Dominated Horse Logo

Dear Julie,
I have a 13-year-old Paint Horse mare who is very dominant. She came to my barn as a two year old and I already had an18-year-old gelding and a 4-year-old mare. In just a few days, she was the Alpha.
Her ground manners with me are quite nice, but the problem seems to be related to her strong response to outside stimuli, whether it is a horse or something else. This is particularly a problem when I am trail riding—as her attention is quickly diverted. Generally, I will begin to do leg yields or ask for something that I know I can get, but occasionally she catches me off guard.
Additionally, if she doesn’t want to do something, she just stops. I ask once, tell once, and then use a crop or spurs. Her response is bucking and head tossing, but then she moves on. Everyone knows to clear out when she stops, as the scenario unfolds about the same each time. Her teeth have been checked and she doesn’t appear to be saddle sore. Could you share your thoughts with me?
Thank you so much for your time.
Dominated No More
Dear Dominated,
If you’re certain you have ruled out any physical issues in your mare, then you have to look to training.
As for getting and keeping your horse’s attention, here’s what I suggest. Even though you say her ground manners are good, I would work her on the ground first, in the easiest location, then in any environment where you have trouble keeping her attention. I would work very doggedly on two issues: 1) don’t move your feet unless I tell you to, and 2) keep your nose in front of your chest at any time you’re in my presence.
Controlling the feet and the nose are very critical for keeping your horse’s focus and obedience, especially from the saddle. But you must have complete control of the nose, shoulder, hip and feet from the ground first.
Most people think they can control the feet and the nose but when you get to it, the horse is in total control of when and where he moves his nose and feet. There are numerous articles about this type of lead line work in the Training Library on my website so I’ll let you read about it there. I also have a video called Lead Line Leadership that shows a series of exercises you can do from the ground with any horse to gain respect, focus and obedience from your horse.
Secondly, I would begin to reinforce the “nose” rule when I am riding. Any horse I ride, I don’t care the age or training, is expected to keep his nose in front of his chest while I am riding. I do not let them be “looky-lous” or vary the track on which they are moving. A simple correction with the opposite rein (if he is looking right, use the left rein) is all it takes. In about thirty seconds to a minute, I can teach the horse this rule. The problem most people have in correcting is the technique and the timing; in fact, those two words cover any and all horse and rider problems. To correct the nose properly, you have to use perfect technique and perfect timing.
Technique: you must bump lightly UP on ONE rein. Ninety-eight percent of riders will pull back instead of bump or flick up on the rein. Seventy-five percent of riders pull rather than bump, and with both reins. You want to bump lightly and smoothly (not jerking) with your thumb pointed up and out, so that your wrist twists open. Bump exactly in this manner (not pulling back) until the horse brings his nose to your hand.
Timing: you must release sooner rather than later. You must release when the horse first makes an effort and then ask again for just a tiny bit more and release. The horse is focused on the release and if it doesn’t come immediately, he will stiffen and resist. Apply the correction 100% of the time; this takes a lot of concentration but once your horse learns the rule (keep your nose in front of your chest) he will comply. But first he must know you will correct him, gently but relentlessly, before he will comply (this is true of all things with horses, they must know you’re committed before they are obedient).
Before you loose control of your horse, you lose his nose position. Enforcing the nose rule, is keeping your horse’s focus on the task at hand and what you have asked her to do. This requires concentration and persistence on your part too. I would either put my horse to work or disengage his hindquarters every time her attention wanders (which is obvious by his ears and nose position). Put him to work by just asking him to do something (stop, go, turn, backup, circle, trot a circle, walk-trot-walk transitions, etc.). When she is compliant, let her relax and as soon as her attention wanders, put her back to work. All you have to do is create an association between her actions (losing focus on you) and having to work harder.
There are many articles on my website about disengagement and why and how you do it. I would start with making small turns R-L-R-L in a random pattern. Every time I change the direction of my horse’s nose and shoulder, I am gaining more control and keeping her neck relaxed and moving side to side. I am also bending her whole body, moving her feet and disengaging the hindquarters. As she relaxes and focuses on me, I let her go straight; horses get tired of circling and turning quickly, so she will look for what gets her the release. Again, timing and technique determine the success.
Technique: Make random turns in both directions using your whole body to turn, starting with your eyes, making sure both hands point in the direction you want your horse to turn, not pulling back on the reins, but to the side and up with the inside hand. (see articles on equitation and rein aids in my Training Library). Your hands would be applying the leading rein (inside) and the neck rein (outside). Never turn a horse quickly or ask him to do something in anger. Your leg aids must reinforce the rein aids and control the horse’s barrel too (the reins control the nose but the rein and legs control the shoulder and the body of the horse).
Timing: Always cue the horse slowly to turn so that he might possibly have time to move his head before the pull comes on his mouth. When your horse’s attention wanders, do not rush to the correction, but slowly and methodically ask the horse to do something. Ask him to perform his paces in a perfunctory manner, not in a punishing manner.
When the horse balks on you, you simply need to move his feet. But do not try to kick or spur him into action, that will almost always lead your horse to explode because his feet are stuck in one place and you have lost control. Pulling his nose to the side and disengaging his hindquarters will un-stick his feet, then you can move right into changes of direction and controlling the horse’s nose. If need be, turn him in the direction he wants to go to get his feet unstuck but immediately turn his nose the other way. If this horse is obedient to your legs at other times but suddenly “pulls up” (suddenly bulks and refuses to move forward) on you, kicking her or spurring her more will not necessarily help and may cause a burst of movement from your horse. Bending and disengaging will un-stick the feet with less drama. So when she plants her feet, rather than get in a big fight over asking her to move her feet, ask her something different: flex, bend, disengage, leg yield, etc. Ask, release. Ask, release. Ask something else.
That’s what I would do with a horse whose attention is wandering and leading her to be non-responsive and disobedient. Good luck and be careful!
Julie Goodnight

Issues From The Saddle: My Horse Pulls On The Bit As I Ride Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hi Julie

I have been riding for eight months at a stable and am taking classes once-twice a week as well as clinics. I bought a horse from the stables I go to, he is a twelve year old Arab and a very forgiving horse. I bought him in June and I would say the last two months he has started to pull on the bit. I am finding this very very frustrating. My teacher is a very good trainer as well as a teacher. It is a very busy stable…. I guess what I am trying to say I kind of feel bad about looking to someone else for an answer. Just this weekend she told me to try a softer bit, and there was no pulling. I went out the next day to ride and he started to pull again. At first we maybe thought when he is getting tired he pulls, but it can be ten minutes into the ride and he starts to pull again. I thought maybe it could be his teeth but when she bought him she had had his teeth checked and they were fine. Would you please be able to give me advice into what else I could try? I am going into a show this weekend with him and him pulling on the bit causes me to not enjoy my ride.


Answer: Lori,

Pulling on the bit, rooting the reins and head tossing are always caused by the same thing: the rider. This is not a human with a horse problem, but rather a horse with a human problem; and a very common one at that, so don’t feel too badly.

The reason why he did not do this for the first few months you had him is that he tolerated the unrelenting and unfeeling contact on his mouth (or it wasn’t as bad at first). At some point he reached his limit and began to pull against your contact, begging and pleading for a release and undoubtedly it worked to his advantage and he got some rein away from you, even if only for a brief second, thus rewarding his behavior.

The first thing to fix is you. Talk this over with your instructor and she should be able to teach you how and when to release the contact. Even if you are riding English, in my opinion you should not be riding on direct contact until you are much more advanced in your riding. You would never want to ride with direct contact out on the trail, because you want your horse to be calm and relaxed and be able to use his head naturally to balance.

Although the rider inadvertently trains a horse to lean on the bit, root the reins or toss his head, once the problem behavior begins, it is challenging to correct it without making the problem worse. The first thing always to ask yourself with any riding problem is, “what am I doing that is causing my horse to act this way?” Chances are you are holding too tight a contact for no reason. But you cannot release at that moment when he pulls because then you are rewarding his behavior.

The first thing I would do on a horse that has learned this defensive behavior, is make sure I was riding him on a totally loose rein and only taking contact momentarily when I had to cue him to turn or stop, with an instantaneous and dramatic release. He will probably do some experimenting by pulling his head down very low to see just how much rein he has and I will let him drag his nose on the ground if he wants (if I do not give him anything to pull against, it is a fruitless behavior). When he does root or pull on a shorter rein (which he will because this has become engrained learned behavior), I lock my hand on the rein, or even lock my hand against the pommel, so that he roots into a very fixed rein and hits himself in the mouth. If he does not get any release and instead punishes himself when he pulls, he’ll quit; but only if the rider holds up her end of the bargain: to not hang on his mouth. As with all horse training, how effective you are as a trainer depends on how quickly you can either correct or reward (release) the horse. To correct this behavior, the correction (the bump he gives himself in the mouth) has to be instantaneous with the pull. By the time you’ve thought about what to do, it is probably too late to be effective. Timing is everything for a horse. You have a 3 second window of opportunity to reward or correct, but the optimal time is half a second. If the correction comes that quickly, his behavior will be eliminated almost immediately. And if he is rewarded by not having constant static pressure on his mouth when he is doing his job, he’ll turn back into the solid citizen that he was when you got him.

If you can change your way of riding and have more awareness is your hands, your horse will change right away.

Good luck.


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

Issues From The Saddle: Horse With Head Shake Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Good morning Julie,

I have two additional questions for you: First, I have written about an extremely sensitive five year old mare, who is still occasionally blowing up if touched unexpectedly. Her owner was advised to put her on Relax Saver, but there is little improvement after two weeks of this treatment. This little girl is still not able to be trimmed by the blacksmith and is so defensive when the owner approaches her in her stall every day, even after living there for four years! There is no evidence of any soreness….. Additionally, she asked me to write to you about her other Palomino who developed a head tic after touching an electric wire with her mouth. She is photo sensitive now, and very uncomfortable to ride in warm and particularly sunny weather. The rider is very careful not to bump the mouth, but the head tossing is so extreme that the reins are frequently tossed over the horse’s head and to one side. If you have any thoughts on this problem, please let me know. The owner does not have a computer, and we both attended your clinic in Columbus, Ohio, at Equine Affaire. Thank you so much, Julie! I continue to be a great fan of yours and have spread the word about your philosophies of training.

Marie Lester

Answer: Hi Marie,

Thanks for the kind words and support 🙂 This horse owner certainly has some horses with issues and I hope she does not get too frustrated.
The condition that you seem to be describing is “head shake.” It is not real common but I know of a few horses that have had this condition. It seems to be a relatively new phenomenon and there has been little research done about it. Headshake is a violent shake of the head, rather spasmodic and very different from a horse that is throwing his head. Horses that develop headshake are often photosensitive and they work fine indoors but when working outdoors the problem is much worse. Some horses with headshake are not photosensitive.

The cause of headshake is not fully understood. One theory is that it is allergy related and some horses do better on anti-allergy drugs and only seem to have a problem at certain times of the year. Another theory is that headshake horses have a damaged nuchal ligament which is the ligament connecting the horse’s head and neck at the poll. One possible cause of damage to this ligament is too much time spent riding in an over flexed frame (behind the bit).

I am sorry to say that is all I know on the subject and none of my veterinary textbooks have any info on the subject. What I know is from just a few articles on the subject I have read and also some personal accounts I know of. Perhaps you can find out more by searching some veterinary websites or consulting your vet or the nearest vet school. Let me know if you find any additional info as I too am interested in this subject. I’ll email a few of my vet friends and see if I can find additional info. Good luck.

BTW- the Relax Saver is certainly not a cure all but I have found it very helpful, along with training, in over-sensitive horses.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer


Julie: Headshaking can be a very frustrating condition in horses, so I am glad you do not have a horse suffering from it. The 2 veterinarians that I know that probably know the most about it are John Madigan at UC-Davis and Pam Wilkins at the University of Pennsylvania.

Recently in Equus (June 2004, pp 40-50) there was an article about head shaking and the author interviewed or got most of their information from Dr. Madigan at UC-Davis and Derek Knottenbelt in the UK. Let me know if you do not have access to it and I can send you a copy.

Horses can head shake vertically (most common), horizontally, and in circular patterns.

Causes of head shaking include, but are not limited to allergic rhinitis, photic head shaking (similar to sun sneezing in horses), masses in the respiratory sinus, pharynx, larynx or guttural pouches, bad teeth, changes in the stylohyoid bone, ear problems, tack problems, rider problems, sour horses that do not like to do what they are being asked to do, withers fractures (rare), and potentially nuchal ligament disease. Some cases are idiopathic because we check everything we know to check and can not find any reason for the condition. Some horses will get so bad they will just do it out on pasture, while many only do it when being ridden. Often the history will be the horse was recently bought in the winter months and then as the weather starts to warm the horse starts to head-shake, implying the horse was dumped.

Allergic horses respond to steroids (systemic or nebulized), sun sneezers respond to tinted eye covers on head masks or Cyproheptadine), some horses respond to a nose net (thought to stimulate the nose similar to rubbing your nose to stop you from sneezing) and the other disease require fixing the inciting cause surgically or management-wise. Some horses are treated with a drug called Tegretol (carbamazepine) for idiopathic shaking or Tegretol and Cyproheptadine. Lately, I think UC-Davis has been treating some horses with long-acting sedatives with some success.
As I said, this just touches briefly on most of the causes, it can be incredibly frustrating and in many instances a cause is not identified.

Ryland B. Edwards, III, DVM, MS, PhD Diplomate ACVS
Clinical Assistant Professor

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