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
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.