My friend Nancy is a life-long rider in her 60s and a pretty good hand with a horse. One day while practicing her reining patterns in the arena, her horse spooked ‘out of the blue’ and she lost her balance and fell. Her injuries would’ve been minor for someone several decades younger. It wasn’t a terrible fall, but it was a fall and she deeply injured her psyche.
Nancy felt lots of pressure to get back to riding from a horse-loving family, and a network of friends she often rode with. But her injuries gave her deep reservations about riding–especially returning to the level she had been riding. Before long, Nancy found it easy to make excuses to skip riding. The house, the job, the husband, the grandkids, the charity work—all provided her with great excuses not to ride. When she ran out of excuses from her personal life, she started blaming her horse—“the farrier didn’t come, he seems off today, he’s got a bite on his back, I think he is depressed.”
Eventually Nancy realized her excuses for not riding actually boiled down to avoidance. And once she was avoiding her horse, she had tremendous feelings of guilt. She came to me for help and together we took a long hard look at her situation and how she got there and developed a plan for change. Nancy took control of herself and her personal journey and set about to enjoy horses on her own terms, even if it meant not going along with everyone else’s idea of what she should be doing with her horse. It was time to set her own goals and let go of the guilt.
It’s now a whole new era in her horse life and Nancy is enjoying every minute of it. She consciously chose to let go of others’ expectations about how much she should ride again or at what grand level of showing. She actually gave up showing and got into trail riding and driving minis with her grandkids. And she loves it. She has new goals and ambitions that bear no resemblance to her old ones and her friends and family are all happy for her and supportive. What a success story!
There are lots of reasons you might feel guilt when it comes to your horses—not riding as often as you should, not fostering the relationship as you should, or letting your busy life get in the way of your personal fulfillment. Do you feel guilty for not achieving some unrealistic goals you set for your horse or not doing as much as you thought you would? The initial ideas we have about riding or showing might change after having horses for a while. And that’s OK.
While guilt can eat you up from the inside out, it can be useful if it propels you to action. The great thing about guilt is when you own it, analyze it and rectify it, the oppressing emotion goes away. The sooner you get started, the better!
Think through your guilt enough to define it, figure out where it is coming from and what you wish would change. First and foremost, who is making you feel guilty? Is it coming from inside your own head or pressure from others? It’s quite possible you are doing this to yourself.
Get specific about what makes you feel guilty—do you wish you had more time to spend with your horse, or because of promises or commitments you have made to others, because your goals have changed, or because you are making excuses for not riding due to fear issues?
These can be painful questions to answer and may require some deep introspection on your part, but until you get to the bottom of your guilt and define it, the emotion will continue to haunt you and pollute your horse life.
Analyze the Guilt
Often people feel guilty for no good reason. If it is out of your control, you shouldn’t worry about it. But sometimes people feel guilt because of an underlying conflict within you or an underlying conflict with others.
Starting into horse sports is a little like deciding what to major in at college. Sometimes you know early-on and you think you are sure that is what you want, but by the time you graduate, things look a little different. Sometimes you pick your major based on other’s expectations—your parents’, your friends’. If you’re expecting yourself to ride at a level that your spouse, your friends or your trainer chose for you, it may be time to choose your own adventure. Following someone else’s plan may work for a while, but later-on, when you have more experience, your ideals may change. That’s okay! Change is good.
Time for Change
Be realistic about what time you can dedicate to your horse and make it happen. Address the excuses you have for not riding and make a commitment to change. If your horse needs more work than you can realistically provide, find a solution. Pay a teenager to ride a couple times a week, hire a trainer, share your horse with someone or consider trading in your youngster for an older horse that needs less work.
If you found that your guilt is because you’ve been avoiding your horse due to an underlying fear, there are many things you can do to prevail. The important thing is to make a plan to build your confidence—it is a slow and steady path and requires patience. This may mean you don’t ride for a while to stay within your comfort zone long enough to build confidence. Check out my website (http://juliegoodnight.com) for more information on developing your own plan of action to overcome your fear and build confidence with horses.
If your time is short and/or you need to build more confidence before going back to riding, there are many things you can do to make your horse time more productive. Maybe you’ve only got 20 minutes of quality time with your horse—make the most of it by grooming your horse thoroughly and spending a few minutes on his ground manners.
There are many great ways to enjoy horses without riding at all. If you spent 15 minutes on groundwork every time you were with your horse, you would make tremendous progress. Basic lead-line work is excellent for developing your relationship and building your confidence and leadership skills. If your time is short, you can make a much greater impact on the relationship with your horse with groundwork, instead of rushing through a ride that neither of you enjoys.
When it comes to horses, you always need to be open to change. If you’ve analyzed your guilt and come to the conclusion that you are in the wrong discipline or that what you thought you wanted is not cutting it anymore, consider a change. It’s okay to change your goals. I’ve reinvented myself numerous times during my half a century of riding horses and each time the change has been positive and has reinvigorated my passion for horses.
Enjoy the Horse Life
I’ll never forget a comment from a clinic participant some years ago. She was a very high-level executive in a high-stress job and she was attending one of my “fear management for riders” seminars. We were talking about getting in touch with your passion and understanding your purpose when it comes to horses—this is not as easy as it sounds.
The high-powered executive admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that all she wanted to do at the end of a long hard day at work, was to get her horse out of the stall, lead him to the grass and listen to him munch grass contentedly as all her stress melted away. Turns out that was what she needed from her horse at that time in her life.
But you know what? We got into horses for personal pleasure—not to add more stress in our lives. If you have time and enjoy daily riding and working toward difficult goals—go ahead, achieve all you will! But if that isn’t your path now, that’s OK. Do what gives you the greatest satisfaction and relish it—whatever time you have. Do not pollute your mind with useless feelings of guilt or let yourself be high-jacked by what others think. The only two opinions that matter are yours and your horse’s.
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.
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?
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 www.juliegoodnight.com.products.html). 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,
Question: Hello Julie,
My horse has been off all summer due to an injury and I would like suggestions as to how I can get him in shape for spring. I will work with him all winter and need help with a plan. Can you help us?
When a horse has been laid off for a year or a season due to an injury, you’ll want to start slowly in his reconditioning program and build over time. Assuming you’ve had this horse cleared by a vet to start reconditioning, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask him/her for suggestions or to go to the AAEP website http://aaep.org/ to see if you can find some answers there.
I can give you an idea of what I’d do, from a horse trainer’s perspective. Let’s say you’ll start your reconditioning program in January—I’ll give you a five month plan that will hopefully have you and your horse fit for summer riding.
In January, I’d start with 10-15 minutes of lead line work—no circling work—4-6 days a week. If your winter conditions permit it, you could just hand-walk the horse down the road/trail for 10-15 minutes. Or you could spend the time actively training on your horse in an arena with specific lead-line exercises, which are thoroughly explained on volume 2 of my groundwork video series, Lead Line Leadership. There are also some articles in my training library on the subject.
The last two weeks of January, I’d start adding some trotting (in-hand). Practice your walk-trot-walk-halt transitions and you and your horse will really get in sync with each other. As a bonus, you’ll get in better shape too!
You can also start using an elbow pull (I call mine Goodnight’s Bitting System) to help your horse develop his top line and work in a collected frame while you work him in the round pen. The tool—much better than using side reins which don’t allow the horse a release—will help remind your horse of your riding days as he feels gentle right-left pressure on the bit, learns to put his head down and works his body in a collected, muscled frame. The Bit Basics DVD teaches you how to use this.
In February, I’d continue with his groundwork but I may add circling work in-hand, depending on the nature of his injury. In the last couple weeks, you can probably saddle him up for some short rides about 2 days a week, and continue the ground work in-between. Keep your rides short with 10-15 minutes of walk only and progress toward 10 minutes of walk and 10 minutes of trot when your horse is ready.
For March, you should be able to transition to riding 3-5 days per week, with the same workout of 10 minutes’ walk and 10 minutes’ trot. The trot is the most conditioning of gaits, so it is good to maximize your time long trotting, but stay away from more demanding work like collection, circling and more advance maneuvers.
In April, assuming your horse is growing stronger and feeling good, you should be able to up the ante a little in his conditioning program. Start by making 1-2 of your regular workouts more demanding, such as long trot up a gentle slope. Adding hill work helps strengthen the horse’s hindquarters and prevent stifle problems. If you do not have access to hills, you could add some canter/hand gallop to your rides. By the end of the month, you could be doing three hard workouts a week, with either days off or light work in-between.
By May, your horse should be getting pretty fit. Continuing April’s program is sufficient to make him buff for summer riding, but this month, you may want to add some more discipline-specific activities, like ground poles and cavaletti or reining maneuvers or even just some simple collected work with bending and lateral movements. For more information on this, see volume 5 in my video series on riding, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Refinement & Collection.
If you follow this recipe, by June, you and your horse will be ready for just about anything. Good luck and be sure to monitor your horse’s injury closely and consult with your vet if you have any questions.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
Stand Statue Still
Lots of people “do” ground work but like with any type of training, it can be done well or not. Groundwork done poorly is training the horse the wrong thing and I have seen many cases where horses have been damaged in the process of “groundwork.” To be an effective trainer, you have to know what you are doing and why you are doing it, what is the desired response and how to get it, and most importantly, you must have the ability to reward (release) the horse with perfect timing (the optimum timing is within one-half second of the desired response of the horse).
If your horse is not adequately trained and you expect the veterinarian, farrier or anyone else to work on your horse or pick up his to feet, then you also have to accept someone else’s fast training instead of your own work with your horse. Don’t wait for someone else to train your horse in a hurry. It’s your job to train the horse.
You need to train your horses to stand still on your request. This can be accomplished in about five minutes with the fussiest of horses if the handler is consistent and has good timing and is adequately outfitted with gear. To teach the stand-still skill, I prefer to use a rope halter with a training lead attached with a knot (and not a harsh buckle). A trained, obedient and subordinate horse will willingly and calmly stand ground tied, with or without a halter and lead.
As you do ground work teaching the horse to stand, work from a looser and looser lead, getting farther and farther away from the horse like he is ground tied. When he is standing reliably (because you have consistently corrected his mistakes or the slightest look away from you—where his attention should be), start lifting his feet and messing with them while he is ground tied. You horse will learn to stand quietly and relaxed while his feet are being handled and manipulated. Be sure to pet and praise the horse for his efforts and make sure that he learns that when he does the right thing, life can be quite good and quite easy.
Once you’ve taught your horse to be mannerly and obedient, you need to get him accustomed to what the farrier or veterinarian will require him to do: hold the foot up high and long, place it between your legs and pound and scrape the foot. As you work with young horses to teach them about foot handling, it is critical that you only put the foot down when the horse is standing still and relaxed. If you release the foot while the horse is fidgeting or fighting, you have trained the horse to fidget and fight. When you let go of the foot, make sure you let it down gently, slowly giving back control to the horse, never dropping his foot out from under him. It is best to place the foot in a specific location when you set it down, but never try to force the foot down.
This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my video, Lead Line Leadership. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills at my Training Library: http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php.
Question: I need advice for my daughter and her horse. My daughter is 10 years old and very interested in riding, however she lacks confidence in riding. Her horse has come to figure this out. Cheyenne is a very sweet and gentle horse and a tad bit on the lazy side. I would like to find out information or suggestions on how to teach my daughter to win her horse’s respect and have him respond to her commands. When she asks him to walk he refuses. He cocks his back leg and stands there no matter what she does. Also once she does get him to move he begins to pull her in the wrong direction and when she tries to bring him back he resists her. When I ride him he does perfectly. What can I do to help her? She is very frustrated and so am I.
Answer: Horses are herd animals and the social structure within the herd is known as a “linear hierarchy.” The definition of a linear hierarchy is that each individual in the herd is either subordinate to or dominant over every other individual in the herd. Since this is the only way that horses know to act, it is also how they relate to their human herd members. We need to think of the horse and its rider as a herd of two. So we have a choice, we can either be the dominant member (or the leader) or the subordinate member (the follower). There is no equality in a horse herd.
Clearly, in the case of your daughter’s horse, she is subordinate to the horse, while you are dominant over the horse. The horse has already made up his mind that this is the way it is and there have probably been countless little things that has lead the horse to this conclusion. So how do we change this? Well, I can think of a few options.
Only your daughter will be able to step forward and take the leadership role with her horse. You riding the horse will not affect the relationship between horse and daughter, as clearly the horse does not question your authority. I do not recommend that your daughter take an aggressive approach (do this or else), because in the situation where the rider has a history of being subordinate, a challenge could prompt the horse to be fractious and start bucking or worse. Instead, your daughter needs to get inside the horse’s mind and learn to control ALL of his actions.
First, your daughter will need to make up her mind to resolve this situation and accept the fact that it may take some time. She will need to have a assertive, but patient attitude. I recommend that she address the issue of respect on the ground first. She needs to have a sense of awareness of her horse and she must take control of every move he makes. That means, when he is tied to the hitch rail, he should stand exactly where she told him to. If he steps sideways or back or forward, she should gently but firmly put his feet exactly back in the spot that she first asked him to stand. The horse should learn to respect her space and yield to it. She should be able to walk, trot and halt the horse at halter, back him up and disengage his hindquarters (make him cross his hind legs). All of these are examples of controlling the horse’s space and when the horse does these things without question, he is respecting her leadership authority. Disengaging the hindquarters is really important both on the ground and mounted, because it forces the horse into a subordinate frame of mind. When his hind legs are crossed, his number one line of defense (flight) is taken away from him, so subconsciously he becomes more dependent.
Your daughter must learn to only ask what she can enforce and ALWAYS enforce what she asked the horse to do. So for now, that probably means backing up and enforcing her control in areas where she can be successful. So often, I see people ask something of their horse, lets say to turn right, and the horse resists and refuses, so the rider caves in and lets the horse turn left. The rider thinks that she is winning because she got the horse where she wanted it by circling it all the way around to the left. But the horse sees it differently. He does not have the capability to realize that the rider got him where she wanted anyway. All the horse knows is that he didn’t want to turn right, he wanted to go left and if he refuses, the rider will cave into his wishes. To us humans, these little battles seem unimportant, but to the horse, the littlest things have big meaning.
Every time the horse gets his way, he scores a point and is further convinced in his mind that he is in charge. It sounds like your daughter’s horse has scored a lot of points. What your daughter will have to understand and commit to is that she has a lot of points to score, before she pulls ahead. She needs to realize that the tiniest things count toward this score: the horse moving around at the hitching rail, not trotting on the lead line, the horse taking a step toward the person, the horse nudging the person with his head, taking one step off the rail in the arena, or not going when asked. The rider that is dominant and in control is the one that controls every movement the horse makes. The more she can make this horse yield to her, the more points she will score. But start small and build up to the big issues. If she can gain some respect from the ground, it may be a little easier for her.
To address the specific problem in the arena, your daughter should look for the areas that she is still in control and focus on those and reward the horse when he responds. If the horse is balking, the issue is to get his feet moving. Usually the easiest way to do this is to turn him in a tight circle (this has the added advantage of disengaging the hindquarters). Be sure to reward him when he responds (even if he responds reluctantly) and immediately take control of the situation. How? As soon as she gets the horse to move, she should ask him to stop. Why? By doing this she has accomplished two things: she has rewarded his response by asking him to stop (which is what he wanted to do), but more importantly she has taken control by issuing a command and getting a response. It does not matter that the horse wanted to stop anyway, because he stopped on her request, not his. By successfully getting a response to a command, she puts the horse in a responsive frame of mind. So, she will get the horse to move (by turning a tight circle if she has to) and once the horse has taken a few steps, ask him to stop and reward him with a pat on the neck and leaving him alone for a few minutes, then ask again. Initially, when the horse had responded a few times, find a good stopping point and put him away. Gradually build on what she asks the horse to do.
It is critical that once she has asked something of the horse that she insists upon his response. This does not mean that you kick or hit harder and harder, but that you continue to apply the aids until the horse responds. Sometimes children do not have the strength to keep legging the horse until he moves and the horse learns that the rider will get tired and give up before he does. If this is the case, she might need a stick or spurs. HOWEVER, use these artificial aids with caution because this could drive the dominant horse to more drastic and fractious responses. Whatever aids she is using to make the horse go (and it should be all of the aids), she should continue to apply them until the horse goes. Not necessarily harder and harder, but with persistence. Eventually, the horse will learn that the only way to make that annoying action go away is to move forward.
A couple of more thoughts, if you or your daughter feed treats to this horse, stop immediately. Chances are, the horse has become demanding and rude and this has contributed to his dominance. When horses are subordinate (whether to you or another herd member), they will always yield to the space of the dominant individual. When people feed treats, the horse learns to move into the space of the person and thus you are yielding to his space, therefore he is dominant. Every treat that is fed, reinforces his dominance.
And now having said that, I have one more thought that seemingly contradicts what I just said. There is a form of training called “clicker training” that is being used on horses although it was originally developed to train marine mammals. It uses a clicking device as reinforcement and the first step is to make the horse associate the clicker with positive reinforcement (grain). Then, just like in Pavlov’s Response, every time the horse hears the clicker, he associates it with good thoughts (grain) and knows he is doing the right thing. I have seen this training method used specifically in the same situation that your daughter is in, with good success. So it might be worth looking into. You would have to do the clicker training and then would be able to use the clicker to control the horse’s mind while your daughter is up. The clicker and grain reinforcer just gives the horse a different motivation for doing the right thing.
My personal preference would be for your daughter to establish herself as the leader of their herd of two by doing the groundwork and gaining her horse’s respect. But the clicker method might be worth looking into.
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