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

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

 

On the Rail: Teaching Horse Behavior to Youth

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 hundred 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 on 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.

 

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

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

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.

Helicopters And Horses: Achieving A Subtle Cue To Master Motion

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

I get very “zen” when I am riding—my mind is clear and my thoughts are carried along with the horse’s movement. Riding is my sanctuary, my restoration and where I come up with my best ideas. I wouldn’t be as good at teaching horsemanship to others, if I didn’t have a personal journey with horses myself. It is while I’m riding my own horses—Eddie and Dually—that I have the time to relax, be creative, and think about new ways to describe the feel of riding a horse.
And so it was while I was riding Eddie in my indoor arena (I sometimes feel more thoughtful and “heady” when riding inside than when distracted by the scenery and trail obstacles outdoors), that I had an interesting thought: riding horses at a high level is just like flying a helicopter. Random, you think? Let me explain my thought process.

A History of Flight
My father was a highly accomplished pilot; it was not his profession but it was his passion (one of many including horses, boating and the great outdoors).. After a few years of flying fixed-wing air ambulance out of Jackson Hole in all weather conditions because my dad thought it would be the ultimate experience as a pilot, he decided flying helicopters would be a good next accomplishment.
I remember him telling me about this experience decades ago—how different a fixed-wing craft is from a whirly-bird and how complicated it was to fly this machine. Since I jokingly refer to myself as “my father’s only son” (at least until my much-younger brother came along), I was the one who was with him for all his flying pursuits. I had learned to fly at a very young age (as well as saddle a horse, bait a hook and dock the boat). When other kids were being taught to parallel park, my dad and I were doing touch-and-go’s in a Cessna 150 and he was yelling at me for landing at too high a speed.

I’ve never piloted a helicopter but I have watched skilled helicopter pilots navigate the back country and mountain terrain while flying with them to heli-ski. What an experience and what a flight to watch firsthand. The maneuvers are amazing; a pilot’s hands know instinctively where to guide the fast-responding aircraft.

What strikes me most about the comparison between helicopters and riding? I remember my dad saying: to fly a helicopter, you have to make constant adjustments to attitude and altitude with two hands and two feet—each one adjusting in a totally different way. That is the precise comment that makes my mind wander and continually compare helicopters and riding horses.
For decades, I have pondered my dad’s comments–especially after he declared that flying helicopters was too challenging for him and he would prefer to stick to fixed-wing aircraft. When I heard my dad say that, after a lifetime of convincing me he could do anything he set his mind to and handle any adverse situation, it made an impression on me. There was something in this world that seemed too much of a challenge. If my dad thought that, it must be a challenge worth thinking about.

Controls in the Arena
Fast-forward to the other day when I was riding my young hose Eddie, snug in the cocoon of my cozy indoor arena—in a hypnotic state of bliss—working at a collected sitting trot in a soft and balanced frame. It felt as if he were on his tippy-toes. Eddie, built more like a line-backer than a ballet dancer and almost finished in his training, was holding himself in this frame, upon my request, with no contact at all on the reins. We were making beautiful, small and bendy circles.

At that moment, he was truly an extension of my body and I felt like I had as much control over his torso, limbs and his feet as I did over my own. To maintain this balance, I would occasionally make the slightest, most imperceptible adjustments with two feet and two hands. My left hand doing something different than my right; my right leg doing something totally different than my left—not with any conscious thought but totally by feel—to adjust attitude and altitude. Release here, constrict there, shortening and lengthening, giving and taking.

That’s when the helicopter association entered my mind. Whether riding at a fine-tuned level or piloting a helicopter, there is finesse and a precision of controls. There is no room for jerking, no room for sharp reactions. While I’d love to compare notes in detail with a helicopter pilot, I think that my own analogy can help you understand and envision the movements and level of control you should strive to have while riding.
Imagine you were up in the air, hovering or flying low and slow, adjusting to the contours of the land. There would be a constant and steady balancing and attitude adjustment of the vessel for acceleration, deceleration, turning or adjusting vertical altitude. To hold that attitude, you would delicately make subtle adjustments with the steering and pedals—someone casually observing probably wouldn’t even notice your slight adjustments—it would all look very smooth. When you’re riding, you are one with your horse and constantly making small adjustments that the finely-tuned horse is quick to respond to. Top riders who look like they aren’t moving at all really are making small corrections and giving the horses subtle cues that the horse is highly tuned in to receive. That ultimate connection and ability to almost “whisper” a cue is the highest level of horsemanship.

I had a very astute student in a clinic who was, in fact, an astronaut and the pilot of two space shuttle missions, who once told me, “Riding a horse is a lot like flying a fighter jet or the space shuttle; it is not the mechanics of using this control or that, but the feeling of strapping the machine onto your own body and flying it as if it were a part of you.”

As you are learning to ride, you must first learn to adjust your balance and rhythm to that of the horse and to use your aids to control his movement—these are mechanics and they must be learned in order to progress–and that takes time. Once you have mastered the mechanics, you and the horse start moving as one and developing the feel of each other and that’s when subtlety and lightness comes into play.

When you watch a highly trained horse and rider perform or see a helicopter land and take off in the most precarious situations, it is as if you are watching a dance between pilot and vessel. Subtle and perfectly timed corrections are at work and the two are moving as one.

Reaching this level in your riding takes time and persistence and a concerted effort to be in better balance with your horse, to communicate better and with softer aids. But even relatively new riders, as they learn to move in concert with their horse and adjust their aids to the horse’s level of response, can learn to feel the thrill of becoming one with their horse. Keep the imagery in mind and make it a goal to give your horse the softest, most precise and meaningful cues—guiding (piloting) your horse with precision.

Enjoy the ride,
Julie

The Difference Between Lead Line Circling And Longeing

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight:
What’s the Difference in Longeing and Lead Line Circling?

Question: Dear Julie, I purchased your DVD, Lead Line Leadership and I have been searching your library and need some basic clarification. What is the difference in lead line circling (from Lead Line Leadership) and longeing? What/when is an appropriate use of each and can you please include what is the proper equipment for each?
Answer: Good question! This is a subject I talk about at every groundwork clinic that I do, but I have not written much on the subject. So thanks for asking!

There are actually three kinds of circling work that you might do from the ground with horses—each for different purposes and with different technique and equipment. There’s round pen work, done with the horse at liberty in a confined area, for the purpose of establishing herd hierarchy between you and your horse and getting the horse to “hook on” to you. Then there’s circling work done on a training lead (12-15’ lead line) as is covered in the video you mentioned, for the purposes of refining your relationship and developing a line of communication with the horse. And also, there is longe line work, done on a 25’ or longer light line, primarily for the purpose of exercising or conditioning the horse or for training purposes such as bitting, teaching voice commands or working on transitions; or for performance ends, such as vaulting or longe line obedience competitions.

For round pen work, the equipment needed includes a small area of confinement with a high, sturdy and safe fence to discourage the horse from trying to jump out and to protect his legs if he gets them tangled up in the fence. The purpose of the confinement is to simply level the playing field between you and your horse, so you aren’t chasing him over 40 acres; it doesn’t really have to be round, it’s just easier if it is (otherwise he constantly gets hung up in the corners as you are driving him around). A 60’ pen is ideal for groundwork and allows just enough room to ride the horse at a walk and trot as well. A smaller pen of 50’ makes the circling work easier for you but harder on the horse and it may get a little crowded if the horse cops an attitude (and it’s too small to ride in effectively).

For round pen work, the horse should be at liberty (no halter, lead or bridle) and the handler should have a flag or stick or lariat in hand in order to direct the horse and defend himself if the horse should become aggressive or charge. Ideally the horse should wear protective leg boots, like splint boots or sports medicine boots, to protect the legs in hard turns and accidental collision with the fence. It’s also not a bad idea to wear a helmet when doing ground work with horses since it is not only possible, but likely that the horse will kick out, strike or become defensive.

As demonstrated in detail in my groundwork video called Round Pen Reasoning, the round pen process involves herding the horse, controlling his space and thereby establishing authority over the horse. It is accomplished in five stages: driving the horse away, controlling his direction with outside turns, controlling his speed, changing directions with inside turns and allowing the horse to hook-on to you as his herd leader. Lead line work is also done in part on the circle, driving your horse away from you in a fashion similar to longeing—but for different reasons. With lead line circling, your goal is to refine the relationship with the horse that was begun in the round pen; to not only assert greater authority over the horse, but to establish a line of communication where the horse is focused on you and looking for each and every directive you issue. For lead line circling, you’ll also drive the horse in a circle, control his speed and do lots of changes of direction using subtle gestures. It has nothing to do with exercising or tiring the horse; it has to do entirely with relationship building and communicating—once you get the response you want from the horse, your job is done, regardless how much time it took or how many circles you made.

The ideal equipment for lead line circling is a rope halter and 12-15’ training lead. My halters and leads are specially designed for this type of work, with the halters made of a high-tensile and slightly stiff rope of moderate diameter (the narrower the rope, the harsher the pressure) that does not stretch. My training leads are made with a heavy yacht rope that is pliable and comfortable in your hands and heavy enough to give good feel between you and your horse. I prefer not to have a metal buckle attachment to the halter since it may bruise the horse’s chin if the rope is jerked hard.

The handler should also have a flag or stick to direct the horse and prevent him from coming close enough to kick or strike you. The same protective equipment for you and your horse as outlined for round pen work is well advised. My video, Lead Line Leadership, explains the different exercises you can do on the lead line, including circling work.

Longeing is more simplistic and has more to do with the number or circles your horse makes and the distance he travels. You’ll probably want to use a halter that maximizes the horse’s comfort, like a padded nylon-web or leather halter or a longeing cavesson, with or without a bit in his mouth (depending on your purpose for longeing). A longe line is usually lightweight and 25-30’ long to allow the horse to make the largest circle possible, thereby covering more distance and reducing the stress on his joints. A longe whip is generally used by the longeur to help cue and motivate the horse; it is extra long and has a long lash. Although a horse that is properly trained to longe will respond to visual and audible cues from the longeur, there is not as much dialogue or relationship building between horse and longeur as there is with round pen and lead line work.

With my extensive travel schedule, I don’t get as much ride time on my horse as I’d like and therefore he gets longed each day, simply for the exercise—so he stays in reasonable shape for me to ride when I am home. He is well-mannered and obedient and does not need the ground work for relationship purposes; even if he has not been ridden in a very long time, I would not feel the need to longe him to “get the kinks out,” as many people do. I am not a big believer in longeing for that purpose, because I think it could be an indication that more ground work is needed to bring the horse into a more obedient and compliant frame of mind. Although having excess energy could be a reason for a horse to feel exuberant or energetic, it is not an excuse for disobedience.
There are numerous articles in my training library that relate to the different ground work techniques and specific issues that arise.

Thanks for your astute question—it is always wise to think about why you are doing certain things. The more you understand, the greater the chances for success.

Good luck!
Julie
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help): The From the Ground Groundwork DVD Series: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/DVDs_c5.htm

Why Are Horses So Spooky?

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question:

Why are horses so spooky?

Answer:

Before we can ever hope to understand, let alone control the movement of a horse, it is important to know the various behaviors that motivate a horse to move in the first place. Being a prey animal means the horse’s first reaction to danger is to run, hell bent for leather, away from the perceived threat. React first, think later.

Everyone knows that horses are flight animals; in fact, horses are the very definition of flighty and depend on this behavior for survival. What is often misunderstood about horses is, how deep the flight response goes in a horse’s nature and that every movement a horse is capable of and every step he takes has some significance. Everything about the horse is linked to its flight response. Crazy as it sounds, even their laziness is related to the flight response. By nature horses are generally lazy, for the sole purpose of preserving energy in case it is needed in flight. In the current trend of natural horsemanship, far too much is sometimes made of the predator-prey relationship, since horses, after all, have been domesticated for thousands of years and don’t really think of humans as carnivorous predators. However, it is important to understand that the prey instinct is the origin of the horse’s behavior as we know it today and it is what motivates their movement.

Horses are herd animals, again related to prey-dom, meaning their survival is dependent on the herd. There are safety in numbers. Herd behavior is another important motivating factor for a horse and is present in our everyday dealings with horses, more so than is often recognized. Again, every movement a horse makes has meaning and when given a choice, the horse will always move toward the protection of the herd. These are fundamental and deep layers of horse behavior and the subject could fill many volumes, but the one thing we can deal with here, is to develop an understanding of how we can control the movements of a horse in our presence.

The first thing to understand is that the horse feels safer when he is moving his feet, and the more nervous or uncertain he gets, the more he wants to move his feet. Yet there is nothing a horse likes better than to feel protected enough that he can snooze, standing or prone, knowing that the herd leader is watching out for his safety. The herd leader, a/k/a boss mare, is responsible for the safety of the herd and with a second’s notice, must be able to motivate the entire herd to flight. She earns the respect, admiration, obedience and, most importantly, attentiveness of the herd by dominating every move they make and by controlling the resources of the herd (you’ll recognize the boss mare easily, she’s the one standing in front of the water trough, playing in the fresh clean water and slowly sipping until she is satiated, while the rest of the herd stands in line, thirsty but patient, awaiting their turn in the pecking order). The boss mare controls the actions of each herd member through her body language. When her head is down in the grass and she is quietly munching, her herd mates will be relaxed. When her head comes up, ears prick forward and her muscles tighten, the rest of the herd knows to prepare for flight. They will follow her anywhere on her signal.

Just to make sure the horses all pay attention to her in times of stress, the boss mare will periodically push the herd individuals around a little so that they are in the habit of responding to her. When she directs her gaze at an individual flattens her ears and takes a step toward him, the subordinate horse knows to immediately move away. If they don’t respond quickly enough, she might leave some teeth marks on his rear end. Subordinate herd mates will quickly learn to watch the body language of their leader at all times and to respond without question to her movements.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of relationship with your horse? If you have the opportunity to observe a herd, you will learn to recognize the subtle communications that constantly occur. For instance, a frightened horse will elevate his head, tense his ears, stiffen his tail and hold his breath; all of these actions communicate an outside threat to the other horses and they will instantly act the same way and look in the same direction. A relaxed and safe horse will lower his head (the lower it goes the more relaxed he is), relax his ears, lick his lips, chew, drop his tail and take a deep sigh.

Horses communicate with their body language, with the head position, ear position, facial expressions, feet, tail, mouth and nose. Horses receive communication from us in the same way, whether we know it or not. The desired relationship between horse and human is that of a herd of two. According to the laws of the herd (the only rules horses really understand) the hierarchy is linear, meaning each and every individual of the herd is either dominate over or subordinate to each and every other individual. In your herd of two, your choice is clear: you must be the dominant member, the alpha individual, the “boss mare.” You must earn this respect, admiration and obedience by controlling the space of your horse and the “resources” of your herd (if your horse is frisking you for treats, HE is controlling the resources).

The first step in controlling your horse’s movement is to control your own body language. Your horse will notice your posture, eye contact, your foot movements, the elevation of your shoulders, the tone of your voice and the rhythm of your breathing. Be aware of the actions on your part and know that you are constantly communicating with your horse through your body language.

If your horse takes a step toward you and you back away, you have just told him he is in charge. If you get scared, tense your muscles and hold your breath, your horse will mirror your actions and instantly become frightened. All horses, no matter how high in the hierarchy, will gratefully accept the leadership of another individual, as long as the leader has demonstrated their commitment to controlling and protecting the herd.

For a horse to accept a human as leader, that human must be able to control the horse’s space and must never betray his trust by causing him fear or pain. Once they have accepted the individual (horse or human) as leader, they will be relaxed, compliant, obedient and happy. In natural horsemanship, we use ground work (round pen and lead-line) to control the horse’s space so that he becomes subordinate.

Beyond just controlling his space, we learn to communicate with the horse through our body language, to develop a strong bond and trust between leader and follower. The horse must be treated firmly but with kindness and above all, your interactions with the horse must be consistent so that he can learn to trust them. This kind of relationship with the horse is the ideal, but one that many horsemen find illusive.

To have a horse that is happy, respectful and obedient, who willingly does whatever you ask and responds to your most subtle cues, you must first become his leader and earn his respect. Learn to control your horse’s space and communicate with your own body language in a way that he understands, and you will not only earn his respect, but admiration as well.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

My Horse Is Herd-Bound And Barn Sour

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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