Ask Julie Goodnight:
What can I do to keep my horse focused when we’re on the trail?
Question: Dear Julie,
My 6-year-old-AQHA gelding is very focused in the arena, on or off cattle, keeping his face directed at our target or direction. On the trail, he likes to look all around and, if I don’t re-direct him, follow his face off toward whatever catches his attention. If I allow that behavior (meandering, I call it), am I creating long-term problems for us? As always, I appreciate your expertise. Thanks, Doc.
In defense of your horse and in the spirit of “you can’t have everything,” you have to understand that a horse bred to work cattle does not always make the best trail horse. A “cowy” horse’s mind is keyed into movement and wants to follow it; he notices every little thing and tends to stay on alert. While this works out great in the arena and on cattle, it is not ideal for trail riding. Having said that, being cowy is no excuse for disobedience, and yes, if you allow disobedience it will cause bigger problems for you down the road because it erodes your authority and leadership.
An obedient horse will be focused straight ahead and will go in the direction you ask, at the speed you dictate, without constant direction from you. Many riders micro-manage their horses by constantly steering and correcting speed with the reins, so the horse becomes dependent on that. Once you cue a horse to go at a certain speed and in a certain direction, he should continue on that path and at that speed/gait until you ask him to speed up, slow down, turn right or turn left.
To check how obedient your horse is, find a target and give him a cue to walk or trot straight toward your target, then lay your hand down on his neck with a loose rein, and see if he continues. If he changes speed or direction without a cue from you, it means you have a horse that is either disobedient or co-dependent on you and you have some work to do. You need to break your habit of micro-managing, give clear directives, then give your horse the responsibility to obey. Correct him with your reins and legs if he makes a mistake; but leave him alone when he is obedient. Use enough pressure in your corrections that he is motivated to behave.
I have written a lot about having nose control on your horse. He should not be looking around while you are riding him, either in the arena or on the trail. Simply correct the nose with the opposite rein—if he looks right, bump the left rein, and visa-versa. Do not try to hold the nose in place; just correct it when he is wrong. I use the point of shoulder as a guideline; he can move his nose all he wants as long as it stays between the points of his shoulder; as soon as it crosses the line, he gets a correction. In short order, he will keep his nose pointed in the right direction.
Keep in mind, that just because you control the nose, does not mean you control the rest of the horse. He can easily run through his shoulder and go in the opposite direction that his nose is pointed. The most important thing is to control the horse’s shoulder but if you cannot control the nose, you have little chance of controlling the rest of the body.
How strict I am on the horse’s nose and his looking around, depends somewhat on the horse, his level of training and his willingness to be obedient and subordinate. If I am riding a horse that has proven to be well-behaved, responsive and obedient, I may let him look around a little, as long as he does not alter the course I have set in either speed or direction. On the other hand, if I have a horse that has proven to be disobedient, spooky or otherwise fractious, I will have a zero tolerance for looking around.
For your cow-bred horse, you will have to factor in his training, temperament and obedience and decide how strict you will be. Always correct a horse when he changes course without a cue from you, but with a cowy horse, that is bred to be very alert to any movement in his environment, you may have to cut him a little slack as long as he remains obedient.
The most important thing for you is that you have a clear and consistent view of what will be corrected and what is expected of your horse. That’s why I use the points of shoulder as a landmark—that way I have clearly defined what I expect and I know exactly when to correct the horse and when not to, so that the horse can clearly understand the rule and that I can give consistent corrections.
You’ll have to use your own judgment with your horse, but as long as it is clear and consistent, your horse will learn quickly. Good luck!
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series
The Questions You Ask Most
This Issue: Will I be too afraid to learn at a clinic? I’m afraid of being judged…
Ride and Learn
Horsemanship clinics are a way of life for me. I’ve taught hundreds of them and I like to take them whenever I can. I enjoy taking clinics and it helps keep my teaching and riding fresh, rejuvenates my spirit and I always learn something about my horse. Knowing I have a clinic coming up where I’ll take my horse—whether I am teaching or participant, helps motivate me to ride more. I like having a goal to work toward with my horse—whether it’s personal, competitive or physical; it helps me stay focused and productive in our training sessions. Does that work for you? What are your current riding goals?
I’ve been very focused lately on planning my 2011 Clinic Tour. Along with my focus on clinics, I’ve been reviewing and updating all our information on clinics, what to expect, what to bring and how to get the most from the experience. I know from what people tell me—either before or after the clinic—that they were very nervous to ride with me. This always bothers me– although I’ve heard it enough to know it is a common theme—not just in my clinics but for everyone. It bothers me because I know how hard I work to make sure all the riders are safe, comfortable and satisfied during one of my clinics and I think that most people who have ridden with me would agree that there’s no point in being apprehensive about riding with me.
I always tell the riders at the beginning of my clinics that nervousness is a wasted emotion, because I’m here to make sure they have fun and learn something and no one is under any pressure to perform; do as much or as little as you want. But still, I know people are reticent and I know there are some that will never sign up to begin with because of it and I wish I knew how to alleviate those fears. So what is it about taking a horsemanship clinic that is so frightening? Is it fear of the unknown? Fear of riding around other people? Fear you’ll lose control of your horse? Fear of riding in an unknown place? Based on a previous bad experience? Horror stories heard from others?
When I teach a clinic, my main goal and focus is to keep the rider safe, both physically and emotionally, and make sure they have fun and leave the clinic feeling good about themselves and having learned something. I’ll pretty much do whatever it takes to make sure that happens for each individual and for everyone that is something different. I think the first part of being a good instructor is being able to analyze the horse/tack, the rider errors, the personality and confidence level of the rider and the temperament and training of the horse. Then you have to be able to put all that together to discern what the most important thing to work on first is. And that’s the tricky part—because a person can really only work on one thing at a time. The next step, and the one that some trainers don’t do so well, is to be able to effectively communicate to the rider what he/she needs to work on, the why and the how. This must be done in a kind and supportive way that makes the rider want to try harder.
Too much of any emotion–be it fear, humiliation, anger, etc.–blocks us from a state of mind to learn anything, let alone mull over complicated concepts. Therefore, taking care of a rider emotionally always comes first. I believe that although you have to point out people’s mistakes as an instructor (that’s why they are there) it has to be done in a tactful and supportive way, in safeguard of the individual’s emotional well-being. I believe strongly that you also have to make an effort to find someone doing something right and then give them copious praise. That praising others, inspires all riders to work harder (“Amber, good job using your eyes as you went around that turn” can only lead to every rider in the arena looking up and where they are going). I also feel a strong responsibility to the well-being of the horse and sometimes this can be touchy—pointing out that the horse’s “problem” is actually caused by the person.
In this instance, I find that although it sometimes takes a little more work on my part, I can almost always address the situation and still take care of both the horse and the rider’s emotional well-being. I consider myself very fortunate that the type of riders that come to my clinics are almost always fun, interesting, open-minded and keen to learn. This makes them pretty easy to teach. I can count on one hand, and still have fingers left over, how many caustic or toxic people I have encountered in the thousands of people I have taught at clinics. I am so thankful that my clinics tend to draw great people. Although I have heard the occasional horror story from other clinics, I think most people learn and grow at clinics and I know they will at mine.
On one level, I totally get it—riding in front of a group with a bunch of strangers can be nerve wracking. Riding horses requires such a voluminous amount of information to master that it can be overwhelming at times. The unknown quantity of how your horse will respond in an unknown situation is a little intimidating. On the other hand, the opportunity to learn, grow, explore new concepts and master new skills is quite compelling.
What about you? Do you like to ride in clinics? What do you get out of it? Does it make you nervous? Why? I’ll be interested to hear. Come share your thoughts on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv
Until next time,
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
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!
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.
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