Sit The Spook Logo

Sit the Spook
Learn how to sit the spook on trail for safety and control with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

All horses are capable of spooking. Horses are hardwired to flee in response to fear. They’re naturally programmed to watch for danger and for the herd leader’s cue for when to bolt.

Get away first; think later.
While you can desensitize your horse to most any stimulus you may encounter on the trail (and you should), there’s always a chance he’ll see something new, scary, and spook inducing.

“I laugh when I see sale ads boast a ‘bombproof’ horse that will never spook,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

Of course, horses are individuals and some may spook more often than others. Put the word “never” in there, and horses will prove you wrong.

Arabian Horses are stereotyped to be more flighty than Quarter Horses, but there are individuals who prove the stereotype wrong for each breed.

Quarter Horses bred for cow work may see a slight movement and look for something to chase.

You can’t totally remove the spook from the horse (though you should desensitize him as much as you can), but you can program your brain to know what to do in the moment when your horse spooks. You’re the part of the equation that can change.

A great trail-riding horse doesn’t need to be “bombproof” if you prepare your mind and body.

Here, Goodnight will give you her six-step method on how to sit the spook: (1) Envision perfection; (2) relax; (3) sit well; (4) be the herd leader; (5) react quickly; (6) convert his behavior.

Goodnight will also provide a special riding exercise just for kids.

Step 1: Envision Perfection
Is your horse tense on the trail? Envision your horse as well-behaved and calm, and ride him in a way that lets him know you’re in charge.

Don’t allow your horse to look around and find something to spook at. He doesn’t need to look from side-to-side and take in the scenery. His job is to look at what’s in front of him and mind the footing.

You’re in charge of where your horse looks. His nose shouldn’t move beyond the width of his shoulders. Looking straight ahead is the obedient response.

Ride with two hands. If he turns his head to look at the scary bushes, wildlife, etc., bump his nose back to center with light rein pressure.

Avoid gripping the reins tightly. Keep the reins loose, so your horse doesn’t feel your anxiety and think he should be worried. But don’t allow too much rein slack. You’ll need to have enough contact available to turn your horse if he reacts to something scary. (More on that in a minute.)

If your horse is tense, calm him by showing him you’re a worthy leader. Get him moving, and give him something to do. You don’t have to ride in a straight line. Guide him to the right and left; go around a bush.

Turning in different directions will get your horse thinking and give you control. Control his space, and remind him that you’re in charge of where you both go.

Step 2: Relax
Relaxing can be a tall order — especially if you think your horse might spook. To relax, close your eyes momentarily, and picture a balanced rider. Assume a centered, balanced position, with your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel in alignment.

Then systematically relax every joint in your body. Imagine relaxed toes. Unlock your knees. Relax your hips, and move with your horse’s back. Drop your shoulders. Unclench your fingers, wrists, hands, and shoulders.

If you’re worried that your horse might spook and become uncontrollable, you’ll probably tense your hips, clamp your legs, and grasp at the reins. You might even go into the fetal position.

These are normal reflexes in response to fear — your body pulls into the center for protection. But when you’re riding, this isn’t a safe posture at all.

Rolling into a ball causes you to pull on the reins, and drive your heels and legs into your horse’s sides. These actions tell him to be worried and move quickly — so you’re actually cueing him to spook.

What’s more, when you’re worried, you tense up your joints, locking them into position — a dangerous riding posture.

Tense a bicep as though you’re showing off your arm muscles. Notice that when you do so, your wrist elbow and shoulder joints lock.

Responding to a spook by tensing up and locking your joints is like hitting an ejection button. When you stiffen your back, shoulders, and legs, your body becomes one tense, locked object that can’t move with your horse. Instead, you’ll likely to bounce right off.

Step 3: Sit Well
On the other hand, you can be too relaxed, riding with your feet out in front of you, as though you’re sitting in a recliner with a remote control in your hand.

This isn’t a balanced position. If your horse spooks, you won’t have time to regain your balance to correct him, and you’ll likely be left behind.

Do you lengthen your stirrups for trail riding because it seems more comfortable? Don’t think you can ride with too-long stirrups because you’re “just trail riding.” Let’s take “just trail riding” out of the vocabulary.

Choose a stirrup length that allows your feet to rest without reaching — and while keeping your knees slightly bent so you can move like an athlete. Also, make sure your legs will stay underneath your seat.

Instead of sitting far back in the saddle, maintain an active, athletic stance. Suck in your belly button, rock back on your pockets, and sink your heels deep into the stirrups.

For a balanced, anchored position, ride with your toes up and heels down. Roll your ankles so that the bottoms of your feet are angled away from your horse.

Rolling in your ankles and slightly lifting your pinky toes move your legs into a close contact position and wraps the stirrup leathers around your legs.

There’s a yoga term that will help you imagine sitting up, back, and in balance: back body. Ride with your back body extended. That is, lengthen all your back’s bones, ligaments, and “energy.”

Almost everything in life causes you to cock your chest and abdomen forward and lock your hips, that is, living in the front body. Think hunching over the computer or slouching on the couch.

In riding, you want to elongate your back body and be conscious of your back. Relax and round your lower back, and extend your torso up; shorten your front-side and lengthen your back-side.

Stay in your back body, and don’t allow your energy to move forward. Use this visualization to prepare for riding — and prepare for a spook.

Step 4: Be the Herd Leader
Your horse is a herd animal, wired to notice the reactions and tension of the herd members. When you ride your horse, you’re in his herd, so he looks to you to make sure everything is okay. Imagine yourself as a strong, calm leader.

If you even think your horse might spook, start deep, abdominal breathing. He’ll detect if you’re holding your breath, which signals to him that he should be afraid.

Breathing with purpose will extend your spine and help you think about riding in your back body. Breathing is critical. Do it. Air is free.

Moving your eyes will help keep your whole body relaxed. Your horse will notice your tension if you lock your gaze on something you think may spook him.

Focus where you want your horse to go — not at something that’s potentially scary. When you focus on where you are now or where your horse is going, your eyes lend weight and point your body to that point.

What’s more, when you turn and look at where your horse is headed, instead of where you want to go, the problem gets worse.

Let’s say your horse spooks at something to the right of the trail and that’s what he’s moving away from. But you’re more afraid of the drop-off to the left of the trail that he’s moving toward — so you look left.

Your horse usually goes where you look or follows your focus. So by looking the wrong way, you’ve encouraged him to spook. Instead, focus where you want to go so that everything in your body gives him a consistent cue to go where you want.

Step 5: React Quickly
When your horse spooks, you won’t have time to stop and think. Spooks happen fast. You’ll only have an instant to stop your horse’s desire to bolt and focus him on the path you want.

This is the time that your at-home, in-the-car, thinking-ahead mental practice comes into play. Here’s a breakdown of what happens during a spook and how you’ll need to respond to keep your horse from bolting — all while keeping yourself relaxed, in your back body, breathing, and looking where you want to go.

In a spook, your horse first turns in the opposite direction of the scary object and tries to get away from it. He’s acting on his deep-seated flight instinct to survive.

Get in your mind that you’ll always turn your horse back toward the spooky stimulus any time he spooks. Lock in that image. Practice the motions and scenario over and over. Facing fear countermands flight.

Your horse will never run toward the spook-inducing stimulus, so a turn is required. Be prepared to turn with one rein. This flexes his neck and encourages the turn. Then ask for the stop.

If you pull on both reins at once, your horse will run right through the reins, and you’ll be in a pound-for-pound battle you can’t win.

If you shut off his escape path, he’ll try to turn another way. Be prepared to turn to the right then to the left with one rein while avoiding putting any pressure on the opposite rein. Block each escape path, and point him back at the scary stimulus. He won’t bolt toward what he’s afraid of.

The further your horse gets into the flight response before you intervene, the harder it is to get him out of the bolting run. Your reaction has to be quick. You might have to take a sudden, hard hold of your horse so that you can stop him before he bolts too far. If he gets four or five strides into the bolt, you may not be able to stop him.

As soon as you turn and stop your horse from bolting, he should stop and look at what scared him. Program in this response by approaching scary objects at home. Praise your horse each time he stops and looks at the scary object.

Repetition locks in this response and will help you on the trail. You can’t take the spook out of your horse, but you can teach him how to deal with it.

During a spook on the trail, your horse may be so scared that he won’t be ready to stop and will instead turn away again. Each time he turns, block his path. By doing so, you’ll leave him no other option but to face his fear.

As your horse calms, ask him to stop again. Encourage him to take a breath by taking a deep breath yourself. When you eliminate his flight option, he’ll calm down and listen to your cues. Soften your body, and sigh out the air. Pet him on the neck. Let him know you’re the leader in your herd of two and that all is okay.

If your horse flies backward, chances are, you’re pulling back on the reins. Note that pulling back on the reins doesn’t stop your horse. In fact, it may be causing the problem.

Instead, reach your hands straight toward your horse’s ears, and pump your legs on him from behind the cinch.

If you can’t stop the backward motion, pick up one rein toward your opposite shoulder, and cause him to cross his back legs. He can’t back and cross his legs at the same time. (You might want to practice this at home.)

Step 6: Convert his Behavior
When your horse determines that the scary monster isn’t going to kill and eat him, he’ll “convert” to investigative behavior. Investigative behavior is simply curiosity and will cancel out his flight behavior.

If your horse moves forward toward the scary thing, allow him to check it out, and praise him. This will convert him — replace one natural behavior with another without getting into a fight.

When your horse is curious about what spooked him, he’s suddenly brave. He’ll want to go closer. Praise him for his courageous actions, look for a new location to ride toward, and move down the trail.

For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD​ at​

This article first appeared in The Trail Rider ~ September/October 2014

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Emergency Stops
Question Category: Riding Skills
Question: Dear Julie,

My husband and I went to your seminar on fear of horses at your horse Expo in Denver and I can’t thank you enough!! I thought we would be the only ones there. I was just amazed at how many people showed up! I have never been afraid of horses (or so I thought), until I bought my own. I always rode lesson horses or horses on ranches that had trail rides. Those horses don’t seem to have a mind of their own. I would get terrible butterflies in my stomach when I would get on my horse and couldn’t wait to get off. I hated the fact that I loved my horse but didn’t want to ride him. I didn’t realize I was doing this to myself, I am one of the “what if’-ers”. After seeing you in person and listening to your CD and reading your book Ride with Confidence, my fear has gone away! I am still riding him in the round pen, but hope to soon feel good enough to ride him in the arena and then beyond! I was wondering if you have a video or a little more of an explanation on the “pulley rein stop”. I do the one rein stop but have often wondered about them falling while being turned if they are running fast. I would like to know more about it. Thanks again! I don’t know if I would have ever gotten over my fear. Just knowing that it was ok to feel that way and how to deal with it made all the difference. Diana and Grizzly

Answer: Diana,

I am thrilled to hear of your success and I really appreciate you letting me know about it. Stay in the round pen as long as you want. Venture out only when you’re ready; it doesn’t matter how long that takes. The more you ride there, the better prepared you will be to venture out. The pulley rein is difficult to teach in an article because it’s really helpful to have visual input, but perhaps this will help.

The pulley rein is an emergency stopping rein, used when your horse is running away from you or taking off bucking. At this time, you do not want to turn your horse, because the turn may cause him to lose his footing and fall down. The pulley rein is executed by shortening one rein as tight as you can and bracing that hand over your horse’s neck, bending your horse’s nose slightly in that direction and pushing your knuckles into your horse’s neck, with your arm braced and centered over its neck. It’s important that this hand is pressed into the neck and not floating free, centered right over the top of your horse’s neck, not to the side. Then slide your other hand down the other rein as far forward as you can and pull that rein straight back and up with all your weight (you’re only pulling with one rein, the other rein is locked and braced against your horse’s neck).

Since the first rein is locked, it’s preventing your horse’s head from turning and he is pulling against his own neck, so the pull on the second rein creates a lot of leverage on his mouth, but keeps him going straight. If the pulley rein is executed correctly, you can stop a runaway horse abruptly, without turning him. This is far more preferable to pulling the out-of-control horse into a turn, since that may cause him to lose his footing and fall down.

Proper execution of the pulley rein requires some practice, which can be very hard on your horse; so many instructors do not like to teach this emergency stopping technique. However, when you’re out of control, it’s a great tool to have in your bag of tricks and it can be very useful for slowing down a strong horse, with a little pulley action every few strides then a release (use it with your half-halt).

One of the very worst things you can do, when trying to slow down or stop a horse, is pull back on both reins at the same time. This will almost always make your horse stiffen its neck and lock its jaw and may also pull you up and out of the saddle, or even right over your horse’s ears. Pulling on both reins continuously will often cause your horse to “run through the bridle,” and the harder you pull the faster he goes. Horses are way more responsive to an alternating use of the reins, which is far more likely to keep them soft in the neck and flexing in the poll. Ironically, most people have been taught to pull back on both reins at the same time to stop, when using one rein can be much more effective. Therefore, the other technique I would teach for better control is a one-rein stop or a disengagement of the hindquarters.

The one-rein stop is very useful for stopping or slowing your horse, if he is not running away from you or bucking. It’s not an emergency rein aid, but one you would use routinely. To execute the one-rein stop, simply lift ONE rein from the normal hand position, up and diagonal toward your opposite hip, as you shift your weight back into the saddle. This will cause your horse to yield his hip as he turns and to disengage his hindquarters (cross his hind legs).

Disengagement of the hindquarters simultaneously causes your horse to stop his forward motion (putting the engine in neutral, so to speak) and become submissive. The instant you feel a change in your horse (well before he actually comes to a stop) drop your hand dramatically to his neck in a clear and meaningful release. You can pick up the rein again if he does not come to a complete halt, but it’s critical to release your horse when he first makes an effort to do the right thing. Timing is everything in horse training and the sooner the release comes, the better.

At first, you may end up turning your horse as he disengages and stops but soon he will stop on the straightaway when you slightly lift one rein. Make no mistake about it, your horse wants to stop; if he isn’t stopping, he just doesn’t understand what is expected of him and his mouth hurts. When a horse doesn’t stop right away, the rider tends to pull steadily harder. A horse’s natural reaction to pain and discomfort is to run away from it. Therefore sometimes your horse inadvertently is taught to speed up when the rider is asking for the stop with two reins.

For more information on using your aids correctly and effectively on your horse, refer to my video series, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding. Good luck and congratulations on your progress. I love to hear success stories and it’s important for others to know it can be done!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician

My Horse Goes Where He Wants To Go Logo

Common Complaints
My horse goes where he wants to go

Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to help your horse know exactly where you’d like him to go—no matter how great the obstacle.

Does your horse always cut the corners in the arena? Does he veer around little obstacles—such as puddles—even though you told him to go straight through? Do your circles become smaller and smaller as you ride, or are they oval instead of round? Are you constantly begging your horse to go back to the rail so that he ends up counter-bent with his nose to the rail and his hip to the middle? Does your horse dart into a turn right after you jump—instead of going straight until you ask him for a turn?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse; it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and disobedient behavior then give you steps to take with your horse so that he goes obediently in the direction you dictate. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that acts like a champ and respects your authority.

The Reason
Riding a horse when you’re constantly struggling for authority is not fun and will lead to an increasingly disobedient horse. Furthermore, if you cannot control your horse’s direction and speed (see last month’s article about controlling your horse’s speed as you approach the gate) you’re clearly not the one in charge, leaving your horse with the authority to make decisions with which you may not agree.
To horses, authority (or dominance) is black and white. You’re either in charge of him or he is in charge of you. If you’re the absolute authority figure in his eyes, he’ll follow your directives without question. If you find yourself compromising or negotiating with your horse on issues like what direction he goes or how fast he gets there, then you’re compromising your authority.
Often, us easy-to-get-along-with humans, will let our horses get away with little things like cutting corners and dodging around mud puddles, instead of pushing the point and making him do exactly what we asked. From the horse’s point of view this simply means that you do not have absolute authority and gives him license to do what he wants. Eventually, his behavior will deteriorate to down right refusal, being barn sour and even running off with you.

The Solution
First, realize that your horse’s “problem” stems from your lack of authority. It’s time to take charge. Your horse is taking unauthorized actions—testing you to see who commands the ship and sets the course. Any variance to the charted course that goes unanswered is further evidence that you’re not in charge.
Horses are trained to know that once they’re told to do something, they should keep it up until the trainer gives a new direction. Once I tell the horse to trot in a certain direction, he should continue trotting, at that speed and in that direction, until I tell him to speed up, slow down or turn. I should not have to tell him every stride to keep trotting and I should not have to constantly correct his direction. He should continue doing whatever I told him until I have told him to stop. If you’ve set a different precedence with your horse, it’s time to make a change.
If your horse looks up to you as the leader—the captain of the ship—then he’ll not question you or argue with your directives. To become the absolute authority figure in your horse’s eyes you’ll have to become 100% diligent about his obedience under saddle. The Captain does not command a course to his first mate, only to have him argue and then settle on a compromise.
Keep your eyes always focused ahead to the exact direction you intend to go and then ride there with precision. If you feel your horse vary in direction or speed, correct him immediately. To correct his direction, first make sure his nose is pointed in the direction you want to go then make sure his body follows, using your hands and legs as reinforcement.
When going in a circle or around the arena, rather than turn his nose toward the outside (thus allowing his body to drift inward), lift up and in with your inside rein, using the ‘indirect rein in front of the withers.’ To apply this rein aid, you’ll turn your inside hand, like you’re turning a key in the door, so that your pinkie comes in and up, thus creating an upward diagonal pull on the rein. Open your outside hand out to the side to encourage his shoulder to move in that direction. The indirect rein in front of the withers moves the horse’s shoulder away from the rein aid. Your inside leg at the girth or at the ribcage will encourage him to move his body with his shoulder. That way he’ll be bent in the direction of the turn but be moving his body to the outside, or opening the circle.
If you’re going in a straight line and your horse veers off course, you’ll need to correct it immediately—before he has completed the first unauthorized step. If he veers left, simply lift your left hand up (not back), in an effort to block the movement of his shoulder. At the same time, close your left leg on the horse—in the middle position, right where it normally hangs—to move his ribcage back on the trajectory you asked him for.
If you find that you’ve to constantly correct your horse, it means that either you’re not correcting him consistently or you’re not using enough pressure to motivate him to change. Remember that he is being disobedient when he makes an unauthorized decision like changing directions or speed. Don’t be afraid to increase the pressure of the correction (spank him with the reins, boot him on the shoulder with your foot, bounce your leg hard off his ribs) so that he is motivated to change and so that he has a reason to not want to get in trouble again.
It will help to challenge your horse on this subject, especially when you first mount. If you’re riding in an arena, make him go deep into the corners or even go straight into the corner, stop and turn around and go the other way. Don’t let him learn to make assumptions about where you’re going. He should only turn around the corner of the arena if you cue him to; and you should cue him to turn at each corner as you proceed around the arena.
If you’re riding out on the trail, point him right toward that mud puddle and make him walk right through the middle. Do not compromise—be the absolute authority figure and insist that he walk right through the middle. As you walk down the trail, focus on straightness and apply small corrections with your legs and hands any time any part of his body veers. And by all means, insist that he keep his nose right in front of his chest—no looking around.
Other very useful training exercises can be utilized by putting some markers in your arena or riding area. Put a cone in the middle of each short end, so that you can walk in a straight line down the center from cone to cone. You’ll be surprised at how difficult it’s to keep your horse on a perfectly straight line without the guidance of the fence. This simple little exercise will show you a lot about how obedient and responsive your horse is and will show your horse that you mean what you say and that you expect him to do exactly as you say.
Once your horse understands that he does not have a say in the matter and that you’ll be diligent and persistent, he’ll cease the arguments and compromise and simply go where you say. What he needs most is your leadership and consistency.
For detailed information on how to use your aids effectively to guide your horse, such as the leg aids and rein aids for turning and straightness, check out my riding video series, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding. In particular, volumes 2 and 5 address these issues. For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit

Ride By The Seat Of Your Pants

Dear Julie,

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

Sitting it Out

Dear Sitting it Out,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the ride!

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Riding Right with Julie Goodnight

Emergency! The rein aids that keep you safe

Dear Julie,
I’ve been taking riding lessons every week for a few months (I used to ride when I was younger). The school I go to is very good—your horses are very fit and mostly well behaved. My class of 4-5 riders is working in an arena. In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that the horses are getting a bit excitable and fast. I can control my horse at the beginning, but when it comes to cantering my horse is difficult to control. He raises his neck and is ready to take off—especially when other horses are excited. I am reluctant to canter at all now. I feel nervous and out of control and my horse knows it. What’s the best way control my horse at the canter?
Signed, Speed No More

Dear Speed No More,
Feeling out of control is no fun. I believe it’s important to give all riders the tools they need to feel in control and capable of stopping at any speed. I teach riders two get-in-control and stopping techniques–one for everyday use and one that’s purely for emergencies. Let’s learn about the one-rein stop and the pulley rein. You’ll need to know both—and when it’s time to use each.
Let’s first make sure you know what to do in an all-out emergency. The pulley rein is the emergency stop to use. It’s a rather abrupt motion that will stop any horse (when done correctly). When you apply this rein aid, you’ll apply a significant amount of leverage to your horse’s mouth. I don’t want riders to pull on their horses’ mouths often—that’s why this cue is used only in an emergency. To make sure the cue isn’t abused, I usually only teach the technique at jumping clinics (when riders are on open courses where horses often get strong and can easily run off) and at fear-management clinics (when you need the confidence to know you can stop—come Hell or high water).

Executing the Pulley Rein
As you practice this move, keep in mind you’ll only use your ultimate strength when there’s an actual emergency. In practice, you’ll only use a portion of your available strength. Begin by shortening one rein (let’s choose the left for teaching purposes) so there’s tight contact with your horse’s mouth. Keeping the rein pulled tightly, center and brace your left hand on your horse’s neck, at your horse’s midline. Push your knuckles—still working with your left hand–into your horse’s neck. With your right hand, slide your fingers down the right rein, grasp and pull straight back and up. In a real emergency, you’ll use all your weight to create leverage. Your left rein is locked in place, preventing your horse’s head from turning. The pull on the second rein creates significant pressure and to avoid the constant pressure, your horse will choose to stop.

When executed correctly, you can stop a runaway horse on a dime by using the pulley rein. This is far preferable to pulling the out-of-control horse into a circle–which may cause him to lose his footing and fall down. The pulley rein technique requires some practice. It can also be very useful for slowing down a big, strong horse—use a little of the pulley action every few strides then release (similar to a half-halt).
One of the very worst things you can do, when trying to slow down or stop a horse, is pull back on both reins at the same time. This will almost always make your horse stiffen its neck and lock its jaw and may also pull you up and out of the saddle–or even right over your horse’s ears. Pulling on both reins continuously will often cause your horse to “run through the bridle,” and the harder you pull the faster he goes. Horses are much more responsive when you use the reins alternately. Alternate action is far more likely to keep your horse soft in the neck and flexing in the poll.

When to One-Rein
The other technique I teach for better control is a one-rein stop—also known as disengagement of the hindquarters. You must train your horse (while working at a walk then a trot) to know what response you’re requesting before using this move at high speeds or when he seems out of control. To execute the one-rein stop, pick up one rein and lift it up toward your belly button or toward your opposite shoulder (it’s an upward, diagonal pull on the rein). It’s critical that the other rein is completely loose.
This rein aid will turn your horse’s nose up and toward you; as he arcs throughout the length of his body, the turn will cause him to disengage, or cross his hind legs. You’ll be able to feel your horse’s hips bend as he begins to disengage his hindquarters.
Disengagement will help you control your horse in two ways: speed and subordinance. When your horse crosses his hind legs in disengagement, it ceases all forward motion. As you pick up slowly on the one rein, wait until you feel your horse’s back and hip get crooked (that’s when he’s crossing his hind legs) then release the rein suddenly and completely and he should stop. If not, just reapply the aid but be sure to release as soon as you feel your horse even begin to slow down. Since crossing the hind legs takes away your horse’s ability for forward motion (or flight), it puts him in a frame of mind to have to be submissive. Fleeing is not an option.
A few more tips about the one-rein stop: Make sure to lift your rein slowly and steadily and be ready for an instantaneous release when you feel your horse’s momentum affected. You should alternate between the right and left reins, or the inside and outside rein, so you’re not affecting just one side of your horse or getting him into a habit. The one-rein stop will cause your horse to turn at first, but with practice and a timely release, he’ll go straight and stop. Practice the one-rein stop at walk and trot until your horse stops when you just begin to lift one hand–before much pressure is actually applied to his mouth.

Of course, you should be using your seat aid as well; for more information on how to use your aids effectively, see the article on “Gears of the Seat” on and check out volume two in my riding series, Communication and Control from the Saddle.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician

Overcoming Fear: Instilling Confidence In Young Riders Logo

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 tad 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.

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 a 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, lets 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.

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.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Overcoming Fear: How To Be In Control And Feel Safe Logo

Question: Hi Julie,

I am a beginning rider, and have been taking lessons twice a week for about three months now. I have wanted to learn to ride since I was a little girl so this is a dream come true for me (I am 37 now). Initially I was very nervous approaching the horses, but more frequent visits have helped. I’m no longer afraid to get on the horse, but after we’ve walked around the ring a couple of times the horse will start testing me (either that or I’m not giving good cues but she parks at the barn and sidesteps across the ring). I end up yanking on the reins to get her back on track. Then I get tense and the whole thing makes me frustrated and I want to give up. I don’t want to jerk the horse around by the mouth to teach her who is boss but I can’t make her do what I want if I don’t. She is a 9-year old mare and an experienced trail horse. I want to move to faster gaits, but I can’t even get her to trot around in a circle. The men I ride with are naturals and don’t understand why I can’t just get on and ride. I can’t just “get on and ride” because I know I can’t control the horse and that makes me very anxious. I know if I could gain confidence through experience I could relax because then I would feel safer, but I can’t do that if I have to fight the horse every time. I wrote to you because I have read many of the articles on your web site and I think you are brilliant. I hope you can help me realize my dream of cantering across a field unafraid. Thank you so much.


Answer: Rachel,

You have a lot of different issues in your question and they are all very common issues that beginners everywhere are dealing with. I will attach another Q&A that I just wrote along the same lines (Gate Gravity), which may help you with your issues of control.

Without fail, the biggest mistakes I see people make when having control issues with a horse is two things that come instinctively to the rider but are the worst things you could do for the horse and only exacerbates the problem.

The mistakes are:
1. Pulling back with both reins at the same time,
2. Turning the horse in the direction he wants to go and then circling him back.

When the rider feels like she is losing control of the horse, she instinctively pulls back with both reins, sometimes with a turning motion. When the horse feels that much pressure on his mouth, he locks up, leans into the bit and generally does the opposite of what you want– if you want him to slow down, he speeds up, if you want him to turn right, he turns left. It is known as “running through the bridle” or “running through the shoulder” and are common responses of the horse when he feels steady and unrelenting pressure on both sides of his mouth at the same time. This horse becomes very defensive of his mouth and sticks his nose out and begins to feel to the rider like he has a steel pipe down the middle of his neck.

Sadly, this horse is often labeled “hard mouthed,” like it is his fault. In my opinion there is no such thing as a hard mouthed horse and I have never yet found a horse that could not be rehabilitated to become a very light and responsive horse, and we get a lot of these horses in training. Also, I have seen many school horses learn that all they need to do is get the rider riled up emotionally so she freezes up with both reins and then the horse knows he can have his way with the rider and go where he wants. When you lock up into a tug o’ war with the horse, he will always win because it becomes a pound-for-pound race.

Always try to use your reins one at a time and in rhythm with the horse, in a pulsating or dynamic fashion, not a static white-knuckle pull; always be quick to offer the release. Learn to ride through problems, not lock up on the reins. Your horse mirrors your emotions so when you feel frustrated, you horse is feeling the same thing. Try to keep your emotions in check. Some horses learn that all they have to do is challenge you a little so that you get emotional and lock up and then they know they can do anything they want.

When turning right, first slide your hand down the right rein, then slowly pick up on the rein toward your chest, releasing with the opposite rein. The slower you move your hands, the softer the horse will become. The outside rein should be totally slack– do not try to turn with that rein too, because as soon as you start pulling with both reins, the horse stiffens and you lock up. Keep the horse moving forward in the turn by reaching forward with your hands and closing both your legs on the horse’s barrel in a pulsating fashion. Don’t pull BACK on the rein to turn, that will interfere with his forward motion; gently lift the rein up or to the side.

The second problem is that when the horse becomes nappy and will not turn in the direction you are asking, most riders will give up before the horse does and turn the horse the other way, planning to circle back around to that spot you wanted to go to begin with. Although it often works long enough for you to get the horse positioned where you wanted him to begin with, you have just trained your horse to be disobedient by letting him turn the way he wanted to go and he most certainly will do it again. In the horse’s mind, he only knows he got to turn the way he wanted; he will not make the association of having to go back to where you wanted because too much time has elapsed in his brain. He was rewarded for refusing the rider.

The other problem you mention is with confidence on your part, which exacerbates the control problems that you have with your horse. This is a huge issue and I guarantee there are thousands of people out there that know exactly how you feel. There is an article on my website on dealing with fear that should be helpful for anyone. There is also a book coming out soon called “Ride with Confidence!” in which I am one of five contributing authors. The book is being published in England and should be out this fall and I think it is going to be a good one. I’ll be sure to publish it in my newsletter when the book is available.

One of the most important components when dealing with fear is to surround yourself with understanding, empathetic and supportive people that can help you reach your goals. Also, you should pick the company that you ride with carefully. If you do, you’ll gain confidence more quickly, with more good experiences. I hope you can find a riding instructor or friend to help you work through this control problem. Read through all my Q&As because you’ll probably find other issues that relate to the problems you are having. Don’t worry, you’ll get there, just be persistent.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.