Horse Tip Daily #59 – Julie Goodnight on the Hard to Catch Horse
Horse Tip Daily #59 – Julie Goodnight on the Hard to Catch Horse
Condition for Long Rides
I’m planning ahead for summer, when I plan to go on daylong trail rides. I haven’t been riding much, because I work full-time. I want to make sure my horse is in shape and conditioned by summer. How should I safely build up his stamina?
This is an important question, Roni. I’m so glad you’re planning ahead.
While it’s difficult to ride regularly during the busy workweek, it’s important to avoid riding your horse hard only on the weekends. This can lead to a sore, stiff horse. It’s much better to find a conditioning routine that fits your schedule and gets your horse in shape.
A horse in average condition can usually handle a one- to two-hour trail ride on the weekends without too much stress. But for longer rides, you’re right — you need to plan ahead and start a conditioning routine.
When my horses are in conditioning programs, I like to think of ways I can boost my fitness, too. If you start walking, jogging, dancing, and just plain moving more, you’ll feel much better after the daylong rides, too.
Horses, like people, must train to build strength and endurance. Here’s what I recommend.
Get Him Trail Hardened
Your horse needs to become “hardened” to the saddle, tack, saddlebags, and your weight.
Like breaking in a new pair of shoes, your horse will need time to get re-acclimated to the rub and feel of the saddle, breastcollar, and cinch. It’s not painful, but there’s some toughening that takes place.
Your horse will also need increasingly longer periods of time with you in the saddle. Weight-bearing conditioning helps him improve his balance and stamina, and helps get him in shape much more quickly than round-pen exercise or longeing.
You’re building up to a long trail [ITAL]rides[ITAL], so you’ll need to [ITAL]ride[ITAL] to get your horse in shape.
If you’ll be riding your horse in the mountains, you’ll also have to condition him to hills, as well as walking on shifting rocks and through other challenging terrain.
Look for sandy areas to condition your horse. Sand builds condition and strength more than does solid ground. However, stay at a walk to avoid tendon injury.
Schedule at least 90 calendar days of conditioning before your first big daylong ride.
It usually takes 30 calendar days of a conditioning program before you’ll see physical changes in your horse. At that time, you can see how he’s looking and feeling, and raise your training goals.
You say you have a busy schedule, so start by riding your horse three days per week for the first 30 days. I suggest two weekdays (say, Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday) and one weekend day.
Alternate aerobic (oxygen-based) and strength conditioning, and work to get your horse “hardened” for the trail with increasingly longer weekend rides.
You’ll know your horse is working hard when you can see his nostrils dilate; stop and flex his neck to the side so that you can see.
When your horse starts to breathe hard, push him just a little, then give him a break. You have to push so that you’ll get past what’s easy for your horse and make sure you’re progressing.
During the week. Start by riding for one hour on each of the two workweek days. Begin riding at a marching walk on even ground. Alternate walking and trotting. (Long trotting is the best conditioning gait.)
If you and your horse are really out of shape, start by walking for 50 minutes and trotting for 10. You can even break up the trotting time. As you progress increase your trotting time as much as you feel you safely can.
Be sure to plan a day of rest between rides — both you and your horse will need the recovery time.
On the weekend. On your third riding day — a weekend day — plan a two-hour ride. Build in some strength conditioning. Ride up and down sloping hills; plan an easy trail ride with friends. If you can, ride on similar trail terrain you plan on tackling this summer.
Increase Training Time
After your first 30 days is up, I suggest adding in a fourth riding day if your schedule allows.
On Day 1, ride for an hour and long trot. On Day 2, I’d suggest one hour of hill work (trotting or walking up and down — both directions are beneficial).
On Day 3, go back to long trotting on the flat. On Day 4, gradually increase your time on the trail; ride on varying terrain for two to three, then three to four hours.
By the end of 90 days, I’d expect a horse to be able to trot for almost the entire hour when we’re working on the flat. With that amount of ride time to boost his aerobic, strength, and weight-bearing conditioning, he should be ready for longer rides.
Of course, you know your horse best and know when to ask for more.
You’re doing the right thing by having a workout plan and working toward a riding goal. If you don’t have time to condition your horse as much as is suggested, think about planning some shorter rides.
You and your horse can find a beneficial conditioning plan that will fit your schedules and be enjoyable for all.
For your horse to build up condition for long summer rides, he’ll need increasingly longer periods of time with you in the saddle, notes Julie Goodnight (shown). Weight-bearing conditioning helps him improve his balance and stamina.
If you’ll be riding your horse in the mountains, you’ll have to condition him to hills, as well as walking on shifting rocks and through other challenging terrain, says Julie Goodnight.
I have a 15-year-old quarter horse that has decided he must be in the lead on the trail. I ride alone most of the time but do enjoy the company of others. When he feels any competition from another horse, he arches his neck and sets his head as if he’s ready to attack. Then he’ll hop and rear. It all happens so fast, I don’t see it coming. He’s rearing more and more often. I have been working on the behavior by allowing another horse to lead off on the trail and having my horse follow. As soon as my horse gets excited, I ask him to move away from the lead horse. I’ve also thought about outfitting him with a tie down. What would you do?
Dear Trail Woes,
This is not a matter of your horse rearing or whether or not you can ride with others. It’s a serious indication that your horse is dominant (over you and the other horses), aggressive and in need of further training (and/or disobedient.) It’s certainly not an issue that a tie down could resolve, since these behavior problems are related to herd behavior, not raising his head (head raising and rearing are symptoms not the cause of the problem).
I choose not to use tie downs to resolve training problems. When it comes to rearing, a tie down simply masks the symptoms and can get in the way of a horse’s natural carriage and balance. If your horse were to rear with a tie down in place, it’s possible he could lose his balance and turn over.
Your horse needs to learn, right here, right now, in no uncertain terms, that his aggressive, herding and dominant behavior is absolutely intolerable when he is under saddle. Any transgression should be met with a firm, direct correction. Aggression and rearing are potentially life-threatening behaviors. Young horses should be taught this rule from an early age and this fundamental expectation should be strictly enforced at all times when you’re riding alone or in the company of others. Saddle horses must be taught not to fraternize or interact with other horses at any time that they are being ridden or handled by humans. Horses are good at obeying rules when the rules are clearly explained and enforced.
Your horse’s behaviors—arching his neck and rearing— are all natural herd behaviors. Your horse wishes to be in front because that is where the alpha horse should be. He is intolerant of any subordinate who dares to get in front. He is arching his neck in a display of might in a prideful manner. It’s a warning to “his” subordinates that he is about to become aggressive, should they persist in their insubordination.
Horses have three weapons in their personal arsenal when they choose to become aggressive or combative: bite, strike, and kick. Your horse is displaying threatening gestures with all three weapons. The rear is the threat to strike and the arch and whirl is the threat to kick; horses make biting gestures with their head and mouth making snaking or herding gestures.
Clearly your horse thinks he’s dominant and does not think of you as the herd leader, or he would never act this way. There’s no quick fix to repair this relationship between you and your horse. You’ll have to work at it by doing ground work and changing your impression to the horse both on the ground and in the saddle. For an more in depth review of ground work, check out Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership (www.JulieGoodnight.com or 800- 225-8827).
Your horse must learn that certain behavior is simply not tolerated while under saddle—specifically displays of aggression and herding behaviors. My expectations of any horse I ride would be even greater: no fraternization at all with other horses and its nose must remain right in front and it must not deviate from the path and speed that I have dictated. There should only be one conversation between you and the horse, “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.”
Any deviance to the expected rules of behavior should be met with immediate correction (within less than three seconds, preferably less than one second), since this behavior is dangerous for both the horses and the humans. The best way to correct a horse is to “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.”
Remember, the pressure you put on the horse should be no more and no less than the pressure required to motivate him to change. If it’s not enough pressure, he will continue the unwanted behavior (all the while learning to ignore and disobey your commands). If it’s enough pressure to motivate him to change, he will then immediately look for a way out of the pressure. As soon as he finds the right answer, he gets an immediate and welcomed release and life gets easier.
Comfort and security are the two greatest motivating factors for horses. It’s always best when the motivating factors are something that come naturally to the horse. One of the greatest motivating stimuli for horses doing something you perceive as wrong is to make them work hard and remove companionship. The release (reward) is letting the horse rest and be with the herd. Thus the hard thing is work and isolation, the easy thing is rest and companionship (comfort and security).
While you’re out on the trail, anytime your horse even hints that he is concerned about another horse in the group, at the very first flick of an ear, you should immediately take him away from the herd and put him to hard work (turn, circle, change speeds, lope circles, go-stop-go). When he becomes obedient and responsive to you, let him rest and come back to the herd. When and if he becomes aggressive again, immediately take him away and put him to work again. Repeat this process until the horse makes an association between his behavior and the negative stimuli. Depending on how effective your timing is (both with the correction and the reward), he may make the association the first time or it may take dozens of times.
Remember, there’s an old axiom about horse training that says, “It always gets worse before it gets better.” Since your horse has been displaying dominant and aggressive behavior, chances are he will not easily be dissuaded from his bad behavior and he may challenge your authority and control to an even greater degree. Therefore, be very careful and make sure you’re up to the task. If you have any doubt about your ability to get the job done without a greater risk of getting hurt, consider enlisting a professional to help retrain your horse and teach him some manners. From the sounds of it, this horse might be a tough customer. But in the right hands, he can learn these fundamental manners in short order.
Until next time,
Once again, it’s been a marathon the last couple of weeks, although I’d be a fool to complain about it. We were quite busy filming six new episodes of the TV show—Horse Master. We film at my place once a year and it’s always much easier for me than shoots on the road. Nothing like sleeping in your own bed each night. Plus, having total control over the facility and not having to travel to the location each morning before sun-up and eat every meal in restaurants, makes life much easier.
This shoot was for the first six episodes that will air this month. This was our 9th shoot since the show’s inception and I have to say, we have really gotten good at this. When I think back to the chaos of our first shoot, compared to now, it’s easy to see how much we have progressed. The shoots are arduous, at best; filming literally from first light to last light—completing six episodes in three days—working with six different horse and rider combinations to help them accomplish their goals and resolve their issues.
We always celebrate after the end of the shoot at our “wrap party.” This time there was lots of laughter and reminiscing and we always use this time to brainstorm on the titles of the shows and what show we think will turn out to be the best episode of the shoot. We had so much fun decompressing (while having dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant in town) that a lady actually came over to our table on her way out of the restaurant to tell us how much she enjoyed listening to our laughter.
We unanimously agreed that the best episode, which we titled, “You Can’t Make Me Do That!”, was a mare who adamantly refused to cross a tarp. Not because she was afraid of it (clearly), but because she had been to a week-long trail obstacle clinic where they fought with her all week long and never successfully got her over the tarp. That’s a lot of success on her part that was hard to overcome. She had clearly learned that all she had to do was sull-up and fight and she would never have to step foot on that stinking tarp. So there. You can’t make me do that.
Using the most classic principles of natural horsemanship, I set about to convince the mare that the right thing would be easy and the wrong thing would be hard—her choice. Every time she refused to step up to the tarp (by backing up in a tantrum) I would pull her to the side and work the patooti out of her—hard trot, constantly changing direction until she was huffing and puffing a blue streak. Then I would present her to the tarp (and thanks, by the way, to our friends at http://www.naturalhorsetalk.com/horsetoys.html for supplying the great and colorful tarp and obstacles we used in this episode) and as long as she had forward interest in the tarp, I would let her stand and rest. The instant she was defiant and refused, back to work we went.
This seemed like a good plan, but an hour into it, with the sunlight fading, I was beginning to wonder if I could out last her. Meanwhile, my film crew said silent prayers as they stood and watched. But staying the course almost always pays with horses, unless the course is flawed to begin with. At an hour and 22 minutes, the mare finally relented and walked calmly over the tarp. Then she did it 6-8 more times without hesitation. As is typical, once she made up her mind, she was perfectly willing to walk over the tarp. I put the owner back on her and she marched obediently over the tarp several more times.
The next morning during practice (we always give the riders time off-camera to practice what they have learned before we wrap the show), the mare put up a fight again, but only for about 10 minutes. When it was time to film the wrap-up, she refused the tarp once, did a few minutes of hard stuff then marched over it like a trooper.
She was a tough nut to crack, but in the end, she agreed that the fight was not worth it. We had five other great episodes in this shoot, including two shot with Dale Myler—one of the world’s foremost experts on bits. A young dressage prospect and a very frustrated western horse made dramatic progress by making them more comfortable in their mouths so that they could think and learn. It’s amazing the turn-around you can make in horses with small but meaningful changes.
It was one of our most successful shoots ever and I am so thankful to my incredible crew and all the horses and riders that joined us.
Enjoy the ride,