Horse Guilt: Focus On Your Personal Riding Goals And Ditch Any Guilt About Not Riding Enough Logo

My friend Nancy is a life-long rider in her 60s and a pretty good hand with a horse. One day while practicing her reining patterns in the arena, her horse spooked ‘out of the blue’ and she lost her balance and fell. Her injuries would’ve been minor for someone several decades younger. It wasn’t a terrible fall, but it was a fall and she deeply injured her psyche.

Nancy felt lots of pressure to get back to riding from a horse-loving family, and a network of friends she often rode with. But her injuries gave her deep reservations about riding–especially returning to the level she had been riding. Before long, Nancy found it easy to make excuses to skip riding. The house, the job, the husband, the grandkids, the charity work—all provided her with great excuses not to ride. When she ran out of excuses from her personal life, she started blaming her horse—“the farrier didn’t come, he seems off today, he’s got a bite on his back, I think he is depressed.”

Eventually Nancy realized her excuses for not riding actually boiled down to avoidance. And once she was avoiding her horse, she had tremendous feelings of guilt. She came to me for help and together we took a long hard look at her situation and how she got there and developed a plan for change. Nancy took control of herself and her personal journey and set about to enjoy horses on her own terms, even if it meant not going along with everyone else’s idea of what she should be doing with her horse. It was time to set her own goals and let go of the guilt.

It’s now a whole new era in her horse life and Nancy is enjoying every minute of it. She consciously chose to let go of others’ expectations about how much she should ride again or at what grand level of showing. She actually gave up showing and got into trail riding and driving minis with her grandkids. And she loves it. She has new goals and ambitions that bear no resemblance to her old ones and her friends and family are all happy for her and supportive. What a success story!

There are lots of reasons you might feel guilt when it comes to your horses—not riding as often as you should, not fostering the relationship as you should, or letting your busy life get in the way of your personal fulfillment. Do you feel guilty for not achieving some unrealistic goals you set for your horse or not doing as much as you thought you would? The initial ideas we have about riding or showing might change after having horses for a while. And that’s OK.

While guilt can eat you up from the inside out, it can be useful if it propels you to action. The great thing about guilt is when you own it, analyze it and rectify it, the oppressing emotion goes away. The sooner you get started, the better!

Own It!

Think through your guilt enough to define it, figure out where it is coming from and what you wish would change. First and foremost, who is making you feel guilty? Is it coming from inside your own head or pressure from others? It’s quite possible you are doing this to yourself.

Get specific about what makes you feel guilty—do you wish you had more time to spend with your horse, or because of promises or commitments you have made to others, because your goals have changed, or because you are making excuses for not riding due to fear issues?

These can be painful questions to answer and may require some deep introspection on your part, but until you get to the bottom of your guilt and define it, the emotion will continue to haunt you and pollute your horse life.

Analyze the Guilt

Often people feel guilty for no good reason. If it is out of your control, you shouldn’t worry about it. But sometimes people feel guilt because of an underlying conflict within you or an underlying conflict with others.

Starting into horse sports is a little like deciding what to major in at college. Sometimes you know early-on and you think you are sure that is what you want, but by the time you graduate, things look a little different. Sometimes you pick your major based on other’s expectations—your parents’, your friends’. If you’re expecting yourself to ride at a level that your spouse, your friends or your trainer chose for you, it may be time to choose your own adventure. Following someone else’s plan may work for a while, but later-on, when you have more experience, your ideals may change. That’s okay! Change is good.

Time for Change

Be realistic about what time you can dedicate to your horse and make it happen. Address the excuses you have for not riding and make a commitment to change. If your horse needs more work than you can realistically provide, find a solution. Pay a teenager to ride a couple times a week, hire a trainer, share your horse with someone or consider trading in your youngster for an older horse that needs less work.

If you found that your guilt is because you’ve been avoiding your horse due to an underlying fear, there are many things you can do to prevail. The important thing is to make a plan to build your confidence—it is a slow and steady path and requires patience. This may mean you don’t ride for a while to stay within your comfort zone long enough to build confidence. Check out my website ( for more information on developing your own plan of action to overcome your fear and build confidence with horses.

If your time is short and/or you need to build more confidence before going back to riding, there are many things you can do to make your horse time more productive. Maybe you’ve only got 20 minutes of quality time with your horse—make the most of it by grooming your horse thoroughly and spending a few minutes on his ground manners.

There are many great ways to enjoy horses without riding at all. If you spent 15 minutes on groundwork every time you were with your horse, you would make tremendous progress. Basic lead-line work is excellent for developing your relationship and building your confidence and leadership skills. If your time is short, you can make a much greater impact on the relationship with your horse with groundwork, instead of rushing through a ride that neither of you enjoys.

When it comes to horses, you always need to be open to change. If you’ve analyzed your guilt and come to the conclusion that you are in the wrong discipline or that what you thought you wanted is not cutting it anymore, consider a change. It’s okay to change your goals. I’ve reinvented myself numerous times during my half a century of riding horses and each time the change has been positive and has reinvigorated my passion for horses.

Enjoy the Horse Life

I’ll never forget a comment from a clinic participant some years ago. She was a very high-level executive in a high-stress job and she was attending one of my “fear management for riders” seminars. We were talking about getting in touch with your passion and understanding your purpose when it comes to horses—this is not as easy as it sounds.

The high-powered executive admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that all she wanted to do at the end of a long hard day at work, was to get her horse out of the stall, lead him to the grass and listen to him munch grass contentedly as all her stress melted away. Turns out that was what she needed from her horse at that time in her life.

But you know what? We got into horses for personal pleasure—not to add more stress in our lives. If you have time and enjoy daily riding and working toward difficult goals—go ahead, achieve all you will! But if that isn’t your path now, that’s OK. Do what gives you the greatest satisfaction and relish it—whatever time you have. Do not pollute your mind with useless feelings of guilt or let yourself be high-jacked by what others think. The only two opinions that matter are yours and your horse’s.

Ponying With Confidence Logo

Simply put, ponying means to lead a horse alongside the horse you’re riding. On the trail, the task comes in handy when you’re training a new horse and helping him get used to obstacles and familiarizing him with the trail. When a horse follows another horse, his natural herd instincts kick in and he’s apt to follow his leader through terrain that might otherwise seem intimidating. While ponying, a horse that’s never crossed water may walk straight in or a horse that’s never left the arena can head out into the ever-changing scenery without nervousness. The best part is that the new horse can learn and experience spook-inducing, wide-open country before a rider accompanies him on the journey.

You might also pony a horse that’s carrying supplies to a campsite, a horse that a child is riding (as a means to have a little extra control in addition to the child’s reins), a horse who’s been injured and needs exercise to recover, or a horse who’s owner experienced an accident or injury during a ride. There are countless scenarios where ponying comes in handy. In each case, you’ll need to know how to pony a horse safely–how to keep you, your horse and the ponied horse safe. It’s a complex task to carefully ride your own horse and pay attention to another, and all while holding your reins in one have and an extra rope in the other. But because it’s natural for horses to travel at speed while close to one another (imagine mustangs speeding across the plains), horses don’t mind the proximity. Once you know how to handle the ropes, ponying can be a natural and easy way to travel.

Here, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight will teach you how to pony a horse safely, avoiding the common pitfalls. You’ll know how to hold a rope and reins at the same time and what to do if the horse being led moves into an unsafe position. You’ll also gain tips to keep the ponied horse moving along at the requested speed.

Before you begin, make sure your pony horse—the saddle horse you’ll ride—is comfortable with other horses riding nearby. Ask yourself if your pony horse pins his ears or turns away from other horses when rides in a group. If he does, he might not be a candidate to lead another horse. Your pony horse should be easily controlled with one hand on the reins. If you have to reach down or two hand your pony horse when you ride alone, you won’t have an extra hand to hold onto the pony horse’s rope. Your pony horse should be a safe and reliable mount that doesn’t spook and is easily controlled, also he should allow ropes to touch his legs and tail without startling and should be good at dragging logs without spooking at the object that’s following him. These skills will ensure that your pony horse won’t be bothered by the proximity of another horse and the ponied horse’s rope.

The horse you’ll pony should be halter broke and lead well when you’re on the ground. If you need help with either horse’s manners, consult a professional horseman and find educational DVDs to assist. To be safe, both horses must have good ground manners and know not to interact with other horses when a human is present.

Exercise Prep
Natural-horsemanship lesson: Learn how to safely pony a horse beside you as you ride.
Why you need it on the trail: Ponying a young horse can help expose him to new scenes and experiences before he totes a rider. He’ll learn to brave new feats while following a trusted and reliable leader and follow along more willingly than if he were alone. It’s also good to make sure that your usual mount will accept another horse close to him and allow you to pony another horse in case you need to help out a child or injured friend during a long ride. If you plan long pack trips, you’ll find it helpful for an extra horse to carry needed gear or maybe you need to take along an extra horse. There are many reasons to pony, but it’s important to learn the safe techniques before you try.
What you’ll do: You’ll learn to how to handle the ponied horse’s rope, how to cue the ponied horse to move forward, how to teach the ponied horse to stay in position, and how to approach new obstacles while ponying.
What you’ll need: A saddle with a rigid tree (not a flexible tree that may apply pressure unevenly across your horse’s back if the ponied horse pulls) and a bridle for the horse you’ll ride, a rope halter and 12-foot rope lead for the horse you’ll pony. Make sure you wear a pair of gloves to keep your hands free from rope burns if the ponied horse pulls.

Step #1. Know How to Hold

Outfit your pony horse and the horse you are leading—the ponied horse–in the tack listed above. With the horse you are leading standing on the right side of your pony horse, mount up while holding the lead rope and your reins in your left hand. As soon as you’re in the saddle, you’ll take the reins with your left hand and hold the ponied horse’s rope in your right. Always hold the pony horse’s rope in a way that you can easily drop it if one horse slips or spooks—never tie or knot the two horses together.

Before you ask either horse to walk, make sure the ponied horse’s rope is doubled over—never wrapped around your hand—so that you can easily lengthen and shorten the rope. If the rope is safely doubled, you’ll see a loop in front of your knee as your hand rests on your leg. Notice the doubled rope in Goodnight’s left hand in photo 1A. The rope nearest to her pinky finger is attached to the horse and lies next to the rope’s end. The rope you see extending from her thumb and forefinger is doubled. You can also see that she’s relaxed and ready to cue her pony horse by neck reining.

Make sure not to hold the rope too far behind you as in photo 1B. With this hold and without a doubled-over rope, too much slack allows the pony horse to fall far behind the pony horse—precisely in kicking position. The loose rope can also tangle in the pony horse’s legs or slip under his tail, potentially causing a big wreck. Simply keeping your hand on your leg and maintaining the correct hold on the rope will help you start safely before you take a step.

Goodnight will hold this rope and rein position as long as she’s working with a young horse. By holding—instead of fully dallying the rope around the saddle horn—she can cue the pony horse to move forward or back. She also ensures that the horses won’t be connected if the new pony horse spooks. Once she knows that the pony horse is obeying and compliant, Goodnight says she often loops her rope lead one-half time around the saddle horn. This allows her to relax her grip and hold only one piece of the rope. The rope isn’t knotted and can quickly be released from the horn.

Step #2. Moving In Position

Ask your pony horse to walk on with your usual rein and leg aids. Make sure to include a voice command so that the ponied horse also hears the cue. With your right hand holding the rope and a place on your leg, allow the ponied horse to feel the rope’s gentle pull as you begin to walk. Because your pony horse is halter broke, he should understand the same go-forward cue.

If the horse being led doesn’t come, don’t try to pull him forward with your arm—you don’t have enough strength and it could wrench your back or pull you off your horse. Get in the habit of stopping your pony horse anytime the horse being led balks. To teach him to move forward with you, take a half-wrap on the saddle horn, holding both ends of the rope in your right hand, down against your leg. Cue the pony horse forward and let his body weight pull the ponied horse forward. It’s pretty easy for the horse being led to pull against you but he won’t pull long against the weight of the pony horse. Caveat: at times like this, you are essentially riding two horses, so you need to have the skill and concentration to being dealing with two horses at once—asking one to slow down or turn while you’re asking the other horse tom come forward. Not all riders are ready for this kind of challenge. Goodnight says that the mistake she hears about most often is forgetting to stop the pony horse and getting pulled of your horse by a spooky horse. If you lead a young or unseasoned horse out, make sure you’ve first practiced the position an your rope and rein holds with a calmer, more easy going mount.

Goodnight recommends keeping the ponied horse at your pony horse’s hip—close in without room for the horses to step in different directions around a young tree or other obstacle.

Practice walking while maintaining your rope and rein hold. Begin by walking straight ahead, then gradually add turns to the right. Turn to the right before the left until you’re comfortable handling the rope and trust the ponied horse to follow. When you turn to the right, you’ll turn toward your pony horse, allowing the rope to stay in position easily. Turns to the left are tricky if the ponied horse isn’t keeping up to speed. Make sure the ponied horse is in the correct position before you turn left; if he falls behind, his rope can droop (as we saw in photo 1B), touch your pony horse’s tail and even slide up under it, causing your pony horse undue stress and a possibly creating a spook. If this were to happen, always turn your pony horse back to the right, to prevent the rope from wrapping around you; drop the lead rope if necessary.

Step #3. Correcting Poor Position

If your pony horse falls behind (as we first showed in 1B when talking about a poor rope holding position) simply gather your fingers along your doubled rope to shorten the line and pull him forward with a bumping action. Because the ponied horse knows how to lead on the ground, he should respect the same correction while you’re riding.

Make sure you don’t allow the ponied horse to move forward so much that he’s in front of your knee (as seen in photo 3A). You don’t have leverage to control him when he’s in the lead and he can start to lead the herd instead of naturally following your pony horse. If the horse you are leading moves too fast and too forward, pick up your rope-holding hand and jerk back, pointing the rope toward where you’d like your pony horse to be. A quick bump from your rope halter’s knot will correct your horse just like during groundwork sessions.
Goodnight says the best pony horses are often good teachers. Her horse, Dually, knows right where the ponied horse should be and will turn his neck and threaten the ponied horse with his teeth if he moves up too far.

Step #4. Changing Pace and Scenes

Once the ponied horse is following along in formation, moving with your pony horse and doesn’t need constant corrections, begin asking both horses for gait changes. Put your horses to work as they transition from walk (photo 4A) to trot (4B). Each time you give a cue to your pony horse, make sure to use your verbal cue or a bump of the rope to spur on the horse you’re leading. Soon, your ponied horse will keep pace and easily stay in position as he moves in step.