Fear Management

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What do you do if you have ridden successfully in the past but a scary incident or injury replaced fun with fear? I hear from many riders who were once confident and after an accident or a life change suddenly have a new sense of fear around horses.

In moderation, fear can help keep you safe and know your limits. But if fear is keeping you from doing what you like to do, it’s time to make a mental shift and return to riding with goals that allow for small, but meaningful changes.

It’s easy to feel a sense of loss when an activity that you once loved is suddenly a burden to even think about. It’s a grieving process. Grief leads to guilt that you should be doing something more—riding more, visiting the barn more.

Grieving the Fun
If this sounds like you, you have not permanently lost your ability to enjoy horses. Your sense of grief may be unfounded because you still have the ability and knowledge you once had (of course, once healing and doctors’ orders are obeyed if you had an accident). You haven’t lost the skill, you’ve just temporarily misplaced it because fear is overwhelming.

Psychologists often say that fear plus grief equals debilitation. It’s too much to handle the emotions of fear and grief. Remind yourself of what you have done in the past and what you are capable of doing. Read some books about riding or watch videos—say to yourself “I can do that!”

The Plan Against Fear
Fear can be overwhelming and can make you feel like you have lost skills. I know hundreds of riders who say they have worked on their fear and overcome it. To be successful, you have to have a plan, think ahead and work slowly and meticulously on your plan.

How do you put a fear-conquering plan into action? Control your thoughts. There’s a mind-body-spirit connection. One part of the trilogy affects all the others. Once the emotion of fear takes over, there are physical effects in your body and your mind devolves into negative thoughts.

If you allow yourself to think “what if he falls,” or “he’s going to spook,” you’re focusing on the negative. That’s allowing fear to take over. Instead of allowing your mind to pollute, sing a song, or visualize what you want your ride to be like. If you have video of yourself riding in the past, watch that. Or watch a favorite rider and notice how confidently they sit the canter. Get those wonderful images in your mind to replace the negative.

Once your mind is in check, you’ll have more access to consciously direct your body. If your body is stuck in fear, you may subconsciously ride in a forward, hunched and gripping position. Once you can calm your thoughts, you can choose to take a breath and control your posture. If the fear can’t control your mind or your body, it can’t affect your whole life.

Comfort Zone
When you visit the barn, target the exact moment you become fearful. Start to notice your body’s reactions to even the idea of riding. You may think you’re fearful of cantering, but do you really feel your body shake when you saddle up?

Once you know the point that causes your fear, also identify your comfort zone. You may feel peaceful when you catch your horse, but when you saddle him, that’s the moment fear enters. Stay in the comfort zone as long as you need–for days, weeks or months. Repeatedly walk out to catch your horse then groom and let him go.

Soon you’ll be ready to do a little more—maybe saddle and walk. Just do a little more when you feel like it and celebrate your successes. Small ventures outside your comfort zone will help you move on. Don’t push and always feel okay about staying within your comfort zone to build confidence.

If you have a setback, go back to a known comfort zone and start creeping ahead again. Soon, you’ll find that you want to do more as long as you build up to it in small increments. At some point, you’ll feel your old comfort level and your old confidence pop back in and your desire to ride will return.

Don’t let anyone else prompt you to do more than what you want. Don’t push yourself because of peer pressure.

Healthy Habits
When you do reach a new level, share with friends and take a moment to praise yourself. Mastering fear is a lot of work; make sure to treat yourself well. Eat right and get in better shape—it will really help! What you do to make yourself healthier, build strength and improve balance, will help your confidence in general.

Pay attention to how you’re feeling emotionally before you approach your horse. If your day is already going downhill, don’t push yourself on your fear-mastering plan. On those days, take your horse on a walk or do some groundwork. If you’re feeling good and the weather is great, those are the days to push yourself a little more and consider stepping out of your comfort zone—and toward your long-term goal of enjoying your horse once more.

Surviving First Canter Lessons

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Teaching Techniques

Surviving First Canter Lessons
By Julie Goodnight

Canter: Sometimes, the mere mention of the word is enough to send riding students into panic and cause high blood pressure in the instructor. And it usually isn’t much fun for the school horses either. But there is a great allure to cantering, whether the rider is mortified of it or not, and it is the stuff of their dreams– cantering off into the sunset with their trusted steed.

Before even thinking about introducing your students to the canter, consider this age-old wisdom of classical horsemanship: the best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot. I tell this to riders in my clinics all the time. Don’t get in a hurry to canter; keep working at the trot until you are ready. When the rider can ride the trot well; posting, sitting and standing; circling and going straight; making effortless transitions up and down; it is time to introduce the canter.

There are many different opinions on how to teach the first canter and there is no one right way (although there are many wrong ways, like starting them all at the same time). After 30 years of teaching and working with thousands of riders, I have come up with some dos and don’ts that have served me well over the years.

First and most important Do–always check the cinch or girth before starting any canter work. In normal circumstances at the canter (with an experienced rider) the rider’s weight shifts into the outside stirrup (when the horse is on the correct lead) and the saddle can get crooked. Add to that equation a loose cinch and an off-balance rider and it is highly likely someone is going to eat dirt.

Although I know of instructors that have had success teaching the canter on a longe line, personally I would never do it that way. learning to ride the canter on a straight line is much easier than turning. Where you tend to lose riders is in the corners or on the turns. Even on a straight line at the canter, the rider’s weight is shifting to the outside if the horse is on the correct lead. The centrifugal energy created by putting the horse on a longe line exacerbates his problem. Many beginner school horses don’t have the training and conformation to canter a small circle in a balanced way, making it ever harder for the rider to learn. It’s not to say that it can’t be done safely; it can– with the right horse and a suitable environment. But for me, I like to keep them on the straight away at first.
I think it is really important to prepare your students well before their first canter. I like to talk about how it is different from the walk and trot, talk about what suspension is and how the gait feels and how your body moves at each gait, particularly the differences between the trot and canter (more vertical–up and down movement at the trot and more pumping/circular motion at the canter).

“I like the beginner riders to only canter the long straight line of the arena and to bring the horse back to trot before the corner.”

The single biggest mistake beginner riders make is leaning forward and closing the pelvis at the canter, causing them to get thrown up and out of the saddle in a posting motion each time the horse comes into suspension. So I really emphasize sitting back, even slightly behind the vertical. This is why “pushing the swing” is such an effective analogy for the canter.

I think it is critically important to have a good demonstration of what it looks like to ride the canter, before they do it, so they have a good visual image of how to ride the canter. I also think it is important in the demonstration to show what happens
to the horse’s head as he canters (moving down with each stride) and especially how far he drops his head on the very first stride as he is launching his entire body weight off the ground. I spend a lot of time explaining what happens to the horse if the rider does not give an adequate release and causes the horse to slam his mouth into the bridle. This is a particular concern for fearful riders who may flinch and suck up on the reins when the horse first starts to canter. When this happens, the rider is punishing the horse for doing something she asked the horse to do. That is very unfair to the horse and at best will prevent the horse from cantering and at worst will make the horse fear the canter departure and distrust the rider.

How you set up your riders for the first canter depends a lot on the number of riders in the group, the horses, the size of arena, and how much help, if any, that you have. There are many acceptable ways to do it– each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. Do you keep the horses in the middle and put them out to the rail one or two at a time? Do you line them
up on the rail and proceed around one at a time to the end of the line? Do you keep the line moving and play “catch up”?

For me, since I teach in the clinic setting, with 15 riders of varying ability levels, some very advanced and some having never cantered, I have certain parameters I must work within to keep all the riders active and happy. I like to keep all the horses on the rail, moving at a walk or trot, and ask two or three horses at a time to canter, coming to the inside track while all the other horses stay glued to the rail. I start with the advanced riders first so that the newbies can watch and so that their horses can see that horses are cantering and start thinking about it.

I like the beginner riders to only canter the long straight line of the arena and to bring the horse back to trot before the corner. This helps them stay better balanced and in control. Trying to canter the turn rarely works for the first time anyway because the rider tends to pull back with both reins to turn causing the horse to break gait. Cantering around the turn is a great next goal, once the rider is getting the feel of the canter.

Cantering short distances seems to work well at first. often you’ll see riders sit the canter pretty well for the first few strides then they gradually tense up and start bouncing, which leads to more tension and a downward spiral. Instead, I have them just go a few strides down the long side then come back to trot and get their composure back before trying it again. Besides, another important classical wisdom is that all of training occurs in transitions, so they are learning greater control at the same time.

“Always use gate gravity to your advantage.”

Riders that are nervous about cantering have a hard time convincing the horse that is what they really want. Their hesitancy and ambivalence is clear to the horse and since the horse probably doesn’t want to canter anyway, he’ll side with the part of the rider that says she doesn’t really want to canter. Also, most beginner horses have been hit in the mouth by the rider at the canter, so they aren’t all that enthusiastic about it anyway.

To mitigate this problem, I often set up the horses the first couple of times at the opposite end from the barn or gate, so at least the horse is headed in a direction he wants to go. If the horse is more energetic and eager to canter or might go too fast, I set them up to canter away from the gate. Always use gate gravity to your advantage.

If a horse has not been asked to canter in a while, he has long since stopped thinking about it and may be difficult to transition into the canter. In this instance, and in the instance of a fearful rider, it often helps if I get on the horse and ask it to canter a few times. This puts the cue and the thought of cantering fresh in the horse’s mind and is often reassuring to the fearful rider that the horse can indeed canter without the horse running off or pitching a bucking fit. But no good deed goes unpunished because sometimes I end up being asked to canter almost every horse in the clinic, which is time consuming, not to mention tiring!

The main things I don’t do at the first canter, is have everyone go all at once or push a rider to canter when they are reluctant. Even when I know most of the riders in my clinic are experienced and comfortable at the canter, I want to watch them each closely the first time to make sure all is as it should be. once I am comfortable that the riders and horses are in control, I’ll let them canter as a group. I also don’t worry too much about leads– that comes later, as we work on control at the canter and better cueing.

like all things with horses, the more experience you have, the easier it becomes. An experienced instructor can even keep track of the horses behind her back, unconsciously listening to the footfalls to let her know when the horses are traveling at a slow steady speed or when the footfalls sound suspicious.

As Mark Twain said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a whole lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Proceed cautiously and learn from the mistakes of others, so you keep your bad judgments to a minimum.

Fear Of Cantering

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

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

Sue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!
Julie
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
Canter with Confidence DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Goodnights-Principles-of-Riding-vol-4-Canter-with-Confidence-GPRV4DVD.htm
Canter Master DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Horse-Master-Canter-Master-Horse-Master-Cantering.htm

Fearful Of Riding My Thoroughbred

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

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

Frustrated in Ohio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

My Horse Spooks At Traffic

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Dear Julie,
I rescued a Standardbred mare two years ago. She was badly abused by her previous owner and has shown some residual signs of fear. The problem that I now have with her is I find she can be very stressed in traffic. I try not to ride her to close to the road but I find some cars scare her no matter where we are. We also have to pass some traffic to get to trails and the main riding area. I try to talk to her calmly to relax her but that only works sometimes. I love her to bits but it scares me because I don’t want her to get spooked and have her get hit by a car. I don’t want to get hurt, either. What can I do?
Traffic Jam

Dear Traffic Jam,
To desensitize your horse to traffic, you will have to be very supportive of her and reassure her constantly. It’s difficult to tell what a once-abused horse may have experienced in or around traffic. To help erase the fearful memories, you’ll need to be a calm and supportive leader—directing her every step and letting her know she’s safe in any environment. It sounds like you are making some good progress already if she is sometimes accepting traffic. Here are a few more guidelines:

Begin by working on the ground in the spook-causing area. You’ll be safer on the ground and can be confident there, too. Make sure to outfit your horse in a rope halter with a long training lead attached—so that you can control her movements and let her know she can’t get away while also making sure you have room to get out of her way. Work on your advance and retreat skills. Ask a friend to drive up to you and your mare slowly as you work on despooking your horse to vehicles. I like to teach spooky horses to face their fear and as long as they face it, they can stop and relax–with lots of reassurance from me. The cardinal rule is that when the horse stops and faces something (instead of spinning and bolting), she gets a reward. She gets a rub on the neck and gets to stop and relax. Then I will gently encourage the horse to move toward whatever she is afraid of—moving one step at a time and stopping in between each step (so that I remain in control, issuing the orders) and taking time to reward.

This eventually becomes a game to the horse and he loves to work for the reward. He gets the ultimate reward when he will actually walk all the way up to the scary object and reach out and touch it with his nose.

You’ll work with a technique called “Advance and Retreat” (you can find more about this training technique at www.juliegoodnight.com when clicking on “Training Library). With any scary situation, lead your horse near the frightening place. When she turns to look at the scary thing and is calm and relaxed, praise her. When she appears tense, make her work. As soon as she shows signs of relaxation, you can let her stop. After many repetitions, she’ll learn that being relaxed is the easy solution. Being tense doesn’t make the stimulus go away. Make sure you’re not praising your horse for being tense. Many people train their horses to be fearful and tense when they speak softly and rub their horses at the moment of highest tension. Save your praise for the moments you see your horse’s head drop, or her muscles relax.

When you’re ready to ride, do so in the company of a well-seasoned horse and rider. Make sure the other horse is confident around traffic. Horses are programmed to act like the horses around them so a good role model for her will be helpful. Always turn her to face the oncoming traffic so that she can see it coming during your ride. Give her lots of reassurance by petting her and soothing her with your voice before she reacts or feels tense. Sometimes it is better to allow the horse to keep walking rather than hold her still. Horses sometimes need to be able to move their feet when they are frightened. But do not let her break into a trot.

Go to the new “Training Library” on www.juliegoodnight.com to read the article called “Advance and Retreat” that talks about a process for desensitizing a horse to a frightening stimulus. Most of all, she needs your confidence and leadership.
For a wealth of information on this and many other topics and to purchase educational videos and training equipment, visit my website, http://www.juliegoodnight.com.

Fearful Trail Horse

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Fearful Trail Horse

Question:

Dear Julie, I have an 8-year-old gelding that is very easy to work with on the ground and in the arena. He tends to become uptight, and nervous when he goes on the trail, even when he has ridden on the same trails and pastures for 3 years. He holds his breath and seems to be very wary of things that he has always seen. Tonight he was particularly tense. It felt as though his barrel was full of air when I got on. We casually walked around the barnyard, where there’s a variety of equipment etc. I was going to go on a trail ride but didn’t because a storm was imminent. This is not a new area to him. We stopped by a silo. He kept peering around the corner, and all of sudden he did a full body deep quiver/jump, he spooked in place. He continued to feel as though he was ready to spook at any moment, full of fear. I dismounted, and did some groundwork around the very same objects that seemed to bother him just a few minutes earlier. He became more comfortable. He walked over a tarp that was lying on the ground, without difficulty. When I got back on he once again became wary.
Is this about me? Yes, I could sense his predisposition when I got on. He was particularly bothered tonight and we just made the same ride a few nights ago. I pay attention to my body and make sure that I am doing deep breathing etc. There are times when he is not like this at all. He is overweight right now due to all the rain that we have been having, could that have something to do with it? He also tends to chew his bit, when on a trail ride, and I know that it’s a sign that he is bothered inside. He does not appear bothered when you catch him up or work with him on the ground. Often, you need to bring his life up. I know that he is holding back in some way, but do not know how to free him up. I would appreciate any suggestions.
Thank you, Carol

Answer:

Carol, As always, it’s difficult to diagnose a horse problem over the Internet 😉 as a third party observer. In person I can see the big picture and have a better idea of where the problems are originating. Nine times out of ten, the rider is contributing to the problem in ways the rider cannot see or feel or comprehend. My guess is that, at the very least, this is a problem of co-dependency between your horse and you. Obviously your horse likes the comfort and security of being in the arena and around the barn in confined areas and does not feel comfortable out of those very controlled settings. Since horses are prey animals that live in herds, he is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of the animals around him; this is an important survival skill for prey animals. When you go out on your own, out of his comfort zone, this behavior is compounded and he becomes even more reactive to the animals and emotions around him. When you ride a horse a whole lot of your body is in contact with him, so it does not take much to convey apprehension to your horse. He may even start it himself by sucking his air in and holding his breath (just like humans do when they get nervous) and that is probably putting you “on guard.” As soon as you start thinking that he may spook or do something, there are changes in your body that occur as you tense in preparation and to him, that becomes a prompt that something must be wrong, just like he thought. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most often when I see this situation developing, the rider picks up on the reins and that conveys even more tension and fear to your horse. Your horse gains courage on the ground because you’re there, in his eyesight, between the scary thing and him. When you’re on his back, he is in front and feels more vulnerable. Also, when you’re on the ground you’re more confident so he gains confidence from you (mirrors your emotion).

Conversely, when you’re on his back, you feel more nervous (because he is nervous) and that compounds his nervousness. It’s amazing how often horses will act the way you think they will. If you ride your horse with confidence and expect him to do something right, he’ll do it. When you think your horse is going to spook or misbehave, he’ll do that too. I am certainly not the first person to say that; you’ll hear it from many accomplished horse trainers. I know from my lifetime of experience with horses that this is true; maybe not all the time, but more times than not. We have a horse in training right now that is very spooky, reluctant and balky out on trail with its owner. However, for both Twyla (the trainer that works with me and runs my office) and me, he is steady, relaxed, willing and obedient and we have only had him in training for one week. Part of the problem is engrained disobedience and part of it relates to the confidence and leadership of the rider. We expect your horse to behave, insist upon it really, and we expect him to go down the road like a horse should; and that is indeed what he does.
However, he does not yet have that much faith in his owner, and she does not yet have that much faith him (yes, those two things are very connected), but things are improving as 1) your horse becomes more habituated to being an obedient, subordinate horse, and 2) the owner recognizes that her horse can indeed be a good citizen. You may want to consider putting your horse in training to work through this issue and get some miles on him going down the trail. That could help both of you to be more confident. Doing lots of meaningful groundwork that results in a more confident, relaxed and subordinate horse is always a good thing to do and should help your situation. You also need to teach your horse a calm down cue. We teach most horses that come into our barn, and all horses that are nervous and high strung, to drop their head to the ground whenever we ask, either from the ground or from the saddle. Start on the ground with a rope halter and simply put gentle down pressure from the chin knot, watching your horse’s head very closely so that you can release at the first sign of the head dropping. At first, you must release when the head moves down just a fraction of an inch; as your horse comes to understand what you want and what will get him the release, you can hold the pressure a little longer so the head comes down lower. The first few inches of head drop are harder to get, but in short order, your horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground. It’s physiologically impossible for your horse to be tense with his head down (and impossible for him to be relaxed with his head up). So once your horse is trained to drop his head to the ground (which in addition to causing relaxation also causes subordination) you can ask him anytime he gets worked up or “on the muscle” (which is what you’re describing in your question), you can ask him to drop his head down. This is known as “putting your horse in the closet;” the closet is a calm, quiet, safe place for your horse. Teaching your horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it’s much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as your horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until your horse makes the connection that lowering his head makes the rein pressure go away. Soon he should be happy to go to “the closet” and stay there when you pick up one rein. Remember, you’ll have to release the reins to let him drop. If you ask him to lower his head and he does, but then hits the bit, you have punished him for doing what you asked him to do. By the way, pulling on two reins will always make your horse more anxious because now he is worried about his mouth too and that makes him a whole lot more scared. That is a real common way the rider contributes to your horse’s fear when he becomes spooky. When your horse feels spooky to you, put him to work, giving him constant instruction and directives so that he has to focus on you and think of you as the boss of him. You might ask him to turn right, then turn left, then trot right and left, then stop, then go then trot then stop and turn around, etc. Not in a harsh punishing sort of way, just in a “here’s something to keep you form worrying about that” way. This is known as replacement training; you’re replacing the unwanted behavior with something else. Another favorite calm-down exercise for the nervous horse is the three-step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I believe you’ll find this on my website in the Q&A section. There are many Q&A’s on my website about barn sour horses and doing groundwork to establish a leader-follower relationship with your horse, and that will help with your situation too. What your horse needs most are your confidence, leadership and reassurance. Good luck and be careful.
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

Coping With Fear

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Coping with Fear
By Julie Goodnight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming Fear: My Horse Doesn’t Respect Me & I’m Scared To Correct Him

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Question: Hello,

I just found your website and think it’s great. I have a 15-year old gelding – appaloosa/Clydesdale cross, Copper. My problem is that I am not confident enough to follow through with things that I ask him to do. This happens mainly when I ride him – he’s lazy and doesn’t want to go, or doesn’t want to go in the direction I want to go. That is partly because I don’t have a lot of experience with horses, but mostly because I saw Copper buck someone off that he didn’t like, and I don’t want that to happen to me! I know that he knows that I am fearful and not the dominant one. I just don’t know how to turn myself into the leader in our relationship, and get that confidence so that he will listen to me, and do what I ask. He is also generally a spooky, jumpy horse, which doesn’t help. Do you have any kind of step-by-step ideas that I can use with him to have him listen to me when I ride, without compromising my safety?

Thank you,
Jill

Answer: Jill,

The problems you are having with your horse are not at all uncommon—I see them in every clinic I do. There are two issues to consider here: raising your confidence level and becoming a respected leader for your horse. While they are clearly related, I think you’ll have to deal with them as separate issues.

As for the confidence issue, you need to do some introspection and come up with a plan to control your thoughts and develop more confidence. This process is outlined very clearly in my audio CD, “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” and in a book called, “Ride with Confidence,” authored by myself and four other authors. I know hundreds of people that have followed the recipe and had great success in overcoming their fear. Once you have your emotions in check, you’ll be able to work through the issues with your horse.

Because of the herd nature of horses and the linear hierarchy that exists within the herd, horses are very keen to your level of confidence and intention. He knows, probably better than you, that you aren’t willing to reinforce your commands and discipline him if needed. Therefore, he cannot possible see you as his leader.

Once you have issued a command to a horse, it is imperative that you enforce it. Otherwise, you are training him to be disobedient. If you are incapable of enforcing your commands, it is better that you do not ask your horse to do it to begin with because every time you ask and fail, you are further convincing him you are not in charge and his opinion of you worsens.

There are dozens of articles in the Training Library on my website that talk about this issue. You need to examine all of your interactions with your horse to discover the less obvious things you are probably doing on a daily basis to undermine your own authority with your horse. Remember, horses gain dominance by controlling resources (food and water) and by controlling the space of subordinates and controlling their actions. If you look at your interactions closely, you’ll find many instances in which you are giving away your authority.

The most effective way to establish leadership over any horse and to gain his respect is through ground work. I hear lots of people say, “But I’ve done that and I still have problems,” and what I know is that they’ve done it inconsistently, not systematically or ineffectively. It is not enough to just run a horse around the round pen; you have to know what behavior you are trying to affect, what the desired response is and how to get it.
I have two videos on this subject: Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership. They both show step-by-step exercises for establishing a productive relationship with your horse. In each video I work with several different types of horses so you can see their different reactions—although the process is always the same. You can order online or by phone at 719-530-0531.

If you work through these obedience issues on the ground first, it will give you greater confidence in the saddle and also your horse will be less challenging, since he will come to respect you as his leader and to respect your authority. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have some expert help along the way—a trainer or instructor that can help you discipline this horse and guide you through this process.

Good luck and stay safe!
Julie

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