Troubleshoot Gate Openings

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Question:
My mare knows that when I lift the rope off the gate, I’ll then open that gate. She’s started “helping” by turning her body and using her nose to throw open the gate without waiting for any cues. Am I doing the wrong thing by letting her do this? Or should I let her go ahead and fling open the gate on her own? She figured this out herself seems to enjoy doing it.
Jessica Litwin

Answer:
Jessica, I think you’ve answered part of the question yourself — you admit your mare did this without a cue and that you’re “letting” her fling open the gate. Should you allow the horse to open the gate without a cue? The simple answer is no. It’s disobedience.
Don’t worry, though. The fact that your mare is well-trained and quiet enough to have learned how to work the gate tells me you’ve done a lot right.
I can help you correct this problem by teaching you the proper steps to open the gate, then helping you correct your mare if she rushes through any point.
First, you’ll learn the steps in order. Then you’ll learn how to mix up your sequence, so your mare learns she can’t always anticipate your requests. She must learn to listen instead of anticipate and hurry through the gate-opening process.

A Safety Issue
Disobedient behavior and anticipation at the gate can lead to a safety issue. What if you’re opening the gate for a long line of fellow riders and your mare speeds through the process and won’t wait?
Or, what if you’re on an unknown trail and need to open a tricky gate that’s hard to latch or has slick footing all around? If your mare speeds through, you won’t be able to cue her for safe behavior, and injuries could ensue.

How Horses Learn
Horses learn our patterns, then learn to associate quickly. Your mare has learned to associate your hand on the gate with pushing it open. When she first pushed open the gate on her own, you accepted this behavior, so she’s assuming she’s doing the right thing.
You’ve now trained your mare to fling open the gate by allowing her to anticipate this step and move on her own accord. This has created a bad association, because she now thinks it’s okay to initiate a behavior without a cue from you.
When you do the same things in the same order every time, your mare learns your pattern and will anticipate. Anticipation also teaches a horse to walk or trot off as soon as his rider puts a foot in the stirrup. The horse knows what will come next, so he thinks he’s helping things along. In reality, he’s being disobedient.
To correct your mare’s anticipation of the gate-opening process, you’ll change up the order of the steps. You’ll also expect her to wait for your cue before acting.
First, you’ll need to know the correct gate-opening steps. Then you’ll ask your mare to wait in between each step. You’ll also mix up the order, so she won’t be able to anticipate what comes next.

Gate-Opening Steps
Here’s a rundown of the gate-opening steps, broken down into smaller pieces than usual. Breaking down the process into small pieces and pausing in between each one will help you re-train your horse and slow down the process. Pause between each step for varying amounts of time each time you practice.
Step 1. Approach and stop. Mount up, and ask your mare to walk up to the gate so that you’re parallel to the fence and your knee is even with the latch. Then stop and wait.
Step 2. Open the latch. Open the latch, and back up so that your mare’s nose will clear the fence post. Keep your hand on the gate at all times.
Step 3. Open the gate. Push open the gate, and walk forward.
Step 4. Stop and wait. Stop your mare, and ask her to wait so she doesn’t rush through.
Step 5. Turn. Make a tight U-turn around the end of the open gate.
Step 6. Close the gate. Ride forward, pushing the gate shut as you walk toward the gatepost.
Step 7. Get parallel. At this point, you might need to take a step or two of a turn on the forehand so that your mare is parallel to the fence.
Step 8. Back up. Back up so that you’re parallel to the latch, and latch the gate. Then ask your mare to stand still so she doesn’t learn to rush away.

The Fix
Now that you know the steps, you need to correct your mare any time she makes a step that you haven’t asked for and that isn’t part of the above plan. You need to stop her behavior, then mix up your order so that she knows the same process won’t necessarily happen every time she’s near a gate.
Step 1. Lay down the law. Because you’ve condoned the behavior for a long time, you’ll need to lay down the law. Hiss, spit, and use a tone of voice that lets her know that you don’t condone the behavior. Many times, a strong tone of voice, just letting her know you disapprove, is enough to correct an otherwise well-trained horse.
Step 2. Correct her position. If your mare also steps forward or turns her nose to push the gate, correct her nose position with one rein. Say “whoa,” and firmly correct her forward motion with the reins. She should move forward only when you give a cue.
Step 3. Mix it up. Now, mix up the order. Sidle up to the gate as though you’re going to open it, wait five seconds, then walk away and do something else, such as trotting a circle or negotiating an obstacle.
When you approach the gate, stop, and make her wait. Then walk up to the gate, put your hand on the fence, and walk down the fence line parallel to the fence for a while, with your hand on the top rail.
You’re teaching your mare that your hand on the gate doesn’t always mean that you’ll open it. You’re breaking the pattern so she can’t anticipate. You’re teaching her she must wait and listen for your cue to know what comes next.
Step 4. Keep her guessing. Any time you feel your mare automatically moving onto the next part of a maneuver without your cue, do something different, so she never knows what to anticipate.
When your mare learns to wait for your cues, you’ll have the “first mate” you want and a perfect trail-riding partner. She’ll learn to look at you as her captain, and she’ll know she’s with a proven leader

My Horse Goes Where He Wants To Go

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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 www.juliegoodnight.com.

Horse Turns Toward Gate And Stops Working

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Common Complaints

My horse heads for the gate and stops while we’re working.

Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to teach your horse ignore the gate and work steadily.

If your horse thinks turning toward the gate is his cue to slow down, ride with a purpose and direct him straight past the opening.

Does your horse slow down as you pass the gate and speed up when you turn toward home? Does he break gait again and again in the same place in the arena? When leaving the barn, do his legs suddenly become leaden and you feel like you’re dragging a ship’s anchor?

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 to teach your horse to work steadily around the arena and leave the barn at the same pace he returns. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that acts like a champ and respects your authority.

The Reason
Gate gravity is actually herd gravity; it’s a horse’s nature to be herd-bound—staying safe by remaining close to his fellow horses. The instinct is strong. Whether this problem occurs while you’re riding in the arena, trail riding or working on the ground, your horse is being disobedient and making unauthorized decisions. Your horse needs to see you as his trustable leader and know that he’s safe in a herd of two with you.

What horses seek beyond all else in life are two simple things: safety and comfort. When you ask your horse to leave the safety and comfort of the herd to go out and work, you’re asking a lot of him. He may feel alone and vulnerable.

Horses are also instinctively lazy, preferring to conserve their energy for flight, should it be necessary. Your horse doesn’t really want to lope circles and leap obstacles in the arena. He’s looking for any relief available and thinks he may get a break if he heads to the gate. He’s always thinking about going back to the herd; if he can get away with slowing down or stopping for a moment or two, he may think he’s made progress and that you’re allowing him to head for home.

Horses also challenge for hierarchy within the herd. When your horse challenges you—by stopping at the gate—he’s testing to see who’s really in charge. Within the herd, each horse is either dominant over or subordinate to every other individual. One horse is at the top (the “alpha”) and one is at the bottom (the “omega”), with all the other individuals fitting somewhere in between. Subordinate horses respect and admire the leader of their herd and will willingly go with them anywhere; the alpha can herd and direct subordinates and the latter will go at any direction or speed dictated by the boss.

If your horse respects your authority as the leader in your herd of two, he’ll go in a direction and speed that you indicate—without making any unauthorized decisions such as slowing down or speeding up. You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re taking the helm and accepting the captain’s seat and that he’ll either toe the line or be swabbing decks.

Whether your horse just slightly slows down at the gate or gives you a constant battle leaving the barn, there are some simple steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, you have to realize that your horse’s “problem” stems from your lack of authority. It’s time to take charge.
Examine other areas within your relationship with your horse. Is he responsive to you on the ground? Does he respect your space? Does he focus on you, looking to you for directives and guidance? Is he peaceful and docile in your presence, knowing you’re in charge? Or is he looking at the herd and whinnying? When you ride, is his head down and his nose pointed in the direction you have asked for? Or is his head up and is he changing his path and speed impulsively?

If you’re nodding your head, you and your horse are good candidates for a systematic series of groundwork exercises. You’ll have to teach him to accept your authority on the ground first then carry your newly found authority to mounted work. My groundwork DVD called Lead Line Leadership will take you through this process with step-by-step explanations. The Complete Groundwork Package includes two DVDs and all the equipment you need for groundwork.

After spending some quality time with your horse from the ground, you’ll also have to address your authority with your horse from his back. You must act like the captain and your horse must accept his position as first mate. As captain, you dictate both the direction and speed of the ship and your first mate carries out your orders. The captain makes all of the decisions and any insubordinate behavior from the crew is met with strict consequence.

Your authority in the saddle starts when you put your foot in the stirrup to mount and ends when you hop off.

Professionals teach horses that they should keep doing what they’re told until they’re told differently. If you allow small infractions, such as making the unauthorized decision to slow down at the gate or veer from the dictated path, you’re eroding your authority. Once your horse realizes that you don’t have complete control, he’ll push the limits and the erosion continues until the dam gives way.

As soon as you mount, begin by not letting your horse walk off without a cue (see last month’s issue about standing for mounting), then take him directly to the rail and deep up into the corners. Immediately correct the smallest infraction of direction or speed until your horse gives it up and just does what he’s told to do. Depending on your assertiveness, this process may take one time around the pen or a few weeks.

Make sure your corrections are adequate to motivate your horse to change his ways. If he stops at the gate or breaks gait at any time, there must be ramifications and the punishment must involve enough pressure to motivate your horse to change. If the ramifications are insignificant to your horse, he’ll happily endure it if it means he gets to rest for a moment.

In this case your corrections might range from more leg pressure to a bump with the spur or a spank with a crop or the tail of your reins. If he breaks gait with me at the helm, I’ll make sure he not only gets a spanking, but that he has to work harder. I only allow him to stop or slow down when he’s working willingly forward, without me having to push him.

Each horse is different in the amount of pressure it takes to motivate him to change, but you’ll know if it’s enough by his reaction to the correction. If he blows it off with an expression meaning “so what?” then you didn’t use enough pressure. If his head comes up and he jumps to attention with a look on his face like, “what do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” then you’re making an impact. I don’t want you to cause your horse undue pain. However, you’ll need to use enough of a correction to let your horse know you’re in charge. If your horse doesn’t see you as a leader, you may be in much more danger later on.

There’s an old saying in horse training that says it always gets worse before it gets better. That means that if your horse has been getting away with things for a while, he’s not going to immediately give it up the first time you lay down the law with him. If he has been stomping on your authority for a while, he’ll challenge your first attempts to correct him by threatening you with a kick or buck. Make sure you have the ability to ride through his resistance or engage the help of a more qualified hand to help you. Never let his antics get to you emotionally—if he learns he can control your emotions, he’ll keep pushing your buttons. Instead, be calm, firm and persistent in your request for obedience.

Once you learn to be the 100% authority figure that your horse needs, he’ll gladly do what you ask. To reach this point, you’ll need leadership and consistency.

With repetition, good timing and lots of enforcement on your part, your horse will soon be steady, responsive and obedient.

 

For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit www.juliegoodnight.com.