Fresh Start

Like my fruits and vegetables, I prefer my horses fresh. It’s clearly not for everyone, but I enjoy riding a horse that’s a little bit excited, that’s looking down the road, eager to get there and curious about what job awaits him. It took me about forty years to realize it, but I prefer a horse with a big motor and a busy mind. To me, it’s more fun than riding a horse that’s sluggish, insensitive and looking for a way out of work. But a fresh horse is neither fun nor confidence inspiring to many riders.

What is a fresh horse?

A fresh horse is one that has not been handled or ridden for an extended time or for a longer period than normal. Perhaps it’s a horse that’s simply not in a regular riding routine or hasn’t been ridden in a few days. At one end of the extreme, it could be a horse that’s been turned out with the herd for several years without any riding or handling, and at the other end, maybe it’s Monday and that horse just had the weekend off. 

Because horses are emotional animals, a horse might be in a fresh state of mind because of the situation it’s in. Riding in a strange area or with unknown horses can sometimes cause emotional overload. When something changes in a horse’s known environment, like a new banner on the fence, it can temporarily blow his mind. Maybe the wind is howling, putting a normally calm horse on edge. Often a nervous or excited horse feels just like a fresh horse— it’s more horse than you are used to.

What does fresh look and feel like? 

A horse with the freshies tends to be high-headed, energetic and easily distracted. It may be looking around a lot, calling out to other horses, fidgeting. It’s muscles feel and look tight (we call that “on the muscle”) and sometimes the rider feels a hump in the horse’s back that may morph into a little crow-hop. It’s often the result of pent up energy in the horse, not the result of disobedience or defiance. There’s a big difference.

If a trained horse has simply had a time off, even if it’s been months or years, it does not forget its training or become untrained, let alone become disobedient or defiant. Horses retain their training forever; they don’t unlearn, although they may benefit from occasional reminders. 

However that horse was left before the lay-off, is the same horse that you get back, once you get the freshies out. While I expect a fresh horse to be energetic and need some re-tuning, that should not translate to disobedience if the horse was properly trained to begin with. Defiance and disobedience are signs of poor training, not a fresh horse.

Whether your horse has been laid off for days or weeks or has had time off due to weather conditions, vacation, physical rehab or some external reason, there are a few steps you can take to make sure your first few rides on a fresh horse go well. From take-off to landing, it helps to pay attention to details, to insure a smooth and safe flight.

Pre-Flight Checklist

At its best, riding is a physically demanding and somewhat risky activity. When a horse is fresh, it’s important to be thorough in your preparations and make sure all conditions are perfect for flight. If we always consider the worst-case-scenario with horses, it will keep us safer. Minimally, I want to make certain that my tack is right, the environment is conducive to training, and my horse is in the right state-of-mind. Before I take that first ride, I’ll go through a pre-flight checklist, to make sure all conditions are right.

  • Saddle fit and tack check: If the horse has had weeks or months off, it pays to reassess saddle fit. A horse’s body shape changes rapidly with age and conditioning, so saddle fit is a constant concern. With an extended layoff, it’s even more important. Pads may need to be adjusted; billets and latigos may need adjusting. Check all parts of your tack, especially if it hasn’t been used in a while. Adjust the headstall/bit/curb strap; look for wear spots where metal meets leather; check Chicago screws and other connections.
  • Safe footing: Keep in mind that the fresh horse is probably going to outrun his lungs. Like most horse trainers, I’m a fanatic about soft, freshly-groomed and consistent footing. A fresh horse may be physically out of shape or coming off injured reserve and in his excitement, he may run fast and buck hard in the groundwork and trot/canter hard when I ride. I want deep enough footing that my horse has plenty of soft ground underneath him, but not so deep that he over-stresses his tendons. I don’t mind mud unless it’s slippery, as long as the footing is consistent. 
  • Groundwork for focus, not to tire: If the fresh horse is nervous and a looky-lou right when I pull him out of the stall, some groundwork is indicated. If the well-trained horse is mannerly from the start, listening to me, standing quietly while tied and compliant, I may skip it. If I do groundwork with the fresh horse, my goal is to get the horse to listen to me, follow instructions and demonstrate compliance. It is not to “get the bucks out” or tire out the horse. In my experience, people who say that are often inadvertently training the horse to buck on the lunge line. 
  • Ground School. For groundwork, I use a premium rope halter, with a 15-foot training lead; I may also employ a flag or boundary stick. I start with leading the horse around at walk and trot, doing turns and stops, to check its manners, its awareness of boundaries and its focus on me. Then I might circle the horse on the end of the line and ask it to turn around and trot off a few times. If it gives me green lights, I may only spend a couple minutes in groundwork before I step up in the stirrup. If I think the horse really needs to blow off some steam, due to excessive confinement or extreme emotionality, I’d rather use the round pen or turn him loose in a bigger pen (assuming re-injury is not a concern).

Cleared for Take-off

Once I swing a leg over the back of a fresh horse, we are wheels up. As soon as I settle in the saddle, I will ask the horse to move forward at either walk or trot. If he’s truly fresh and has a lot of energy, I want to send that energy in a positive direction. Riding and training horses is entirely about controlling forward movement—start with the forward, then gradually start guiding the horse more and more.

  • Forward motion is the basis of all training. Working trot is the best gait for a fresh horse. It covers the most ground and is the most efficient gait for the horse. If he’s really fresh, I’ll jump right to working trot as soon as I get on and keep him at that gait for at least ten minutes. That’s enough to take the air out of most horses. After that, we can usually settle into some more serious work.
  • Lower your expectations for performance, but not for obedience. I don’t expect a horse that hasn’t been ridden in months to be as sharp in his skills as he was in the peak of his training, but I always expect and require obedience. If he hasn’t had a reason to think about riding cues in a long time, he’s a little rusty and I will give him the time he needs to regain his performance skills. But I expect him to go in the direction I choose, at the speed I dictate, without argument. Having time off does not change the rules of expected behavior.
  • Bending, not pulling, to control speed. A hot blooded, forward moving horse that has been laid-off or cooped up, is going to have a full tank of gas and be eager to go. What never works well on a horse like this is to try to control speed by pulling back on two reins. Instead, I prefer to control speed or excessive energy by bending the neck of the horse softly from right to left to right to left. When the horse builds speed, I gradually bring him onto an arcing circle, increasing the bend in the neck until I feel him gear down a notch, then letting him go straight in reward. Remember, the goal is to control forward motion, not stop it. A lot of behavioral problems stem from the latter.
  • Changes of direction matter. If I am bending the horse to control speed, I will also throw in some changes of direction too. I never go ‘round and ‘round in one direction; instead, I change directions often. This has the double-effect of bending the horse and showing the horse I control its direction. Changes of direction are a powerful tool on a horse that’s excited, scared or feisty.
  • Be prepared for spooks. A nervous or excited horse is more prone to spook, spin and bolt. Mange your rein length and know how to shorten and lengthen your reins blindfolded (my rope reins are the perfect length and are easy to manage); know how to execute the emergency stop (see my YouTube video on Pulley Rein). Don’t ride the horse as if he is going to spook (because he will), but be prepared to react if he does.
  • Rest in the far corners. After extensive trotting, circling, changes of direction, hand gallop and canter, when the horse reaches his full aerobic capacity (maxVO2), I will take him to one of the far corners of the arena (where he doesn’t want to be) for rest and recovery. This addresses barn sour tendencies and teaches the horse to enjoy the part of the arena he normally avoids. 

Horse, this is Your Captain Speaking

Besides getting the fresh off the horse and dissipating his pent-up energy, my main goal with this horse is to remind him of how we do business, who is in charge and who will be making all the decisions (me). I’m less concerned on the horse’s accurate response to specific cues, and more interested in re-establishing a productive working relationship. With that in mind, there are some specific parameters that I work within.

  • No looking around. Focus on the job ahead of you. This is a strict rule of mine on any horse, but especially for the green or fresh horse. A horse that is looking around excessively is not focused on me or the task ahead. I simply disallow it by bumping the outside rein once when the horse turns its head to look. As soon as the nose crosses the line of its shoulder, I issue the correction. Using good timing and the right amount of pressure, the horse stops looking for his escape and brings more focus to riding within a minute or two.
  • Breaking gait (up or down) is bad. Whether the horse is lazy or full of gas, he doesn’t get to pick the speed. Ever. You don’t want a thousand-pound flight animal thinking he controls the speed. A fresh horse needs to move forward, so I proactively take charge by asking it to move forward before it has the chance and for longer than it wants to. Holding that forward horse back when it’s fresh is a bad idea; it’s better for me to be the one asking for speed (and the horse asking to slow down). 
  • Control direction; don’t compromise the path. Just as with speed, I also don’t want my horse thinking it gets a vote in where it goes. If the horse is avoiding the far corners, pulling toward the gait or otherwise veering off the path I have chosen, I will address it. If the horse is nervous or full of itself, I may not take it immediately to the scary places, but it’s important that I maintain control of the direction. I may employ changes of direction, but always turning the horse away from where he wants to go (the gate) or toward the place his is avoiding (the scary place). This kills two birds with one stone: the changes of direction give me more authority over the horse and turning toward scary or away from home will make sure the horse does not benefit from its disobedient actions. If I let the horse veer-away from a place I’ve directed it to go or let the horse pull me in a direction without addressing it, it is learning the wrong thing.

Us horse trainers like to talk about riding the horse underneath you and staying in the moment. Ride the horse that showed up today; play the hand you are dealt. They are not robots and they all have good days and bad days. It’s the rider’s job to adjust to the needs of the horse, in the moment and ride proactively.

Just because a horse has pent-up energy or hasn’t been ridden for an extended period, does not mean he is a bad horse or that he has become untrained. Think about kids going back to school after summer break. They are a little wild and may need a few days to fall back into the routine, but they know how to do it. Contain and direct their energy, remind them of their manners, and get their mind back in the game. That’s what you want to do with the fresh horse.

As always, with horses, keep your safety and the safety of your horse, first and foremost in your mind. And don’t forget… enjoy the ride!

Winter “Whoas”

Pepper walking in the snow between two tree branches.
Pepper walking in the snow between two tree branches.
Unless you have the luxury of loading up your horses and heading to Arizona or south Florida for the winter, chances are good your riding activities have been seriously curtailed by winter weather. Whether you’re dealing with rain and mud, snow and ice, or sub-zero temps and bomb cyclones, the winter months can put the brakes on your horsemanship, if you let it.

This time of year, I hear a lot of frustration in the voices of the riders I coach online, because they have assignments they want to complete, but can’t do much with their horses until the weather improves. I grew up in Florida, where winter is the prime riding season, but after decades of living in the Rocky Mountains, 7800 feet above sea level, I can certainly relate to the winter whoas.

Truth is, there are plenty of things you can do to advance your horsemanship and increase your horse’s training, no matter how bad the footing gets. I think it’s important to keep your hands on your horses daily—for health reasons, for bonding, for leadership. Even if the winter weather restricts you from riding or groundwork, just grooming your horse in the barn, is time well-spent.

With just a little bit of ground with decent footing– in the barn aisle, a stall or the driveway—there are ground exercises that will keep your horse tuned into your signals and interested in what you have to say. Even with no footing at all, you can engage your horse enough to maintain the relationship (and authority) you’ve built. 

The heart of winter is a great time to reassess your riding goals and your horse’s training. Evaluate and plan. And while you’re at it, think about improving your own self too! Horse sports are physically demanding, so fitness matters. 

Finally, while there are some skills that require getting your hands dirty in order to learn, there is much about riding, training and horse behavior that can be learned didactically. Winter is a great time to read, study, take online short courses and gain knowledge. There’s a lot to learn about horses; you need to gain knowledge every way you can.

Grooming Time is Bonding Time
Even if you can’t ride, it’s important to visit your horse and remind him of your relationship. Here in Colorado, some people hardly touch their horses all winter and by Spring, the horses are incredibly herd-bound. Getting your horse out, separating him from the herd and reminding him who you are, will help a lot.

Horses are mutually-grooming animals and they won’t groom on just any horse—it’s a behavior that only occurs between bonded horses. Giving your horse a thorough grooming reminds him of your special relationship and gives you an opportunity to remind him that you are still the one in charge. 

I like to lay my hands over every square inch of my horse’s body, legs, neck and face. It’s especially important in the winter when their coats are long. Winter coats can mask health problems, like weight loss, plus, I like to feel the skin for any scabbing or injuries. I give my horses a thorough head-to-tail curry with HandsOn Gloves, just for this reason. I can kill two birds with one stone—while I curry and clean, I’m also feeling the skin and searching for sore spots. It’s a great massage for my horse and it mimics the way horses groom each other.

Grooming promotes health and well-being in your horse in many ways. Since I cannot bathe my horses all winter, yet we’re still riding and causing sweat buildup, I use a waterless bathing product called Miracle Groom. It also cleans manure and urine stains, without requiring any rinsing.

Get Grounded
Even if you don’t have suitable footing for riding or active groundwork, there are still things you can do with your horse in the winter to maintain your leadership and authority. As I said, just getting him away from the herd and alone for an hour or so will help. Tying your horse for grooming reminds him to be patient. You can work on ground tying exercises in the aisle of the barn.

If your driveway has some dry areas or even some snow-packed areas, you might be able to do some leading exercises with your horse to keep his ground manners sharp and to keep him tuned into you. Check out my Lead Line Leadership video for ground tying and other exercises to work on. 

We try to keep our horses barefoot in the winter because it’s better for their hooves and an unshod horse has better traction in the snow and ice and is less-likely to get snowballs under his hooves. Hoof boots can be useful for shod or unshod horses, when you need more traction. If we have a horse that must remain shod in the winter for therapeutic reasons, we use snow pads for added traction and to prevent snowballs. Sometimes people use studded shoes or borium welded onto a steel shoe, for added traction in the winter.

If you have an indoor arena or suitable footing outside, you can include lungeing and circling work with your horse, which will not only keep him responsive, but also improve his fitness. If your riding activities are restricted in the winter months, spend whatever time you can on groundwork and relationship building activities. If you keep the relationship strong between you and your horse, you won’t miss a beat when the good weather finally arrives.

Goal-setting and Training Plans 
Winter is a logical time to look forward and decide what you will accomplish with your horse in the coming year. Feats to accomplish, skills to master, trail rides, horse shows and clinics to attend. Get a calendar and fill that thing up. Set your long-range goals now.

The next step is to think about the skills and resources you will need to acquire, what steps you will take, how you will condition both you and your horse. Back-track on that calendar, thinking about how many weeks it takes to impact fitness, training and performance. What skills are you and your horse lacking and how long will it take to fill the holes? Break down the skills and set a training schedule.

Training and performance goals are accomplished over months and years, not hours and days. Looking forward, six to twelve months in advance, will help you chart a course. My Interactive Academy curriculum begins with assessing the current skill level of you and your horse, then setting realistic goals for the future.

For instance, if you’re planning to attend a multi-day rigorous trail ride in July, start by getting that date on the calendar. Calculate how many weeks and days-per-week of riding t will it take to condition your horse. Now you can back track on the calendar and set your riding goals.

Maybe you need to acquire some new skills for the trail ride… ground tying, tying to the trailer, trailer loading, crossing water, riding in a strange location. Identify the skills/experience/resources you need and make a plan. Take lessons, go on shorter rides, fill the holes with training—all that requires planning and time to accomplish.

In Pursuit of Knowledge
Most accomplished horse people are curious and insatiable learners. It’s a good sport for people that crave learning because if you devoted every waking minute of your life to learning more about horses, you’d still never learn it all. There’s no such thing as a perfect rider—never has been, never will be. And even after more than five thousand years of domestication, there’s still an awful lot about horses we don’t know. 

The professional horse trainers that I admire, all have cross-trained in other disciplines and/or taken any opportunity they can find to study classical horsemanship. Certainly, riding horses requires a lot of physical skill, but there is also a huge body of riding theory that can be learned by reading, studying and taking lessons, clinics or online courses

I’ll never grow tired of studying horse behavior and the science behind behavior modification. Sometimes a small piece of information can connect a lot of dots in your understanding. Personally, I look to science-based, peer-reviewed research and avoid fluffy, anecdotal books that tend to romanticize horse behavior. 

Recently I wrote a blog sharing my favorite horse books, so if you’re looking for books that will increase your knowledge base, check it out. Also, if structured learning is important to you, check out my Interactive Academy. Each set of assignments includes a study problem (complete with all the study resources you need), a groundwork exercise, an equitation exercise (to improve riding skill) and a horse training exercise (mounted). It’s self-paced and for all skill levels and I personally coach you through the program. It’s not for everyone, but for self-motivated, insatiable learners, this program is perfect!

Fitness Matters
Horse sports are physically demanding and getting in better shape will always make a positive difference in your riding and in your self-confidence. The winter months are a great time to reassess your fitness and think about improving your conditioning in ways that impact your riding. 

Balance is the #1 skill required of riders—a critical skill that must be constantly honed through exercise. We reach our peak ability to balance at the age of 18-20. Balance decreases with age, unless you work on it. Fortunately, balance improves quickly with exercise and practice.

My fitness regime always includes exercises to address core strength, increase aerobic capacity and improve my balance. I find that cross-training in my fitness routine is important—I might hike one day, bicycle or ski the next. I like to start my day with a 30-minute Pilates workout because it involves core strength and dynamic balance. Of all the exercises classes/videos I have done, Pilates relates the most to riding because it connects your core strength to body control and balance.

Consider your horse’s fitness alongside your own. Inactivity affects all of us. If nothing else, maybe you can go on walks with your horse in-hand. Stretch your legs, jog a little bit, work on your horse’s ground manners and get him away from the herd and more focused on you.

From “Whoas” to Goes
Don’t let the winter months bring your horsemanship to a sliding stop. Even if you only find one thing from this entire blog that you can employ, it will help you further your goals. Just imagine if you picked one thing from each category and then dedicated time each week to work on it! Without question, both you and your horse will feel a positive impact. 

Stay connected with your horse through grooming and groundwork, even if it takes place standing in the barn aisle. Take time to assess where you and your horse are in the training continuum, where you’d like to go, then chart a course to get there. Great accomplishment stems from evaluation, planning and taking small steps. 

Finally, invest in yourself. Improve your balance and strength—even just adding one new component to your exercise regime can make an impact. If you cannot spend time in the saddle, the next best thing is to study riding theory, watch videos, take online courses and read, read, read. 

Horse sports are some of the most complicated, physically demanding and difficult-to-learn activities out there. To excel, you must give it everything you’ve got and attack it on all fronts. My husband likes to tease me by saying I can relate any subject in the world to horses, and he’s right. I look to all areas of sport, exercise, philosophy, psychology, science and behavior for knowledge that can inform my horsemanship. 

Go ahead and take the plunge.  Change the narrative from whoa to go. Make a commitment to advance your horsemanship and don’t let winter slow you down!

Getting Ready for the Riding Season—Top 3 Mistakes Riders Make

Julie riding Dually in the pond, Cosequin shirt on.
Julie riding Dually in the pond, Cosequin shirt on.
Photo by: The Whole Picture, LLC.

For many of us, the winter months are not conducive to riding, due to frozen ground, inclement weather and/or mud. And whether we like it or not, sometimes life gets in the way of our riding plans—your horse gets hurt or you have a personal situation that causes an extended layoff for your horse. One way or the other, your horse may go months with no riding at all. As a result, the horse may get little handling as well. This recipe—no riding and little handling—doesn’t always result in sweet rides in the spring or a delicious comeback to riding.

What we love most about horses is that they are not machines. They are thinking and feeling animals, capable of forming an athletic partnership and a bond with their human. But because they are not machines—and because our relationship with them matters—we can’t just ignore them for months and then expect them to step right back into their role as your perfect horse.

To make sure your spring “comeback” goes smoothly with your horse you need to plan ahead. Avoid the missteps that I hear about often when talking to horse owners at clinics and expos. Avoid making the mistakes that may leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Instead, try this recipe for a sweet summer of riding.

Take Time to Reconnect with Your Horse

If your horse has been turned out with a herd over the winter—or if he has had little interaction with people for a while—his herd instincts may be stronger. His focus may be on the herd—not on you—and he may fret when you take him away from his friends. This is perfectly normal, instinctive behavior for horses and it’s unrealistic to think otherwise. To have the kind of relationship with a horse where he is focused on you—and happy to leave the herd with you—requires work in the beginning of the relationship and steady maintenance thereafter.

Plan ahead as your riding season approaches and spend some time reconnecting with your horse. Groom him, do some ground work and take him on some walks away from his herd. Depending on how strong your relationship was last fall and how trained/experienced your horse is, plan on spending at least 3-6 days just getting reacquainted with your horse. I like doing lead line exercises to reconnect with my horse and remind him of his manners and my expectations of him (see my Lead Line Leadership video).

Check Your Tack and Saddle Fit

Don’t get carried away with riding until you have taken the time to inspect all your tack for needed repairs and maintenance, as well as checking the saddle fit on your horse. A horse’s body shape changes a lot every year. If you’ve ever had young horses you already know that. (As weanlings, if you watch them closely it seems like you can actually see them grow.) Think about the changes in the human body from birth to the end of life. A horse’s body goes through those same changes—only three-four times faster.

If he has not had much exercise over the winter, he may have gained weight and/or lost muscle toning, which can have a big effect on saddle fit. Take the time to analyze your saddle fit at least once a year and especially after your horse has had an extended time off. You may need different padding or adjustments. Last year, my horse Eddie (still filling out at the age of 7) outgrew his regular width tree and needed a new saddle. That’s not the answer I was hoping for when re-assessing his saddle fit, but I can’t bear the thought of working him in a saddle that causes discomfort.

Don’t forget to clean and condition your saddle and bridle, and check all the places where metal meets leather and all fasteners to make sure they are strong. Often the smaller parts of your tack—like latigos, leather ties, Chicago screws, and straps—need replacing or fixing. Make sure your bridle is clean and comfortable and the bit is the right size.  Eddie also went from a 4 ¾ inch bit into a 5 inch (the standard size for a horse). But I would’ve changed his bit anyway since his training had advanced so much in the past few years that he was ready for a different bit. As horses progress in their training, they have different needs in bits too. You may find that the bit that worked well for your horse a couple years ago now makes him unhappy—he’s leaning, pulling, chomping, tossing his head, or running through the pressure. These are all signs that a bit change may be in order. Check out this “Bitting Assistant” from Toklat.

Avoid Doing Too Much, Too Soon

After a long, cold winter and too much time spent indoors, it’s easy to want to jump back into riding right where you left off in the fall. But the reality is, both you are and your horse need some time to get back into riding shape—and the older either you or your horse are, the more time you each may need. Both horses and humans get out of shape really fast when not getting exercise; and for both species, the activity of riding (or carrying a rider) uses special muscles. You both need time in the beginning—shorter rides with greater frequency—to build strength slowly.

Your horse also needs time to get used to his tack again—to get “hardened” to the cinch/girth, the saddle and the bit/bridle. If you had gone for months without wearing anything but slippers on your feet, you’d have to get used to wearing heavy boots again over subsequent days to avoid getting sore feet and blisters. Just as you would never want to hike all day in brand new hiking boots, your horse needs time to get re-accustomed to the feel of the saddle, the weight of the rider and the bridle on his face.

Finally, if you’re coming back to riding after a long layoff, think of reconditioning your horse’s training and mental focus as well. Don’t expect him to respond perfectly to cues he hasn’t thought about in a while. Don’t jump right in, asking your horse to perform the most difficult riding maneuvers right on the first try. Even if it seems like he’s just as responsive as the last time you rode him, asking for too much too soon could lead to problems. Start by doing easier stuff and focusing on fundamentals. Make sure you acknowledge and reward your horse when he tries—whether it was brilliant or not—so that you recondition his spirit and willingness as well.

By setting realistic expectations, planning ahead and building up slowly but methodically, your “comeback” will go smoothly and your horse will be happier. Remember, your horse needs the same time that you do to get in condition—both mentally and physically. Be fair to yourself and be fair to your horse. With quality ingredients and careful preparation, your riding season will be cake!

2016 February Blog – It’s About Time

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It’s About Time
Most things in life that are important, take an investment of time—an education, a career, a relationship. Mastering a skill or a sport, starting a new business, overcoming setbacks; none of this comes quickly. Horses are not the best sport for instant gratification. It takes time to set your goal then to work diligently to identify all the steps necessary to work up to the bigger dream. Whether you’re working on a riding goal or to condition your horse, one thing’s for sure: it takes time.

With horses, after about 30 days of daily work, you start seeing physical changes in the horse’s fitness level—a flatter underline, more muscle definition, more energy. After 90 days, your horse is looking pretty fit and after 120 days your horse is ripped like a body builder.

Thirty-day increments of training are standard in the horse industry, whether we are talking about fitness levels, the time needed for the horse to perfect skills or for the cost of training. Many trainers, myself included, would say that 90-days is minimum to accomplish much of anything with a horse and we are talking about years of training for the truly finished horse.

Our society’s fast-paced, on-demand culture seems to sprinkle over into horse training. We want it all fast and right away. I hear this need-for-speed from riders, too. When looking through the applications for my TV show, Horse Master, I often see riders who want to work on flying lead changes. However, the horse they are riding is young or they themselves haven’t mastered the canter departure yet. Many skills precede flying lead changes—like haunches–in, leg-yielding, head-to-tail body control, halt-to-canter departures, counter-canter, then master the simple lead change, then learn the principles of the horse’s movements and how to cue for a change on the fly.

We want the end result—the pretty, finished picture—and we want it now. But to honor the horse, we must allow time and we must break down our lofty goals into smaller, attainable, slow steps.

Breaking down the training process
When my young horse Eddie, was very green, we struggled with leads at the canter. He always seemed to over-think it and he second guessed himself a lot (pick up the correct lead, switch to the wrong, then switch back—all in three strides). He got tense and hollow whenever it was time for a canter transition and needed some extra time to understand. I started breaking things down more and more, working more on haunches-in at walk and trot, sequencing my cues more clearly, giving lots of pre-signal and setting him up very definitively for the correct lead. Fortunately, I had no deadline or reason to rush through his training; I just asked for a little more each day. For months, I only asked for one departure on each lead a day, and by taking the time he needed and preparing him as best I could, he became very solid on his leads and his walk to canter transitions were great by the time he was four.

Whatever time it takes, is what it takes for a horse to learn something and while Eddie eventually did learn flying lead changes, none of it came easy—especially the next step. Once Eddie and I had a clear understanding of which lead I was asking for and he was batting a thousand with his leads, I thought it was a good time to introduce the counter-canter (going intentionally on the wrong lead)—a very important obedience and cueing exercise in preparation for lead changes. It blew his mind so badly he thought surely the world was ending. It was almost comical how wrong Eddie thought the counter-canter was and once again, it took a long time to convince him otherwise. Months, not hours.

Allowing recovery time
Healing takes time too. Lots of it and usually more than you think. Whether it’s from an injury or illness to you or your horse, or from a broken heart or a tragic loss; healing takes time and it should not be rushed. I’ve known of many horses that have been able to make big comebacks from terrible injuries or sickness, because their owners were willing to invest time and resources and have waited patiently for adequate healing to occur. Sadly, I have known many more horses that have been rushed back into training and performance, with predictable and disappointing results.

When my horse, Dually, torqued his back, I called in all the possible help. He had chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, a full veterinary exam, pharmaceuticals and nutra-ceuticals, physical therapy, and I doubled the healing time that was recommended. I wanted to make sure he was ready to return to work before asking him to perform. This was not as easy task as this is a horse who wants to work! He hated when I would walk into the pen and halter Eddie instead of him. When he did return to work, he was ready to go even though I knew I wanted to have a safe and steady plan for his re-entry to arena and performance work.

When it was time for him to return to exercise, I started by turning him loose in the arena and watching closely as he moved around voluntarily. Dually is never shy about letting you know if he hurts. Good results there, so I started ponying him from my other horse and just letting him walk it out. After a few days we added the trot; after a week or so, we started longeing over ground poles and backing him up in-hand, to get him to stretch and lift his back. After a few weeks, as Dually got stronger, he also got more confidant and energetic and soon I started riding again—but bareback. I spent four months riding bareback, to be easier on his back and so I would not stop and turn as hard. All told, it was about a year and a half before we were back to pre-injury levels.

Anyone who has ever suffered an injury from riding or handling horses already knows that well beyond the physical healing, it also takes time to rebuild confidence when it’s been lost. Whether we are talking human flesh or horse flesh, confidence can be lost in an instant, but takes a long time to rebuild. The same thing could be said of trust; it takes time to build it but you can lose it in a heartbeat. Trusting a horse, the horse trusting you, trusting that you can not only survive the situation, but control it—these things take time to reconstruct.

It has been said many times, when it comes to horses (and life), patience is a virtue. Having realistic long-term goals, slow and steady plans to get you there, investing the time, being patient, not afraid of failure and committed to the outcome, will almost certainly insure your success—both in life and with horses.

Julie Goodnight

Condition For Long Rides

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Condition for Long Rides
Q
I’m planning ahead for summer, when I plan to go on daylong trail rides. I haven’t been riding much, because I work full-time. I want to make sure my horse is in shape and conditioned by summer. How should I safely build up his stamina?

A
This is an important question, Roni. I’m so glad you’re planning ahead.
While it’s difficult to ride regularly during the busy workweek, it’s important to avoid riding your horse hard only on the weekends. This can lead to a sore, stiff horse. It’s much better to find a conditioning routine that fits your schedule and gets your horse in shape.
A horse in average condition can usually handle a one- to two-hour trail ride on the weekends without too much stress. But for longer rides, you’re right — you need to plan ahead and start a conditioning routine.
When my horses are in conditioning programs, I like to think of ways I can boost my fitness, too. If you start walking, jogging, dancing, and just plain moving more, you’ll feel much better after the daylong rides, too.
Horses, like people, must train to build strength and endurance. Here’s what I recommend.

Get Him Trail Hardened
Your horse needs to become “hardened” to the saddle, tack, saddlebags, and your weight.
Like breaking in a new pair of shoes, your horse will need time to get re-acclimated to the rub and feel of the saddle, breastcollar, and cinch. It’s not painful, but there’s some toughening that takes place.
Your horse will also need increasingly longer periods of time with you in the saddle. Weight-bearing conditioning helps him improve his balance and stamina, and helps get him in shape much more quickly than round-pen exercise or longeing.
You’re building up to a long trail [ITAL]rides[ITAL], so you’ll need to [ITAL]ride[ITAL] to get your horse in shape.
If you’ll be riding your horse in the mountains, you’ll also have to condition him to hills, as well as walking on shifting rocks and through other challenging terrain.

Look for sandy areas to condition your horse. Sand builds condition and strength more than does solid ground. However, stay at a walk to avoid tendon injury.

Start Slow
Schedule at least 90 calendar days of conditioning before your first big daylong ride.

It usually takes 30 calendar days of a conditioning program before you’ll see physical changes in your horse. At that time, you can see how he’s looking and feeling, and raise your training goals.

You say you have a busy schedule, so start by riding your horse three days per week for the first 30 days. I suggest two weekdays (say, Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday) and one weekend day.
Alternate aerobic (oxygen-based) and strength conditioning, and work to get your horse “hardened” for the trail with increasingly longer weekend rides.

You’ll know your horse is working hard when you can see his nostrils dilate; stop and flex his neck to the side so that you can see.
When your horse starts to breathe hard, push him just a little, then give him a break. You have to push so that you’ll get past what’s easy for your horse and make sure you’re progressing.

During the week. Start by riding for one hour on each of the two workweek days. Begin riding at a marching walk on even ground. Alternate walking and trotting. (Long trotting is the best conditioning gait.)
If you and your horse are really out of shape, start by walking for 50 minutes and trotting for 10. You can even break up the trotting time. As you progress increase your trotting time as much as you feel you safely can.

Be sure to plan a day of rest between rides — both you and your horse will need the recovery time.
On the weekend. On your third riding day — a weekend day — plan a two-hour ride. Build in some strength conditioning. Ride up and down sloping hills; plan an easy trail ride with friends. If you can, ride on similar trail terrain you plan on tackling this summer.

Increase Training Time
After your first 30 days is up, I suggest adding in a fourth riding day if your schedule allows.
On Day 1, ride for an hour and long trot. On Day 2, I’d suggest one hour of hill work (trotting or walking up and down — both directions are beneficial).
On Day 3, go back to long trotting on the flat. On Day 4, gradually increase your time on the trail; ride on varying terrain for two to three, then three to four hours.

By the end of 90 days, I’d expect a horse to be able to trot for almost the entire hour when we’re working on the flat. With that amount of ride time to boost his aerobic, strength, and weight-bearing conditioning, he should be ready for longer rides.
Of course, you know your horse best and know when to ask for more.
You’re doing the right thing by having a workout plan and working toward a riding goal. If you don’t have time to condition your horse as much as is suggested, think about planning some shorter rides.
You and your horse can find a beneficial conditioning plan that will fit your schedules and be enjoyable for all.

For your horse to build up condition for long summer rides, he’ll need increasingly longer periods of time with you in the saddle, notes Julie Goodnight (shown). Weight-bearing conditioning helps him improve his balance and stamina.

If you’ll be riding your horse in the mountains, you’ll have to condition him to hills, as well as walking on shifting rocks and through other challenging terrain, says Julie Goodnight.

Reconditioning Program

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Question: Hello Julie,
My horse has been off all summer due to an injury and I would like suggestions as to how I can get him in shape for spring. I will work with him all winter and need help with a plan. Can you help us?
Thank you,
Karen
Boise, Idaho
Answer: Karen,
When a horse has been laid off for a year or a season due to an injury, you’ll want to start slowly in his reconditioning program and build over time. Assuming you’ve had this horse cleared by a vet to start reconditioning, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask him/her for suggestions or to go to the AAEP website http://aaep.org/ to see if you can find some answers there.
I can give you an idea of what I’d do, from a horse trainer’s perspective. Let’s say you’ll start your reconditioning program in January—I’ll give you a five month plan that will hopefully have you and your horse fit for summer riding.
In January, I’d start with 10-15 minutes of lead line work—no circling work—4-6 days a week. If your winter conditions permit it, you could just hand-walk the horse down the road/trail for 10-15 minutes. Or you could spend the time actively training on your horse in an arena with specific lead-line exercises, which are thoroughly explained on volume 2 of my groundwork video series, Lead Line Leadership. There are also some articles in my training library on the subject.
The last two weeks of January, I’d start adding some trotting (in-hand). Practice your walk-trot-walk-halt transitions and you and your horse will really get in sync with each other. As a bonus, you’ll get in better shape too!
You can also start using an elbow pull (I call mine Goodnight’s Bitting System) to help your horse develop his top line and work in a collected frame while you work him in the round pen. The tool—much better than using side reins which don’t allow the horse a release—will help remind your horse of your riding days as he feels gentle right-left pressure on the bit, learns to put his head down and works his body in a collected, muscled frame. The Bit Basics DVD teaches you how to use this.
In February, I’d continue with his groundwork but I may add circling work in-hand, depending on the nature of his injury. In the last couple weeks, you can probably saddle him up for some short rides about 2 days a week, and continue the ground work in-between. Keep your rides short with 10-15 minutes of walk only and progress toward 10 minutes of walk and 10 minutes of trot when your horse is ready.
For March, you should be able to transition to riding 3-5 days per week, with the same workout of 10 minutes’ walk and 10 minutes’ trot. The trot is the most conditioning of gaits, so it is good to maximize your time long trotting, but stay away from more demanding work like collection, circling and more advance maneuvers.
In April, assuming your horse is growing stronger and feeling good, you should be able to up the ante a little in his conditioning program. Start by making 1-2 of your regular workouts more demanding, such as long trot up a gentle slope. Adding hill work helps strengthen the horse’s hindquarters and prevent stifle problems. If you do not have access to hills, you could add some canter/hand gallop to your rides. By the end of the month, you could be doing three hard workouts a week, with either days off or light work in-between.
By May, your horse should be getting pretty fit. Continuing April’s program is sufficient to make him buff for summer riding, but this month, you may want to add some more discipline-specific activities, like ground poles and cavaletti or reining maneuvers or even just some simple collected work with bending and lateral movements. For more information on this, see volume 5 in my video series on riding, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Refinement & Collection.
If you follow this recipe, by June, you and your horse will be ready for just about anything. Good luck and be sure to monitor your horse’s injury closely and consult with your vet if you have any questions.

Good riding!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

Horse Behavior: Seasoning A Horse For Shows

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: I am writing from Pretoria South Africa. My daughter recently attended her first show-jumping event. Her horse boxed (trailered) without major problems and also traveled well. At the event this well-behaved, sweet horse, turned into a very nervous rearing animal. We could not control her and needless to say my daughter could not compete. According to her riding instructor, from whom we purchased the horse, she came off the track two years ago after being pushed very hard. She said that the P.A. system, bells, noise and other horses reminded her of her racing days and together with the stress of traveling caused her behavior. We did manage to calm her later the day. I am now prepared to travel with her the previous day and to stable her overnight, to minimize her stress level on the day of the event. The instructor however is of the opinion that stabling her in an unknown environment would heighten her stress and could bring on a bout of colic. Can you please give me advise how to approach this problem? Kind regards,

W.M.

South Africa

Answer: Willem,
For horses, training is very place (or location) specific. A horse learns to perform a certain skill in a certain place and when you ask the horse for the same thing in a different place, at first he may not know what to do. Scientifically, there are four stages of learning for all animals, humans included:

• Acquisition- horse learns to associate a cue with the behavior you are teaching him

• Fluency- horse responds correctly to the cue almost always and refinement occurs during this stage

• Generalization- horse takes a skill he has learned in one environment and comes to understand that he can perform that skill confidently in any environment (such as at a horse show)

• Maintenance- the “finished” horse will perform reliably in a variety of settings

It sounds to me like your horse is in step two, the fluency stage, and her training has not yet been generalized. Generalization is a stage that is often overlooked in training horses. This can be a very time consuming stage because you’ll have to virtually go back to step one and ask the horse to perform in different settings. Horses that are generalized in their training are referred to as “seasoned” horses; what we in the U.S. refer to as, “been there, done that.”

With your horse, I think you need to just back up a little and haul the horse to some different settings (without a show) and work the horse, so that first she learns to generalize her skills. I do not know if you have horsemanship clinics in your country, but that is a good way to get a horse used to strange places and to teach him that he can act just the same away from home. Then you might haul her to a few small shows, but do not enter her in any classes. Instead, just allow her to get comfortable with her surroundings and maybe do some light work. Eventually you’ll be able to enter her in some classes, but don’t expect much at first. It takes a long time and many shows to truly season a horse.

As always, I recommend that you do a lot of ground work with this horse so that when you are in a new setting, you can do some ground work with her at any time to get her focus back on you. It is always possible that stress can bring on colic, so I would look for ways to minimize the stress. If you can haul her to some shows without the purpose of competing, this will relieve the stress for you and therefore for her. I would not be in favor of “immersing” the horse in the stimuli that causes her fear, but rather desensitize her gradually with small trips and lots of reassurance. Good luck to you and your daughter! Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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Follow-up:

Hi Julie

I wrote to you awhile back regarding a problem with my daughter (Chantelle’s) horse at her first event.

I would just like to inform you that things progressed very well. A few days before boxing her we gave her a homoeopathic remedy called “Echo fear” which relieves stress in animals, we then followed your advise and took her to different events without entering her in any competitions and just let her graze and walk around whilst on a halter. We then entered her in smaller shows. We took her to the venue the day before the event was to take place to allow her to familiarize herself with the area. She now travels to any event without any trouble at all and has been placed 4 times, earned a 1st and a 3rd place. It has not been necessary to give her Echo fear after that first time. She is a lovely and good tempered horse once again. Thank you very much for your good advice.

Kind regards

W. M.

South Africa

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