What to do when your horse fights taking the bit.
We have seen you a number of times at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo and love the way you work with horses. We desperately need your advice. We have a 2 year old filly who weighs in at about 1000 lbs. We have done all kinds of groundwork exercises and desensitization exercises with her. She is golden…until its time for immunizations. She will not tolerate a needle. She is getting hurt in the process, as are the people around her. We even tried snubbing her (tying her to a post and squeezing a gate against her). I thought she was going to break her neck or tear the barn down. We are running out of options. If we don’t come up with a solution very soon we will have no other option but to put her down. Please help!
Many horses become needle shy, especially if they had to be given a series of shots when they were young, due to an injury or sickness. Once a horse has made a negative association, there is nothing you can do to erase it, but you can replace it with a different association. The problem with a needle shy horse is that you cannot really practice, since you would not want to give a horse a shot unnecessarily. We try to avoid giving shots to any horse if we can. For instance, if your horse needs an antibiotic, spend a little extra money and give it by mouth. We rarely give penicillin injections anymore, in an effort to avoid the emotional injury, soreness and potential for abscess or allergic reactions. While there are certain medications that can only be given by injection, I do not see why you would have to put a horse down if it is needle shy. I would simply not vaccinate the horse or give it injections if it could not be done safely and take your chances with the results. To desensitize the horse or to replace this unwanted behavior with another, you can try this routine. First, use an alternative site for IM injections like the chest. Second, set up a series of cues or stimuli that are far different from what normally happens with an injection and use pattern conditioning. See articles on my website for an explanation of pattern conditioning. We did an episode/DVD about how to give your horse oral medications that will show you a similar process, too. It’s called “Bad Medicine” and was taped in Martha’s Vineyard. Seeing the process will help you understand just what to do.
For instance, you might start by doing a circular massage of the area where the injection is to be given, followed by giving the horse a treat. Use the exact same approach, routine and technique every time and repeat this step over and over until the horse knows the routine and is eagerly awaiting the treat. You may even want to give some visual cues or verbal cues at the same time. Your goal is that when you go through these antics the horse will be thinking about the treat that is coming and not about the shot. Then add another step, which may be pinching up the skin, followed by a cookie (only give the reward when the horse gives the response you want-to stand still and accept what you are doing). Repeat again and again. The next step might be to add wiping the spot with alcohol, followed by the cookie; repeat. Then perhaps you’ll approach with the syringe and needle, but not give the shot, followed by a cookie. Eventually the horse will develop a pattern of behavior that keeps him relaxed and willing during your preparation for the shot and he will be very happy about the whole thing because he has associated it with food. At some point, you’ll be ready to try the injection (but only give an injection that is necessary and try to minimize them). Go through all of your antics so the horse is thinking about the cookie and not the needle. The actual stick that the horse feels is very minimal, at least with a smaller needle, like the size used for vaccinations. When a horse is needle shy it is an emotional reaction and not really a reaction to pain. If you use a small gauge needle and a quick stick, the horse won’t feel much at all. Ask you vet to show you good injection technique that will minimize the stick the horse feels on another horse. Avoid excessive confinement or force whenever you are doing something potentially frightening to a horse because that will only increase the horse’s fear. Also, realize that your horse may have made an association with the fear of needles and your vet. Your vet has an appearance, smell and demeanor that your horse recognizes. So you may not be able to let your vet give injections. Take your time to make new associations with this horse and above all else, make sure that you are safe. If you can’t give an injection, look for alternatives or take your chances that the horse will contract whatever disease you are vaccinating for. Good luck and be patient and safe.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
During the episode of Horse Master that we nicknamed, “Loaded Up,” I helped Laura Barnhart of Tuscon, Arizona teach her horse to walk onto the trailer instead of throwing a fit, rearing and bolting when a trailer was in view. It was a wild training session and I had sore muscles all over my body the following day. The horse had learned the very nasty trick of rearing, snatching his nose away and running off–dragging behind him whoever happened to be holding the lead line (I fondly refer to this as dirt skiing). The turning and bolting issue was a disrespectful ground manners issue that was separate from the loading problem, but it made loading difficult and nearly impossible. I had to escalate my training cues and the mental pressure the horse felt. With some groundwork training done first, it was a short time before the horse was walking calmly in and out of the trailer. Again, the turnaround was very dramatic and we got some great footage.
Read on to learn about how I helped this horse learn to walk on the trailer and learn how you can teach your horse to stay in the trailer once he loads. The lesson is good for you if you if your horse likes to back out of the trailer too quickly or has learned to run backwards as soon as he loads.
Although there are many good techniques used to train a horse to load in a trailer, the technique I prefer not only trains him to load, but also teaches him to back out only on command and in a very controlled fashion. You’ll need two people, a rope halter and training lead and a training flag. Make sure the trailer you’re using is safe and in a good location; without any sharp edges protruding, with good footing and in a clear, but somewhat confined area. I prefer to use a rope halter and long lead (15’ is good) for training purposes, although I wouldn’t haul my horse in a rope halter (I prefer a webbed break-away halter for hauling, for safety and comfort).
One person leads the horse and controls his head, always keeping it pointed toward the trailer; the other person waits subtly in the background with the flag, prepared to flag anytime the horse backs up and releasing the pressure as soon as the horse moves forward. I do not like any techniques for trailer loading that involve touching the horse in the rear—I want his focus to be forward. And I don’t want to use techniques that physically force him—I want him to make the decision to go in voluntarily.
Don’t ever touch the horse with the flag; it’s just the sound and movement that makes him uncomfortable and acts as mental pressure to help him choose to move forward, away from the scary sound. The person controlling the flag has to have excellent timing and must concentrate fully on the horse’s feet so that the flag starts the instant the horse moves backwards and stops the instant he moves forward.
By using this technique for loading, the horse learns that anytime he tries to backup, there is a scary and uncomfortable thing behind him (the flag waving) and that anytime he goes forward, the scary stimulus goes away. Since backwards is no longer an option for him and the person at his head is preventing him from going right or left, he quickly figures out that the only other option is to go forward and into the trailer. The nice thing about this method is that he won’t blow out backwards because he has learned that backwards is not an option.
You should have practiced your backing and general control on the ground way before working on trailer loading, so that your horse is responsive and controllable. Make sure that once you have presented him to the trailer, he is not allowed to look away at all or go in any direction but straight toward it. Be aware that when the flag starts waving, your horse is likely to lunge forward, so make sure the person leading stays well out of the way and is prepared for the horse to jump forward.
Once the horse has loaded, I’ll usually offer him a bite of grain as a reward and pet him for a few minutes to relax him then I’ll ask him to back out slowly—one step at a time. Be careful not to pull on him—that will make him want to pull back and blow out backwards; try to keep the lead loose. Ask him for one step back then ask him to halt and pet him and let him relax; then ask again. Have your flagger ready and if he takes more than one step and starts to blow backwards, flag him forward, let him settle, then ask again for one step, repeating the process until he is out.
It’s also helpful for unloading if you can let your horse turn around and walk out forward a few times, so he can understand where he is going; but that’s not always possible. It’s not natural for a horse to back down something; in fact, in nature, they would rarely back up at all. If he is allowed to walk forward down the ramp or step a few times, he may be more relaxed when you ask him to back down.
The training flag (available at www.juliegoodnight.com) is a great tool for trailer loading and also for motivating a lazy horse to go forward; mental pressure often works better than physical pressure. It’s also a useful desensitizing tool, but I’ll never desensitize a horse to the flag until I know whether or not it will be needed for trailer loading or for getting him to move forward. The flag is a 4’ rigid stick with a plastic or nylon flag on the end. The flag I sell is lightweight and very durable and balances easily in your hand, making it easier to handle than most other flags I’ve used.
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 Shop.JulieGoodnight.com
This article first appeared in The Trail Rider ~ September/October 2014
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: I have a 4-year-old bay breeding stock paint gelding. He is broke for western pleasure and does really well. His only problem is that he completely goes crazy if I put my feet on him for any reason. If I bump him he will just take off running. So there is no way that I can get him to move away from the pressure I put on him w/ my feet. He will trot and canter just by clucking and kissing and he does just fine this way. As soon as I even slightly touch him w/ my feet he will just get flustered and is ready to go. He is not dangerous at all just ready to go. He has lots of energy too, which I like. He would be an excellent barrel prospect, and I have even thought about doing barrels w/ him, but I want him to know the difference between pleasure and barrels. Could you please tell me a way to get him over him going crazy when I put my feet on him and what is the best way to train him so that he knows the difference between western pleasure and barrels?
Thank you so much
Answer: It sounds like you have a horse that is very forward and sensitive in his sides. These are not necessarily bad qualities, although very forward horses don’t often make good Western Pleasure mounts. Your horse simply needs to be desensitized to leg pressure and you need to use your legs more effectively.
To desensitize your horse to leg pressure, first make sure you keep you leg in contact with the horse’s barrel all of the time, with your legs in correct position, hanging straight down underneath you with your calf in contact with the horse’s sides. It is very tempting when riding a forward or sensitive horse to stiffen your leg and hold it off the horse’s sides. This will always make a sensitive-sided horse worse. Because every time you go to use your leg, it becomes a big movement and because the horse is not used to the feel of your leg against his side so it comes as a shock to the horse when your leg comes in contact. You want to keep what is called a “warm leg,” which means that your calf is very close to the horse’s barrel. To desensitize your horse to leg movement, keep your legs very loose and relaxed and move them slowly and gently back and forth on your horse’s barrel, first at a stand still and later at a walk. If your horse tries to pick up speed when you do this, gently sit back and pick up on the reins to let him know that you don’t want him to go faster.
Once your horse is desensitized to the leg, you’ll have to improve the technique you are using to cue him with your legs; my guess is that you are simply over-cueing him. You shouldn’t have to bump to make him go, you may not even need to use your legs at all. Instead, try cueing him with your weight aid to go and stop, which is probably all you need. There are articles on my website about how to use your aids effectively and my videos do a great job of explaining how to use your aids correctly.
I have ridden thousands of horses in my lifetime, many of them very sensitive and forward horses. I have yet to encounter one that didn’t accept leg cues when they are applied properly. You probably just need to correct your leg position and lighten up on your aids. As for your other question, it is not easy to use a horse for both barrels and pleasure since they are such opposite disciplines and the talent required of the horse for each event is much different. A horse that is good at one, would probably not be that great at the other. However, there is no reason that you can’t try both and there are some horses that can do both disciplines quite well.
When working on your barrel training, make sure that you train at slow speeds a lot, working on flexing and bending the horse and strategic positioning around the turn. Only work at speed on occasion (this is true of training any barrel horse).
Another good idea any time you are training a horse for more than one thing, especially when he may be expected to act very differently in the two things, is to use different training context. For example, use different bridles for the two events and also do your training in two separate areas. That way, the horse will learn that when he has on one bridle he is expected to do one thing and when he goes to a certain area, he will be training only in that discipline. Good luck to you!
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