Riding Right With Julie Goodnight

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Dear Julie,
I’m 15 and have been riding for 11 years. I just bought a Halflinger pony that stands at 14.2. He’s a pleasure to own but rests his head on the reins and often pulls. I would like to find out a way to get him lighter on the reins with lighter contact—but without him zooming off when I’m schooling him. I’ve tried lots of things. One trainer recommended that I put my rein and hand up on his neck then bring it back and repeat the process on the other side. This does reduce his resting on the reins a little but it also encourages him to take off in a fast trot. Then I have to pull on the reins and feel him pulling against me again. I don’t see any point of the exercise. Please help me!
Thank you for your time,
Tired of Pulling

Dear Tired of Pulling,
Whenever I get a horse with a training problem, the first thing I try to discover is what is the origin of the behavior? In other words, why is he doing this? Typically, horses that root the reins and throw their heads have learned to do that in response to tight, relentless and meaningless contact on the bit. Often horses are never taught how to respond properly to the reins to begin with and contact is totally confusing to them; more often, it is because the rider is unskilled and has uneducated hands. Usually fixing the cause is more effective than fixing the symptom (be wary of using artificial aids—like tie downs, martingales or draw reins– to fix bitting problems- they may only temporarily cover a symptom).

Most trained horses learn to lean and root on the reins from being ridden with too heavy or too static of contact. Some trainers think that riders should use heavy contact all the time, but most horses will not tolerate that. Until both horse and rider are skilled enough to ride with contact, it should not be used. For me, if I am training a horse that must work on contact, I prefer to keep the horse as light as possible, teaching him to give to light pressure and balance as little weight as possible in my hands. The first thing you should check whenever you have bitting problems is, “how am I contributing to this problem?”

He can only lean on you if you let him. Try this exercise: let a friend lean on your shoulder and notice that in order to hold her up, you will start leaning into her a little, balancing her weight. If you simply move away from her when she leans, she can’t lean on you and she will have to hold up her own weight. She can still place her hand on your shoulder to have a steady connection with you, she just can’t lean. When you feel your horse begin to lean, don’t contribute to the problem by holding him up; make him hold himself up. He should be able to trot slowly and steadily on a loose rein as well as on contact.

If he zooms away, immediately check and release, using your seat and hands in a rocking, repeated motion. Don’t pull continuously; that will only make him speed up. If your horse does not maintain a steady speed at every gait, you have some holes in your training and your horse is disobedient. See my website for more information on how to create an obedient horse, on static vs. dynamic pressure and how to use your seat to stop the horse. Learn to use the pulley rein if you need an emergency stop.

When he starts rooting on the reins, you should immediately stiffen and lock one hand on the rein so that he hits himself on one side of his mouth (it is much easier for him to lean and root on both reins than one). If every time he roots, he is successful in pulling reins out of your hand, he has gotten a reward. If every time he roots he hits a hard spot on one side of his mouth, he does not get a reward. Make sure he is rewarded with a lightening of contact when he is being a good boy.

Finally, make sure when you are riding that you have some feel and softness in your hands. I like to teach “giving” hands. That means they are always stretching toward the horse’s mouth and always offering more rein when the horse softens and carries himself. Your fingers must be soft and relaxed, not tense and gripping the reins; your elbows should be very supple to act as shock absorbers for your horse’s mouth.

One thing I would consider doing with this horse, is teach him to trot on a loose rein, as well as on-contact. I would put him in a trot and every time he speeds up without being asked, gently pick up ONE rein to put him into a tight turn; over-flexing his neck, bringing him to the right and then the left, alternating directions until you feel him slow down. As soon as he slows, go straight and find your way back to the rail. Rather than pulling back on two reins every time he speeds up, make him work harder when he speeds up so he learns that going fast is harder and that he will be rewarded with easier work when he slows down. Again, there is more info on my website on this subject.

By the way, your horse is bred to be a puller, and that certainly doesn’t help. Draft type horses (in your case, a draft pony) have short thick necks and heavy straight shoulders in order to pull heavy loads. Although I have certainly seen Haflingers that were light and responsive, they seem to naturally want to lean on you and drag you around from the ground. Although your horse definitely has this propensity, horses are a product of the handlers and riders that train them, for better or for worse. Hopefully you can take this information and make your horse better.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician

Am I Too Heavy For My Horse?

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Question: Dear Julie:

I bet you have never had this question. Last week we bought a really great black & white 51 inch 4 year old pony. He was gelded 5 weeks ago so we are waiting (but doing lots of ground work and round pen work) with him before he is ridden. He is broke to drive and ride. My question is this: what would the top weight be for a person to ride him? We bought him for our grand kids but I love the way he trots and canters while he is in the round pen. The grand kids are 6 & 11 with our 3 year old riding a little Shetland mini cross. Pixie is a gem but the older two have out grown her. If you would let me know about the top weight I am really considering loosing weight so I can ride him. Now don’t laugh. Right now I weigh about 160 but should weight 140 this would really give me an incentive.

Julie, we loved your clinics at Equine Affaire in Columbus Ohio. Hope to see you there next year.


Answer: Luanne,

As a matter of fact, I’ve had that question on numerous occasions! The answer is not really cut and dry but there are some guidelines you can use to make the decision on whether or not you are ‘right sized’ for your pony.

The most commonly used guideline, and the one that is suggested by the Certified Horsemanship Association, www.cha-ahse.org, an organization that promotes safety in horsemanship programs, says that the rider (sans tack) should not exceed 20% of the weight of the horse.

However, this is based on the worst-cased scenario: an unbalanced beginner rider, whose weight is shifting constantly and unpredictably. The truth of the matter is, a heavy balanced rider is much easier on the horse’s back and mouth than a light-weight, unbalanced rider.

At 140#, in the worst-case scenario, you should be able to ride a horse that weighs 700#. If you are a decent rider, a lighter pony could handle your weight just fine. You’ll have to estimate the weight of your pony and factor in this guideline to make your decision. There are so many types of ponies—from draft ponies to fine boned light ponies—that height is not really an indication of weight.

For the record, I think 14.3 hands is the perfect size horse! If I could wave a magic wand and make my 15.1 hand horse that size, I’d do it in a heart beat. Although I grew up riding big horses (hunter/jumpers), I find that the older I get the smaller I like my horses!

By the way, you should check out my blog http://juliegoodnightontheroad.blogspot.com/ on the subject of losing weight, how it affects your riding and the different motivations that help. Yours would be a good one to add to the list and we’d love to have you join us in the Five Pound Challenge!


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