Horses As Our Teachers Logo

chavoIMG_8662For better or for worse, you can learn something from every horse that you ride—whether it is a skill or a life-lesson. Sometimes you learn something you should always do, or something you should never do. I’ve been fortunate that in my lifetime, I have ridden thousands of horses. From them, I have gained invaluable experience. While the old-time wisdom says you are fortunate to have one good horse in your lifetime, I know am very blessed to be on my fourth. This month, I said goodbye to Chavo– one horse that will always leave a mark on my life. His passing made my mind reel with old scenes of all of my dear horses.

My first true love was my childhood horse—Minnie. She was a pretty bay Morgan mare that would take me anywhere and do whatever crazy-kid thing I asked. From her, I learned to stick on the back of a horse and gained all the confidence I would ever need in life. Some horses will give you confidence; some will take it away.

Next came George—an off the track Thoroughbred turned hunter. My dad bought him for me when I was 14 and he totally “made” me as a rider. He was a push-button equitation machine, always in the ribbons, and we paid the un-heard of sum (at the time) of $1500 for him! George taught me the finer points of riding a finished horse and on him I mastered the important principles of classical riding.


Pepsea came into my life after college and stayed with me for a couple decades. She was a high-powered classic Morgan show horse and it was just through luck and circumstance that I got her—I could never have afforded her as a young horse trainer. Pepsea was hot-blooded, sensitive, athletic, smart and brave. True to her breed, she could do anything—and she’d do it better and faster than any other horse. These are the principles that helped shape my career. Together we climbed mountains, led pack strings, sorted cows, jumped, ponied colts and taught many, many clinics. I had her for almost 25 years, until she laid down and died peacefully earlier this year at the age of 29.

My current horse-of-a-lifetime is Dually, an athletic cow-bred Quarter Horse with an amazing temperament and undying eagerness to please. We have been a team now for eight years and he is absolutely perfect for me at this point in my career. He’s awesome to teach off of at clinics and he is a super-model when it comes to photo shoots, TV shows and expositions. He has taught me so much about willingness, the intensity of cow horses and about high-level athletic maneuvers. He and I will be making more memories for quite a while.

The horse I’m remembering most right now was an incredible lesson horse. While he wasn’t just mine, he was a horse of lifetime. I have worked with some incredible school horses throughout my career— I call them “The Professors” –and Chavo was the best of them all. Where would our sport be without the professors? From the gentle beginner’s horse that babysits her rider, to the intermediate horse that provides just enough challenge to force the rider to step-up, to the higher level school masters that teach refinement skills to experienced riders—school horses keep our sport going.

chavoScan0003[2]Chavo was such a horse—a “School Master” for all levels of riders. He came my way about 20 years ago, because his owner could no longer care for him. He was a handsome and balanced grade horse with a temperament of pure gold, so I was happy to give him a try. Unusual for a school horse, he would work equally well for any level rider—from the never-ever to the advanced—trail, arena, jumping, cows, you name it, he would do it. Here at my farm, he taught literally hundreds of riders, including my son and my husband– for whom Chavo will always have a special place in their hearts.

I remember watching my son, all decked out in his Charlie Goodnight outfit, with BB gun slung over his shoulder, riding out alone on the trails around our house with Chavo. How many horses could you turn your 8 –year-old son loose with and know he would be safe as he rode around the pasture, pretending to be a Wild West gunslinger?

My husband first learned to canter on Chavo. For him, the horse was a teacher who inspired him to keep learning. After Chavo’s patience with him, Rich went on to compete on versatile ranch horses and win championships. He still credits Chavo with getting him started and giving him the skills and confidence needed to ride more high-powered horses.

About 10 years ago, I decided to no longer have clinics here at my ranch, making our school horses obsolete. By then, Chavo was ready to be semi-retired and I found a great home for him with two young boys that he would babysit, and we said our sad goodbyes. Little did I know that he would come back home 10 years later.

When we heard that Chavo needed a home, we were more than happy to bring him back. Old and frail, in his mid-30s, he was still alert and always happy to see anyone that walked in the barn. Long past the age where he could be ridden, Chavo still loved people and clearly wanted to be useful. Whenever we had our working horses out, Chavo would always come stand at the hitching rail with them– I suppose with fond memories of having a daily job.

Chavo touched an incredible number of people in his long and illustrious career. He has a special place in the hearts of many people and it was with both sadness and a sense of peace that we recently saw him off to greener pastures.

I’ve encountered some great horses in my lifetime and I know how valuable it is to learn and grow on horses that provide you with just the right challenge, at the right time in your life. Some horses cooperate with the rider and tolerate our mistakes; while others throw tantrums at the slightest provocation. Some are shy and reticent—in need of our softness; while others require our boldness and direction. Take time to learn whatever lesson your horse is teaching you. Horses are our greatest teachers and all we have to do is listen to the lesson.


Grieving The Loss Logo

A grieving horse may constantly look for his missing friend—checking out the empty stall and waiting for a return that won’t come. When horses realize another won’t return, dynamics within the herd can quickly change.

Dear Julie,
My 8-year-old Thoroughbred gelding just lost his favorite buddy and is having a tough time adjusting. My older horse died after a long bout with Cushings Disease. They had been together most of the Thoroughbred’s life and my gelding saw the older horse as a mentor. If his buddy didn’t panic, he knew it was OK to relax. When I realized my older horse wasn’t doing well, I purchased another buddy to add to the group—so my gelding would never be alone. The Shetland mare is quiet and well behaved and entered the herd very easily.
When it was time to put my older horse to sleep, a friend told me to allow my gelding to see the body—that he’d understand that his friend wasn’t returning. He galloped off wildly and screamed. After about five minutes he settled down and started to eat. The next morning he seemed like he was looking around to see if his buddy was around the barnyard. He was calm until he heard a noise, then he’d rush to the door to see if his buddy was there.
All seemed well, but then my gelding started exhibiting very strange and dangerous behavior. Before his buddy died he was quiet well mannered but now he’s very excitable and aggressive. He charges around the paddock to disrupt his buddy and runs close to the fencing. I’m worried he might hurt himself or the mare. In the stable, he shakes his head and bares his teeth when I go to get him. He’s pushy when I halter or lead him and it’s making me nervous to be around him. Its as if he’s insecure. How do I get my calm and polite horse back?
So Sad
Dear So Sad,
First, let me share my condolences for the loss of your older horse. I have no doubt but that horses go through a grieving process when one of their herd mates dies. Whenever I have put a horse down or had one die, it always caused an uproar in the herd and sometimes the closest buddies are visibly depressed for a few days. However, I do not think that this aggressive behavior he’s showing is directly related to grieving. The snaking (head tossing) and baring teeth is strictly dominance related behavior. It may be that his buddy was dominant and kept him in line and now that his buddy is gone, he is thinking he is an alpha horse.
No matter why your horse is exhibiting poor behavior, it’s time to do some serious groundwork to establish your authority and regain control. Your gelding is doing his best to find out if he can be dominant in the herd and with you (when you’re in the stable). He needs to relearn his manners and respect. I would do this first with round pen work and then with some lead line work (see Julie’s Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership DVDs at To establish dominance and respect from a horse, you need to control his space and control the resources (food). Controlling space is most easily done in the round pen by driving the horse away from you and controlling his direction and speed. Controlling the resources means that he is not “taking away” food from you. Wait until he is calm and respectable before you hand over his feed. With the lead line work I would be making sure the horse leads in a responsive and respectful manner (not getting in front of you and not lagging behind). I would also make sure I could back him up and drive him in a circle around me. And make sure he will stand still as a statue when you ask him to (ask him by saying “whoa” and turning to face him). If you are uncertain, you find a trainer to help you. The behaviors that you describe are dangerous and may need a more confident person to handle.
Training issues aside, let’s also look at the behaviors your horse exhibited after the loss of his older pal. I’ve often seen horses become anxious when a herd member disappears. They’ll run around, dodging here and there as if they feel like they should be going somewhere but don’t know where. It’s similar to what horses in a pasture will do when they see a horse trailer come or go, like they know a horse may be coming or leaving and it is exciting and/or disruptive to the herd. It seems like they are looking and waiting for the horse to come back; maybe he’s just around the corner and will pop out at any moment.
I had one mare that was very attached to a gelding I had to put down. We intended to bury him in the pasture, so laid him down out there. She stood over him all day and was visibly upset: calling, nervous, worried. After we buried the gelding, she still stood in that spot and wouldn’t come up for meals or move with the other horses when they moved around. After a few days, she became active in the herd again and went on with her life.
Some horses show emotions much longer than others. You’ll know your horse is sad or depressed when you see a dull look in his eyes, if he doesn’t eat, if he’s distracted when he does eat (eats a few bites, then wanders off like they are looking for something), if he lacks interest in other horses, or if he looks or turns away when you or another horse approaches.
The dominant and disruptive behavior is most likely a result of changes in the herd. Check out last month’s column “Settling in” for more advice about how to help your horses learn their places in the herd. Your gelding’s head tossing is known as “snaking.” It is an aggressive behavior used in the wild by stallions and dominant mares to herd or drive other horses into submission. The dominant horse in the herd will often use this gesture, where he or she drops her head down, snakes her nose out and sometimes bares the teeth. This is normal behavior, although it is an aggressive behavior. A properly trained horse should never act this way around people or once it is haltered and is under your control and authority.

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight