3 Leadership Activities

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By: Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight

Top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight gives you three fun activities designed to enhance the bond you have with your horse and solidify your role as herd leader.

During cold winter months, you likely trail ride less frequently than you do in warmer months. You might even turn your horse out on winter pasture. And all year long, there are times when you just can’t get out to ride as often as you’d like.

You can take a break from riding, but you still need to keep your horse tuned up so he maintains his respect for you as his herd leader, especially if he’s pastured with other horses.

As a prey animal, your horse instinctively looks for safety and comfort in a horse herd. If he doesn’t also feel safe and at home with you, he’ll feel unsafe, insecure, and alone when you pull him out of his herd.

“Unless and until you can replace those feelings of safety and comfort that your horse gets with his horse herd, he’d rather stay with his buddies,” notes top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

“Your horse will leave with you only if he thinks you can give him safety, security, and comfort. You have to be a herd of two.”

If your horse doesn’t feel safe with you, he might become herd-bound, barn sour, buddy sour, and even appear to forget his training.

It may be tough to ride your horse every day, especially in the winter. But you can make sure that each interaction you have with him is meaningful and shows him you’re his herd leader.

“It’s all about relationships,” says Goodnight. “You have to consistently work with your horse to maintain a good relationship. Some horses need to be handled every day. The good news is that helping your horse feel safe with you can be fun.”

Here, Goodnight will explain the importance of tuning up your horse’s training all year long. Then she’ll give you three fun activities designed to foster your relationship and bond with your horse so he’ll look to you as his trusted leader.


Tune Up His Training

First, understand how your horse thinks. He understands authority and leadership. He’s always testing you. If he finds he doesn’t have to follow the rules with you, he won’t.

Every time you handle your horse, you’re training him to do something, either acceptable or unacceptable. Over time, tiny inconsistencies can erode your authority with him, but you might not notice that you’re no longer the leader until something big happens.

Consistently keep up your horse’s training, whether you bought him trained or trained him yourself. If you allow him to break the rules, and abandon the structure and routine he’s learned, his training is likely to unravel. He’ll lose his respect for you as the herd leader, and may even resist leaving the pasture.

For instance, let’s say you’ve trained your horse to stand still during grooming. Over time, he starts taking a step or two toward you as you brush him. You don’t bother to correct him. Then one day, he takes three steps and actually bumps into you.

You thought those small steps were little infractions not worth correcting. But your horse took your inaction as a sign that you’re not in charge and not even worth noticing.

Teach your horse to respect your personal space. Every time you lead him, make frequent stops and starts, requesting obedience. Remind him where he should be. Don’t allow him to get ahead of you. Make sure he stands still when asked. Correct him if he bumps into you or takes a step away from you.

Another example: You’ve trained your horse to ride out alone. But then you start allowing him to turn his head to look back toward the barn. Left uncorrected, he soon attempts to turn back toward the barn, and balks when you turn him toward the trail.

To keep up your horse’s training, correct him with confidence every time he looks back toward the barn. He’ll remember that first-trained skill.

Goodnight says that in her experience, middle-aged horses, no matter how well-trained, are more likely to become herd-bound than other horses. There are variables in personalities, but that’s a time to make sure you interact with your horse and maintain your leadership.

Five minutes of training here and there can go far to help you maintain your relationship with your horse, especially if the relationship is firmly established.

And the more you spend time increasing your leadership and enhancing the bond with your horse, the more relaxing and enjoyable your trail rides will be. When your horse trusts you and sees you as his herd leader, he’ll more readily follow your cues, and you’ll have a more productive and relaxing time in the saddle.

Following are three short, fun activities you can do with your horse to help keep up his training and enhance the bond you enjoy with him.

Activity #1: Find His Sweet Spot

A fun activity to do with your horse as you groom him is to rub and scratch his “sweet spot.” When something feels good to a horse, he’ll pucker his lip and even raise or stretch out his neck to show you his appreciation. This reaction is related to allo-grooming(mutual grooming). When two horses stand facing one another and groom one another with their teeth, they’ll pucker when the other horse has found the “sweet spot.”

Only horses that are bonded will participate in mutual grooming. In that pair, one is still more dominant; the dominant horse will start and stop the process.

To find your horse’s sweet spot, start at his withers, and rub in a circular motion up his neck with a deep massaging or scratching motion. When you find the sweet spot, he’ll move his lips or even stretch out.

Scratch your horse’s sweet spot after you’ve asked him to perform a maneuver, such as stopping, backing up, or taking a step to the side.

Be aware that you’re working to maintain your leadership within the herd. By initiating and stopping this routine, you’re showing him you’re the herd leader.

Sometimes horses that are allo-grooming will bite each other, so you’ll need to thwart any mouthy behavior. Your horse should never put his lips on you. If he does reach out to groom you in return, acknowledge the kind gesture, but gently push back his nose back to stop him.

And don’t allow your horse to become rude or demanding of the grooming or reward. If he becomes demanding, be demanding back, and tell him that it’s not the right time. Never reward this behavior.

Activity #2: Play the Bravery Game

Ground work builds your relationship with your horse. One fun groundwork activity is the “bravery game,” which teaches him to replace his flight response with a calm alternative.

This is a great skill to have when you’re on the trail. If your horse sees something that scares him, he’ll know that he’s brave enough to stop, turn, look, and draw closer to the scary object.

For this activity, you’ll work with your horse’s instinctive behavior. By nature, he’s investigative and curious. If he sees something new, and he’s unafraid, he may seek to touch the object with his muzzle and even lick it. Your horse is also instinctively a flight animal. However, he can’t act on both of these instincts at the same time.

Here’s how to replace your horse’s flight instinct with investigative behavior when confronted with a scary object.

Step 1. Find a novel item. Once a week or so, find a novel, noisy, visually stimulating item to present to your horse, such as a pinwheel, pom-pom, or plastic toy with moving parts. Place the item behind the barn or next to an out-of-the-way building, where it’ll surprise him.

Step 2. Lead your horse. Outfit your horse with a rope halter and training lead at least 12 feet long. Ask him to walk obediently beside you, stop, back up, etc. Then lead him past the item.

Step 3. Ask him to face the item. As soon as your horse sees the item, ask him to stop. If he moves, correct him with the lead rope. Then ask him to face the item.

Step 4. Praise him. As soon as your horse stops and faces the item, praise him with long strokes of your hand and with your voice. Such praise will calm him. Just relaxing near the novel stimulus will help eliminate his flight instinct.

Step 5. Ask for a step or two. If your horse stays calm, ask him to take a step or two toward the item, then ask him to stop again. If he stays put, praise him for his bravery. Continue to ask him to take one or two small steps forward, but don’t let him walk far. Stop him after he goes only a short way.

Step 6. Encourage investigative behavior. The moment your horse pricks his ears forward and shows forward interest, ask him to walk another step, then stop him again. Going slowly and stopping him piques his investigative instinct, and gives him a chance to take in the new stimulus. It also gives you a chance to praise him and help him to stay relaxed.

This activity is a game as well as a training session. It’s fun for your horse, because he wants to be told he’s good. He doesn’t like being afraid, so when you help him replace fear with bravery, he feels good.

The ultimate point in the game comes when your horse reaches out and touches the item with his muzzle. He wins! Praise him copiously with long strokes of your hand and your voice

If you only have five minutes, do a shorter version of this activity. Place a piece of noisy plastic in your pocket, then take it out, crinkle it, and show it to your horse. If he stays relaxed, praise him. If he becomes nervous, ask him to calm down and face the item.

You can also do the bravery game while you’re riding — even when your horse is accidentally startled. Simply follow the same steps you performed on the ground.

The more often you do this activity, the more often your horse will stop and look instead of thinking of bolting. He may still be startled, but he’ll learn to turn and look instead of taking off.

Activity #3: Ride With Friends

If you make small efforts to constantly improve your horsemanship, you’re horse will be happier, because you’ll learn how to better communicate with him. To keep on a regular schedule, set aside a dedicated time, and include your friends.

One way to do this is to start a once-per-month riding club. Rotate the leader who’ll prepare a lesson that’s fun and educational.

The leader needs to be aware of every member’s skill level so he or she can design exercises that are meaningful for all involved.

The leader will first show the rest of the group what to do. Then everyone else will follow. Afterward, you’ll all talk about what worked, what didn’t, and why.

If time is short, perform ground work, then hold a brief contest. For instance, see whose horse will ground-tie the longest. Give a fun prize to the winner. When you have time, serve after-lesson refreshments.

For more information on equine behavior and trail-riding tips, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com

Your Horse’s Quiet Place; Teaching the head down cue

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Getting your horse to drop his head gives him a serene, quiet place to be. It’s a great horse-training technique.

From AQHA Professional Horsewoman and Certified Horsemanship Association instructor Julie Goodnight.

Your horse’s head is like a needle on a gauge – it can signify your horse’s mental state. When his head comes up in any increment, the horse is tensing; when the head lowers, he is relaxing. When the horse is poised for flight, the head is all the way up, and when he is most relaxed, his nose is all the way to the ground. Signs of relaxation in the horse are synonymous with the signs of subordinance, because once the horse accepts your authority, he can relax and doesn’t have to worry, think or make any decisions.
Dropping the nose to the ground signals a horse’s willingness to accept your authority and his desire to be allowed into your herd. When you show good leadership to your horse, you should see this gesture often, and you should learn to watch for it.

We can teach the horse to drop his nose on command, giving him the same feeling of relaxation and subordinance. This cue comes in handy especially for highly nervous or irritable horses.

The Method

    • With your horse in a rope halter, simply put two fingers on the fiador knot (below the horse’s chin) and put light pressure on the halter. The amount of pressure you apply is equal to just putting your index and middle fingers on top of the knot. Don’t try to pull the horse’s head down – just apply a tiny amount of pressure and wait for the horse to give you the correct response to get the release.
    • When the head drops in any increment, even just a fraction of an inch, release the pressure and praise him, then ask again, releasing the pressure immediately at the first sign of movement in the right direction.
    • The first 4-6 inches of head drop are the hardest to get, but if your release is immediate, your horse will quickly understand what you want. Then, you can hold the pressure a little bit longer until you get more drop. Soon, his head will plunge all the way down with the lightest pressure.
    • In the beginning of this training procedure, squat down as your horse lowers his head, praising and comforting him. But don’t kneel or sit around a horse; you should always be on your feet so you can get out of the way if things go wrong.

Safety Concerns: Broken Bones, Concussion, Whiplash… Should I Buy This Horse?

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Question Category: Safety Concerns

Question: Dear Julie,

I recently picked up riding after a lifelong LOVE of horses and have been taking lessons twice weekly for about two and a half months with the intention of learning everything I can in preparation of purchasing my own after making sure I was up to the commitment. I have also purchased and read almost every equine book and magazine I could get my hands on. It only took about two weeks of lessons before I started hanging out at my barn even when I didn’t have lessons; basically I am hooked and ready to purchase. About a month ago one of the horses at the barn came up for sale, he is a beautiful 9 year old chestnut quarter gelding that I already knew didn’t have the best reputation for ground manners as he fractured my hand when he rushed out of the paddock when I was getting the school horse out who is in his turn out group. My instructor none the less thought he would be the perfect fit as the work he needed would fulfill my need for a challenge.

I rode him in my lesson the first day and talked it over and I decided I would lease him for one month to see if my instructor and I felt we could turn him around in the long run by making minor progress in the short term. In two and a half very hot and muggy weeks I only missed one day working with him and during that time he stopped bolting when presented with the bridle (I did buy a gentler bit). Although he still holds his head high at least he wasn’t running off and dragging us with him and also started coming to me when I called him instead of running away from me every time I, or anyone else for that matter, came near him. Then during my first ride on my own without my instructor I fell. It was my first fall off any horse and left me with a minor concussion and whiplash a sore back and bruised ego. It also set me back to almost day one of my lessons as I became afraid to do anything but ride while the horse was walking. After reading your chapters in “Ride With Confidence!” I realized I got back on him a little to early as I had not gotten over the fall emotionally and had all but convinced myself that I would fall off again even though I knew that the original incident was caused by me in the first place; and I almost did fall, had my instructor not had him on a lounge line when I freaked. At that point after the fracture, the ground manners, the concussion and being stepped on more times than I can count I decided that he wasn’t the horse for me because of the work needed on his ground manners which also means he needs work under saddle as his previous owners taught him he did not have to respect humans and my level of experience.

Unfortunately or fortunately I love this horse and we have completely bonded even in the short time I had with him and you can see his desire to do the right thing if just taught (Not to mention he is a TOTAL sweetheart). I left him alone and dealt with school horses only for two weeks until last Sunday when I couldn’t stand it anymore. I remain still the only human at the barn that he will come to, in fact most of the time he comes running when he sees me (he does stop before he runs me over without a signal from me and he isn’t crowding as much and generally is doing better). I am not afraid of him now that I have had time to get over my fall but I am still riding school horses until my confidence is back to where it needs to be on the trot and canter (I am re-learning both right now and much faster thanks to your book) and I have no intention of riding him until such time. I have restarted his training at least the parts I am able to do with my skill level and have started with making him wait for me to say its OK before he can come out of the stall, before moving forward, etc and by carefully taking his food away as he is eating in an attempt to begin to instill that I am alpha not him (I also stopped being his personal carrot dispenser and he only gets them out of his grain bucket now). Is the food trick a good one? Will it actually yield the results I am looking for?

I do plan to supplement what I am doing with him with a professional trainer. My problem is my instructor who is also a trainer understandably wants the task but I am leery as I am not completely convinced of her methods because I feel they are a little too heavy handed and emotional. In the meantime she is still my instructor and I know that not giving her the job will hurt her feelings if not cause some downright tension when it comes to me and my horse. I still have a week to decide for sure if I want to purchase him. After what you have heard here do you think it is a good idea to continue? If so, what would you do about the training situation? If I do not use her for training him how would I go about finding one with gentler methods as she is the only equestrian professional I know and asking questions at the barn, I fear, will only create tension within the barn. Any help with this would be greatly appreciated and I look forward to receiving your much valued advice.


Answer: Trish,

Who needs a challenge? Horses and riding are difficult enough when everything is perfect. Why would you want to make it harder? Listen carefully, DO NOT BUY THIS HORSE. Life’s too short, you need a well trained horse, especially for your first horse. Are a broken hand, concussion, being stomped on, whiplash and a bruised ego not enough for you? My guess is that you, like me, are not a spring chicken and have perhaps lost a little of your bounce. You don’t need a challenge at this stage of your life, I know I don’t.

You need to find the safest and best trained horse that your money can buy. This horse will be fine in someone else’s hands, in fact, he will probably be better off in more capable hands. It is naïve to think you are the only one that can give this horse a good life; let him go. You will love a horse that you feel safe with even more than you love this horse. The horse is a huge factor in the equation of gaining confidence with horses; get one that you can build confidence with instead of constantly re-building.

BTW- I am looking for a horse to replace my 25 y/o Morgan mare, who is now sadly unsound. I am looking for a 14-15 y/o gelding that has been there and done that and is totally push button and seasoned. I have ridden professionally for thirty years and specialize in training young horses, but what I want for MY horse, is mature and settled task master, NOT a project. Life’s too short and I don’t have that much time to ride (I ride almost every day, just not my own horse).

Sorry, I am not normally inclined to tell people what to do, but this answer seems obvious. I just hope it is not too late.


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

Overcoming Fear: My Horse Doesn’t Respect Me & I’m Scared To Correct Him

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Question: Hello,

I just found your website and think it’s great. I have a 15-year old gelding – appaloosa/Clydesdale cross, Copper. My problem is that I am not confident enough to follow through with things that I ask him to do. This happens mainly when I ride him – he’s lazy and doesn’t want to go, or doesn’t want to go in the direction I want to go. That is partly because I don’t have a lot of experience with horses, but mostly because I saw Copper buck someone off that he didn’t like, and I don’t want that to happen to me! I know that he knows that I am fearful and not the dominant one. I just don’t know how to turn myself into the leader in our relationship, and get that confidence so that he will listen to me, and do what I ask. He is also generally a spooky, jumpy horse, which doesn’t help. Do you have any kind of step-by-step ideas that I can use with him to have him listen to me when I ride, without compromising my safety?

Thank you,

Answer: Jill,

The problems you are having with your horse are not at all uncommon—I see them in every clinic I do. There are two issues to consider here: raising your confidence level and becoming a respected leader for your horse. While they are clearly related, I think you’ll have to deal with them as separate issues.

As for the confidence issue, you need to do some introspection and come up with a plan to control your thoughts and develop more confidence. This process is outlined very clearly in my audio CD, “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” and in a book called, “Ride with Confidence,” authored by myself and four other authors. I know hundreds of people that have followed the recipe and had great success in overcoming their fear. Once you have your emotions in check, you’ll be able to work through the issues with your horse.

Because of the herd nature of horses and the linear hierarchy that exists within the herd, horses are very keen to your level of confidence and intention. He knows, probably better than you, that you aren’t willing to reinforce your commands and discipline him if needed. Therefore, he cannot possible see you as his leader.

Once you have issued a command to a horse, it is imperative that you enforce it. Otherwise, you are training him to be disobedient. If you are incapable of enforcing your commands, it is better that you do not ask your horse to do it to begin with because every time you ask and fail, you are further convincing him you are not in charge and his opinion of you worsens.

There are dozens of articles in the Training Library on my website that talk about this issue. You need to examine all of your interactions with your horse to discover the less obvious things you are probably doing on a daily basis to undermine your own authority with your horse. Remember, horses gain dominance by controlling resources (food and water) and by controlling the space of subordinates and controlling their actions. If you look at your interactions closely, you’ll find many instances in which you are giving away your authority.

The most effective way to establish leadership over any horse and to gain his respect is through ground work. I hear lots of people say, “But I’ve done that and I still have problems,” and what I know is that they’ve done it inconsistently, not systematically or ineffectively. It is not enough to just run a horse around the round pen; you have to know what behavior you are trying to affect, what the desired response is and how to get it.
I have two videos on this subject: Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership. They both show step-by-step exercises for establishing a productive relationship with your horse. In each video I work with several different types of horses so you can see their different reactions—although the process is always the same. You can order online or by phone at 719-530-0531.

If you work through these obedience issues on the ground first, it will give you greater confidence in the saddle and also your horse will be less challenging, since he will come to respect you as his leader and to respect your authority. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have some expert help along the way—a trainer or instructor that can help you discipline this horse and guide you through this process.

Good luck and stay safe!

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

When To Geld My Colt

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Question: Hi Julie,

I am planning on buying a yearling stallion. I do want to geld him at what age is it ok to geld, also is it ok to put a yearling stallion in a field with older horses? Is it true the longer you wait to geld the “prettier” he’ll be ( a longer mane, more muscular)?

Thank you for your time,

Answer: Karli,

Great questions! And one of the few topics I haven’t already written about in my Training Library. This is a good time to talk about gelding colts since many people are dealing with youngsters this time of year.

First, it is important to recognize that almost all colts should be gelded. Few horses have the breeding, temperament and conformation to warrant becoming a breeding stallion, especially in these days of growing numbers of unwanted horses, a glut of horses on the market and the lack of owners interested in breeding. And since it is rarely if ever feasible to have a stallion, it is wise to geld your colt.

I have worked many years throughout my career on breeding farms and raised quite a few colts myself. Many breeders will geld at a young age, as soon as the testicles descend or around the six month mark. It is my personal preference to geld as a yearling, after weaning and after his first year of growth, which is the year he grows the most. This will generally be before the fly season, thus reducing the chance for infection. At the same time, we will remove his wolf teeth if he has them and we’ll generally follow-up the surgery with lots of groundwork and exercise to help in the healing and begin his training for ground manners.

No matter when I gelded him, I would want my young colt to be out with other horses for the socialization that will take place—there is an article in my Training Library about this, http://juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=37. Even if you left him a stallion, you’d want him to stay with other geldings and learn how to get along. Preferably with a more dominant, older “uncle” gelding who will keep him in his place. When I geld the colt, I will keep him by himself for a week or so until he is healed from the surgery—too much frolicking and sparring could be dangerous for him right after the surgery.

Research does not indicate that a colt will grow bigger, stronger or prettier if he is left in-tact. However, it is true that a stallion will have certain “stallion characteristics” that are a result of more hormones floating around his system if he is left in-tact. These characteristics are more obvious in a mature horse and include bulging muscles around the jowl, over the eyes and in the neck and body. A mature stallion will have a certain presence that geldings rarely have. But these characteristics do not appear until the colt is a few years old; it is not worth the extra headaches of having a young stallion and they will disappear as soon as he is gelded. I have not noticed that the mane or tail will grow longer in a stallion.

My husband’s horse was a mature breeding stallion when we bought him. He does have an exceptionally thick mane and tail and the stallion characteristics were very prevalent. The day after we gelded him I could see the bulging jowl and eyebrow muscles deflating but his mane and tail have remained fuller than ever. He is still a gorgeous well-muscled horse, just not as extremely muscled as before we gelded him. And he is much happier to be living with other geldings without a big fight. There’s no real benefit to keeping a colt in-tact when you know you are going to geld him eventually and I would suggest between 6 months and a year is a good time, depending on your weaning schedule and the seasons. Like dogs and cats, once a horse develops breeding behaviors (like teasing and mounting mares) he doesn’t forget them just because he is gelded. That’s why we have lots of “randy” geldings that will act like stallions when mares come into heat.

Good luck with your colt and thanks for asking these important questions!

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

Issues From The Saddle: Rearing Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie Goodnight

I am writing to you in regards to my horse’s problem with rearing, as someone that is experienced in horse behaviour I can not find the cause that is triggering the behaviour, it’s like one minute is his normal self which a good natured, relaxed and laid back and the next minute he is running backwards then twisting himself inside out finishing with a rear that the black stallion would be proud of and then he is back to his normal self as though nothing has happened. I can’t work it out there is nothing the rider has done there is nothing in his environment that upsets him and there is nothing physically wrong. I have no reasons to explain his behaviour if I had I would be able to solve the issue. The only thing left is a neurological disorder or he is trying to tell us something but I just don’t get it. Do you have any advise? I am at a total loss!


Answer: Leonora,

The behavior you describe sounds pretty volatile and dangerous, so first I would caution you to be careful about your own personal safety and to consider getting a professional evaluation of this horse. Since you do not give much history on this horse or his training and experience, and since I cannot actually see the horse in action, I really cannot say what might be causing this reaction or what the solution might be, but I can give you some things to consider.

First, I think it is important to rule out a physical problem. It is quite possible that your horse could have a problem in his back, ribs or hips that causes him sudden pain after moving a certain way. I would have this horse checked out by an equine chiropractic or vet that specializes in performance horse problems. Once you have ruled out a physical cause, you’ll have to look to the horse’s training.

Rearing is a behavior caused by one of two things: either a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Regardless of the cause, the solution is always to get the horse moving forward. Most often, rearing behavior is a fear response. From the description you give, it sounds to me like this horse is refusing to move forward. Horses don’t do anything without a reason, particularly when it comes to moving. Are there any common factors when the behavior occurs? Place, time, weather, tack, other horses? Does it happen every time you ride or only occasionally? Does he ever display this kind of behavior from the ground? If he doesn’t, I would want to check his saddle fit carefully to see if there could be some physical cause. It is hard for us to appreciate the level of awareness, the keen senses and the hyper-vigilant state that horses live in as prey animals. Their sight, hearing, smelling and instinctive survival is so much keener than ours that we are often tempted to say that the horse is acting a certain way for no reason. The truth is that they may be sensing something we are totally oblivious to. Horses don’t do anything without a reason. I am inclined to think that this horse has something physical going on or that there is something in his environment or in his experience that is frightening him. I would have him checked out by an equine chiropractor (ask your vet for a referral) and have the saddle fit checked by an expert. Once you have definitively ruled out a physical problem, I would look to the horse’s training history. Has he always been this way or is this something new? Was he given a proper foundation in his training or was he just rushed along by someone that didn’t really know how to put a proper foundation on a horse? Has there been an incident in his experience that may have caused him to get hurt or loose his confidence? Is there something in his environment that could be causing a fear response, such as another animal or object or something he has made an inadvertent association with? When we get horses like this in training, first we will definitively rule out a physical problem, then start the horse over from scratch in his training as if he had never been saddled or ridden. We would do both round pen and lead line work with the horse and take note of any “holes” in his training. We will proceed with saddle training once the horse is solid in his ground work, again taking it one step at a time and taking time whenever necessary to lay a proper foundation on the horse.

You would be surprised how often horses just have a saddle thrown on their back and someone hops up there and starts riding without ever really teaching the horse what is expected of him. Modern horses, for the most part, are so willing and kind that they will let you do just about anything that you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt them. They will gladly go along with you and will try to figure what you want them to do. But when the horse is not systematically taught to respond in a certain way to various cues and if he is not given the time and consistency needed to truly absorb the training and generalize it to different places and situations, his training can unravel in an instant. I am sorry I cannot give you more specific advice. I know from my years of working with horses and riders that sometimes what the rider describes is not at all what I would see, if I were able to watch. But hopefully this will give you some food for thought. Be careful with this horse.

Julie Goodnight

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Issues From The Saddle: Parrot-Mouthed Bucker

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hello Julie, I have a horse with a few problems. He is a six yr old that was professionally trained at 3 (ya right) then put out to pasture for 3 yrs when I got him they said he was so sweet he’s not very aggressive just trying to worm him he rears and tries to strike. They said when you want to ride him just lung him for a while (ya like 2 hours till he’s on his knees) and that will get the buck out of him, well he does okay in a walk or trot but any time I canter he bucks a lot. I have been riding him with a quick stop because that’s what he was trained in and because he is very parrot mouthed I feel if I could work him in a bit I would have more control I’ve asked a few people what they thought but no one knows that much about a parrot mouthed horse the equine dentist I use said he doesn’t recommend a bit. What do you think?

thanks Melissa Panzera

Answer: Melissa, I am sorry to say that I do not have a lot of experience with parrot mouthed horses. The ones I have trained have not been so severe that you couldn’t use a bit. If I could not use a bit on a horse for whatever reason, I would use a bosal or a side-pull, nothing harsher. From the sounds of your horse’s history, I would proceed as if he were totally untrained. Longeing a horse to the point of exhaustion teaches a horse nothing but does condition him so that he has plenty of reserves stored up when you get on him. Instead, I would look at the horse’s groundwork. Is he respectful and obedient with good ground manners? If not, you need to spend some time training him to be in that frame of mind. In my experience, when a horse is respectful and obedient on the ground, the saddle training is easy. If he wants to buck at the lope, I would keep working at the walk and trot for sometime before even trying the lope. When you feel totally confident that he is 100% at the walk and trot, then try the lope again. If he bucks, you’ll need to gently ride him through it, pushing him forward until he relaxes in the back. Only stop him when he is relaxed. Let him move as forward as he wants to at the lope, don’t try to keep him slow. When horses buck at the lope, it is usually either because he is refusing to move forward or because he is cold-backed and the lope feels funny to him on his back (his back comes way higher up in suspension at the lope that at trot and for some horses the additional pressure on their back is disconcerting). Either way, the solution is to ride him forward through the bucks until he relaxes his back, then let him stop. It sounds to me like your horse needs total retraining from the beginning and lots of ground work to get him in a submissive and obedient frame of mind.

Good luck! Julie Goodnight

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Issues From The Ground: Horse Turns And Faces When I Ask Him To Longe

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: Hi Julie –

First, thank you for all of the helpful advice on your Web site. I also have a library of your DVDs about Lead Line Leadership and riding and several CDs having to do with confidence in riding and private lessons with you. Love it all! But I am now facing a problem with my horse that I have not seen advice for. I have an 8 year old paint gelding who generally is a very obedient, respectful and willing horse.

I have practiced your Lead Line Leadership exercises with him, and he does them willingly. But several times I have longed him for 10 minutes or so and then been interrupted by someone coming over to talk with me. After a few minutes of conversation, I try to go back to longing, but my horse decides that he’s done. (I use a fairly long longe line and longe whip, by the way.) When I try to start up again and move him into a circle, he faces me and backs up. If I try to get behind his drive line, he just moves his hips away from me and backs up again. I’m a little nervous about getting closer to his hip when I do this, and I have in the past just backed him up vigorously for refusing to go around me. After about 10 minutes of this, he finally gives in and goes in a circle.

My instructor has recommended that I get angry and hit him with the whip and run at his hip…she says he is disrespecting me with his attitude and I need to act angry and aggressive to get him to respond. But there has to be a better way to get him to respect what I’m asking him to do without harming him or me! I have always ‘outlasted’ him in these instances, but wondered if there’s a better way to get him to move around me.

Thank you,

Answer: Anne,

Yes! There is a better and a safer way to assert your leadership over the horse, rather than run aggressively at his rear-end—that’s a good way to get kicked. Remember, the kick is a defensive behavior of the horse for use when he is attacked by a predator or by a more dominant horse–the horse kicks and runs. Kicking buys him a little time to hopefully gain some distance from the attacker. Coming at the horse aggressively toward his flank or rear would naturally cause him to kick. That’s why you always longe/ground drive with some sort of “weapon” like a whip or flag to extend your reach and keep yourself out of the kick-zone.

In this instance, your horse knows exactly what you are asking him to do and is being willfully disobedient; you need to make your point in a more controlled, more strategic way. The good news is that your horse is obedient to you most of the time. It is only when you take a break and he thinks you ought to be finished that he challenges your authority. No doubt, he has had what he believes is success in refusing you (even if he only got to avoid working for 10 minutes) and so he challenges you again the next time the situation arises.

Your instructor is right that you need to insist on his obedience and you need to muster some assertiveness, but you need to out smart him, not get angry. Most horses are quick to figure out that all he has to do is face you and you’ll never get behind his drive line and be able to make him move forward. Pretty soon, every time you take a step toward his hip to move him, he faces you—next thing you know, and he is standing effortlessly in the middle with a smug look on his face while you are running circles around him.

Although horses make a game out of facing you when you try to longe them (they call it “stump the chump”), it stems from a natural behavior. Horses are very well equipped to defend themselves from the front—their teeth and the lightening-quick front feet are both deadly forces. It’s the flank area of the horse that is most vulnerable to attack and that is the last area where he will let you touch him—he has to build up a lot of trust in your before he’ll let you into his flank, but he’ll let you touch his forehead early on. A horse that does not trust you fully will turn to face you as you try to move toward his flank.

In your case, there is no trust issue—he has simply modified this natural behavior (instinct) into a learned behavior (stump the chump) that he has been rewarded for in the past. Like all things in training, it is important to understand the origin of the behavior before deciding on an effective means to change the behavior. Whether your horse is facing because of trust issues or in avoidance, the solution is the same.

Rather than trying to reposition yourself and run toward his rear end, you simply need to move your horse’s front end. If he is facing me and I want him to move in a circle around me to my left, I will pick up my right hand (holding the lead) and point and look in the precise direction I want my horse to go and tell him to move with a cluck—that is his cue to go the work. If he doesn’t hop right to it in a yes-Ma’am frame of mind, I will then use my right hand (holding the flag) to reinforce my cue and move the horse.

If he is facing me, it is not the hindquarters that I need to move, but the forehand—I need to move his nose and shoulder to the right, away from me, to put the horse on the correct track for the circle left. Once I do that, I’ll be conveniently positioned behind his drive line and able to drive him forward.

To move his forehand away from you is quite easy. Pointing with your ‘lead hand’ (which is the left hand in this instance) to gesture to your horse where is he is go, pick up your right hand (the ‘whip hand’)and wave your flag (or whip or stick) directly at his nose as you advance toward his head. Advance toward the horse with your flag waving vehemently right at his nose—if he doesn’t move it away from you, he’ll get in the way of your stick and get hit (it’s important that you convey this message strongly with your body language—if he gets hit, it is his fault—he had ample opportunity to move out of your way.) Once his nose moves away, point your flag and your body at his shoulder until it follows the nose and the horse is pointed away from you ready to trot a left-hand circle.

Your horse will probably back-up as you approach his head at first—but that’s okay. Now you are walking forward and he is backing up sideways as you move his nose to the right. You’ll easily be able to out-pace him and he’ll get tired of backing up real soon and forward will look like a good idea to him. As soon as he moves forward, you back off and signal him to continue around the circle.

No matter how bad your horse’s habit is of turning and facing you when you are asking him to go to work, once you get in the habit of moving his forehand away from you first, he’ll quit playing this game. Since he’s had a lot of success with this facing technique already, it may take you a few extra times before your horse gives it up entirely.

As you know, there’s lots of info on my website that relates to this and it is also addressed in my ground work videos. Sounds like you have done a lot of great work with your horse and you have a pretty good idea of your relationship with him and where the holes in your authority are. This facing game is an issue in every single clinic I do. Many people have this problem; so don’t feel too badly. This is a little easier to demonstrate than than it is to explain in an article, but hopefully you get the gist. Don’t try to change your position—just reposition your horse (make him do the work).

Good luck,

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

Building A Better Relationship: Will Groundwork Help My Spooky Horse?

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Question Category: Building a Better Relationship

Question: Hi Julie,

I have a gorgeous 6 yr old Irish sport horse gelding Bernie. I purchased him from a personal friend’s eventing farm almost 2 yrs ago. He was green but well started and I tried him out for 2 days in a clinic before taking delivery of him. He knows a lot for his age and is capable of things he doesn’t like to let on he knows. He is the smartest horse I have ever worked with (I’m 33 and been on horses since I was 3), and has an incredible memory. When he gives, he gives 1000 percent and when he is focused he is super talented!!

I know these are slow growing horses so when I got him I did some light work with him, took him fox hunting a few times and he took to it well. I was able to hack out alone, jump anything calmly and do whatever with him. Then the wheels started falling off, one by one, my saddle was too wide so gave him back pain (now have 2 custom saddles), moved to California for a job and he was stuck in a 12 x 24 box all day instead of grazing 24 hrs on lush acres in Virginia and he turned inside out and started spooking at everything!!! I hunted him a bit this season after moving back home and at first he seemed ok on the trail hunt rides, but once the season started he came unglued– started rearing at the checks (long stops waiting for hounds to be collected), running backwards and kicking out at other horses, keeping his nose shoved up the butt of the horse in front of us, the only way to calm him down was to move up to first field where there were jumps and keep him occupied (but my husband rides with me and he doesn’t jump yet), He started coming off the trailer with fire out of his nose, ready to go. I did the quiescence and stuff like that, but I just felt like I was putting a bandaid on the problem.

He is out 24 hours a day again with only his half brother (who is an angel) on 6 acres, only eating grass and hay, no feed, no supplements. We have no ring or roundpen and it’s been a wet winter so he has had lots of time off. I have recently been trying to hack him out alone and now he has become spooky and started rearing and won’t leave the driveway. At my wits end (I can stay on but it’s getting old!!!!). I talked to several people and your name came up from one of them (manager of Dover Saddlery in Chantilly VA) – I looked you up and read your rules on the ground from one of your q and a’s.

I did the stand still exercise with Bernie the other day in my barn, he was pissed but within a few minutes was licking (thinking) and chewing, and relaxed. I was actually in about 20 min or so able to leave the room to get something and he was still standing there waiting on me. So later that day after doing a session of stand-still I decided to go meet a friend for a ride. (I usually have been longeing him so that I can see what I’m working with), this time I didn’t, got on and instead of planting and rearing and spinning around and trying to go back to the barn or spooking, he marched right out of the drive on a loose rein, I am sooooo thankful for finding you! NOW I want more, he was a little tense on the ride and spooky but it was great to be out again, it made me tear up. It’s so hard to think of where we were when I first got him and the things we were doing to now….where I just want to hack down the road a bit without him balking and spooking or getting frustrated and having a rearing fit.
He can be spooky, doesn’t like things behind him (dogs, machinery, loud buzzing noises) doesn’t full on bolt but will tense up and sort of throw some forward half rearing lunging fits, gets nervous if we are behind another horse and that horse is too far ahead of us. And the memory thing I mentioned – he gets nervous every time we go by somewhere that he knows a dog lives or bees stung him, or cows were grazing (he remembers all those things) In the wild this horse would have definitely been a survivor!!!

Can you recommend what to do next? This horse is smart and amazing and will be a super hunt horse once he sees me as the leader of his herd. I need to get there. He needs a schedule and a plan. Could you help point me in the right direction so that we can be on our way to a great relationship?

Thank you so much for your time,


Answer: Stacey,

Your horse sounds like a handful! But at the same time, he seems smart and easily trained—sometimes these are the most challenging horses. From what you describe, he’s a horse that requires more authority and strict rules to follow. I think if you can get him focused on you, give him strict rules of behavior (like you did in the stand still exercise) and engage his mind, you’ll have the horse you’ve been dreaming of.

Chances are that there are small areas of inconsistencies in your relationship with this horse that has led him to disregard your authority. You’ll need to thoroughly analyze all that you do with him– all of your interactions, and figure out what you are doing to erode your authority or leadership with this horse. It could be something as simple as letting him walk off without a cue or hand feeding him treats. Look for any ways that the horse might be controlling your actions (like crowding you then making you step back) or things that you are condoning but shouldn’t be (like asking him to stand, then allowing him to move around without any ramifications).

In my Training Library, you will find several hundred Q&As, most of which have to do with problems people are having with their horses. I suggest you spend some time reading through the list of topics and reading the articles that sound even remotely familiar as the issues you are having with your horse. By reading through the questions and answers, you may discover that certain practices of yours are contributing to the problems or that perhaps you should be taking action when you are not.

Although it is not the answer most people are looking for, the truth is, you need to do LOTS more ground work with this horse. You have already seen that doing one groundwork exercise had a big impact on his attitude—the key is to do lots more! I suggest using a rope halter and 12-15 foot training lead and going through a series of exercises from the lead line, which are explained in detail in my video called “Lead Line Leadership.”

Continue with the standing still exercise. This teaches your horse that he cannot move impulsively whenever he wants. He learns patience and to respect your authority and that he doesn’t get to make decisions about when he moves and when he doesn’t. Add to this exercise strict control over his nose so that he learns he cannot look all around and must either remain focused on you or tune out everything around him.

Next, work on leading—teaching him that he has to move with you, match you step for step and stay in a perfect position beside you and behind you (similar to what you do when you teach a dog to heel). You’ll set a specific boundary for him so he learns that he cannot go in front of you or lag behind you when being led and that he has to focus on you entirely so he knows what to do. In this stage, you’ll do lots of transitions—speeding up and slowing down, and lots of turns—always turning the horse away from you (moving him out of your space) and making the turns smaller and faster. In these exercises, not only will he learn good leading manners, but he’ll learn that he has to focus on you and move his body exactly as you move yours.

He’ll also be learning that you are a very strong leader and that it pays to follow your rules. In fact, you’ll see a shift in his attitude where he starts looking up to you and trying to please you. At this stage, it is important to make sure that you give him lots of praise when he deserves it, so he works ever harder to stay out of trouble and on your good side.

In the next set of ground work exercises, you’ll circle the horse around you on the long lead, cueing the horse to stop at times and change direction at times. With these exercises, you’ll teach him that you most certainly have control over his whole body—moving his nose, shoulder, feet and hip every time you turn him around. And he’ll learn that you have control over his actions—stop, go and change of directions. This is an exercise you can employ when you are riding (with halter/lead under bridle) and he gets a little sketchy—just hop off and start circling and changing directions. Again, all of these exercises are detailed in my Lead Line Leadership video.

I strongly believe that if you invest a little time in ground work with this horse—say, 20 minutes a day for a couple weeks, you’ll have a whole different horse on your hands. After the first few weeks, your horse should be getting very compliant, but it is a good idea to do a few minutes of groundwork each day before you ride, to get your horse in the right frame of mind. It’s likely that through these exercises, as your horse learns to respect your authority, that the spooky behavior goes away. Through ground work, the horse accepts that you are a strong and competent leader and that you can be trusted to take care of everything. Therefore, things don’t frighten him as much.

If you find that even after doing several weeks of ground work, your horse is still acting spooky out on rides, then you may want to read up on de-spooking your horse. Again, this information is all available to you in my Training Library.

Good luck!

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

Building A Better Relationship: Ground Work Techniques

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Question Category: Building a Better Relationship

Question: Hi Julie,

I caught just a minute of your Ground Manners clinic yesterday at Equine Affaire. I have seen this method of twirling the lead (don’t know what it’s proper name is) only once before (several years ago -that was probably you also) and it greatly intrigues me. I tried the respect-my-space when I’m standing in front of you exercise with my ever-so-precocious weanling filly today and boy oh boy, am I impressed! In 30 seconds she was doing the baby-mouth, something I’ve seen far too little of from this baby, if ya catch my drift. Could you give me a quick overview of the method or point me to an article you’ve written about it? I’m wondering what to do to teach her to move sideways with this method, walk on, get off me, stuff like that.

Thanks in advance, Pam

Answer: Hi Pam,

Glad to hear you got some benefit form the presentation on groundwork at Equine Affaire. Sounds like you are well on your way to a more positive relationship with your young horse. As for the twirling rope method, I am not aware of a specific name for this method, but I can give you a few more hints.

First of all, you’ll need at least a 12′ training lead and may use one as long as 15′. You can order my preferred brand of rope halter from my website. I use a rope halter with a 12’ training lead and the brand I like is high quality at a very affordable price.

Twirl the tail of the rope like a propeller blade but point the tip of the rope directly toward the part of the body you want to move: nose, shoulder or hip. The “blade” defines your space and you can make it as small or as large as you like, but always make sure that you are a safe distance from the horse, particularly when twirling to move the hip.

Twirl the blade as you move directly toward the part of the horse you want to move. If the horse chooses not to get out of your way, the tip of the blade will run into her. In very short order, she will learn to move away from your space. I like this method because in short order, the horse will respond just as well when you just point a finger at her and you won’t need to twirl the rope anymore.

The horse will learn to move whatever part of the body the blade is pointed toward. Once you can move the nose, shoulder and hip away from you on command, you can easily use this method to side pass as well by aiming the blade in the middle of the horse and pointing her nose away from you with the other hand.

I like methods that will result in being able to just use a pointing of my finger to direct the horse and this works well for that.

Good luck to you!

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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