the horse’s inside shoulder elevated in an arcing turn. As the seat swivels slightly on the horse’s back, the elbows, arms and shoulders of the rider will follow (make sure your upper arms are in contact with your ribcage), giving a release with the outside rein and increased pressure to the inside rein, thus supporting the horse’s head, neck and shoulders in the turn.

Using your whole body to communicate with the horse and having all of the aids give the same signal to the horse, is a very effective way to communicate with the horse and results in invisible cues and seamless transitions.

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