The Secret Ingredient: Managing the Herd-Bound Horse

Pepper watching pasture horses in the background
A horse running the fence line erratically.

At my ranch, we have seven geldings and one mare. When we brought my new foster mare, Truth, in for training the two mares were instantly drawn to each other like magnets. At first, it was sweet how much they loved each other. Then it became obvious that the otherwise sweet and compliant mares would resemble fire-breathing dragons if we ever tried to separate them. 

Both mares became so attached at the hip that even a momentary separation of 10 feet would send both mares into a complete tizzy. Ultimately, we had to separate the mares, and only allowed them to interact when we got them out for training—while working, they were required to follow protocol and behave as they were trained to act. We were able to nip the undesirable behavior in the bud, and the mares went back to their cooperative old selves.

Though highly inconvenient to humans, gregarious behavior (or an unyielding desire to be with others in the herd) is one of the strongest instinctive drives of equines. Often thought of as an affliction by horse owners, a herd-bound horse may display anxious, panicky and undesirable behaviors when it is either taken away from the herd by itself, or are left behind after other horses are removed.

This is a natural, instinctively driven behavior of horses, and it’s an omni-present condition—although most horses are trained to overcome it. There are no quick-fixes to herd-bound behavior, but horses can certainly be taught to accept separation from the herd, and stay calm and obedient despite it. A recent question from one of my podcast listeners, Barbara, reminded me of how imposing this instinctive behavior can be.

Can a horse be desensitized to separation anxiety? My alpha mare is boarded with a pasture mate. We’ve been there for about 2 years. My mare will happily go out alone, but if her BFF even goes around the corner, she goes crazy—running the pasture fence line, screaming and working herself into a lather.

The other horse (also a mare) does not go out alone often, actually rarely, but it is stressful to watch [my mare]. Luckily, she has not hurt herself—yet. We have just started trying to have the other horse lead away for a short time, then come back to see if my mare will calm down when she leaves. Can this—or will this—work? Or are we just causing her more stress?

It’s an excellent question Barbara, and it made me realize that there is an important ingredient for retraining the herd-bound horse, beyond simply separating the horses, that is usually omitted from the recipe for success. But before we talk about the secret sauce, it’s important to fully understand the depth of your horse’s behavior first.


What’s the Big Deal?

For a prey animal, separation from the herd feels like a death sentence. Horses only live in a herd setting, never solitary, because they are reliant on the herd for detecting and fending off predators. You cannot eliminate this instinct, but you can train the horse to override its instinctive urges.

Separation anxiety can rear its ugly head in two common scenarios—one occurs when you take a horse away from the safety and comfort of its herd and it becomes uncooperative (often referred to as barn sour). The other form of separation anxiety happens when a horse’s companion is taken away and it’s left alone, herd-less, to fend for itself. 

What many horse owners like Barbara have come to realize is that the latter scenario—the horse that is left behind—is often the hardest to deal with. In other words, the horse you take out of the pen to ride is not as big a problem as the one you leave in the pen. This typically takes the form of running, pacing the fence line, and calling out with increasing panic that escalates unless intervention occurs.

Less dramatic, but just as frustrating, is herd-bound behavior in the horse you take out to ride, if it refuses to cooperate. This often involves impatience, fidgeting, pawing, head shaking, stomping, calling out, ignoring the handler/rider, ignoring trained cues, and downright refusing to do what is asked or to leave the proximity of the herd. It may escalate to blatant disobedience, tantrums, and threats of bucking or rearing from the horse. 

Temperament, training, and routine handling all affect herd-bound behavior. There’s not much we can do to change a horse’s temperament but training, regular handling, and teaching a horse how to act appropriately will make an impact on the horse. All horses are instinctively prone to these behaviors, yet for many horses this never becomes an issue.

Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse
Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.
How Did We Get Here?

It’s important to remember that herd-bound behavior is normal for horses. It is only through training and experience that horses gain a comfort level with being alone and/or accept a human as a suitable substitute for the herd. Younger horses may be more independent and more willing to leave the herd, while middle-aged and older horses may become increasingly herd bound. I suspect the same pressures that cause differences in the behavior of humans at various stages of their lives, also affects horses. As we age, security becomes increasingly important. 

Horses are not only instinctively drawn to the herd (affected by herd gravity), but they also form bonded relationships within the herd (the double whammy). By nature, horses form deep mutual alliances with one other horse in the herd (at the most two). Horse people call them buddies, behaviorists call them associates, and many other people would probably call it friendship. 

It can certainly be the case that a horse is not only unwilling to leave the herd, but it also deeply fears any momentary physical separation from its buddy. So, if you remove the associate, even if the other horse remains in a herd setting it may still be emotionally overwrought with separation anxiety. In the case of herds of two horses, when the buddy is removed and there are no other herd mates there, the horse experiences the worst anxiety. 

Horses are creatures that thrive on routine and sameness, for the security and predictability it brings them. They are fast learning, detect patterns quickly, and learn routines easily. When a horse is regularly separated from the herd, handled by people, tied up and groomed, and ridden or trained daily, herd bound problems go away because this is part of the horse’s normal routine, and it has reached a comfort level with it.

On the other hand, if the horse is left in the pen with the other horses, day in and day out, with only occasional removal and handling for vet or farrier, the herd becomes its whole world and separation is unthinkable.

Will Gradual Desensitization Work?
It can, but only if you have the secret ingredient. Removing or separating the horses is necessary to reprogram the horse, but it’s only half of the equation. Whether you are dealing with a barn sour horse that throws a fit when you ask it to leave the barnyard, or the left-behind horse that runs a rut in the ground when you take its buddy away, the secret is in what you do after the separation.

It’s not the length of the separation that matters, whether it’s short or long, it’s bringing the horse back to a calm and compliant state of mind before returning it to the herd (or reuniting it with its cohort) that has the greatest impact. In other words, if you remove the buddy horse for a short time but return it while the left-behind horse is emotionally overwrought, you have further reinforced the undesirable behavior. The left-behind horse believes its emotional outbursts caused the buddy horse to return, so it is certain to act the way next time.

Whatever the horse is doing at the moment you release the pressure, is what you just trained the horse to do. This is a universal truth that applies to all matters of training horses—timing is everything. If the horse only gets relief once it has settled, taken a deep breath, and returned to its normal compliant state, then that is the behavior you have reinforced. Bringing the horse back to a calm and thinking state of mind once it is separated and before returning it to the herd, must occur in order to reprogram the horse’s behavior.

Unbinding the Herd-Bound Horse
Now that you know that the secret sauce for curing herd-bound behavior is in managing and redirecting the horse’s emotions before reuniting them, I’ll share my formula for teaching a horse to deal with its separation anxiety. I’m assuming you are starting with a trained horse that acts appropriately when it is not having separation anxiety—that you have control and cooperation from the horse otherwise, and that these problems only occur when the horse is isolated from other horses. If your horse is always out of control, this plan won’t work—that horse needs more basic training.

Step One: Create a New Routine
On a daily basis, you’ll need to separate the horse from the herd and do the same routine with it—maybe some groundwork, followed by grooming, followed by some time spent tied up. The first day will be the hardest, with the most emotionality, but with each passing day, the horse learns what comes next and comes to accept the routine. Consistency is key. When it happens every day, the same way, at least 5-6 days a week (no one ever said horse training was easy), the horse trains to a new routine quickly. 

Step Two: Manage Emotionality
The key to success is in reminding the horse how good it feels to be relaxed. Anxiety, anger and frustration are the primary emotions of the horse you’ll be managing. Your own emotions must be relentlessly calm and steady. Treating the horse’s emotionality as a mental health issue and not a training issue, will help the horse the most. My first goal is always to reduce the horse’s anxiety by asking it to lower its head to the ground and cue it to take a deep breath by taking one myself. 

To cue the horse to relax, I exaggerate my body language and breathing to exude calmness (shoulders rounded, energy low, averted eyes, deep sighs). I’ll stroke and soothe the horse as it relaxes, to show the horse that being relaxed feels better than being anxious. It is not hard to get an anxious horse addicted to calmness, but you must show them how to do it—lower the head and take a deep breath. After a few days of this, the horse will start lowering its own head when it feels anxious, in an attempt to self-medicate.

For many horses, especially the hotter, flightier horses, movement may be soothing but it may also wind a horse up, as in the case of the left-behind horse frantically running up and down the fence. Sometimes allowing a horse to move its feet helps it calm down—walking quietly, turning right, then left, then right. But moving it around with quick, abrupt, or harsh transitions and changes of direction is not calming. 

When I have a problem with a left-behind horse that is panicked when left in the pen, instead of allowing the horse to pace frantically, winding itself up and potentially hurting itself, I will simply tie it up in a safe and comfortable place. When you take away its ability to frantically pace, and when the horse is trained to stand tied, it will usually settle down once you do. My horses prefer to be caught and tied up when we take the other horses out, even if we are not riding them—it makes them feel part of the action and it’s way better than being the only one left behind.

Step Three: Engage the Mind and Regain Focus
Once you’ve addressed the out-of-control emotions of the horse, it’s time to engage its mind, get it thinking, and remind the horse of what it knows. Sometimes it seems like the herd-bound horse has completely forgotten all its training, but horses never forget. Put the horse to work, giving it cues and expecting a response, as soon as its mind settles.

When engaging the horse’s mind, I’ll revert back to the simplest commands that I’m sure the horse knows. Go, stop, turn right, turn left, slow down, speed up. All I want is for the horse to listen, think, and respond like it is trained to do. This almost always has a calming effect on the horse as its mind becomes engaged and it reverts to the comfort of what it knows.

This is not the time to ask for the hard stuff or train something new. It is the time to remind the horse that it knows how to act and respond. Most importantly, I want to use this time to re-establish my connection with the horse. I want the horse to give me even the most basic response so that I can praise it copiously and remind it how good it feels to get back to normal.

Engaging the horse’s mind by giving it known cues, waiting for the appropriate response, then releasing and praising the horse, will always help when a horse is feeling anxious. Do this with the horse that is left behind too—leaving it to its own devices will not work.

Step Four: Reimpose Known Rules of Behavior
Presumably, your horse has established manners and rules of behavior that you normally expect from the horse. During times of emotional duress, the horse may temporarily become unresponsive or disregard these rules. Your job, as the leader, is to redirect the horse’s behavior (not punish) and remind it of your expectations.

Engaging the horse’s mind by asking it to comply with simple commands will help you reimpose the rules of behavior (manners). But this is where the onus comes to you. If you have established good manners in your horse, aside from the separation issue, you can retrieve the horse quickly. If you have not established good leadership with the horse in the best of times, how can you expect it in the worst of times?

Normally, I expect my horses to stand still whenever I ask. I require them to stand tied for some time every day, I teach them to ground tie and practice it regularly, and I always reinforce standing still once I have asked it of the horse. So, when the horse temporarily loses it and is frantically dancing around, I have known skills and known expectations to fall back on, as I ask the horse to comply and remind it of what it knows. If you have not done this foundational work up front, you have nothing to fall back on when the horse becomes overwrought. That’s your bad.

Time Well Spent
While herd-bound behavior is a constant presence with horses, with proper training and handling, it is completely manageable. All horses are prone to becoming herd-bound, yet most riding horses have learned to cope. It’s not an affliction of the horse—it’s normal behavior. 

When herd-bound behavior becomes a problem, it generally stems from a lack of training and handling, or inadequate training and handling. As I mentioned, no one ever said horse training was easy or a part-time job, but these are totally solvable problems—if you make the investment of time and energy your horse requires. If I had a quick fix to offer, I’d be the wealthiest horse trainer of all time.

Fixing the herd-bound horse is not possible to do in one day, and it requires your full commitment and relentless consistency. Before your horse lets go of its anxiety about being separated from other horses, it must get comfortable and relaxed spending time with you, accept your leadership, and feel safe with you. Ultimately, you are the secret ingredient, and the responsible party.
Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse
Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.

“Rearing” to Go!

Horse rearing on the lunge line
Horse rearing on the lunge line

One of the most memorable episodes of Horse Master for me involved a lovely warmblood mare who developed a rearing problem after a successful run as a show jumper. The sweet and kind mare stood straight up as I mounted her—before I even sat down. Although sometimes rearing can become a learned response or a training problem, in this otherwise obedient and compliant horse, all the clues pointed toward pain as the cause.

Rearing occurs when the horse stands straight up on its hind legs. This behavior is often rooted in fear, but can also be a result of pain. In some instances, rearing or rear-threats may indicate a refusal to move forward, or it can occur when forward movement is inhibited. 

Whether you are on the ground or in the saddle, it is one of the scariest and most dangerous behaviors of horses. Hopefully you will never have to deal with a rearing horse, but if you do, a little bit of knowledge may help you avoid some of the most common mistakes—and help keep you and your horse safe. 

When it comes to rearing, it is important to fully understand the nature of this behavior and what to do when it happens. Here, I’ll discuss what causes rearing, how to avoid it, what to do if it happens, and how to keep safe when this scary and dangerous behavior is displayed.


Naturally “Light on the Forehand”

Some horses are more prone to rearing than others. In some ways, you can think of it as an expression or mannerism. While some horses are more prone to kick out, strike or shake their heads when they are feeling angst, others will tend to rear. Often, horses will threaten to rear—lifting the head and hopping up on the front feet—but never actually rear. 

It is not always possible to know if the behavior a horse is displaying in the moment is instinctive or learned; this is the age-old debate of nature Vs. nurture. Rearing can easily become a learned response to get out of something the horse does not want to do, however, some horses clearly favor this behavior over others as an expression.

Regardless of whether it is a natural tendency in the horse, a learned response, or the result of a specific situation, proper handling and training will alleviate the behavior and help keep all four feet on the ground.


Root Causes 

Even though some horses may have a natural tendency toward this behavior, all horses are capable of rearing, given the right circumstance. As with any undesirable behavior we are trying to eliminate, avoid, or train out of the horse, it helps to understand the root cause.

Pain, or fear of pain, is one of the most common root causes of many undesirable behaviors in horses. When a horse that has a history of performing well, suddenly does not, it is often a pain response. It may be the rider’s first indication of a developing physical problem, just as it was with the warm-blood mare. 

It is quite common in high performance horses—jumpers, reiners, cowhorses, rope horses, barrel racers, or any horses that are training and competing in these athletically demanding sports, to suddenly refuse to participate. Often, rearing is the only way the horse has to tell you it cannot cope with the pain. 

If rearing occurs when you ask a horse to perform a certain maneuver or task, particularly when it is an otherwise compliant and obedient horse, it is likely a result of pain. If this is the case, no amount of training will resolve the behavior until the pain is treated. Unless there is specific evidence that it is a learned disobedient response, not rooted in pain, the horse should be thoroughly vetted for a physical problem before any training plan is instigated.

Often, instinctive behaviors become learned behaviors with horses. They are wicked-fast learners and sometimes a horse can learn that a certain response got him what he wanted, even though initially it was an instinctive response. Perhaps the horse reared the first time due to a pain response when you asked him to perform a difficult task and in an abundance of caution, you stopped riding immediately to check the horse out. 

Even though the incident was caused by pain, and even once you resolve the pain, you may still see the rearing behavior. It is possible for the horse to make an association between his rearing and you putting him away, on the very first incident. Still, you must always resolve the physical issue first, and with certainty, then come back and address the training problem once the pain is resolved.

Fear and Refusal

Rearing can easily be classified as a fear response, whether it is based in pain (the horse fears that when he does a certain movement it will hurt) or simply when the horse refuses to do something or becomes disobedient. Oddly, there are two seemingly opposite scenarios that commonly provoke rearing—a refusal to move forward or when forward motion is inhibited.

Let’s say you are asking the horse to cross running water with steep banks and creepy overhanging vegetation, and the horse is afraid for his safety and plants his feet in refusal. If you continue to push the horse forward and he is determined not to go, he may rear (or threaten to rear) in protest. Other common scenarios that provoke rearing are loading into a trailer or leaving the barnyard alone—both a refusal to move forward.

The other scenario that often provokes rearing is when forward motion is inhibited in a horse that is determined to go. Maybe you are on a trail ride with a group of horses and they take off at a fast pace while you try to hold your horse back, inhibiting its forward motion. This often provokes rearing in the horse, based on his strong instinctive fear of being left behind.

Whether rearing is the result of a refusal to move forward or when forward motion is inhibited, it is often based in fear initially. Unfortunately, the horse can easily learn to rear as a tactic to get out of something he does not want to do. It is important to take the time to alleviate the horse’s fear in a systematic way to avoid rearing if possible and once a horse does rear, to make sure he does not associate rearing with a means to avoid work.


Rearing Vs Rear Threats

A horse that rears suddenly will often stand straight up on his hind legs, in a nearly vertical position. However, a horse that is thinking about rearing and who is building up to a mutiny, may display rear threats by popping up with its front feet, just a few inches off the ground, as it throws its head up. This is a communicative gesture that means the horse is considering rearing if you keep pushing.

If a rear threat gets the horse any advantage, perceived or real, he will certainly employ the tactic again. Rear threats may or may not lead to full rearing; you do not get to know in advance. But if you are prepared to safely and confidently deal with a full-blown rear, you may want to push through the threats, insisting the horse move quietly forward, turning one way then the other.

When a horse threatens to rear and it causes the rider to ditch her plan (and cave on the directive she gave to the horse), the horse may learn that its threats have value. Sometimes this can become a favored tactic of the horse whenever it does not want to comply, holding the rider hostage to its threats. If you think you are in this situation already with a horse, you probably need the help of a trainer, or a more experienced horse person, to learn how to break this cycle.

As with all threatening behavior from horses, whether it is threatening to kick or buck or charge, when a horse threatens to rear, it could be a bluff. Many horses will learn that rear threats get them what they want, even though they may never actually rear. However, just like when people become threatening, you must take threats seriously because your safety is at stake.

Solutions to Rearing

No matter what the cause, when a horse rears, the solution is always the same– to move the horse immediately forward in whatever means is available to you, in whatever direction it will go. It is not possible for the horse to simultaneously rear and move forward. Forward motion is the antidote to rearing.

It always helps if you understand why the horse is displaying unwanted behavior. In the case of rearing, sometimes it is obvious, like the horse that refuses to leave the barn or cross water or get in a trailer; or the horse being held back while the other horses take off; or the trail horse that senses a rattlesnake ahead. In these cases, the rearing behavior may be avoided entirely or addressed through training and desensitization.

If the reason the horse is rearing is not immediately obvious, chances are good it is related to pain or fear of pain (it hurt once before). Often rearing that presents as a training problem actually stems from pain. The horse should have a thorough veterinary assessment and lameness exam before any further riding or training.

Once a physical cause is ruled out, the horse’s training can be addressed. If the cause of the rearing was indeed pain, even once fully healed, the horse may still rear, either because it has a fear-based memory of the pain or because the horse learned a new tactic to avoid work. These causes are often very difficult to distinguish and you may need the help of a professional to navigate through the horse’s behavior.

If pain is not the cause, the next most likely reason for the horse to rear is fear. Instinctive fear-based behaviors like not separating from the herd or not entering dark, closed-in spaces, or places where predators might lurk, require deliberate training to overcome. Over time we gain more control and trust from the horse, slowly building its confidence, never scaring, or endangering the horse.

In the case of a horse that is rearing in a flat-out refusal to comply with the rider’s commands, even if the reason seems obvious, a physical cause should always be considered first—it’s common for rearing to present as disobedience. But sometimes horses can learn clever tactics to manipulate riders into doing what they want (or don’t want to do), pushing boundaries on riders that lack confidence. Again, a trainer or riding instructor can generally help riders navigate through the disobedience and show more leadership to the horse. 

If a horse is rearing because you are inhibiting its forward motion, holding it back when the other horses take off, the solution is simple—just let the horse move forward then worry about controlling that forward motion. Holding back a panicked horse as the rest of the herd rides away is a case of diminishing returns. Avoid that situation entirely by going with the herd or not riding with people that like to go fast. Determine what skills you need as a rider and what skills you need to train to the horse if you need to overcome this kind of rearing.

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Exercises to improve riding skills
Cantering—everything from how to ride the canter to flying lead changes.
For the more advanced rider, advanced use of the aids, collection & lateral movements

Why Rearing is Dangerous

The number one danger when a horse rears, is the potential for the horse to lose its balance, either because its feet slip, or the rider or handler pulls on the horse at precisely the wrong time, causing it to lose balance. If the horse falls over backwards, it can easily strike its poll, causing a fatal head injury, break its withers, or crush the person that gets pinned underneath. This is why it is considered one of the most dangerous behaviors of horses. 

Horses that are prone to rearing are dangerous and should only be ridden by competent riders who know how to safely manage a horse that rears and a training plan should be developed to give the horse the remedial training it needs. But you may encounter rearing with no warning and suddenly find yourself in a hazardous situation. There are a few critical actions that will keep you safer in this scary situation.

When handling a horse from the ground, never pull on the lead rope of a rearing horse. When a horse rears up, pressure on its poll will make it worse, as it leans into the pressure. Since the horse uses its head and neck for balance, interference from the lead rope can make it fall. When a horse you are handling from the ground rears, hang onto the rope, but give the horse slack. Back away to keep out of the way of its flailing front hooves.

When riding a horse that rears, riders instinctively do the wrong thing, pulling back on the reins, either in fear or because of loss of balance. But just like with the horse from the ground, pulling on the reins is likely to make the horse lose balance and fall. 

If a horse I am riding rears, I instantly grab around the neck to hold on and throw my weight forward and, to prevent me from pulling on reins. Keeping a rein in each hand, I hug around the horse’s neck as he ascends, and slip my feet out of the stirrups, in case the horse falls. Once it comes back down, I will send it forward immediately, in any direction I can.

Keep in mind that balking (planting all four feet and not moving) often precedes rearing. When a horse freezes up, sometimes rearing or explosive movement follows. Use your directional aids to rock the horse side-to-side, right to left to right movement, to slowly re-establish forward motion.

All in a Day’s Work

There are times and situations in which any horse would rear, and if dealt with properly and safely, the undesirable behavior goes away. It is only when a horse develops a habit of rearing, or benefits from rearing, or loses their instinctive fear of falling over that rearing becomes a critical problem in the horse’s training. 

Rearing can be as dangerous to people as it is to horses and a horse with a history of rearing should only be handled and ridden by the most competent and experienced personnel, who know how to avoid the behavior and deal with it when it happens. Mistakes can be deadly and people often instinctively do the wrong thing when a horse rears. Yet when a rider has the knowledge, experience, and tools to employ, rearing can be easily managed and resolved. Always recognize that rearing is a warning sign of problems– either physical, mental, or training wise. Find the root cause and develop a plan to address the deficiencies. 

Remember that lovely warm-blood mare in Horse Master? Turned out she did have an injury in her back that could be resolved with chiropractic treatment, rest, and rehab. Once cleared for riding, her owner brought her to my ranch so I could help her ease back into it. You can see that first post-injury ride I took on her at the end of the episode. That mare never missed a step, had no lingering issues, and went on to become a successful show jumper once again. Just goes to show you that sometimes all horses need is our help.

Does My Horse Like Me?

Julie petting Pepper's neck
Julie petting Pepper's neck

Recently I had a question from one of my podcast listeners, Benjamin. He asked:

“Many blogs, books and online training resources talk about helping you develop the relationship you always wanted to have with your horse. For example, having him meet you at the gate in the paddocks, etc. This makes me feel perhaps I should aspire to that as well. 

My own horse tends to be aloof and keeps on grazing no matter where I am. I do feel we have a good connection when riding or on the ground. He trusts me and is very responsive. He is a 14-year-old Quarter Horse, who is a very sensitive, ‘hot’ type. So, is the fact that he does not run to greet me an indication that he sees me as any other ‘human,’ and I should work on developing that kind of relationship?”


Is it Me or My Horse?

As prey animals, horses are standoffish, skittish, and stoic by nature. While they are instinctively drawn to the herd and form strongly bonded relationships within, their affectionate behavior (non-reproductive) is not overt, and they often ignore each other. 

Some horses are more interested in people than others, but whether this is a trait of their natural born temperament or a result of learned behavior, may be difficult to discern.  Some horses are affable, friendly, and investigative by nature, but it’s not the norm. While these are highly desirable traits that can be honed by many positive associations with humans, it’s unreasonable to expect all horses to be that way, given the nature of prey animals.

Horses have strong instinctive drives, and they are also lightning-quick learners with a memory like a steel trap (important traits for prey animals). A horse with zero experience with humans would be naturally shy, but with only one encounter with humans, a horse could make a strong association, either positive or negative. This kind of learned behavior can make a horse eager to see you—or pretend you don’t exist.

For instance, if every time you approached a horse, you offered it a delectable treat, it wouldn’t be long before it was greeting you at the gate, eagerly anticipating your arrival—more accurately, the arrival of the treat. One should not mistake this behavior for anything other than what it is—acceptance of a bribe. Using food to reward a horse’s attention rarely works according to plan since horses establish dominance in the herd by taking away food from others. Still, this habit can result in a horse that eagerly awaits your arrival, but it will not create the kind of bonded relationship Benjamin is looking for.

On the other hand, consider a horse that has had repeated negative experiences with humans—either through strenuous performance training, having to work through pain, or being treated day-in and day-out for an injury or sickness. It doesn’t take long before the horse associates humans with negative emotions and avoidance behavior makes sense. 

My new foster training project, a Thoroughbred mare called Truth, is a perfect case-in-point. After a decade as a broodmare, she’d learned that humans approaching her with a halter likely meant she would be put in stocks, twitched, hobbled, bred, or invasively palpated by a vet. Not surprisingly, every time we approached her pen, she would slink away and bury her head in the farthest corner of the pen—a clear message. Even though we had no such intentions, her associations were already there, and her reactions were reasonable. To change her behavior, I would need to change her associations.


Gregarious, Indifferent, or Depressed?

Since horses can be both subtle and overt in their communicative behavior, it’s important to distinguish between a horse that is gregarious, or indifferent, or depressed. Is the horse greeting you at the gate because he is interested in being with you and is looking for an adventure or because he views you as a giant cookie jar? As with any good sugar rush, it tends to be followed by a crash.

Some horses, perhaps most horses, tend to be seemingly indifferent to people and more stoic in their behavior, like Benjamin’s horse. This is far more common than the gregarious horse and should not be considered a negative trait. Sometimes stoic and aloof horses are the most tightly bonded to their humans, and often these horses are incredibly willing and dedicated to the cause.

It’s unreasonable to expect a horse to always look forward to your arrival just so he can carry you around on his back and work hard while entertaining you. It’s hard work, after all. In many cases, just accepting your presence, instead of beating feet the other way, is the best response you can hope for. Horses are much different animals than humans and we do them a disservice when we expect them to act in human ways.

Speak the Language: Horse BehaviorThe Ultimate Resource for Understanding your Horse
Learn the unique characteristics of a horse’s natural behavior so you are safer, more effective and can better relate to the needs of your horse.

However, when a horse has made negative associations with humans, its reaction may go beyond indifference to depression and rejection. The horse that actively avoids humans by slipping away to avoid capture, may be a horse that has negative associations with humans, or one that has learned clever tricks to avoid work. But a truly depressed horse will look much different.

A traumatized horse may be depressed and shut down to external stimuli. This horse may look dull, sad, and lethargic, acting as if he doesn’t know you are there, turning his buttocks toward you, or sometimes taking more extreme defensive actions, like kicking, biting, or fleeing. These behaviors may result from hard performance training, frightening experiences, or even abusive handling. A depressed and traumatized horse needs empathy, time, space, and new associations.


Reprogramming the Aloof Horse 

Whether the horse is aloof and indifferent from negative experiences with humans, because of its stoic nature, or because it has learned clever tricks to avoid people, there are ways to reprogram the horse’s thinking and create new associations. Reverse psychology is often the key that unlocks the behavior you want. 

Think about what happens when a new horse is introduced to an existing herd. Without exception, the new horse gets shunned, as if the existing herd mates are saying, “We don’t like you; you stink, you’re ugly, and we don’t want you.” But the new horse always comes back, begging for acceptance. In his mind, his very survival depends on being accepted into the herd. Unless and until that new horse shows willingness to be contrite, to accept the existing hierarchy in the herd, and to be a good citizen, he will not be accepted.

That is the natural order in the herd and the way horses are programmed to act. When people come along and are desperate for the horse to show them overt signs of affection (which may be unrealistic since they don’t show overt affection to each other very often) the horse often views this as abnormal and suspicious behavior. But if you play hard to get by ignoring a horse and acting as if he is not there, acting as if you are not interested in him, suddenly he’s all over you. Acting indifferent toward your horse will often make him more interested in you.


Be the Provider

When dealing with a naturally aloof horse, a horse that has had unfortunate experiences that led to disinterest in humans, or a horse that has not had exposure to humans at all, I always start with being the provider of basic needs and I put no demands on the horse. For a few weeks, with the horse in its own pen, I will be the sole provider of the horse’s basic needs—food, water, a clean and comfortable pen, a sense of security. I will ask nothing of the horse in return and make no effort to engage the horse—acting as if I have no interest in him. In time, the horse comes to associate the presence of humans with good things and will begin to seek more engagement.

I want the horse to have positive associations with people, but I don’t need him to act in a way that makes me feel better about myself or makes me feel loved. I think it’s unreasonable to expect a horse to validate my own personal need to be accepted, or to ask him for something he’s not capable of giving. I happily accept any interest he shows in me, I just don’t beg for it or become disappointed if he ignores me.

In time, that aloof horse will act much more interested in seeing me as he learns to associate my presence with good and necessary things. That’s my cue to take it to the next level. By now, he’s feeling secure—all of his basic needs are attended to, and he’s starting to look for more engagement. Taking the horse out of his pen to go for a walk, eat some green grass or meet the other horses will enrich his life. Now the horse is well on his way to looking forward to my arrival.

Grooming ToolsMake grooming time a bonding time with your horse

Two Can Play This Game

Once the horse has begun to show more interest in people, it’s time to actively reprogram the horse’s avoidance behavior. Whatever the reason for his lack of interest or active avoidance, he may have learned undesirable behaviors like walking away from you, turning his butt to you, or even defensive behaviors like threatening to kick or bite when you approach.

To reprogram the horse’s habitual behavior, I will employ a highly effective training technique called patterned conditioning. In other words, I will create a conditioned response in the horse (think Pavlov’s dog) by repeating a pattern over and over, releasing the pressure when I get the response I want. In the case of the horse that is avoiding me, it may look like this…

With a halter and lead in hand (no hiding it or using treats as a bribe), I will slowly approach the horse, displaying the most non-threatening posture I can—eyes averted, shoulders rounded, feet moving slowly, approaching the shoulder not the head. If the horse moves away, I follow, being careful not to increase the pressure (speed up or look more assertive) but not allowing the horse to get away from the pressure I am exerting with my approach. As soon as the horse stops and/or looks at me, I turn around and walk away—sometimes all the way out of the pen, completely releasing the pressure and rewarding the correct response.

I’ll give the horse a moment to think about what just happened, then I will approach it again, repeating the same pattern and turning and walking away as soon as the horse stops or shows interest in me. A horse always seeks a total cessation of pressure and turning and walking away is often the release it’s looking for. Soon the horse starts understanding that when he faces me, the pressure goes away. Before long, the horse is approaching me when I come into its pen.


A Tougher Nut to Crack

Because horses are lightning-quick learners, they often learn techniques to avoid capture and to make people leave them alone, like turning its butt and threatening to kick when you approach. It’s just a clever ploy, and I would certainly not take this personally or as an insult. It’s important to keep my own emotions out of it.

When a horse has learned to turn his butt and threaten to kick as I approach, I will step up my game a bit by irritating him when he turns tail and leaving him alone when he faces. With my halter and lead in hand, and from a safe distance in case he does kick, I will toss the halter at his rump when he turns his butt to me, then reel it back in and toss it at him again. This will bother him and at some point, he’ll turn toward me to reassess. At that moment, I will walk away, rewarding the horse for turning toward me. With a lot of repetition, I will pattern a new response in the horse, wherein he faces me every time I approach.

The hard-to-catch horse in a paddock or pasture has learned a clever game of outwitting humans. Sometimes it’s less about the capture and more about controlling the actions of the human (a game horses love). I have a lot of resource material about my techniques for reprogramming this type of behavior, with a method I call “walking the horse off.” It works 100% of the time and it teaches the horse that his clever techniques won’t work on you any more. If you need help with this, you can get more information in my online Training Library.


Accept Your Horse for Who He Is

Sometimes it’s hard not to take your horse’s reactions personally, especially when he seems indifferent to you or is actively avoiding you, but when you allow your emotions and your human expectations to get involved, you do a disservice to your horse. Taking the higher road, by having empathy and displaying leadership, takes the pressure off you and the horse.If what you want from an animal is undying loyalty and endless affection, you should consider getting a Golden Retriever.

Being patient and giving the horse time to change his point of view about humans, allowing the horse to come to a new understanding will give you a superior result. Learning to discern when you are controlling the horse’s actions and when he is controlling yours, will help prevent the horse from learning undesirable behaviors to begin with. Reprogramming the horse’s learned and habitual responses is not difficult when you approach it methodically. 

I think Benjamin answered his own question perfectly by saying, “I do feel we have a good connection when riding or on the ground. He trusts me and is very responsive.” And Benjamin is right; he does have a great relationship with his horse and what more could he want? Accept the evidence before you and see your horse for who he is. Don’t let someone else define success for you, don’t place human attributes on a horse, and don’t expect him to be something he’s not.

By letting go of unreasonable expectations, by allowing your horse to be a horse, by taking the leadership role and not the needy role, and by occasionally employing clever techniques yourself, you’ll be amazed at how your horse’s attitudes will change!

Back From the Brink: Managing Emotional Meltdowns in Horses

Woodrow Rearing
Woodrow Rearing

No doubt about it—horses are emotional animals; perhaps more emotional than humans. As prey and herd animals, horses are programmed to adopt the emotions of the animals around them (herd mentality) and react appropriately. It is a life and death matter to a prey animal.

When one horse in the herd becomes frightened, generally all the horses will respond in kind. This tendency of horses to adopt the emotions of others applies to the humans around them as well, emphasizing the importance of controlling our own reactions when working with a horse that’s on emotional overload.

Horses have the same basic emotions as humans—happy, sad, scared, angry, frustrated, lonely, jealous, disgusted. Although we cannot always know exactly what emotion the horse is feeling, it is easy to recognize a horse that’s having an emotional meltdown. Whether the horse is panicked, throwing a tantrum over something he does not want to do, or simply overwhelmed and shutting down, this behavior is often dramatic and can be frightening at times. 

In a perfect world, a horse is always calm, focused, and steady in its behavior, but in the event your world is not perfect and your horse is not a robot, it is good to be prepared to handle emotional overload in horses. Here, I will share some tips for recognizing and analyzing changes in your horse’s emotionality as well as my philosophy for managing it. Most importantly, I’ll discuss the technical skills you need to employ when your horse’s behavior tanks, you feel out of control, and need to get your horse back to a thinking state of mind.

Not My Horse… He Never Acts This Way at Home!

Any horse may fall victim to emotionality, no matter the age, breed, temperament, or how well trained it is; this is simply the nature of horses. The causes may vary from a simple startle response that triggers flight (rabbit jumps out from a bush), to over-stimulation in a frenetic environment (like a parade; the “first trip to town” scenario), to separation anxiety (herd-bound), or slowly building anxiety that suddenly overflows (often caused by underlying pain issues), to tantrums and refusals (perhaps a result of poor handling, underlying pain, or fear), to a horse that’s being asked something it’s not capable of in the moment and mentally shuts down (“over-facing” the horse).

A horse experiencing an emotional meltdown will likely have its head high, its tail up or stiff or swishing; a distressed expression in its eyes and on its face; tense and perhaps shaking through its whole body (“on the muscle”); calling out, shaking its head, stomping and fidgeting; rearing; searching right, then left, then right (looking for an exit), perhaps attempting to spin and bolt away. At times, a horse that is overwhelmed will simply shut down, become heavy, lethargic, and non-responsive (behavior often referred to as “sulling up”).

Whatever the cause, when a horse is emotionally overwhelmed, it is not in a thinking or trainable state of mind. Without relaxing first, the horse cannot think well, and unless and until it returns to a thinking state of mind, no training can occur.  Relaxing and regaining control of the horse, then bringing him back to focus, are the immediate goals. As a rider or as a horse handler, your job will be much easier when you learn to recognize small changes in your horse’s emotionality and take proactive steps right away, to bring him back from the brink.

Calm + Thinking = Trainable

A compliant, attentive, and willing horse has a relaxed posture, with its head and tail low, and its ears relaxed in an east-west position, either focused on the rider/handler or focused on nothing. When the rider gets active from the saddle, both ears focus back, looking for a cue. When asked something from the ground the horse is focused on the handler, calmly looking for clues as to what it should do. A contented horse lowers its head and sighs deeply, often bending a hind leg to rest (much different than cocking the leg tensely, as with a kick threat).

Inevitably, things will happen that lead to excessive emotionality in your horse. Paying close attention to the horse’s posture, its breathing, the tension in its muscles (fight or flight posturing). Accurately reading the horse’s communicative gestures (like tossing its nose, shaking its head, switching the tail, pawing, stomping, cocking a hind foot defensively) will help you understand the origins of the horse’s emotions.

Analyzing the situation to determine the motivation behind the horse’s behavior, is important and will help determine the best response. Is it pure fear, a startle response, separation anxiety, or a total mutiny? Is the horse trying to get away from something or pull toward the barn? Does the horse’s reaction point to pain as a root cause, or is it a tantrum from a horse spoiled by poor handling?

An emotionally overwrought horse may be fearful, angry, defiant, refusing, searching, or despondent, triggering behaviors like flight or fight responses. One thing we know about horses is that once they enter a cycle of behavior like flight, the behavior tends to escalate—until something happens to stop it. The sooner intervention occurs, the easier it is to get the horse back to a relaxed and compliant state. The longer the horse stays in the cycle of behavior, the harder it is to get them out.

Becoming aware of changes in the horse’s emotional state when it first happens, analyzing the situational causes, then taking immediate action to bring the horse back from the brink of an emotional meltdown, are the keys to success in handling a horse with extreme emotionality. 

Training Philosophies That May Help

Over the decades of training horses, I’ve learned to treat an excessive emotionality in horses as a mental health problem, not a training problem. Before anything productive can happen with that horse, I must get the horse back to a productive mindset (calm, relaxed, and thinking). Whether I am loading an uncooperative horse into a trailer or trying to cross a sticky water hazard, if the horse is having a meltdown, my job is to diffuse and de-escalate the behavior first, by asking the horse to lower its head (relaxing its physical posture), take a deep breath, sometimes stroking the horse in reassurance, sometimes gently scolding the horse for infractions.

When I am dealing with emotional outbursts in horses, it is critical that I control my own emotions, staying in the moment and taking deliberate and methodical actions. I have learned to breathe deeply, to slow down my own reactions and cues, to exhale as I relax my own body posture. I must stay in a thinking state of mind myself, take control of the situation, and be proactive. The worst things I can do are to shut down, doubt myself, show contradictory body language, and become passive.

When a horse’s behavior goes south on me, I need to find some familiar ground with the horse, to get him back to a responsive frame of mind. I will issue simple directives to the horse and give basic cues I know the horse knows, like turn right, turn left, stop and go. I will praise and reward the horse’s response to these simple cues, reminding the horse that it knows how to respond and how good it feels to be praised. I will regain the horse’s responsiveness the easiest way I can.

As flight animals, horses are hard wired, mentally, physically, and behaviorally for motion. Horses think better when they are moving. Forward motion helps the rider or handler regain control. Without free and willing forward motion, a horse cannot be trained. However, sometimes movement in the wrong direction triggers the flight response, so I must be prepared to shut down flight instantaneously.

Addressing the horse that is emotionally overwhelmed sometimes means I treat it as a mental health issue and that I must slow down my reactions and control my own emotions. I want to engage the horse in simple cues and responses, so he starts thinking again. Often it is best to keep a distraught horse moving, because a horse that is moving forward may be more easily controlled, yet I must be prepared to shut flight if things get out of control. 

Technical Skills to Employ

Abdominal breathing, keeping your eyes focused, and adopting calm and confident body language are critical skills for the rider or handler. Horses are mimicking animals that communicate primarily with postures and gestures. Having command of your own presence and being able to call up these skills on demand, will get you far with horses.

Learning the hard skills of managing the reins, controlling the nose of the horse, lateral flexion, using the one-rein stop, and how to employ the emergency stop (which is not the same as the one-rein stop); or, from the ground, to use your rope and flag productively, to be aware of spatial issues and positioning, to disengage the hindquarters to stop—these are the skills that allow you to shut down flight or control the horse that moves into you or wants to wheel around and bolt. 

Bending the horse’s neck will help you gain control of a horse that is volatile or threatening aggression or mutiny. Whenever I have concerns about controlling a horse—either from the ground or from the saddle, I will require it to keep a slight bend in its neck as I ride or lead. If the horse’s neck is straight out in front of him, it is much easier for the horse to over-power me. But riders must beware of too much pressure on the outside rein when bending, which may have the opposite result and cause the horse to run through the bridle.

De-escalate an emotional response and reestablish control by engaging the horse in a simple activity he knows how to do. Whatever you can do to cue the horse and get a response will engage its mind, start the horse thinking, and allow you to praise it. Think about cues to go, stop, turn.

Resort to groundwork basics like circling work, changes of directions, and disengaging the hindquarters— if you are riding, do not be afraid to get off to school your horse from the ground to get his focus back on you. It is important to have these groundwork exercises in your bag of tools to fall back on. Your authority and your horse’s confidence may be gained easier from the ground. 

Elaborating on these hard skills would be better fodder for a book than a blog, and it could take years to master. The soft skills you need that come with greater knowledge and the judgement gained from experience with a variety of horses in a myriad of situations will develop over time. 

The good news is that all of the educational resources you need to learn these skills are available to you from my online membership programs, in the form of how-to videos, audio podcasts, and instructional articles by the hundreds. Go to to find out more. 

At the End of the Day

Recognizing and understanding the horse’s emotionality comes first. Keeping yourself in a calm and focused state of mind is paramount to your success with an emotional horse and it requires deliberate practice, to be able to call up these skills on demand. Diffusing the horse’s emotionality while maintaining control and authority, requires the rider or handler to stay focused, ride or direct the horse from the ground proactively, and employ training skills that get the results needed in that moment.

No one ever said riding and training horses would always be easy. Developing the skills, knowledge and judgement you need to handle difficult situations with horses, to gain control in the heat of the moment, and to bring the horse back to a manageable and cooperative mindset, may take years but is well worth the effort. From reading his blog, you already have a start. I hope you found more clarity on techniques for managing your horse’s emotionality and some  ideas you can put to work right away!

Cultivating a Connection with Horses

Julie and her now retired cowhorse, Dually, take a moment to connect.

Duke was a well-trained gelding, successful in the show ring as a youngster, then ridden extensively in the rugged mountains of Colorado. He was a handsome hunk of muscle, very balanced, always a delight to ride and safe to handle. But at the age of 16, after six months in winter pasture, he wasn’t the same horse.  

In May, I picked him up from the large ranch where his owners had boarded him for the winter. The horse was turned out in a large herd on a fifteen-hundred-acres, with little handling. At first, he was easy to catch and seemed happy to see me, but once we turned toward the truck and away from the herd, the easy-going, well-trained gelding suddenly resembled a thousand-pound toddler throwing a tantrum.

The farther away from the herd we got, the more emotionally distraught Duke became—prancing, looking around, shaking his head, eyes white, nostrils flared and screaming bloody murder for his friends. In the moment, my scolding and attempt at groundwork did little to reset his brain.  

Duke’s connection to the herd was strong and his misery was intense. He made it abundantly clear he had no interest in me. The gelding fussed, stomped, and screamed throughout most of the 100-mile drive to my barn. I knew I had my work cut out for me, to break the instinctive herd-connection, remind him of his training, and re-connect him to people. Horses are relationship-oriented animals with an instinctive need for acceptance to a herd and to form bonded connections to other individuals in the herd (we call them “buddies” and behaviorists call them “associates”).  Cultivating that same sense of connection between horse and human is very attainable. For me, it is the ultimate partnership I want to have with a horse—one in which the horse feels safe and wants to be with me, is eager to please, hungry for my praise and willing to follow me anywhere. I’ve worked with lots of riders in my horsemanship clinics and through my online coaching programs who are striving for a better connection with their horse too. Sometimes they are rebuilding confidence after a bad experience, and both horse and rider need to develop trust in each other again. Or maybe it’s a new horse or one that’s coming back into training after a long layoff from illness or injury; or maybe the horse has been idle because the human in its life was simply absent.

There are many reasons why a person might need to establish (or re-establish) a connection with a horse. Forging a partnership between horse and human and developing a bonded relationship brings greater satisfaction and more accomplishment. Here, I’ll show you the steps I took to reconnect with Duke and share some tips that you might use to connect with the four-legged friend in your life.


Separation Anxiety

Without much separation, the herd becomes the horse’s entire world. From the herd, the horse gets a sense of safety and comfort. There’s law and order, a capable leader calling all the shots, a daily regimen to follow, and buddies to cover your back. Obviously, walking away from all of that is not easy for a horse—a prey animal—who lives in fear of being eaten. Rarely will separating a herd-bound horse be easy or quiet, but it is a necessary step to take before the horse will transfer the same feelings he gets from the herd to a person.

Woodrow, a three-year-old gelding, throws a tantrum because his herdmate just left the arena.

For Duke, it was easy since we put him in the trailer and physically distanced him from the herd. Out of sight and out of ear shot, the severing of herd ties is easier and faster, although the horse will still feel some separation anxiety. The most difficult scenario for dealing with herd-bound horses occurs when you cannot physically separate them from the herd—when they can still see and/or hear the herd– it’s a constant reminder to the horse that he is separated and vulnerable.

We always isolate new horses that come to my facility, for health reasons, but it helps a lot with resolving separation anxiety too. I put them in their own comfortable pen, where they can see the other horses but not get close to them. Then for two weeks, the only interaction the horses have is with the people that feed them and clean their pen. People start to seem a lot more appealing to a horse when they bring comfort and apply no pressure.

Initially, we won’t dote on the horses in isolation or try to make friends with them, but we take care of their basic needs and are there if they need us or want interaction. Within a week or less, we can see the horses changing their minds about who is important in their lives and humans become much more appealing. Once a horse starts looking more longingly for interaction with us, we start spending more quality time with the horse, giving it the interaction, routine and enrichment it seeks.

Allowing horses to work through their anxiety and grief at losing the herd, before expecting them to show interest in people, is important. A horse cannot be trained unless he is calm, focused and thinking. But as soon as the horse shows acceptance of its fate and begins to look around for a new deal I want to step in and fill the void.

If physical separation from the herd is not possible, this job can get harder and may take longer.  I still separate the horse I am trying to connect with every day for an hour or more. There will be fussing, fidgeting, and hollering. Depending on the horse, I may tie it up in a comfortable place and let it fuss. I will wait until the horse is quiet and patient before turning it back with the herd. I will make this a routine for the horse—same time, same place, same activity every day, because horses take comfort in sameness.

If tying the horse is not reasonable, because the horse is not trained to tie, I may have to keep it busy during this separation time, doing lead-line work, round penning, or going for a walk. Movement is often better for anxious horses, rather than standing still. Over time, horses get comfortable with a routine and begin to fear separation less.

The quarantine pen: horses in isolation will naturally seek companionship with the people who take care of them.

Getting past the initial separation anxiety is the hardest part of establishing a connection with a horse and it may take a while, depending on the horse and circumstances. Keen observation of the horse during this time, will show me when the horse starts to look for new attachments. That’s my cue to step in and start doing more with the horse—more friendly activities like grooming and providing enrichment. At this stage, the horse will start transferring his feelings of attachment to me and begin to look to me for leadership.


Establishing Boundaries & Expectations

Horses know leadership when they see it and they seek it out. In the presence of a strong leader, horses feel safe, protected, and accepted. As soon as the horses are past the initial shock of being separated from the herd, I want them to learn they can count on me to take care of them and keep them safe. Keeping the horse isolated from the herd, with humans providing its food, water and care, the horse begins to look to humans as their new herd.

Whether a horse is new, or you are reconnecting after a long hiatus, the first impressions and the initial precedents you set are critical and they will form the basis of your relationship with the horse going forward. If you tolerate unsafe or rude behavior initially, you will set a precedent that is difficult to undo.

I want to teach horses what my expectations of their behavior are, by establishing boundaries and controlling their actions and movements through groundwork; disallowing tantrums and emotional outbursts, not through punishment, but by redirecting their energy and actions elsewhere. Duke was a well trained and experienced horse that had become herd-bound due to circumstance. When the horse has training to fall back on, establishing boundaries and expectations can go very quickly. The horse already knows the rules; but is rusty on them. For Duke, once separated, all it took was a few days of groundwork, tying, and revisiting the basics of his training before he fell right back into his groove. Reminding trained horses of what they know, can almost be a relief for the horse if they have separation anxiety. Duke was happy to get back to the regimented life that he once knew and eagerly accepted my authority and leadership.

Establishing boundaries immediately with an unruly horse is not only important for my personal safety, but also for establishing my authority with the horse. In the herd, horses establish dominance by controlling the space and actions of subordinates.  If I allow horses to move into me or act as if I am not there, in their minds, they are in charge. This can happen on the very first incident. At any time the horse moves into me, slings its head at me, or gets ahead of me, I will immediately scold the horse, back it up and move it away from me. I am 100% clear on my personal boundaries and my expectations of its behavior, and that is immediately impactful to the horse.

If you want to learn more about how to handle a pushy horse, how to make your boundaries clear, or about the horse honoring boundaries while leading, watch my “Establishing Boundaries” and “Leadline Boundaries” videos here.


Communicating your expectations to the horse presumes you have clear expectations. I expect my horses to voluntarily be present with me, not looking around for an exit or threatening to leave. I expect them to be focused on me and what I am asking or focused on nothing. I expect them to stand still when I ask, never invade my personal space, and to always display safe and pleasant manners when I am around them. Armed with the right equipment for groundwork (rope halter, training lead, training stick or flag if needed) and the information you need to teach basic ground manners, this can go really fast. Check out this special which includes a rope halter and training lead plus a free ground manners video that gives you step-by-step instruction on teaching ground manners to a horse.

Establishing boundaries and communicating your clear expectations to the horse should happen right away upon your first interaction with the horse. The precedents you set on that initial encounter (which I often refer to as the “golden moments”), the impressions you give the horse about your confidence level and leadership, your tolerance or intolerance of certain behaviors, your strength, consistency and fairness, will make a huge impact on the horse. The horse learns rapidly (way faster than humans, as far as I can tell) and you cannot unmake first impressions.


Good Leadership Generates Good Followership

The Alpha Individual is a strong, confident, and capable herd leader. In a horse herd, the Alpha may be male or female, and their responsibilities are to protect the herd, motivate the herd to flight, should it be necessary, to maintain law and order in the herd, and to budget time for the herd to eat, drink and sleep. Horses crave strong leadership, they recognize it easily, and they feel safe and content in its presence. My goal in connecting with horses is to have them voluntarily hook onto me and want to be with me, no matter where I go. But first the horse must get from me, the same sense of safety and comfort it gets from the herd. The voluntary behavior I seek from the horse, begins with my own behavior—I need the horse to see me as the strong leader it craves.

I must be confident, calm, and communicate my expectations clearly. To be the leader horses crave, I must take care of their physical needs and be consistent and fair in administering both praise and admonishment. Most of all, I must keep the horses safe (emotionally and physically) and never ask more than they can give me. This is how horses make us better people.

More than anything, horses want to feel safe and taken care of. They appreciate order, routine and sameness, because that makes them feel safe. When horses are displaying emotionality, especially anxiety, they are not happy. But they don’t know how to act differently in that moment—their emotions have taken control.

When Duke was having his emotional meltdown upon leaving the herd, I knew I had a job ahead of me. I had to contain his behavior in the moment, while showing confidence, remaining calm and focused on the task, remind him of his manners, and bring some sense of order to the scene.

Once home at my ranch, it was easy to reconnect with Duke, since he was quarantined from other horses and his food and water, and his clean and comfortable accommodations, came directly from me. After a few days to settle in, he began to recognize me as an important figure in his life. Then it was time to start setting some precedents in terms of his behavior, starting with the basics, and reminding him of his previous training.

A moment of connection after a round-pen training session.

One thing I know about horses, is that they will always act like horses. They know and understand horse behavior and herd dynamics; who’s in control and who is not. They are keenly observant of body language and intent, and they learn wickedly fast, for better or for worse. These attributes of horses are always present, and can be either an advantage or disadvantage, depending on how it’s handled.

To establish a meaningful connection with a horse, means understanding its natural behavior, being clear and confident about your expectations, being fair and consistent in your praise and admonishment, and going back to basics in training. It means having reasonable expectations, neither too low or too high, and giving the horse the time it needs to adjust to a new situation.

It’s a tall order and will require some dedication to the cause. But in the end, having that bonded relationship, where the horse looks up to you, wants to be with you and is eager to please you, will make all your efforts worthwhile.

Unspoken Agreements

Apple, the horse starring in this episode.
Is your horse easy to get along with, until you ask him to do something new and different? Or, heaven forbid, something he doesn’t want to do? Perhaps he’s happy to go down the trail in the company of others, but not alone. Or maybe he’ll go anywhere you point him, alone or with company, as long as you don’t ask him to cross water. How about the horse that half-heartedly trots when you ask, but threatens to buck if you ask to canter?

Horses are living, breathing animals with a mind of their own. They form opinions and make decisions.

Unfortunately, sometimes they come to conclusions we don’t agree with and form opinions that don’t jive with our wants and needs. For instance, if you’ve ridden a horse for two years and never once asked him to canter, your horse might understandably think you will never ask him to canter, or cantering is wrong or that it is not part of his contract. You can’t blame a guy for thinking, right?

The process of training horses involves both helping your horse form the correct opinions about being ridden and handled and not letting him get the wrong ideas. It takes months and years to train horses to a high level of performance and many mistakes can be made along the way that would lead your horse to misconceptions about what’s right and wrong. All it takes is releasing the pressure at the wrong moment, to convince a horse that was the right thing to do.

Although horses are not good at problem solving, they are always thinking and learning—whether we want them to or not—learning wrong things just as quickly as the right stuff. It’s funny that humans have literally three times the brain of a horse and much more capability in problem solving, yet we get outsmarted by horses all the time.

Huge pitfalls in a horse’s training can be avoided when the rider becomes more aware of the motivation behind the horse’s behavior, by making sure your horse forms the correct opinions about being ridden, by being mindful of the unspoken agreements between you and your horse and knowing who the decision maker is, in your “herd of two.”

Motivations Matter
Behind every behavior of your horse, there is a motivation for that action. If your horse throws a temper tantrum as you approach the horse trailer, his motivation is to get away from the trailer. If he refuses to move forward when you ask him to leave the barnyard, his motivation is likely to get back to his herd. If he argues and resists when you ask him to canter, his motivation may be to get out of hard work.

We don’t always get to know what motivates the horse’s behavior but in many instances, the motivation is very clear. If you can understand what is motivating the horse’s behavior, it will be far easier to fix. For instance, when the horse throws a fit about approaching the horse trailer, I know the very worst thing I can do is circle him back away from the trailer at the moment he throws the fit. Turning him back away from the trailer rewards the tantrum in that moment and getting away from the trailer was all he wanted.

Rather than simply react to your horse’s behavior, take a moment to assess his motivation. Once you understand why your horse is acting that way and what he is trying to achieve, you can address the behavior more effectively and make sure you don’t inadvertently reward the wrong behavior.

Opinions Count
You have opinions and so does your horse. It would be nice to think our opinions always align, but they don’t. For instance, you may think that you have not asked the horse to canter in over a year because you don’t want to canter and are not ready to canter. Your horse may come to believe that if he hasn’t been asked to canter in that long, he will never be asked. Furthermore, he may come to believe that it is not part of his contract—that you don’t have the right to ask him to canter.

Recently, I became aware that my young horse, Pepperoni, had formed an opinion that differed from mine. After riding indoors all winter, in the company of his herd mates, he mistakenly formed the opinion that he would never have to work alone. This became quite obvious when I took him to the outdoor arena alone and he threw a wall-eyed red-headed fit. My bad. I should’ve been working him in isolation more.

He had inadvertently formed the wrong opinion about how things work and he thought he was entitled to always ride in the company of other horses. We worked through this problem and I changed his way of thinking over a few weeks, and now I make sure I ride him alone regularly. Sometimes you and your horse will have differing opinions. It’s up to you, the leader, to clarify and rectify and make sure your horse comes out of every training session with the correct opinions.

Breach of Contract
In the training of a horse, we constantly make unspoken agreements with him. When you do as I ask, I will acknowledge and praise your obedience. When you try hard, I will let you rest. When you give the correct response, I will always release the pressure. When you resist or disobey my requests, I will always follow through with reinforcement.

Sometimes we make mistakes and fall down on our end of the agreement. Maybe at the moment you asked your horse to canter, you froze up on the reins and caused him to hit the bit and hurt his mouth. As far as he is concerned, this is an egregious breach of contract—you failed him. His head shaking and crow-hopping is his way of telling you that he thinks what you did is wrong. A smart rider will admit her mistakes and not blame the horse.

On the other hand, if you’ve been avoiding doing something with your horse because you are afraid to try or because you don’t think you can get your horse to do it, he may have come to believe that it is not part of his contract—that he will never have to do that. We can easily end up with a horse that does most of what we ask, but draws a line in the sand and says, “But I won’t give you any more than that—if you don’t push me, I won’t push back on you.”

I often see riders and horses that have this kind of arrangement—the “don’t push me too far” scenario. If there are things that you avoid asking your horse to do because you are afraid of his reaction when you do ask, your horse probably knows it and has come to believe that you’ve crossed a line when you ask that of him. In many instances, this kind of agreement seems to work, as long as the rider knows her place. But gradually, the horse will start making more and more deals under the table and is willing to do less and less.

You have a contract with your horse—to release the pressure when you should, to reward his good behavior, to not make mistakes and penalize him for doing his job, to be a good leader and make good decisions. Just make sure you have not inadvertently led your horse to believe that there are clauses in the contract which you have not agreed to. If there are things you avoid doing or if your horse has refused your request and you did not follow through, you may have taught him that he will never have to do that.

Decisions, Decisions
The person in charge is the one responsible for making the decisions. In your team of two—you and your horse—you should be the one in charge; you should be making all the decisions. You are the leader; your horse is the follower. You don’t want a thousand-pound flight animal making the decisions.

If your horse cannot trust your judgment (because you’ve made too many mistakes or betrayed his trust or been passive when you should’ve acted), he will constantly question your decisions. He may refuse to do what you ask or have a better suggestion for what you should do. If you make a poor decision that results in him getting hurt or scared, he has good reason not to trust your judgment anymore.

To be a good leader to your horse, you must not only make all the decisions but also make good decisions. It’s not just about you. Your responsibility is to take care of your horse—to be fair, consistent, and have good follow-through. It’s easy to blame things on the horse, but a good leader looks within for answers to problems.

At the end of the day, there’s only one conversation I want to have with my horse, and it starts like this… “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.” I like to think of myself as the Captain and my horse is my best first mate. I make the decisions and he makes it happen. He doesn’t argue with me or suggest I do things differently. He trusts me to make good decisions and he knows I won’t ask for more than he’s capable of giving me. He knows he will always be praised and rewarded for a job well done, and he also knows that if he falls down on his end of the agreement, he will hear about it from me.

Horses are quite clever, and they have a knack for reading people, sometimes better than people are reading themselves. Don’t be lured into thinking your horse doesn’t notice your actions, your lack-of-action or your avoidance behavior. Be honest with yourself and accept responsibility for your own mistakes. Think through your horse’s behavior, motivations and opinions and address them openly. Horses crave strong leadership and they know it when they see it, so look within and be the best leader you can be for your horse.

Back to Basics: Part 2, Square-One in the Riding Arena

When a horse’s training is either lacking or confused, we
often talk about going “back to basics.” Last month, I talked about basic
training from the ground—and how important it is to have a well-mannered,
attentive and cooperative horse on the ground—before moving up to training
under-saddle. If being on the ground with the horse is a harrowing experience,
why on earth would I want to ride him?

Assuming you’ve got your horse squared away from the
ground, let’s look at what going back to square one means in mounted training.
Horses may have this need for a variety of reasons, and consequently, my focus
may be different too. But we can rely on the methodology of classical training
for a sure-fire recipe for success. After all, it’s worked for thousands of
years. I’d like to introduce you to three imaginary horses and show you what
each step of the journey looks like, when going back to square one with a
saddle horse.

I’m purposefully leaving out abused and traumatized
horses from this back-to-basics discussion. Traumatized or psychologically
damaged horses are special cases and their training plan needs to be customized
entirely for the needs of that horse, given his individual level of fear,
aggression and emotionality. Obviously, these horses need time and patience,
and their volatility may make them more dangerous to handle. If you’re working
with this type of horse, you should get expert, hands-on help.

Horses are We Talking About?

A horse might be completely uneducated and inexperienced, like the clean slate
of a colt or filly that’s never been ridden. He/she knows nothing about being
ridden, balancing a rider, rating speed, responding to cues or what is
required. He doesn’t even have a reason to dislike being ridden or think of it
as drudgery yet. This is the easiest kind of horse to train, because he hasn’t
learned any wrong things yet. We’ll call this horse, “Junior.”

Another horse for which back-to-basics training would be
useful, is a horse that is “broke” but not trained. He’s fully accustomed to
being saddled, mounted and ridden, but he never went to high school. Maybe he’s
a ranch horse or trail horse, but he’s been well-handled, taught good manners
from the ground, developed a good work ethic and is obedient while being
ridden—he just doesn’t know much. Depending on how long this horse has been
ridden, he may have some engrained bad habits or improper responses that need
replacing, like leaning into turns or stiffening the neck with rein contact,
but otherwise, he just needs to learn new, more advanced skills. We’ll call
this horse “Cowboy.”

A common situation that often leads a horse back to
square one in his training, is the horse that has been ridden many times,
perhaps for years, but has become “spoiled” and is prone to tantrums and
disobedient behavior. He’s learned the wrong things and gotten away with a lot.
He may have learned clever strategies for manipulating or intimidating the
rider, like bucking at canter or spinning and bolting. This horse is harder to
train because he’s learned nasty tricks, we wish no horse would ever learn
(there’s no such thing as UN-learning; once he knows it, he knows it). For
every time he’s benefitted from his disobedient behavior, we’ll have to add two
or three experiences (or 10 or 20) where he doesn’t. Undesirable behaviors must
be replaced with more desirable behaviors, and repetition must occur until the
desired response becomes engrained. If the horse returns to the conditions that
caused the undesirable behavior in the first place, the horse will revert fast.
We’ll call this horse, “Treasure.”

Junior, Cowboy and Treasure, are three typical horses
that need to go back to basics in their training. The tenants of classical
horse training that stretch back thousands of years in our history, give us meaningful
guidelines for advancing a horse’s training. Here, I’ll share the primary steps
I would take in back-to-basics training of the saddle horse, and how I would
apply it to each of our three recruits.

ONE: Forward Motion is the Basis of All Training

A horse must move willingly forward when asked, for as long as you require. A
horse that will not move freely forward cannot be trained. If his refusal to
move forward is disobedience (and not a physical issue); then no other training
will occur until you get past this stage.

Junior: In the
beginning, this is almost all we do—go, go, go somewhere. I want the youngster
to step right out and know that we may keep going for some time. I’m always
looking ahead, riding with a destination in mind (even in the arena) and riding
purposefully. He needs to learn to balance the rider in all gaits and most
importantly, that he must keep going, without me pedaling, until I ask him to

Cowboy: He’s
well beyond Junior in this regard. For Cowboy, this step means refining our
cues for upward transitions, learning to canter without a fast trot or cue for
a particular lead. I may be working Cowboy in the arena a lot, so we may also
be establishing basics like not cutting corners or speeding up/slowing down at
the gate.

Treasure: This
could go one of two ways, depending on Treasure’s temperament. One, he might be
lazy and refusing to move forward. This could be a big hurdle to overcome, but
no training can proceed until we get him moving willingly. I’ll focus on
nothing else other than keeping the horse going forward for a while,
admonishing him when he tries to quit. Two, if Treasure is the high-energy
sort, this is going to be more about containing the forward motion, riding it
out his forwardness and smoothing out upward transitions.

TWO: Straightness

A horse must always travel on the path dictated by the rider; he doesn’t get to
decide where he goes. Furthermore, he must be straight through his whole body
(nose to tail), on straight lines, in turns and on circles.

Junior: At
first, on a previously un-ridden horse, there’s not much in the way of power
steering or precision—I’m lucky if I wind up in the general vicinity of the
target. Although I’m always riding forward with energy, looking ahead and
riding purposefully, we will change directions a lot (cueing first with my
eyes, so he starts learning to follow my gaze). With every change of direction,
I have a little more control. Gradually we add increasingly long stretches of
straight lines (an even greater challenge), first o the rail, then without that

Cowboy: He
does better on straight lines, than on turns. Cowboy is ready to carry
“straightness” into turns and circles, bending his body without dropping his
shoulder and leaning into the turn. We’ll focus more on the precision end of
straightness: riding challenging straight lines off the rail, bending on half
circles, serpentines and full circles. As he comes into higher levels of
training, we’ll focus more on lifting the shoulder and arcing through his

Treasure: For
this horse, straightness is more about obedience than power steering. Chances
are good, he’s learned (wrongly) that he has some say in where he goes and
where he doesn’t go. I’m paying close attention to things like cutting corners,
pulling toward the gate/barn/buddy. I may test him by putting him on a long
straight line, next to the far fence, then lay my hands on his neck (to
neutralize the reins) and see what he does with the freedom. If he immediately
diverts and heads where he wants to go, I know he is in a disobedient and
opportunistic frame of mind. This step is more about reshaping his opinion of
what I expect of him, that I control direction and speed, and teaching him that
his tactics won’t work on me.

THREE: Obedience to the Aids

At every level of training, obedience to the aids means something a little
different. At first, it’s simply about controlling direction and speed,
establishing basic control and developing a compliant horse. Then we move on to
complete nose-to-tail body control, collection, lateral movements and other
advanced maneuvers. All the while, shaping the horse’s work ethic and nurturing
the horse’s try.

Gradually, I start requiring Junior to maintain the speed I ask for in all
gaits, without my help. For a while, we will continue to focus on forward
movement, and when I do introduce collection (putting restraints on the horse’s
forward movement), it will be at a very low level. As we do more turns and
circles, we start working on bending and control of the shoulders (the hardest
part of the horse to control). Slowly, I start introducing lateral
movements—haunches-in, shoulder-in, leg yielding. I will take my time and go
slowly here, because I know foundational skills must be learned well, before
moving on to more advanced stuff.

Cowboy: This
will be the most meaningful step in Cowboy’s back-to-basics training. He’s
ready for collection at all gaits, I just need to show him what I want and
condition him both mentally and physically for the task. I’ll focus a lot on
shoulder control with leg yields, turns and pivots. Obedience to the aids for
Cowboy also means improving upward and downward transitions, so I’ll start
getting more demanding there too.

Treasure: By
now, my hope is that Treasure has come to a better understanding of my
expectations and what I consider inappropriate and disobedient behavior.
Obedience to the aids for Treasure is both mental and physical. I’ve been
working with him in such a way that makes him want to please me—to stay on my
good side (ain’t nobody happy, if mamma ain’t happy). I want every part of his
body to stay exactly on the path I dictate, and I should not have to hold him
on a path or hold him in a speed—that’s his responsibility. I need him to be
present at all times, either focused on me or focused on nothing, not looking
outside the arena or worrying about other horses. Often, for horses like
Treasure, once I resolve his learned disobedience and establish clear
parameters for his behavior, the previous (positive) training the horse had (if
any) will surface once again.

The classical progression in horse training has been
around for thousands of years—it’s a proven recipe for success. However, every
horse is different in his talents, attributes, temperament, and life experience
(which may have been good, bad or nonexistent). It’s important to progress in
an orderly fashion and not cut corners—that’s why “slower is faster” when it
comes to training horses. Often, when horses need to go “back to basics,” it’s
because shortcuts were taken and there are holes in the horse’s foundational

While starting a horse under-saddle (getting him used to
the tack and balancing the rider) goes quickly, thorough training to the
highest levels takes years. Some horses will naturally progress faster than
others (usually the clean slate variety), but all horses are extremely fast
learning animals. Unfortunately, that means they learn wrong things quickly
too, and often our time is spent undoing the wrong things the horse has
learned. The holes will have to be filled, before higher level training occurs.
You can’t build a skyscraper on a shaky foundation.

There’s one more important consideration, if you think
about the fact that horses are exceptionally fast-learning animals. When the
student (the horse) fails to learn or learns the wrong things, it is not the
student that should be blamed, but the teacher. When a horse is not learning
new concepts quickly, it’s generally the rider’s technique that needs to

Back to Basics (Part 1)

Julie doing groundwork with a fractious horse.

“It’s time to go back to Square One.” This is a phrase we often throw out when a horse has developed undesirable behaviors, or the handler has lost all authority and control of the horse. But like many things in horsemanship, it is far easier said than done. Getting back to basics or going back to square one in your training may mean different things to different people, but to me it means starting at the beginning—the most basic level of training.

When a previously well-behaved and well-trained horse goes rogue, it often stems from poor leadership and poor handling on the human side of the equation. Perhaps it has escalated into rude, disrespectful or even aggressive behavior from the horse, but it started with the actions of the human. Sometimes, a horse that is poorly behaved on the ground was never really taught proper behavior, or worse, was inadvertently taught to do the wrong things. Either way, we must go back to the beginning and re-establish rules of behavior, ground manners and our expectations of the horse.

In most clinics that I do, there are a handful of horses that fit into this category. For whatever reasons, the relationship between the person and the horse is contentious. Sometimes this results in a horse that is indifferent to the owner—ignoring her requests, walking all over her and paying attention to everything around him except the handler. But when this condition persists, it can result in a horse that becomes disdainful of the handler and may act out in aggressive or volatile ways. While the behavior of the horse definitely needs to be addressed, unless the person changes the way they handle the horse, retraining the horse is futile.

Whether a horse is untrained (has never been taught how to act) or is poorly trained (has actively been taught the wrong things), if he doesn’t learn proper manners, he may become unpleasant and unsafe, in short order. Horses are herd animals that know how to get along, know how to follow rules, and know how to respect authority. It is up to the handler to set the rules of behavior for the horse and provide the leadership the horse needs, in order to respect the authority.

If I am taking a horse back to square one in ground handling, there is a very clear progression I would take, starting with the most critical issues and progressing to complete mind and body control; sussing out the holes in the horse’s training and filling them in before moving onto the next thing. Turning a horse into a model citizen and one that’s pleasant and safe to be around, doesn’t happen accidentally. It comes from systematic training, consistent reinforcement and high expectations.

Step One—Control Space
My first concern, if I am handling an unruly horse from the ground, is always about me and my space. Does the horse have deference for my space? Will he move out of my space expeditiously when I ask? After a lifetime of handling horses, I’ve learned to be very clear on this subject with any horse I handle. If he moves any part of his body (nose, shoulder, hip) toward me, I will address it immediately.

Most horses that I handle learn to respect my space very fast. I am VERY protective of my space. If you’ve met me face-to-face, you may have noticed that I am not very big. The last thing I want to do, is be around a horse that is moving into my space or slinging his head and shoulders toward me. Generally, within a few minutes, the horse I am handling becomes very clear on my boundaries. You must define your space (for me, it’s as far as I can reach around me, with my arms outstretched), and make it clear to your horse where the boundary is.

Horses are very good at understanding space; people are not very good at defining and defending their own boundaries. Horses can be very clever about invading your space in subtle ways, so be diligent. The next step is to make sure the horse yields to your space—meaning he backs away when you move toward him. He moves respectfully out of your bubble when you move your bubble closer to him. He shows concern about where you are and is careful not to come too close to you.

Once you are in control of the horse’s space, you will know it. The horse will have deference for you then. He will watch you and be concerned about what you are doing and whether or not he should react in some way. I have no interest in moving forward with a horse’s training, until he shows some deference and has some respect for my authority.

Step Two—Control Direction and Speed
The next thing I need my unruly horse to learn is that I control where he goes and how fast he gets there—not him. This is a critical step in ground handling and it will carry over in a big way to mounted work too. In both instances, we need the horse to understand that he doesn’t get to do whatever he wants. Trust me, you don’t want a thousand-pound flight animal thinking he has a choice over where he goes and how fast he gets there!
To show the horse that I control direction and speed, I simply need to change direction and change speed a lot. In the round pen, this would mean turning the horse around frequently. I am very particular about which way the horse turns—starting with the outside turn (turning away from me), to emphasize him moving out of my space.

If I am working the horse in-hand, from a lead line (using at least a 12’ training lead, and preferably a 15’ lead), I’ll be turning the horse away from me (turning to the right if I am leading form the left), making sure his whole body is moving away from me in the turn and not just his nose. A critical concept to remember in horse training is, every time you change the direction of the horse, you gain more authority.

Once the horse understands that I control his direction, I want to start altering his speed. I’ll walk slowly, making sure the horse alters his speed to match mine; then walk faster, making sure the horse makes an effort to catch up. Another critical concept to remember in horse training: all of training occurs in transitions. The more I ask for changes of speed, the more responsive the horse becomes.

Step Three- Manners and Expectations
With the previous two steps, I gained deference from my horse and established control of him. Now it’s time to teach him how I expect him to act around me. My herd; my rules. Horses are very good at learning and following rules, because that is what herd life is like. When rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, horses learn the rules fast.
If it is a trained horse I am dealing with, one of the first rules I will teach the horse is, “Don’t move your feet unless I tell you to.” I teach him to stand perfectly still, like a statue, when I ask him to. To me, it’s not enough to make the feet of the horse move. I must also be able to make them hold still. Moving the feet of a flight animal should not be hard; but making them hold still can be a challenge sometimes.

The second rule of behavior I teach the horse is, “Keep your nose in front of your chest at all times I am around you.” No looking around. No moving your nose toward me (you’ll never have a horse that bites if you never allow him to move his nose toward you). When a horse is busy looking around, he’s looking for a way out or for something to react to (or he’s just being a busy-body). Either way, he’s not paying attention to me. If he’s looking for a way out, he’s telling me he’s not there for me. I need him to know that leaving is not an option. In short order, a horse I am handling learns that he has two choices: focus on me or focus on nothing.

Once these more fundamental expectations are made clear, I move onto more of a refinement level of training from the ground. I’ll work on the horse’s leading manners, making sure he is vigilant about my space, that he rates his speed off me and that he turns well and never leans his shoulder into me. We’ll also work on standing tied, quietly and patiently (lots of time at the “patience post”), feet handling, trailer loading and tacking up.

The End Result
This kind of “back to basics” training can transform a horse rapidly, if the handler has good training skills. A trained horse that has learned to act poorly because of bad handling, will respond in just minutes when faced with a skilled trainer and competent leader. An uneducated horse will learn proper manners with just a little more time and will become a model citizen fast, when handled consistently in this way.

The specific training techniques I would use to accomplish these steps are clearly detailed in my two training videos, Round Pen Reasoning and Leadline Leadership (available both in DVD and VOD). The mechanics of your training are very important—the progression, the techniques, the response of the horse. You must use clear and consistent cues, with effective reinforcement and appropriate amounts of discipline and praise. When you do, the horse responds rapidly.

Just as in the case of spoiled, poorly behaved children– it’s the parent and not the child that should be blamed for the poor behavior– the same could be said of poorly behaved horses. Either they don’t know how to act and are acting in a way that seems most appropriate to them, or, they’ve been inadvertently taught to act the wrong way (sort of like giving a lollipop to a child that is throwing a fit in the grocery store). Ultimately, the way a horse behaves is a reflection of his handler.

Going back to square one in your ground training, should result in a happier, more compliant horse. Before I move on to addressing training under-saddle, I want to make sure all these steps have been accomplished. And when they are, we’ll move onto “Back to Basics” in our mounted work.

Reward, Reinforcement and Punishment

Horses are intricate and complicated animals and their views and perceptions of the world around them can be quite different from our own. Being prey animals and flight animals, horses are highly sensitive to all forms of pressure: physical, mental and environmental. They are lightening fast learners, which can make them very easy to train or un-train. Unfortunately, horses learn the wrong things just as quickly as they learn the right things and we have to take responsibility for that.

Horses learn by making associations between one thing and another. Sometimes they make intended associations, like, “When I feel the rider close her legs on my sides, I should move my feet faster.” The horse has learned to associate the movement of the rider’s legs with the movement of his own legs. But sometimes they make unintended associations, like, “When I buck, the rider stops me.” In this example, the rider has reinforced the horse’s bucking, and the horse now associates bucking with what he wants—getting to stop.

Inadvertent associations by the horse and learning the wrong things cannot always be avoided. Having a more thorough understanding of how horses learn, what actions on your part may reinforce a response, and what actions may discourage a response will help keep your horse learning the right things. A horse is always learning, for better or for worse, but the more you understand how your horse perceives reward, reinforcement and punishment and their roles in training the horse, the more effective you will be.

Just Rewards
It is far too simplistic to think of giving a horse a treat as a reward. Waiting for a horse to give the correct response and then giving it a food-based reward, is an example of “positive reinforcement.” A positive reinforcer is something that is added to the equation. In general, horse trainers prefer to stay away from food-based rewards since horses also establish dominance by taking away food from others. Also, while it may be quite handy for training tricks to a horse, offering a food-based reward loses its practicality when training complicated and intricate maneuvers while riding the horse. To me, a pet on the neck, verbal praise and letting the horse rest are far more effective rewards.

Because horses are sensitive animals that feel pressure quite keenly, horses can also perceive a release of pressure as a reward. This is known as “negative reinforcement,” because pressure is removed when the horse gives the correct response—apply pressure, wait for the correct response, then remove the pressure. The release of pressure is the reward and this turns out to be the most expedient and practical means to train a horse, because they are so very sensitive to pressure of all kinds. Contrary to what many people think, negative reinforcement is not punishment, in fact, reinforcement is the opposite of punishment (more on that later).

One of the biggest problems the inexperienced/uneducated/unaware horse trainer has (anyone who handles a horse is either training it or un-training it, because of how quickly they learn) is rewarding a horse’s behavior unintentionally. Because a horse seeks safety and comfort more than anything else in this world, it’s quite easy to reward the wrong behavior.

A horse will always associate a release of pressure with his actions that immediately preceded the release. For example, let’s say you’re trying to load an uncooperative horse in a trailer and as you approach the trailer, he throws a wall-eyed fit. At that point, many people will stop, turn the horse away from the trailer and circle back in a second attempt. Unfortunately, what the horse learns is that when he throws a fit, you will take him away from the trailer. He does not make the association that after you circle him back, you approach again. It’s too late. In taking him away from the trailer (releasing the pressure) when he threw a fit, you rewarded the fit.

Releasing the pressure, allowing the horse to rest or allowing him to get closer to what he wants (safety) can all be perceived as a reward to the horse so it pays to be conscious of what the horse’s motivations are, what her perceives as a reward and how he interprets your actions.

Reinforcement Vs. Punishment
A reinforcement is an action that increases the likelihood of a response, while punishment decreases the likelihood of a response. There’s a very big difference in reinforcement and punishment. For example, if I ask a horse I am riding to turn by first looking in the direction of the turn, opening my shoulders and arms, twisting my torso and letting the signal sink all the way down to my feet, I have given him many cues to turn—none of which involved a pull on the reins. If he does not immediately turn his nose, I will give him a slight bump of the inside rein—a touch of his mouth—to reinforce the cue to turn that I just gave him. Look, turn my body, then bump the rein. The rein contact is the reinforcement and because I gave the cue first, then reinforced with the rein contact, it increases the likelihood of the response. The reins are reinforcement, not the cue. In very short order, through reinforcement, I have a horse that turns without rein pressure (a beautiful thing for both you and your horse).

Punishment is defined as an unpleasant action in retribution for an offense, designed to decrease the likelihood of a response. Let’s say a horse I am leading suddenly bites me. To me, this is a punishable offense because it is dominant and aggressive behavior that can easily progress to dangerous and deadly behavior in the horse. The horse bites (an offense) and I harshly admonish him in punishment. If I used good timing (the punishment came within a second of the offense) and adequate pressure in the punishment, the horse immediately associates his action (biting) with the punishment and therefore he learns biting me is not a good idea, thus decreasing the response.

But let’s look at another common example where the horse feels punished, but the rider didn’t intend to punish. When riders are learning to canter, they often have reluctance—afraid of the speed or a lack of control. At the moment the horse takes the first stride of canter, his head drops down into the bridle. In that moment, if the rider is fearful, she often clenches the reins and either fails to give the needed release or actively pulls up on the reins, causing the horse to run into the bit. In this moment, the rider has just punished the horse for doing something she asked the horse to do. Unfair? Absolutely. The action of the rider, although unintended, punishes the horse and decreases the likelihood of him picking up the canter next time he is asked.

While punishment may have its place in the training of a horse, particularly in dangerous behaviors, it has been shown not to be highly effective in the regular training of horses. Because horses are prey animals and flight animals, their fear level can be quite high. Training routine performance through punishment is therefore ineffective in horses because it can easily increase their fear level. Once a horse becomes fearful, he is not thinking well and therefore is not able to learn complex maneuvers.

Scientific research has shown us that “replacement training” is far more effective in eliminating undesirable behaviors in horses than punishment. For instance, if every time my horse tries to cut the corner of the arena or pull toward the center, I instantly turn him the opposite direction (into the fence), soon every time he thinks of turning toward the center, he thinks of turning the opposite way and picks himself up and starts moving in that direction. In this process, I have replaced one behavior (undesirable) with another (more desirable) in the horse and he thought his way through that, without fear.

Inadvertent or unintended rewards, reinforcements and/or punishments happen all the time with horses. Precisely because they are such fast learning animals, most poorly behaved horses have been trained to act that way by the unaware human. Thinking through the horse’s actions and motivations in the moment he is mis-behaving and enacting the appropriate response is not a simple matter. Accepting responsibility as the source of his misbehavior is unpalatable but necessary, if you hope to make progress.

It’s not always easy to know what the right thing is to do with a horse in the moment of his inappropriate response, and it’s easy to make mistakes. Understanding what the horse perceives as reward, what reinforces the behavior you want and what discourages that behavior will make you a better trainer. Understanding and accepting responsibility for your own mistakes, will make you a better person.

Did You Teach Your Horse to Kick?

horses next to each other looking agitated

The first time I saw and understood this behavioral dynamic, between a horse and its rider, was about twenty years ago at a clinic for people learning to manage their fear of horses. I’ve seen it many times since, enough to recognize the cause and effect. When a rider fears their horse will kick at another horse while being ridden, it quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Typically, at fear management clinics, I would conduct a meet-and-greet the night before the clinic where we all came together to talk and process, sharing stories of what brought the riders there. Many people had horrific stories of an incident with a horse and losing their confidence. One woman shared that she lost her confidence when she was at a horse show and her horse was kicked by another horse. What are the odds that very horse would show up at my clinic the next day?

I arrived t the clinic site early the next morning and was greeted by this woman who had seen the horse that kicked at her; she was almost hysterical. “That’s the very horse that kicked at me and caused me to lose my confidence,” she cried. She was in the midst of packing up and leaving. I could see this was going to be a challenging day.

I talked her down off the ledge and kept the horses separated as much as possible. I had the riders mount up only two at a time, so that they weren’t overwhelmed with so many horses in the arena. When it came time for the alleged kicking horse to come in the arena, the mare was decked out with a dozen red ribbons in her tail and her rider was clearly nervous and almost panicking any time the other horse came anywhere near her horse. I was beginning to see the problem.

Recently I was at another clinic and saw this very same dynamic—the rider cueing the horse to kick. Horses often act the way we expect them to. When the rider gets so wrapped up in worrying about what bad thing she thinks her horse is going to do, the horse usually complies. Your job as the leader is to be aware of the environment, to keep your horse out of danger and to tell your horse what to do and how to act. When a rider starts focusing on what could go wrong, becomes defensive or frightened and then freezes up on the horse, she has abdicated her authority as the leader and the horse takes over in that moment.

What Message are You Sending Your Horse?
Horses are herd animals and as a result, they take emotional and behavioral cues from the horses around them. When one horse gets frightened, they all do. Additionally, horses communicate with each other primarily with body language and postures and they are masters at reading the body language of other horses and people. We know that horses, whether trained or not, respond differently to different people—they see each person as an individual.

When a person handles a horse with calmness, strength and confidence, the horse generally responds with relaxation, acceptance and subordinance. Conversely, when the handler is nervous, agitated and defensive, the horse responds in kind. I’ll admit that maintaining a cool demeanor on the outside when you’re not feeling that way in the inside, is not always easy, but it’s an important skill to master.

Now, picture the scene described above with riders that are fearful and a horse that has a history of kicking at other horses while being ridden. Instead of focusing ahead of her and proactively riding the horse forward, the rider was nervously looking behind her, clenching the reins, shouting-out her fear of an approaching horse. While the rider thought she was looking out for and avoiding danger, the horse thought the approaching horse was the enemy, felt the defensiveness of the rider and consequently lashed out at the approaching horse. In that moment, the rider telegraphed her fear and defensiveness to her horse and the horse responded in the way horses do when they become defensive—kicking out.

Being aware of your body language and emotional behavior, and the message you are sending your horse is not easy for everyone but it is an important skill for working with horses. Controlling your emotional behavior—taking a deep breath, relaxing, conveying strength and confidence even when you don’t feel that way—makes a huge impact on horses. There’s a saying we like to use about this… “No matter how your feel on the inside, never show your weakness on the outside.”

Think Forward
Many riders, at the first sign things are not going the way they want, will stop their horse, in an effort to re-establish control. This is not usually the right thing to do. One of the strongest tenants of horse training—a concept that has survived thousands of years—is that forward motion is the basis of all training. Without forward motion, a horse cannot be trained. Horse training involves the ability to establish and control the forward movement of the horse.

When a nervous rider feels like something is going wrong, the first thing she typically does is pull back on the reins in an effort to stop the horse and gain control. But you are only in control, when you are controlling forward movement. Riding away from a “bad spot,” toward another safer destination is usually a better answer.

Additionally, although horses are flight animals and prefer to run away from danger, they also prefer to conserve their energy in case it is needed for flight. As a result, horses can be a little lazy at times and they often perceive stopping and resting as a reward. If every time a horse displays undesirable behavior, we let him stop and rest, we are rewarding and reinforcing the undesirable behavior.

Using the example of the mare with red ribbons in her tail, first the rider conveyed her fear of the approaching horse and her defensiveness, causing the horse to focus on the approaching enemy and become defensive herself. Then, in a panic, the rider pulls back on the reins, stopping the horse and clenching the reins in panic, sending a message of fear to the horse and abdicating her responsibility as the leader. Unfortunately, this puts the horse right in harm’s way as the other horse gets closer, leading to an obvious result of the mare kicking out in defense. This is the unfortunate dynamic that teaches the horse to kick other horses while being ridden.

If instead, the rider is focused forward, aware of the environment and riding the horse away from “danger” well ahead of any problem, the horse stays focused on what’s ahead, not what is behind. If every time the horse acts untoward, the rider asks for more forward movement and rides toward a

destination (ride forward and go somewhere), the horse learns that the untoward behavior gets him nothing but more work, so it doesn’t really pay off.

I realize this is a tall order for many riders—to stay calm and focused on the positive outcome, to show confidence and leadership even when you don’t feel that way, and to ride the horse more forward even when your greatest wish is to stop and get off. These are not riding skills; they are mental skills. This is not about how good a rider you are, but about how effective a leader you are.

Everyone, even the most confident leader you know, experiences self-doubt at times. It’s what you do I that moment that matters. With horses, being aware of and in control of your body language and emotions is critical. Thinking forward and focusing ahead, not behind you, will bring your horse’s attention to what is coming next.

That mare with the red ribbons on her tail? As soon as the rider understood the dynamics that existed and that she was causing the mare’s defensive behavior, she began to ride the horse forward out of trouble and the disturbing kicking behavior went away immediately. Once the rider was able to make the horse understand she expected something different from her horse, the red ribbons were no longer needed.

A Devoted Horse

horse running in the round pen

Horses rise or fall to your level of expectation, no matter how high or low. If you think he’s going to spook at something, he generally will. If you think he is going to throw a fit about getting in the trailer, he will oblige (especially if his emotional outbursts have gotten him what he wanted in the past). On the other hand, when your expectations are high, and you have clear parameters of obedient and compliant behavior, he steps up.
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that horses will respond to your expectations. After all, they’re herd animals— instinctively drawn to the herd, which provides the comfort and security they yearn for. Keep in mind that membership in the herd is not automatically granted—each horse must earn it; and once granted, a horse must follow the rules of the herd and be a good herd mate (meet expectations) in order to maintain his status. A good citizen is one that respects the hierarchy of the herd and lives up to the expectations of the leader.
Keep in mind that horses not only live in cooperative groups, they’re also extremely communicative. While us humans rely heavily on the spoken/written word to communicate (often believing words more than the physical evidence before us), horses communicate primarily with postures, gestures and actions. And horses never lie.
Learning to have clear and lofty expectations of your horse, to convey those expectations with consistent and unambiguous actions, to control your own emotions and be aware of the body-language message you present your horse, is all it takes to have a compliant and willing horse that worships the ground you walk on.
My Herd, My Rules
Horses know leadership when they see it; they seek out authority, because it makes them feel safe. Having been around horses well over half a century, literally working with thousands of individuals over the years, I’ve learned to first have expectations and boundaries, and then convey them to any horse I encounter—immediately. The first part of the equation is critical—knowing what behavior you expect from your horse, and therefore knowing when he is compliant and when he is not. That seems easy, right? But if I asked you to state three simple and clear expectations of your horse right now, could you?
Because I am abundantly clear on my personal boundaries and I have a few fundamental rules of behavior that I expect from any horse, a horse learns my rules within a couple minutes of our first interaction. Horses love clarity and consistency; they’re lightning-fast learners, given the right conditions for comprehension (timing and pressure). So in a few short minutes, a fussy, tantrum-throwing horse can become a model citizen, looking to me with deference and willingness, because my expectations have become clear and his compliance is non-negotiable.
Horses are good at following rules, when rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, because that is what life is like in the herd. But long before you can “enforce” the rules or “enforce” a boundary, you have to know the rule, be clear on the boundary yourself and have high expectations of your horse’s behavior.
One reason we do groundwork with horses, is to establish these rules and boundaries and to build a relationship with your horse wherein he looks to you for direction and eagerly does your bidding. Whether it takes you minutes, days or weeks to become the leader in the eyes of your horse, depends on you. Horses come along quickly when presented with consistent and fair leadership.
Talk the Talk
Once you know your own boundaries and have clear expectations of your horse’s behavior, it’s time to convey those expectations to your horse. The message needs to be simple, clear and consistent and conveyed without emotion. Both reward and correction are meted out fairly—his actions have consequences, for better or for worse.
For instance, a very basic expectation I have of any trained horse, is that he moves his feet when I ask him to and stands like a statue if I ask him to. I’ll ask him to stand without moving in the exact same way 100% of the time (facing him with my toes pointed at his shoulder and saying, “Whoa.”). And 100% of the time, I will correct him appropriately if he moves (a scolding and a bump of the rope) and I will always reward him when he complies (by giving him the greatest gift—leaving him alone). Because my message is clear and the reinforcement or reward comes quickly and has meaning, even a tyrant of a horse will become complaint quickly.
Because horses crave authority, they’re also quite eager-to-please animals, if you have the same respect and admiration they give the herd leader. Because horses want to be accepted in the herd, they’re good at following rules. But for a rule to become law, it must be consistently enforced, and compliance must be mandatory. Sometimes horses understand what behavior is expected of them, but if they learn that reinforcement is lacking, and/or they can employ clever tricks to circumvent the rules and manipulate the human, compliance becomes optional.
To be the maker of the rules and the enforcer of the rules is not easy; to do it with consistency and clarity is even harder. Throw into the mix a thousand-pound flight animal, who may physically intimidate you and who easily learns to push your emotional buttons and being the leader can get downright grueling. The trick is to keep your own emotions in check; as you single-mindedly convey your expectations to your horse. The more emotionally charged your horse becomes, the more granite-like your emotions must be.
Explain the simple rule (don’t move your feet unless I tell you to) or define the boundary (stay behind my shoulder as we walk), then reinforce immediately and with meaningful pressure when the horse breaks the rule; leave the horse alone and take all pressure off the moment he is correct. Reinforcement should come quickly (within a second of the infraction) but should be over just as fast (one and done) and should never be done in anger or retribution. A true leader strives to always be in command of her emotions, to always set a good example and to always speak the truth.
Walk the Walk
It’s hard for a horse to look up to you as a strong and benevolent leader, when you present the picture in your body language of a lost tourist in a foreign land. Words mean nothing to your horse, but your actions, your emotions and your body language tell him everything he needs to know.
Horses crave authority because it brings order, regularity and peace to an otherwise chaotic world. It’s not enough to have expectations, to convey and enforce the rules, you also must comport yourself in a manner that you look like the one in charge, at all times. It’s my goal to make my horse think I am not only in control of his actions, but I control everything in the environment, too. In his eyes, I want to be the supreme commander of the universe. With that, comes not only his trust, but his compliance and willingness, too.
Everyone has self-doubt at times. Everyone. It’s what you do with yourself in that moment that separates leaders from followers. Taking mental and physical control of your emotions, reminding yourself, “I’ve done this before and I can do it now,” and then pushing through that moment of self-doubt, will get you everywhere with your horse (and in life). When you allow self-doubt to creep into your ground-handling or riding of a horse, you become passive and convey the picture of that lost tourist. The horse sees this as a giant opening to either 1) start a mutiny, or 2) abandon ship.
Once you’ve asked a horse to do something, you should continue to ask, with steadfast determination, until you get the right answer. If you’re not committed, or you cannot reinforce the command, it’s best not to ask. Your horse is very keen to your level of confidence, intent and determination. He can see it—or lack thereof—in your body language (where you look, your posture, your gestures, even the look on your face and the way you move).
The key is to act confident on the outside, even though you don’t always feel that way on the inside. Fake it ‘til you make it; never show your weakness on the outside. It’s not that you always feel confident and in-control, just don’t let that negative emotion take over your mind and body. The mind, body and spirit (the mental, the physical and the emotional) are inextricably intertwined. Controlling your mind with positive thoughts and your body language with a show of determination, will keep the negative emotions at bay.
Be the Captain
Of course, you cannot just strut around like a leader and expect someone to follow. You must also be true to your word, consistent and predictable in your actions and have sound judgment in all matters. Say what you do and do what you say. You must recognize the horse’s effort and willingness, just as quickly and vehemently as you offer criticism and reinforcement.
Often, in a moment that really counts with a horse, humans are too caught up dwelling in the past and fretting over the future to notice a horse’s behavior in that instant. Horses exist in the moment—when three seconds go by, it’s like a whole different day to the horse, and the moment is lost forever. Sadly, humans tend to linger in the past (he spooked here before) and jump to the future (what if spooks up there), instead of directing our horse like a true leader, in the moment of his greatest need.
It’s a tall order, what your horse needs from you to feel safe and comfortable in your presence. He needs to know what you expect of him, that rules exist and will be enforced fairly and consistently. He needs you to be strong emotionally, in-control of yourself and others, clear in your intent and consistent in your actions. He needs you to make good decisions, to recognize his efforts and reward his compliance. It’s a lot to for him to ask, but the price is well worth paying, because once you become a true leader in the eyes of your horse, he will reward you with obedience, respect and devotion.

Horses Give More than they Get

Julie riding Annie in the arena

Julie riding Annie in the arenaWhen you own horses, and especially if you keep them at home, sometimes it seems like your whole life revolves around doing their bidding—food service, housekeeping, valet service, maintenance. Most people who dream of bringing their horses home (after boarding them forever) are stunned to discover they have even less time to ride. Why? Because of all the other chores that need doing! But as much as we like to complain, it’s been my observation that horses do far more for us and our essential well-being, tan we could ever do for them.

Recently, I sat down to make a list of some of the valuable life lessons that horses have taught me in my lifetime and the list is weighty. It’s a good list for me to check in with every now and then, to remind myself of the lessons and to use as evidence for why parents should not just allow, but encourage their children’s interest in horses. From horses, I have learned to live in the moment, to have a keen awareness of myself and others, to develop my leadership skills, to be very disciplined in my life and have high expectations.

Horse Time Vs. Human Time
Horses are always present in the moment; humans, not so much. People tend to dwell in the past and think about the future but are often not present in the moment. We spend so much time thinking about what happened to us before and what is going to happen next, that we often miss the importance of the moment and fail to respond. I see this on a regular basis in my horsemanship clinics, when riders are afraid or having trouble controlling a horse—the memory of what happened before pollutes the mind and the riders are so busy thinking about what may happen later, that they miss important signs from their horses or freeze up on the horse instead of just riding through the situation.

Horses don’t think in the past or the future, only in the now. From horses I have learned this important lesson. As a professional horse trainer, I had to learn this skill early on—to trust the horse, to be present in the moment, to hear his concerns and to ride through the rough spots. Life is much more enjoyable and productive when I am present in the moment.

Time has no meaning to horses. After decades of training horses, I know with certainty that slower is faster when training horses. Even in this day and age of horse training contests that focus on speed of training– be it a few hours, a few weeks or a few months, most professional trainers agree that slower is always faster with horses. The more time I take, the more I break each step down into its smallest component, the slower I move around my horse– so that I see the instant my horse first responds and give him the best release, the more patience I have to allow the horse to think and decide for himself, the faster he learns and the more solid his foundation of training. When a situation gets tough on a horse, I want to be able to rely on my horse’s solid foundation, the seamless communication we have developed through time and consistency, and the strong trust he has built in me.

Being a prey animal and a flight animal, a horse’s awareness of his environment is keen. Being animals that communicate primarily with gestures and postures, they can read other animals—including humans—with accuracy and speed. Horses are also biologically wired to be aware of and mimic the emotions of the animals around them. To be effective with horses and for horses to be comfortable around me, I learned at an early age to be aware of my body language and to use it to convey the right message to the horse—one of strength, calmness and confidence.

Because horses are quite emotional animals, having more or less the same emotions as humans (except perhaps more honest and less complicated), I’ve learned to be honest with myself about the emotions I feel, to be aware-of and in-control-of my emotions at all times around a horse. If I l let my emotions take control of my thoughts and my posture, things devolve quickly. When I remain positive in my thoughts (mind) and confident in my posture (body), my emotion is good (spirit).

Because horses mirror and mimic the emotions of the animals around them, when the rider (or handler) is frustrated, the horse is frustrated; anger is met with anger (and trust me, you don’t want to fight with a horse, if you can help it); fear causes fear; and trust leads to trust. If a human’s emotions are out of control, things generally don’t go well when they are dealing with a horse. But then again, the same can be said of life in general. From horses, I have learned to be true to others and honest with myself about my emotions, and not let negative emotions take control of my body and mind.

To a horse, his very survival depends on being accepted into a herd with a strong, fair and competent leader. It’s one of his strongest instinctive drives—to be with the herd. Horses always recognize a strong leader, apparently much better than us humans do. Horses crave strong leadership and are drawn to it like a magnet. Hierarchy is linear, with one horse at the top. There is never a void of leadership in a horse herd; when a leader falls down on the job, another horse will immediately assume the leadership role.

Even as a young, shy, introverted child, I was able to develop strong leadership skills from being with horses; these skills have served me well in my lifetime and not only with horses. This is not a lesson that comes easily or naturally to some people and the relationship with their horse will always reflect their leadership ability—for better or worse.

To get very far with horses, you must learn to accept accountability for your own actions. In every clinic I teach, I hear people say things like, “my horse has a problem with [fill in the blank—spooking, running away, standing still, lead changes, etc.],” when the problem very clearly lies in the rider’s own deficiency. The sooner the rider accepts that the horse’s performance problem is actually her own, the faster the performance of the horse improves. Like any good leader, when her followers struggle, she must step-up and take responsibility.

A leader has the responsibility to keep her charges safe and to make good judgments. Always. This is all your horse wants from you. If you make a decision, intentionally or not, that results in your horse getting hurt or feeling unsafe, you have fallen on your responsibilities as the leader and eroded the trust he placed in you.

I’ve had many truly alpha horses in my life—their beauty, intelligence and strength of character enthrall me—and from them, I have had the best examples of leadership from which to learn. From them, I have honed my own leadership skills and forged incredible partnerships with some very dominant horses. The power of horses to make us better people is unlimited.

Discipline and Authority
Discipline simply means training individuals to follow rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience. Most people I know are law abiding citizens, willing to obey the laws of our society because it’s the right thing to do and because it is a pact amongst us that insures we have a peaceful and safe existence. While the threat of punishment may be required for some people to obey the law, for most of us, the punishment is not something we’ll ever experience and we voluntarily and willingly comply. We have high expectations of ourselves and others and we strive to teach our children to be law abiding and productive citizens.

With horses, I think of discipline using punishment more in terms of teaching a horse what NOT to do, like bite. An undisciplined horse is not only unpleasant to be around but it is also unsafe. A horse that bites, slams you with its head, shoulders into you and runs over the top of you is untenable and entirely unnecessary. It’s incredibly easy to teach a horse to have good manners and follow a code of behavior. Unless a horse has been taught to be an outlaw or has been taught to disregard rules and authority, they are generally willing and happy to follow a code of behavior and punishment is rarely needed. When a horse owner has no rules, no expectations or code of behavior for their horses, the result is a  dangerous horse, that will require discipline and punishment to retro-actively teach him proper rules of behavior. But let me be clear, this is not the fault of the horse that he has become a criminal; it is the fault of the owner/handler for not imposing rules, order and discipline.

While “discipline” may have a negative meaning to some, being “disciplined” generally has a positive connotation. Being disciplined means having a controlled form behavior or way of working. In my personal life, I strive to be more disciplined in all things—I work out daily, watch what I eat, strive to improve my work habits and productivity, try to better myself and be a better person to others.

A disciplined horse is an amazing animal to be around and to have as a partner. Horses crave rules and structure; they are animals that seek out acceptance into a herd because of the safety, comfort and order the herd represents. For these reasons, it’s incredibly easy to teach a horse to follow a code of behavior, to work hard to be accepted and to respect authority. I have learned to have high expectations of my horses and even higher expectations of myself.

Just the other day, I met a woman whose young daughter was starting to take riding lessons—even though they were a decidedly non-horsey family. (The idea was being promoted by and facilitated by her grandmother.) Knowing I was a horse professional, she started the conversation by saying, “Even though we’ll never lease or buy a horse….” What followed from me was desperate attempt to make her see the incredible value that horses would bring to her daughter’s life. Far beyond the fun she will have riding a horse, her daughter will learn to focus on the present moment, to have a keen awareness of herself and those around her, to be disciplined, and to have high expectations of herself and others.

I have spent half a century with horses, and I’ve learned a lot. Yet the older I get, the more in awe of horses I become—and the more important the life lessons that I learn.

Begging for Acceptance

Julie pushing Amy's dominant horse, Chief, out of her space in the round pen.
Photo by: Melissa Arnold

Imagine you’re meeting a blind date at a coffee shop, a setup by your friend who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Even though you’re not really interested in a relationship right now, you arrive only a few minutes late, and looking across the café, you see a guy jump to his feet, frantically waving his arms over his head, a little too eager to get your attention. Apparently, he recognizes you; obviously, he’s been studying pictures. Already, you’re suspicious of his motivations and thinking he looks a bit foolish.

You’re busy conjuring up an excuse to get out of this date as you reach out to shake his hand, but he grabs you with both his hands and pulls you into a half-embrace, kissing both your cheeks, before you have a chance to react. Now you’re thinking this guy’s way over-the-top, clearly desperate to have a relationship and in serious need of a schooling on personal space.

Despite your best efforts to send a clear message to him that you are uninterested, he gushes on about himself, how much money he makes, what a sporty car he has, and how many times a week he works out. Not once does he ask what kind of movies you like, how many siblings you have or what you want out of life; it’s solely about his agenda. Stunned at how clueless he is to your disgust, you think to yourself, “How rude am I gonna have to be, before this guy sees that I am not interested in him?”

Then, just as you’re prepared to tell him to take a hike and bolt out the café door, he reaches for his pocket, pulls out a jewelry box, thrusts a diamond ring in your face and asks you to marry him! As you run from the restaurant screaming, you’re thinking, “This guy’s probably a stalker and I’m going to be needing a restraining order soon.”

Anyone who’s that self-absorbed and disrespectful of personal boundaries, oblivious to body language clues and that desperate for a relationship, is clearly not someone you want to hang out with. But did you ever stop to think that’s what your horse might’ve thought, the first time he met you?

This is the story of Amy and Chief, the big bay Morgan, recently featured in episodes of Horse Master. It took almost a year for Amy to come to the realization that she’d started her relationship with Chief on the wrong foot and that her dream horse had turned into an aggressive bully who was disdainful and resentful of her. Dream horse turned night mare.

First Impressions
Long before actually being in a position to have a new horse, many horse-crazy people have spent years imagining the perfect horse and perusing dream horse ads online. Amy was no exception. Just like with movies and restaurants, when there’s a big a buildup and expectations are huge, it almost always leads to disappointment.

As luck would have it, just when Amy was finally in a position to acquire a new horse, the local horse rescue posted pictures of her dream horse online—a big, beautiful, bay Morgan who’d had a rough life and was in desperate need of someone just like her—a strong and confident rider who would shower the horse with love. Before even seeing this horse in the flesh, she’d already made the decision that they were perfect for each other.

Pulling up to the rescue to “test ride” her new dream horse, Amy was literally glowing with anticipation, knowing full well she’d already made up her mind and there was nothing he could do to disappoint her. Gushing about his beauty as she approached him for the first time, pulling a baggie of freshly sliced apples and carrots from her pocket, she stepped right into the horse’s space, fawning and petting him, kissing him on the nose and stuffing treats in his mouth. Tears of joy were running down her cheeks; she was falling desperately in love with this horse she’d only just met. Sound familiar?

Life in the Herd
Now let’s consider what it’s like from the horse’s point of view, when a horse, like Chief, is looking for a new herd. For whatever reason he finds himself alone, his instincts tell him survival is dependent on being accepted into a herd, so he sheepishly approaches the herd, asking for acceptance. The existing herd wants nothing to do with the new horse, so they start biting, kicking and chasing him away.

The herd leaders will be quite aggressive to the new horse, driving him away, herding him in one direction then the other, to establish control of the new horse. He runs away, but always comes back, lowering his head with a contrite gesture, adopting a submissive posture, seeking out approval and acceptance. Eventually, if he plays his cards right, the herd leaders will allow the new horse probational membership into the herd. But he will remain on his best behavior, hoping to stay in good graces with herd leaders.

Horses always seek acceptance into the herd; they respect and admire the leader of the herd and want to be with her. Herd leaders don’t beg for members or bribe and coddle a new horse so he’ll want to be in their herd. A strong and competent leader is what makes a herd great and what makes the other horses want to be part of it. A good leader does not have to beg for followers. Horses establish dominance and control first, then work on the finer points of a relationship later.

Amy started her relationship with Chief by showering him with love, telling him he could do no wrong and begging him to be part of her herd. To Chief, anyone that desperate for a herd mate couldn’t possibly be a good leader or have anything of value to offer him. Chief did eventually come home with Amy to his forever home, but the story was far from over.

Things went well at first, but in time, Amy’s attempts at groundwork with Chief started annoying him (“Who does she think she is?”), and he felt the need to assert his dominance over her, to put her in her place, by displaying aggressive gestures. His antics worked, thoroughly intimidating Amy, and nearly a year into this relationship, it was starting to resemble a bad marriage.

Lasting Impressions
For myself, I never want to start a relationship with a horse with bribery or pampering. In fact, those things are never a part of any relationship I want with a horse. I want the horse to recognize my leadership from the very beginning and for him to want to be with me, in my herd, to beg for my acceptance and approval. I usually start a new relationship with a horse in a very authoritative and standoffish way, looking for opportunities to move him out of my space and communicate my expectations to him. I’d like him to think I have no interest in him; I prefer to let him come to me.

I was impressed that Amy came to the understanding of the bad dynamics of their relationship on her own, of how she got off on the wrong track with Chief from the beginning. The analogy of a guy proposing marriage on a first date was actually Amy’s idea. She knew she made some major mistakes from the beginning of their relationship, but she did not think it could be fixed. She was beginning to wonder if she was the right human for this horse after all.

The Horse Changes with You
The good news about horses is that once the person changes, the horse always changes with them. Once Amy understood what had led them to the predicament they were currently in, she was able to change how she acted. We started by taking Chief back to the round pen, to mimic the antics that go on when a new horse asks for acceptance into a herd. It wasn’t easy. It was scary at times because Chief was intolerant of her mistakes and stayed dominant and aggressive for a while. It took a lot of courage, patience and determination—qualities that Amy fortunately has an abundance of– for her to stand up to Chief’s bullying and stay strong.

At the same time, Amy came to the realization that her other horse appreciated her attention while Chief seemed to disdain it; her other horse was respectful of her authority and did not challenge her. So, it made sense for her to lavish more praise and attention on her other horse, who appreciated her, and to ignore Chief. Once Amy started giving Chief the cold shoulder, his demeanor began to change and he gradually started seeking her attention and approval, “Hey, what about me?”

Amy still has a lot of work to do with Chief, to get their relationship back to the dream horse category, but as she changes her approach and her attitude, Chief changes right along with her. Now, a few months into the cold-shoulder routine and in combination with the disciplined ground work she’s doing, to Chief, Amy is starting to look like a leader that he wants to be with.

Even though we may only have one chance for a first impression, and we never want to squander it, this story is proof that by understanding another’s perspective and reflecting on how our own actions are perceived, it can lead to a positive change. That kind of introspection and accountability is not always easy, but Amy rose to the challenge and Chief responded in-kind.

Chief is a really cool horse, but he is truly and alpha horse, and therefore not an easy nut to crack. Stay tuned to Horse Master, to see the final chapter of Amy and Chief’s story in May, when we reveal the challenging round pen work she did with Chief, that turned their relationship around

Have You Ever Been Kicked?

Julie working with horse on the lead line.

Have You Ever Been Kicked?

Dear Julie: This may be a very odd question, but I was curious how many times have you been kicked or caught in the crossfire in your training career? I’ve been kicked three times, but tonight I got kicked square in the pelvis by a dominant mare who was going after my mare while I was putting a halter on her. I saw it start to happen, but couldn’t get away fast enough. It is the first time I have considered throwing in the reins because it frustrates me so much.

First Time for Everything

One of my earliest memories is of getting kicked by a horse. It was circa 1965. I was 5 or 6 years old and my dad was feeding the horses who had lined up in their tie stalls for their grain. I was watching my dad feed as I wandered aimlessly around the barnyard—right smack into the kick zone of the food-aggressive gelding. Lightning fast, he kicked me square in the stomach—throwing my little stick figure up into the air and landing flat on my behind unceremoniously in the mud. It was the first (but not last) time I got kicked and also the first (but not last) time I got the air knocked out of me. It was, however, the very last time I laid eyes on that gelding. My dad never tolerated unsafe horses. Nonetheless, wrong place, wrong time. Entirely predictable.

Whenever someone asked, “Does this horse kick?” my father always said, “All horses kick, all horses bite, all horses strike.” That’s a simple fact of horse behavior—Horsemanship Safety 101, if you will. What I would add is that generally when you get kicked, it’s because you were too close to the kick zone when you shouldn’t have been. I know for myself personally, every time I’ve been kicked (and yes, there have been many—far too many to count), it was because I was doing something I shouldn’t have. Also, I would say, that which does not kill you makes you stronger!

Whose Fault Is It?

As I said, I’ve been kicked too many times to remember the number. Anyone who has worked with as many horses over as many decades as I have—handling colts, starting young horses under saddle, desensitizing, catching, gentling, doctoring, loading in a trailer—has been kicked too many times to remember each one. Still, some incidents stand out to me (for the sheer stupidity of my actions which resulted in me being kicked). The good news is that we learn (hopefully) from each stupid mistake so we won’t get kicked that way again!

Another kicking episode that stands out in my memory, was the time I got kicked in the thighs by double barrels, coming from a shod 17-hand black Thoroughbred. His name was Magic and he was a kind and gentle OTTB gelding that belonged to a friend and client. He occupied the biggest stall in my barn (12×14), yet he made it look small. The door out to his run was wide open, but he barely fit out of it (the old barn being built for much smaller horses). I was in the middle of morning chores and his head was buried deep in the feeder as I walked by his stall. I looked at him, eye-to-eye, as I spoke a gentle, “Good morning big guy,” to him. I opened his door, speaking to him again as I reached out to touch his side and move him over so I could grab his dirty water bucket. Whaphumph!!

Although I was absolutely certain that horse had seen me, heard me and understood me to be opening his stall door, when I reached out to touch him I startled him—and he kicked out with both his hind feet. They landed square in the middle of both my thighs and sent me sailing out of the stall, slamming my back into the wall on the other side of the barn aisle. In one huge movement, he kicked me out of his stall and exploded his 1100-pound, 17-hand frame out of the tiny stall door, into the run. Even as I was flying backward out of the stall I knew I had done something stupid—made some unreasonable assumptions—and that this kind and gentle horse was not at fault. The good news is, I will never make that mistake again.

Is Getting Kicked Part of the Sport?

Although horses generally choose flight in response to a threat, they are perfectly well-equipped to fight. Kicking is one of three defensive or offensive “weapons” of the horse, and it is the least deadly. Biting and striking (lashing out with the front feet) are much more dangerous, but fortunately, we see these behaviors less. Horses sometimes kick aggressively (usually backing up and kicking with double barrels, squealing at the same time), but most often kicking is defensive in nature. You see it all the time when a dominant horse comes after the subordinate horse. The subordinate will kick out to buy a little time as he runs away—much like he would kick and run from a predator.

Horses kick at each other all the time, mostly as a gesture or threat. They pull their punches a lot and tend to make contact when they want to. Generally, when they kick at each other (or at you), it is more of a threat or warning and less intent to injure. Often, when they do make contact with a kick, it is to a fleshy or meaty area that can take the punch better. But their aim is not perfect and it is not hard to get caught in the crossfire between two or more horses, as in this case.

Sadly, most people that have been around a lot of horses for a lot of years have gotten kicked, stepped on or bit. Although I do not believe getting hurt must be a part of this sport (and I believe that most incidents are preventable), getting bumped, bruised and pushed around comes with the territory. Still, if you are smart and learn from your mistakes—and if you keep safety as your highest priority—you will be less likely to get hurt. My father taught me that when it comes to horses, always plan for the worst-case scenario. The more experience with horses you have, the more worst-case scenarios you’ve seen.

Getting Smarter

In most of my clinics, I physically show people the kick zone of the horse, so that they are aware of exactly where it is at all times. The horse can reach forward with the hind foot, almost to his front leg; he can reach the full length of his leg to the side; plus, the full extension of his leg back. That makes about a 3- to 4-foot half circle around the hind leg of the horse that is within his kick zone. To be safe around horses, you must always be aware of the kick zone and when you have entered it. For instance, when I clean my horse’s front feet, my head is right in the kick zone. That doesn’t mean I never clean his feet, but that I am aware of it and monitoring the horse while my head is at risk.

When you are doing groundwork with a horse and when you are entering a group of horses to catch one, you have extra risk of getting kicked. We do groundwork with horses to move them around and control their space, like a dominate horse would. Often in the earlier stages of groundwork, the horse may feel threatened by the handler. So it is not only normal, but to be expected that the horse will kick out. If you get kicked while doing groundwork, you were in the way and it is your fault—not the horse’s.

Another memorable time I got kicked very hard, was doing circling work on a 20-year-old beginners’ school horse. I assumed that this gentle old horse wouldn’t kick, but I was wrong. I stepped right into the kick zone, then shushed her with the flag. Then she shattered my assumption (but thankfully not my leg). It hurt a lot (and embarrassed me more), but it was an important lesson to learn—and one I share with my students every time I teach circling work.

Going to catch your horse in a group of horses is one of the riskiest things you’ll do around horses, especially when you are not familiar with all of the horses or the pecking order of the herd. I’d suggest taking a flag or a whip to keep the other horses in control while you catch your horse. Take your time and keep the other horses away—they should respect your space. If not, chase them off with the flag. Your horse will come to understand what you are doing and should cooperate.

It Is What It Is

Kicking does not make a horse bad. It makes him a horse—and all horses kick. We know that, we should expect that and we should take precautions to keep ourselves safe—All. The. Time. There are sometimes when a kicking response is more predictable, and other times when it can seemingly come out of the blue (usually because we missed the warnings). But the horse’s kick range is a finite space; all you have to do is know where it is and stay out of it. I’m not saying that with this knowledge and awareness, you’ll never get kicked again. But by being smart, owning your mistakes (which is the only way to learn from them) and erring on the side of caution, it will definitely make you safer!


Well Behaved: Sensing His Environment Logo

Well Behaved

In this 12-part series, top trainer Julie Goodnight helps you de-code your horse’s natural language: his behavior. You’ll learn how and why your horse acts like he does and how to interact in his language—improving your horsemanship and overall relationship.

Sensing His Environment

Goodnight explains how horses take in information—and what happens when they feel insecure because their senses are limited. Find out how your horse’s senses relate to how he’ll act and the behavior you’ll see, especially on a windy day. 

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Nyland Melocco


Knowing how a horse’s senses work—and how they’re different from human senses—will help you understand how the horse perceives his reality. A horse’s senses are keener than a human’s. They take in every bit of information possible from their environment with their eyes, ears, noses, tactile senses and even taste.

Horses rely on all their senses to make decisions in a flash. Their keen senses help them know whether they are safe or need to run. Horses have more peripheral vision ability than humans do—they are keyed in to sense small changes in their environments. Their senses of smell are keen—they can smell a change in the air and smell when dinner is coming. Their senses of taste help them know what is safe—and what makes them turn up their noses at unknown flavors or different drinking water. We know horses easily feel—and can even sense small flies on their backs. They can also feel changes in the air and can be on high alert when winds constantly push into them.

What your horse senses from the environment will tell him how he should behave. Should he be calm because all is still and as usual? Or on guard because the bushes suddenly moved? Worried because he senses a new smell or taste? Is he agitated because a blanket doesn’t fit right—or he’s just not used to the feeling of new tack? If there’s the slightest distraction, your horse may be tuned in to what he’s feeling and not focused on you.


The Wind Takes Away

On windy days, horses suddenly can’t rely on the senses they so-often trust and their behavior can change dramatically. While a horse usually could smell a herd of elk from far away, in the wind he can’t tell where the smell is coming from. When the air is calm, he can see little changes with his eyes, but when the wind moves everything at once, it’s hard to see what is a threat and what movement is inconsequential. Without that information, a horse will be more on guard.

I’ve lived in the mountains of Colorado for years—often in very windy locations. Until I put up an indoor arena, I lost many training days because of the wind. When the wind is blowing hard, you’re not going to accomplish anything positive in training. If it’s really windy, it’s often not worth starting a new training session.

Some horses are more sensitive than others. Hot-blooded horses are simply horses that are highly reactive to changes in the environment. Horses that have been bred for cutting are selected because they notice subtle changes—they can “read” the cattle.

Hot-blooded horses can often be so worried that they create more drama. On a windy day, elements outside of your control may prove to the horse that there was something to be fearful of.

On a stormy day, the horse is edgy and tense. He already feels like something will go wrong. If you’re riding along and the horse spooks at something, then you turn the horse around and land hard down into the saddle, the horse may feel that change of weight as added pain. In your shock of the horse spooking, you may also pull hard on the reins, pulling harder on the horse’s mouth than you usually would intend. The horse that was already worried that something would happen and now had his fears realized. That’s a hard training issue to overcome—when the horse becomes fearful of fear.


Ride On

When should you expect your horse to work well no matter the weather—and what he can sense? Think of how important it is that you have success on the horse.

If you’re training a new horse, riding in the wind may not be worth it. If you’re riding a mustang that is just learning to trust people, you don’t want to have a bad training session. If in your last training session you had a big breakthrough, it’s not worth training in a windy, sense-depriving environment that may cause your horse to behave differently than he could otherwise. Not much positive training occurs on a super windy day and there’s a far greater risk that something will go wrong—setting you back instead of adding to the kind of training you want to do.

If you have a well-trained horse that should focus on you, you may make a different choice. You may need to ride your horse for a specific job that must be done no matter the weather. I have ridden my horses in all kinds of inclement weather and if I have to do it, they have to do it, too. However, I don’t want to push a horse that is just learning or at a tenuous place in his training .

Ultimately, you are the one in your partnership that can weight the pros and cons and make an executive decision. I tend to err on the side of caution. When I have pushed training, that’s when mistakes and even injuries happen. If you don’t have to ride in a strong wind, don’t.


The Eyes Have It

While all of a horse’s senses contribute to how he takes in motion, the horse’s large, wide-set eyes are made to be his number one sensory receiver.

Horses far off vision is very good—the closer vision is not as clear. He’s programmed to scan the horizon. He’ll raise his head when he’s nervous so that he can see farther away. The horse has very little binocular vision (seeing with both eyes at once) and he can only see the ground in front of him when his head is down. To see in the distance, he must lift his head. That gives the horse comfort.

In training horses, we want to keep the horse’s head low so that they aren’t looking for something to be afraid of. Asking the horse to lower his head with intention can help a horse calm down since he doesn’t see something more to worry about.

A horse’s depth perception is not great. He may not be able to tell the difference between a puddle and a deep hole. He may react to anything he sees as a change in footing. The horse isn’t acting maliciously when he sidesteps as he sees a change in footing—he may simply be reactive.

If you’ve ever ridden in an older indoor arena with light beams coming in through the ceiling, you’ve seen horses react because of their vision. The beams of light change the look of the footing and horses can suddenly react—not knowing what is causing the change.

Horses also have vision trouble when it comes to changes in light. Their pupils dilate more then humans’. If you turn a bright light on in the middle of the night, the horse’s eyes don’t adjust quickly. The bright light may cause him pain and he may act differently when moving from dark to light. Similarly, a horse that is in the bright light can’t easily transition to a dark location—that’s what makes a trailer a scary place to step into. He can’t see well into dark locations and may fear what could be there that he can’t easily perceive.As we think about how a horse takes in information—and how different it is from how humans sense the world—it will make us better horsemen and understand why the horse acts the way he does.

As we think about how a horse takes in information—and how different it is from how humans sense the world—it will make us better horsemen and understand why the horse acts the way he does.


Three Common Mistakes that Erode Your Horse’s Trust

In Florida, Julie encourages this experienced horse to take jumps confidently—even in new places.  Photo by: The Whole Picture, LLC.
In Florida, Julie encourages this experienced horse to take jumps confidently—even in new places. Photo by: The Whole Picture, LLC.

Horses know good leadership when they see it because their lives depend upon it. We probably all agree that the ultimate relationship with a horse is one in which the horse looks up to you, wants to be with you and feels safe and peaceful in your presence. But all the groundwork and relationship building exercises in the world won’t help you develop this relationship unless you present yourself as a competent leader at all times.

In every clinic that I teach, people ask how they can get their horse to trust them more, yet I see them constantly doing things that show their horses that they lack judgment and make poor decisions. It’s funny that horses see this so clearly, but humans—not so much.

Your job as the leader is to watch out for the safety of your followers. Every time you give a horse a reason to question your judgment–because you’ve put him in a situation he perceives as unsafe–you’re chipping away at his faith in you.

Here are three common mistakes I see people making every day with their horses that give the horse good reasons not to trust their judgment and leadership. Watch for these mistakes closely the next time you interact with your horse; make sure that you are the leader your horse deserves.


Putting the Horse on a Collision Course

An obedient riding horse goes in the direction you dictate, at the speed you set, without argument. The problem is that horses are much more spatially aware than humans. Horses worry about the other horses in the arena and they expect the leader to watch ahead and prevent any potential horse-to-horse collision or conflict.

Most people are so consumed with themselves, that they are oblivious to their surroundings, including what the other horses are doing. Your horse always recognizes your lack of awareness, because his safety depends upon it. He sees the hazard even when you don’t.

I often see this when people are longeing or circling in an arena where there are other horses. First of all, let’s be clear on this, longeing a horse in an arena where horses are being ridden is dangerous and should never happen—that’s a pretty basic safety rule. At clinics, when everyone is doing circling work (and no horses are being ridden), people will still put their horses on a collision course with another horse. The horse always sees it; the person seldom does. If you do this, your horse starts doubting your judgment.

I also see this in the arena when all riders have their own agendas. The smart riders (and the good leaders) are looking well ahead. But invariably, there will be riders totally focused down on the horse’s withers, concentrating only on themselves, not even aware of their own horse let alone the other horses in the arena. Being aware of danger in the environment is such a basic job of the leader that it is hard for your horse to think of you that way when you are failing at such a basic task.


Putting the Horse Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Your horse may view any given situation much differently than you and he sees danger where you may not. We, as humans, tend to analyze, rationalize and justify the situation, while to your horse it’s simple—it’s either safe or not. I often see riders and handlers put their horses in very precarious situations, with seemingly no awareness that it was risky for the horse. Perhaps the rider had no awareness of how the horse views the situation. Or perhaps the rider made an executive decision to override instinct and go into an unsafe situation anyway because her logic tells her it’s safe (logic that the horse may not possess).

This happens at my clinics while we are working on teaching the horse to step back with a subtle hand signal. I always catch people backing their horse into a solid fence or worse, another horse. He knows it to be wrong and unsafe. People get so caught up in the exercise of teaching the hand signal, that they lose all awareness of the surroundings and abdicate all responsibility for leadership.

Similar examples from the ground include asking a horse to step into a trailer, then standing right in front of him so he would have to bowl you over in order to comply. He’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to do that. Or asking the horse to trot on the lead line, but remaining right in front of him so there’s nowhere for him to go without running into you. It feels like a trap.

When riding in a group, it’s your job to keep your horse safe. Still, I see riders pass between a horse and the fence. Entrapment! There’s a reason fundamental safety rules exist—and it’s a fundamental rule to never pass between a horse and the rail. Horses can be very opportunistic when it comes to aggressive behavior and many horses will kick, given this opportunity. Your horse knows that as well and he has good reason to question your judgment when he is the one that will likely take the blow.


Asking the Horse to do Something, Then Punishing him When he Does

Horses, by nature, are very willing animals that instinctively seek out approval and acceptance from the herd leader. When you are a fair and consistent leader, your horse will work hard to please you and will feel safe and content in your presence.  When you notice his efforts and praise him for giving of himself, then your relationship kicks to a whole new level. There’s no limit to how hard a horse will try to please you when the right kind of give-and-take relationship exists.

We humans tend to fall down on our leadership in some very gut-wrenching ways to the horse. Often I see riders give a cue to the horse, then inadvertently punish him for responding to the cue. The most common example of this occurs in the canter departure. The rider may lack confidence. The horse is cued to canter, then hit in the mouth with the bit when he does (because his head moves into the bit in that moment). It hurts his mouth and scares him, leaving him with the feeling that he is being punished for doing what was asked.

Sometimes I see riders miscue their horse then admonish him for responding to the cue given. Then the rider wonders why he suddenly stopped responding to that cue. A perfect example is seen frequently when the rider, with two hands on the reins, asks the horse to turn with the inside rein, then starts pulling on the outside rein too, effectively pulling the nose in two directions at the same time. Pulling on two reins to turn puts incredible undue pressure on the horse’s mouth. It appears to him that you asked him to turn, then penalized him with the outside rein when he did. In that moment, the mistake was the rider’s (it’s the leader’s job to be clear in her directives). The horse did exactly what he was told to do then was admonished for trying.

Being a good handler and good rider takes a lot of time and effort and a lot more awareness of the horse. The more we can think from our horse’s point of view, the deeper our level of understanding of his behavior and the more rewarding the relationship with the horse. They are complicated animals, perceiving much more about us than we do about ourselves. That’s what makes horses so therapeutic to our souls.

Seek out help and have others watch you—they’ll catch on faster than you about what cues you may be giving the horse. They’ll see what you can’t. Let your horse guide you. He won’t lie to you; he either thinks of you as the leader or not. If he’s resistant and argumentative, he probably has a good reason. If he trusts you and looks up to you, you’re a good leader.

Avoiding Feed-time Frenzy Logo

If you keep your horses at home, you’ve probably already developed a routine that makes your job efficient and keeps the horses happy. But if you are new to this, or are looking for helpful hints to make your horse life easier, I’d like to share with you the ‘tricks of the trade’ that I have learned over the decades.

Feed time can be very stressful for the horses, especially when they are only fed twice a day. Nothing could be more unnatural to the horse, since he is designed to eat small amounts all day long. His digestive system is designed to always be full, so when he is fed two lump-sum meals that he finished within an hour or two, his stomach gets empty and he now has 6-8 hours or more to worry about when his next meal is coming. In addition to digestive and emotional stress, horses may also learn to act aggressively or rudely, which is reinforced as soon as you feed them. So it’s important to do what we can to alleviate the stress, by developing a good feed-time routine.

Keep Their Bellies Full!
My horses have free-choice access, 24/7, to a low-protein grass hay (tested at 9% protein). When your horses have free-choice hay (only grass hay and never alfalfa), it removes almost all the feed-time stress; there is little to no fighting over food; horses that previously would chase other horses off and hoard the food will eat side by side with their herd mates. I often look out in the paddock and see all of our horses eating from the same pile, with their noses virtually touching. Because horses know they can eat whenever they want and never worry about having enough food, they take turns at the feeders and they never gorge themselves.

Free choice access to grass hay brings a lot of peace and tranquility to the herd, helps keep mental stress low and is critical to digestive health. I find that we have much fewer problems with colic and ulcers with the horses on free-choice and we have no problems at all with obesity. If you are not in a situation where you can give them free-choice hay, you should feed hay in sufficient quantities that he always has a little bit left over before the next meal comes or feed more often than twice a day. If the hay you feed it too high in protein or so sweet that your horse may overeat, try using a slow feeder, such as the Savvy Feeder, that will slow your horse down and help him savor the hay all day long.

Follow a Consistent Routine
Horses love to know what is coming next and they love routines. It makes them feel safe. Develop your feeding routine in such a way that the horses can anticipate it and so that they will help you get the job done. Everyone’s situation is different and there are many ways to make it more efficient, but I will tell you our routine and why it works.

Half our horses stay outside in the paddock all day and all night, while the other half (our performance horses) are out all day and come into stalls at night. We do this for several reasons. One is that our performance horses frequently travel and have to stay in stalls when they do, so we want them accustomed to and comfortable with that confinement. Also, in addition to their free-choice hay, each horse gets special supplements and some get medications, so separating them makes it easier to feed a customized diet. All our horses receive daily doses of Cosequin (a joint health supplement), Wellactin (an omega 3 fish oil for their coats, immune systems and cardiovascular health) and Calxequin (an all-around vitamin supplement). Additionally, some of our horses get Proviable daily (a high-quality pre- and pro-biotic for digestive health) and occasionally one or more of our horses are also receiving some medication in their feed.

Each morning at the same time every day, the horses are all given a token amount of grain to carry their supplements. Most horses do not need any grain if they are receiving adequate amounts of hay. Hay or grass forage are considered “roughage,” while grains and complete feeds are considered “concentrates.” I personally like to avoid concentrates as much as I can but to get the horses to eat the supplements, we give them just a handful of whole oats (no additives or processed feeds). While they are eating their grain, we are taking off blankets and opening the alleyway to the paddock so that when they are finished, we can just open the stall door and let them trot out to the paddock by themselves. They will all spend the day out there together, munching contentedly when they want, napping in the sun and playing together.

Once the horses are all out, we clean the stalls, wash and fill the water buckets, load up the hay in each stall (so the stalled horses have all the hay they want at night) and prep the night-time grain and supplements (but leave it in the feed room so it doesn’t get eaten by the dogs). By 10 o’clock each morning all the chores are done for the whole day and the only remaining feed-time chore is to open the gates and let the horses in.

At 4 o’clock each afternoon, we place their previously prepared grain/supplements in the stall (I always feed hay and grain from the ground level, which is more natural and healthier for their respiratory systems, than putting it in a raised feeder). We close the barn doors to the outside, open all the stall doors, then open the gate to the paddock to let the horses in. Because we use the same routine at the same time every day, the horses are lined up to come in and they march right into their stalls.

Keep It Simple!
A horse has very simple needs when it comes to nutrition—they need roughage (10-20 pounds a day), water (10-15 gallons a day) and free-choice salt. I keep a Redmond all-natural sea salt lick in each stall and I keep several “rocks on a rope” in the paddocks, near the waterers. We also hang two water buckets (heated) in each stall and one of them has “Rein Water” mixed in—it’s a mineral mixture that horses love. It not only encourages them drink more, but it also helps the water taste familiar when we are on the road. I prefer to have buckets in the stalls and not automatic waterers so that I know exactly how much water each horse consumed overnight.

Train Your Horses to Help
I’ve taught my horses to come in the barn when I call them. It’s easy to do. Just use a unique call or whistle every day before they come in for feed. To get started, you may have to shake a grain can after your call and let them have a taste as soon as they come. Soon, the call or whistle itself will get them in. Use it every day so it is like a dinner bell. Then, even if I need to bring them in early, my call will always get their attention. If one horse learns it, the rest will likely follow and teach the new horses what it means.

If you let your horses march themselves into the barn and stalls, do it in the same order every day so they know what to expect. Soon they will be lining up in order and not vying for position. The more consistent your routine is, the better the horses will respond.

Make sure your horses do not act aggressively or display dominance when you feed them. If you must walk into a pen with feed, use a flag to make sure all the horses stay back and do not try to grab feed out of your arms—this is dominant behavior and very dangerous. If a horse is inside a pen or stall and you do not have to go in to feed, he should still be patient and polite. If he is acting aggressively or rudely, do not feed him in that moment. Use a flag to back him up and wait until his ears are forward before you throw the feed in. If you feed him while he is acting poorly, it reinforces that behavior and turns it into an ingrained habit.

Keep in mind that horses establish dominance in the herd, in part, by taking away food from others. If the horse ever comes to believe that his aggressive antics are causing you to feed him, then in his mind, every day you are proving to him he is dominant. Make sure your horses are acting appropriately in the moment that you feed them to help avoid dominance issues.

Whatever your horse-keeping situation is, there are probably things you can do to make it more time-efficient, easier and less stressful for your horses. Keeping a routine that is strictly adhered to by everyone that does the feeding chores, will help train your horses so that they cooperate in the process instead of interfering. If you have some great ideas for avoiding feed-time frenzy, I’d love to hear about them here in the comments!

Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight

A Horse’s Sense of Fairness

“Does my horse have a sense of fairness?” Recently, one of my Interactive Academy members asked me this question—a question that no one has ever asked me during my forty years of teaching people to ride horses. I’ve been working with this rider for a while now. She’s working through my 12-month curriculum with her horse to help improve her own horsemanship, as well as advance her horse’s training. Those endeavors involve improving your own leadership skills. Considering her leadership skills led to the question. So, does a horse have a sense of fairness?

Your horse’s point of view, on any given subject may be (and probably is) quite different than your own. What your horse views as unfair treatment may surprise you. But fairness does not exist in a vacuum—it is always relative to other factors. We get caught up in our own, singular point of view, and fail to consider all the factors. What seems perfectly reasonable to us, may be viewed as grossly unfair as another.

Leadership is not just about your actions or intentions; it is also about your honesty, integrity and fairness—including admitting your own mistakes and taking responsibility yourself if your followers fall short of your expectations. Authority is not the same as leadership—just because you have authority over others does not mean that they have a desire to follow you or accept you as their leader.

Horses most certainly have a sense of fairness, just as they are good judges of leadership and trustworthiness. Because they are herd animals, they are mindful of leadership, hierarchy, rules, and ramifications of behavior. They are instinctively drawn to strong leadership, with a compelling desire to be accepted in a herd and a profound fear of banishment from the herd. Horses thrive when leadership, rules and structure exist and they flail in the absence of it.

That’s not to say a horse never does anything wrong or that he would think any discipline was bad. He knows when he is breaking a rule or pushing a boundary and he usually responds well to fair punishment. But when rules are unclear or inconsistently enforced, when you say one thing but then do another, when you inadvertently punish even though no punishment was intended, or when the punishment does not fit the crime, a horse will feel that they are being treated unfairly, and his trust in you diminishes.

How would you know if you horse feels like you are treating him unfairly? This is what varies greatly with horses—given his natural temperament, he may react strongly or not at all to any perceived injustice. Reactions from the horse may range from a slight tensing and lifting of the head, to shaking the head, refusals, running through the bridle, crow-hopping, bucking, or shutting down (becoming nonresponsive). Of course, there could be many causes for these type of reactions in a horse, but whenever a horse is frustrated, it’s always important to consider your own actions, and how they may be viewed by the horse. After all, none of us is a perfect leader for our horses.

Here are some common scenarios where I see people treating their horses in ways the horse may consider unfair…

Unfair treatment #1

Ask him to do something then punish him for doing it: An easy way to test your horse’s sense of fairness is to cue him to canter, then hit him in the mouth with the bit when he does. How he reacts to that will tell you how tolerant he is. This happens far more often than you think, in all levels of riders. Sometimes it’s related to lack of skill; other times it is reactionary—a rider fearful of the canter often snatches the horse up as soon as they respond to the cue. From the horse’s point of view, you asked him to do something then you punished him for doing it. Responses from this kind of conflicting signal can range from a small shake of the head, to crow-hopping, to a refusal to canter for you anymore, to flat-out bucking. But usually it is the horse that is blamed; not fair, nor is it honest, from your horse’s point of view.

Unfair treatment #2

Asking for one more time: Let’s say you’ve been working on something very challenging for your horse—like jumping gymnastics. Maybe you start with just a few rails up in the line of jump-very-stride obstacles and gradually you add more until it is a very challenging and strenuous exercise. After some stops and starts and failed attempts, your horse finally goes through the full gymnastic correctly. You are thrilled! So what’s the first thing you say? “Let’s do that one more time.” You know what happens next. He’s already given you his best and that wasn’t good enough; now he’s tired and emotionally spent and you ask for more. Things fall apart and what should have been a great training session turns into a salvage effort. Fairness would dictate that you recognized your horse’s best effort and let him rest on that, rather than feed your own greed.

Unfair treatment #3

Setting the horse up for failure: This is the actually the real, unedited scenario that stimulated the whole discussion on fairness between my Interactive member and myself. “The last time we went to the arena, there were about 15 of us in there at once – usually, I have the place to myself, or maybe one other rider. This was a big test I thought – thinking about how anxious he was on the first day of the clinic [she’s referring to a clinic she took with me, 6-8 months ago, when he had come uncorked]. He did great! He stayed focused and listening to me. The only negative was when we were done, I loaded him up – no problem. So I decided to practice unloading and loading since we were a little tired and away from home. He decided no. A nearby rider gave me some help. This made me think about fairness. Was it unfair to finish and then ask for more?”

Yes, it was unfair. Clearly the horse had given of himself, worked very hard and done the right thing. He had every reason to believe he was done and would receive the kindness of comfort from his leader that he had a right to expect after a job well-done. Instead, he was set up to fail; he was set up to rebel. After all, he had already loaded once without resistance. Was that not what you wanted? Authority should not be exploited. My father often said, “A well-trained horse that trusts you, will jump over a cliff if you ask. But that might be the last time he trusts you and it might be the last time you get to ask.”

Does an impatient horse need to learn more patience? Yes. Should we expect perfect patience of him in every situation or at the same level we do another more patient or more experienced horse? No. Should we make him jump through hoops when he is most anxious or most aggravated, just for the sake of seeing him jump through the hoops? No. Should we ALWAYS set him up for success? YES! A good training exercise sets the horse up for the greatest chance of success, not throwing challenges at him one after the other with the intent of making him fail.

A good leader does not expect his followers to do things beyond their capabilities. Yes, you want to push your followers to be the best they can be, but you cannot make them be something they are not or live up to an unattainable expectation. Everyone wants the feeling of a job well done. If we think our horse may not be capable of giving us what we want in that moment, it’s best not to ask. Do something else instead. Come back later and address it when the chances of success are greater or when you have removed other obstacles.

While your expectations should be high, you are not trying to find your horse at fault and it is not about you, but more about what your horse is capable of giving. It’s about asking him to try and then recognizing his try, even when it is not perfect. Every horse is different and what may seem like an awesome response from one horse may be nothing for another horse.

It’s good to have high expectations; just remember that expectations lead to disappointment, so make sure your expectations are realistic and attainable. Your horse will rise to your level of expectation, be it high or low. Have high expectations, and recognize your horse’s efforts honestly and fairly.

Join the academy and get my one-on-one feedback as you work with your horse:

Have a good ride,

Julie Goodnight


Behavior Bummers Logo

Does your trail horse paw, walk off when you mount up, or go at an inconsistent speed? Correct these behavioral woes with these techniques from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.


Horses behave in the way they’re most motivated to act at the moment. Sometimes, what we might call “bad” behavior is simply what your horse has been trained to do — or what he’s been allowed to get away with.

If your horse thinks he’s in charge or that there’s no penalty for behaving badly, his behavior may turn from annoying to dangerous.

When I’m trail riding, I want to relax and take in the scenery. I want a horse that’s calm in his new environment and isn’t pawing as we get going or taking off too soon when I saddle up.

I also want a horse that goes at the speed I choose. I may want to relax and ride slowly, or pick up speed and have a little fun when the terrain allows.

You have to be a strong leader for your horse to act as your partner, and follow your lead and expectations. You have to teach him what you expect and be consistent with your rules so he knows how you expect him to act on and off the trail.

When your horse knows you’re the leader, you won’t have to micromanage him on the trail. You’ll gain confidence, knowing he’ll be a patient, willing trail partner.

Here, I’ll explain my three top pet peeves when it comes to trail-horse behavior. I’ll tell you what caused the behavior, why it’s annoying, and how to avoid or fix the behavior so that it doesn’t detract from your riding enjoyment.


Before You Begin

Don an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet. Practice these skills at home, on a flat area with good footing. Set up productive training scenarios geared toward success on the trail. When you’re ready to test your horse’s skills on the trail, go alone, without riding buddies, so you can concentrate on reinforcing good behavior.

Behavior Bummer #1: Impatient Pawing

What caused it: Pawing is a gesture that horses use to communicate that they’re frustrated and wish they were moving. Many horses get frustrated when they’re asked to do something that they don’t want to do. Your trail horse might paw when you hold him back from moving on with a big group of horses. He wants to get moving and stay with the herd. He might also paw when he’s bored, and you’re not paying attention to him, such as when he’s tied inside or to your trailer, or during a riding break.

Why it’s annoying: If your trail horse is highlined, his pawing can harm the terrain. Inside the trailer, pawing is loud and distracting. He can injure himself if he’s allowed to continue and throw a fit.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: Using the technique I describe below, teach your horse to stand tied without showing any signs of frustration or impatience. Teach him to stand quietly as you groom him, tie him to a post, and during your designated training time.

Your horse will soon learn that there’s no sense in getting frustrated or showing impatience — pawing doesn’t lead to a release or a reward. He’ll learn not to waste energy if pawing has no reward.

To teach your horse to stand tied, start teaching him to ground-tie every time you work with him. Outfit him with a rope halter and 15-foot training lead. Holding the lead in one hand, turn and face him. Give a verbal cue to “whoa.” If he stands quietly, lay down the middle of the rope. (Maintain your hold on the end of the rope if you must correct your horse often.)

If your horse moves a hoof or turns his head too far to the side, correct him by moving the rope in a snapping motion toward the halter, and return him back where he started.

When your horse knows he must stand still, lay the rope on the ground to test him even more. (Note that this process takes time to develop.)

When your horse understands that you have authority and that he must follow your voice command, the cue to stand still can carry over to any time he’s tied. Tie him, tell him “whoa,” and walk away. If he paws, avoid approaching him to give him any kind of attention. You must expect him to do what he knows how to do — stand still.

If your horse paws often, make sure he spends time tied at home in a safe environment before expecting the behavior to diminish on the trail. He should stand tied for up to an hour (making sure he’s in the shade and has access to water and before and after).

During the time your horse is tied, leave him alone; don’t approach him if he paws. Attention of any kind would reward him for the behavior. If you run back to your pawing horse, and give him attention, he’ll think his pawing caused you to come back.

If your older horse has an ingrained pawing problem while standing tied, ask a professional trainer to help you train your horse to stop pawing by using soft, rebraided cotton hobbles. Use caution, and make sure your horse is monitored by someone who’s done the process many times.

Note: If you’re under saddle and your horse begins to paw, you mustn’t hold him still. He’s having an emotional meltdown and won’t be able to keep his feet still. Instead, move him in turns from right to left to keep him moving but focused on you. When he seems calmer, ask him to stand again. If he doesn’t stand still, turn him to the right and left again — making it a challenge not to listen and easy to stand still and be patient.

Behavior Bummer #2: Walking Off as You Mount Up

What caused it: A horse should learn from the very first time that he’s ridden that mounting doesn’t mean “go.” Most horses that walk off without a cue either never learned the skill as a colt or have been untrained by the rider.

This movement without a cue annoys me, because I want the horse to see me as the leader. If he steps off without a cue, he thinks he’s in charge from the first step of our ride. I don’t want that first interaction to be one of disrespect and disobedience.

Horses constantly look for patterns in your cueing and, if allowed, may come to their own conclusions about what they should do next. If you never require your horse to stand still when you mount up, he’ll quickly learn a new pattern — a person sitting in the saddle means “go.”

Why it’s annoying: Your horse soon learns to step forward as soon as you sit down or put your foot in the stirrup. The trend worsens until you have trouble stepping into the stirrup without your horse walking off.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: This problem is easy to prevent. Don’t allow your horse to step forward at all until you actively give a cue to step forward.

If your once-well-trained horse suddenly decides that he should step off without a cue, go back to ground work, and ask him to stand perfectly still with a rope halter and long training lead (similar to the ground-tying lesson described earlier).

Ask your horse to stand still by pointing your toes toward his shoulder and giving a verbal cue to “whoa.” Then correct him every time he takes a step or moves his nose to the side. Wave the lead rope toward the halter as a correction.

When your horse will stand still on command with a halter and lead, saddle up, and place his bridle under the rope halter with the lead attached. (Never correct your horse by pulling on the bit or bridle reins — the pressure from the halter and lead is enough and prevents you from harming his mouth.)

Keep your expectation that your horse will stand still as you start to mount up. Mount slowly, with the lead line in hand. Watch for the moment he begins to move. If he takes a step, step down, and correct him, requiring him to stand still.

If you get so far as to sit in the saddle, your correction switches to controlling your horse with the reins. Keep your reins short enough so that you can control him immediately if he takes a step. If he does take a step, sit back and pull back on the reins, and require him to stand still.

If your horse is agitated and anxious, and continues to move his feet, put him to work. Circle to the left; circle to the right; circle again to the left. Then allow him to stop and take a break. Reward him if he stands still. If he wants to walk off again, repeat the circling exercise. Show him that standing still is what you asked for and is the easiest option.

Sometimes a horse that won’t stand still may be uncomfortable because of the rider’s static weight (horses are built for strength while moving, not while standing still) or because his saddle doesn’t fit. He may shift from side-to-side and fidget. You might get the impression that he’s attempting to stand still, as he’s otherwise not showing impatience or seeming to want to do something different.

If your horse fidgets from side-to-side rather than walking forward when you ask him to stand, consider checking saddle fit and consulting a veterinary chiropractor.

Behavior Bummer #3: Going Too Slow or Too Fast

What caused it: You’re not in control of your horse’s speed, and therefore, not in control of your horse. In the saddle, there are two things you should control — speed and direction. If you don’t control how slowly or quickly your horse moves, you aren’t the one in charge. If he hasn’t been trained to follow cues to go at the speed you

dictate, you need to train him now.

Why it’s annoying: Riding a trail horse that only moves slowly or takes off at full speed (with no middle gears) is annoying for you and for anyone riding with you. Other horses have to work to keep up so the group can stay together. A horse acting badly can get the whole group amped up to go at a fast speed that no one really wants. If you’re dealing with a speed demon, you might feel frantic and out of control.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: If your horse ignores your speed cues — and takes off at a pace that you don’t want — first make sure you know how to perform the emergency-stop cues. (To learn how to safely use a pulley rein, and perform the one-rein stop, go to

Practice a one-rein  slow-down  technique at home in a flat area with good footing. Turning a horse quickly with the one rein stop on the trail can cause him to lose his balance and fall. Also, not all trails have the space needed for a horse to turn. When you practice this turning technique at home, you’ll soon teach your horse that he can continue to move forward, but at a slower pace.

When your horse speeds up, pick up one rein, and pull it up and back toward your opposite shoulder. This will cause him to turn and disengage the hindquarters.

Any time your horse speeds up without a cue, slide your hand down one rein and start to pull up and back. With enough repetition, you can teach the horse that when you slide your hand down the rein, you’ll be slowing or stopping him, and he should slow down. He doesn’t have to make a full turn. He knows what’s coming next and will learn to slow his gait while moving ahead. Soon, your horse will slow down easily when you pick up slightly on one rein.

You can also  check and release  your horse. Pull up and back on the reins as you sit deep into the saddle, then immediately release when your horse slows. He’ll learn that you want to slow down.

Be very careful not to pull on the reins with constant pressure — that will actually teach the horse to pull against you and continue to move fast. If you don’t release at the first hint that he’s slowed, you’ll cue him to fight against you and cause a tug-of-war.

Horses are Survivors Logo

By Julie Goodnight

Have you worked with a rescued horse or a horse with abuse in his past? The lessons learned from working with these troubled-but-not-disposable horses are priceless. If you let them, these horses can help us understand horse and human behavior

Like humans, horses can carry some heavy emotional and physical pain “baggage’ from their pasts. As horse handlers, we may or may not get to know about that past pain. The burden of this past-trauma (real or imagined) has a tendency to surface unexpectedly and may spiral out of control quickly. The best we can do is help the horse feel safe, try to comfort him as best we can and direct his energy in a more positive direction–in the hopes that his mind will calm and he’ll be able to think his way back to some sense of normalcy.

At a recent clinic, I met a horse who reminded me what it’s like to feel out of control—and he taught me what can be done to create a place of calmness where learning can occur.

It started like any other clinic, with about 15 horses and their handlers meandering into the large arena, each equipped only with halter and lead. As usual, most of the horses were looking around, assessing the situation showing mild to moderate interest in the other horses, but hanging tight with their human. Some horses gave the distinct impression that they were thinking, as they looked my way, sizing me up (all 5’4” of me, mic’d up, talking 100 words a minute and pacing a rut in the middle of the pen). “Uh oh, looks like we’re at another horsemanship clinic; do nothing to draw attention to myself and conserve all energy, because I think I might be here all day!”

Other horses were too busy looking at all the unknown horses and cycling through a range of emotions from excitement, to flirtatious, to intimidating, to cocky and strutting like a peacock. Some horses had the appearance of a well-heeled dog–keeping one keen eye on their handler so as not to miss any cues or expectations. At the same time, these horses took in as much information as possible from the other horses and the unfamiliar environment. A few of the older, seasoned horses stood quietly, half asleep and giving the occasional stink eye to the ‘uncivilized’ horses.

But one horse was very distressed. He was a mess: Pawing, stomping and head butting his handler, screaming at the top of his lungs, tossing his nose in the air and hurling himself to the right and then to the left, bouncing off the end of the lead when he hit it. The handler was doing an admirable job of hanging onto the end of the lead with a few strides of dirt skiing here and there. Looking at the horse’s face as he called out, I could see deep lines of fear-sweat around the eyes–in spite of the cool morning temps in the mountain air. The whites of his eyes were visible much of the time and occasionally his eyes gave the appearance of rolling back in its head. This horse was desperately trying to send a message. “I do not want to be here. In fact, I would rather be ANY WHERE ELSE ON EARTH than here or with you!”

As I got the rest of the horses and handlers moving about the arena in an orderly fashion, I asked the woman with the troubled horse to tell me about him. “I have no idea what’s wrong with him! He’s not normally like this at home,” she cringed in embarrassment, like a mother whose kid just threw a wall-eyed fit in a restaurant.

“How many times have you taken him to a strange place to ride him?”

“Well never, really,” she started. “You see, I’ve only had him for a few months and this is our first attempt at a road trip. He came from a rescue, so I don’t really know much about his history, but I think he was abused.

“When I ride at home with my husband, he’s perfectly calm and does everything I ask,” she said with exasperation. “This is the first time I’ve tried anything like this and we thought it’d be better to leave my husband’s horse at home, so we could get some confidence on our own.”

One thing was very clear to me, this horse was stressed out way beyond the point of thinking and his owner was certainly not getting any more confident. She looked like she’d be happy to tuck her tail and run out the arena gate–gladly forfeiting the tuition and chalking the whole thing up to lessons-learned  if I gave her even the slightest opening.  Meanwhile, the horse was reaching back into his most basic survival instincts. He forgot everything he knew about his training and was getting more angry and frustrated by the minute. He cried out for help in every way he knew how.

Creating Calm

No horse is happy in this state and no horse wants to feel this way—it’s just the only way they know how to feel. They don’t know how to get rid of that bad feeling except to fight or flee. I feel like it’s my job as a horsemanship clinician, to give the horse (and human) what he needs in the moment to feel safe and comfortable. Because only when his mind is calm and relaxed, is he capable of learning and growing. Without question, the same can be said of humans too—when the mind is in a state of stress and turmoil, it’s hard to get much clear thinking done.

Before the horse owner could get any closer to the exit gate, I asked her if I could take her horse for a few minutes to see if I could help him. It only took 10-15 minutes of guiding his energy, telling him where to go, how fast to get there and how to act in the process. I provided him with structure,  guidance and praise–making all the decisions for him so he didn’t have to think, until he began to soften.

As the horse began to understand the very simple things I was asking and the clear and quiet directives I was giving, things made sense to him again. He could trust me and realized that it might benefit him to listen to what I had to say—especially since leaving was not an offered option. Once his focus came onto me, I stopped him to let him rest and turned my back to take away all the pressure. It wasn’t long before he exhaled deeply, lowered his head and rested his very busy mind and body. Soon he was licking his lips and dropping his head as his eyelids went to half-mast.

Horses are emotional animals, perhaps more emotional than even humans. Maybe it’s because of their sheer size or because of their exceptional capabilities when it comes to fight or flight. But when a horse has reached his limit and his emotions boil over, it can be a scary and daunting challenge for us humans. In fact, most of us would be so uncomfortable around a horse like that, we would want to look the other way or shun the horse as bad. It’s far easier, and sometimes safer to get rid of the emotionally troubled horse than it is to be empathetic and to work through the problem to help him feel safe and find some peace. But there was good in this horse, he didn’t need to be ignored or shunned.

This horse needed to be understood. He needed kindness, patience and a release of pressure.

The Horse-Human Connection

Horses and humans can both feel this sense of “out of control.” I’ve learned from personal experience that when people are in turmoil–mentally or emotionally–they are in a very lonely and desperate place and what they need most in that moment is kindness, patience and a release of pressure.

I understood this next concept with horses long before I came to understand people are the same way—when they are struggling with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress or any number of mental health issues. It’s far easier to cross the street to get away from that angry/frustrated/volatile being than it is to look him in the eye and ask sincerely how you can help.

Because horses and humans share this common emotional connection, it comes as no surprise that horses can help humans who are struggling with mental health issues of any kind. Horses are especially good at helping those who feel stress and fear. No human is more empathic than a horse when it comes to understanding your fears and no human is more honest in reacting to your own emotions than a horse. That’s why the therapeutic value of horses is so high.

Horses have survived in our society for thousands of years—long after their usefulness in “paving civilization,” they have adapted and survived and made themselves valuable to us in so many different ways–from sport to entertainment to therapy. Today, perhaps one of the greatest gifts we get from horses is the mental health benefit that we –all riders and handlers get. Whether an autistic child, a wounded warrior, an abused spouse, a person with a physical handicap, or a person struggling to control their emotions, there is help with horses. They understand.

Horses make me a better person—they teach me patience, emotional control, clear communication skills. And they make me look within myself a lot—even when it is not comfortable to do so.

Horses have a unique way of giving us exactly what we need in the moment to find our place, to quiet our minds, to rise to a challenge and to be a better person. Just like the horse in my clinic, horses are beautiful teachers. They are survivors; and if we pay close attention and understand what they need, they can help us all to survive in this often-crazy world.

Feed-Time Aggression Q & A Logo

Julie Goodnight Q&A
Feed-Time Aggression; Maintaining the Right Lead

Q: Why do some horses feel threatened when it comes to their food, and in return behave in an aggressive way at meal times? What can I do to prevent food-time aggression and stay safe at feeding time? –Chloe Martin

A: A horse’s aggression at feed time may be as major as pinning his ears, baring his teeth and charging you or as minor as grabbing the hay out of your arms when you arrive to distribute dinner. Horses may behave this way to establish who’s dominant in the herd—and if you are present with food, you’re part of the herd for the moment! When horses establish who’s in charge in the herd, they show they are dominant by controlling space and controlling resources. The resources are food, water and shelter. With food aggression, the horse is often simultaneously invading your space and taking away the food. That’s his way to control space and resources all at once. Keep in mind that he doesn’t know the difference between horse food and people food—he doesn’t know you won’t eat it. He knows he wants it and he can take it from you.

Why does your horse think he’s dominant over you? Hand feeding treats can lead to the horse thinking he is in charge and allowed to take food from your hand. He also learns that by pushing into you he can control where you stand and where you’ll go. Sometimes horses develop food aggression just because their dominant behavior has been tolerated in the past; it becomes worse over time. Sometimes aggression develops when feeders don’t go into the pen with the horse at all. When horses are fed only twice a day (instead of eating all day long like nature intended) there is a lot of stress and anxiety over when the next meals comes.

Some horses will be so anxious that they start acting out, like pawing, pinning the ears or baring teeth, then when the feeder dumps the hay in, the horse comes to believe his aggressive gestures are causing you to feed him. Even though you aren’t going into the pen so his gestures don’t concern you, to him it is as if he intimidated you into dropping the food and leaving, so his aggressive gestures were rewarded.

There is also herd stress if you’re feeding in a group and only feeding twice a day—horses may be worried about getting their food and also worried if another horse will allow them to eat. Those two factors—the herd and the limited food resource—may make the horses aggressive toward one another and just agitated to anyone present at feed time. That kind of stress in addition to only being fed twice a day causes a competition for the food. In that case, I would recommend separating them for feeding to reduce the competition for food. Or feed more often. Giving horses free access to hay 24 days, seven days a week will virtually eliminate all food aggression.

If a horse is acting out against you as you bring the food, that’s easy to fix. I would use a flag whenever I approach the horse’s pen, whether I intend to go into it or not. Wave the flag at the horse to back him up. Once he yields his space, he will then look forward at you to see what is going to happen next. While his ears are forward and after he has backed up, drop the food and walk away. If his aggressive antics don’t get him what he wants, he will stop acting that way. Make sure you have a flag or stick to make sure you can defend yourself.

Remember, he doesn’t have to act well for long—just has to be acting right at the moment you feed him. It’s not that the alpha horse never lets the other horses eat—they get to eat when she walks away from the food.

3 Leadership Activities Logo

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

Trust Is A Two-Way Street Logo

Trust is an elusive thing, both to give and to get. You cannot force or implore someone to trust you, you can only earn it. If you feel as though you have been wronged by someone else, unjustly criticized, punished or lied to, it’s really hard to give them your trust.

Lately, I’ve been working with a lot of people, in my clinics and in my Interactive Academy, who list developing trust from their horse as an important goal in their personal horsemanship journey. It is a good goal, maybe one of the best. Because a horse that trusts you and wants to please you will jump the moon if you ask him. But trust is a two way street.

Although the clients I work with don’t often state this goal (never that I can think of), I often find myself telling riders and handlers they need to develop trust in their horse. I know it’s hard to do, especially if the horse has done some scary stuff in the past, or when the rider/handler lacks confidence. But if you do not trust your horse, why would he trust you?

By and large, horses want to do the right thing. They are willing animals that seek out acceptance to the herd, respect the hierarchy and obey the rules (wait your turn, stay out of the boss’s way, be a good citizen of the herd). Horses recognize strong and fair leadership; they crave it more than anything else in life.

The greatest motivating factors in a horse’s behavior is to feel safe and comfortable. He feels safe knowing he is accepted into a herd, that there is a strong leader watching out for his safety, maintaining order, making good decisions. He gains comfort from having the security to rest, socialize and relax in peace even though the world is full of predators.

I want my horses to give themselves over to me completely and to trust me enough to follow me wherever I go and do whatever I ask. In exchange for that huge gift, I promise to be fair, make good decisions and trust him to do the job I ask without me second-guessing and doubting him. When it comes to trust, it has to be a two-way street.

Can Your Horse Trust You?

Horses can spot a strong leader a mile away, because in their minds, their very life depends on it. I always say, if horses could vote, we would not have the mess in Washington DC that we have today. It’s easy to fake leadership to humans, especially since our lives don’t depend on it—we are far too eager to believe the words coming out of the politician’s mouth, disregarding his actions and judgment. But you cannot fake leadership to a horse; your actions speak louder than your words.

A true ‘Alpha’ horse is propelled into the leadership role by the other members of the herd. I remember a leadership quote that reminds me of horses; “Leadership is borne from the needs of those who follow.” The leader of a horse herd is responsible for the safety of the herd, motivating the herd to flight when necessary, leading the herd to food and water and maintaining discipline within the herd. Horses worship their leader because she’s fair and consistent and gives them a sense of safety and comfort.

To lead, one must have good awareness of the environment, its hazards and its opportunities; plus have the ability to foresee and steer clear of danger. The leader defines and enforces the rules of the herd and disciplines unruly herd mates when necessary. A true alpha horse is not a bully; she’s strong and firm, but fair. I see people fall down on these obligations all the time, with little awareness that they are eroding their horse’s trust in them.

People are often on their own agenda and totally unaware of the environment, so they ask the horse to do things the horse perceives as dangerous, like passing between the wall of the arena and another horse. From the horse’s point of view, that’s highly dangerous, it could result in injury to him and if he questions the rider’s judgment, he gets punished for it. The erosion of your horse’s trust in your leadership ability begins with little things like this.

I’ve seen riders and handlers from the ground both, cueing a horse to back-up when the horse knows there’s a fence or another horse behind him. He perceives the danger of what they are asking of him and he starts to doubt their leadership ability. Same thing with circling and longeing in an arena with other horses—it’s quite easy to end up on a collision course with another horse but the human doesn’t see it. The horse does see it and now he’s pretty sure your judgment cannot be trusted anymore.

People get tunnel-vision and stuck on their own agenda and forget their responsibility to be aware of danger and make good decisions. Then we wonder why a horse challenges our authority and questions our leadership.

Sometimes riders give conflicting messages to horses that leave them not only questioning the rider but feeling confused and frustrated too. How many times does a person have to lie to you before you won’t trust anything coming out of his mouth? One of the saddest examples of this occurs when a reluctant rider asks the horse to canter, then at the moment the horse begins to canter, the rider freezes on the reins and the horse hits the bit hard. The horse feels like he’s been punished for doing the very thing he was asked to do (and he was) and the rider is left wondering why this stupid horse won’t go into the canter anymore.

The same contradiction occurs frequently when a rider asks the horse to go, then pulls him abruptly into a one-rein stop because he was going too fast. Riders are constantly asking horses to go more forward, then punishing him in the mouth when he does. Or asking the horse to turn or flex his neck to one side, then hitting him with the outside rein when he does. This starts feeling like a trap for the horse, not only eroding any trust he may have but also leading to an adversarial relationship.

If we can begin to think from the horse’s point of view and what makes sense to him, then it’s easier to see the mistakes you are making. If a horse is constantly challenging your authority, it’s likely he does not view you as the leader because you are not always acting like one. Rather than looking to change the horse, we must look within to see how we can change and be a better leader to the horse.

Can You Trust Your Horse?

I’m not saying horses are always perfect and never try to get away with anything, but for the most part, they are kind, generous, willing animals that want to be good citizens. But I’d be willing to bet that most everyone reading this article thinks of themselves that way too—a good solid citizen. Yet occasionally we drive a little over the speed limit, run a yellow light or call in sick to work because we want a play day.

Although horses occasionally try and get out of work, for the most part they are willing to do what we ask. Horses prove again and again that they are willing to let you ride them, willing to stop, go and turn when you ask. Any horse is capable of ditching the rider at any moment, yet they not only let us ride, but a horse that trusts you will try and jump the moon if you ask.

On a daily basis, I see riders taking a death-grip on the reins, micro-managing every move that the horse makes—asking him to go, then restricting his ability to move forward with the reins; asking him to turn, then impeding his ability to bend his neck with the outside rein. I see handlers from the ground so afraid the horse is going to leave that they are holding onto the horse’s face with a tight lead (or worse, clamping on the reins, putting his mouth in a vise grip). These are constant ongoing messages to the horse that you do not trust him one little bit.

When a rider/handler does not trust the horse to do the right thing and begins to micro-manage, it sets up a very bad dynamic that leads to frustration and aggravation from the horse and a co-dependency of behavior. An obedient horse goes in the direction the rider dictates and the speed the rider requests. He’s perfectly capable of maintaining whatever direction or speed the rider wants without constant interference. When the rider tries to hold the horse in a direction or hold the horse in a speed, it absolves the horse from any responsibility and tells him that you don’t trust him to do the right thing.

Once I’ve asked my horse to do something for me, I trust him to do it, I give him the freedom he needs and I let him do his job. I praise him and let him rest when he does it well. I correct him if he makes a mistake and ask him to try it again. But I never try to prevent him from making the mistake. If I ask the horse to trot and he misunderstands and takes a canter instead (because I was not clear), I don’t get mad or hold him tighter, I just clarify the cue, correct him and move on. Just like us, the horse learns from making mistakes. But the next time I ask, I have to trust him to do the right thing and let him do his job.

When the rider lacks confidence or has reason not to trust the horse (maybe the horse has bucked or spooked or done something to frighten the rider), it’s really hard to let go and give him the chance to do the right thing. But when the rider sends a constant message through the reins, through her posture and through her actions that she is afraid and thinks the horse is going to be bad, you can see how the horse might have a hard time accepting the rider as the leader.

On the other hand, it’s amazing how willingly a horse will follow your lead when you trust him and treat him as if you are 100% certain he will do as you ask. Horses are incredibly keen to your level of intention, determination and trust, be it high or low. When we doubt ourselves, the horse sees it and begins to question our leadership ability.  When you doubt the horse, he feels it and starts questioning if he really does have to do what you ask.

Think of it like raising children. We educate them and teach them how to follow the rules and make good decisions but at some point we have to give them the freedom to make their own decisions, right or wrong. By making mistakes, we learn to have better judgment. If you are afraid to trust your horse and you never give him a chance to do the right thing, he cannot learn from his mistakes and he is reliant on you forever to tell him what to do.

The End Game

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about developing trust in horses and it’s something I’ve worked hard for all of my life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes with horses—we all do—but realizing the mistake, owning it, and learning from it so that you never make that mistake again, is the important part. Realizing and understanding the mistake in the first place is the hard part. You have to know you are making a mistake before you can own it. On a daily basis, I see people making inadvertent mistakes with horses that they have no idea they are making.

Most anyone who has been around horses for very long comes to see that 99% of horse “problems” are rider-induced. Yet we as humans have a never-ending capacity to always blame the horse, “my horse has a problem with his canter leads.” Really? Last time I saw him running out in the field, he took the correct lead every single time. Maybe the problem is in your inability to communicate the lead you want to the horse.

When the rider understands that as the true leader, she is not only responsible for her own actions but also for the actions of those who follow her, then real progress can be made. What am I doing that is causing this response in my horse? How am I falling down on the job of leader and causing my horse not to trust me? If I can recognize my own mistakes and take responsibility for my own actions, not only will my horse trust me more, but my horsemanship will drastically improve too. When the rider/handler improves, the horse always gets better.

Horses Need Horses Logo

Relationship Fix Series


By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco


Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how horses gain a sense of calm and necessary interaction with the herd—and how their time with other horses can benefit your time together.


Horses Need Horses

Do you want your horse to be happy, relaxed and ready for your next ride? For your horse to feel his best, he needs time with other horses when you can’t be around.

Horses need the herd. They are social animals and they only exist in natural settings in a herd—horses are never alone for long in the wild. They depend on the herd for social stimulation as well as a sense of security.

Horses actually depend on the herd for a feeling of wellbeing. In the herd, they exist cooperatively: they stand head to tail to help keep pests away; they guard one another so that they can feel safe enough to sleep. If a horse is alone, he may never fully relax. He’ll always be the one that has to watch the horizon— constantly on guard.

When horses are alone, their behaviors can change and they are often depressed. They may begin repetitive stress behaviors—such as weaving or pacing in a stall.

While not all horses can always be with a herd, you can make housing and turnout choices to include his socialization needs. If you have a small property, a performance horse that needs to be kept safe, or a horse with health or behavior issues, you may need to keep alone for part of the day. That’s OK, as long as you do your best to provide natural elements.

A horse would rather be with other horses (envision how mustangs live in the wild as what your horse would choose for himself). A horse wants wide-open spaces so that at any moment he can flee from a predator. While humans think that a small, warm space with high walls is comforting, horses are comforted by seeing the horizon and accessing open spaces. Your horse wants turnout time outside with other horses. It’s time to think like a horse and think about how your horse wants to live.

Horses Home Alone

If your horse is an only horse, I think you have a responsibility to provide 24-hour-a-day companionship. At the very least, your horse will feel more comfortable if he can see other horses. If possible, make sure your horse shares a safe fence line with a neighboring horse. However, he will be most comfortable if he can touch another horse. Touching, nipping, grooming, swishing tails and even being able to bite is important to a horse’s overall well being.

If you are the only one your horse has, make sure to enrich his life. In addition to riding, stimulate his mind and occupy his time with long walks. You may also give him obstacles and novel items to interact with in his paddock.

Ideally, getting a buddy horse is the best answer. A miniature donkey or even a goat can be a great companion. I’ve even seen a horse bond with a duck or a cat! Your horse can even bond with a dog, but that doesn’t work if you take your dog inside. Your horse can get companionship from any animal and that companionship is best provided by another horse or a similar species.

Horse Boarding Choices

My horses are together outside all day then come into stalls with runs in the evening. That separation time works for us because that’s how we feed separately and manage their different supplement and diet needs. At that time, they can all see one another, touch each other through openings in the dividers and access their outdoor runs so that they can see the horizon. They are all ready to go out first thing in the morning. They don’t tend to stay in their stalls unless they are seeking shelter from rain or snow.

If you board your horse, the most ideal scenario is having your horse turned out with other horses. Choose as much outdoor access and herd time turnout as possible.

Horses can learn to like their stalls, but I say learn purposefully. If your horse is stalled, choose a stall with a window that allows him to see the horizon. New, high-class barns have indoor walls made of mesh so that horses can see one another and even touch through the walls. That is more preferable to a solid wall.

Choose an attached run so he can move in and out –to see other horses. That is preferable to a stall that is dark and inside only.  A long and narrow run is preferable to a square pen. A long run is designed for the horse’s benefit because he wants to play and act out his flight response and run in a straight line. A square pen that only allows him to run in a circle is not satisfying to the horse.

No matter where your horse lives, take a moment to evaluate his interaction with others and his ability to see the horizon. Build in as many natural views and interactions as possible and you’ll have a healthy horse—and a healthier relationship with your relaxed and calmer riding partner.

On The Rail: Teaching Horse Behavior To Youth Q And A Logo


On the Rail: Teaching Horse Behavior to Youth

By Julie Goodnight


Q: Dear Julie, I am a big believer in natural horsemanship and how effective it is to handle horses with an understanding of their natural behaviors. I’d like to instill these principles into my teaching and I wonder if you have any ideas for getting my youth students interested in studying horse behavior? Seems like all they want to do is ride! ~ Mary


A: Dear Mary, I applaud your efforts to instill good principles in your students and an awareness of what life is like from the horse’s point of view. I have found it fascinating to study horse behavior even as a child when I had no idea I was studying it. Learning behavior through observation is a valuable tool but I think there are lots of ways to stimulate their interest. One of my most popular demonstrations is about reading the language of horses and I think that once you give people (and for the record, I don’t teach kids much differently than adults) clues to look for in understanding and “reading” a horse’s language, they love it. Even non-horse people enjoy watching horses when they have a basic understanding how they communicate. Horses communicate primarily with postures, gestures and body language; however, some of their communication is an audible language. I find that once people become aware of this almost anyone, regardless of their experience level, can start understanding the horse’s language. Just by pointing out a few basics your students can observe a group of horses and start calling out the communications they see; “Back off!”, “Gee that looks interesting”, “Warning, warning!”, “Come here and feed me!”, “Stay away from me”. “Do you want to be friends?”.  I have written much about behavior and the Training Library on my website has hundred of articles that elaborate on both the instinctive and learned behaviors of horses. A few of the fundamentals I would teach before playing this basic observation game with your students include postures, gestures and audible expressions. A horse’s head is entirely indicative of his emotional state—when the head goes up he is tensing, when the head lowers he is relaxing. As you ride and as you observe horses, watch their head level for indicators on how they are feeling. The same thing is true of his tail—all the way up shows excitement/flight/prideful behavior; a cowering horse will tuck his tail like a dog. Horses have numerous gestures—some of them we may not want to know about! The head drop/bob shows submission, ears back shows anger, baring teeth is a threatening gesture. Horses gesture a lot with their feet— cocking a foot can be a kick threat; pawing means “I’m frustrated and I want to be moving”; stomping feet means “that makes me mad!”.  A toss of the head with the nose moving in a circular motion is a defiant gesture that teenagers would get in trouble for doing. Horses have many gestures that have meaning if you know what to look for. Horses are limited to just a few audible expressions that they use to communicate; the squeal, whinny, nicker, and snort. Each has a specific meaning and I find students of all ages and even non-horse people are interested to learn about these behaviors and interpreting them as they watch horses.

  • Squeal: The squeal is a high-pitched outcry, which acts as a defensive warning or threat. It tells another animal to be ready for a stronger reaction if further provoked. Squeals are typical during aggressive interactions between horses, during reproductive encounters when the mare protests the stallion’s advances, and when a pre- or early-lactating mare objects to being touched anywhere near her sore teats.
  • Nicker: A nicker is a guttural, low-pitched pulsating expression that means “come closer to me”. It occurs most often just prior to being fed and announces the horse’s presence and anticipation. Stallions will also nicker at mares during a reproductive encounter and seems to signal the stallion’s interest in the mare. Mares typically give a third type of nicker to their young foals when the mare is concerned about the foal.
  • Whinnies or Neighs: Whinnies or neighs are high-pitched calls that begin like a squeal and end like a nicker. It is the longest and loudest of horse sounds and is distinctive for each horse (you can learn to recognize the sound of your horse’s whinny). The whinny seems to be a searching call that facilitates social contact from a distance. It’s a form of individual recognition and most often occurs when a foal and mare or herd peer companions are separated or when a horse is inquisitive after seeing a horse in the distance.
  • Snorts and Blows: Snorts and blows are produced by forceful expulsion of air through the nostrils. The snort has a rattling sound, but the blow does not. The snort and blow communicate alarm and apparently serves to alert other horses. The snort may also be given when a horse is restless but constrained; in this case, it should be taken seriously as a sign that the horse is feeling trapped and alarmed and may become reactive.

Getting your students started on understanding the horse’s communicative behavior is a good place to begin. Once they are engaged, the sky’s the limit on the lessons you can teach and the lessons that horses offer us every day. Studying their emotional behaviors, the seven categories of instinctive behaviors of horses, doing groundwork exercises to build a better relationship with the horse and studying the herd dynamics we see every day will be as interesting to your students, as it is to you.


For No Apparent Reason: Learning to understand why horses behave the way they do Logo

When folks tell me about problem behaviors, I hear one phrase often. I admit I’ve even said it myself when I was a young trainer. “For no apparent reason, my horse….” You can fill in the next part with any frightening horse behavior. Choose from a list such as: bucked me off, kicked me, bit me, ran away, spooked, refused to get in the trailer, refused to go in the arena, reared. The list of behaviors that follows this phrase is long.

This one little phrase—for no apparent reason—seems to absolve the human of all responsibility. Surely the horse was to blame for his unexpected reaction. The phrase implies that there’s something wrong with the horse’s behavior. But there’s an important word buried within this phrase: apparent. Just because the human doesn’t yet know what caused the behavior, doesn’t mean the horse didn’t sense something real. It wasn’t apparent to the handler, but the horse knows what caused the behavior. It’s our job as horsemen to find out what was apparent to the horse.

Behaviors Have Purpose

All behaviors have a reason or purpose. There is always some purpose or meaning behind the behavior that a horse displays. It doesn’t always seem purposeful to us, but it is to the horse. You cannot watch a horse more than a minute without seeing behaviors.

Let’s get this fact straight: just because we do not like a horse’s behavior doesn’t mean that it is a bad behavior. For instance, a horse that kicks is not a bad horse; he’s a horse—they all kick. Horses may kick when they are startled or feeling the need to defend their space—or to ward off a predator. Or it may be an aggressive move to gain dominance. Kicking does not make him a bad horse and it is not a bad behavior from the horse’s point of view. He actually finds it quite useful. It’s just a behavior we humans don’t like, so we think of it as bad.

There should not be any value judgment when observing a behavior. Behaviors that are undesirable to us humans are not bad they just are. The challenge we as horse people have, is to promote the behaviors we want and try to eliminate, or extinguish the behaviors that are undesirable, unsafe or unmanageable– not to get caught up in the horse’s drama and react in an emotional way or take his behavior personally.

I talk a lot in my clinics about horse training—teaching the horse manners, cues, obedience and responsiveness. We are all horse trainers—anytime you interact with a horse, you are either training him or un-training him. It’s just that some people are better at training –or promoting the good behaviors– than others.

Find the Motivation

To me, after a half-century of training horses, the most effective way to have an impact is to first understand the natural and instinctive behaviors of horses. Then try to understand the motivation for the specific behavior. Only once you have an idea of the motivation, employ well-known, science-based training techniques that are proven to be effective (such as classical conditioning, operant conditioning, negative and positive reinforcers, replacement training vs. punishment, finding the amount of pressure needed to motivate change, etc.). If you understand the behavior first, you’ll see that it doesn’t come “out of the blue.” You’ll think of reasons that may have caused the behavior and choose your plan to teach the horse to act another way.

You will always be more effective in changing a horse’s behavior if you can understand the origins of that behavior: is it instinctive or learned behavior; how is the horse benefitting from this behavior; how motivated is he in this behavior; and how engrained or habitual is the behavior (how long has he been doing this)? These answers are sometimes hard to know, but the more you understand about the horse’s behavior, the easier it is to affect change.

Calm and Carry On

Noticing the horse’s body language and state of mind can only happen if you’re calm and paying attention. There is often a mystique around some horse handler’s ability to “read” the horse. You know, some people are nicknamed “horse whisperers.” But reading a horse and understanding his language doesn’t have to be confusing or mystical. If you understand the communicative language of horses (they speak through postures and gestures), they are actually pretty transparent. But you do have to be aware and pay attention. Even a person that has no experience with horses ought to be able to look at one and tell you whether it is relaxed or nervous, attentive or distracted, agitated or content. The information is there—all you have to do is observe and think about what the horse may be sensing.

But keep in mind that because they are herd animals–and prey–they are hard-wired to take on the emotions of the other animals in the herd—and that includes you! If one animal becomes frightened—all the horses in the herd will tend to respond the same way. So when things get tough, it is incredibly important that we humans try to keep our emotions in check. No matter how you feel on the inside (scared, angry, frustrated) keep your body language and emotions in check and remain calm. No need to throw gas on the fire.

Instincts Rule

Recently, the results of scientific research into horse behavior proved something that horsemen have known for centuries. Horses are prey animals and as such, they instinctively hide their pain. Think about it—which horse gets eaten first by the predator? It’s the one in the back of the herd—the slowest, sickest or lamest horse. Horses don’t want to show pain if they can mask it because showing pain shows weakness. This one fact of life explains a lot about horses.

Some horses have a very high threshold of pain and will mask any discomfort they feel (while others, like my horse Dually, will let you know if a hair is out of place). That means it is up to us to become the investigator, to know each horse as an individual, and also we have the responsibility to address every problem as a pain issue first, and rule out any possible physical cause for undesirable behavior before we address it as a training issue. After more than three decades of training horses, I can tell you that more “training problems” originate from physical problems than most people realize.

Also, related to this same instinct, is the horrific instinctive fear that most horses have about being left behind. If you only have two horses at home and you take one out of the pen to ride, it is the horse that is left behind that throws a fit. If you try to hold your horse back in a group trail ride while the others gallop off into the sunset, you are picking a huge fight with your horse that you may not win. The horse’s desire for safety and to be part of the herd is strong.

Horses are herd-bound according to their instinct—it is called gregarious behavior. They simply want to be friendly and be around the herd. Yet we tend to speak of herd-bound, barn-sour behavior as an affliction. The behavior is deemed bad by humans, but it’s simply a typical horse behavior. It is a simple fact of horsemanship that unless and until the horse gets the same sense of security and comfort from you that he gets from the herd, he is not going to want to leave with you. It is not the horse’s affliction—it is your lack of leadership and authority that is at issue; you have to change, not the horse.

Listen to the Horses

We owe it to our horses to understand their behavior and learn more about effective training techniques and to be the strong leader that they need, including accepting responsibility for our own actions or failures. Nothing happens “out of the blue.” Nothing happens “for no apparent reason.” The horses are telling us something with their behavior and we need to help them by finding out what doesn’t feel right.

A great example of this concept happened at one of the shoots for my TV show. In this instance, it would have been easy to blame the horse, but he indeed had something to tell us. His behavior only seemed “out of the blue.”

Several of us were fussing with a horse to get him ready for the segment we were taping (wiping his nose, adjusting the tack, checking the microphone on the rider, etc.). Several people rushing around a horse at one time is a recipe for disaster indeed. But this was a horse we knew and he’s known to have a calm and accepting attitude. Still, it’s just too easy to not notice something that you would see if you were the only one checking tack and doing all in a slow, intricate order. We were saddling the horse with brand new tack—fixing the cinches, adjusting all of the new leather. In the mix and chaos, one of my crewmembers was suddenly kicked.

Some may have said the horse’s kick was “for no apparent reason.” It did seem out of the blue for this horse. But a little investigating showed us it was us humans, not the horse who needed a lesson. As it turns out, the new saddle we placed on the horse had a back cinch that wasn’t connected to the front. In the chaos and hurry, we hadn’t noticed that the hobble had come untied. The back cinch slid back to an uncomfortable position for the horse. It was in the position of a bucking strap! To the horse, the reason for his behavior was obvious. His kick was a behavior to get that out of his space.

Later that evening, my crewmember called his wife—who happens to be a horse trainer. He told her he had gotten kicked. I’m sure he was expecting her to say, “OMG, are you ok?” Instead, her response was, “What did you do to the horse to make him kick you?” (A woman after my own heart!) The fault was with us humans. What wasn’t apparent to us was apparent to the horse. And we now have practices in place to make sure that we slow down and check details instead of being in such a rush to hit record. Only two crew members attending to a horse at any given time. It was a lesson for us to learn. Slow down, notice, and think about what the horse is experiencing.

We, as humans, must accept responsibility for understanding horses better. We must think about why and how our interactions with horses work or don’t work. Horses will never study human behavior or effective training techniques. It’s our job to learn about them. Embrace it—horsemanship is a journey— and the more you learn, the more rewarding it becomes!

Enjoy the ride,


The Dish On Discipline Logo

In a perfect world, horses would never bite, kick or misbehave. You know you need to correct your horse, but how do you know what is appropriate or too much “in the moment?” Here, top trainer/ clinician Julie Goodnight helps you understand discipline and praise.

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco

Horses need structure and discipline—otherwise how would they know how to act toward people? What you may think of as bad behavior is not the same as what a horse thinks of as being naughty.

For instance, horses bite and kick at each other in the herd. That’s appropriate behavior for them when turned out together. But that’s not appropriate behavior when humans are present. Horses shouldn’t interact in that way when people are around and you have to teach your horse what isn’t acceptable in your presence.

Horses that don’t have rules to follow and ramifications for bad behavior are just like spoiled children. They are poorly behaved and not much fun to be around. The opposite is true, too, if your horse has rules and structure and you are willing to admonish as well as praise your horse, you’ll have a partner that’s wonderful to be around. Horses are the most amazing animals because of how hard they will work to please you if they see you as the leader. That’s the most satisfying relationship to have with a horse—to know a horse looks up to you, feels safe with you and tries really hard to please you. To reach that relationship level, you’ll need to understand a bit of horse psychology and understand how and when to correct and praise your horse.

Horse Psychology

Because horses are herd animals, they seek out acceptance. If you watch a new horse being introduced into the herd, you’ll see that it isn’t a friendly encounter. The horses are brutal and mean to the new horse. With body language, the herd will tell the new horse that he isn’t accepted and that he should go away. The new horse is chased away, bitten, kicked at and more. But still, no matter how mean the herd is, the new horse will keep going back for acceptance. The horse’s survival depends on being accepted and becoming a safe part of the herd. Over time, if the new horse is contrite and consistent, the herd will allow him in and he’ll be able to work his way up in the pecking order.

In your herd of two, you need to be the leader and understand how your interactions with your horse mimic what is taught in the herd. Make it clear to the horse that you are a firm leader (not rough, but worthy of respect) and he’ll soon be requesting your acceptance and working hard for you.

If you try to start a new relationship by pampering and giving treats, that goes against everything he knows in the herd. He won’t seek out your acceptance if your acceptance comes for no reason. If you’re begging him to be in your herd, his herd-instinct tells him that it must not be a herd worth being in.

Once the horse knows that you are willing to dish out the pressure in a correction when it is deserved, you may never have to discipline him again. He’ll learn to be a little more careful around you. He’ll also want to gain your respect and your praise.

Positive or Negative?

So how should you correct or praise your horse to have the best relationship? Let’s review the scientific definitions of positive and negative reinforcement. Keep in mind that negative reinforcement isn’t punishment. Negative reinforcement just means removing pressure. Positive reinforcement means adding an incentive.

No matter which type of reinforcement you offer, you need the horse to associate your response with what they did. Make sure to give the correction or reward within three seconds of the behavior—and the closer to the behavior you can give the reinforcement within that three seconds, the better. Timing is everything when you’re training horses—horses live in the moment and they need the correction or reward to be fast.

What does negative reinforcement look like in action? I recently worked with a young horse owner and her newly-off-the-track Thoroughbred. The horse was kicking out if anyone touched her around the stifle or any time Chloe attempted to wash this sensitive area. I taught her to hold her hand (or the water) on the area as long as the horse was picking up her foot and threatening a kick. As soon as the mare relaxed and accepted the pressure of the girl’s hand or the water, we took away the pressure and gave the horse a rest. Taking away the pressure is negative reinforcement because you took away the pressure when the mare did the right thing. Horses feel pressure keenly and respond well to this method.

In positive reinforcement, you have to wait for the horse to have the correct response, then reward it. You may offer a verbal praise, petting and stroking or even giving a treat or a click. A horse will work hard for praise even when a treat isn’t included. In working with Chloe and her mare, we made sure to praise the mare with soft cooing and strokes on her neck when she tried hard and didn’t offer to kick or pick up her foot. She did the right thing, so got a positive reinforcement immediately.

Time for Praise

It’s so important to praise your horse—and horses will work hard for your praise. However, praise only means something if it’s offset occasionally by admonishment. If you only dish out praise for your horse (if it’s earned or not) and he never gets scolded for doing something bad, why would he keep working hard to earn your praise? If your praise comes too easily, there’s no reason to try to earn it. Just as he needs praise for doing something really well, he needs to be admonished when he does something wrong.

I am very tuned in to effort. I always want to praise the horse for making an effort. I don’t expect my horses to try hard every minute on every ride, but if I ask something more challenging and the horse tries his best, I want to reach down and stroke his neck. Or the best reward you can give is to allow your horse to take a break and to leave him alone. If I’m working on rollbacks with my young horse, Eddie, and he’s done a great job and been responsive, I’ll give him a break and allow him to just stand there and take a breather with no further interaction from me.

Firm But Kind

Every horse is different in temperament and sensitivity. What is a harsh scolding to one horse may go unnoticed to another horse. If your horse is eager to please and is sensitive, the slightest correction will affect him. If your horse is insensitive and strong-willed, you may need a stronger correction. Plus, each situation is different—what the horse did that needs a correction, what prompted the behavior and how motivated the horse was to act that way.

The science based theory of training says that however the animal is acting right now is how they are motivated to act. And if you want to change that behavior, you have to find the amount of pressure it takes to motivate change. And keep in mind that pressure can be mental pressure, a move in his direction, a hand signal, a verbal cue or actual physical pressure to touch the horse. We’re not talking about whips and spurs. An admonishment could be speaking harshly or as I call it, “hissing and spitting” at the horse. I make a hissing sound and stomp my feet and the horse understands that I don’t like his behavior at the moment.

Whatever pressure you use, it needs to be enough pressure to motivate change. If you correct your horse over and over for the same behavior, you’re not using enough pressure to motivate change. What’s more, you’re teaching the horse that you aren’t worthy of respect. He can ignore you without consequence.

Let’s put that in concrete terms: you’re riding around the arena and the horse pulls toward the gate on every lap. If you merely steer your horse away, you are only cuing him and not admonishing him for his disobedience for stepping off course. He’ll continue to veer toward the gate because there was no penalty.

How much pressure should you use? Well, how sensitive is your horse? I err on the side of using more pressure at first to see what reaction I’ll get, in the hopes that I will never need to do it again. You stand to lose more by under-correcting instead of over-correcting. If the horse misbehaves and you use one strong correction, you may never have to issue a second correction. If I under-correct, I may have to correct again and again and that’s a really bad start to a relationship. He won’t be cued in and listening to me.

Stallion-Like Behavior Logo

Hi Julie –
This is an unusual question that I haven’t seen addressed thus far. My friends recently bought an 8 y/o paint gelding from a ranch in Okla. Both their trainer and veterinarian observed & evaluated the horse before purchase. He was deemed sound and well-suited to trail riding. His single fault was that he hadn’t been ridden much in the last year. My friends elected to take him directly to their trainer’s facility for a month’s tune-up.

The gelding responded beautifully by quickly recovering his former abilities as well as learning several new skills. However, a major problem arose when they brought him home. In addition to the paint, they have two 20+ geldings and two 6-7 y/o mares.

They confined the new boy in their large cattle pen for a week to provide safe socialization from a distance. But even at a distance, he was very reactive & vocal with the mares. He paced, snorted, & whinnied the entire time. The mares were also very interested in him and they showed their interest by coming into heat.

Suspecting the paint might be “proud cut,” my friends released him, and then stood back & held their breath. Ignoring the other geldings, the paint immediately herded the mares into a corner of the pasture. After some initial kicking, biting & posturing, the mares presented to him. He mounted each, one after another, achieving full penetration. Although they didn’t observe any ejaculate, the posturing & mounting behavior continued for several hours until my friends managed to catch the gelding & separate him from the herd.

Is this behavior proof that a horse is actually proud cut? I’ve seen geldings exhibit stud-like behavior around mares in heat but certainly not to this extent. I also don’t know of any medical solutions to this problem, do you? Your opinion would be very much appreciated.
Disgusted with Lust

Dear Disgusted,
Yes, I’ve seen this behavior before, several times and although it is not common, it is certainly not that unusual. It is more likely a behavioral problem, not an issue of being ‘proud cut’ and it is likely that this horse was gelded later in life and learned how to breed mares before he was cut. Just like in dogs, gelding a horse does not unlearn behavior that has already been established.

Often when people see geldings display stallion-like behavior, they refer to him as being proud cut, and assume that something went wrong in the surgery and somehow part of the horse’s testicles were left in there. This is possible, but not probable. It is possible that a stallion only has one testicle descended at the time he is gelded (a cryptorchid) and that the vet assumes he only has one testicle and leaves the other testicle in there. But vets are pretty conscientious about this, so it rarely happens. Still, you should have this horse checked by a vet to make sure.

Removing the testicles only prevents the manufacture of semen. It does not preclude the horse getting an erection and/or displaying any of the other breeding behaviors of a stallion. You’ll see geldings get erections all the time, usually when they are day-dreaming (we can only guess about what), but most geldings have never learned or practiced real breeding behaviors so after they are gelded, they wouldn’t know what to do and don’t have the hormones prompting them to explore these behaviors.

As for your friend’s horse, it’s probably not as big a deal as they think it is. It’s likely that once he settles in and gets used to this new herd, most of these behaviors will disappear. He may still occasionally try to mount them when they are in heat, but the rest of the time things will seem pretty normal. One of my best-ever beginner school horses would occasionally mount and breed a mare—but he was the gentlest horse I ever had.

No horses, whether stallion, gelding or mare, should be allowed to display any kind of interest in each other or any herd behaviors once they are in-hand or being ridden. This should be met with the harshest correction and there should be a zero tolerance policy about fraternization. This is why breeding stallions can be shown and handled and ridden like regular horses. But what they do on their own time in the herd is up to them and there’s not much you can do about it.

If this horse is excessively aggressive to herd mates—geldings or mares—you can resolve this behavior with a training collar. But if this gelding is otherwise a good ride and well-mannered when being handled and ridden, I wouldn’t worry too much about it—just cover your eyes when the mares are in heat.
–Julie Goodnight

Rehabilitation Behaviour Issues Logo

Question: Hi I have just started to care for a 5 year old Irish Draught x TB – he has a tendon/tendon sheath injury and was about to be put to sleep by his previous owner, due to lack of time and money and the possibility that he may not be able to be ridden again – but as he is normally such an impeccably behaved chap I said I would care for him. He has been stabled now for three months and apparently has not been behaving very well in his 12 foot x 12 foot stable (he is 17.2 hh) – I have moved him to a much larger stable in a quiet yard and he seems much calmer and is great to handle in the box and on the yard. However the vet advised that he can now be taken out for short walks 10 mins twice a day (increasing weekly by 5 mins each walk for the next 4 – 6 weeks) and to do this I take him across to a barn – he is perfectly behaved going to and from the barn but once we get to the barn he is fine for 5 minutes or so and then from nowhere at all comes a little rear – this morning though he did a massive rear and was absolutely vertical -once he came back down he behaved like nothing had happened and wanted to be fussy with me etc. Although I have had my own horse for 10 years now rearing is something I have never had to handle before so I was wondering (a) do you have any ideas why he would be doing this or do you think it is purely a boredom/excitement kind of reaction (he has been known to rear with his previous owner when ridden on the odd occasion). (b) what should I do to stop this behaviour and (c) how should I react when it has occurred. I have only been looking after him for 1 week now and the vet thinks he is likely to be stabled for another three months. When he has done his little rears I told him off in a firm voice and then have just carried on walking him around. Today I stood my ground which was pretty scary and then when he wanted to cuddle and be fussy I just pushed him away from me and told him off – by his reaction it looked as though he was expecting to be thrashed and kept on pulling his head up as though he had also maybe been hit in the face before. If I was able to longe/freeschool him I know I would be able to do something with him but right now due to the injury all I can do is walk him in hand. I hope you will be able to give me some advice as I don’t want either of us to end up injured and three months of this behaviour seems a long long time. Thank you for your help
Best Regards, Georgie
Answer: Georgie, The most important consideration right now is that the horse is rehabilitated. I think from reading your email that you have a very good sense of what is going on with your horse and you are handling it just fine. Imagine the horse’s frustration at being held prisoner in his stall and getting small glimpses of freedom. In this situation, you have to have a great deal of patience and empathy with the horse. Where you would normally not tolerate his disobedient behavior and take corrective action, you are limited in what you can do in this situation. His fractious behavior is stemming from his confinement and is not his fault. The corrective action you would take would be to circle the horse forward when he rears and make him work hard, but you cannot do that because the risk of re-injury is too great. If he just throws one little rearing fit and then is relatively manageable, then I would just ignore it. There are several articles on my website about rearing, but basically, it is either a refusal to move forward or a reaction to having his forward movement inhibited. In your case, I would guess the latter. The solution is always to move the horse forward. In the case of a horse in rehabilitation, when he rears I would just move out to the end of my lead and continue walking forward like nothing was happening. Make sure you stay well clear of the horse’s hooves. I am sure that you have cut back the horse’s ration drastically and it would not hurt him at this point to go down in his weight. Less feed will help prevent him having too much energy in his confinement and the lower body weight will help his recovery. One more suggestion would be to use a rope halter with a 3-4 meter training lead. The rope halter gives you much more control over the horse and is a far superior tool for control and training than is using a chain over or under the horse’s nose. I think you are right on in your intuition about this horse and that you are handling him well, so keep up the good work! I have known plenty of horses to fully recover from tendon injuries. The key is to give them enough time to recover which in some instances may be a couple years. The biggest mistake I see people make with these types of injuries is to try and bring the horse back into work too soon. Once the vet has cleared him from confinement, I would seriously think about turning him out to pasture for a full year. Good luck!

When To Geld Colt Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight:
When Should You Geld a Colt?

Hi Julie,
I am planning on buying a yearling stallion. I do want to geld him, but I’m not sure at what age is it ok to geld. Also, is it ok to put a yearling stallion in a field with older horses? Is it true the longer you wait to geld the “prettier” he’ll be (a longer mane, more muscular)? What’s the best practice to help him on his way to being the best horse? Thank you for your time,

Answer: Karli,
Great questions! And one of the few topics I haven’t already written about in my Training Library. This is a good time to talk about gelding colts since many people are dealing with youngsters this time of year.
First, it is important to recognize that almost all colts should be gelded. Few horses have the breeding, temperament and conformation to warrant becoming a breeding stallion, especially in these days of growing numbers of unwanted horses, a glut of horses on the market and the lack of owners interested in breeding. And since it is rarely if ever feasible to have a stallion, it is wise to geld your colt.

I have worked many years throughout my career on breeding farms and raised quite a few colts myself. Many breeders will geld at a young age, as soon as the testicles descend or around the six month mark. It is my personal preference to geld as a yearling, after weaning and after his first year of growth, which is the year he grows the most. This will generally be before the fly season, thus reducing the chance for infection. At the same time, we will remove his wolf teeth if he has them and we’ll generally follow-up the surgery with lots of groundwork and exercise to help in the healing and begin his training for ground manners.

No matter when I gelded him, I would want my young colt to be out with other horses for the socialization that will take place—there is an article in my Training Library about this, Even if you left him a stallion, you’d want him to stay with other geldings and learn how to get along. Preferably with a more dominant, older “uncle” gelding who will keep him in his place. When I geld the colt, I will keep him by himself for a week or so until he is healed from the surgery—too much frolicking and sparring could be dangerous for him right after the surgery.

Research does not indicate that a colt will grow bigger, stronger or prettier if he is left in-tact. However, it is true that a stallion will have certain “stallion characteristics” that are a result of more hormones floating around his system if he is left in-tact. These characteristics are more obvious in a mature horse and include bulging muscles around the jowl, over the eyes and in the neck and body. A mature stallion will have a certain presence that geldings rarely have. But these characteristics do not appear until the colt is a few years old; it is not worth the extra headaches of having a young stallion and they will disappear as soon as he is gelded. I have not noticed that the mane or tail will grow longer in a stallion.

My husband’s horse was a mature breeding stallion when we bought him. He does have an exceptionally thick mane and tail and the stallion characteristics were very prevalent. The day after we gelded him I could see the bulging jowl and eyebrow muscles deflating but his mane and tail have remained fuller than ever. He is still a gorgeous well-muscled horse, just not as extremely muscled as before we gelded him.

And he is much happier to be living with other geldings without a big fight. There’s no real benefit to keeping a colt in-tact when you know you are going to geld him eventually and I would suggest between 6 months and a year is a good time, depending on your weaning schedule and the seasons. Like dogs and cats, once a horse develops breeding behaviors (like teasing and mounting mares) he doesn’t forget them just because he is gelded. That’s why we have lots of “randy” geldings that will act like stallions when mares come into heat. I have written about this subject too-

Good luck with your colt and thanks for asking these important questions!

Riding A Spooky Horse Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight:
How Do I Handle Riding A Spooky Horse?

Question: Dear Julie, I usually ride some type of warmblooded horse (not exactly sure of the exact type) during riding classes. He’s often very nervous about a certain corner of the riding circle. He was once spooked by a bird, and since that he’s been trying to avoid that corner/short side. The horse trainer told me to avoid the corner to make him calmer, but what happened was that while trotting near that particular corner (short side of the circle), he suddenly spooked and ran off. I managed to stop him, but because of his action another girl fell off her horse. I guess he was already quite tense because of approaching the corner and when I turned him away from the corner, I must have somehow confirmed that the corner was a dangerous place? He was quite nervous during the rest of the class. Just by removing my feet from the stirrups he got very tense. I feel sorry for him because it seemed to be a true reaction of fear/shock.

I’d like to ride him again next time, but being a fresh rider, I’m not sure how I should handle his sudden spooks. The first time I noticed his nervousness was when riding outdoors. A paper sign was moving because of the wind and he suddenly jumped to the side. Do you think I should get another horse? Is it okay to pet him/reward him for settling down after an incident like that, or will he then think that I rewarded him for spooking? How long a memory does a horse have regarding reward? I don’t want to force him to go into that scary corner. Is there another way to make him overcome that fear or general nervousness?
Thanks for teaching me a lot about horses and riding,

Answer: Kaja, Horses can be very suspicious animals and when something has frightened them, they tend to remember it and every time they get to the place where they were scared, they will be expecting something scary to happen. Also, horses are very location-specific in the way they behave—associating a certain place with their behavior, so it is no surprise the way your horse is acting. Most every arena has a “scary” place in it and typically it is as far away from the gate or barn as you can get. This is no coincidence—the farther away from the barn (which represents the safety of the herd to him) he gets, the more unsure he becomes and the stronger the urge to run back to safety.

In some cases it may be good to avoid a trouble spot, like when you are first warming up a fresh (or volatile) horse or if you have questions about your ability to control the horse if he spooks. However, at some point, in order for you to have total control over your horse, you must be able to take him, into places where he may not want to go, maintaining his obedience. If a horse comes to believe he has a say-so in where you try to take him, your authority will gradually erode to the point that you can’t get him out of the barnyard or around the arena.

When a horse is spooky or frightened, the best thing to do is turn him toward the scary object and ask him to stand, take a deep breath and relax. You should reassure your horse by using a soothing voice and rubbing him on the neck and taking a deep breath yourself; this will show him that you think everything is okay, that you have it all under control and he need not be afraid. Try to avoid turning your horse away from a scary object while he is still frightened because that will almost certainly trigger his flight response, as you have seen.

With an emotional or volatile horse like this, I would begin working in the “safest” part of the arena, using small circles and lots of changes of direction and building confidence and obedience in the horse. The more you change directions and cause the horse to swing his neck from side to side, the calmer and more compliant he will become (“S” turns are much more productive than circles). As the horse relaxes and gets more comfortable, I will start expanding the area I am working in by venturing toward the scary place gradually and always returning back to the “safe” place to build confidence. Eventually I would be working closer and closer to the scary spot until I could ride him in that area without a reaction from him.

There is a very effective technique to use when working with spooky horses. First, keep in mind that you will always have more control over a horse when his neck is bent; when it is straight out in front of him he can get away from you easily. So as you approach the scary area, you’ll want to keep his neck slightly bent to one side or the other. An easy way to accomplish this is to ride in a serpentine pattern doing constant changes of direction. But make sure that each and every time you turn him, you turn TOWARD the scary place and not away from it. You’ve already seen what happens when you turn away from a scary object— his flight response is triggered and your horse is likely to bolt. Weaving back and forth and turning him toward the scary spot will accomplish several things—it will keep his neck bent for greater control, it will keep him in an obedient frame of mind because he is responding to your directives and going where you said and it will put him a little closer to the object every time you turn him (and prevent him from bolting like he did when you turned him away from it). There are several articles in my Training Library about this process of despooking a horse.

Asking your horse to keep his head down will cause him to relax as well, but this may require the skill of a more advanced rider (again, check out my Training Library for more info on how to do this). From the sounds of it, this is not a great horse for a beginner rider and it would probably be more productive and more fun for you to ride a less volatile horse. That way you can relax and think about improving your own riding, instead of worrying about the next time he spooks. Remember, this is all about having fun. Your riding and your confidence will advance much faster on an easier horse and you may find that you’ll progress enough that you can eventually ride this horse again and have more confidence.

When a horse is frightened or spooky, he needs the rider’s calmness and reassurance to let him know he will be okay. I would put my hands down on a horse’s neck to steady him any time he became tense or unsure—it is not really a reward, just a reassurance that I’ve got everything under control. And I would give copious praise to my horse by petting him in the withers or neck when he is obedient and brave in the face of a scary thing. The rule of thumb with horses is that you have a three second window of opportunity to reward, release or punish the horse, in order for him to make an association between his actions and your actions—and the sooner in the three seconds the better. If a horse is rewarded in a timely fashion, he will remember it for a very long time. The important part is not whether or not he remembers the reward, it’s whether he made an association between his actions and the reward. If the association is made, he will remember it for some time—horses have exceptional memories.

As you have seen already, the more you learn about horses, the more you learn how much you don’t know, which is why advanced and expert riders are sometimes more humble than novice riders. This horse is challenging and no doubt you would learn a lot from him, but it may be better to ride something a little easier and safer for now so that you can focus on developing your riding skills without having to train a horse at the same time.

Good luck!
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse ( or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Keeping Focused Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight:
What can I do to keep my horse focused when we’re on the trail?

Question: Dear Julie,
My 6-year-old-AQHA gelding is very focused in the arena, on or off cattle, keeping his face directed at our target or direction. On the trail, he likes to look all around and, if I don’t re-direct him, follow his face off toward whatever catches his attention. If I allow that behavior (meandering, I call it), am I creating long-term problems for us? As always, I appreciate your expertise. Thanks, Doc.

Answer: Doc,

In defense of your horse and in the spirit of “you can’t have everything,” you have to understand that a horse bred to work cattle does not always make the best trail horse. A “cowy” horse’s mind is keyed into movement and wants to follow it; he notices every little thing and tends to stay on alert. While this works out great in the arena and on cattle, it is not ideal for trail riding. Having said that, being cowy is no excuse for disobedience, and yes, if you allow disobedience it will cause bigger problems for you down the road because it erodes your authority and leadership.

An obedient horse will be focused straight ahead and will go in the direction you ask, at the speed you dictate, without constant direction from you. Many riders micro-manage their horses by constantly steering and correcting speed with the reins, so the horse becomes dependent on that. Once you cue a horse to go at a certain speed and in a certain direction, he should continue on that path and at that speed/gait until you ask him to speed up, slow down, turn right or turn left.

To check how obedient your horse is, find a target and give him a cue to walk or trot straight toward your target, then lay your hand down on his neck with a loose rein, and see if he continues. If he changes speed or direction without a cue from you, it means you have a horse that is either disobedient or co-dependent on you and you have some work to do. You need to break your habit of micro-managing, give clear directives, then give your horse the responsibility to obey. Correct him with your reins and legs if he makes a mistake; but leave him alone when he is obedient. Use enough pressure in your corrections that he is motivated to behave.

I have written a lot about having nose control on your horse. He should not be looking around while you are riding him, either in the arena or on the trail. Simply correct the nose with the opposite rein—if he looks right, bump the left rein, and visa-versa. Do not try to hold the nose in place; just correct it when he is wrong. I use the point of shoulder as a guideline; he can move his nose all he wants as long as it stays between the points of his shoulder; as soon as it crosses the line, he gets a correction. In short order, he will keep his nose pointed in the right direction.

Keep in mind, that just because you control the nose, does not mean you control the rest of the horse. He can easily run through his shoulder and go in the opposite direction that his nose is pointed. The most important thing is to control the horse’s shoulder but if you cannot control the nose, you have little chance of controlling the rest of the body.

How strict I am on the horse’s nose and his looking around, depends somewhat on the horse, his level of training and his willingness to be obedient and subordinate. If I am riding a horse that has proven to be well-behaved, responsive and obedient, I may let him look around a little, as long as he does not alter the course I have set in either speed or direction. On the other hand, if I have a horse that has proven to be disobedient, spooky or otherwise fractious, I will have a zero tolerance for looking around.

For your cow-bred horse, you will have to factor in his training, temperament and obedience and decide how strict you will be. Always correct a horse when he changes course without a cue from you, but with a cowy horse, that is bred to be very alert to any movement in his environment, you may have to cut him a little slack as long as he remains obedient.

The most important thing for you is that you have a clear and consistent view of what will be corrected and what is expected of your horse. That’s why I use the points of shoulder as a landmark—that way I have clearly defined what I expect and I know exactly when to correct the horse and when not to, so that the horse can clearly understand the rule and that I can give consistent corrections.

You’ll have to use your own judgment with your horse, but as long as it is clear and consistent, your horse will learn quickly. Good luck!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse ( or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Does The Lead Horse Participate In Mutual Grooming? Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight: Does the Lead Horse Participate in Mutual Grooming?

Dear Julie,
First of all, I would like to thank you for your website and the information you share on it. Your Training Library is quite extensive and I am learning so much by reading through your responses. I am new to horsemanship and the background and experience you provide are invaluable to me. The other thing I appreciate is how clearly and systematically you explain/describe things. Your step-by-step directions are exactly what I need! I don’t feel so overwhelmed when you break things down into smaller pieces like you do. Thank you.

My question is regarding grooming. I love to groom my horse and frequently go into the pasture to do so. However, I am now wondering if a “lead” horse grooms other horses. In other words, am I losing ground with my horse, from a leadership perspective, by grooming her (especially at times when she isn’t being saddled or unsaddled)? I am trying very hard to make sure I am being the leader my horse deserves. With the information on your website I have really begun to look at everything I do, and I want to make sure that I am not inadvertently giving her mixed signals.
Thank you for everything,

Answer: Tracy,
It’s a good question you propose, regarding both the horse’s natural herd behavior and the practicality of what you are doing. Armed with the right information, you’ll be able to evaluate what you are doing and possibly make some positive changes.

Mutual grooming (technically referred to as allo-grooming) is the only known affectionate behavior of horses that is not reproductive related. It occurs only between bonded horses within the herd and they stand facing each other and groom each other using their teeth and lips, mostly in the wither area and down the back.

Yes, lead horses mutual groom with other subordinate horses, BUT the lead horse always begins and ends the grooming session. And she ends it by biting the subordinate horse as a little reminder of who is indeed the boss. It’s okay for you to rub on your horse and scratch him where it feels good, but make sure you are the one initiating and ending the grooming session and never let your horse put its mouth on you and “groom” you back. If at any time the horse gets rude or is demanding to be groomed, you should hiss and spit at him and shoo him away.

I do have a practical concern about grooming your horse in the pasture. If you are working on your horse while she is loose out in the field and she can walk away from you or move around whenever she wants, you may be instilling some bad manners in your horse. I want my horses to stand perfectly still any time I am working on them and, like most rules, this one has to be strictly reinforced. I would prefer to put a halter and lead on my horse and either ground tie or hard tie her so that I can take control of her if needed, to remind her of her ground manners.

As an example, a friend of mine liked to go in his colt’s pen and rub on him and play with him. Of course the colt loved it too and then my friend started grooming the colt and picking up his feet—all without a halter on. He was very proud of being able to pick up the colt’s feet, but paid no attention to the fact that the colt would just pull his foot away and walk off any time he wanted. All this time, my friend had been teaching this horse that he could walk off and move away while he was being groomed and pull his feet out of your hands anytime he wanted and that the human had no control over him. He was not learning to respect authority, hold his feet up, stand patiently or have any restraint put on him. Additionally, foals are so tactile and love being rubbed on so much that when over-handled they start leaning into you demanding to be scratched. When you comply, not only are you letting the horse control your actions (in other words, be dominate over you) but you are also teaching him to lean into pressure—a VERY bad habit since normally we train horses to move off of pressure not lean into it.

It’s excellent that you are taking the time to understand the horse’s natural behavior and reflecting on how that impacts the way you handle your horses. What you are doing with your horse might be okay, as long as you keep these concepts in mind. But with a better glimpse at the big picture, you may find you want to modify what you are doing just a little to make sure you maintain authority with the horse.

Enjoy the ride,

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Gate Sour Behavior Logo

Avoid Gate Sour Behavior…

Is your horse gate sour? Does he want to stop at the gate and think he’s headed back to the barn? All horses have this tendency instinctively, and if not handled correctly, it can escalate into very difficult behavior. Sometimes known as “gate gravity” and it is an indication that your horse is disobedient and does not trust your leadership skills or respect your authority over her or want to have anything to do with you.

First, you need to have better knowledge of horse behavior and the whole leader-follower/ dominant-subordinate part of horse life. You can get all the information you need on this from the articles and Q&As on my website, It is worth your time reading a few articles to make sure you have a thorough understanding of the fundamental principles of equine behavior that governs a horse’s motivation for the comfort and security he gets from the herd. Only by emulating the structure and hierarchy of the herd, and being a strong leader to your horse can you give the horse the confidence he needs to feel safe with you.

You can attain this level of authority and control of your horse by doing groundwork with your horse so that she respects your authority, looks to you as her leader and is calm and obedient. There are numerous articles and Q&As on my website about this groundwork process but you may need help from a qualified coach to execute the groundwork correctly. The articles will give you a better understanding of the principles behind groundwork, but reading is never enough. You’ll need some coaching as well to make sure you are safe and using correct technique. Groundwork done poorly can make a horse irritated, defensive and even aggressive and if you have a proven track record with your horse of not having authority, your horse will likely resist your attempt to take charge.

Secondly, when you ride any horse, it is important that you choose the path that he walks on at all times. If he is making decisions on his own at any time about where he goes or how fast he gets there, then he will become increasingly disobedient. In my clinics, I see people eroding their authority with the horse all the time with little things like letting the horse walk or trot without being cued or letting the horse come off the rail a step or two when riding in the arena, letting him cut the corners, slow down/speed up or walk off when you mount. Each time the horse is allowed to make a decision unauthorized by you, it erodes your authority and leadership and leads to more unauthorized decisions, like no, I am not leaving the barn right now.

Consider that if every time a horse got away with disobedience and unauthorized decisions that he had scored a point of dominance over you. Typically before the rider realizes that she has a control problem, the score is already 250 to nothing and now she has a lot of catching up to do. Being persistent and particular in the beginning with a horse and insisting that he walk exactly where you say (not approximately) will put him in line in such a way that he wouldn’t think of varying from the path.

But to do that, you need to ride correctly and give clear, consistent and meaningful signals to the horse; not signals that are conflicting with each other, like pulling on both reins when you want the horse to turn or pulling back on the reins when you want the horse to go. My audios and videos explain how this is done, but again, you’ll probably need some good personal instruction too.

You need to learn to correct the horse with one rein, not two and by lifting up or sideways with the rein, not back. Pulling back on the rein, whether it is one rein or two, always opposes a horse’s forward motion and makes him want to stop (which is what he would prefer to do at the gate). Lifting your hand up or to the side will give you turning control without opposing his forward motion. You will also use your legs at the same time to both push the horse back into a straight line and keep him moving forward (the horse should move away from your leg- left leg makes the horse move right- both legs together makes the horse move forward). There are lots of articles on my website about using your aids properly, just make sure you are not pulling on both reins at the same time.

When a horse is moving out of the designated track you put him on, often just a lift up toward his ears with the outside rein is enough to block the horse’s movement in that direction. Which is the outside rein can become a little confusing at this point. Remember, the term outside or inside has nothing to do with the arena fence and has solely to do with the horse’s arc or bend. In your case, if the horse is pulling toward the gate, his nose is probably pointed toward the middle of the arena and his body is pulling toward the gate, so the outside rein is the one closest to the rail. If the horse were coming off the rail toward the middle, his nose is probably pointed toward the rail and his body is coming in toward the middle so the outside rein would be the one closest to the middle. Clear as mud, right?

Finally, make sure that you have good arena training practices. NEVER stop a horse at the gate. Never dismount at the gate and leave the arena; never ride your horse out of the arena. I always dismount far away from the gate and lead the horse out of the arena, so as not to make him focused on the gate. Furthermore, you may even want to ask the horse to work hard at the gate (ask him to trot every time he approaches the gate) so that he associates the gate with not such a great place to be. Similarly, if you ask a horse to circle and change directions every time he comes off the rail, he will eventually learn that the rail is not such a bad place to be because he doesn’t have to work as hard.

Remember, learning to ride and handle horses competently is a life-long pursuit. Every month you’ll be better and better, especially if you have some competent coaching along the way. Good luck to you!
–Julie Goodnight

Reason’s For Rearing Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight

I was on the Internet searching for info on rearing and found your web site. I have a question I hope you can help with. I have a 6 Yr. old Thoroughbred. He came off the track at 4yrs old and has had on ground training and started jumping. I noticed some lameness issues with him after a long move. He has been sent to the Washington State University and diagnosed with slight arthritis in the right hock. He was injected and released. The University also did a bone scan of the hip and stifles just for my piece of mind. Since his return he has performed beautifully.
Here comes the question…. I was away on vacation and my trainer was saddling him in the cross ties (never a problem) and he pulled back a few times. She then went to working him in hand. This is when he threw a tantrum and not just reared, but was jumping up and throwing himself on the ground. Apparently he did this about 8 times before he realized it was causing him discomfort. I completely trust my trainer. She starts many horses, and specializes in recovery cases. She said she had never encountered a horse throwing himself down like that before. She continued working with him and he eventually came around. I know he has had some “going forward” trials before…but that seemed to be alleviated after his treatment at the Vet Hospital.

Knowing his health is fine, teeth fine, feet fine, can you give any advice as to why he would go to such lengths of avoidance? And to what we can do to eliminate this rearing. Obviously we will not be riding him until he is back to his old “good boy” self in hand. We aren’t even going to trust him in the cross ties for a while. I don’t understand how he could go from being a great, well-behaved boy, to a raving lunatic? I have had the local vet check him, and my equine chiropractor is coming at the end of the month. If he has no signs of pain, I’m afraid I will have to give him up. I want to be able to trust him not to injure himself or ME! Just last week my 5-year-old daughter sat on him while I walked him around. WHAT’S HAPPENED TO MY GOOD BOY?
Thank you
Kelly Sundquist

As I read your email, many thoughts come to mind, the first of which is that it is difficult to pass judgment on a horse’s behavior without actually seeing the horse in action. I have learned through experience that there is generally more to the story than the person relaying the incident sees, and in this case, it is being relayed third-hand. Usually if I am there in person and able to step back and observe, I can find a cause or a reason that the person handling the horse may be unable to see.

That said, there are a few other thoughts that come to mind. I am not a big fan of cross ties and I think they can be highly dangerous, as in the case of your horse. If a horse panics in the cross ties, the chances of him getting in a big wreck and getting seriously hurt are very high. If your horse were pulling back at all, I would not put him in cross ties. You may try tying him to a solid object or hitching rail in a rope halter to see if that would discourage him from pulling, but sometimes a rope halter can make a puller worse because of the additional pressure on his face. There are several Q & As on my website about horses that pull back and also the use of cross ties, so read more about it there.
The other thought that comes to mind is that this is a cold-backed horse. I am not totally clear on whether or not the horse was saddled when this incident occurred, but it sounds like he was. A cold backed horse will sometimes react violently to the saddle, but typically not until it has been put on, the girth tightened and then the horse moves. When he moves, he suddenly feels the constriction and pressure on his back and blows up, often throwing himself on the ground. I have found this to be especially common in TBs. It is possible that she inadvertently got the girth too tight too soon and when the horse reacted and was cross-tied, a full-blown panic set in. This would also be consistent with a reluctance to move forward.

Horses rear either in a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Pain can certainly instigate rearing in a horse; however, it does not really sound like the previous lameness issue is a factor here. It is possible that when he first blew up in the cross ties; he tweaked his back and then was in pain. Hopefully your chiropractor has made a determination on that. There are also several articles on my website about rearing and the causes and solutions.

Going on the assumption that your horse is cold-backed (which is my best guess), all you need to do is make sure he is not tied in any way when you saddle, massage the girth area before tightening and tighten the girth very slowly, walking him between each tightening. Often cold backed horses will crow-hop a little when you first ask them to canter and you need to just work them through that by continuing to move them forward. These measures will alleviate the problems. Good luck and be careful!

Starting Over With A Fractious Horse Logo

In the episode of Horse Master that we aptly called “Starting Over,” we worked with Clare and her horse “Lux” at a farm outside of Portland, Oregon. Our shoot site, Tanz-Pferde Dressage Farms (, the name means dancing horses) was a beautiful backdrop. We shot in their new outdoor arena and were surrounded by incredible trees—beautiful back drops in 360 degrees. With six really good episodes “in the can,” I think all of the crew would agree that one episode that really stood out was Clare’s. In the episode, you’ll see a dramatic change made in this once-injured and defiant horse.

Clare is an outstanding rider, partly because of Lux’s crazy bucking temper tantrums. Lux is a huge warm blood who hates to move forward and doesn’t mind fighting. But, the great thing about big lazy horses is that they can only buck so hard before they get lazy and quit. The key to riding horses that buck in a refusal to move forward is to ride them forward through the bucks and only let them stop when they are relaxed in the back and moving freely forward (without any pedaling from the rider). Once they figure out that bucking buys them more work and relaxing gets them less work, they’ll never buck again; at least not with the same rider. Clare did an exceptional job of riding Lux through his temper tantrums and it looked as if she knew his every move. But, in spite of all this, riding was not really what this horse’s problem was—it was far more fundamental than that.

Lux’s sordid history includes winning championships in the hunter ring as a five year old, when Clare was only ten; although he was already displaying some naughty behavior then, it wasn’t until he broke his hind leg that his behavior spiraled down. With a long recovery period, Lux was sound within a year, but he had become spooky, fractious and aggressive—with no resemblance of the former show champion. Clare’s parents spent thousands of dollars on vets exams, acupuncture, chiropractic, calming supplements, new saddles, therapeutic pads, bits, shoeing and three years later, the trainers were still stumped at what they could do to resolve Lux’s fractiousness. Now a mature 16 year old, Clare sees that her beloved horse is not getting better so she pulls him out of training, thinking it’s time for a break and she turns him out to pasture in a large herd. In the pasture, Lux immediately takes over as alpha. Now, a year and a half later, six years after Lux’s injury, Clare is ready to try again to resolve his behavior and she has studied natural horsemanship and is certain that’s the answer. And she was right.

It only took a fifteen-minute session in the round pen before Lux was hooked on and followed me around the pen like a puppy. Of course, that was after he threatened to jump out of the pen, bucked, kicked, snorted and tossed his head in defiant gestures. At first, he was very determined not to acknowledge my presence, but being out of shape got the better of him and his head started dropping. Soon he was giving me great head bobs in a deliberate gesture of submission. Again, once lazy horses figure out the path of least resistance, they take it.

I showed Clare how to correct his ground manners and develop a larger perimeter of space around her so that the big Lug, uh, Lux isn’t walking all over her. Clare turned out to be an exceptional student and absorbed what happened as I round-penned the horse and made the necessary changes in her handling of Lux. My assistant trainer, T Cody, did a little more ground work with Lux and watched carefully as Clare work him to make sure Lux maintained his subordinate demeanor and respected his boundaries.

The next day Lux was still a changed horse– respecting Clare’s authority, keeping his focus on her at all times and keeping his head down and relaxed. With a great sense of accomplishment, we wrapped-up Clare’s episode and as I was leaving the round pen to go change into clothes for the next show, I told Clare she should take advantage of the work we’d done in that round pen over last 24 hours and saddle him up and see how he rides. When I came out 10 minutes later, Clare was cantering figure eights in the round pen, doing beautiful flying lead changes with each turn as her mother shouted with glee into her cell phone, sharing the success with Clare’s dad.

I’ve had one update from Clare, in the past three weeks and she asked an astute question and immediately put the answer to work on Lux with great success. I think Clare will do great things with this horse. It takes two to maintain this kind of change in a horse—both the horse and the handler/rider need to change their ways. With horses, it always boils down to the human stepping up to the plate and showing some leadership—either you are the boss of them, or they are the boss of you—that’s the way it works in a horse herd. Horses are much happier when there is a competent leader in charge, so that they can relax and not have to think.

Be sure to watch the “Starting Over” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now:
–Julie Goodnight

Attacks In Round Pen Logo

Dear Julie,

My friend’s paint gelding has started a very unsavory habit. When asked to move out in a round pen at liberty he will do it for a moment, then pins his ears and violently attacks who ever is doing the asking. He comes at full throttle striking, rearing and bucking and will not back off.

If he is on a line with halter and lead he is mild mannered and accepts the cue, but off lead he is very mean. He will even come back and attack over and over again. He is boarded and has a fairly large turnout. He is completely fine to handle although a little rough under saddle, great with dogs, bikes, noises, etc. Just sometimes rears for no reason, slightly. He will snake you and pin his ears and come at you full fisted if there is no halter on him. He eats hay with a small oat supplement. His owners are becoming more and more afraid of this horse. He appears to be head shy during these moments and very twitchy. Also very lazy and will stop and turn his rump toward you and not move. Only after carefully planned moves, can you reach over and move him over. He was imprinted as a foal, will not “join up,” never licks and chews but overall seems a kind horse. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Sounds like this horse has learned to buffalo his handler and has become dominant as a means to get out of work. Unfortunately, this is not an entirely uncommon behavior of horses and is the main reason I will not allow a horse to turn toward me in the initial stages of round pen work. This is also the reason why you should never work a horse in the round pen without a rope, stick, whip or some kind of “weapon” with which to defend yourself. This very subject is addressed thoroughly in my Round Pen Reasoning DVD.

In the round pen, we are using natural herd behaviors to teach the horse that we are dominant over him and that we can control his actions, just like horses do in real life in the herd. The dominant horse controls the space of the subordinates. In this case, the training has backfired and the horse is round penning the human.

If you think about the way horses act naturally out in the herd, you see this type of charging behavior all the time. It means, “Back off buster, I am in charge of you and I say, get the heck out of my space!” When the horse being charged complies, by backing off and showing signs of submissiveness, the charging horse will give it up, as long as the subordinate remains in his place and does not challenge the dominant horse.

The reason why this horse acts this way at liberty, but is manageable when on the lead or under saddle is because of his life experience. He has had positive training under saddle and lead and knows how he is expected to act in those situations. Unfortunately, the fact that he was imprinted may be a factor in this behavior. Imprinting done correctly is great and results in a calm and willing horse, but sometimes, when done poorly, imprinting can cause a horse to lose his respect for humans because of too much handling and over-familiarity. Whatever the cause of the behavior, the fact is that his antics have given him a great deal of success and have taught him that he can control the humans and make them back off and move out of his space whenever he wants. Therefore, he is dominant.

The solution is to back the horse off and move him out of your space when he charges. This should only be attempted by an expert and confident hand and may take a considerable amount of force. Unless and until a person has experienced this kind of aggressive behavior from horses, it is hard to imagine how aggressive you have to get back at the horse. If a person is not willing or capable of being aggressive and assertive right back at the horse, s/he has no business in the round pen.

With this type of horse I would use a four-foot rigid stick with a six-foot lash on the end. When the horse charges, I would strike the lash straight toward his face, in order to deflect his nose. Make certain that you stay out of kicking or striking reach of the horse; don’t wait until you see the white of his eyes, attack early. Using aversive sounds at the same time, you will let him know you mean business (I call this “hissing and spitting” at the horse). Once he moves away from you, leave him alone. By not backing off when he charges and by moving him out of your space, he will come to realize that he is not dominant.

Let me repeat: this should only be attempted by a very confident and competent trainer. Chances are that the charging horse is just bluffing you, but it is also quite possible that he is willing to act fully on his aggression.

As food for thought, one time I trained a horse that would get very aggressive in the round pen or on the lounge line, but only if you had a whip in your hand. No doubt, the horse had been abused by the whip at some point in his life. So instead of using a whip I used a coiled lariat and would gently wave it toward the horse’s nose until he moved away from me. Once he understood what I wanted and that I was not going to whip him for no reason, he willingly and obediently moved away and the aggression disappeared.

In the case of this horse, his aggressive antics have been very successful, thus his behavior has been rewarded. Essentially, he has been trained to be aggressive. Un-training a horse is much more difficult and time consuming than training them correctly to begin with. This issue certainly needs to be resolved and I would suggest the horse be taken to a competent trainer. Once this issue has been resolved, the owners are likely to discover that the horse works much better in other areas and that the horse is much happier too.
–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Why Are Horses So Spooky? Logo


Why are horses so spooky?


Before we can ever hope to understand, let alone control the movement of a horse, it is important to know the various behaviors that motivate a horse to move in the first place. Being a prey animal means the horse’s first reaction to danger is to run, hell bent for leather, away from the perceived threat. React first, think later.

Everyone knows that horses are flight animals; in fact, horses are the very definition of flighty and depend on this behavior for survival. What is often misunderstood about horses is, how deep the flight response goes in a horse’s nature and that every movement a horse is capable of and every step he takes has some significance. Everything about the horse is linked to its flight response. Crazy as it sounds, even their laziness is related to the flight response. By nature horses are generally lazy, for the sole purpose of preserving energy in case it is needed in flight. In the current trend of natural horsemanship, far too much is sometimes made of the predator-prey relationship, since horses, after all, have been domesticated for thousands of years and don’t really think of humans as carnivorous predators. However, it is important to understand that the prey instinct is the origin of the horse’s behavior as we know it today and it is what motivates their movement.

Horses are herd animals, again related to prey-dom, meaning their survival is dependent on the herd. There are safety in numbers. Herd behavior is another important motivating factor for a horse and is present in our everyday dealings with horses, more so than is often recognized. Again, every movement a horse makes has meaning and when given a choice, the horse will always move toward the protection of the herd. These are fundamental and deep layers of horse behavior and the subject could fill many volumes, but the one thing we can deal with here, is to develop an understanding of how we can control the movements of a horse in our presence.

The first thing to understand is that the horse feels safer when he is moving his feet, and the more nervous or uncertain he gets, the more he wants to move his feet. Yet there is nothing a horse likes better than to feel protected enough that he can snooze, standing or prone, knowing that the herd leader is watching out for his safety. The herd leader, a/k/a boss mare, is responsible for the safety of the herd and with a second’s notice, must be able to motivate the entire herd to flight. She earns the respect, admiration, obedience and, most importantly, attentiveness of the herd by dominating every move they make and by controlling the resources of the herd (you’ll recognize the boss mare easily, she’s the one standing in front of the water trough, playing in the fresh clean water and slowly sipping until she is satiated, while the rest of the herd stands in line, thirsty but patient, awaiting their turn in the pecking order). The boss mare controls the actions of each herd member through her body language. When her head is down in the grass and she is quietly munching, her herd mates will be relaxed. When her head comes up, ears prick forward and her muscles tighten, the rest of the herd knows to prepare for flight. They will follow her anywhere on her signal.

Just to make sure the horses all pay attention to her in times of stress, the boss mare will periodically push the herd individuals around a little so that they are in the habit of responding to her. When she directs her gaze at an individual flattens her ears and takes a step toward him, the subordinate horse knows to immediately move away. If they don’t respond quickly enough, she might leave some teeth marks on his rear end. Subordinate herd mates will quickly learn to watch the body language of their leader at all times and to respond without question to her movements.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of relationship with your horse? If you have the opportunity to observe a herd, you will learn to recognize the subtle communications that constantly occur. For instance, a frightened horse will elevate his head, tense his ears, stiffen his tail and hold his breath; all of these actions communicate an outside threat to the other horses and they will instantly act the same way and look in the same direction. A relaxed and safe horse will lower his head (the lower it goes the more relaxed he is), relax his ears, lick his lips, chew, drop his tail and take a deep sigh.

Horses communicate with their body language, with the head position, ear position, facial expressions, feet, tail, mouth and nose. Horses receive communication from us in the same way, whether we know it or not. The desired relationship between horse and human is that of a herd of two. According to the laws of the herd (the only rules horses really understand) the hierarchy is linear, meaning each and every individual of the herd is either dominate over or subordinate to each and every other individual. In your herd of two, your choice is clear: you must be the dominant member, the alpha individual, the “boss mare.” You must earn this respect, admiration and obedience by controlling the space of your horse and the “resources” of your herd (if your horse is frisking you for treats, HE is controlling the resources).

The first step in controlling your horse’s movement is to control your own body language. Your horse will notice your posture, eye contact, your foot movements, the elevation of your shoulders, the tone of your voice and the rhythm of your breathing. Be aware of the actions on your part and know that you are constantly communicating with your horse through your body language.

If your horse takes a step toward you and you back away, you have just told him he is in charge. If you get scared, tense your muscles and hold your breath, your horse will mirror your actions and instantly become frightened. All horses, no matter how high in the hierarchy, will gratefully accept the leadership of another individual, as long as the leader has demonstrated their commitment to controlling and protecting the herd.

For a horse to accept a human as leader, that human must be able to control the horse’s space and must never betray his trust by causing him fear or pain. Once they have accepted the individual (horse or human) as leader, they will be relaxed, compliant, obedient and happy. In natural horsemanship, we use ground work (round pen and lead-line) to control the horse’s space so that he becomes subordinate.

Beyond just controlling his space, we learn to communicate with the horse through our body language, to develop a strong bond and trust between leader and follower. The horse must be treated firmly but with kindness and above all, your interactions with the horse must be consistent so that he can learn to trust them. This kind of relationship with the horse is the ideal, but one that many horsemen find illusive.

To have a horse that is happy, respectful and obedient, who willingly does whatever you ask and responds to your most subtle cues, you must first become his leader and earn his respect. Learn to control your horse’s space and communicate with your own body language in a way that he understands, and you will not only earn his respect, but admiration as well.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Dominance Rehabilitation Logo

I have a very dominant 9-year-old Tennessee walker. He is very proud, and was abused and starved. I’ve had him for 3 years. I am having problems with him on the ground and in the pasture. I am the “boss” of my three others, and they all respect me, except him. He rears up at me and attempts to bite me and chase me out of the pasture. We had a great respect and got along great, but lately I can’t get near him. Would like some info on what to do to gain back what we had before.

Thank you.

Dominance Rehab


Dear Dominance Rehab,

This sounds like a tough horse! I would recommend that you separate him from the others. It sounds to me like he is becoming protective of “his” herd. Compounded by the fact that he has reason to dislike and distrust humans, he has reverted back to more natural or wild behaviors.

If you separate him from the others, he will not have the opportunity to protect his herd and he will be more reliant on you for companionship and to take care of his needs. Of course, to really gain respect and trust, you’ll need to build a relationship through groundwork. I would definitely start with round pen work, focusing on moving him away from you. I would not let a horse like this turn toward me when I ask him to turn around; instead, emphasize moving him out of your space.

Once he becomes more respectful of your space, then you can start doing inside turns with him. As he improves in the round pen, I would start doing lead-line work focusing on some basic rules of behavior like, stand still until I tell you to move, keep your nose in front of your chest while I am around you, and do walk-trot-halt transitions and turns away from you from both sides of the horse.

With any horse, and especially with one that has shown such aggressive tendencies, always make sure you have some sort of device in your hands when you work with him that allows you to keep a safe distance from the horse. A long whip, a lariat or a cattle sorting stick all work well; I prefer to use a “training wand” (available on my website). The purpose of the stick is not to hit the horse but it is an extension of your arm to give the horse communication and direction. And it allows you to keep a safer distance from the horse and protect yourself should he become aggressive.

With a horse that has been abused and has reason to distrust humans, you have to be careful not to get emotional or angry and escalate his emotions. Horses develop trust when they have basic rules of behavior to follow and you correct and reward them consistently. Start with some very fundamental issue, like moving him away from you, and then work just on that for a while.

I always like to remind people that you can only work on one issue at a time with a horse. So set your priorities and focus on one issue. A good example is when you are working on round pen and trying to control the horse’s speed, but then he starts coming off the rail and cutting off part of the arena. In this case, decide what your priority is at that moment: is it speed or is it staying on the rail? You cannot work on both at the same time. So maybe you step back and work on the horse staying on the rail for a few moments then when the horse is following that rule, you can go back and work on speed control.

Good luck to you and make sure you are very careful around this horse and watch yourself. Hopefully once he is separated from the herd, some of his aggressive behaviors will diminish.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Establishing Dominance Logo

I tend to be a big softy when it comes to dealing with my horse. Now I have created a horse that knows this and takes advantage of me, especially when doing groundwork. He pushes me and tries to pull me when I am leading. He does not do this to my husband, so I know he accepts him as the leader, but not me. What are your suggestions?


Pushed Over

Dear Pushed Over,

I can tell you already know what the cause of your problem is: you have indulged your horse and through your lack of leadership he has become increasingly rude and thinks he is the boss of you. This is natural horse behavior in its finest and purest sense. And the solution involves natural horsemanship, and its logical and sensible approach. Natural horsemanship is simply knowing and understanding the horse’s natural behavior and using that information to train him in a language that he understands.

Horses are very communicative animals, communicating largely with non-audible language. The horse uses sign language with every part of his body: head elevation, ear position, nostril and mouth gestures, nose movements, front feet, hind feet, tail position, plus a few distinctive audible calls. It is an intricate language and a very distinctive one; once you can learn to ‘read’ the horse, you can understand his emotions, motivations and behaviors.

Horses are also very physical in their communications within the herd and even the most novice of horse people can watch any herd of three or more horses and see the bossiness, pushing, shoving, kicking and screaming that goes on in the herd. Horses are very demonstrative and make their emotions, directives and intentions known.

Horses are also very happy, serene and obedient in the herd when there is a kind but strict benevolent leader in the herd. That’s your job in your herd of two. They are also instinctively gregarious animals and they yearn to be with a herd mate that makes them feel safe, secure and comfortable; not unlike humans. It is your job as herd leader to make your horse feel safe, secure and comfortable, but you’ll never get there by indulging and babying your horse.

Only two factors are involved: resources and space. The resources of the herd are anything that the herd values, such as food, water, shelter, and companionship. The dominant horse always has first access to the resources; therefore one of the easiest ways to determine the pecking order of a herd is to throw some feed out and look for the sharks.

The second factor in establishing dominance is spatial. Spatial issues are constantly at work within the herd setting. The dominant horse controls the space of the subordinate horse. A subordinate horse would never think of invading the space of its superior; if he did, he would probably lose some hair and possibly some skin over the deal. In NH, we strive to be a kind and benevolent leader for our horse. This involves setting parameters and ground rules and giving fair and consistent leadership to the horse. Spoiling, pampering and coddling the horse will only lead the horse to disrespect you and search elsewhere for leadership.

If you are interested in improving your leadership to the horse, with the added bonus of teaching your horse good ground manners, to respect you and want to please you, you must learn to set boundaries and enforce good behavior. There are articles on my website about doing this kind of ground work with horses and my DVD on Lead Line Leadership available at explains this process in an easy to understand, step-by-step process, showing three totally different horses move through the process.

The good news is that it is never too late to make a change and with the right approach, your horse will turn around immediately. If you get educated and learn to treat your horse as the herd leader (I know it sounds very cliché, but it is true), you will have the relationship with the horse that you want. Besides, doing groundwork is fun and rewarding!

Take the first step, make a change and you will be rewarded by your horse. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

No Biting Allowed Logo

In the Horse Master episode, “Raising Her Right,” I worked with Elaine Shabazian, a longtime horsewoman and Friesian breeder with a farm on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Elaine was recovering from knee surgery and wanted to make sure she was doing all she physically could to prepare her young Friesian filly for an upcoming breed inspection. It was great to see such a nice young horse and to share some young-horse handling techniques with Elaine and the audience. So often, I see horse owners who want their young horses to be cuddly and snuggly—then they don’t know what to do with a mature horse that still insists on being petted and moving into your personal space. Handling a foal right is a great responsibility that Elaine was prepared to take on. Read on to learn more about handling young horses—especially what to do when young horses become “lippy” and need to mouth everything, including you. Then watch the “Raising Her Right” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight February 5 and March 16, 2009 on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now:

There’s a progressive set of behaviors in horses in which lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) leads to biting. These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries to see if he can gain dominance over you. It sounds like your colt is still in the nipping stage and you need to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak. It has been my experience that people bring these behaviors on themselves by allowing horses to be in their space and by nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time. Another common action that leads to nipping/biting is when you hand feed treats to horses. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you’ll be the dominant leader and one of you’ll be the subordinate follower. It sounds like you haven’t quite got this settled between you and your horse yet. If you were dominant in his mind, he would not dare move into your space or put his lips or teeth on you.

Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the resources of the herd (food and water) and by controlling the space of the subordinate members (running them off, pushing them around). If you allow your horse to move into your space at all, it confuses the dominant-subordinate relationship. Horses are much more aware of spatial issues than humans are. When we get horses in training here at my barn, whether youngsters or older horses, one of the first rules of behavior they will learn is to never move into our space with any part of their body, including the nose. Most people constantly allow their horses to move into their space especially with its nose. In fact, it is often encouraged by feeding treats or by playing with the horse’s nose. All of these actions confuse the horse and make him think he is dominant.

For your colt, you need to establish a more respectful distance between you and him. Don’t stand close to his face or pet him on the face and don’t allow him to move his nose toward you at all while you’re working around him. Every time he moves his nose toward you, correct it by poking a finger in his cheek or just pointing at his nose until he puts it back in its proper place, in front of his chest. If you establish this basic rule (your nose must stay in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn this important ground manner quickly. Also, any time any other part of his body moves toward you, vigorously back him out of your space. This will help him to learn a respectful distance and to be respectful of your space as the dominant herd member.

When the colt reaches out to nip or bite, you should instantly poke him with a pointed finger or smack him in the muzzle with the back of your hand. This correction must come instantly without any pause at all on your part. The optimal time for a correction is one-half second after the behavior, in order for a strong association between the behavior and the correction to be made by the horse. There is a three second window of opportunity within which to reward or correct a horse, but, the sooner in that three seconds, the correction or reward occurs, the more meaningful it is to the horse, and the optimal time is one half second. Your colt already knows that he is doing something wrong, that’s why he is backing up after he nips. If you feel you cannot poke him in a timely fashion, go ahead and jerk on the lead rope and back him up vigorously for a far stretch and yell or growl at him like you’re angry. John Lyons has an interesting theory about correcting horses that bite. He says that you should pick up whatever is handy and act like you’re going to kill the horse with it, but only for three seconds. Of course, he would never actually advocate beating the horse with something, but by the time you have picked it up, swung it over your head and lunged at the horse, at least three seconds has gone by so you would never actually have time to hit the horse. This puts the “fear of god” into the horse and makes him very leery of putting his mouth on you again (don’t ever try something like this with a tied horse because it will lead to a pull-back problem).

If you’re leery of poking the horse in the cheek, then you can give him a pinch on his neck, to simulate the alpha horse biting him. Take your thumb and index finger and give him a hard squeeze at the base of his neck muscle. Wrap your fingers around several inches of the big strapping muscle that defines the bottom line of his neck and then give a quick sharp squeeze. This will give him quite a shock and simulates biting. It gives him a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. One more time, I want to reinforce the fact that as likely as not, the human is the one that has made the horse nippy by crowding his space, playing with his mouth, feeding treats and allowing the horse to push him around. So make sure that you correct your behavior too, if necessary, so as not to encourage the horse to be disrespectful.
–Julie Goodnight

Advance And Retreat Logo

While shooting a Horse Master episode on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts I was introduced to a woman, Vickie Thurber, who had an accident with her young pinto eventing horse and wanted help introducing “Poco” to new possibly scary stimuli. She wanted to make sure he—and she—knew what to do if he spooked again. In their initial accident, Poco spooked and Vickie injured her arm. I decided to take Poco to the beach to introduce him to the surf. Though he lives on an island, the surf was new to him. Although not everyone can ride their horse on the beach, the technique I use to help Poco face his fears can be used to approach any scary object or scene. Read on to learn more about “advance and retreat”. Plus, watch a clip online now:

Advance and retreat: These days, with military actions and wars consistently in the headlines, thoughts of aggression make it easy to think of “advance and retreat” as an aggressive move. But in case of horse training, advance and retreat is an important concept to understand and when utilized properly, this technique can effectively train your horse to quietly and peacefully accept all sorts of scary and uncomfortable stimuli.

When training a horse to accept a scary or adverse stimulus, whether it be clippers, fly spray, the water hose, the bridle, or taking a horse to the beach for the first time, it’s important to understand the theory of advance and retreat. First, you must understand that whatever a horse is afraid of, be it a sound, a feel or a touch, that factor is considered a stimulus. A stimulus is an environmental factor that motivates the horse to action. If the horse is afraid of the stimulus, the action will likely be to snort and run away.

The advance and retreat method of horse training is a way to desensitize the horse to a scary stimulus and teach him to respond to the stimulus with willing acceptance. Let’s say, for the sake of explanation that the scary stimulus is fly spray, although this method will work with any type of stimulus. The first step, in any training process, is to determine what the desired outcome is. In the instance of fly spray, the desired outcome is that the horse stands still and relaxed while you spray him.

With the case of fly spray, as with just about any scary stimulus, there are many different sensations that may frighten the horse. It maybe the sound of the spray bottle, the smell of the chemical or the feel of the droplets on his body (or all of the stimuli combined) that causes fear in the horse. Regardless of what actually causes the fear, it’s an honest emotion of the horse and he should not be reprimanded.

The theory of the advance is that you approach slowly with the stimulus, starting far enough away that the horse is not uncomfortable and advancing slowly until you reach the place that causes discomfort or a slight tensing in the horse. It may be that just spraying in close proximity to the horse causes him to tense and become frightened (helpful hint: use a bottle with water in it so you don’t waste your fly spray). Only advance as far as you can until the horse becomes tense, advance no farther but maintain your ground.

Continue applying the stimulus, at the distance that caused the horse discomfort and let him move as fast as he wants in a circle around you. Do not try to hold him still, don’t impede his forward motion; keep his nose tipped toward you so that he has to move in a circle around you. It’s important that he is allowed to move his feet because that is his natural reaction to a scary stimulus.

The theory of retreat comes into play once the horse voluntarily makes the right response, which is to hold still and/or relax. As soon as the horse stops his feet or relaxes, even if it’s very briefly, immediately remove the stimulus (stop spraying). Turn your back on the horse and take a few steps away and allow him time to relax and take a deep breath. Removing the stimulus when the horse makes the right response rewards him for stopping his feet. Timing is everything, as with most aspects of horse training.

Apply the stimulus again (advance), as close as causes discomfort and remove it the instant the horse stops moving his feet or relaxes (retreat). In very short order, the horse will make the association that if he holds still and relaxes, the scary thing will go away. Once he makes this association, it will diffuse his fear altogether.

It’s critical in this training technique that you not advance beyond whatever causes discomfort to the horse. Once he stands still and accepts the stimulus (because you have retreated a number of times), then you can advance farther. I have seen too many horses traumatized by people advancing too far initially and overwhelming the horse, sending him into terror and panic. Then often, the person removes the stimulus when the horse is reacting poorly, thus rewarding his behavior.

Advance and retreat, when applied with good timing and a calm and humane approach, will help the horse learn to stand still and accept scary stimuli. Furthermore, once a horse has been desensitized in this way to a number of stimuli, he learns to carry over this response to new stimuli as well and to think his way through a scary scene.
–Julie Goodnight

Burned Out Logo

This Issue: Burned Out

Recently I was a speaker at the PATH International therapeutic riding conference—the annual convention. The crowd was full of hundreds of physical therapists, mental health specialists, therapeutic instructors, horse handlers, side walkers and barn managers that work for therapeutic riding programs. My presentation was on avoiding and resolving burnout in therapy horses.

Now, this is a very popular subject because every therapeutic riding program out there shares this problem. While only the best-tempered and most qualified horses are used in such a program, their job is stressful (both physically and mentally), tiring, boring, repetitive and sometimes downright obnoxious. Sometimes as many as five adults are hovering over the client and micromanaging the horse’s every step. With a high dependency on volunteerism in TRPs, the horse has to get used to a revolving door of handlers. Sometimes the client is off balance, moving spasmodically or unpredictably, laughing or screaming loudly. Most therapy horses work hard for a living and many of them also have to make ends meet by working extra hours packing around able-bodied riders in lessons—a novice rider that thinks she knows what she is doing is often harder on the horse than a therapeutic client. As you can imagine, burnout is an occupational hazard in these horses.

Every therapeutic riding program I’ve worked with has problems with horses biting, horses that learn bad habits or avoidance techniques (particularly around the mounting block), horses that develop bad manners, and worst of all, the horses that learn that they can get away with stuff like biting the handler when there is a client on its back because they know the handler won’t take the risk of disciplining the horse with the client on its back. Maybe you’ve had some personal experience with this, if not in a therapy horse how about in a show horse? I consulted with Disney World a few years ago and they had this problem with some of Cinderella’s ponies (you know, the little white ponies that pull the pumpkin carriage). Disney horse handlers are strictly forbidden from taking any disciplinary action at all when the horses are in the park in front of guests and unfortunately sometimes clever little devil ponies learn they can get away with stuff like biting the handler in the park, but they never do it outside where the handler could take disciplinary action. This is a very bad deal because once they learn that there is a certain place that they can get away with stuff, you cannot unlearn it. So we must do our best to prevent the horse from learning this to begin with by being diligent to the horse’s behavior and obedience and taking corrective action before the horse figures it out. Fortunately, most horses are not that smart.

Have you ever had a horse that learned he can get away with things in certain settings? It reminds me of when my sisters and I were little and my parents dressed us up and took us to a very fancy restaurant where we promptly staged a revolt and crawled under the white-linen table and refused to come out (it was my sister’s idea; I was just a pawn in her scheme). We just knew they wouldn’t do anything to us there and that there would be no spanking in the fancy restaurant. Little did we know that later, at home, we would come to regret our actions. Unfortunately, with horses, punishing them after-the fact will serve no purpose other than to confuse the horse and teach him not to trust you. Regret is not a train of thought your horse will follow. As I am fond of saying—once three seconds goes by, it’s a whole ‘nother day to the horse and there is no connection whatsoever.

Although a lot of these behavior problems in therapy horses have to do with the difficult and stressful job they do, much of this it has to do with poor handling and the ever-revolving door of handlers with varying degrees of competence. Many larger and well-funded programs employ a full-time trainer whose job it is to maintain the therapy horse’s training, avoid bad habits and take care of the horse’s mental and physical needs. But the smaller programs are scrapping for every labor dollar they have and usually can’t afford this luxury, so they have to do the best they can, with the people they have.

I wish I had had more time for the presentation because we had about 8-10 therapy horses from several different programs here in Colorado, with a variety of interesting issues. It was way too many horses to work with in the 90 minutes allotted to me. There were a many points that I wanted to stress in training the volunteers and in the day-to-day handling of the horses, but I found myself focusing again and again on a few key points: don’t micro-manage the horse, don’t crowd and grab the horse and be sure to maintain a level of authority with the horse.

Biting horses is probably the most common problem TRPs deal with, a problem that many horse people encounter, but the therapy horses are way more prone to it than any other population I know of. I’ve spent some time pondering this problem and have observed many different operations and to me, the cause is quite clear—the horses are sick and tired of everyone being in their space! These horses get so over-handled with so many well-intentioned people that don’t always do the right thing. The horse handler crowds the horse’s face, often choked up on the lead rope and micro-managing every movement the horse makes (if he’s being used in a TRP, he knows what he is doing; he does it every day and usually knows it better than the handler). Worse, the handler sometimes leads with the reins or clamps down on the reins just behind the bit; both of these actions are VERY hard on a horse’s mouth. Is it any surprise so many therapy horses bite?

It’s just like with riding a horse—at some point you need to quit micro-managing him and just trust the horse to do his job, especially when it is something he knows how to do. Step back, put some slack in the lead (or reins) and let him do his job. You cannot prevent a horse from moving by holding him still (who are you kidding if you think you can hold a 1000 pound horse still?) but you can train him that it is an expectations of yours that he not move his feet without a cue, then step back, loosen the lead and expect him to stand; correct him if he doesn’t. Don’t try to prevent him from making a mistake, just correct him when he does.

This will only work if you have authority over your horse and he respects your leadership; otherwise, when you step back or loosen up, he just does whatever he wants. I have written a lot about this subject—it’s all over my Training Library—and I spent a lot of time in my NARHA presentation just teaching simple ground manners to the horses (and teaching the handlers what to do and what not to do). A horse doesn’t automatically respect you, trust you or accept your authority over all things unless you earn it. And if everyone knew how to do that, I’d be out of a job!

It was a great workshop and I really enjoyed it. The session ended too soon and as usual, I could think of about a thousand things I wish I had time to cover. If you were there, let me know what you enjoyed the most and what you wished we could’ve covered. If you’re involved in a TRP—good for you! It is a valuable and satisfying field and TRPs are always in need of more volunteers, so check it out. If you cannot afford the time, maybe you can make a donation to your local therapeutic riding program(cash is king for these low-budget non-profits). If you are not involved in a TRP, perhaps you can still find some useful information here to help you avoid problems with your horse.
Enjoy the ride!

–Julie Goodnight

Teach Your Horse To Lower His Head Logo

Caption: help your horse achieve a low headset and look calm and collected.

Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Star Gazer: Teach your horse to lower his head

Dear Julie,
Do you have any suggestions for helping me set my horse’s head? She’s not too bad at home but at shows she raises her head and doesn’t look ideal! I know she wants to look around, but she doesn’t respect my cues to pay attention. How can I get her to keep her head low and perform the same at a show that she does at home?
Hope for a Headset

Dear Hope,
There are several considerations for getting your horse to perform at a show at the same level that she performs at home. There is an article on my website about seasoning a horse for shows that will give you a greater understanding of this training process.

A horse, or any animal for that matter (humans included), goes through four stages of learning:
1. Acquisition- horse learns to associate a cue with the behavior you are teaching him (acquires a new skill)
2. Fluency- horse responds correctly to the cue almost always and refinement occurs during this stage
3. Generalization- horse takes a skill he has learned in one environment and comes to understand that he can perform that skill confidently in any environment (such as at a horse show)
4. Maintenance- the “finished” horse will perform reliably in a variety of settings and does not need to learn more, just maintain his skills
Your horse is somewhere between stages one and two and does not yet have the training and experience to perform reliably at shows or away from home (generalization). Stages one and two happen relatively quickly; but to get a horse generalized in his training takes a lot of time and experience.
Horses are very location specific in their training. They tend to associate a specific place with their action or behavior. That is why horses will tend to act up in the same place of the arena. To use this tendency to our advantage, when I am training a new skill to a horse, I might ask her to perform the skill in the same spot where I had success the time before, because I know she is thinking about it there. Then we’ll move on to performing the skill in other places as we move through the stages of learning.
You’ll need to haul your horse to some different arenas for practice in a different setting, then to some horse shows just for schooling (not competition). It can take years to truly season a horse and get him generalized in his skills. Buying a mature seasoned horse is easier and cheaper than seasoning one by yourself!

To get your horse to put her head in a specific place is fairly simple; to get her to keep her head there is a little trickier.
The correction:
To teach your horse to lower her head on command, pick up one rein and lift it up until there is pressure on your horse’s mouth. Use only the amount of pressure that causes your horse to look for a way out of the pressure, which you’ll know because she will start moving her head around trying to find a release.
The instant your horse drops her head, even a fraction of an inch, release the rein and rub her on the neck, then ask again. You must reward any effort on the part of your horse to do the right thing or move in the right direction. First your horse must learn that when you pick up a rein it means to lower her head (acquisition). Once she makes this connection, hold the rein a little longer until the head comes lower, then release. Gradually increase the amount of time you hold the rein up until the head is where you want. Then whenever you want to lower the head, if you lift slightly on one rein, your horse will drop (fluency).
In this process your horse learns that there is a place where she can keep her head and be comfortable (no pressure on the bit) and that if her head is not in that place, she will be uncomfortable (pressure on the bit). For your horse to learn that she must keep her head there, you’ll have to be very consistent in your corrections and have excellent timing for both the release and the correction. That requires a lot of concentration and skill.
If you are having difficulty keeping your horse’s head where you want it, probably you are being inconsistent with your corrections—she doesn’t believe she’ll stay comfortable with her head in the right place and/or that she’ll be uncomfortable with it in the wrong place. Remember, if more than three seconds go by, your horse is unable to make an association between your correction/release and her actions.
One of the very first things I will teach a horse is that she must keep her nose in front of her chest at all times while I am riding her. I don’t care where we are, I will not tolerate a horse looking around—it’s not her job. I am the one in charge and I am the one monitoring the environment; her job is to go where I point her at the speed I dictate. She doesn’t get to make any decisions so she doesn’t need to look around.
Again, consistent correction will take care of this problem very quickly, if you are consistent and have good timing. I use your horse’s points of shoulder as a guideline—she must keep her nose with in those two points. Any time she crosses the line, I will bump the opposite rein until her head comes back to the middle. She can easily see more than 360° around her and still keep her nose between her shoulders. In short order, she’ll quit looking around
We train horses through negative reinforcement—we apply pressure until your horse does the right thing, then we take away the pressure as a reward. In order to influence a horse’s behavior, you have to find the amount of pressure that motivates her to change. For each horse, the amount of pressure required to motivate change is different; if your horse does not respect your hands, you may not be using enough pressure, so it’s easier to ignore your repeated requests than to put her head down.
In training, you must also consider how difficult it is for your horse to do what you are asking. If it’s an easy skill for your horse to perform, it shouldn’t take much pressure or motivation. If it’s a hard skill, it may take more. Again, this is different with every horse—not every horse is built to keep its head low and/or bring its face to vertical.
The outcome:
Spending some time to season your horse and give her the experience she needs to be comfortable in the show ring is a good place to start. Setting some boundaries and guidelines for her behavior and making it clear to her what she has to do to get the release, will give her a better understanding of what she is supposed to do. This will require a lot of concentration and good timing on your part.
A couple of caveats about headset for shows: don’t ask too much of your horse. Many people showing horses today are asking for extreme and unnatural headsets from your horse, which may make her sore and uncomfortable, and can actually damage the ligaments in her neck.
Letting your horse drop her head straight down is not unnatural but asking it to go down and bring the nose in (breaking at the poll) so that the face is behind vertical IS unnatural and I do not believe a horse should have to do that. However, that is what is commonly seen in the show ring in many disciplines.
Secondly, make sure that your horse gets a release when she does the right thing. Most people do not release your horse soon enough or often enough and that causes your horse to be resistant. Often people are so sure your horse is going to put her head up again (or whatever they don’t want your horse to do) that they hold pressure on the reins trying to prevent it. This will cause a horse to lift his head and be resistant. When a horse gets constant pressure, he will almost always do the opposite of what you want. It’s only if he finds a release that he is motivated to do the right thing.
Good luck with your horse and with a little work, you can teach your horse to perform as well at the show as she does at home. There’s lots of information on my website, that can help you along the way.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician

Horse Turns Toward Gate And Stops Working Logo

Common Complaints

My horse heads for the gate and stops while we’re working.

Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to teach your horse ignore the gate and work steadily.

If your horse thinks turning toward the gate is his cue to slow down, ride with a purpose and direct him straight past the opening.

Does your horse slow down as you pass the gate and speed up when you turn toward home? Does he break gait again and again in the same place in the arena? When leaving the barn, do his legs suddenly become leaden and you feel like you’re dragging a ship’s anchor?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and disobedient behavior then give you steps to take to teach your horse to work steadily around the arena and leave the barn at the same pace he returns. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that acts like a champ and respects your authority.

The Reason
Gate gravity is actually herd gravity; it’s a horse’s nature to be herd-bound—staying safe by remaining close to his fellow horses. The instinct is strong. Whether this problem occurs while you’re riding in the arena, trail riding or working on the ground, your horse is being disobedient and making unauthorized decisions. Your horse needs to see you as his trustable leader and know that he’s safe in a herd of two with you.

What horses seek beyond all else in life are two simple things: safety and comfort. When you ask your horse to leave the safety and comfort of the herd to go out and work, you’re asking a lot of him. He may feel alone and vulnerable.

Horses are also instinctively lazy, preferring to conserve their energy for flight, should it be necessary. Your horse doesn’t really want to lope circles and leap obstacles in the arena. He’s looking for any relief available and thinks he may get a break if he heads to the gate. He’s always thinking about going back to the herd; if he can get away with slowing down or stopping for a moment or two, he may think he’s made progress and that you’re allowing him to head for home.

Horses also challenge for hierarchy within the herd. When your horse challenges you—by stopping at the gate—he’s testing to see who’s really in charge. Within the herd, each horse is either dominant over or subordinate to every other individual. One horse is at the top (the “alpha”) and one is at the bottom (the “omega”), with all the other individuals fitting somewhere in between. Subordinate horses respect and admire the leader of their herd and will willingly go with them anywhere; the alpha can herd and direct subordinates and the latter will go at any direction or speed dictated by the boss.

If your horse respects your authority as the leader in your herd of two, he’ll go in a direction and speed that you indicate—without making any unauthorized decisions such as slowing down or speeding up. You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re taking the helm and accepting the captain’s seat and that he’ll either toe the line or be swabbing decks.

Whether your horse just slightly slows down at the gate or gives you a constant battle leaving the barn, there are some simple steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, you have to realize that your horse’s “problem” stems from your lack of authority. It’s time to take charge.
Examine other areas within your relationship with your horse. Is he responsive to you on the ground? Does he respect your space? Does he focus on you, looking to you for directives and guidance? Is he peaceful and docile in your presence, knowing you’re in charge? Or is he looking at the herd and whinnying? When you ride, is his head down and his nose pointed in the direction you have asked for? Or is his head up and is he changing his path and speed impulsively?

If you’re nodding your head, you and your horse are good candidates for a systematic series of groundwork exercises. You’ll have to teach him to accept your authority on the ground first then carry your newly found authority to mounted work. My groundwork DVD called Lead Line Leadership will take you through this process with step-by-step explanations. The Complete Groundwork Package includes two DVDs and all the equipment you need for groundwork.

After spending some quality time with your horse from the ground, you’ll also have to address your authority with your horse from his back. You must act like the captain and your horse must accept his position as first mate. As captain, you dictate both the direction and speed of the ship and your first mate carries out your orders. The captain makes all of the decisions and any insubordinate behavior from the crew is met with strict consequence.

Your authority in the saddle starts when you put your foot in the stirrup to mount and ends when you hop off.

Professionals teach horses that they should keep doing what they’re told until they’re told differently. If you allow small infractions, such as making the unauthorized decision to slow down at the gate or veer from the dictated path, you’re eroding your authority. Once your horse realizes that you don’t have complete control, he’ll push the limits and the erosion continues until the dam gives way.

As soon as you mount, begin by not letting your horse walk off without a cue (see last month’s issue about standing for mounting), then take him directly to the rail and deep up into the corners. Immediately correct the smallest infraction of direction or speed until your horse gives it up and just does what he’s told to do. Depending on your assertiveness, this process may take one time around the pen or a few weeks.

Make sure your corrections are adequate to motivate your horse to change his ways. If he stops at the gate or breaks gait at any time, there must be ramifications and the punishment must involve enough pressure to motivate your horse to change. If the ramifications are insignificant to your horse, he’ll happily endure it if it means he gets to rest for a moment.

In this case your corrections might range from more leg pressure to a bump with the spur or a spank with a crop or the tail of your reins. If he breaks gait with me at the helm, I’ll make sure he not only gets a spanking, but that he has to work harder. I only allow him to stop or slow down when he’s working willingly forward, without me having to push him.

Each horse is different in the amount of pressure it takes to motivate him to change, but you’ll know if it’s enough by his reaction to the correction. If he blows it off with an expression meaning “so what?” then you didn’t use enough pressure. If his head comes up and he jumps to attention with a look on his face like, “what do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” then you’re making an impact. I don’t want you to cause your horse undue pain. However, you’ll need to use enough of a correction to let your horse know you’re in charge. If your horse doesn’t see you as a leader, you may be in much more danger later on.

There’s an old saying in horse training that says it always gets worse before it gets better. That means that if your horse has been getting away with things for a while, he’s not going to immediately give it up the first time you lay down the law with him. If he has been stomping on your authority for a while, he’ll challenge your first attempts to correct him by threatening you with a kick or buck. Make sure you have the ability to ride through his resistance or engage the help of a more qualified hand to help you. Never let his antics get to you emotionally—if he learns he can control your emotions, he’ll keep pushing your buttons. Instead, be calm, firm and persistent in your request for obedience.

Once you learn to be the 100% authority figure that your horse needs, he’ll gladly do what you ask. To reach this point, you’ll need leadership and consistency.

With repetition, good timing and lots of enforcement on your part, your horse will soon be steady, responsive and obedient.


For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit

Nurturing The Try In Your Horse Logo

I have lived with and worked with horses for more than half a century. And the older I get, the more appreciation I have for horses and their willingness, generosity and ability to forgive. It never ceases to amaze me how they tolerate some of the crazy things we humans do and how they will keep on trying to please.

Over the decades, I have learned that horses thrive on structure, consistency, praise and discipline. They crave leadership and authority and they feel safe and content in its presence. Leadership is very black and white to a horse and he knows it when he sees it. There is no faking leadership to a horse.

In domestic herds, groups of horses that are forced together, sometimes there are unqualified horses in the alpha role and the other horses know it—they agree to the terms, but do not have respect or admiration for the stand-in. Being a bully does not make you a leader and although a more subordinate horse will defer to the space of a more aggressive herdmate, he does not respect the bully as his leader and certainly does not like him.

A true herd leader is not a bully, but is willing to dish out discipline when it is needed. The true leader of the herd is responsible for the herd’s safety and for insuring that all the herdmates are good citizens of the herd—sometimes that means disciplining an unruly horse.

Horses recognize true leadership—fairness, courage, authority, confidence, intelligence, honesty, responsibility. When horses find a true leader, they have the highest respect and deference for and come to worship the ground their leader walks on. They trust and want to be with their leader and are always on the lookout for ways to please—to stay in the good graces of the one in charge.

To me, this is the ideal relationship to have with a horse and it makes me a much better and stronger person to live up to the ideals of my horse. When your horse thinks of you as the supreme leader, he will go anywhere with you, trusting you to look out for his well-being, having faith in your decisions and knowing you have his best interest in mind. He will work hard to please you and will get his feelings hurt if he thinks you are unhappy with him. But that attitude comes at a price—you have to earn it– and it is easily lost if you fall down on the job.

Once your horse recognizes the qualities of a true leader in you, it means that he trusts you to be fair, consistent and protect him from anything that could hurt him. That trust can be lost in an instant by asking the horse to do something that causes him to get hurt or frightened. This is an important obligation of the leader and should never be overlooked.

Horses are herd animals and as such, are instinctively drawn to the herd; but membership into any herd is not a guarantee. In the domestic setting, a new horse introduced an existing herd will automatically be shunned and treated harshly, as if to say, “We do not want you—go away!” Once the new horse shows a certain amount of contrition and a willingness to respect the hierarchy of the herd, he will be allowed provisional membership. But he is treading on thin ice and knows that if he is not on his best behavior, he could be once again banished from the herd.

Acceptance into a herd means that you are willing to abide by the rules of the herd and be a good citizen to the herd. Horses are very good at learning and following rules and as long as rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, horses will follow the rules religiously.

There are many important lessons for us to learn from life in the horse herd. To be accepted as the leader, you have to establish authority right away and not worry about being liked—that will come later. You have to take charge, establish the rules and demonstrate your willingness to enforce them. Then your horse will come to accept your authority, feel safe in your presence and be eager to please you.

You cannot bribe or pamper your horse into thinking of you as a leader. That is not within his frame of reference. If you start out your relationship by begging him to be your friend, you automatically put yourself in the subordinate position. Horses crave authority, not pandering.

If you are the leader in your herd of two—you and your horse—then it is up to you to set and enforce the rules. Always. You lead—he follows. If your leadership skills are inadequate, your horse will step into the leadership role and start making all the decisions, like where you both go and how fast you get there. In that case, sooner or later, your horse will make a decision you don’t agree with.

It is a hard thing for some people to accept, but horses thrive off both praise and discipline; he gets a lot more of the latter in the herd. Praise is only meaningful to the horse if he has earned it and if he thinks of you as his leader and someone he wants to please. And without discipline, rules have no meaning and the horse will not make an effort to please you. If there are no rules, there is no leadership.

Discipline and praise go together and the horse needs both. If you constantly shower praise on a horse, without him making any effort to earn it, why should he keep trying to please you?

Your horse needs to know when you are pleased with him and know when you are not. Often just a stern word is all it takes, especially when the horse has an attitude of wanting to please you. But just like a child, the horse needs structure and rules to follow and ramifications to be meted out if he disobeys a rule. Otherwise, you end up with a very unpleasant animal—whether it is two-legged or four.

All of my horses, selected by me largely for their temperaments, fall into the category of very willing and eager to please. That does not mean that they are always perfect, never make mistakes or never misbehave. Since humans have been breeding horses more for pleasure and recreation than for beasts of burden for nearly a century, as a rule, horses are much better tempered than they used to be.

But this eager and willing attitude can turn into the likes of a tantrumming toddler in the presence of inadequate leadership. Recognizing when a horse is trying his best, when he is goofing off and when he is blatantly breaking the rules, is the first step in nurturing the “try” in your horse.

When I issue a directive to a horse, it is not his actual response or performance that matters—it is the effort he makes to do the right thing. If he tries, he gets rewarded and praised. If he doesn’t, he gets scolded and put immediately back to work. He doesn’t have to be brilliant, but he does have to make an effort.

Although praise is a great motivator for horses and scolding is a great dissuader, the best motivator of all for horses is comfort. When my horse puts out a good effort in response to something I have asked him to do, I always acknowledge it by whispering sweet-nothings to him, rubbing him on the withers and leaving him alone for a moment to let him rest and think about how good it feels to be a good horse. When he cheats me or doesn’t try hard enough, I put him immediately back to work. When he makes an exceptional effort, I might just stop what I am doing and immediately put him away.

Equine behaviorists have long known that safety and comfort are the greatest motivating factors of a horse’s behavior. Often people are surprised to learn that it is not food, as it is with dogs. Horses can find the food on their own—they don’t need a leader for that.

Horses only feel safe in the presence of a strong and committed leader who is fair, in-control and makes all the important decisions. Horses are comfortable when they are allowed to take it easy and have the satisfaction of feeling appreciated. Pampering, indulgence and a lack of rules and structure can turn a good horse bad in a matter of hours.

If you watch for and acknowledge the try in your horse—his effort to do the right thing or to please you– and recognize and reprimand when he is disobedient or distracted, he will work hard to stay on your good side and he will feel safe and content to be with you and to do your bidding.

All the money in the world cannot buy this kind of respect and devotion from a horse—you have to earn it by being a strong leader and recognizing your horse’s effort, be it good or bad. This is a tall order—that’s why horses make us better people.

Enjoy the ride,

Horse Behavior: Xenophon: The Art Of Horsemanship Logo

Question Category: Horse Behavior
Question: Read this historical text that has much in common with today’s natural horsemanship training…
Answer: Author: Xenophon
Translator: H. G. Dakyns
Release Date: August 21, 2008
Produced by John Bickers, and David Widger

By Xenophon
Translation by H. G. Dakyns

Xenophon the Athenian was born 431 B.C. He was a pupil of Socrates. He marched with the Spartans, and was exiled from Athens. Sparta gave him land and property in Scillus, where he lived for many years before having to move once more, to settle in Corinth. He died in 354 B.C.

On Horsemanship advises the reader on how to buy a good horse, and how to raise it to be either a war horse or show horse. Xenophon ends with some words on military equipment for a cavalryman.


This was typed from Dakyns’ series, “The Works of Xenophon,” a four-volume set. Text in brackets “{}” is my transliteration of Greek text into English using an Oxford English Dictionary alphabet table. The diacritical marks have been lost.


Claiming to have attained some proficiency in horsemanship (1) ourselves, as the result of long experience in the field, our wish is to explain, for the benefit of our younger friends, what we conceive to be the most correct method of dealing with horses.

(1) Lit. “Since, through the accident of having for a long time ‘ridden’ ourselves, we believe we have become proficients in horsemanship, we wish to show to our younger friends how, as we conceive the matter, they will proceed most correctly in dealing with horses.” {ippeuein} in the case of Xenophon = serve as a {ippeus}, whether technically as an Athenian “knight” or more particularly in reference to his organisation of a troop of cavalry during “the retreat” (“Anab.” III. iii. 8-20), and, as is commonly believed, while serving under Agesilaus (“Hell.” III. iv. 14) in Asia, 396, 395 B.C.

There is, it is true, a treatise on horsemanship written by Simon, the same who dedicated the bronze horse near the Eleusinion in Athens (2) with a representation of his exploits engraved in relief on the pedestal. (3) But we shall not on that account expunge from our treatise any conclusions in which we happen to agree with that author; on the contrary we shall hand them on with still greater pleasure to our friends, in the belief that we shall only gain in authority from the fact that so great an expert in horsemanship held similar views to our own; whilst with regard to matters omitted in his treatise, we shall endeavour to supply them.

(2) L. Dind. (in Athens). The Eleusinion. For the position of this sanctuary of Demeter and Kore see Leake, “Top. of Athens,” i. p. 296 foll. For Simon see Sauppe, vol. v. Praef. to “de R. E.” p. 230; L. Dind. Praef. “Xen. Opusc.” p. xx.; Dr. Morris H. Morgan, “The Art of Horsemanship by Xenophon,” p. 119 foll. A fragment of the work referred to, {peri eidous kai ekloges ippon}, exists. The MS. is in the library of Emmanual Coll. Cant. It so happens that one of the hipparchs (?) appealed to by Demosthenes in Arist. “Knights,” 242.

{andres ippes, paragenesthe nun o kairos, o Simon, o Panaiti, ouk elate pros to dexion keras};

bears the name.

(3) Lit. “and carved on the pedestal a representation of his own performances.”

As our first topic we shall deal with the question, how a man may best avoid being cheated in the purchase of a horse.

Take the case of a foal as yet unbroken: it is plain that our scrutiny must begin with the body; an animal that has never yet been mounted can but present the vaguest indications of spirit. Confining ourselves therefore to the body, the first point to examine, we maintain, will be the feet. Just as a house would be of little use, however beautiful its upper stories, if the underlying foundations were not what they ought to be, so there is little use to be extracted from a horse, and in particular a war-horse, (4) if unsound in his feet, however excellent his other points; since he could not turn a single one of them to good account. (5)

(4) Or, “and that a charger, we will suppose.” For the simile see “Mem.” III. i. 7.

(5) Cf. Hor. “Sat.” I. ii. 86:

regibus hic mos est: ubi equos mercantur, opertos inspiciunt, ne, si facies, ut saepe, decora molli fulta pede est, emptorem inducat hiantem, quod pulchrae clunes, breve quod caput, ardua cervix.

and see Virg. “Georg.” iii. 72 foll.

In testing the feet the first thing to examine will be the horny portion of the hoof. For soundness of foot a thick horn is far better than a thin. Again it is important to notice whether the hoofs are high both before and behind, or flat to the ground; for a high hoof keeps the “frog,” (6) as it is called, well off the ground; whereas a low hoof treads equally with the stoutest and softest part of the foot alike, the gait resembling that of a bandy-legged man. (7) “You may tell a good foot clearly by the ring,” says Simon happily; (8) for the hollow hoof rings like a cymbal against the solid earth. (9)

(6) Lit. “the swallow.”

(7) Al. “a knock-kneed person.” See Stonehenge, “The Horse” (ed. 1892), pp. 3, 9.

(8) Or, “and he is right.”

(9) Cf. Virg. “Georg.” iii. 88; Hor. “Epod.” xvi. 12.

And now that we have begun with the feet, let us ascend from this point to the rest of the body. The bones (10) above the hoof and below the fetlock must not be too straight, like those of a goat; through not being properly elastic, (11) legs of this type will jar the rider, and are more liable to become inflamed. On the other hand, these bones must not be too low, or else the fetlock will be abraded or lacerated when the horse is galloped over clods and stones.

(10) i.e. “the pasterns ({mesokunia}) and the coffin should be ‘sloping.'”

(11) Or, “being too inflexible.” Lit. “giving blow for blow, overuch like anvil to hammer.”

The bones of the shanks (12) ought to be thick, being as they are the columns on which the body rests; thick in themselves, that is, not puffed out with veins or flesh; or else in riding over hard ground they will inevitably be surcharged with blood, and varicose conditions be set up, (13) the legs becoming thick and puffy, whilst the skin recedes; and with this loosening of the skin the back sinew (14) is very apt to start and render the horse lame.

(12) i.e. “the metacarpals and metatarsals.”

(13) Or, “and become varicose, with the result that the shanks swell whilst the skin recedes from the bone.”

(14) Or, “suspensory ligament”? Possibly Xenophon’s anatomy is wrong, and he mistook the back sinew for a bone like the fibula. The part in question might intelligibly enough, if not technically, be termed {perone}, being of the brooch-pin order.

If the young horse in walking bends his knees flexibly, you may safely conjecture that when he comes to be ridden he will have flexible legs, since the quality of suppleness invariably increases with age. (15) Supple knees are highly esteemed and with good reason, rendering as they do the horse less liable to stumble or break down from fatigue than those of stiffer build.

(15) Lit. “all horses bend their legs more flexibly as time advances.”

Coming to the thighs below the shoulder-blades, (16) or arms, these if thick and muscular present a stronger and handsomer appearance, just as in the case of a human being. Again, a comparatively broad chest is better alike for strength and beauty, and better adapted to carry the legs well asunder, so that they will not overlap and interfere with one another. Again, the neck should not be set on dropping forward from the chest, like a boar’s, but, like that of a game-cock rather, it should shoot upwards to the crest, and be slack (17) along the curvature; whilst the head should be bony and the jawbone small. In this way the neck will be well in front of the rider, and the eye will command what lies before the horse’s feet. A horse, moreover, of this build, however spirited, will be least capable of overmastering the rider, (18) since it is not by arching but by stretching out his neck and head that a horse endeavours to assert his power. (19)

(16) Lit. “the thighs below the shoulder-blades” are distinguished from “the thighs below the tail.” They correspond respectively to our “arms” (i.e. forearms) and “gaskins,” and anatomically speaking = the radius (os brachii) and the tibia.

(17) “Slack towards the flexure” (Stonehenge).

(18) Or, “of forcing the rider’s hand and bolting.”

(19) Or, “to display violence or run away.”

It is important also to observe whether the jaws are soft or hard on one or other side, since as a rule a horse with unequal jaws (20) is liable to become hard-mouthed on one side.

(20) Or, “whose bars are not equally sensitive.”

Again, a prominent rather than a sunken eye is suggestive of alertness, and a horse of this type will have a wider range of vision.

And so of the nostrils: a wide-dilated nostril is at once better than a contracted one for respiration, and gives the animal a fiercer aspect. Note how, for instance, when one stallion is enraged against another, or when his spirit chafes in being ridden, (21) the nostrils at once become dilated.

(21) Or, “in the racecourse or on the exercising-ground how readily he distends his nostrils.”

A comparatively large crest and small ears give a more typical and horse-like appearance to the head, whilst lofty withers again allow the rider a surer seat and a stronger adhesion between the shoulders and the body. (22)

(22) Or if with L. D. ({kai to somati}), transl. “adhesion to the horse’s shoulders.”

A “double spine,” (23) again, is at once softer to sit on than a single, and more pleasing to the eye. So, too, a fairly deep side somewhat rounded towards the belly (24) will render the animal at once easier to sit and stronger, and as a general rule better able to digest his food. (25)

(23) Reading after Courier {rakhis ge men}. See Virg. “Georg.” iii. 87, “at duplex agitur per lumbos spina.” “In a horse that is in good case, the back is broad, and the spine does not stick up like a ridge, but forms a kind of furrow on the back” (John Martyn); “a full back,” as we say.

(24) Or, “in proportion to.” See Courier (“Du Commandement de la Cavalerie at de l’Equitation”: deux livres de Xenophon, traduits par un officier d’artillerie a cheval), note ad loc. p. 83.

(25) i.e. “and keep in good condition.”

The broader and shorter the loins the more easily will the horse raise his forequarters and bring up his hindquarters under him. Given these points, moreover, the belly will appear as small as possible, a portion of the body which if large is partly a disfigurement and partly tends to make the horse less strong and capable of carrying weight. (26)

(26) Al. “more feeble at once and ponderous in his gait.”

The quarters should be broad and fleshy in correspondence with the sides and chest, and if they are also firm and solid throughout they will be all the lighter for the racecourse, and will render the horse in every way more fleet.

To come to the thighs (and buttocks): (27) if the horse have these separated by a broad line of demarcation (28) he will be able to plant his hind-legs under him with a good gap between; (29) and in so doing will assume a posture (30) and a gait in action at once prouder and more firmly balanced, and in every way appear to the best advantage.

(27) Lit. “the thighs beneath the tail.”

(28) Reading {plateia to gramme diorismenous ekhe}, sc. the perineum. Al. Courier (after Apsyrtus), op. cit. p. 14, {plateis te kai me diestrammenous}, “broad and not turned outwards.”

(29) Or, “he will be sure to spread well behind,” etc.

(30) {ton upobasin}, tech. of the crouching posture assumed by the horse for mounting or “in doing the demi-passade” (so Morgan, op. cit. p. 126).

The human subject would seem to point to this conclusion. When a man wants to lift anything from off the ground he essays to do so by bringing the legs apart and not by bringing them together.

A horse ought not to have large testicles, though that is not a point to be determined in the colt.

And now, as regards the lower parts, the hocks, (31) or shanks and fetlocks and hoofs, we have only to repeat what has been said already about those of the fore-legs.

(31) {ton katothen astragelon, e knemon}, lit. “the under (or hinder?) knuckle-bones (hocks?) or shins”; i.e. anatomically speaking, the os calcis, astragalus, tarsals, and metatarsal large and small.

I will here note some indications by which one may forecast the probable size of the grown animal. The colt with the longest shanks at the moment of being foaled will grow into the biggest horse; the fact being—and it holds of all the domestic quadrupeds (32)—that with advance of time the legs hardly increase at all, while the rest of the body grows uniformly up to these, until it has attained its proper symmetry.

(32) Cf. Aristot. “de Part. Anim.” iv. 10; “H. A.” ii. 1; Plin. “N. H.” xi. 108.

Such is the type (33) of colt and such the tests to be applied, with every prospect of getting a sound-footed, strong, and fleshy animal fine of form and large of stature. If changes in some instances develop during growth, that need not prevent us from applying our tests in confidence. It far more often happens that an ugly-looking colt will turn out serviceable, (34) than that a foal of the above description will turn out ugly or defective.

(33) Lit. “by testing the shape of the colt in this way it seems to us the purchaser will get,” etc.

(34) For the vulg. {eukhroastoi}, a doubtful word = “well coloured,” i.e. “sleek and healthy,” L. & S. would read {eukhrooi} (cf. “Pol. Lac.” v. 8). L. Dind. conj. {enrostoi}, “robust”; Schneid. {eukhrestoi}, “serviceable.”


The right method of breaking a colt needs no description at our hands. (1) As a matter of state organisation, (2) cavalry duties usually devolve upon those who are not stinted in means, and who have a considerable share in the government; (3) and it seems far better for a young man to give heed to his own health of body and to horsemanship, or, if he already knows how to ride with skill, to practising manouvres, than that he should set up as a trainer of horses. (4) The older man has his town property and his friends, and the hundred-and-one concerns of state or of war, on which to employ his time and energies rather than on horsebreaking. It is plain then that any one holding my views (5) on the subject will put a young horse out to be broken. But in so doing he ought to draw up articles, just as a father does when he apprentices his son to some art or handicraft, stating what sort of knowledge the young creature is to be sent back possessed of. These will serve as indications (6) to the trainer what points he must pay special heed to if he is to earn his fee. At the same time pains should be taken on the owner’s part to see that the colt is gentle, tractable, and affectionate, (7) when delivered to the professional trainer. That is a condition of things which for the most part may be brought about at home and by the groom—if he knows how to let the animal connect (8) hunger and thirst and the annoyance of flies with solitude, whilst associating food and drink and escape from sources of irritation with the presence of man. As the result of this treatment, necessarily the young horse will acquire—not fondness merely, but an absolute craving for human beings. A good deal can be done by touching, stroking, patting those parts of the body which the creature likes to have so handled. These are the hairiest parts, or where, if there is anything annoying him, the horse can least of all apply relief himself.

(1) Or, “The training of the colt is a topic which, as it seems to us, may fairly be omitted, since those appointed for cavalry service in these states are persons who,” etc. For reading see Courier, “Notes,” p. 84.

(2) “Organisation in the several states.”

(3) Or, “As a matter of fact it is the wealthiest members of the state, and those who have the largest stake in civic life, that are appointed to cavalry duties.” See “Hippparch,” i. 9.

(4) Cf. “Econ.” iii. 10.

(5) {ego}. Hitherto the author has used the plural {emin} with which he started.

(6) Reading {upodeigmata}, “finger-post signs,” as it were, or “draft in outline”; al. {upomnemata} = “memoranda.”

(7) “Gentle, and accustomed to the hand, and fond of man.”

(8) Lit. “if he knows how to provide that hunger and thirst, etc., should be felt by the colt in solitude, whilst food and drink, etc., come through help of man.”

The groom should have standing orders to take his charge through crowds, and to make him familiar with all sorts of sights and noises; and if the colt shows sign of apprehension at them, (9) he must teach him—not by cruel, but by gentle handling—that they are not really formidable.

(9) Or, “is disposed to shy.”

On this topic, then, of training, (10) the rules here given will, I think, suffice for any private individual.

(10) Or, “In reference to horsebreaking, the above remarks will perhaps be found sufficient for the practical guidance of an amateur.”


To meet the case in which the object is to buy a horse already fit for riding, we will set down certain memoranda, (1) which, if applied intelligently, may save the purchaser from being cheated.

(1) “Which the purchaser should lay to heart, if he does not wish to be cheated.”

First, then, let there be no mistake about the age. If the horse has lost his mark teeth, (2) not only will the purchaser’s hopes be blighted, but he may find himself saddled for ever with a sorry bargain. (3)

(2) Or, “the milk teeth,” i.e. is more than five years old. See Morgan, p. 126.

(3) Lit. “a horse that has lost his milk teeth cannot be said to gladden his owner’s mind with hopes, and is not so easily disposed of.”

Given that the fact of youth is well established, let there be no mistake about another matter: how does he take the bit into his mouth and the headstall (4) over his ears? There need be little ambiguity on this score, if the purchaser will see the bit inserted and again removed, under his eyes. Next, let it be carefully noted how the horse stands being mounted. Many horses are extremely loath to admit the approach of anything which, if once accepted, clearly means to them enforced exertion.

(4) {koruphaia}, part of the {khalinos} gear.

Another point to ascertain is whether the horse, when mounted, can be induced to leave other horses, or when being ridden past a group of horses standing, will not bolt off to join the company. Some horses again, as the result of bad training, will run away from the exercising-ground and make for the stable. A hard mouth may be detected by the exercise called the {pede} or volte, (5) and still more so by varying the direction of the volte to right or left. Many horses will not attempt to run away except for the concurrence of a bad mouth along with an avenue of escape home. (6)

(5) See Sturz, s.v.; Pollux, i. 219. Al. “the longe,” but the passage below (vii. 14) is suggestive rather of the volte.

(6) Al. “will only attempt to bolt where the passage out towards home combines, as it were, with a bad mouth.” {e… ekphora} = “the exit from the manege or riding school.”

Another point which it is necessary to learn is, whether when let go at full speed the horse can be pulled up (7) sharp and is willing to wheel round in obedience to the rein.

(7) {analambanetai}, “come to the poise” (Morgan). For {apostrephesthai} see ix.6; tech. “caracole.”

It is also well to ascertain by experience if the horse you propose to purchase will show equal docility in response to the whip. Every one knows what a useless thing a servant is, or a body of troops, that will not obey. A disobedient horse is not only useless, but may easily play the part of an arrant traitor.

And since it is assumed that the horse to be purchased is intended for war, we must widen our test to include everything which war itself can bring to the proof: such as leaping ditches, scrambling over walls, scaling up and springing off high banks. We must test his paces by galloping him up and down steep pitches and sharp inclines and along a slant. For each and all of these will serve as a touchstone to gauge the endurance of his spirit and the soundness of his body.

I am far from saying, indeed, that because an animal fails to perform all these parts to perfection, he must straightway be rejected; since many a horse will fall short at first, not from inability, but from want of experience. With teaching, practice, and habit, almost any horse will come to perform all these feats beautifully, provided he be sound and free from vice. Only you must beware of a horse that is naturally of a nervous temperament. An over-timorous animal will not only prevent the rider from using the vantage-ground of its back to strike an enemy, but is as likely as not to bring him to earth himself and plunge him into the worst of straits.

We must, also, find out of the horse shows any viciousness towards other horses or towards human beings; also, whether he is skittish; (8) such defects are apt to cause his owner trouble.

(8) Or, “very ticklish.”

As to any reluctance on the horse’s part to being bitted or mounted, dancing and twisting about and the rest, (9) you will get a more exact idea on this score, if, when he has gone through his work, you will try and repeat the precise operations which he went through before you began your ride. Any horse that having done his work shows a readiness to undergo it all again, affords sufficient evidence thereby of spirit and endurance.

(9) Reading {talla dineumata}, lit. “and the rest of his twistings and twirlings about.”

To put the matter in a nutshell: given that the horse is sound-footed, gentle, moderately fast, willing and able to undergo toil, and above all things (10) obedient—such an animal, we venture to predict, will give the least trouble and the greatest security to his rider in the circumstances of war; while, conversely, a beast who either out of sluggishness needs much driving, or from excess of mettle much coaxing and maneuvering, will give his rider work enough to occupy both his hands and a sinking of the heart when dangers thicken.

(10) Al. “thoroughly.”


We will now suppose the purchaser has found a horse which he admires; (1) the purchase is effected, and he has brought him home—how is he to be housed? It is best that the stable should be placed in a quarter of the establishment where the master will see the horse as often as possible. (2) It is a good thing also to have his stall so arranged that there will be as little risk of the horse’s food being stolen from the manger, as of the master’s from his larder or store-closet. To neglect a detail of this kind is surely to neglect oneself; since in the hour of danger, it is certain, the owner has to consign himself, life and limb, to the safe keeping of his horse.

(1) Lit. “To proceed: when you have bought a horse which you admire and have brought him home.”

(2) i.e. “where he will be brought as frequently as possible under the master’s eye.” Cf. “Econ.” xii. 20.

Nor is it only to avoid the risk of food being stolen that a secure horse-box is desirable, but for the further reason that if the horse takes to scattering his food, the action is at once detected; and any one who observes that happening may take it as a sign and symptom either of too much blood, (3) which calls for veterinary aid, or of over-fatigue, for which rest is the cure, or else that an attack of indigestion (4) or some other malady is coming on. And just as with human beings, so with the horse, all diseases are more curable at their commencement (5) than after they have become chronic, or been wrongly treated. (6)

(3) “A plethoric condition of the blood.”

(4) {krithiasis}. Lit. “barley surfeit”; “une fourbure.” See Aristot. “H. A.” viii. 24. 4.

(5) i.e. “in the early acute stages.”

(6) Al. “and the mischief has spread.”

But if food and exercise with a view to strengthening the horse’s body are matters of prime consideration, no less important is it to pay attention to the feet. A stable with a damp and smooth floor will spoil the best hoof which nature can give. (7) To prevent the floor being damp, it should be sloped with channels; and to avoid smoothness, paved with cobble stones sunk side by side in the ground and similar in size to the horse’s hoofs. (8) A stable floor of this sort is calculated to strengthen the horse’s feet by the mere pressure on the part in standing. In the next place it will be the groom’s business to lead out the horse somewhere to comb and curry him; and after his morning’s feed to unhalter him from the manger, (9) so that he may come to his evening meal with greater relish. To secure the best type of stable-yard, and with a view to strengthening the horse’s feet, I would suggest to take and throw down loosely (10) four or five waggon loads of pebbles, each as large as can be grasped in the hand, and about a pound in weight; the whole to be fenced round with a skirting of iron to prevent scattering. The mere standing on these will come to precisely the same thing as if for a certain portion of the day the horse were, off and on, stepping along a stony road; whilst being curried or when fidgeted by flies he will be forced to use his hoofs just as much as if he were walking. Nor is it the hoofs merely, but a surface so strewn with stones will tend to harden the frog of the foot also.

(7) Lit. “A damp and smooth floor may be the ruin of a naturally good hoof.” It will be understood that the Greeks did not shoe their horses.

(8) See Courier, p. 54, for an interesting experiment tried by himself at Bari.

(9) Cf. “Hipparch,” i. 16.

(10) Or, “spread so as to form a surface.”

But if care is needed to make the hoofs hard, similar pains should be taken to make the mouth and jaws soft; and the same means and appliances which will render a man’s flesh and skin soft, will serve to soften and supple a horse’s mouth. (11)

(11) Or, “may be used with like effect on a horse’s mouth,” i.e. bathing, friction, oil. See Pollux, i. 201.


It is the duty of a horseman, as we think, to have his groom trained thoroughly in all that concerns the treatment of the horse. In the first place, then, the groom should know that he is never to knot the halter (1) at the point where the headstall is attached to the horse’s head. By constantly rubbing his head against the manger, if the halter does not sit quite loose about his ears, the horse will be constantly injuring himself; (2) and with sores so set up, it is inevitable that he should show peevishness, while being bitted or rubbed down.

(1) Lit. “by which the horse is tied to the manger”; “licol d’ecurie.”

(2) Al. “in nine cases out of ten he rubs his head… and ten to one will make a sore.”

It is desirable that the groom should be ordered to carry out the dung and litter of the horse to some one place each day. By so doing, he will discharge the duty with least trouble to himself, (3) and at the same time be doing the horse a kindness.

(3) Al. “get rid of the refuse in the easiest way.”

The groom should also be instructed to attach the muzzle to the horse’s mouth, both when taking him out to be groomed and to the rolling-ground. (4) In fact he should always muzzle him whenever he takes him anywhere without the bit. The muzzle, while it is no hindrance to respiration, prevents biting; and when attached it serves to rob the horse of opportunity for vice. (5)

(4) Cf. “Econ.” xi. 18; Aristoph. “Clouds,” 32.

(5) Or, “prevents the horse from carrying out vicious designs.”

Again, care should be taken to tie the horse up with the halter above his head. A horse’s natural instinct, in trying to rid himself of anything that irritates the face, is to toss up his head, and by this upward movement, if so tied, he only slackens the chain instead of snapping it. In rubbing the horse down, the groom should begin with the head and mane; as until the upper parts are clean, it is vain to cleanse the lower; then, as regards the rest of the body, first brush up the hair, by help of all the ordinary implements for cleansing, and then beat out the dust, following the lie of the hair. The hair on the spine (and dorsal region) ought not to be touched with any instrument whatever; the hand alone should be used to rub and smooth it, and in the direction of its natural growth, so as to preserve from injury that part of the horse’s back on which the rider sits.

The head should be drenched with water simply; for, being bony, if you try to cleanse it with iron or wooden instruments injury may be caused. So, too, the forelock should be merely wetted; the long hairs of which it is composed, without hindering the animal’s vision, serve to scare away from the eyes anything that might trouble them. Providence, we must suppose, (6) bestowed these hairs upon the horse, instead of the large ears which are given to the ass and the mule as a protection to the eyes. (7) The tail, again, and mane should be washed, the object being to help the hairs to grow—those in the tail so as to allow the creature the greatest reach possible in brushing away molesting objects, (8) and those of the neck in order that the rider may have as free a grip as possible.

(6) Lit. “The gods, we must suppose, gave…”

(7) Lit. “as defences or protective bulwarks.”

(8) Insects, etc.

Mane, forelock, and tail are triple gifts bestowed by the gods upon the horse for the sake of pride and ornament, (9) and here is the proof: a brood mare, so long as her mane is long and flowing, will not readily suffer herself to be covered by an ass; hence breeders of mules take care to clip the mane of the mare with a view to covering. (10)

(9) {aglaias eneka} (a poetic word). Cf. “Od.” xv. 78; xvii. 310.

(10) For this belief Schneid. cf Aristot. “H. A.” vi. 18; Plin. viii. 42; Aelian, “H. A.” ii. 10, xi. 18, xii. 16, to which Dr. Morgan aptly adds Soph. “Fr.” 587 (Tyro), a beautiful passage, {komes de penthos lagkhano polou diken, k.t.l.} (cf. Plut. “Mor.” 754 A).

Washing of the legs we are inclined to dispense with—no good is done but rather harm to the hoofs by this daily washing. So, too, excessive cleanliness of the belly is to be discouraged; the operation itself is most annoying to the horse; and the cleaner these parts are made, the thicker the swarm of troublesome things which collect beneath the belly. Besides which, however elaborately you clean these parts, the horse is no sooner led out than presently he will be just as dirty as if he had not been cleaned. Omit these ablutions then, we say; and similarly for the legs, rubbing and currying by hand is quite sufficient. VI

We will now explain how the operation of grooming may be performed with least danger to oneself and best advantage to the horse. If the groom attempts to clean the horse with his face turned the same way as the horse, he runs the risk of getting a knock in the face from the animal’s knee or hoof. When cleaning him he should turn his face in the opposite direction to the horse, and planting himself well out of the way of his leg, at an angle to his shoulder-blade, proceed to rub him down. He will then escape all mischief, and he will be able to clean the frog by folding back the hoof. Let him clean the hind-legs in the same way.

The man who has to do with the horse should know, with regard to this and all other necessary operations, that he ought to approach as little as possible from the head or the tail to perform them; for if the horse attempt to show vice he is master of the man in front and rear. But by approaching from the side he will get the greatest hold over the horse with the least risk of injury to himself.

When the horse has to be led, we do not approve of leading him from in front, for the simple reason that the person so leading him robs himself of his power of self-protection, whilst he leaves the horse freedom to do what he likes. On the other hand, we take a like exception to the plan of training the horse to go forward on a long rein (1) and lead the way, and for this reason: it gives the horse the opportunity of mischief, in whichever direction he likes, on either flank, and the power also to turn right about and face his driver. How can a troop of horses be kept free of one another, if driven in this fashion from behind?—whereas a horse accustomed to be led from the side will have least power of mischief to horse or man, and at the same time be in the best position to be mounted by the rider at a moment’s notice, were it necessary.

(1) See a passage from Strattis, “Chrys.” 2 (Pollux, x. 55), {prosage ton polon atrema, proslabon ton agogea brakhuteron. oukh oras oti abolos estin}.

In order to insert the bit correctly the groom should, in the first place, approach on the near (2) side of the horse, and then throwing the reins over his head, let them drop loosely on the withers; raise the headstall in his right hand, and with his left present the bit. If the horse will take the bit, it is a simple business to adjust the strap of the headstall; but if he refuses to open his mouth, the groom must hold the bit against the teeth and at the same time insert the thumb (3) of his left hand inside the horse’s jaws. Most horses will open their mouths to that operation. But if he still refuses, then the groom must press the lip against the tush (4); very few horses will refuse the bit, when that is done to them. (5)

(2) Lit. “on the left-hand side.”

(3) {ton megan daktulon}, Hdt. iii. 8.

(4) i.e. “canine tooth.”

(5) Or, “it is a very exceptional horse that will not open his mouth under the circumstances.”

The groom can hardly be too much alive to the following points * * * if any work is to be done: (6) in fact, so important is it that the horse should readily take his bit, that, to put it tersely, a horse that will not take it is good for nothing. Now, if the horse be bitted not only when he has work to do, but also when he is being taken to his food and when he is being led home from a ride, it would be no great marvel if he learnt to take the bit of his own accord, when first presented to him.

(6) Reading with L. Dind. {khre de ton ippokomon kai ta oiade… paroxunthai, ei ti dei ponein}, or if as Schneid., Sauppe, etc., {khre de ton ippon me kata toiade, k.t.l.}, transl. “the horse must not be irritated in such operations as these,” etc.; but {toiade} = “as follows,” if correct, suggests a lacuna in either case at this point.

It would be good for the groom to know how to give a leg up in the Persian fashion, (7) so that in case of illness or infirmity of age the master himself may have a man to help him on to horseback without trouble, or, if he so wish, be able to oblige a friend with a man to mount him. (8)

(7) Cf. “Anab.” IV. iv. 4; “Hipparch,” i. 17; “Cyrop.” VII. i. 38.

(8) An {anaboleus}. Cf. Plut. “C. Gracch.” 7.

The one best precept—the golden rule—in dealing with a horse is never to approach him angrily. Anger is so devoid of forethought that it will often drive a man to do things which in a calmer mood he will regret. (9) Thus, when a horse is shy of any object and refuses to approach it, you must teach him that there is nothing to be alarmed at, particularly if he be a plucky animal; (10) or, failing that, touch the formidable object yourself, and then gently lead the horse up to it. The opposite plan of forcing the frightened creature by blows only intensifies its fear, the horse mentally associating the pain he suffers at such a moment with the object of suspicion, which he naturally regards as its cause.

(9) Cf. “Hell.” v. iii. 7 for this maxim.

(10) Al. “if possibly by help of another and plucky animal.”

If, when the groom brings up the horse to his master to mount, he knows how to make him lower his back, (11) to facilitate mounting, we have no fault to find. Still, we consider that the horseman should practise and be able to mount, even if the horse does not so lend himself; (12) since on another occasion another type of horse may fall to the rider’s lot, (13) nor can the same rider be always served by the same equerry. (14)

(11) {upobibazesthai}. See above, i. 14; Pollux, i. 213; Morgan ad loc. “Stirrups were unknown till long after the Christian era began.”

(12) Or, “apart from these good graces on the animal’s part.”

(13) As a member of the cavalry.

(14) Reading {allo}. Al. reading {allos} with L. D., “and the same horse will at one time humour you in one way and again in another.” Cf. viii. 13, x. 12, for {uperetein} of the horse.


The master, let us suppose, has received his horse and is ready to mount. (1) We will now prescribe certain rules to be observed in the interests not only of the horseman but of the animal which he bestrides. First, then, he should take the leading rein, which hangs from the chin-strap or nose-band, (2) conveniently in his left hand, held slack so as not to jerk the horse’s mouth, whether he means to mount by hoisting himself up, catching hold of the mane behind the ears, or to vault on to horseback by help of his spear. With the right hand he should grip the reins along with a tuft of hair beside the shoulder-joint, (3) so that he may not in any way wrench the horse’s mouth with the bit while mounting. In the act of taking the spring off the ground for mounting, (4) he should hoist his body by help of the left hand, and with the right at full stretch assist the upward movement (5) (a position in mounting which will present a graceful spectacle also from behind); (6) at the same time with the leg well bent, and taking care not to place his knee on the horse’s back, he must pass his leg clean over to the off side; and so having brought his foot well round, plant himself firmly on his seat. (7)

(1) Reading {otan… paradexetai… os anabesomenos}. Or, reading {otan paradexetai ton ippea (sc. o. ippos) ws anabesomenon}, transl. “the horse has been brought round ready for mounting.”

(2) So Courier, “la muserolle.” It might be merely a stitched leather strap or made of a chain in part, which rattled; as {khrusokhalinon patagon psalion} (Aristoph. “Peace,” 155) implies. “Curb” would be misleading.

(3) “Near the withers.”

(4) Or, “as soon as he has got the springing poise preliminary to mounting.”

(5) “Give himself simultaneously a lift.” Reading {ekteinon}, or if {enteinon}, “keeping his right arm stiff.”

(6) Or, “a style of mounting which will obviate an ungainly attitude behind.”

(7) Lit. “lower his buttocks on to the horse’s back.”

To meet the case in which the horseman may chance to be leading his horse with the left hand and carrying his spear in the right, it would be good, we think, for every one to practise vaulting on to his seat from the right side also. In fact, he has nothing else to learn except to do with his right limbs what he has previously done with the left, and vice versa. And the reason we approve of this method of mounting is (8) that it enables the soldier at one and the same instant to get astride of his horse and to find himself prepared at all points, supposing he should have to enter the lists of battle on a sudden.

(8) Lit. “One reason for the praise which we bestow on this method of mounting is that at the very instant of gaining his seat the soldier finds himself fully prepared to engage the enemy on a sudden, if occasion need.”

But now, supposing the rider fairly seated, whether bareback or on a saddle-cloth, a good seat is not that of a man seated on a chair, but rather the pose of a man standing upright with his legs apart. In this way he will be able to hold on to the horse more firmly by his thighs; and this erect attitude will enable him to hurl a javelin or to strike a blow from horseback, if occasion calls, with more vigorous effect. The leg and foot should hang loosely from the knee; by keeping the leg stiff, the rider is apt to have it broken in collision with some obstacle; whereas a flexible leg (9) will yield to the impact, and at the same time not shift the thigh from its position. The rider should also accustom the whole of his body above the hips to be as supple as possible; for thus he will enlarge his scope of action, and in case of a tug or shove be less liable to be unseated. Next, when the rider is seated, he must, in the first place, teach his horse to stand quiet, until he has drawn his skirts from under him, if need be, (10) and got the reins an equal length and grasped his spear in the handiest fashion; and, in the next place, he should keep his left arm close to his side. This position will give the rider absolute ease and freedom, (11) and his hand the firmest hold.

(9) i.e. “below the knee”; “shin and calf.”

(10) Lit. “pulled up” (and arranged the folds of his mantle).

(11) {eustalestatos}, “the most business-like deportment.”

As to reins, we recommend those which are well balanced, without being weak or slippery or thick, so that when necessary, the hand which holds them can also grasp a spear.

As soon as the rider gives the signal to the horse to start, (12) he should begin at a walking pace, which will tend to allay his excitement. If the horse is inclined to droop his head, the reins should be held pretty high; or somewhat low, if he is disposed to carry his head high. This will set off the horse’s bearing to the best advantage. Presently, as he falls into a natural trot, (13) he will gradually relax his limbs without the slightest suffering, and so come more agreeably to the gallop. (14) Since, too, the preference is given to starting on the left foot, it will best conduce to that lead if, while the horse is still trotting, the signal to gallop should be given at the instant of making a step with his right foot. (15) As he is on the point of lifting his left foot he will start upon it, and while turning left will simultaneously make the first bound of the gallop; (16) since, as a matter of instinct, a horse, on being turned to the right, leads off with his right limbs, and to the left with his left.

(12) “Forwards!”

(13) Or, “the true trot.”

(14) {epirrabdophorein}, “a fast pace in response to a wave of the whip.”

(15) See Berenger, i. p. 249; also the “Cavalry Drill Book,” Part I. Equitation, S. 22, “The Canter.”

(16) {tes episkeliseos}, “he will make the forward stride of the gallop in the act of turning to the left.” See Morgan ad loc.

As an exercise, we recommend what is called the volte, (17) since it habituates the animal to turn to either hand; while a variation in the order of the turn is good as involving an equalisation of both sides of the mouth, in first one, and then the other half of the exercise. (18) But of the two we commend the oval form of the volte rather than the circular; for the horse, being already sated with the straight course, will be all the more ready to turn, and will be practised at once in the straight course and in wheeling. At the curve, he should be held up, (19) because it is neither easy nor indeed safe when the horse is at full speed to turn sharp, especially if the ground is broken (20) or slippery.

(17) {pede}, figure of eight.

(18) Or, “on first one and then the other half of the manege.”

(19) {upolambanein}. See “Hipparch,” iii. 14; “Hunting,” iii. 10; vi. 22, of a dog.

(20) {apokroton}, al. {epikroton}, “beaten, hard-trodden ground.”

But in collecting him, the rider should as little as possible sway the horse obliquely with the bit, and as little as possible incline his own body; or, he may rest assured, a trifle will suffice to stretch him and his horse full length upon the ground. The moment the horse has his eyes fixed on the straight course after making a turn, is the time to urge him to full speed. In battle, obviously, these turns and wheelings are with a view to charging or retiring; consequently, to practise quickening the pace after wheeling is desirable. When the horse seems to have had enough of the manege, it would be good to give him a slight pause, and then suddenly to put him to his quickest, away from his fellows first, (21) and now towards them; and then again to quiet him down in mid-career as short as possible; (22) and from halt once more to turn him right-about and off again full charge. It is easy to predict that the day will come when there will be need of each of these manouvres.

(21) {mentoi}, “of course.”

(22) Or, “within the narrowest compass”; “as finely as possible.”

When the moment to dismount has come, you should never do so among other horses, nor near a group of people, (23) nor outside the exercising-ground; but on the precise spot which is the scene of his compulsory exertion there let the horse find also relaxation. (24)

(23) Or, “a knot of bystanders”; cf. Thuc. ii. 21.

(24) Or, as we say, “be caressed, and dismissed.”


As there will, doubtless, be times when the horse will need to race downhill and uphill and on sloping ground; times, also, when he will need to leap across an obstacle; or, take a flying leap from off a bank; (1) or, jump down from a height, the rider must teach and train himself and his horse to meet all emergencies. In this way the two will have a chance of saving each the other, and may be expected to increase their usefulness.

(1) {ekpedan} = exsilire in altum (Sturz, and so Berenger); “to leap over ditches, and upon high places and down from them.”

And here, if any reader should accuse us of repeating ourselves, on the ground that we are only stating now what we said before on the same topics, (2) we say that this is not mere repetition. In the former case, we confined ourselves to advising the purchaser before he concluded his bargain to test whether the horse could do those particular things; (3) what we are now maintaining is that the owner ought to teach his own horse, and we will explain how this teaching is to be done.

(2) Or, “treating of a topic already handled.”

(3) i.e. possessed a certain ability at the date of purchase.

With a horse entirely ignorant of leaping, the best way is to take him by the leading rein, which hangs loose, and to get across the trench yourself first, and then to pull tight on the leading-rein, to induce him to leap across. If he refuses, some one with a whip or switch should apply it smartly. The result will be that the horse will clear at a bound, not the distance merely, but a far larger space than requisite; and for the future there will be no need for an actual blow, the mere sight of some one coming up behind will suffice to make him leap. As soon as he is accustomed to leap in this way you may mount him and put him first at smaller and then at larger trenches. At the moment of the spring be ready to apply the spur; and so too, when training him to leap up and leap down, you should touch him with the spur at the critical instant. In the effort to perform any of these actions with the whole body, the horse will certainly perform them with more safety to himself and to his rider than he will, if his hind-quarters lag, in taking a ditch or fence, or in making an upward spring or downward jump. (4)

(4) Lit. “in making these jumps, springs, and leaps across or up or down.”

To face a steep incline, you must first teach him on soft ground, and finally, when he is accustomed to that, he will much prefer the downward to the upward slope for a fast pace. And as to the apprehension, which some people entertain, that a horse may dislocate the shoulder in galloping down an incline, it should encourage them to learn that the Persians and Odrysians all run races down precipitous slopes; (5) and their horses are every bit as sound as our own. (6)

(5) Cf. “Anab.” IV. viii. 28; and so the Georgians to this day (Chardin ap. Courier, op. cit. p. 70, n. 1).

(6) Lit. “as are those of the Hellenes.”

Nor must we omit another topic: how the rider is to accommodate himself to these several movements. (7) Thus, when the horse breaks off into a gallop, the rider ought to bend forward, since the horse will be less likely to slip from under; and so to pitch his rider off. So again in pulling him up short (8) the rider should lean back; and thus escape a shock. In leaping a ditch or tearing up a steep incline, it is no bad plan to let go the reins and take hold of the mane, so that the animal may not feel the burthen of the bit in addition to that of the ground. In going down a steep incline the rider must throw himself right back and hold in the horse with the bit, to prevent himself being hurled headforemost down the slope himself if not his horse.

(7) Or, “to each set of occurrences.”

(8) Al. “when the horse is being brought to a poise” (Morgan); and see Hermann ap. Schneid., {analambanein} = retinere equum, anhalten, pariren. i.e. “rein in” of the “Parade.”

It is a correct principle to vary these exercises, which should be gone through sometimes in one place and sometimes in another, and should sometimes be shorter and sometimes longer in duration. The horse will take much more kindly to them if you do not confine him to one place and one routine.

Since it is a matter of prime necessity that the rider should keep his seat, while galloping full speed on every sort of ground, and at the same time be able to use his weapons with effect on horseback, nothing could be better, where the country suits and there are wild animals, than to practise horsemanship in combination with the chase. But when these resources fail, a good exercise may be supplied in the combined efforts of two horsemen. (9) One of them will play the part of fugitive, retreating helter-skelter over every sort of ground, with lance reversed and plying the butt end. The other pursues, with buttons on his javelins and his lance similarly handled. (10) Whenever he comes within javelin range he lets fly at the retreating foeman with his blunted missiles; or whenever within spear thrust he deals the overtaken combatant a blow. In coming to close quarters, it is a good plan first to drag the foeman towards oneself, and then on a sudden to thrust him off; that is a device to bring him to the ground. (11) The correct plan for the man so dragged is to press his horse forward: by which action the man who is being dragged is more likely to unhorse his assailant than to be brought to the ground himself.

(9) {ippota}. A poetic word; “cavaliers.”

(10) Or, “manipulated.”

(11) Or, “that may be spoken off as the ‘purl trick'”; “it will unhorse him if anything.”

If it ever happens that you have an enemy’s camp in front, and cavalry skirmishing is the order of the day (at one time charging the enemy right up to the hostile battle-line, and again beating a retreat), under these circumstances it is well to bear in mind that so long as the skirmisher is close to his own party, (12) valour and discretion alike dictate to wheel and charge in the vanguard might and main; but when he finds himself in close proximity to the foe, he must keep his horse well in hand. This, in all probability, will enable him to do the greatest mischief to the enemy, and to receive least damage at his hands.

(12) See “Hipparch,” viii. 23.

The gods have bestowed on man, indeed, the gift of teaching man his duty by means of speech and reasoning, but the horse, it is obvious, is not open to instruction by speech and reasoning. If you would have a horse learn to perform his duty, your best plan will be, whenever he does as you wish, to show him some kindness in return, and when he is disobedient to chastise him. This principle, though capable of being stated in a few words, is one which holds good throughout the whole of horsemanship. As, for instance, a horse will more readily take the bit, if each time he accepts it some good befalls him; or, again, he will leap ditches and spring up embankments and perform all the other feats incumbent on him, if he be led to associate obedience to the word of command with relaxation. (13)

(13) Lit. “if every time he performs the word of command he is led to expect some relaxation.”


The topics hitherto considered have been: firstly, how to reduce the chance of being cheated in the purchase of a colt or full-grown horse; secondly, how to escape as much as possible the risk of injuring your purchase by mishandling; and lastly, how to succeed in turning out a horse possessed of all the qualities demanded by the cavalry soldier for the purposes of war.

The time has come perhaps to add a few suggestions, in case the rider should be called upon to deal with an animal either unduly spirited or again unduly sluggish in disposition. The first point to recognise is, that temper of spirit in a horse takes the place of passion or anger in a man; and just as you may best escape exciting a man’s ill-temper by avoiding harshness of speech and act, so you will best avoid enraging a spirited horse by not annoying him. Thus, from the first instant, in the act of mounting him, you should take pains to minimise the annoyance; and once on his back you should sit quiet for longer than the ordinary time, and so urge him forward by the gentlest signs possible; next, beginning at the slowest pace, gradually work him into a quicker step, but so gradually that he will find himself at full speed without noticing it. (1) Any sudden signal will bewilder a spirited horse, just as a man is bewildered by any sudden sight or sound or other experience. (I say one should be aware that any unexpected shock will produce disturbance in a horse.) (2)

(1) Or, “so that the horse may insensibly fall into a gallop.”

(2) L. Dindorf and others bracket, as spurious.

So if you wish to pull up a spirited horse when breaking off into a quicker pace than requisite, you must not suddenly wrench him, but quietly and gently bring the bit to bear upon him, coaxing him rather than compelling him to calm down. It is the long steady course rather than the frequent turn which tends to calm a horse. (3) A quiet pace sustained for a long time has a caressing, (4) soothing effect, the reverse of exciting. If any one proposes by a series of fast and oft-repeated gallops to produce a sense of weariness in the horse, and so to tame him, his expectation will not be justified by the result; for under such circumstances a spirited horse will do his best to carry the day by main force, (5) and with a show of temper, like a passionate man, may contrive to bring on himself and his rider irreparable mischief.

(3) Or, “long stretches rather than a succession of turns and counter turns,” {apostrophai}.

(4) Reading {katapsosi} with L. Dind.

(5) {agein bia}, vi agere, vi uti, Sturz; al. “go his own gait by sheer force.”

A spirited horse should be kept in check, so that he does not dash off at full speed; and on the same principle, you should absolutely abstain from setting him to race against another; as a general rule, your fiery-spirited horse is only too fond of contention. (6)

(6) Reading {skhedon gar kai phil oi thum}, or if {… oi thil kai th.} transl. “the more eager and ambitious a horse is, the more mettlesome he will tend to become.”

Smooth bits are better and more serviceable than rough; if a rough bit be inserted at all, it must be made to resemble a smooth one as much as possible by lightness of hand.

It is a good thing also for the rider to accustom himself to keep a quiet seat, especially when mounted on a spirited horse; and also to touch him as little as possible with anything except that part of the body necessary to secure a firm seat.

Again, it should be known that the conventional “chirrup” (7) to quiet and “cluck” to rouse a horse are a sort of precept of the training school; and supposing any one from the beginning chose to associate soft soothing actions with the “cluck” sound, and harsh rousing actions with the “chirrup,” the horse could be taught to rouse himself at the “chirrup” and to calm himself at the “cluck” sound. On this principle, at the sound of the trumpet or the shout of battle the rider should avoid coming up to his charger in a state of excitement, or, indeed, bringing any disturbing influence to bear on the animal. As far as possible, at such a crisis he should halt and rest him; and, if circumstances permit, give him his morning or his evening meal. But the best advice of all is not to get an over-spirited horse for the purposes of war.

(7) Al. “whistling,” and see Berenger, ii. 68. {poppusmos}, a sound from the lips; {klogmos}, from the cheek.

As to the sluggish type of animal, I need only suggest to do everything the opposite to what we advise as appropriate in dealing with an animal of high spirit. X

But possibly you are not content with a horse serviceable for war. You want to find him him a showy, attractive animal, with a certain grandeur of bearing. If so, you must abstain from pulling at his mouth with the bit, or applying the spur and whip—methods commonly adopted by people with a view to a fine effect, though, as a matter of fact, they thereby achieve the very opposite of what they are aiming at. That is to say, by dragging the mouth up they render the horse blind instead of alive to what is in front of him; and what with spurring and whipping they distract the creature to the point of absolute bewilderment and danger. (1) Feats indeed!—the feats of horses with a strong dislike to being ridden—up to all sorts of ugly and ungainly tricks. On the contrary, let the horse be taught to be ridden on a loose bridle, and to hold his head high and arch his neck, and you will practically be making him perform the very acts which he himself delights or rather exults in; and the best proof of the pleasure which he takes is, that when he is let loose with other horses, and more particularly with mares, you will see him rear his head aloft to the full height, and arch his neck with nervous vigour, (2) pawing the air with pliant legs (3) and waving his tail on high. By training him to adopt the very airs and graces which he naturally assumes when showing off to best advantage, you have got what you are aiming at—a horse that delights in being ridden, a splendid and showy animal, the joy of all beholders.

(1) Al. “the animals are so scared that, the chances are, they are thrown into disorder.”

(2) {gorgoumenos}, with pride and spirit, but with a suggestion of “fierceness and rage,” as of Job’s war-horse.

(3) “Mollia crura reponit,” Virg. “Georg.” iii. 76; Hom. “Hymn. ad Merc.”

How these desirable results are, in our opinion, to be produced, we will now endeavour to explain. In the first place, then, you ought to have at least two bits. One of these should be smooth, with discs of a good size; the other should have heavy and flat discs (4) studded with sharp spikes, so that when the horse seizes it and dislikes the roughness he will drop it; then when the smooth is given him instead, he is delighted with its smoothness, and whatever he has learnt before upon the rough, he will perform with greater relish on the smooth. He may certainly, out of contempt for its very smoothness, perpetually try to get a purchase on it, and that is why we attach large discs to the smooth bit, the effect of which is to make him open his mouth, and drop the mouthpiece. It is possible to make the rough bit of every degree of roughness by keeping it slack or taut.

(4) See Morgan, op. cit. p. 144 foll.

But, whatever the type of bit may be, let it in any case be flexible. If it be stiff, at whatever point the horse seizes it he must take it up bodily against his jaws; just as it does not matter at what point a man takes hold of a bar of iron, (5) he lifts it as a whole. The other flexibly constructed type acts like a chain (only the single point at which you hold it remains stiff, the rest hangs loose); and while perpetually hunting for the portion which escapes him, he lets the mouthpiece go from his bars. (6) For this reason the rings are hung in the middle from the two axles, (7) so that while feeling for them with his tongue and teeth he may neglect to take the bit up against his jaws.

(5) Or, “poker,” as we might say; lit. “spit.”

(6) Schneid. cf. Eur. “Hippol.” 1223.

(7) See Morgan, note ad loc. Berenger (i. 261) notes: “We have a small chain in the upset or hollow part of our bits, called a ‘Player,’ with which the horse playing with his tongue, and rolling it about, keeps his mouth moist and fresh; and, as Xenophon hints, it may serve likewise to fix his attention and prevent him from writhing his mouth about, or as the French call it, ‘faire ses forces.'”

To explain what is meant by flexible and stiff as applied to a bit, we will describe the matter. A flexible bit is one in which the axles have their points of junction broad and smooth, (8) so as to bend easily; and where the several parts fitting round the axles, being large of aperture and not too closely packed, have greater flexibility; whereas, if the several parts do not slide to and fro with ease, and play into each other, that is what we call a stiff bit. Whatever the kind of bit may be, the rider must carry out precisely the same rules in using it, as follows, if he wishes to turn out a horse with the qualities described. The horse’s mouth is not to be pulled back too harshly so as to make him toss his head aside, nor yet so gently that he will not feel the pressure. But the instant he raises his neck in answer to the pull, give him the bit at once; and so throughout, as we never cease repeating, at every response to your wishes, whenever and wherever the animal performs his service well, (9) reward and humour him. Thus, when the rider perceives that the horse takes a pleasure in the high arching and supple play of his neck, let him seize the instant not to impose severe exertion on him, like a taskmaster, but rather to caress and coax him, as if anxious to give him a rest. In this way the horse will be encouraged and fall into a rapid pace.

(8) i.e. “the ends of the axles (at the point of junction) which work into each other are broad and smooth, so as to play freely at the join.”

(9) “Behaves compliantly.”

That a horse takes pleasure in swift movement, may be shown conclusively. As soon as he has got his liberty, he sets off at a trot or gallop, never at a walking pace; so natural and instinctive a pleasure does this action afford him, if he is not forced to perform it to excess; since it is true of horse and man alike that nothing is pleasant if carried to excess. (10)

(10) L. Dind. cf. Eur. “Med.” 128, {ta de’ uperballont oudena kairon}.

But now suppose he has attained to the grand style when ridden—we have accustomed him of course in his first exercise to wheel and fall into a canter simultaneously; assuming then, he has got that lesson well by heart, if the rider pulls him up with the bit while simultaneously giving him one of the signals to be off, the horse, galled on the one hand by the bit, and on the other collecting himself in obedience to the signal “off,” will throw forward his chest and raise his legs aloft with fiery spirit; though not indeed with suppleness, for the supple play of the limbs ceases as soon as the horse feels annoyance. But now, supposing when his fire is thus enkindled (11) you give him the rein, the effect is instantaneous. Under the pleasurable sense of freedom, thanks to the relaxation of the bit, with stately bearing and legs pliantly moving he dashes forward in his pride, in every respect imitating the airs and graces of a horse approaching other horses. Listen to the epithets with which spectators will describe the type of horse: the noble animal! and what willingness to work, what paces, (12) what a spirit and what mettle; how proudly he bears himself (13)—a joy at once, and yet a terror to behold.

(11) Cf. “Hell.” V. iv. 46, “kindled into new life.”

(12) {ipposten}, “a true soldier’s horse.”

(13) {sobaron}, “what a push and swagger”; {kai ama edun te kai gorgon idein}, “a la fois doux et terrible a voir,” see Victor Cherbuliez, “Un Cheval de Phidias,” p. 148.

Thus far on this topic; these notes may serve perhaps to meet a special need.

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

Horse Behavior: Video Of Fatal Kick Logo

Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Dear Julie,

Thank you for providing such wonderful information. I don’t think any of the other trainers provide anything like it. Also, I really enjoy your TV show and wish you were going to be at the Midwest Horse Fair again.

This is really bothering me. Yesterday I was looking on YouTube for some round pen training ideas. My horses have been off all winter and although they are basically well behaved I need to do more ground work. So I started out in a list of videos about training and working with horses when I somehow got into an area on horse mishaps.

There was one called “Fatal Horse Kick” and I actually thought it was going to talk about kicking. There were over 300,000 views and I’m sure plenty of them were people like me. Fortunately it didn’t show much because it definitely looked like it could have been a fatal kick. The horse was secured in a metal “box” and I could see an arm reaching in with a branding iron. Just as the iron touched the horse it kicked out and, unfortunately, happened to aim just between the bars. It was obvious that the horse made contact and it was fast and hard.
I try to always be aware of where my horse is and where I am. I never walk up behind without being sure they see me coming and then I’m careful to make sure they’re relaxed. But I have to admit that video really frightened me.

Would you please address kicking in general. I want to know why it happens and how to make sure I’m doing the right things to avoid having it happen in the first place.

Thank you,


Monroe, WI=

Answer: Dear Anne,

First of all, let me tell you that video has been going around for years—probably 10 or so. Who knows if it is really true or not? A lot of the dramatic stuff you see on the internet is fabricated; anyway, I wouldn’t put much stock in it. But having said that, I must also add something very important I learned from my father when I was a child: all horses kick, all horses bite and all horses strike; that is their natural behavior. Although through training we can minimize their inclination toward these behaviors, we can never totally eliminate this risk.

Fortunately, for most horses, kicking and biting and striking are rare and they are easy to train not to act that way toward people. Nonetheless, you should always conduct yourself in a safe manner around horses with awareness that they are capable of these dangerous behaviors. So you stay out of the kick zone when you can, be aware of it when you cannot and don’t do stupid stuff like smack them on the butt or play with their mouths (or, in the case of this video, stick a hot iron on the rear end).

Kicking is most often seen as a defensive behavior—kicking to get away from something that bothers or scares them (like a more dominant horse or a predator). In this case, the horse kicks out in order to buy a little time so that he can get away. Occasionally kicking is an agressive behavior—usually accompanied by squealing and double-barrel kicks, and usually aimed at another horse.

When horses kick at people, it is often because they startled the horse from behind (he’s got a blind spot directly behind him), because the person did something irritating like touch a wound or curry too hard, or because the person is “attacking” the horse from behind (like you would in a round pen or ground driving the horse). All of these situations are predictable and avoidable with safe and conscientious practices.

You should be very aware of where the “kick zone” is around a horse. He can reach forward with a hind leg, almost all the way to his front leg. He can reach out to the side almost the length of his hind leg and he can fully extend the leg behind him. Draw a line connecting these three points and it creates a pretty large arc around the horse, which is the kick zone. Any time you are in that area, it is possible to get kicked, so you should always be aware of that. It is not that you will never go into the kick zone but rather that you should always be aware when you are there and don’t do things that might provoke a kick or stay in a safer place when the horse is agitated or frightened.

With safe practices, you can minimize the time you are in the kick zone. For instance, if you needed to apply medication under the horse’s belly (or any time you need to reach under him) always face forward so that if he does kick, it is your padded rear end that is hit and not your head. Whenever you are working behind a horse, always keep a hand on him and talk to him so that he knows where you are, even when you are in the blind spot.

I know it can be hard to get an ugly visual out of your head but you must be logical about this. It didn’t happen to you (maybe it never happened at all) and you would never do something as stupid as that. Don’t let other people’s experience change you and the way you do things, unless it is for the better. It sounds like you have good safety habits and you are very conscientious. That will help keep you safe.

I have been kicked many times (most experienced horse people have) and I can tell you that in each and every case, it was because I did something stupid and each kick was entirely preventable. Luckily for me, I’ve never had more than a bad bruise from a kick. And, best of all, I have learned from my experience and as a result I am smarter around horses.

Do not let this fear consume you. Be smart and practice safe horsemanship and it will minimize your risk.

Stay safe,


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

Horse Behavior: Your horse’s Squeal–What It Means Logo

Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Dear Julie,

I have a 9 year old quarter horse mare that for the most part is a very good horse. She is a pleasure horse that I go camping with or trail riding on. The only time she acts up is when she makes eye contact or gets too close with a strange horse she doesn’t seem to want to get to know. She makes a horrible squealing noise and then moves her rear end into the other horse and kicks. The last time I was on the ground and I was pinned between the two horses. Luckily, I wasn’t too badly hurt. Can you help?


Answer: Dear Cathy,

The squealing sound you hear is one of only four audible communications a horse makes. Audible expressions count for relatively little of the horse’s language—mostly horses use gestures and postures to communicate their needs and wants. And there’s no clearer a statement than a hoof flying at your face to suggest, “Get out of my space!”

Like all four audible communications, squealing has a very specific meaning and it means ‘aggression is about to ensue’. In other words, it means, “I’m about to kick your butt!” Sometimes it’s a just a threat and sometimes the horse will take action. Anytime I hear a horse squeal, I make a quick check of the environment to make sure all humans are safe; my next concern is for a horse getting kicked (but I cannot walk into the middle of that fray without risk of a casualty). As you’ve seen firsthand, horses becoming aggressive is a dangerous, potentially deadly event if people are in the middle of it.

That explains what and why your horse is acting that way, but does not excuse her poor training and very bad manners. As I’ve mentioned and written about on numerous occasions, horses must be trained, from the earliest possible age, that absolutely NO herd behaviors can be demonstrated when being ridden or handled. There should be zero tolerance and the harshest of punishment when a horse acts this way. Check the training library on my website for more info.

You must get this horse trained right away so that you can be safe and polite with others and so that no one gets hurt! Do not tolerate any social fraternization between any horses when you are riding. Give a harsh correction (yell, spank, back up hard, work hard, etc.) anytime the horse so much as notices another horse and let the punishment fit the crime—a slight glance at another horse gets a bump of the rein while the horse moving toward another horse with any part of his body or making an aggressive gestures gets hard punishment and time in solitary.

You have to find the amount of pressure that motivates the horse to change his behavior and sometimes that can be a lot of pressure. If you’ve used enough pressure, you’ll know by the horse’s reaction to your correction—it should be, “Wow! What happened and why? I didn’t like that at all and how do I avoid it happening in the future!” If your horse barely notices your correction or if he continues the bad behavior, you’re not using enough pressure to motivate him to start thinking about why he got in trouble.

By the way, there’s also more information in my Training Library on the audible expressions horses make and their specific meanings. Horses communicate constantly and it’s very handy to know what they are saying to you. Next time you hear your horse whinny or nicker, know what he is saying.

Good luck!


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