How To Stay Comfortable In The Saddle

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How to Stay Comfortable in the Saddle—No Aches or Pains

[Question]
Julie, I have a question about how to be more comfortable during my long rides. What causes my knees to hurt after about an hour riding at a walk? What can I do to stay comfortable in the saddle?

[Answer]
Being comfortable in the saddle is crucial for long rides. Joint pain is a complaint I hear about often. I’ll share some tips about proper alignment then help you consider the tack and riding gear that can help or hinder your comfort as you ride.
Line it Up

I hear riders ask about their feet falling asleep or of constant knee pain when they ride. When you sit on a horse, your legs are being spread apart and the unnatural alignment causes pain over time.
When you’re sitting on your horse, your alignment changes from the posture you use to stand upright. Your legs are wrapping around the horse’s barrel instead of hanging straight down. To get the picture, imagine sitting on the long side of an oil barrel with your legs wrapped around. Because of your position, your joints come together at angles instead of in their usual straight alignment. Your knee and ankle joints now have uneven pressure and that causes pain.

The solution is pronation (rotational movement of a joint). With this move, you’ll bring your ankles back toward your midline. When you’re sitting with your legs spread around the horse without pronating, your ankles roll to the outside and also impact your knees. To correct that alignment with pronation, flex your foot so that your weight rolls toward your big toe. This simple move realigns the bones that comprise the knee and ankle joints. It reduces the pressure and the pain after a long ride.

You can try this while you’re sitting in a chair, too. Roll your foot toward your pinky toe and press your weight down to your feet. You can feel the strain on your ankles and knees. That’s what it feels like without pronation. Then roll your foot toward your big toe. Notice that it’s easier to hold this pronated position.

If you were taught to ride with your toes straight ahead and your heels pushed far down, it’s time to reconsider your alignment. Keeping your toes straight ahead isn’t helpful for ergonomic riding. In this position, you can’t pronate your ankles and you don’t have your lower leg available for cueing your horse. No matter what your riding instructor said when you were young, it’s fine to have your toes pointed out a little. To feel better in the saddle, you need to allow yourself to turn your feet out slightly. I’m not talking about pointing your toes directly east and west—just relax enough to allow your legs to hang more naturally.

Tack Evaluation

You’re only in balance when your skeletal system is in alignment. When you’re sitting on your horse, you should have a straight line running down from your shoulder, through your hip and down to the back of your heel. Your saddle can help or hinder this position.
While you may think all saddles should help you be in a balanced position, it’s just not true. If your stirrups hang far forward, you can be pulled out of alignment. Stirrups that hang forward put you in a “chair” position that may seem comfortable at first, but can cause you to push down or reach for your stirrups and stiffen your legs. If your stirrups hang straight down from the saddle’s seat when you evaluate it on a saddle rack, your saddle will help you be in a balanced position throughout your long ride. If your stirrups hang far forward, consider shopping around.

If you find your seat bones hurt after a long ride, your saddle may have too wide of a twist—the part of the saddle just in front of the seat that rises toward the pommel. If the twist is wide, it will push your legs farther apart and causes pressure onto your seat bones. Your entire body weight then pushes down onto your seat bones in that spread position. That doesn’t feel good after a long ride. Look for a saddle with a narrow twist to avoid sore seat bones.
Dress the Part

While your clothing might not directly impact your joints, it does impact your overall comfort on the trail. If you ride in jeans, make sure that the inside seams aren’t bulky. If you shop for jeans made for riding, you’ll notice that the bulkiest seams are on your outer leg—not inside. If there’s too much fabric inside, you can get sores at your knees from rubbing against that extra fabric.

If you’re riding for long days and it’s not too hot out, try wearing silk long johns under your jeans. The light layer can help with chaffing and can help you avoid saddle sores. If you’re going to be riding for several days, you need to make sure your joints and your skin stay in the best shape possible.

To keep my skin in good shape, I make sure to carry big Band-Aids and Cortisone cream. Cortisone will help with chaffing and will help you ride without changing your posture to avoid further rubbing your saddle sore. You won’t ride correctly if you have a saddle sore on the inside of your knee so taking care of your skin can help your overall posture and alignment, too.

My Horse Spooks And Lacks Focus

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Dear Julie,

I have a 10-year-old horse that was born on my farm. From day one has been an ADD/spooky horse. He has been a challenge! Although we have made progress, it seems like I’m always going back to square one. My background is in dressage, but I do a lot of ground work too; some round pen, longeing, etc. I take him places, clinics and shows now and then, but I still struggle with getting his attention. Once in a while he’s kind of relaxed but progress is very slow. I can’t seem to get beyond the inattentiveness to really start being able to school him. What can I do to help him be calm and focused?

Finding the Focus

 

Dear Focus,

It sounds like you have already tried a lot of different things with this horse with limited success. At 10 years old, he ought to be getting pretty mature and reliable especially with all the work you have done. Without seeing you and your horse in action, it is hard for me to make a diagnosis, but I can make some suggestions, based on my experience in working with horses and people.

First you’ll need to teach your horse how to properly respond when something frightens him—we’ll replace his spooky behavior with stop, think and relax behavior.

Next, you’ll probably need to go back to basics in your ground work, paying special attention to your horse’s focus. Just doing ground work isn’t always productive, unless you’re going about it systematically, with a keen sense of awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Finally, you’ll have to work on nose control with your horse, both from the ground and from the saddle. Just like a child with ADD, sitting at his desk and focusing on the teacher can be tough, but it can be learned, even without the Ritalin!

 

The correction:

I like to teach spooky horses to face their fear. As long as they face it they can stop and relax, and get lots of reassurance from me. So the first cardinal rule is that you must make sure your horse stops and faces the scary thing. When he’s afraid (instead of spinning and bolting), reward him. He’ll soon learn that when he stops he gets praise, a rub on the neck and gets to stop and relax.

Once he takes a deep breath and drops his head in relaxation, I’ll gently encourage him to move toward whatever he’s afraid of; I ask him to move forward one step at a time, stopping him with each step (so that I remain in control, issuing the orders, and so that he remains obedient) and rewarding him. 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 can practice this exercise from the ground, too.

One big problem with a horse like this is that he doesn’t focus on you and doesn’t look to you for leadership. A focused and obedient horse—one that looks to you for direction, is best accomplished with groundwork, both lead line and round pen. It sounds like you have done a lot of this already, but I have seen a lot of people do ground work without succeeding in getting the horse’s total focus. For instance, the horse may run well around the round pen and do turns and stops, etc., but if his total focus isn’t on you almost all the time, then the round pen work may have been nothing more than meaningless chasing of the horse.

Once the horse is moving away from me well in the round pen and I can control which direction he goes, I want to establish a line of communication with him so that he’s constantly looking to me for directives. If his focus wanders outside the round pen, then I put him to work. Not harshly and not chasing him but asking him to do something like go faster, go slower, turn this way, turn that way, etc.

When his focus is on me because he has to watch me to see what I am going to ask him to do next, I let him stop and relax, for as long as he can stay focused on me. If his attention wanders, he goes back to work. This same concept can be applied for lead line work and mounted work as well. Just be careful that when you ask the horse for more focus by putting him to work, that you’re not getting fast and reactive to him and escalating his tension but just quietly issuing one directive after another to the horse and reinforcing what you ask of him.

Finally, it is very important that you always have control of the horse’s nose, both on the ground and especially in the saddle. Most people let their horse’s nose (and therefore his focus) wander all over the place and look at whatever interests him. This is a root cause of many behavioral and obedience problems. Usually, the very first indication that a horse is thinking about doing something he shouldn’t do is when the nose leaves its position from in front of his chest.

We work very hard with our colts and any older horses with behavior problems to teach this very important rule, “Thou shalt keep your nose directly in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you or riding you.” If you set this very simple rule with your horse and then enforce it 100% of the time, within minutes, your horse will become more focused and obedient.

I think it is important to master this rule on the ground first, but I also work on it in the saddle from the get go. From the ground, all you have to do is ask the horse to stand (that is another very important ground rule we set right away, “Thou shalt not move thy feet unless I tell you to move them.”) and then step back away from the horse. He should stand there on his own volition, not because you have a choke hold on the halter rope. See my Lead Line Leadership video if you have trouble with your horse standing still.

Correct his nose with a gentle bump of the lead every time he moves his nose away from you and point at his nose or twirl the tail of the rope toward his nose every time he moves the nose toward you. Just put his nose back where you told it to stay every time it moves; be slow and calm with your corrections but always consistent and firm when necessary. Work on nose control standing in an open area for 5-10 minutes and the horse will learn his parameters. Then reinforce this rule at the hitching rail and at all times you’re working around the horse.

Carrying over this rule (nose control) to the saddle is very important for a spooky horse or a horse that is easily distracted. He can pick his head up and look at anything he wants to, as long as his nose stays in front of his chest. If it moves to either side, correct it with a gentle and slow bump of one rein (if he’s turning his nose to the right, use the left rein and visa versa). Again, it isn’t a pull or a jerk, but a slow gentle bump up on the rein and keep bumping (not pulling) until the nose comes back to center. If you set this rule and then enforce it, in short order the horse will learn to keep his nose centered and his attention will stay on you.

 

The outcome:

If you set some basic ground rules with your horse, he will respond. Horses are very good at following rules—that’s how they get along in the herd. The alpha of the herd calls all the shots. When she says move, her subordinates move. When she says it’s time to relax and take a nap, they do it. When she says it is time for flight, they respond.

By teaching your horse how to react properly when he’s frightened, by doing ground work to increase the horse’s focus on you and by learning to control your horse’s nose—and therefore his attention—you’ll make a lot of progress with this horse.

No horse wants to be nervous and frightened. Horses seek out comfort and security more than anything else in life. You’ll have to provide your horse comfort when he’s focused and relaxed and give him security by him knowing that you’re the one in charge and that you call all the shots. In knowing that, he’ll find peace and not worry so much.

To me, if I can teach the horse to respond to some basic rules and he can trust me to enforce the rules, his life becomes more predictable and therefore he doesn’t have to worry. My groundwork DVDs will show you a systematic process for getting and keeping your horse’s focus, respect and willing attitude, both in the round pen and on the lead line.

Good luck with your horse and with a little work, you can teach your horse to be a relaxed and focused partner. There’s lots of information on my website, www.juliegoodnight.com that can help you along the way.

Enjoy the ride!

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician

www.juliegoodnight.com

 

My Horse Won’t Stand Still For Mounting

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Common Complaints

My horse won’t stand still for mounting.

Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to teach your horse to stand still while you mount up.

Does your horse begin the ride before you do? When you put your foot in the stirrup to mount, are you hopping and scrambling, reaching for a handhold on the saddle, or dangling from your horse’s side while he heads down the trail? Or does he take off the instant you skim the leather—leaving you grabbing for the reins as you struggle to get your foot in the stirrups before he reaches full speed?

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 dangerous behavior then give you steps to take to teach your horse to stand quietly and relaxed for mounting. Soon you’ll have a horse that stands like a statue on a loose rein as you mount.

The Reason
Many horses have never been taught or required to stand still on any occasion, let alone for mounting. Until you can control your horse’s feet (both moving and not moving), you don’t really have control of the horse; this is as true on the ground as it is for riding.

Horses are very impulsive when it comes to moving—remember they are flight animals. To get a horse to think before he acts—and not move impulsively—takes good training and strong leadership skills. A horse must not only learn what rules to follow, but also that there are ramifications if he breaks a rule—that’s where your leadership comes into play.

For young horses, it’s important to learn good ground manners, including standing still when asked. A good trainer will start with lots of ground work to gain control over the horse’s feet. When the youngster is started under saddle, from the first time he’s mounted, he learns to stand quietly and wait for a cue before walking off.

Many older horses that do not stand still for mounting have been inadvertently trained to act this way. I call it “anti-training.” Generally the rider has been condoning the horse’s impulsive movement for months, if not years before realizing there’s a problem. It starts with little infractions—small but unauthorized actions– and gradually it snowballs until your horse hardly listens to you at all.

Often the horse has gotten into this habit from an eager-beaver rider that mounts and takes off. Soon the horse expects it and he makes an association with mounting and moving his feet—this the action of mounting becomes his cue.

Instead of correcting the unauthorized actions of the horse, many riders cave in to the horse’s actions, thus condoning it. This is often rationalized by the rider as being okay because “I was going to ask him to walk anyway,” but the horse sees it for what it’s: he’s making the decisions therefore he’s the leader.

In short order, you have trained your horse to walk off as you mount. Since he thinks he’s doing the right thing, he’ll begin to walk off sooner each time you mount until you won’t even have a foot in the stirrup before he’s headed down the road.

Whether your horse has never learned proper ground manners or has inadvertently learned to walk off through inaction or a lack of authority on your part, there are some simple steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, take assessment of your horse’s general ground manners and respect for authority. Is he always respectful of your space? Does he lead with good manners, matching you step for step, stopping when you do and going as fast as you ask? Will he stand patiently and wait for you whenever you stop and does he stand quietly for the vet and farrier?

If you have complete authority over your horse, you can control his feet entirely, both moving and standing still. If this is not the case for you and your horse, you probably need to start doing groundwork to develop this critical connection with your horse. There are numerous articles on my website on how and why you do groundwork. I also have DVDs that will explain horse behavior and training techniques; the videos and all the equipment you’ll need are available packages at Shopping.JulieGoodnight.com.

I teach my horse that he can’t move a single foot unless I authorize the move. I practice this stand-like-a-statue game a lot, especially at times when I know my horse does not want to stand (like when all the other horses are headed back to the barn). These exercises are thoroughly explained on my website and in my DVD called Lead Line Leadership.

Once your horse is obedient and mannerly from the ground, you can start retraining him to stand still for mounting. The first step is to realize that whatever you have been doing, hasn’t worked. You have probably condoned the behavior many times or not given adequate corrections or insisting on obedience. You’ll have to make a commitment to change that—to be the captain of the ship.

It may have been your impatience that has led to this problem, so you’ll need to get in the habit of standing for a moment after you mount and never letting your horse walk off without waiting for a cue. If he just walks off because you’re mounting, he’s making an unauthorized action and it needs to be met with a swift and certain correction. Pick up on the reins, back him up and say “whoa!”. Be adamant about not letting the horse walk off until you cue him and you should only cue him when he’s standing still (just a momentary pause will do).

If your horse is walking off before you even get a foot in the stirrup, there’s a simple exercise you can do to change his associations. It’s a classic case of making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard for the horse. Like all horse training, this exercise requires an excellent sense of timing and consistent reinforcement.

Outfit your horse in his normal riding gear, with the reins secured to the saddle and a 25’ longe line clipped in the left ring of the bit. Approach your horse in slow motion, as if to mount; it’s important that you move slowly so that the timing of your corrections is precise. Keep the reins and line loose and do not make any effort to prevent the horse from moving off—let him make that decision—through this exercise, you’ll make him rethink that choice.

As you go through the motions of mounting, your horse will begin to move—you’ll have to concentrate hard to find the right instant. At that time, step back (well out of the kick zone) and get after your horse; send him out on the longe circle, making him trot long and hard until he’s eager for a stop cue. Then ask him to stop and repeat, approaching in slow motion to mount.

Each time he walks off without authorization from you, longe the pants off of him—give him a reason to think about how he can get out of this dilemma. You may need a training flag or whip to keep a safe distance from his flying hooves and to motivate him to action.

Each time you start the mounting process over, look for an opportunity to reward him. As you go slowly through the motions, if you reach a milestone—say, you put your foot in the stirrup and he holds still, reward him by turning and walking away from him and leave him in peace and comfort for a moment.

In the process, while he’s thinking and holding still, pet him and tell him he’s a great horse when he’s doing the right thing and hiss and spit at him when he’s not. Put him to work when he decides to move on his own.

When he begins to understand that you’re asking him to do something really easy, you’ll be able to go further and further in the mounting process until you’re on his back with him standing still. Once you swing your foot over his back, your hands control his movements. When he stands for mounting, reward him by getting off right away. Repeat this numerous times during each training session so he really understands what is expected of him.

If your timing is good, it should only take a few repetitions before your horse begins to make an association with his decision to walk off and having to work really hard. Suddenly the easy thing to do is stand still. If it takes you more than 6-8 circling episodes to make progress with your horse, it probably means you do not have the skills needed to have good timing in the release of pressure. He may be learning the wrong thing and you probably need to enlist some professional help.

With repetition, good timing and lots of enforcement on your part, your horse will soon learn to stand like a statue when you mount. For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit TV.JulieGoodnight.com.

Winter Horse Care: Snowballs On Feet

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Question: Hi Julie,

I’m still a novice at horse care and management. Winter has arrived (northern Ohio) and I am trying to figure out the best way to deal with the snow and ice buildup in his hooves. I have been chipping the snow and ice out of his feet every morning when I feed. I’ve read a little about hoof pads and am just wondering what you suggest for handling this issue. Can you make any recommendations?

Thanks,
Deb

Answer: Deb,

From the sounds of it, I think the winter has been worse in your part of the country than here in the mountains of Colorado! Snowballs on the bottom of your horse’s feet are very uncomfortable for him and can cause a loss of balance and unnecessary wear and tear on the joints. If you are riding in the snow, it can definitely become a safety issue.

I prefer to pull my horse’s shoes in the winter, when we are riding less and mostly indoors, so that the hooves can grow healthier and so that they have better traction on the snow and ice. While snowballs will form on a barefoot too, it happens more often when they are shod and the metal shoes can be slick on the ice.

If your horse is barefoot or shod, you can slather the foot with petroleum jelly to keep the ice from building up on the bottom. This will help, but not completely prevent the build up of snow under the foot and the petroleum jelly wears off quickly.

If your horse is shod, you can have your farrier put snow pads between the hoof and the shoe. It is a rubber pad with a bubble in the middle that keeps snowballs from forming and gives him a little better traction too.

If there is a lot of ice and you will be riding in slick conditions, you might consider having your farrier weld some spots of borium onto the shoe. This gives the horse really good traction in the ice or on slick surfaces like pavement. But be aware that the additional friction will also cause stress to his joints; so use it with a great deal of discretion.

Winter horse care is quite challenging and although we can try to make things better, sometimes no matter what we do, dealing with the snow and ice is still a problem. But these things may help!

Julie

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