Horse Illustrated – Julie Goodnight Q & A

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Cheating the Circle During Round Pen Work; Following the Herd Hierarchy at Feed Time

Q: How can I get my horse to longe or round pen in a complete circle? He keeps cutting in to the middle and making his circles too small. –Amber Verbena

A: This is a common occurrence in the round pen and your horse may show the same “cutting corners” behavior when you’re riding. Your horse is only obedient if he goes on the path that you choose. If he is veering off course—no matter how you’re working him–he isn’t paying attention to you and he thinks he can go where he wants.

When you work in a round pen, it can be intense for the horse and it’s possible that he’ll have an emotional outburst. Because of that, make sure that your round pen is made of a solid material that won’t bend or shift if he moves toward it and that it is at least five feet tall. Also make sure you have a tool (such as a stick and flag) to defend your space and direct your horse.

Ask your horse to trot in the round pen and be aware of when and where he starts in to the middle. He knows that he is cutting in and h finds that he benefits in some way. Is he being lazy and wanting to make the circle smaller? Or is he chopping off one side of the circle so that he is closer to the gate or to the herd? Watch his path closely. Either way, the fix is to take away the benefit for him and to teach him that it will be easiest to follow the path you dictate. You’ll change his direction to get him working harder at the moment he was choosing to go off course.

As soon as he comes off of the track, take a step to cut him off (using your body language and position to change his direction while staying safely out of his way) and use your stick to cue him to turn toward the fence then let him continue in the opposite direction. Watch again for his feet to come off the path and at that point, turn him into the fence again. Turning is difficult for the horse—it’s not easy to stop, roll back to his hocks and turn toward the fence.

Soon, he’ll learn to take the path of least resistance and stay to the outside of the pen instead of cutting in because it’s physically easier. When he turns toward the fence, it is the opposite direction from what he wanted, so you have taken away his benefit. That means he loses ground and realizes that you are choosing the direction and that he is not in charge.

If you’re working on a longe line, you can’t turn the horse away from you, but you can move more aggressively toward your horse’s shoulder and point your flag toward that point. You’ll drive him forward and make him speed up any time he steps in toward you. Your new posture and cue to move out and forward takes away the benefit for him. He no longer finds it easy to cut in to the middle; in fact, he’ll have to work harder if he tries that again.

 

Q: Knowing my horses and which is more dominant— should I feed in a specific order at feeding time and turn them out in a certain order? –Sherry Patron

The pecking order of your herd matters and it’s helpful to observe the order and note any changes. That’s great info to know, but it shouldn’t dictate everything that you do.

I want to know the hierarchy in my herd so I can watch to see if those at the bottom of the pecking order need help. Those horses may need to be separated for the night (to have a rest from a dominant or bully horse) or for feeding time (to make sure that they have access to food). Plus, if you see a change in the pecking order, it may indicate a change in health. If a horse that is usually alpha is suddenly lower in the order, it may mean he has a health issue and needs attention. I have seen a dominant horse move from the top to the bottom of a herd in a matter of hours and it was indeed a sign that he was getting very sick fast.

With my own herd of horses, I want to make sure that as soon as I step into the pen, they see me as the leader. The pecking order should change as soon as I step in– and suddenly I am the one they should be paying attention to. And my horses gladly obey, because they are happy to be in the herd and want to stay on good terms.

We train horses so that they don’t get to display herd behavior when a human is around. That’s a safety rule. I don’t want a horse to treat me as a new horse when I enter the pen or attack another horse who then runs over the top of me. That’s not a safe way for horses to act around humans.

I don’t want herd hierarchy to dictate how I go about my horse chores. If I want to feed them in an order that goes against the pecking order—by walking down a barn aisle and feeding in order of the pens—I want to be able to do that without making my job more difficult. I wouldn’t feed the alpha horse first if his pen was halfway down the row. He’ll need to be patient and have manners, just like everyone else.

I also don’t want to make my job harder than it needs to be. If I bring horses in from the pasture and they know that they’ll be fed in their pen when they return, I may allow the dominant horse to come in first. It may cause more problems than it’s worth to work out of the herd’s natural order in that scenario.

No matter their place in the herd, horses will learn the routine; they are very good at learning manners and following rules. They can learn to be respectful and patient and learn the process. Make sure that no matter what order you feed horses in, they are patient and acting properly at the moment you give them food. I want the horses to stand back respectfully and wait for the food (even if I am on the other side of the fence).

Horses often display anxious and aggressive behavior at feed time. All horses will nicker to you at feed time—the nicker means come to me and they know you will bring them food. But it is important not to let a horse control your actions or your emotions. Don’t stop what you are doing and feed them just because they are being demanding.

If a horse is displaying dominance and you walk by and throw hay, he may think that his behavior caused the food to appear.Some of my horses are on fee-choice hay access and 24/7 turnout—this is the most peaceful and least stressful feeding situation in the herd because everyone takes their turn eating and the omegas can steer well clear of the alpha/betas and eat without being harassed.

If a horse has learned to display dominant behavior at a scheduled feed time (such as pinning his ears, moving into me, pawing, or even charging) I would approach that horse with a flag and stick in my hand. I would wave the flag at any horse that approached me and encourage him to back up, out of my space. He doesn’t have to act perfectly for long, he just has to pay attention and be calm at the moment that I relinquish the food. If he backs up and stands still, I can give the food and know that he saw me as the herd-member to respect.

After I leave and step away from the food, the horses will go back to their own pecking order. But while I’m present, I want to make sure that no horse is moving into my space and acting disrespectful. Again, the horse doesn’t have to act right for long, he just has to be acting patiently and attentively at the moment you give the food. With a flag in hand, you’ll teach the horse that backing up, moving out of your space and being patient will cause the food to appear.

 

–Julie Goodnight, JulieGoodnight.com

Hierarchy At Feeding Time

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Hierarchy at Feeding Time

Here’s a question from a reader:
I have a question about hierarchy. I still treat my oldest horse (17) like he is alpha because I love him the most. I also have a 12 year old that is very submissive and backs down to all other horses. I just got third, a 7 year old and when they are out, he is obviously the boss. Should I be recognizing the shift and changing feeding patterns etc… or do I determine the herd hierarchy when I am with them and let them do their own thing in the pasture? I probably know the answer, I just have a soft spot for my old guy.

My thoughts: There’s no sense in fighting the natural order but the dominant horse doesn’t get to dictate what you do. If I am feeding a group, I let the horses decide who eats first but ALL have to follow their manners and respect my authority. If I am feeding individually, I just put them in pens/stalls according to who is first in line and feed in the most efficient manner. No one gets to fuss about it if he doesn’t get fed first.

Barn Rules, Cleanliness & Respect At Feeding Time

IMG_3439Like most horse trainers, when it comes to my barn, I run a tight ship and I like things very orderly and very systematic. Even though my barn is totally private—no outside horses for training, no boarders, no clients—for my horses and my staff, I have high expectations.

Rules for Horses:

Having happy, well-behaved horses is a high priority for me. The health and care of our horses is the absolute highest priority in my barn and, honestly, they have it pretty good. They have a clean, comfortable place to sleep every night and all the high quality food and supplements they can manage. They get to frolic in the fields all day with their friends and are only subject to forced exercise, with their own personal trainer, five days a week. In exchange for this country club treatment, there are certain things I expect in return.

Good manners from my horses are of utmost importance. Waiting politely and patiently for their room service to be delivered is a minimum expectation of mine. It’s okay if they are happy to see their food delivered and enthusiastic about its arrival, but crowding, demanding, stomping and aggression are not tolerated. If you deliver the food when a horse is acting poorly, you reinforce that behavior. Instead, our horses know that they will only receive their food when they are acting politely. Please and thank you gets you more. At our place, the feeders are under strict orders not to feed any horse that is displaying aggressive or unwanted behavior. When the feeders are approaching the pens or stalls with feed, the horses are expected to back up and wait patiently and politely for their food. If we have a horse that is displaying aggressive behavior, we will use a stick or rope to wave at the horse and back him away from the food. Once the horse has backed-off and is showing respectful behavior, we will drop the feed in and walk away. This ensures that the horse does not think he is taking away the food from you and keeps him in a subordinate frame of mind.

When I approach my horses, whether in the stall or in the field, I expect to be greeted by a happy horse, eager to see me and eager to be haltered and led away. Of course, I cannot force this kind of emotion from the horse, but I can create the conditions that make them feel that way. My horses know what follows being haltered and led away is our undivided attention, a pleasant and thorough grooming and a training session during which there will be lots of praise and acknowledgement of their efforts, followed by another nice rubdown. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Since our horses are happy to be with us and comfortable with our leadership, they walk quietly beside and behind us, matching us step-for-step. They ground-tie whenever and wherever asked and they do not act like they are caught or restrained and trying to escape—they want to hang out with us. This kind of willingness does not come for free—you have to earn it by being a confident leader, setting boundaries and trusting your horse.

I expect my horses to stand quietly and patiently when tied, no matter how long it might be. Our horses spend lots of time at the hitching rail and it is actually a very comfortable and content place for them. We keep them in the shade when it is hot and in the sun when it is cold and we make sure there are no flies to bother them. Just like little kids have to learn to sit quietly at their desks when they go to kindergarten, horses have to learn to stand tied by being tied often and for long durations. We start our yearlings learning to stand tied by getting them out with the mature working horses and letting them find their place at the hitching rail. Horses will learn by watching other horses—be it good or bad. So make sure there are always good role models present.

Finally, I expect my horses to try hard and put forth their best effort when I ask them to. I am not overly demanding, but I do ask for their best effort at times. I nurture the try in my horses by having high expectations and most importantly, by acknowledging their effort. If you can notice when your horse is trying, and reward it by letting him rest, leaving him alone, and offering your praise, he will work hard to please you. Who amongst us doesn’t want to be acknowledged for our efforts? If you miss the try in your horse and keep pounding away at him, even when he has put out his greatest effort, he will soon quit trying. On the other hand, I am ever vigilant for when my horse is cheating or trying to get away with something—and that gets my acknowledgement too. Praise is important, but so is admonishment when it is deserved. Your horse will rise to your level of expectation—be it high or low.

IMG_3343Rules for People and the Place:

Just as I have high expectations for my horses, I also have high expectations for my staff and anyone who enters my barn and has reason to handle my horses. I am so very fortunate to have awesome people working with me—they take as good care of my horses as I do. Knowing that I can leave town (as I do 130 nights a year) and never have any concern about the horses is quite a luxury!

Everyone in my barn knows that the horses are the number one priority—their health, their well-being and their comfort. I expect my staff to be highly observant of the horses—their mood, their appetite, their level of alertness. I expect each horse gets a stem-to-stern inspection every morning, looking over every square inch of his body for any scrapes, bumps or swelling. Observations are made on how much the horse did or didn’t eat, and whether or not his stall looks like he had a normal night. Each horse behaves differently in his stall at night and you should know what his stall normally looks like in the morning and it will tell you if there was a problem during the night.

Communication is a key component of a well-run barn, especially when more than one person manages the horses. We have a big white board front and center in the barn and all details get written down. Everyone knows to check the white board first and foremost when they arrive, to get updates on what went on and/or what needs to be done. Any boo-boos are noted, any changes in feed, or medicine given or any tasks that need doing. Good communication between all of the people involved is paramount—not only do you have to look for any notes, you have to acknowledge that you saw it and also be forthcoming with any information you might need to share.

Having a clean and orderly barn is extremely important to me. Not just cleaning the stalls every morning, but also picking up manure in the arenas, turnout pens and hitching rails. Our manure gets spread every day to help keep the flies at bay and to recycle the manure back into the fields.

I expect the barnyard to be raked and the aisle-way to be blown off. I’ll admit that my need for a neat and clean barnyard borders on obsessive-compulsion, but it makes me happy to walk into a beautiful barn. I gave up the tedious task of raking the barnyard in a herring-bone pattern a long time ago when I finally realized I had better things to do with my time and that no one else really cared. But a raked barnyard still pleases me.

I also expect an un-cluttered barn and for things to be put away in their rightful place. It’s amazing how junk accumulates in a barn if you let it. I travel a lot to different barns around the country and the junk and clutter, or lack thereof, is always something I notice. To me, it is important that the aisle-ways are free of obstacles and that we all know exactly where things are. I have learned to let go of silly things like making sure all of the halters and lead ropes are hung on each hook exactly the same way, but I do expect that the blankets are all folded and removed in a specific way, so that the next person doesn’t have to refold it before putting it on. Not all obsession are silly.

I expect the tack to be cleaned, the bits to be rinsed and the bridles be wiped down, each time they are used. While some might think this borders on OCD, I have a huge investment in my equipment and taking good care of it is important to me. But not just the tack—the horses too. Nothing erks me more than to see a horse put away with sweat marks on him; if we’ve made him sweaty, the least we can do is get him cleaned up and comfortable before putting him away.

Certainly not all horse trainers are highly particular and bordering on anal, but I have noticed that it is a common trait of our breed. Horses are not simple animals and riding is not a simple or easy sport. The people that are drawn to these animals and to this sport tend to be ones that embrace a challenge and have high personal standards as well as high expectations of others. When these qualities are absent, things fall apart rapidly with horses.

Horses thrive when there is a strong sense of order and sameness—it makes them feel safe and content. This is a luxury for a prey animal, who never knows what danger lurks around the corner. A sense of order is important to me too, so I guess that’s why I get along well with horses and why horses bring out the best in me.

Enjoy the ride,
Julie

Sign up for my free access and free monthly newsletter with more training tips>>