Ride Right With Julie Goodnight: Confidence on the Trail

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It’s easy to lose confidence on the trail if your well-trained horse has defied you or refused to go forward. A threat to bolt or rear can make a confident rider worry and, in turn, contribute to the problem.

In that moment of refusal, you can choose to head for home or to step up and take charge.

If your well-trained trail horse suddenly throws a fit and refuses to ride out alone, chances are, you’ve allowed little acts of disobedience before this blow up.

It’s time to stop putting up with blatant acts of disrespect and confidently ride ahead.

“I’ve seen horses get away with little acts of disobedience and thus start to think they — and not the rider — are in charge,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

“Soon, instead of simply turning to look back toward where he wants to go, the horse escalates his threats. He might raise his front end as if to rear, or he may simply balk and refuse to keep moving down the trail.”

When a formerly well-trained horse starts with this type of behavior, Goodnight says riders often lose confidence and fear the worst will happen — that the horse will actually rear or turn and bolt.

If you turn for home, even just momentarily, instead of riding ahead, your horse learns just what to do to manipulate your emotions and “win” a chance to stop working.

“Your horse may just need a reminder that you, the rider, are in charge,” says Goodnight. “He may’ve been testing you, diminishing your confidence and manipulating your ride time. Stop the cycle by showing him you’re calmly in control.”

Here, Goodnight helps you observe your horse’s behavior patterns so that you can identify disobedience at its most subtle level and correct it before your horse has an all-out tantrum.

She’ll help you understand how the behavior escalated, how to fix your focus, and what to do to retrain your horse so he’ll move ahead willingly on the path you choose.

Goodnight will also explain to kids how to watch a horse’s ears to learn what he’s focused on.

Inside the Behavior
Understanding your horse’s motivation and behavior will boost your confidence and help you formulate a plan.

“Horses can threaten a lot of scary behaviors,” Goodnight says. “As much as we love them, horses can be willful and obstinately refuse to move forward. They’re master manipulators if they’ve learned that they can succeed with their antics of turning, stopping, threatening to rear, etc.

“If your horse can get you into an emotional state, he can learn that if he rears or threatens to rear you may turn for home — and he doesn’t have to work. To him, that means he has won points in a game called Let’s Go Home.”

When Goodnight was called in to help a horse-and-rider pair in Tucson, Arizona, she’d planned to observe what happened on the trail. However, she soon realized that the horse wasn’t even willing to leave the barn.

The rider, Liz, reported that she’d ridden her horse on the trail successfully in the past — he was a tried-and-true ranch horse. But lately, his tantrums kept Liz from riding out alone. He wouldn’t step forward; he’d turn his head and circle back to the barn.

“Liz had great riding position and was an experienced rider, but she’d allowed her horse to be disobedient without knowing it,” Goodnight says.

“Every time the horse turned his head to look back at his pen, Liz allowed him to turn in the direction he wanted to go before circling him back to the trail.

“While to Liz it seemed as though she was in control and pointed her horse where she wanted to go, her horse thought he ‘won’ with each step he got to take toward the barn.”

Goodnight explains how your horse keeps score of his steps and your ability to confidently direct his speed and direction.

“Say you want your horse to go right, toward the trail. He refuses, so you circle him around to the left. He has won. To him, his refusal paid off at the moment you turned him the way he wanted to go, to the left.”

In Liz’s case, she’d allowed the turn back to the barn too many times, so her horse thought he was in charge — each time she circled him, he ended up closer to the barn.

When Goodnight took the reins, the horse tried his antics only once. He quickly realized that he wasn’t going to get his way and walked obediently forward.

“This was a trained horse that had learned to test and threatened to throw a fit,” Goodnight says. “He’d learned that the game worked with Liz and that he would get his way when Liz would give up and go home.

“With me, he learned the game wouldn’t work and quickly was reminded of his training. It was time for Liz to break the cycle and teach her horse that his antics wouldn’t control her emotions and confidence any longer.”

If you’re observant, you can tell what a horse is thinking and feeling. Your horse is also very keen on your current emotional status.

Horses are quick to learn how to push your emotional buttons. They learn that when they get a tense, emotional response, they’ll get to turn home in just a few minutes.

Goodnight notes that horses are transparent in their communication. If your horse turns and looks toward the barn, that’s where he wants to go. If he’s whinnying, he’s calling out to find his friends, saying he wants to be back with the herd.

If your horse whinnies, you may be embarrassed, but it’s just horse behavior. It’s an expression of his emotion. He’s saying he feels alone, and he wants to be back with the herd. You can’t punish him for having that emotion, but you [ITAL]can[ITAL] correct the behaviors that follow that emotion.

Here’s how to regain your status as herd leader.

Step 1: Regain Your Confidence
How do you break the cycle and tell your horse that you’re in charge? The key is to put him into action and to make sure you know what to do in advance.

“As soon as Liz knew that she couldn’t allow her horse to turn toward his pen and the barn, she was on a new path,” Goodnight says. “With less than an hour’s practice, she was riding down the trail and away from the barn.”

Horses are great at detecting when your confidence lessens or your determination to move forward down the trail wanes, Goodnight explains.

“When you ride, your body is in close contact with your horse,” she says. “Your horse can feel when you’re tense and when you’re relaxed. If he begins to refuse or starts a temper tantrum, you may tense your body or simply shift your focus down onto him instead of where you want to go. He can feel the difference between when you look ahead. Your posture suggests you’re ready to move ahead on the trail. When you’re tense, you send the opposite message.”

Here’s the fix.

When you start to feel tense, keep looking ahead to where you want to go. Keep your eyes focused — not in a blank stare —and observe what’s in front of you on the trail.

Start to put your horse to work. Turn right, turn left (always turn away from the barn; never circle in the direction your horse wants to go), speed up, slow down, then turn right and left again.

Just changing your horse’s direction will give you more control and therefore more confidence. Any time you change direction, you remind him that you’re in control of where he can go. He’s not in control of the direction he goes.

Step 2. Break the Cycle
Both you and your horse need to make a big change if your horse is going to learn that you’re in charge and that he can no longer throw a fit to get his way.

How long this process will take will depend on how many points your horse has scored in the past. If he has a history of getting his way, it’ll be harder to correct your score.

The moment you step in the stirrup, let your horse know that you expect him to keep his nose in front of him and stand still. Basic obedience and control come first. As the rider, you control his direction and speed.

At first, work close to the barn in an area where you are more confident and feel at ease issuing a command. Chances are you’ll be more worried the farther you are from home. When you’re farther away, your horse will be thinking more about heading home, too.

To make a correction for turning his nose, pick up and bump with the opposite rein, using enough pressure to point his nose back toward the trail and dissuade him from doing it again.

If your horse turns his head toward the right, bump his head back to the left. Don’t allow him to turn to the right, and definitely don’t allow him to circle to the right to get back toward the trail.

If your horse looks back toward the barn (or his friends or the trailer) multiple times, put him to work.

When you ask him to change direction, stop, back up, trot circles one way then the other, etc. He then won’t have time to think about what’s behind him and will start to tune into your cues.

As you ride around the barn, always turn away from the barn each time you change direction. If you feel your horse’s focus shift to the barn and away from you, turn away from the barn and pick up the trot.

“If your horse throws a tantrum, he’ll soon learn that if he’s disobedient, you move him farther from the barn,” says Goodnight. “To expedite the training, I turn a horse toward the barn only when he’s calm and listening. I want to teach him that if he’s obedient and willing, he may get to go home and have a break.”

Gradually work your way farther from the barn. If you consistently insist on obedience, you should be able to work farther and farther away without having a big blow up. You horse will know that you’re now in charge.

Step 3: Get Back on the Trail
If your horse tries his antics on the trail, practice the same skills. Be sure to end your rides when you’re in charge and your horse’s training is on the upswing.

Horses are all different. If your horse has a short fuse or has had much success getting you to turn for home, it may be more of a challenge to ride out on the trail.

If your horse became more obedient when you worked him close to home, quickly changing his attitude, it may be time to push him when you’re farther from home.

If you have a problem away from home, dismount, and perform ground work with a rope halter and lead. Turn him left, turn him right, and make him move his feet.

Keep your horse’s motivation in mind, and don’t reward bad behavior. Even if you have to dismount, if you do that ground work, you’re ending on a good note. You’re letting him know he won’t get a break by pulling his usual antics.

Once you remind your horse that you’re in control, you may even be able to step back up in the stirrup and ride more.

Once your horse is compliant, you can head for home, knowing you’re not losing points.

But be careful — don’t throw in the towel and let your horse get everything he wants. You’re the herd leader. If you feel him (or yourself) getting tense, look confidently where you want to go, and remember that you have a plan.

Once you control your horse’s direction, you’ll boost your confidence and your horsemanship.F


For more on-the-trail skills every rider needs to know, check out  my book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with free bonus DVD, It includes:

  • Balance & Posture in Steep Terrain
  • Safety: Emergency Brake, Stand Still for Mounting, & Reprogramming Spooky Behavior
  • Training: Get Your Horse to Go the Speed you Ask—Every Time
  • Jigging: Stop That Forever
  • Sidepassing Skills
  • Gate Opening & Closing
  • Water Crossing
  • Ground Tie
  • Ponying
  • Much More

Behavior Tip: Watch the Ears

Horses point their ears toward what they’re interested in and what they’re looking at. When you’re riding on the trail, watch your horse’s ears to tell whether he’s focused on the trail ahead and listening to you or thinking of heading home.

Practice paying attention to horses’ ears. Make it a game to find out what’s holding their attention. It may be a visiting deer or a horseback rider passing by.

Whenever you pass a field of horses, note what they’re paying attention to. This skill will transfer to your time in the saddle, helping you notice what your horse is paying attention to and thinking about.

When you ride, make sure your horse is looking straight ahead on the path you’ve chosen.

Horse Shopping 101

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Horse Shopping 101
I am getting an increasing number of inquiries from people looking for a new horse. So it is with no small amount of forethought that we did a Horse Master episode featuring a young woman looking to find her dream horse. She also happens to be a riding instructor and in that role she finds herself looking at horses for others as well—either a horse for a client or a school horse for the program where she is employed and the episode is about the horse buying process. (Tip: Visit http://www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/ to see a clip of Shop ‘Til You Drop or http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com to purchase a DVD of the episode.)

I love shopping for horses—one significant reason behind the sale horse side of my business. I just love the hunt for a good horse and I love finding the perfect owner for that horse as well. In this case, the buyer is looking for an all-around horse that she can do just about anything on—trail, arena, pleasure—but she also has a hankering for cowhorse events. Whatever your desires, it is first and foremost important that you decide what your goals are because it is critical that the horse matches those goals, particularly when it comes to cowhorse disciplines. Not just any horse is suited for that.

Next, it is important that you spend some time thinking about how much money you can spend and that you have an appreciation for how much horse that will buy you (consider looking at a few horses above your limit so you have a realistic frame of reference). You should stretch your limits here as much as possible, keeping in mind the old axiom—the purchase price is the cheapest amount of money you will spend on your horse. You can always BUY training cheaper than you can put it on a horse, so don’t get sucked into the mistake so many people make in buying a young, green horse. His board, health maintenance, farrier, etc., will far exceed the purchase price in a short time so spend as much as you can up front to get the best trained horse you can (but only if the horse is worth it).

I wish I had a dollar for all the people I have met that made the mistake of buying a young, green horse. I’d be retired by now. Some survive this mistake and eventually end up with a decent horse; some don’t. You know the saying: green plus green equals black and blue. But even if you are not a novice rider and you have the capability to train a horse, do you really want to spend your precious time at that? Do you really want months and even years to elapse before you can attain your goals? Or do you want to begin enjoying your horse tomorrow at a level that you’ve dreamed of? I wonder how many of you have bought a green horse and regretted it and how many of you have had success with that youngster?

Currently we are in a buyer’s market, thanks to the recession and the glut of unwanted horses. While the economy has not greatly affected the high-end horse market, it has impacted the mid and low range horse market. The horse you would have paid $10,000 for a few years ago, you may now get for $7500—so it’s a great time to parlay your money into more horse, no matter what price range you are in.

In the end, you should spend your money on training and temperament. Conformation follows closely as a must-have because it has a bearing on performance, soundness and longevity. For my sales program, I rarely look at a horse under 10 years old to buy. I try to find those “cream puff” horses that are safe, solid and fun to own and ride. To have the experience, training and seasoning they need to be a solid, “bomb proof” kind of horse, they need some age on them. No matter how well trained that 4 year old is, he cannot have the life-experience he needs to be a sure bet. It’s amazing how quickly training can be un-done in a young horse, or any horse for that matter. I get emails on a daily basis from someone who bought a horse that seemed very well trained when they looked at it (or they took the word of the seller that he was well trained) and a month later the horse has major problems. Have you had this experience? I cannot always fault the seller because any horse can become untrained quickly with mishandling—here’s where temperament comes in.

Depending on your goals and pursuits, breeding (pedigree and type) can also be a big factor. If your ultimate goal includes endurance racing in the Tevis Cup, you’d be well advised to stay away from draft horses. The more specific and more demanding your riding goals, the more important breeding and training is. The frustration of an unsuitable horse and/or a poorly trained horse trying to do something he’s not ready for or capable of is real for both horse and rider. We do horses a huge disservice trying to make them into something they are incapable of or asking more of them than their training allows.

If you are currently in the market for a new equine partner, where are you looking? Where have you found the greatest success? Word of mouth? Classified ads? Internet? Trainers? Has it been frustrating and impossible or easy and successful? How many near-perfect horses flunked the pre-purchase vet exam before you found the right horse? Was the horse you bought everything you thought he’d be or did you find holes in him after you got to know him? It is certainly not an exact science and to some extent, being in the right place at the right time is priceless, when it comes to finding the perfect horse. The best horses don’t stay on the market for long. But the more you know, the easier the buying process is to navigate.

If you’re in the market for a new horse this spring—good luck! And there’s even more advice on my new Buyer’s Guide. Search for “buyers” on the search page.

Until next time,
–Julie Goodnight

Teaching Young Horse Collection

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Ask Julie Goodnight: How do I teach my young horse to collect?

Dear Julie,
Firstly, let me tell you that I appreciate very much your website and information! Thank you!
My question is: I have a 3 yr old gelding Welsh Cob, just under saddle and I am trying to find the way how to ask him to loosen in the movement. It is ok for him to loose when we are standing (asking to turn the head to me and then he puts it down) but I have no clue how to proceed in movement. I either can’t keep him moving or he keeps moving but I can’t find any reaction for the head to go down. Do you have any suggestion for us?
Best regards from the heart of Europe,
Karola (in Prague)

Answer: Karola,
Thanks for visiting my website and it is good to know I have followers from so far away! You’ll be happy to know that my TV show, Horse Master, is playing in a few countries in Europe now through RuralTV, so maybe it will be available in Prague soon!

I am assuming that what you mean by getting your horse loose, is to have him break at the poll and round his neck and back, while staying soft and relaxed throughout his body, so that his movement is rhythmic and fluid; with a rounded frame, rather than arched and stiff through the top-line. It sounds like you are able to ask your horse to flex laterally (side to side) and vertically (drop his head down as chin comes in and face comes to vertical) when you are standing still, but not while moving.

First, it is important to understand that for young horses that do not have much training, forward movement is the most critical thing to focus on. Breaking at the poll and rounding through the body (collection) come later as the horse develops physically and mentally. The horse’s conformation and natural carriage also play a big role in how easy it is to round his frame and carry himself and the rider this way. Usually Welsh cobs are built well enough in the front end for collection, with a rounded neck and an upright head carriage.

Focus first on just getting good forward, fluid movement from your horse without asking him to give to bit pressure and flex vertically. Then you can start asking him to gradually round his frame just a little at a time. Continue to work on lateral and vertical flexion standing still, then at the walk, then at the trot. If your horse is having trouble keeping his forward impulsion when you are asking him to round, you may be asking for too much too fast and may need to go back to basic training with a focus on forward movement. Make sure he learns to carry himself in the rounded frame and does not become reliant on you holding him up with the reins.

There are several articles in my training library that can help you with your youngster and I have two videos that could help. One is volume 5 in my riding series called “Collection and Refinement.” It elaborates on the mechanics of collection and how to use your aids to ask for it (as well as for lateral movements like leg yield and side pass). Also, my video called “Bit Basics” explains the process of teaching a horse to relax, drop his head and round his frame in response to bit pressure.

I hope this helps! Good luck with your gelding.

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician