Issues From The Saddle: How To Relax A Spooky Horse Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have broken my arm from the fall. We have snow on the ground and I didn’t want my horse {a forward horse} to run home. I needed to get off my horse when I saw that I was not going to be able to take control. I thought twice about getting off and walking home because of the long walk that was ahead of me. I am a new horse owner with my husband and we have a lot to learn. As soon as I am able I will be working on “drop-your-head-cue” in the saddle. He drops his head with ground work. My horse is a nervous, 16 year old, 13 hand racking horse. He loves to run home. This is not allowed of course but when the trails are narrow I cannot do the circling {relaxing for my horse} game. I am limited with my education in tight situations. I have to be careful with the circling exercise with my horse because he can dart into the turns. My friend says that he is a sports car running a race and cuts his corners well. I am now looking for your Q/A three step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I have looked but cannot find it. I have your new ground work DVD’s and have learned from them. Thank you for everything…your teaching style is easy to understand.


Answer: Dear Philly,

I am attaching the Q&A on the three-step circling process to calm a fractious horse and make him more submissive and attentive to you. I am glad you are enjoying the DVDs on groundwork. There is lots of information there on the horse’s natural behaviors and how you can make him more focused and obedient to you.

Often when people use circling work to establish more control over a horse, it is done with harshness and quick jerking movements. This will only serve to make a horse more anxious, not less; faster not slower. Speed and harshness will always exacerbate a horse’s emotions and may trigger the flight response.

With any circling or disengagement of the hindquarters, it is imperative that it is done calmly and quietly, encouraging the horse to slow down and soften. If it is done with fast, reactive movements, it will cause the same reaction in the horse. Remember, horses are programmed to mirror the emotions of the animals around them. Therefore, if we let our emotions (fear, anger, frustration) get involved in training, it will always cause more problems.

Training with softness and with a calm and objective demeanor will lead to success in your horse. Also, when you are calm and objective versus reactive and emotional, it is easier to see the ideal moment for the release. Make sure that whenever you give a horse a cue, you release the cue the instant the horse begins to respond; do not wait until you get the finished result or it may be too late. Whatever the horse is doing when you release him, is what you are training him to do. When you are caught up in emotions yourself, it is almost impossible to have the right timing; and timing of the release is everything with horses.

Sounds like you have been through a lot with this horse and I admire your persistence and determination to resolve the problems. Keep the faith and be careful in the process.


Excerpt from Q&A on Three-Step Circling:

“My inclination with this horse would be to use the “three-step circling” process every time you feel her falling apart on you. You mentioned that you could tell when she was going to do her thing; if you have a replacement behavior, then every time you feel her coiling up, you can ask her for the replacement behavior.

3-step circling involves a small circle at a walk, with your hand in three different positions that causes the horse to bend three different parts of her body. You will only use the inside rein; it is imperative that the outside rein is totally loose. It is also imperative that this is a slow smooth circle; do not jerk the horse into a circle or make any harsh movements. When this exercise is done correctly, the horse follows your hand with little or no contact on her mouth.

Step 1, put your horse onto a small circle (3-4 meters) and drop your inside hand down on your knee, with very light contact and with open fingers, flutter the rein until the horse breaks at the poll and you can see her eyeball. As soon as she gives, stop fluttering but leave your hand in the same position, so that she finds slack in the rein. As long as your hand is down on your knee, she should break at the poll and bend her nose toward your hand and hold herself in that position until you move your hand to step 2.

It is important to actually lay your hand on your knee so that it is in a consistent position and to prevent you from pulling back more on the rein when she gives (if you pull more when she gives, you are not rewarding her for the proper response). You are teaching the horse to give to light rein pressure and to seek out the slack in the rein. You must live up to your end of the bargain and let her find slack when she gives.

Step 1 is important because it gets your horse’s attention on you. When she gives in step 1, her inside ear will be back on you and you will be able to see her eyeball. Step 1 causes the horse to bend in the poll and to give her attention to you.

Step 2, still circling, SLOWLY lift your hand straight up, still out over your knee. Now your hand is out to the side over your knee, your elbow is at your side and at about a 90 degree angle. It is imperative that you are not pulling back on the rein but gently lifting up. Make sure you keep your hand in a consistent position and let the horse find slack when she gives to the rein pressure. Step 2 causes the horse to bend in the shoulder and all of her focus will come onto you. Step 3, from the position of step 2, slowly bring your inside hand in and up toward your opposite shoulder. That is the direction of the pull, upward and diagonal; your hand will not make it all the way to your shoulder. Be precise in the direction of your hand; it is an upward diagonal movement toward your opposite shoulder (for some reason people really struggle with this movement). It is a motion like crossing your heart.

Step 3 will cause your horse to bend in the hip and disengage her hindquarters (cross the hind legs). Disengagement causes submissiveness in the horse, so step 3 will bend your horse in the hip and cause her to be submissive, even if only for a moment. You will distinctly feel the horse’s back bend underneath you when she disengages.

Step 3 is very difficult for the horse, so make sure you do not ask her to hold it too long. Also, watch the tips of her ears to make sure that they remain level. If you over-bend your horse, she will begin to twist in the neck and her ears will no longer be level, and you will be teaching her the wrong thing.

After you have done all 3 steps on one side, give your horse a little break and do the other side. Make certain to move your hands slowly and do not pull on the rein, but gently vibrate or flutter the rein until the horse gives; it should be very soft with very light pressure. Make sure the horse finds slack when she gives so that she learns self-carriage and so that she is rewarded for the right response by the release.

Again, this is a slow bending exercise, not a fast, harsh punishment or spinning in a circle. Make sure you use your hands in a precise and consistent place; once the horse learns this exercise, she will automatically bend into position as soon as your hand moves into position. Once the horse is responsive, you can go through all 3 steps in one or two circles; at first, you will probably be making several circles in each step.

This is a great exercise that has many, many benefits to both horse and rider. I teach this exercise in clinics all the time and 100% of the time, even beginners can get their horses to disengage and can feel the horse’s shoulder and hip bend. It is also highly beneficial to the horse as it teaches her to give to rein pressure and seek out the slack in the rein. The mental benefits are tremendous too because with each progressive step you get the horse’s attention, focus and submission. We use this exercise on all the colts we start; generally we begin and end every session with this simple little exercise. It keeps your horse soft and focused.

I would suggest you practice this exercise on another horse while yours is still laid-up. Then when you are ready to get back to her, you’ll have a good feel for how this exercise works. You’ll want to teach it to her during the good times so that when you feel her coil up, you can fall right into this exercise and she’ll know what to do. Then every time you feel a spook or scoot coming on, just gently fall into this exercise until you feel her soften and focus, then let her go straight.”

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.