Unspoken Agreements

Apple, the horse starring in this episode.
Apple, the horse starring in this episode.

Is your horse easy to get along with, until you ask him to do something new and different? Or, heaven forbid, something he doesn’t want to do? Perhaps he’s happy to go down the trail in the company of others, but not alone. Or maybe he’ll go anywhere you point him, alone or with company, as long as you don’t ask him to cross water. How about the horse that half-heartedly trots when you ask, but threatens to buck if you ask to canter?
Horses are living, breathing animals with a mind of their own. They form opinions and make decisions.

Unfortunately, sometimes they come to conclusions we don’t agree with and form opinions that don’t jive with our wants and needs. For instance, if you’ve ridden a horse for two years and never once asked him to canter, your horse might understandably think you will never ask him to canter, or cantering is wrong or that it is not part of his contract. You can’t blame a guy for thinking, right?

The process of training horses involves both helping your horse form the correct opinions about being ridden and handled and not letting him get the wrong ideas. It takes months and years to train horses to a high level of performance and many mistakes can be made along the way that would lead your horse to misconceptions about what’s right and wrong. All it takes is releasing the pressure at the wrong moment, to convince a horse that was the right thing to do.

Although horses are not good at problem solving, they are always thinking and learning—whether we want them to or not—learning wrong things just as quickly as the right stuff. It’s funny that humans have literally three times the brain of a horse and much more capability in problem solving, yet we get outsmarted by horses all the time.

Huge pitfalls in a horse’s training can be avoided when the rider becomes more aware of the motivation behind the horse’s behavior, by making sure your horse forms the correct opinions about being ridden, by being mindful of the unspoken agreements between you and your horse and knowing who the decision maker is, in your “herd of two.”

Motivations Matter
Behind every behavior of your horse, there is a motivation for that action. If your horse throws a temper tantrum as you approach the horse trailer, his motivation is to get away from the trailer. If he refuses to move forward when you ask him to leave the barnyard, his motivation is likely to get back to his herd. If he argues and resists when you ask him to canter, his motivation may be to get out of hard work.

We don’t always get to know what motivates the horse’s behavior but in many instances, the motivation is very clear. If you can understand what is motivating the horse’s behavior, it will be far easier to fix. For instance, when the horse throws a fit about approaching the horse trailer, I know the very worst thing I can do is circle him back away from the trailer at the moment he throws the fit. Turning him back away from the trailer rewards the tantrum in that moment and getting away from the trailer was all he wanted.

Rather than simply react to your horse’s behavior, take a moment to assess his motivation. Once you understand why your horse is acting that way and what he is trying to achieve, you can address the behavior more effectively and make sure you don’t inadvertently reward the wrong behavior.

Opinions Count
You have opinions and so does your horse. It would be nice to think our opinions always align, but they don’t. For instance, you may think that you have not asked the horse to canter in over a year because you don’t want to canter and are not ready to canter. Your horse may come to believe that if he hasn’t been asked to canter in that long, he will never be asked. Furthermore, he may come to believe that it is not part of his contract—that you don’t have the right to ask him to canter.

Recently, I became aware that my young horse, Pepperoni, had formed an opinion that differed from mine. After riding indoors all winter, in the company of his herd mates, he mistakenly formed the opinion that he would never have to work alone. This became quite obvious when I took him to the outdoor arena alone and he threw a wall-eyed red-headed fit. My bad. I should’ve been working him in isolation more.

He had inadvertently formed the wrong opinion about how things work and he thought he was entitled to always ride in the company of other horses. We worked through this problem and I changed his way of thinking over a few weeks, and now I make sure I ride him alone regularly. Sometimes you and your horse will have differing opinions. It’s up to you, the leader, to clarify and rectify and make sure your horse comes out of every training session with the correct opinions.

Breach of Contract
In the training of a horse, we constantly make unspoken agreements with him. When you do as I ask, I will acknowledge and praise your obedience. When you try hard, I will let you rest. When you give the correct response, I will always release the pressure. When you resist or disobey my requests, I will always follow through with reinforcement.

Sometimes we make mistakes and fall down on our end of the agreement. Maybe at the moment you asked your horse to canter, you froze up on the reins and caused him to hit the bit and hurt his mouth. As far as he is concerned, this is an egregious breach of contract—you failed him. His head shaking and crow-hopping is his way of telling you that he thinks what you did is wrong. A smart rider will admit her mistakes and not blame the horse.

On the other hand, if you’ve been avoiding doing something with your horse because you are afraid to try or because you don’t think you can get your horse to do it, he may have come to believe that it is not part of his contract—that he will never have to do that. We can easily end up with a horse that does most of what we ask, but draws a line in the sand and says, “But I won’t give you any more than that—if you don’t push me, I won’t push back on you.”

I often see riders and horses that have this kind of arrangement—the “don’t push me too far” scenario. If there are things that you avoid asking your horse to do because you are afraid of his reaction when you do ask, your horse probably knows it and has come to believe that you’ve crossed a line when you ask that of him. In many instances, this kind of agreement seems to work, as long as the rider knows her place. But gradually, the horse will start making more and more deals under the table and is willing to do less and less.

You have a contract with your horse—to release the pressure when you should, to reward his good behavior, to not make mistakes and penalize him for doing his job, to be a good leader and make good decisions. Just make sure you have not inadvertently led your horse to believe that there are clauses in the contract which you have not agreed to. If there are things you avoid doing or if your horse has refused your request and you did not follow through, you may have taught him that he will never have to do that.

Decisions, Decisions
The person in charge is the one responsible for making the decisions. In your team of two—you and your horse—you should be the one in charge; you should be making all the decisions. You are the leader; your horse is the follower. You don’t want a thousand-pound flight animal making the decisions.

If your horse cannot trust your judgment (because you’ve made too many mistakes or betrayed his trust or been passive when you should’ve acted), he will constantly question your decisions. He may refuse to do what you ask or have a better suggestion for what you should do. If you make a poor decision that results in him getting hurt or scared, he has good reason not to trust your judgment anymore.

To be a good leader to your horse, you must not only make all the decisions but also make good decisions. It’s not just about you. Your responsibility is to take care of your horse—to be fair, consistent, and have good follow-through. It’s easy to blame things on the horse, but a good leader looks within for answers to problems.

At the end of the day, there’s only one conversation I want to have with my horse, and it starts like this… “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.” I like to think of myself as the Captain and my horse is my best first mate. I make the decisions and he makes it happen. He doesn’t argue with me or suggest I do things differently. He trusts me to make good decisions and he knows I won’t ask for more than he’s capable of giving me. He knows he will always be praised and rewarded for a job well done, and he also knows that if he falls down on his end of the agreement, he will hear about it from me.

Horses are quite clever, and they have a knack for reading people, sometimes better than people are reading themselves. Don’t be lured into thinking your horse doesn’t notice your actions, your lack-of-action or your avoidance behavior. Be honest with yourself and accept responsibility for your own mistakes. Think through your horse’s behavior, motivations and opinions and address them openly. Horses crave strong leadership and they know it when they see it, so look within and be the best leader you can be for your horse.

The Big Comeback

Julie riding Dually.

Julie riding Dually.Confidence is tough to regain after a fall. It’s much easier to work through your fears when you trust the horse you ride when your fears are still actively surfacing. Make sure that the horse you choose to ride is an important part of your comeback strategy.

I hear the worry at every clinic I do. Clinic riders tell me, “I used to ride like the wind, and now I feel sick to my stomach when I even think about getting on my horse. I just wish I could enjoy riding again.” Fear has taken away their enjoyment of horses and riding. It’s a terrible place to be—with the sickening feeling of having lost something you once loved.

Don’t give up! With a plan in place—and the right horse to help you—you can get back in control of your emotions and ride like the wind again. You must have a horse you can trust to guide you through your recovery.

Dreams Damaged
After an incident or injury with horses, it’s normal to have some trepidation. When you put yourself in a similar circumstance as the one that caused your accident, you’re likely to relive the fear. When we humans sustain an injury (a mental injury, a physical injury, or both), a “fear memory” is formed in the brain, and its sole purpose is to try and subconsciously dissuade you from doing that thing again. It’s a built-in self-protection mechanism. Often, you think you are “over” the fear but then when you find yourself in the same situation that caused the accident, out of the blue, the panic appears.

As time goes by, you begin to dread riding, knowing that this fear will surface and attack at the most inconvenient time. Soon you’re making up excuses for not riding—which you know in your heart is avoidance behavior—so then you start feeling guilty. Eventually, the all-consuming emotion of grief kicks in, because you feel like you’ve lost the ability to ride a horse—that you’ve lost something you loved. It is a downward spiral of conflicting emotions—fear, guilt, frustration, and grief. That’s a lot of negative emotion associated with horses to be rolling around in your head.

If any part of this scenario rings true for you, it may be time to take action and get those negative emotions in check. Your love of horses and your ability to ride is still there, ready to be unleashed, once you rein in those negative emotions and take positive steps in the right direction.

Repair Time
Many riders have regained their confidence and returned to the sport they loved by using relaxation strategies (visit JulieGoodnight.com/search and use keyword confidence). Before rebuilding your confidence, it’s important that you give yourself all the time you need to heal, both physically and emotionally from your accident. Do not rush this process and do not allow yourself to be pressured by others; it could take some time before you are ready to make the commitment and muster the courage to ride again.

Before coming back to riding, make sure you understand your emotions. I like to call this intellectualizing or objectifying the fear. Knowing the origins of your fears, when to expect fear memories and how to override them, and how fear affects you and how to countermand those effects is critical to your success.

Taking the Reins
No matter how you lost your confidence, to rebuild it securely you need a horse that can help you. The horse is such a critical component in regaining your confidence—for better or for worse—the horse can either build your confidence or take it away in a heartbeat.

This may mean that your current horse (or the horse you got hurt on) is not appropriate. In order for the healing to begin, first the injury has to stop. A horse that scares you or challenges you on a daily basis, will constantly reopen the wound and cause it to fester. Think about your horse—does he need to get his confidence from you, or is it the other way around? To overcome your fear, you may need a horse that gives to the equation, not subtracts.

These are not easy questions to ask. Sometimes the answers are painful to accept and challenging to pull off, but riding a safe and trustworthy horse gives you the greatest chances of success when it comes to regaining confidence lost. That may mean re-homing or selling your current mount (he may be happier with a more suitable rider) and finding a horse that realistically meets your needs (preferably one that oozes confidence and has a been-there-done-that attitude– because he has). Or maybe you temporarily lease an ‘easy’ horse and send your challenging horse to a trainer. Don’t let the task be too daunting—analyze, consider all the options, make a plan, and move forward.

Be realistic with your riding goals and the type of horse that will best suit your needs. Your fitness and ability level, plus the time commitment you will make on a daily and weekly basis all have a huge bearing on the kind of horse that will work best for you. Your horsemanship goals and your needs in a horse will change over time, as you gain experience, skills and knowledge—and dabble in different disciplines.

Sometimes I meet people in my clinics that are riding a horse that I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding (after more than 30 years of riding professionally). Sometimes I wonder if they really know how much fun it is to ride a horse you are not afraid of. Although I’ve trained horses professionally for more than three decades, what I personally want in a horse is a well-trained, safe mount that I can have fun on from day one. I don’t have time for a project. Realistically, I know I have limited time to enjoy my horses, and selfishly, I want a horse that I can have the best ride of my life on every day I ride—even if I haven’t ridden him in weeks (which often happens).

Life’s too short and I love riding so much—I want every ride on my horse to be safe, fun and carefree. Finding the right equine partner isn’t an easy job, but it is an important one. Take your time, be smart and objective and seek professional advice. Remember, you didn’t get into horses to create more stress and aggravation in your life. Finding the right horse—one that builds your confidence instead of taking it away—is a huge part of the equation.

Regaining your confidence after an accident is not an easy task but with some work and dedication, I know it can be done—I’ve seen it happen again and again. But you cannot shirk the hard questions and you cannot move forward without a plan. Do the introspection needed to get your head in the right place and make a plan to expand your comfort zone (for details on how to do this, check out my online resources). Then take an honest look at your horse. Determine if he is the right mount for you at this time in your life, and how you can put together a plan that will ensure you the greatest success in this challenge.

Enjoy the Ride,
Julie Goodnight

Becoming The Leader

Abby on Skippy with Julie standing beside them.

Abby on Skippy with Julie standing beside them.I love when kids are interested in riding. Most of the time the best horses for learning are the lazy and slow ones. Even if they are usually well-behaved, these horses can learn quickly that –when kids are aboard– they don’t have to stop, go, turn, or do much of anything. If youth riders want to move forward in the horse industry, they need to learn how to be in charge–even when they are learning the basics. Here’s some advice to help your youth rider stop being frustrated, and start gaining control.

Question: I need advice for my daughter and her horse. My daughter is 10 years old and very interested in riding. However she lacks confidence in riding. Her horse has come to figure this out. Cheyenne is a very sweet and gentle horse and a tab bit on the lazy side. I would like to find out information or suggestions on how to teach my daughter to win her horse’s respect and have him respond to her commands. When she asks him to walk he refuses. He cocks his back leg and stands there no matter what she does. Also once she does get him to move he begins to pull her in the wrong direction and when she tries to bring him back he resists her. When I ride him he does perfectly. What can I do to help her? She is very frustrated and so am I.

Answer: Horses are herd animals and the social structure within the herd is known as a “linear hierarchy.” The definition of a linear hierarchy is that each individual in the herd is either subordinate to or dominant over every other individual in the herd. Since this is the only way that horses know to act, it is also how they relate to their human herd members. We need to think of the horse and its rider as a herd of two. So we have a choice, we can either be the dominant member (or the leader) or the subordinate member (the follower). There is no equality in a horse herd.

Clearly, in the case of your daughter’s horse, she is subordinate to the horse, while you are dominant over the horse. The horse has already made up his mind that this is the way it is and there have probably been countless little things that has lead the horse to this conclusion. So how do we change this? Well, I can think of a few options.

Only your daughter will be able to step forward and take the leadership role with her horse. You riding the horse will not affect the relationship between horse and daughter, as clearly the horse does not question your authority. I do not recommend that your daughter take an aggressive approach (do this or else), because in the situation where the rider has a history of being subordinate, a challenge could prompt the horse to be fractious and start bucking or worse. Instead, your daughter needs to get inside the horse’s mind and learn to control ALL of his actions.

Becoming the Leader

First, your daughter will need to make up her mind to resolve this situation and accept the fact that it may take some time. She will need to have an assertive, but patient attitude. I recommend that she address the issue of respect on the ground first. She needs to have a sense of awareness of her horse and she must take control of every move he makes. That means, when he is tied to the hitch rail, he should stand exactly where she told him to. If he steps sideways or back or forward, she should gently but firmly put his feet exactly back in the spot that she first asked him to stand. The horse should learn to respect her space and yield to it.

She should be able to walk, trot and halt the horse at halter, back him up and disengage his hindquarters (make him cross his hind legs). All of these are examples of controlling the horse’s space and when the horse does these things without question, he is respecting her leadership authority. Disengaging the hindquarters is really important both on the ground and mounted, because it forces the horse into a subordinate frame of mind. When his hind legs are crossed, his number one line of defense (flight) is taken away from him, so subconsciously he becomes more dependent.

Your daughter must learn to only ask what she can enforce and ALWAYS enforce what she asked the horse to do. So for now, that probably means backing up and enforcing her control in areas where she can be successful. So often, I see people ask something of their horse, let’s say to turn right, and the horse resists and refuses, so the rider caves in and lets the horse turn left.

The rider thinks that she is winning because she got the horse where she wanted it by circling it all the way around to the left. But the horse sees it differently. He does not have the capability to realize that the rider got him where she wanted anyway. All the horse knows is that he didn’t want to turn right, he wanted to go left and if he refuses, the rider will cave into his wishes. To us humans, these little battles seem unimportant, but to the horse, the littlest things have big meaning.

Every time the horse gets his way, he scores a point and is further convinced in his mind that he is in charge. It sounds like your daughter’s horse has scored a lot of points. What your daughter will have to understand and commit to is that she has a lot of points to score, before she pulls ahead. She needs to realize that the tiniest things count toward this score: the horse moving around at the hitching rail, not trotting on the lead line, the horse taking a step toward the person, the horse nudging the person with his head, taking one step off the rail in the arena, or not going when asked. The rider that is dominant and in control is the one that controls every movement the horse makes. The more she can make this horse yield to her, the more points she will score. But start small and build up to the big issues. If she can gain some respect from the ground, it may be a little easier for her.

To address the specific problem in the arena, your daughter should look for the areas that she is still in control and focus on those and reward the horse when he responds. If the horse is balking, the issue is to get his feet moving. Usually the easiest way to do this is to turn him in a tight circle (this has the added advantage of disengaging the hindquarters). Be sure to reward him when he responds (even if he responds reluctantly) and immediately take control of the situation. How? As soon as she gets the horse to move, she should ask him to stop.

Why? By doing this she has accomplished two things: she has rewarded his response by asking him to stop (which is what he wanted to do), but more importantly she has taken control by issuing a command and getting a response. It does not matter that the horse wanted to stop anyway, because he stopped on her request, not his. By successfully getting a response to a command, she puts the horse in a responsive frame of mind. So, she will get the horse to move (by turning a tight circle if she has to) and once the horse has taken a few steps, ask him to stop and reward him with a pat on the neck and leaving him alone for a few minutes, then ask again. Initially, when the horse had responded a few times, find a good stopping point and put him away. Gradually build on what she asks the horse to do.

It is critical that once she has asked something of the horse that she insists upon his response. This does not mean that you kick or hit harder and harder, but that you continue to apply the aids until the horse responds. Sometimes children do not have the strength to keep legging the horse until he moves and the horse learns that the rider will get tired and give up before he does. If this is the case, she might need a stick or spurs. HOWEVER, use these artificial aids with caution because this could drive the dominant horse to more drastic and fractious responses. Whatever aids she is using to make the horse go (and it should be all of the aids), she should continue to apply them until the horse goes. Not necessarily harder and harder, but with persistence. Eventually, the horse will learn that the only way to make that annoying action go away is to move forward.

Treats Versus Training

A couple of more thoughts, if you or your daughter feed treats to this horse, stop immediately. Chances are, the horse has become demanding and rude and this has contributed to his dominance. When horses are subordinate (whether to you or another herd member), they will always yield to the space of the dominant individual. When people feed treats, the horse learns to move into the space of the person and thus you are yielding to his space, therefore he is dominant. Every treat that is fed, reinforces his dominance.

And now having said that, I have one more thought that seemingly contradicts what I just said. There is a form of training called “clicker training” that is being used on horses although it was originally developed to train marine mammals. It uses a clicking device as reinforcement and the first step is to make the horse associate the clicker with positive reinforcement (grain).

Then, just like in Pavlov’s Response, every time the horse hears the clicker, he associates it with good thoughts (grain) and knows he is doing the right thing. I have seen this training method used specifically in the same situation that your daughter is in, with good success. So it might be worth looking into. You would have to do the clicker training and then would be able to use the clicker to control the horse’s mind while your daughter is up. The clicker and grain reinforcer just gives the horse a different motivation for doing the right thing.

My personal preference would be for your daughter to establish herself as the leader of their herd of two by doing the groundwork and gaining her horse’s respect. But the clicker method might be worth looking into. There’s an audio MP3 on my Academy site (http://tv.juliegoodnight.com) called Building Confidence with Horses. It gives a pre-ride meditation and some tips to help you look at horses in a new light.

I hope that might help, too.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host

http://www.juliegoodnight.com 

Video Help for Youth Riders

Need more help? In the Horse Master with Julie Goodnight episode, “Not Gonna Take It,” Goodnight helps a youth rider, Abby, gain confidence and stop her horse, “Skippy,” from pulling the reins from her hands. Watch this video (plus many more educational videos, articles, podcasts, and more) by joining the Horse Master Academy. Go to http://horsetraininghelp.com to watch now.

Ride Right With Julie Goodnight: Confidence on the Trail

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It’s easy to lose confidence on the trail if your well-trained horse has defied you or refused to go forward. A threat to bolt or rear can make a confident rider worry and, in turn, contribute to the problem.

In that moment of refusal, you can choose to head for home or to step up and take charge.

If your well-trained trail horse suddenly throws a fit and refuses to ride out alone, chances are, you’ve allowed little acts of disobedience before this blow up.

It’s time to stop putting up with blatant acts of disrespect and confidently ride ahead.

“I’ve seen horses get away with little acts of disobedience and thus start to think they — and not the rider — are in charge,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

“Soon, instead of simply turning to look back toward where he wants to go, the horse escalates his threats. He might raise his front end as if to rear, or he may simply balk and refuse to keep moving down the trail.”

When a formerly well-trained horse starts with this type of behavior, Goodnight says riders often lose confidence and fear the worst will happen — that the horse will actually rear or turn and bolt.

If you turn for home, even just momentarily, instead of riding ahead, your horse learns just what to do to manipulate your emotions and “win” a chance to stop working.

“Your horse may just need a reminder that you, the rider, are in charge,” says Goodnight. “He may’ve been testing you, diminishing your confidence and manipulating your ride time. Stop the cycle by showing him you’re calmly in control.”

Here, Goodnight helps you observe your horse’s behavior patterns so that you can identify disobedience at its most subtle level and correct it before your horse has an all-out tantrum.

She’ll help you understand how the behavior escalated, how to fix your focus, and what to do to retrain your horse so he’ll move ahead willingly on the path you choose.

Goodnight will also explain to kids how to watch a horse’s ears to learn what he’s focused on.

Inside the Behavior
Understanding your horse’s motivation and behavior will boost your confidence and help you formulate a plan.

“Horses can threaten a lot of scary behaviors,” Goodnight says. “As much as we love them, horses can be willful and obstinately refuse to move forward. They’re master manipulators if they’ve learned that they can succeed with their antics of turning, stopping, threatening to rear, etc.

“If your horse can get you into an emotional state, he can learn that if he rears or threatens to rear you may turn for home — and he doesn’t have to work. To him, that means he has won points in a game called Let’s Go Home.”

When Goodnight was called in to help a horse-and-rider pair in Tucson, Arizona, she’d planned to observe what happened on the trail. However, she soon realized that the horse wasn’t even willing to leave the barn.

The rider, Liz, reported that she’d ridden her horse on the trail successfully in the past — he was a tried-and-true ranch horse. But lately, his tantrums kept Liz from riding out alone. He wouldn’t step forward; he’d turn his head and circle back to the barn.

“Liz had great riding position and was an experienced rider, but she’d allowed her horse to be disobedient without knowing it,” Goodnight says.

“Every time the horse turned his head to look back at his pen, Liz allowed him to turn in the direction he wanted to go before circling him back to the trail.

“While to Liz it seemed as though she was in control and pointed her horse where she wanted to go, her horse thought he ‘won’ with each step he got to take toward the barn.”

Goodnight explains how your horse keeps score of his steps and your ability to confidently direct his speed and direction.

“Say you want your horse to go right, toward the trail. He refuses, so you circle him around to the left. He has won. To him, his refusal paid off at the moment you turned him the way he wanted to go, to the left.”

In Liz’s case, she’d allowed the turn back to the barn too many times, so her horse thought he was in charge — each time she circled him, he ended up closer to the barn.

When Goodnight took the reins, the horse tried his antics only once. He quickly realized that he wasn’t going to get his way and walked obediently forward.

“This was a trained horse that had learned to test and threatened to throw a fit,” Goodnight says. “He’d learned that the game worked with Liz and that he would get his way when Liz would give up and go home.

“With me, he learned the game wouldn’t work and quickly was reminded of his training. It was time for Liz to break the cycle and teach her horse that his antics wouldn’t control her emotions and confidence any longer.”

If you’re observant, you can tell what a horse is thinking and feeling. Your horse is also very keen on your current emotional status.

Horses are quick to learn how to push your emotional buttons. They learn that when they get a tense, emotional response, they’ll get to turn home in just a few minutes.

Goodnight notes that horses are transparent in their communication. If your horse turns and looks toward the barn, that’s where he wants to go. If he’s whinnying, he’s calling out to find his friends, saying he wants to be back with the herd.

If your horse whinnies, you may be embarrassed, but it’s just horse behavior. It’s an expression of his emotion. He’s saying he feels alone, and he wants to be back with the herd. You can’t punish him for having that emotion, but you [ITAL]can[ITAL] correct the behaviors that follow that emotion.

Here’s how to regain your status as herd leader.

Step 1: Regain Your Confidence
How do you break the cycle and tell your horse that you’re in charge? The key is to put him into action and to make sure you know what to do in advance.

“As soon as Liz knew that she couldn’t allow her horse to turn toward his pen and the barn, she was on a new path,” Goodnight says. “With less than an hour’s practice, she was riding down the trail and away from the barn.”

Horses are great at detecting when your confidence lessens or your determination to move forward down the trail wanes, Goodnight explains.

“When you ride, your body is in close contact with your horse,” she says. “Your horse can feel when you’re tense and when you’re relaxed. If he begins to refuse or starts a temper tantrum, you may tense your body or simply shift your focus down onto him instead of where you want to go. He can feel the difference between when you look ahead. Your posture suggests you’re ready to move ahead on the trail. When you’re tense, you send the opposite message.”

Here’s the fix.

When you start to feel tense, keep looking ahead to where you want to go. Keep your eyes focused — not in a blank stare —and observe what’s in front of you on the trail.

Start to put your horse to work. Turn right, turn left (always turn away from the barn; never circle in the direction your horse wants to go), speed up, slow down, then turn right and left again.

Just changing your horse’s direction will give you more control and therefore more confidence. Any time you change direction, you remind him that you’re in control of where he can go. He’s not in control of the direction he goes.

Step 2. Break the Cycle
Both you and your horse need to make a big change if your horse is going to learn that you’re in charge and that he can no longer throw a fit to get his way.

How long this process will take will depend on how many points your horse has scored in the past. If he has a history of getting his way, it’ll be harder to correct your score.

The moment you step in the stirrup, let your horse know that you expect him to keep his nose in front of him and stand still. Basic obedience and control come first. As the rider, you control his direction and speed.

At first, work close to the barn in an area where you are more confident and feel at ease issuing a command. Chances are you’ll be more worried the farther you are from home. When you’re farther away, your horse will be thinking more about heading home, too.

To make a correction for turning his nose, pick up and bump with the opposite rein, using enough pressure to point his nose back toward the trail and dissuade him from doing it again.

If your horse turns his head toward the right, bump his head back to the left. Don’t allow him to turn to the right, and definitely don’t allow him to circle to the right to get back toward the trail.

If your horse looks back toward the barn (or his friends or the trailer) multiple times, put him to work.

When you ask him to change direction, stop, back up, trot circles one way then the other, etc. He then won’t have time to think about what’s behind him and will start to tune into your cues.

As you ride around the barn, always turn away from the barn each time you change direction. If you feel your horse’s focus shift to the barn and away from you, turn away from the barn and pick up the trot.

“If your horse throws a tantrum, he’ll soon learn that if he’s disobedient, you move him farther from the barn,” says Goodnight. “To expedite the training, I turn a horse toward the barn only when he’s calm and listening. I want to teach him that if he’s obedient and willing, he may get to go home and have a break.”

Gradually work your way farther from the barn. If you consistently insist on obedience, you should be able to work farther and farther away without having a big blow up. You horse will know that you’re now in charge.

Step 3: Get Back on the Trail
If your horse tries his antics on the trail, practice the same skills. Be sure to end your rides when you’re in charge and your horse’s training is on the upswing.

Horses are all different. If your horse has a short fuse or has had much success getting you to turn for home, it may be more of a challenge to ride out on the trail.

If your horse became more obedient when you worked him close to home, quickly changing his attitude, it may be time to push him when you’re farther from home.

If you have a problem away from home, dismount, and perform ground work with a rope halter and lead. Turn him left, turn him right, and make him move his feet.

Keep your horse’s motivation in mind, and don’t reward bad behavior. Even if you have to dismount, if you do that ground work, you’re ending on a good note. You’re letting him know he won’t get a break by pulling his usual antics.

Once you remind your horse that you’re in control, you may even be able to step back up in the stirrup and ride more.

Once your horse is compliant, you can head for home, knowing you’re not losing points.

But be careful — don’t throw in the towel and let your horse get everything he wants. You’re the herd leader. If you feel him (or yourself) getting tense, look confidently where you want to go, and remember that you have a plan.

Once you control your horse’s direction, you’ll boost your confidence and your horsemanship.F


For more on-the-trail skills every rider needs to know, check out  my book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with free bonus DVD, It includes:

  • Balance & Posture in Steep Terrain
  • Safety: Emergency Brake, Stand Still for Mounting, & Reprogramming Spooky Behavior
  • Training: Get Your Horse to Go the Speed you Ask—Every Time
  • Jigging: Stop That Forever
  • Sidepassing Skills
  • Gate Opening & Closing
  • Water Crossing
  • Ground Tie
  • Ponying
  • Much More

Behavior Tip: Watch the Ears

Horses point their ears toward what they’re interested in and what they’re looking at. When you’re riding on the trail, watch your horse’s ears to tell whether he’s focused on the trail ahead and listening to you or thinking of heading home.

Practice paying attention to horses’ ears. Make it a game to find out what’s holding their attention. It may be a visiting deer or a horseback rider passing by.

Whenever you pass a field of horses, note what they’re paying attention to. This skill will transfer to your time in the saddle, helping you notice what your horse is paying attention to and thinking about.

When you ride, make sure your horse is looking straight ahead on the path you’ve chosen.

Look, Breathe, Sit Back To Boost Riding Confidence

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Three steps to overcoming riding nervousness–plus, a way to remember them when it matters most.

Fear can make you tense and defensive. That, in turn, can cause you to be rough with your horse. It’s as if you’re trying to bluff him into believing you’re not afraid. But you’re not fooling him; he’s just catching nervousness from you, because that’s what herd animals do.

What to do instead? These three things:

Look up in the direction you’re traveling, not down at your horse. This subtly reminds both of you that you’re actively in charge (rather than fixated on him).

Breathe deeply from your abdomen. Imagine filling a glass of water all the way to the top, then emptying it all the way back down to the bottom. Do it in rhythm with your horse’s strides. This will have a calming effect on both of you.

Sit back on your seat bones and get your nose behind the point of your belt buckle. Soften your lower back and all your joints, so you can follow your horse’s motion. Relaxed muscles promote a relaxed mind.

How to remember these three steps? Develop a mantra: Look, breathe, sit back, and ride. Memorize it, then use it to coach yourself back to focus and relaxation whenever you feel your nerves taking over.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

Fear Of Cantering

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
How do I overcome fears of cantering?

Hi Julie,
I have been riding for about 2 years. I’m 53, and although I have been around horses (started my daughter riding @ 4-5 yrs old, own a race horse) have always been terrified of horses, yet love them. I want desperately to ride well. Lately, I have been “stuck”; cantering sends me into a panic. I try, and yet I freeze, I can’t focus on steering or keeping him going, all I can think is stop! I think my instructor, patient as she is, as well as the barn staff have written me off, and are losing patience with me, (and I don’t blame them). What should I do, how do I combat this and get past it? Do you run intensive, submersed horse clinics to overcome debilitating fear? Or recommend one? Please help!

Sue

Dear Sue,
Fear and lack of confidence are more common in riders than you think. In fact, most people that have been around horses have dealt with this issue at some time or another. Let’s face it; they are big, scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. I’d be more concerned about someone who said they’ve never had any fear around horses. Fear is a natural emotion and it’s one that keeps us safe—keeps us from doing really stupid stuff. But when fear begins to impact your enjoyment or begins to control what you do and do not do, it’s time to take action.

It always amazes me how many people want so desperately to ride and be with horses, in spite of their over-powering fear or after a bad accident or injury. There is a deeply rooted passion there that keeps you motivated even though the fear is sometimes crippling. That is why it is always important to think about why you are doing this—what is your purpose? Passion? Fulfilling a life-long dream? Enjoying an activity with your spouse? Whatever your purpose is, you need to define it and embrace it. Purpose leads to courage.

Canter is certainly the most fear-inducing gait and at just about every clinic I do, there are people that are fearful of the canter. That makes sense because if things are going to go wrong, it is likely to be at the canter. So your fear is perfectly understandable. Since canter is the closest thing to the flight response that we ask our horses to do, sometimes it can trigger undesirable behavior. So before you ever tackle the canter, make sure everything else is going well—your horse is responsive and obedient, you feel ready, the footing is good, the situation is right. I always tell my riders: Never get in a hurry to canter—it will happen when you are ready. If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it.

There’s an old saying in horsemanship that says, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” In other words, you can accomplish much at the trot and unless and until your horse is working really well at the trot, there’s no point in asking for canter. The same things goes for you—if you work on improving your riding skills at the trot, it will prepare you better for canter. So work on posting and sitting trot; do lots of transitions—collected trot, extended trot, collected trot. Trot figures like circles, serpentines and figure 8s. You may even want to start working on lateral movements, like leg yielding at the walk and trot before you tackle canter. When you can do all these things confidently, the canter will be easy.

When all the stars are aligned and you feel like it’s ready to tackle the canter, I can share a few things with you that may help. First, make sure you know and understand the canter cue, so you can be clear to your horse. When you haven’t cantered a horse for some time, he isn’t thinking about a canter cue and so he may go into a fast trot instead of a canter. If he does, slow him down firmly and immediately ask for canter again, as if to say, “wrong answer; try again.” Repeat until he canters on cue. Once he realizes that you actually want him to canter, the cue will get easier.

Make absolutely certain you do not pull back on the reins when you cue for canter; in fact, you’ll want to reach up toward his ears as you cue him. One of the first things that happens in the canter departure is that your horse’s head will drop down as he launches himself into the gait—if he hits the bit at this moment, he will think you do not want him to canter. This is a HUGE source of problems at the canter; people are pulling back without realizing it, especially if they are nervous about it. It is a very frustrating problem for the horse because you are punishing him for doing what you asked him to do.

I suggest working on the canter in the arena, but only cantering a few strides down the long side of the arena at first, transitioning back to trot in the corners. The turns are harder and you are more likely to lose balance in the turn, so staying on the straight-away will help. Also, I’ve noticed that nervous riders will do okay on the first few strides but the longer they go, the worse they ride. So if you’ll just canter a few strides, then stop, then do it again, you will probably accomplish more. Gradually increase the distance you canter. Remember to breathe!

Some riders and/or horses will do better cantering out on the trail with other horses than they do in the arena. Often it is easier to get the horses into it and they will canter along naturally with the other horses. I have used this technique many times with nervous riders and we will generally canter on a slight uphill slope so the horses are working too hard to act up in any way. But you have to know your horse before trying this out on the trail; some horses will be better while others may be worse.

The biggest mistake people make in trying to ride the canter is to lean forward, thus closing your hip angle, which causes you to be thrown up and out of the saddle with each stride. To counter-act this, you need to sit well back, with your shoulders even slightly behind your hips. The canter involves a motion similar to pushing a swing—your shoulders come back as you push with your seat. So before you ask for canter, always remind yourself to sit way back and push the swing. Fear will make you want to perch forward in the fetal position; try to remind yourself to sit extra far back to counter-act this tendency.

One more thought on working up the courage to canter—try it first in a Western saddle. Even if you plan to ride English, getting confidence with the gait will be easier in a Western saddle since you have to the horn to hold onto if necessary and a little more support than in an English saddle. Take all the help you can get. Once you gain some confidence, you can switch back to an English saddle.

My video, “Canter with Confidence,” will give you all the information you need to cue, ride the canter, understand leads and all the way up to flying lead changes. Knowledge will help your confidence. I also have a new video coming out in September which is a compilation of Horse Master episodes dealing with real horses and riders that are working on the canter, from cueing to slowing down the canter to lead changes.

For anyone dealing with fear of horses, it is important that you do not allow others to push you into something you are not ready to do. There is no law anywhere that says you have to canter a horse. When you are ready and you want it to happen, it will. If you don’t canter—so what? It is also important to surround yourself with supportive people and share your goals and your plan with them and let them know how they can support you. I have written a lot about rebuilding confidence, so there are many articles in my Training Library that will help. I also have a motivational audio called “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” which you can download from my website (or purchase the CD). Many riders have found this to be a very useful tool in overcoming fear. Listen to it on the way to the barn.

By the way, it is your instructor’s job to be patient, keep you safe and help you attain your goals. You are not beholden to her and her staff—they are beholden to you. Don’t worry about them and don’t let anyone else pressure you or frustrate you. You are doing this for you—not for them. Don’t worry about what others think; surround yourself with people that are supportive of your goals. And don’t forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how small they are!

I have heard from hundreds of riders who have used my techniques to overcome their fear and learn to enjoy horses with confidence. You can make it happen but you have to work at it—have a plan, know what you are going to do when you feel fearful. Because of the mind-body-spirit connection, if you cave into the emotion, it will overtake your mind and body. If you have the mental discipline to think positive thoughts and control your body language (looking confident even when you don’t feel that way, the emotion cannot take over. Don’t ever give up! You can make this happen. I know you can.

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):
Canter with Confidence DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Goodnights-Principles-of-Riding-vol-4-Canter-with-Confidence-GPRV4DVD.htm
Canter Master DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Horse-Master-Canter-Master-Horse-Master-Cantering.htm

Fearful Of Riding My Thoroughbred

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Question:
I need you! I have a 16.2 hand Thoroughbred that after having the greatest relationship with for 2 years I am now petrified to ride. I even think about going on the trails and I can’t breath. Nothing happened. I mean yes I have fallen off of him but that was a year ago. He spooks so easily and I just get sick to my stomach when I ride him! He spooks and I work him through it but I still can’t gain any confidence.

Which book of yours do I need to read? What mantra can I say? I can’t sell my horse. I have to ride! It makes me cry when I think about it. My husband let me quit my job of six years so that I could go to the barn every day. In two years I went from not having a horse to having two horses and running a boarding stable with a partner. And now I am supposed to tell my husband that I am too afraid to ride?? Or maybe my boarders the next time they want me to lead them on a trail ride? And the thought of going on a ride by myself makes my heart stop right in my chest. What is wrong with me?

Frustrated in Ohio

Answer:
Dear Frustrated,
I am so sorry to hear that you are struggling with this fear issue. It is important that you have faith in the fact that you can do some specifics things to help manage your fear and that if you work on it, you can resolve this issue and get back to enjoying your horse like you used to. The key words here are that you will have to work on it. I know many, many people that have had similar experiences and have had success managing their fear, once they have committed themselves to action. There are a few ideas that I have for you that may help. Both my book, Ride with Confidence!, and my audio CD, Build Your Confidence with Horses, will help you a lot in understanding the emotion of fear, identifying the nature of your fear, making a plan to overcome it and learning some real-life skills that can help you deal better with the emotion. The book is very helpful for dealing with the fear of riding and also for dealing with fear and anxiety in any area of your life. I am one of five contributing authors to this book so there are many different approaches and techniques, including human psychology, equine psychology, hypnosis and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP Sports Psychology). The audio CD is both instructional and motivational and is especially useful for listening to on your way to the barn because it has reminders of the physical and mental things you can do to contain and dissipate the emotion of fear when you feel it welling up.

Now, to address your specific situation, I have some thoughts for you and some suggestions. First, from reading your email, it sounds to me like you have had a drastic change in your confidence level, without being able to pin it on something specific like an accident or injury. This is not at all uncommon but it begs the question, is there something else going on in your life, either related to horses or not, that may have caused this change?

Sometimes people may experience trauma or anxiety in other areas of their life and it can manifest with horses, but until you address and resolve the original issue, you may not have success with the horse thing. For example, I had a woman in a FM clinic that had never had any fear of riding until she and her daughter became victims of a violent crime and after that, she was mortified to ride. We could work on the horse issue, but she also needed to come to terms with what had happened to her through counseling and processing.

I encourage you to take a hard look at the “big picture” of your life and invest in some serious introspection. The book and video will guide you through this process but you’ll have to put some earnest thought into it; it may help to talk with someone like a counselor, friend or pastor. Obviously you are embarrassed and ashamed of having fear and keeping it to yourself is one of the worst things you can do. You are feeling pressure from your husband and from your clients, but it is quite possible that the pressure is originating from you and not them. The fact of the matter is that for the most part, no one really cares whether you ride or not or what emotional issues you are dealing with and besides, most people have fear of horses themselves. It is an extremely prevalent issue amongst horse enthusiast but sadly it is seldom discussed. In my seminars on fear of riding at horse fairs, the room is always jam packed with people, all of whom are greatly relieved to see everyone else there; people of all ages, genders, abilities and experience. I think it is important for you to “come out of the closet” with your fear and tell those close to you about it so that they can support your plan and help you meet your goals.

Surround yourself with people that are supportive of you and share your plan with them; avoid contact with the people that are making it worse. Again, the book and audio will guide you through this process. Maybe you want to start a private club with some of your boarders that may be struggling themselves with this issue and work through it together; I bet you’ll have more members in your club than you would think.

Another thought I had when reading your email was that this horse is not really what you need to be riding right now. A Thoroughbred is a tough ride for any one; they are volatile and emotional animals, which is totally exacerbated with a fearful rider. Think about it, we have been breeding these horses for centuries to run fast and have a strong flight response; spookiness comes with the territory. Because horses are herd animals and prey animals, they are programmed to take on the emotions of the other horses in the herd. If you become frightened, the horse easily recognizes it, because a huge part of your body is connected to him; it is natural for him to become frightened too. Thus you have the snowball effect.

I am not suggesting that you get rid of the horse, but I do think it would do you a world of good to ride a more reliable horse for as long as it takes to rebuild your confidence. Spend some time riding a reliable horse so that you can remind yourself that you are a competent rider and perfectly capable of handling whatever your horse can dish out. Find a way to get some hours in on a solid mount on which you can rebuild your confidence and remind yourself that you actually love to ride. Consider taking some Dressage or Reining lessons on a finished horse and learn some new theory while you build confidence. The horse is a critical part of the equation. You must ride a horse that builds your confidence, not zaps it.

And speaking of the horse, there are some positive steps you can take to resolve the spooking issue with your horse. If you make a commitment to his training, you can teach him not to spook or to spook in place. There are a few Q&As on my website on despooking that will help you think through the process and you may want to be on the lookout for despooking clinics (you can always go without a horse and audit and still learn plenty, sometimes more than you would with a horse).

Like with any bomb-proofing process for horses, you always start on the ground. Hopefully this will make it a little easier for you to keep your confidence up. Study my articles and develop a training plan and devote a few minutes everyday to despook your horse from the ground. You’ll teach him to face his fear and then to have the courage to actually approach and even touch the frightening item. You can make a game out of this until your horse is eagerly facing and approaching, since he is rewarded for being a brave horse.

As his confidence builds so will yours. Eventually you can take the same training plan to the saddle and go through the same process with you on his back. Making a plan, taking action and putting your mind and energy into training your horse are actions that will not only help your horse, but build your confidence too. Having a plan of action also keeps your mind from becoming polluted with thoughts of fear. There is more on controlling the thoughts in your mind in the book and audio. There is a lot of action you can take to resolve this issue. Now it is up to you to “get off the pot.” Please let me know how it goes. Good luck and keep the faith. You CAN do this.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Coping With Fear

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Coping with Fear
By Julie Goodnight

There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of horses. They’re big scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. In fact, it’s a bit of an intelligence test really; you’d have to be a complete idiot to have no fear.
Fear is a natural emotion and it’s an important one too. Without fear, we’d be likely to do really stupid things that could result in serious injury or even death. Everyone is afraid of horses on some level and you should not feel badly about yourself if you are occasionally experiencing nervousness or fear around horses. But when fear begins to control what you do and do not do and it begins to impact your enjoyment of horses, it’s time to do something about it!

Fortunately, there are many things that you can do to get back in control of this emotion. I know dozens of people that have followed these important steps and have gone from paralyzing fear to achieving their dreams on horses.
First, it’s important to intellectualize the emotion—to understand your fear, its origins and the effects of the emotion on your mind and body. You may be suffering from post-traumatic fear, which occurs after and accident or an injury. Or you may be suffering from general anxiety—which is something we do to ourselves by creating the “what if” scenarios in our minds. It’s important to think through your emotions objectively and understand them.

With post-traumatic fear, your fear will tend to surface whenever you are doing something similar to what you were doing when you got hurt. This known as a “fear memory” and it is a normal reaction—don’t let it take you by surprise. Expect it and be ready for it by having a plan to keep your emotions in check. You cannot erase fear memories but you can train yourself to over-ride them.

General anxiety tends to affect us more as we age (we don’t bounce like we used to) and have more life pressures on us. What if I get hurt and can’t go to work? Who will pay the mortgage? Who will take the kids to soccer? What if I look stupid in front of all these people? General anxiety is something we do to ourselves—I call it mind pollution. The important thing to realize is that you can control what you think about and you can chose to think about more positive things. Have a plan for what you will think about, even if it is only reciting poetry or singing a son.
Once you have really explored your emotion, it is much easier to objectify it. Our mind, body and spirit are all interconnected and one affects the other. By intellectualizing and objectifying your fear, you’ll keep your mind engaged and that will help keep the fear in check. Also, if you can learn to control your body language and look confident, no matter how you really feel on the inside, then your emotions don’t stand a chance. If you can control your mind and your body, your emotions can’t control you.

It’s also important to develop a plan for building confidence—it won’t just happen on its own. Start by defining your comfort zone—that exact moment that you become uncomfortable and nervous. Go about your daily routine with your horse, paying extra close attention to your bio-feedback and find exactly where your comfort ends and where your nervousness begins.
Then you will stay within your comfort zone as long as it takes, until you are ready for a small challenge. Take small steps outside your comfort zone, always staying within your comfort zone whenever you need to build confidence. By taking small ventures outside your comfort zone and always returning to safety, you’ll gradually expand your comfort zone.

For instance, maybe you feel comfortable catching, leading, tying, grooming and cleaning your horse’s feet; but when you go to pick up your saddle off the rack, suddenly you feel the butterflies in your stomach—you have just left your comfort zone.
So you’ll head to the barn each day, catch, tie, groom, clean feet, then put your horse away. And you’ll do that every day until you are so sick and tired of grooming for no reason, that you are ready for a small challenge. Then your next step will be to saddle your horse—then unsaddle him and put him away. And you’ll do that every day until you are ready for another challenge.

Next, maybe you’ll go to the arena and longe him—then put him away. Your next step may be to mount and dismount; then walk once around the arena; then walk for 10 minutes, etc. Gradually, step by tiny step, you are expanding your comfort zone. Always give yourself permission to drop down below your comfort zone to build more confidence and remember—there is no time frame here. If it takes you a month or a year, who cares?

The important thing to remember is that you can control your emotions. It’ll take a little work on your part, but it can be done. I hear from people all the time that have gotten back to enjoying their horses by following these steps. For more information on coping with a fear of horses, check out my website (juliegoodnight.com) for more information about dealing with fear. I have a book, Ride with Confidence, and motivational audio CD, Building Confidence with Horses.

–Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com
(800) 225-8827

Riding Skills: How Do I Get A Secure Seat To Ride Out Spooks?

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Dear Julie,

Last night I watched your TV show on introducing the horse to the surf. It was very informative but the thing that impressed me the most was how you maintained your wonderful, balanced seat and body position while the horse was jumping sideways! Unfortunately, when my horse spooks and jumps like that, I look and feel like “Whiplash” the little monkey they strap on to the Border Collie’s back at the rodeo. Needless to say, this scares my horse even more. I have some pretty big confidence issues due to past experiences/injuries and know that having a secure seat during a spook would help my confidence tremendously.

I have read your article on rider position and feel like I have this pretty good under normal riding circumstances. My ankles and back are soft and my seat is following and mobile. Everything falls apart if he spooks. I’ll usually know that he’s distracted or tense before it happens (I’ve been practicing your calm down/lower your head cue, and your 3 step circling exercise), then a deer or invisible something causes him to blow up. I only ride him in my pasture and arena because he is hyper alert. I hope to get past all of this someday with a lot of desensitizing exercises.
Do you have any suggestions for me on how to develop the kind of secure, safe seat and following upper body that I saw on your show? My body whips so badly that I feel every muscle in my core working to keep me from flying off. I’m 50 years old and do yoga almost every day. I know the change won’t happen overnight and I’m willing to work hard to keep safe.

Thank you very much for any advice you can give me. I love your show and all the articles and information available on your website.

Lori, Malta, MT

Answer: Lori,

Thank you for watching the show. We have certainly gotten a lot of comments on the beach episode! It was called “Wave Runner” and aired on January 7th and will run again the week of February 18th. It was really fun to shoot and I can tell you, it was a really wild ride, but we did eventually make it into the waves, belly deep in the ocean!

Being able to stay in the middle of your horse even when he is moving radically is simply a matter of being relaxed. I know, easier said than done! Any time you tense a muscle, it causes you to lock a corresponding joint. Since your joints act as shock absorbers, a locked joint leads to bouncing and if it is your ankles, knees or hips that are locked, it is like hitting the ejector button.

It is important to learn where you have a tendency to tense and to always focus on seeking out the source of your tension as you ride. Most of us tend toward the same bad habits. So if you can determine what those are, you can constantly remind yourself not to do that. For instance, if you have a tendency to look down or lean forward and close your hips, you should be constantly checking yourself for those errors.

It sounds like you already know and understand the principles of good balance and position in the saddle (there’s lots of information on that in my Training Library and in my video series, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding), but now you need to be able to relax when your horse spooks or moves unexpectedly. For the most part, this will come naturally as you gain confidence but it will help if you can learn to focus on deep abdominal breathing, keeping your eyes up and active and continuing to ride through the problem instead of freezing up.

There is one suggestion I can make to help you learn to move with your horse when he jumps to the side. If you can find a cutting horse trainer in your area, perhaps you could take some lessons on a well-trained cutter on a mechanical cutting machine. At first, you may only be able to stay with the horse on one or two turns, but gradually you’ll learn to stay soft and relaxed in your joints as he makes the big moves from side to side. In addition to improving your seat and building your confidence, it will sure be a lot of fun!

Enjoy the ride!
Julie

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