Becoming The Leader

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Question: I need advice for my daughter and her horse. My daughter is 10 years old and very interested in riding, however she lacks confidence in riding. Her horse has come to figure this out. Cheyenne is a very sweet and gentle horse and a tab bit on the lazy side. I would like to find out information or suggestions on how to teach my daughter to win her horse’s respect and have him respond to her commands. When she asks him to walk he refuses.He cocks his back leg and stands there no matter what she does. Also once she does get him to move he begins to pull her in the wrong direction and when she tries to bring him back he resists her. When I ride him he does perfectly. What can I do to help her? She is very frustrated and so am I.
Answer: Horses are herd animals and the social structure within the herd is known as a “linear hierarchy.” The definition of a linear hierarchy is that each individual in the herd is either subordinate to or dominant over every other individual in the herd. Since this is the only way that horses know to act, it is also how they relate to their human herd members. We need to think of the horse and its rider as a herd of two. So we have a choice, we can either be the dominant member (or the leader) or the subordinate member (the follower). There is no equality in a horse herd.
Clearly, in the case of your daughter’s horse, she is subordinate to the horse, while you are dominant over the horse. The horse has already made up his mind that this is the way it is and there have probably been countless little things that has lead the horse to this conclusion. So how do we change this? Well, I can think of a few options.
Only your daughter will be able to step forward and take the leadership role with her horse. You riding the horse will not affect the relationship between horse and daughter, as clearly the horse does not question your authority. I do not recommend that your daughter take an aggressive approach (do this or else), because in the situation where the rider has a history of being subordinate, a challenge could prompt the horse to be fractious and start bucking or worse. Instead, your daughter needs to get inside the horse’s mind and learn to control ALL of his actions.
First, your daughter will need to make up her mind to resolve this situation and accept the fact that it may take some time. She will need to have a assertive, but patient attitude. I recommend that she address the issue of respect on the ground first. She needs to have a sense of awareness of her horse and she must take control of every move he makes. That means, when he is tied to the hitch rail, he should stand exactly where she told him to. If he steps sideways or back or forward, she should gently but firmly put his feet exactly back in the spot that she first asked him to stand. The horse should learn to respect her space and yield to it. She should be able to walk, trot and halt the horse at halter, back him up and disengage his hindquarters (make him cross his hind legs). All of these are examples of controlling the horse’s space and when the horse does these things without question, he is respecting her leadership authority. Disengaging the hindquarters is really important both on the ground and mounted, because it forces the horse into a subordinate frame of mind. When his hind legs are crossed, his number one line of defense (flight) is taken away from him, so subconsciously he becomes more dependent.
Your daughter must learn to only ask what she can enforce and ALWAYS enforce what she asked the horse to do. So for now, that probably means backing up and enforcing her control in areas where she can be successful. So often, I see people ask something of their horse, lets say to turn right, and the horse resists and refuses, so the rider caves in and lets the horse turn left. The rider thinks that she is winning because she got the horse where she wanted it by circling it all the way around to the left. But the horse sees it differently. He does not have the capability to realize that the rider got him where she wanted anyway. All the horse knows is that he didn’t want to turn right, he wanted to go left and if he refuses, the rider will cave into his wishes. To us humans, these little battles seem unimportant, but to the horse, the littlest things have big meaning.
Every time the horse gets his way, he scores a point and is further convinced in his mind that he is in charge. It sounds like your daughter’s horse has scored a lot of points. What your daughter will have to understand and commit to is that she has a lot of points to score, before she pulls ahead. She needs to realize that the tiniest things count toward this score: the horse moving around at the hitching rail, not trotting on the lead line, the horse taking a step toward the person, the horse nudging the person with his head, taking one step off the rail in the arena, or not going when asked. The rider that is dominant and in control is the one that controls every movement the horse makes. The more she can make this horse yield to her, the more points she will score. But start small and build up to the big issues. If she can gain some respect from the ground, it may be a little easier for her.
To address the specific problem in the arena, your daughter should look for the areas that she is still in control and focus on those and reward the horse when he responds. If the horse is balking, the issue is to get his feet moving. Usually the easiest way to do this is to turn him in a tight circle (this has the added advantage of disengaging the hindquarters). Be sure to reward him when he responds (even if he responds reluctantly) and immediately take control of the situation. How? As soon as she gets the horse to move, she should ask him to stop. Why? By doing this she has accomplished two things: she has rewarded his response by asking him to stop (which is what he wanted to do), but more importantly she has taken control by issuing a command and getting a response. It does not matter that the horse wanted to stop anyway, because he stopped on her request, not his. By successfully getting a response to a command, she puts the horse in a responsive frame of mind. So, she will get the horse to move (by turning a tight circle if she has to) and once the horse has taken a few steps, ask him to stop and reward him with a pat on the neck and leaving him alone for a few minutes, then ask again. Initially, when the horse had responded a few times, find a good stopping point and put him away. Gradually build on what she asks the horse to do.
It is critical that once she has asked something of the horse that she insists upon his response. This does not mean that you kick or hit harder and harder, but that you continue to apply the aids until the horse responds. Sometimes children do not have the strength to keep legging the horse until he moves and the horse learns that the rider will get tired and give up before he does. If this is the case, she might need a stick or spurs. HOWEVER, use these artificial aids with caution because this could drive the dominant horse to more drastic and fractious responses. Whatever aids she is using to make the horse go (and it should be all of the aids), she should continue to apply them until the horse goes. Not necessarily harder and harder, but with persistence. Eventually, the horse will learn that the only way to make that annoying action go away is to move forward.
A couple of more thoughts, if you or your daughter feed treats to this horse, stop immediately. Chances are, the horse has become demanding and rude and this has contributed to his dominance. When horses are subordinate (whether to you or another herd member), they will always yield to the space of the dominant individual. When people feed treats, the horse learns to move into the space of the person and thus you are yielding to his space, therefore he is dominant. Every treat that is fed, reinforces his dominance.
And now having said that, I have one more thought that seemingly contradicts what I just said. There is a form of training called “clicker training” that is being used on horses although it was originally developed to train marine mammals. It uses a clicking device as reinforcement and the first step is to make the horse associate the clicker with positive reinforcement (grain). Then, just like in Pavlov’s Response, every time the horse hears the clicker, he associates it with good thoughts (grain) and knows he is doing the right thing. I have seen this training method used specifically in the same situation that your daughter is in, with good success. So it might be worth looking into. You would have to do the clicker training and then would be able to use the clicker to control the horse’s mind while your daughter is up. The clicker and grain reinforcer just gives the horse a different motivation for doing the right thing.
My personal preference would be for your daughter to establish herself as the leader of their herd of two by doing the groundwork and gaining her horse’s respect. But the clicker method might be worth looking into. There’s a CD called Building Confidence with Horses on my website that gives a pre-ride meditation and some tips to help you look at horses in a new light. I hope that might help, too.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

New Horse Issues

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Question: Hi Julie:
I just recently purchased a horse in October this is my first horse and boy I am not starting off very well. This horse was 200lbs underweight when I got him so to say the least I baby him (oops). He has successfully gained 100lbs and I am very excited. He is a very loveable horse and has no bad habits except for the following. My first problem is every time I saddle him I cannot get him to walk as soon as I say walk he will for only a second and he immediately goes into a trot. Now that the winter has set in on warm days I walk him on the roads (I am not mounted on him) and just keep saying walk good boy…Now this weekend I am going to try and ride again but I am getting nervous and discouraged. My second problem is I cannot for the life of me get him in a trailer it takes me about 1 to 1 1/2 hours but once he is in he is fine. I am now at the point where I am putting grain and hay in the trailer but he will not go in for it. Any advice would be greatly appreciated…
Thank you,
Vickki

Answer: Vickki,
Thanks for your email and it sounds like you are going through some fairly common scenarios with your new horse. Most often, horses are jigging because of the anxiety over the pressure on their mouth. It could be that your bit is too harsh or that you are holding too much contact on the bit and not giving a release in a timely fashion (about 95% of the horses I see jig for the latter reason). This Q&A will give you some food for thought.
As for the trailering issue, my first question is, did he load well when you got him? If so, he may have just learned to be disobedient and what you’ll need to do is basic groundwork to establish yourself as the leader of your horse. If he did not load well when you got him, he needs to be trained. There are many good techniques for training horses to load and I can share with you the technique I have found the most success with. However, it will be difficult to really explain this thoroughly enough to address all the variances that can occur with an individual horse when it comes to trailer loading. You may be better off enlisting some help from a qualified trainer and perhaps some of the things I mention may help you determine if the techniques you or the trainer use are effective. We recently did a Horse Master TV episode and DVD called “Loaded Up” that might help you understand the whole process.
First, let me mention the things I would definitely NOT do. Do not use butt ropes, whips, chains, tie a horse to the trailer or hit him on the rear with any objects. Most horses do not load because they are afraid of the confinement. Forceful techniques generally increase the horse’s anxiety, not alleviate it. Also, when you start forcing a horse with ropes, chains, whips, etc, the chances of him getting hurt are greatly increased and if he gets hurt in the process of loading, you’ll really have a big job ahead of you and you’ll never be able to undo the fear memory that was logged in his brain from getting hurt trailer loading (this is documented research). Finally, I do not like to put pressure on the horse’s rear-end in anyway. I want his attention focused forward and if you start hitting him or putting a butt rope on him, his attention is focused back and he is thinking about defending himself, not moving forward.
What we want the horse to do is move forward, willingly and calmly. It is important before you train a horse to do anything that you know exactly what the desired response is and design a training plan that leads the horse to the correct response. There are a few fundamental principles that I like to keep in mind when training a horse to load. One is that he has no choice except to go where his nose is pointed. So I will do my best to eliminate all other options for the horse by backing the trailer into an enclosure or up close to a fence, to eliminate as many escape routes as possible. Also, I must be able to keep total control over the horse’s nose and make dead certain his nose is pointed toward the trailer at all times once I am asking him to load. Once I begin to approach the trailer, I will not take him away for any reason, until he has loaded. I will keep the nose pointed at the trailer and make it clear to the horse that there is only one option for him- and that is get in the trailer.
Secondly, I need to keep in mind what the right thing is and what the wrong thing is. The right thing is to move forward when asked; the wrong thing is to move backward. Then I will make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard (one of the fundamental principles of natural horsemanship).
As I approach the trailer with the horse, I will ask him to move a few steps forward then ask him to stop. Then reward him with a rub on the neck and give him a moment to relax and look at the trailer. It is important to ask the horse to stop before he stops himself, that way you maintain control. If you ask the horse to move too close to the trailer too soon and he balks and slams on the brakes, he is now being disobedient and we want him to stay in an obedient frame of mind. So ask him to take a few steps forward then stop and relax and praise. At no time is he allowed to turn his nose even slightly to the side. Hopefully, if you have done good groundwork with your horse, you will have control over his nose. If not, you may need to work on some more basic things first (see my website for more info on groundwork and my Lead Line Leadership and Roundpen Reasoning DVDs). Give him all the time he needs to be comfortable where he is and do not ask him to step forward until he is calm. Every horse is different; for some you may be stopping 100 feet away, others won’t get nervous until they are closer to the trailer.
I like to use a rope halter with a 12′ training lead for this type of work, because it gives you much better control. I do not like to use a chain on the horse’s nose or chin, because that will add to his anxiety and it is much more difficult to release the pressure on his face. You can order a rope halter and lead from my website if you need one.
The next part of the equation will require some capable assistance for you. You’ll need someone to operate a flag, which is simply a stick of some sort with a plastic bag or piece of tarp on the end. The helper will stand very quietly back behind the horse, some distance away so as not to distract the horse. The assistant’s only job is to watch the horse’s feet VERY closely and at any time the horse begins to move backward, the helper will vigorously shake the flag, stopping the instant the horse moves forward at all. This actually takes a lot of concentration and excellent timing. You must shake the flag the INSTANT the horse moves back and stop the INSTANT the horse moves forward. The shaking, rattling plastic will be an aversive stimulus to the horse and it will scare him. He will quickly learn that he can make the scary thing go away by moving forward and that he can avoid it altogether by not moving back.
Through the use of the flag, the horse will learn that moving back is not an option, only moving forward is. If you have good control of the horse’s nose and he cannot move back, he will, in short order, realize that moving forward into the trailer is the only option for him. Do NOT use the flag to make him move forward. You ONLY use the flag to discourage backward movement. I cannot over-emphasize that the flagger must concentrate carefully on the horse’s feet and must have perfect timing with the flag, both starting and stopping the flag. In my experience, the flag is harder to do well than controlling the horse’s nose, but both are hard. Although the flag is hard, leading the horse is the most dangerous position so you must be very careful not to get hurt.
The first time you flag the horse, he is likely to explode forward, so be prepared and be careful and make sure you keep his nose pointed toward the trailer. This may be too big a job for a novice horse handler. Let him stop and settle before you ask him to move forward again. After he has stepped back a few times and gotten the fright of the flag, he’ll quit backing up and start thinking about what his other options are.
If your trailer is small, you won’t want to lead the horse into the trailer so you’ll need to have a long rope to run up through the trailer and back around to where you are standing beside the horse encouraging him to move forward. Take whatever time you need as you are training the horse. Don’t get in a hurry and give yourself plenty of time; the horse needs to know you will out last him. Once he accepts that backwards and sideways are not options, and that you will be persistent but patient, he will give in and load right up.
Once he gets in, he should find a grain reward so that his efforts are rewarded. But do not use the grain to bribe him into the trailer. When the flagging technique is done correctly, you’ll have the horse, no matter how bad he was, loading right up in no time. Keep loading him a few times a day, with him finding grain in the trailer each time and soon he will see the trailer and trot right in.
Again, I want to stress that this is very dangerous stuff and it is very easy for you or your horse to get hurt. It is advisable to get qualified help, but do not let anyone beat or force your horse into the trailer. With this technique, the horse decides on his own that getting in the trailer is his best option and when you can train a horse this way, you’ll always have a calmer and more cooperative horse. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

Acting Up On The Trail

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Why does my horse act up on the trail?
Questions about how your horse should act on the trail –and why he doesn’t do what you want when you’re out in the open—are some of the most common topics. In our episode of Horse Master titled “Close for Comfort” viewers learned about a mare that was suffering slightly from PMS (prissy mare syndrome). She bit and kicked at other horses that she deems as too close when out on a leisure ride. She was making unauthorized decisions that should only be made by the one in charge.

She was actually a very sweet, easy-to-train horse that has just not had good leadership. ALL horses must learn this very important rule from the youngest possible age: YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO FRATERNIZE WITH ANOTHER HORSE IN ANY WAY WHEN I AM AROUND YOU.
This includes sniffing noses, flicking ears, showing teeth, herding gestures, swishing a tail, picking up a foot to kick or any other gestures, interaction or displays of herd behavior.

This should be one of the Ten Commandments for horses and it is a subject I talk about in every clinic that I do. It is of paramount importance not only for your safety and the safety of those around you (horse and human) but it is also a critical issue of manners and respect for authority. Besides, it’s a hygiene issue too—I don’t want my horse sharing snot with all the horses around him.

The safety issue I think is fairly obvious. If horses are allowed to fraternize, sooner or later someone’s going to throw a kick or bite and you or the person you are riding with might get caught in the fracas. I saw my good friend get killed this way when I was 12—so you can see why this has become an important issue for me. She was breaking another all-important safety rule by sitting on the ground by her horse at them time—never sit or kneel around a horse, always stay on your feet.

The manners issue has to do with your horse’s respect for your authority as the leader of the herd. If you are the one in charge, he has no business herding or acting aggressive to any other horses—it’s your herd. And, if he is doing his job, he is focused on you, waiting patiently for your next directive—just like a good first mate to his captain—not looking around, acting bored and looking for a party.

This fundamental rule explains why a breeding stallion can be used in the show ring or go on group trail rides and be tied up right next to another horse without incident, if he is well-trained. Horses are very good at learning and following rules when rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced.

For this episode of Horse Master, it turned out to be an easy fix. First, the owner simply needed to learn about this and step up to the helm, then she needed to know when and how to correct her horse when she breaks the rule. I also taught her how to deal with kicking in an emergency situation, to make sure everyone stays safe. You can watch a clip from this show at: http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight and type “116 Kicking Horse” in the search box.

Does your horse see you as his leader?
The bad behavior seen in the episode happened when the horse made her own decisions and before her rider stepped up to correct her and be the leader. To make sure your horse doesn’t escalate and become a behavior challenge, make sure you’re always in charge.

An obedient horse that knows that the rider is in charge 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.

You control your horse’s nose and where he should look while on a trail ride and during any time you’re together. 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 placement 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.

More help on the trail
With so many questions about how your horse should act on the trail, I compiled a training video called Trail Solutions. It’s all about trail riding, and features some of my favorite Horse Master episodes.

Trail Solutions will help you get to the trail safely and help with any problems evaluating a horse. You’ll have help with barn sour behavior, you’ll teach your horse to stand still as you mount, you’ll learn how to approach any new obstacle or water crossing with your horse, and more.

The topics:

  • Horse evaluation and understanding mares and geldings
  • Buying a horse with training
  • Using the idea of making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy for trailering
  • Learn leadership skills so that your horse knows he can trust you on the trail
  • Learn to direct your horse’s path.

Get Trail Solutions at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com

Why Are Horses So Spooky?

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Question:

Why are horses so spooky?

Answer:

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

Sit The Spook

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The Trail Rider ~ September/October 2014

RIDE RIGHT WITH JULIE GOODNIGHT

Sit the Spook
Learn how to sit the spook on trail for safety and control with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

All horses are capable of spooking. Horses are hardwired to flee in response to fear. They’re naturally programmed to watch for danger and for the herd leader’s cue for when to bolt.

Get away first; think later.

While you can desensitize your horse to most any stimulus you may encounter on the trail (and you should), there’s always a chance he’ll see something new, scary, and spook inducing.

“I laugh when I see sale ads boast a ‘bombproof’ horse that will never spook,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

Of course, horses are individuals and some may spook more often than others. Put the word “never” in there, and horses will prove you wrong.

Arabian Horses are stereotyped to be more flighty than Quarter Horses, but there are individuals who prove the stereotype wrong for each breed.

Quarter Horses bred for cow work may see a slight movement and look for something to chase.

You can’t totally remove the spook from the horse (though you should desensitize him as much as you can), but you can program your brain to know what to do in the moment when your horse spooks. You’re the part of the equation that can change.

A great trail-riding horse doesn’t need to be “bombproof” if you prepare your mind and body.

Here, Goodnight will give you her six-step method on how to sit the spook: (1) Envision perfection; (2) relax; (3) sit well; (4) be the herd leader; (5) react quickly; (6) convert his behavior.

Goodnight will also provide a special riding exercise just for kids.

Step 1: Envision Perfection
Is your horse tense on the trail? Envision your horse as well-behaved and calm, and ride him in a way that lets him know you’re in charge.

Don’t allow your horse to look around and find something to spook at. He doesn’t need to look from side-to-side and take in the scenery. His job is to look at what’s in front of him and mind the footing.

You’re in charge of where your horse looks. His nose shouldn’t move beyond the width of his shoulders. Looking straight ahead is the obedient response.

Ride with two hands. If he turns his head to look at the scary bushes, wildlife, etc., bump his nose back to center with light rein pressure.

Avoid gripping the reins tightly. Keep the reins loose, so your horse doesn’t feel your anxiety and think he should be worried. But don’t allow too much rein slack. You’ll need to have enough contact available to turn your horse if he reacts to something scary. (More on that in a minute.)

If your horse is tense, calm him by showing him you’re a worthy leader. Get him moving, and give him something to do. You don’t have to ride in a straight line. Guide him to the right and left; go around a bush.

Turning in different directions will get your horse thinking and give you control. Control his space, and remind him that you’re in charge of where you both go.

Step 2: Relax

Relaxing can be a tall order — especially if you think your horse might spook. To relax, close your eyes momentarily, and picture a balanced rider. Assume a centered, balanced position, with your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel in alignment.

Then systematically relax every joint in your body. Imagine relaxed toes. Unlock your knees. Relax your hips, and move with your horse’s back. Drop your shoulders. Unclench your fingers, wrists, hands, and shoulders.

If you’re worried that your horse might spook and become uncontrollable, you’ll probably tense your hips, clamp your legs, and grasp at the reins. You might even go into the fetal position.

These are normal reflexes in response to fear — your body pulls into the center for protection. But when you’re riding, this isn’t a safe posture at all.

Rolling into a ball causes you to pull on the reins, and drive your heels and legs into your horse’s sides. These actions tell him to be worried and move quickly — so you’re actually cueing him to spook.

What’s more, when you’re worried, you tense up your joints, locking them into position — a dangerous riding posture.

Tense a bicep as though you’re showing off your arm muscles. Notice that when you do so, your wrist elbow and shoulder joints lock.

Responding to a spook by tensing up and locking your joints is like hitting an ejection button. When you stiffen your back, shoulders, and legs, your body becomes one tense, locked object that can’t move with your horse. Instead, you’ll likely to bounce right off.

Step 3: Sit Well

On the other hand, you can be too relaxed, riding with your feet out in front of you, as though you’re sitting in a recliner with a remote control in your hand.

This isn’t a balanced position. If your horse spooks, you won’t have time to regain your balance to correct him, and you’ll likely be left behind.

Do you lengthen your stirrups for trail riding because it seems more comfortable? Don’t think you can ride with too-long stirrups because you’re “just trail riding.” Let’s take “just trail riding” out of the vocabulary.

Choose a stirrup length that allows your feet to rest without reaching — and while keeping your knees slightly bent so you can move like an athlete. Also, make sure your legs will stay underneath your seat.

Instead of sitting far back in the saddle, maintain an active, athletic stance. Suck in your belly button, rock back on your pockets, and sink your heels deep into the stirrups.

For a balanced, anchored position, ride with your toes up and heels down. Roll your ankles so that the bottoms of your feet are angled away from your horse.

Rolling in your ankles and slightly lifting your pinky toes move your legs into a close contact position and wraps the stirrup leathers around your legs.

There’s a yoga term that will help you imagine sitting up, back, and in balance: back body. Ride with your back body extended. That is, lengthen all your back’s bones, ligaments, and “energy.”

Almost everything in life causes you to cock your chest and abdomen forward and lock your hips, that is, living in the front body. Think hunching over the computer or slouching on the couch.

In riding, you want to elongate your back body and be conscious of your back. Relax and round your lower back, and extend your torso up; shorten your front-side and lengthen your back-side.

Stay in your back body, and don’t allow your energy to move forward. Use this visualization to prepare for riding — and prepare for a spook.

Step 4: Be the Herd Leader

Your horse is a herd animal, wired to notice the reactions and tension of the herd members. When you ride your horse, you’re in his herd, so he looks to you to make sure everything is okay. Imagine yourself as a strong, calm leader.

If you even think your horse might spook, start deep, abdominal breathing. He’ll detect if you’re holding your breath, which signals to him that he should be afraid.

Breathing with purpose will extend your spine and help you think about riding in your back body. Breathing is critical. Do it. Air is free.

Moving your eyes will help keep your whole body relaxed. Your horse will notice your tension if you lock your gaze on something you think may spook him.

Focus where you want your horse to go — not at something that’s potentially scary. When you focus on where you are now or where your horse is going, your eyes lend weight and point your body to that point.

What’s more, when you turn and look at where your horse is headed, instead of where you want to go, the problem gets worse.

Let’s say your horse spooks at something to the right of the trail and that’s what he’s moving away from. But you’re more afraid of the drop-off to the left of the trail that he’s moving toward — so you look left.

Your horse usually goes where you look or follows your focus. So by looking the wrong way, you’ve encouraged him to spook. Instead, focus where you want to go so that everything in your body gives him a consistent cue to go where you want.

Step 5: React Quickly
When your horse spooks, you won’t have time to stop and think. Spooks happen fast. You’ll only have an instant to stop your horse’s desire to bolt and focus him on the path you want.

This is the time that your at-home, in-the-car, thinking-ahead mental practice comes into play. Here’s a breakdown of what happens during a spook and how you’ll need to respond to keep your horse from bolting — all while keeping yourself relaxed, in your back body, breathing, and looking where you want to go.

In a spook, your horse first turns in the opposite direction of the scary object and tries to get away from it. He’s acting on his deep-seated flight instinct to survive.

Get in your mind that you’ll always turn your horse back toward the spooky stimulus any time he spooks. Lock in that image. Practice the motions and scenario over and over. Facing fear countermands flight.

Your horse will never run toward the spook-inducing stimulus, so a turn is required. Be prepared to turn with one rein. This flexes his neck and encourages the turn. Then ask for the stop.

If you pull on both reins at once, your horse will run right through the reins, and you’ll be in a pound-for-pound battle you can’t win.

If you shut off his escape path, he’ll try to turn another way. Be prepared to turn to the right then to the left with one rein while avoiding putting any pressure on the opposite rein. Block each escape path, and point him back at the scary stimulus. He won’t bolt toward what he’s afraid of.

The further your horse gets into the flight response before you intervene, the harder it is to get him out of the bolting run. Your reaction has to be quick. You might have to take a sudden, hard hold of your horse so that you can stop him before he bolts too far. If he gets four or five strides into the bolt, you may not be able to stop him.

As soon as you turn and stop your horse from bolting, he should stop and look at what scared him. Program in this response by approaching scary objects at home. Praise your horse each time he stops and looks at the scary object.

Repetition locks in this response and will help you on the trail. You can’t take the spook out of your horse, but you can teach him how to deal with it.

During a spook on the trail, your horse may be so scared that he won’t be ready to stop and will instead turn away again. Each time he turns, block his path. By doing so, you’ll leave him no other option but to face his fear.

As your horse calms, ask him to stop again. Encourage him to take a breath by taking a deep breath yourself. When you eliminate his flight option, he’ll calm down and listen to your cues. Soften your body, and sigh out the air. Pet him on the neck. Let him know you’re the leader in your herd of two and that all is okay.

If your horse flies backward, chances are, you’re pulling back on the reins. Note that pulling back on the reins doesn’t stop your horse. In fact, it may be causing the problem.

Instead, reach your hands straight toward your horse’s ears, and pump your legs on him from behind the cinch.

If you can’t stop the backward motion, pick up one rein toward your opposite shoulder, and cause him to cross his back legs. He can’t back and cross his legs at the same time. (You might want to practice this at home.)

Step 6: Convert his Behavior
When your horse determines that the scary monster isn’t going to kill and eat him, he’ll “convert” to investigative behavior. Investigative behavior is simply curiosity and will cancel out his flight behavior.

If your horse moves forward toward the scary thing, allow him to check it out, and praise him. This will convert him — replace one natural behavior with another without getting into a fight.

When your horse is curious about what spooked him, he’s suddenly brave. He’ll want to go closer. Praise him for his courageous actions, look for a new location to ride toward, and move down the trail.
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from HorseBooksEtc.com.

Troubleshoot Gate Openings

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Question:
My mare knows that when I lift the rope off the gate, I’ll then open that gate. She’s started “helping” by turning her body and using her nose to throw open the gate without waiting for any cues. Am I doing the wrong thing by letting her do this? Or should I let her go ahead and fling open the gate on her own? She figured this out herself seems to enjoy doing it.
Jessica Litwin

Answer:
Jessica, I think you’ve answered part of the question yourself — you admit your mare did this without a cue and that you’re “letting” her fling open the gate. Should you allow the horse to open the gate without a cue? The simple answer is no. It’s disobedience.
Don’t worry, though. The fact that your mare is well-trained and quiet enough to have learned how to work the gate tells me you’ve done a lot right.
I can help you correct this problem by teaching you the proper steps to open the gate, then helping you correct your mare if she rushes through any point.
First, you’ll learn the steps in order. Then you’ll learn how to mix up your sequence, so your mare learns she can’t always anticipate your requests. She must learn to listen instead of anticipate and hurry through the gate-opening process.

A Safety Issue
Disobedient behavior and anticipation at the gate can lead to a safety issue. What if you’re opening the gate for a long line of fellow riders and your mare speeds through the process and won’t wait?
Or, what if you’re on an unknown trail and need to open a tricky gate that’s hard to latch or has slick footing all around? If your mare speeds through, you won’t be able to cue her for safe behavior, and injuries could ensue.

How Horses Learn
Horses learn our patterns, then learn to associate quickly. Your mare has learned to associate your hand on the gate with pushing it open. When she first pushed open the gate on her own, you accepted this behavior, so she’s assuming she’s doing the right thing.
You’ve now trained your mare to fling open the gate by allowing her to anticipate this step and move on her own accord. This has created a bad association, because she now thinks it’s okay to initiate a behavior without a cue from you.
When you do the same things in the same order every time, your mare learns your pattern and will anticipate. Anticipation also teaches a horse to walk or trot off as soon as his rider puts a foot in the stirrup. The horse knows what will come next, so he thinks he’s helping things along. In reality, he’s being disobedient.
To correct your mare’s anticipation of the gate-opening process, you’ll change up the order of the steps. You’ll also expect her to wait for your cue before acting.
First, you’ll need to know the correct gate-opening steps. Then you’ll ask your mare to wait in between each step. You’ll also mix up the order, so she won’t be able to anticipate what comes next.

Gate-Opening Steps
Here’s a rundown of the gate-opening steps, broken down into smaller pieces than usual. Breaking down the process into small pieces and pausing in between each one will help you re-train your horse and slow down the process. Pause between each step for varying amounts of time each time you practice.
Step 1. Approach and stop. Mount up, and ask your mare to walk up to the gate so that you’re parallel to the fence and your knee is even with the latch. Then stop and wait.
Step 2. Open the latch. Open the latch, and back up so that your mare’s nose will clear the fence post. Keep your hand on the gate at all times.
Step 3. Open the gate. Push open the gate, and walk forward.
Step 4. Stop and wait. Stop your mare, and ask her to wait so she doesn’t rush through.
Step 5. Turn. Make a tight U-turn around the end of the open gate.
Step 6. Close the gate. Ride forward, pushing the gate shut as you walk toward the gatepost.
Step 7. Get parallel. At this point, you might need to take a step or two of a turn on the forehand so that your mare is parallel to the fence.
Step 8. Back up. Back up so that you’re parallel to the latch, and latch the gate. Then ask your mare to stand still so she doesn’t learn to rush away.

The Fix
Now that you know the steps, you need to correct your mare any time she makes a step that you haven’t asked for and that isn’t part of the above plan. You need to stop her behavior, then mix up your order so that she knows the same process won’t necessarily happen every time she’s near a gate.
Step 1. Lay down the law. Because you’ve condoned the behavior for a long time, you’ll need to lay down the law. Hiss, spit, and use a tone of voice that lets her know that you don’t condone the behavior. Many times, a strong tone of voice, just letting her know you disapprove, is enough to correct an otherwise well-trained horse.
Step 2. Correct her position. If your mare also steps forward or turns her nose to push the gate, correct her nose position with one rein. Say “whoa,” and firmly correct her forward motion with the reins. She should move forward only when you give a cue.
Step 3. Mix it up. Now, mix up the order. Sidle up to the gate as though you’re going to open it, wait five seconds, then walk away and do something else, such as trotting a circle or negotiating an obstacle.
When you approach the gate, stop, and make her wait. Then walk up to the gate, put your hand on the fence, and walk down the fence line parallel to the fence for a while, with your hand on the top rail.
You’re teaching your mare that your hand on the gate doesn’t always mean that you’ll open it. You’re breaking the pattern so she can’t anticipate. You’re teaching her she must wait and listen for your cue to know what comes next.
Step 4. Keep her guessing. Any time you feel your mare automatically moving onto the next part of a maneuver without your cue, do something different, so she never knows what to anticipate.
When your mare learns to wait for your cues, you’ll have the “first mate” you want and a perfect trail-riding partner. She’ll learn to look at you as her captain, and she’ll know she’s with a proven leader

Fearful Trail Horse

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Fearful Trail Horse

Question:

Dear Julie, I have an 8-year-old gelding that is very easy to work with on the ground and in the arena. He tends to become uptight, and nervous when he goes on the trail, even when he has ridden on the same trails and pastures for 3 years. He holds his breath and seems to be very wary of things that he has always seen. Tonight he was particularly tense. It felt as though his barrel was full of air when I got on. We casually walked around the barnyard, where there’s a variety of equipment etc. I was going to go on a trail ride but didn’t because a storm was imminent. This is not a new area to him. We stopped by a silo. He kept peering around the corner, and all of sudden he did a full body deep quiver/jump, he spooked in place. He continued to feel as though he was ready to spook at any moment, full of fear. I dismounted, and did some groundwork around the very same objects that seemed to bother him just a few minutes earlier. He became more comfortable. He walked over a tarp that was lying on the ground, without difficulty. When I got back on he once again became wary.
Is this about me? Yes, I could sense his predisposition when I got on. He was particularly bothered tonight and we just made the same ride a few nights ago. I pay attention to my body and make sure that I am doing deep breathing etc. There are times when he is not like this at all. He is overweight right now due to all the rain that we have been having, could that have something to do with it? He also tends to chew his bit, when on a trail ride, and I know that it’s a sign that he is bothered inside. He does not appear bothered when you catch him up or work with him on the ground. Often, you need to bring his life up. I know that he is holding back in some way, but do not know how to free him up. I would appreciate any suggestions.
Thank you, Carol

Answer:

Carol, As always, it’s difficult to diagnose a horse problem over the Internet 😉 as a third party observer. In person I can see the big picture and have a better idea of where the problems are originating. Nine times out of ten, the rider is contributing to the problem in ways the rider cannot see or feel or comprehend. My guess is that, at the very least, this is a problem of co-dependency between your horse and you. Obviously your horse likes the comfort and security of being in the arena and around the barn in confined areas and does not feel comfortable out of those very controlled settings. Since horses are prey animals that live in herds, he is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of the animals around him; this is an important survival skill for prey animals. When you go out on your own, out of his comfort zone, this behavior is compounded and he becomes even more reactive to the animals and emotions around him. When you ride a horse a whole lot of your body is in contact with him, so it does not take much to convey apprehension to your horse. He may even start it himself by sucking his air in and holding his breath (just like humans do when they get nervous) and that is probably putting you “on guard.” As soon as you start thinking that he may spook or do something, there are changes in your body that occur as you tense in preparation and to him, that becomes a prompt that something must be wrong, just like he thought. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most often when I see this situation developing, the rider picks up on the reins and that conveys even more tension and fear to your horse. Your horse gains courage on the ground because you’re there, in his eyesight, between the scary thing and him. When you’re on his back, he is in front and feels more vulnerable. Also, when you’re on the ground you’re more confident so he gains confidence from you (mirrors your emotion).

Conversely, when you’re on his back, you feel more nervous (because he is nervous) and that compounds his nervousness. It’s amazing how often horses will act the way you think they will. If you ride your horse with confidence and expect him to do something right, he’ll do it. When you think your horse is going to spook or misbehave, he’ll do that too. I am certainly not the first person to say that; you’ll hear it from many accomplished horse trainers. I know from my lifetime of experience with horses that this is true; maybe not all the time, but more times than not. We have a horse in training right now that is very spooky, reluctant and balky out on trail with its owner. However, for both Twyla (the trainer that works with me and runs my office) and me, he is steady, relaxed, willing and obedient and we have only had him in training for one week. Part of the problem is engrained disobedience and part of it relates to the confidence and leadership of the rider. We expect your horse to behave, insist upon it really, and we expect him to go down the road like a horse should; and that is indeed what he does.
However, he does not yet have that much faith in his owner, and she does not yet have that much faith him (yes, those two things are very connected), but things are improving as 1) your horse becomes more habituated to being an obedient, subordinate horse, and 2) the owner recognizes that her horse can indeed be a good citizen. You may want to consider putting your horse in training to work through this issue and get some miles on him going down the trail. That could help both of you to be more confident. Doing lots of meaningful groundwork that results in a more confident, relaxed and subordinate horse is always a good thing to do and should help your situation. You also need to teach your horse a calm down cue. We teach most horses that come into our barn, and all horses that are nervous and high strung, to drop their head to the ground whenever we ask, either from the ground or from the saddle. Start on the ground with a rope halter and simply put gentle down pressure from the chin knot, watching your horse’s head very closely so that you can release at the first sign of the head dropping. At first, you must release when the head moves down just a fraction of an inch; as your horse comes to understand what you want and what will get him the release, you can hold the pressure a little longer so the head comes down lower. The first few inches of head drop are harder to get, but in short order, your horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground. It’s physiologically impossible for your horse to be tense with his head down (and impossible for him to be relaxed with his head up). So once your horse is trained to drop his head to the ground (which in addition to causing relaxation also causes subordination) you can ask him anytime he gets worked up or “on the muscle” (which is what you’re describing in your question), you can ask him to drop his head down. This is known as “putting your horse in the closet;” the closet is a calm, quiet, safe place for your horse. Teaching your horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it’s much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as your horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until your horse makes the connection that lowering his head makes the rein pressure go away. Soon he should be happy to go to “the closet” and stay there when you pick up one rein. Remember, you’ll have to release the reins to let him drop. If you ask him to lower his head and he does, but then hits the bit, you have punished him for doing what you asked him to do. By the way, pulling on two reins will always make your horse more anxious because now he is worried about his mouth too and that makes him a whole lot more scared. That is a real common way the rider contributes to your horse’s fear when he becomes spooky. When your horse feels spooky to you, put him to work, giving him constant instruction and directives so that he has to focus on you and think of you as the boss of him. You might ask him to turn right, then turn left, then trot right and left, then stop, then go then trot then stop and turn around, etc. Not in a harsh punishing sort of way, just in a “here’s something to keep you form worrying about that” way. This is known as replacement training; you’re replacing the unwanted behavior with something else. Another favorite calm-down exercise for the nervous horse is the three-step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I believe you’ll find this on my website in the Q&A section. There are many Q&A’s on my website about barn sour horses and doing groundwork to establish a leader-follower relationship with your horse, and that will help with your situation too. What your horse needs most are your confidence, leadership and reassurance. Good luck and be careful.
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

My Horse Is Herd-Bound And Barn Sour

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My horse is herd-bound and barn-sour–calling to others constantly

Would your horse rather stay with his buddies? Is he letting his voice be known? Follow Julie Goodnight’s behavior and training advice to help your horse willingly leave the herd and be focused on you as the center of his universe.

Does your horse refuse to respond to your aids and throw a wall-eyed fit if you try to ride him out of the barnyard alone? Does he scream in your ear, calling to his herd mates every time you take him out of the pen? Is he unruly in-hand when you take him away from his buddies, stomping his feet and ramming into you?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to make your horse want to be part of your herd–willing to go with you anywhere.

The Reason
Horses are herd-bound animals. The behavior known as gregarious—defining animals who live in groups and have a specific social order. A herd-bound tendency is one of seven instinctive behaviors a horse acts out—the others center around flight, reproduction, combat, investigation, ingestion and elimination. Being herd bound is a survival skill for horses. They need the protection of the herd for comfort and security–which they want more than anything else in life.

The whinny, one of four audible communications a horse makes, is a high-pitched scream, sometimes ending in a nicker. It’s the loudest and longest audible a horse makes and can be ear-splitting, carrying over long distances. Like all four audible communications, it has specific meaning. The whinny is a social call; a searching call. It means, “Where are my friends,” or “Is anyone out there willing to be my friend?” When a horse is separated from his herd and feels vulnerable and exposed, he will whinny and search frantically until he finds it or a suitable replacement.

The leader of the herd–the alpha individual–is responsible for maintaining the safety and comfort of the herd. As long as the leader is in charge, her subordinates can relax, live in peace, munch grass, roll in the mud and commune with their buddies. Life doesn’t get any better.

You and your horse comprise a herd. At least that’s what you’d like your horse to believe. Due to the hierarchy of the horse herd, within your herd of two, you have two choices: you can be the leader or the follower. There’s no option for equality. Just wanting to be the leader of your herd of two doesn’t make it so; your horse is very adept at detecting leadership skills–or lack there of. In his mind, his very survival depends upon good leadership.

Unless and until your horse can look up to you as his leader, trust that you’re in charge of the universe and able to make him feel safe and comfortable, he’ll not be willing to go anywhere with you and will always be drawn back to the herd he knows.
The Solution

You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re in charge, that you’re a worthy leader. He’ll need to know you can be trusted to enforce rules, keep order in the herd and that you direct all his actions. You’ll tell him when to eat, when to sleep, when to work, when to rest, when to be alarmed, when to be relaxed. You’ll teach him that when he is quiet, obedient and focused on you, you’ll make him comfortable; when he is not, you’ll put him to work. He won’t have to make any decisions because you’re the leader, the Captain of the ship, and you make all decisions. That’s a tall order to fill!

Horses establish dominance in the herd with swift and certain actions, by controlling space and resources. The alpha individual of the herd owns the space of all the subordinate herd members; she can enter their space at any time—and the herd will move judiciously out of her way. A subordinate can never enter her space. Horses are very spatially oriented (unlike us humans) and highly respect the space of their leader. In natural horsemanship, we do groundwork with horses to control their space and actions, gain their respect and focus, until the horse is hooked-on, following with admiration because he feels safe and comfortable in your presence.
Resources include anything the herd values, like food, water, shelter or other horses, and the dominant horse always controls the resources. The quickest way to determine the pecking order of any herd is to watch when they are fed; the alpha always eats first, followed by the beta horse; the last to eat is the omega, if he gets anything at all. Be careful when you feed horses, that you do not reward rude or bullying behavior, even when there is a fence between you and the horse; if he comes to believe he is taking the food away from you and controlling your actions, he believes he is dominant. For this reason, I’m not an advocate of hand-feeding treats to horses; it doesn’t take long before he’s calling you to him by nickering (the second of the horse’s four audible communications), controlling your actions and your resources (keep in mind he doesn’t know it’s horse food and humans won’t eat it).

Do groundwork exercises with your horse every time you get him out, so that he is in the habit of listening to you. There are many excellent exercises outlined in my groundwork DVDs, Lead Line Leadership and Round Pen Reasoning (available at JulieGoodnight.com or 800-225-8827).
If you invest some time in groundwork, your horse will learn to accept you as a suitable leader. Once he begins to accept your authority, do your groundwork further and further away from the barn so it becomes habitual behavior for him.
When you’re riding, be aware of barn gravity and be diligent for any disobedience from your horse, no matter how small. If he cuts corners, slows down going away and speeds up coming back, breaks gait or deviates from the path and speed you have dictated and gets away with it, you’re telling the horse you’re not in charge; not a worthy leader. If you’re in charge, you’re the Captain, there should never be any negotiation, compromise or turning a blind eye to his bad behavior– no matter how minor the infraction.
I ride literally hundreds of different horses each year; between clinics and expos, I sometimes ride or work with as many as 10-15 different horses a week on a one-time basis. In five minutes or less, what I call “the golden moments,” I can convince the horse that I’m in charge by simply controlling 100 percent of his actions and demonstrating my leadership ability. Horses figure this stuff out quickly.
When people come to look at one of my horses for sale, I want to make sure they start off in the Captain’s seat. I tell them to take the horse directly to the rail and go all the way around keeping the horse right next to the fence and controlling every step he takes; then thy can start telling him to do something: stop, go, turn, etc. A well-trained and obedient horse (the only kind I sell) knows immediately that you’re a worthy leader and falls happily into the role of your first mate, eager to carry out your orders without challenge.
When your horse accepts your authority without question, and feels safe and comfortable in your presence, he will no longer be herd bound and you’ll b able to take him anywhere you want to go without so much as a whinny or nicker.

To learn more about teaching your horse to respect your authority and accept you as his leader, check out Goodnight’s groundwork training package with the DVD series, Round Pen Reasoning, and Lead Line Leadership and other training tools at www.JulieGoodnight.com.

My Horse Drags Me, Circles Me And Bumps Into Me When I’m Leading Him

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Common Complaints Topic 2.

My horse drags me, circles me and bumps into me when I’m leading him

Caption:
Follow Julie Goodnight’s behavior and training advice to help your horse be respectful and worthy of praise while you’re at the lead.

Are you dragged, stepped on and rammed each time you lead your horse? Is your horse anxious and eager to get wherever you’re going? Does he circle you, causing you to constantly pull back to “put him in his place?” Have you resorted to a stud chain strung across your horse’s nose in order to gain control and to guarantee you’ll have “brakes?”

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to make your horse a willing walking partner. You’re in the lead; you’re in charge.

The Reason
Simply put, some horses have never been taught manners. Worse, some humans have never learned an effective method to manage horses from the ground. If you use the push-pull-and drag method of horse leading, it’s time for change. Your horse’s behavior shows that he’s not respectful. If you keep up your ultra-allowing ways, you may risk physical harm—your horse must know his place in the herd and not think he can challenge you, his natural leader.

No child ever learned table manners on his own. Children need direction and a chance to learn. In the same way, your horse needs you to set boundaries, enforce rules and to act like the herd leader. A horse desperately wants to be accepted into the herd—he needs the herd for his survival. In a natural herd environment, the dominant horse will “teach” the other horses the manners of the group. The leader will be consistent and strong when he corrects the other horses. Once you can demonstrate to the horse that you’ll be a fair and effective leader, he’ll gladly follow you anywhere in a direction and speed dictated by you. But first, he has to learn to follow the rules you establish.
The Solution
You must know “proper manners” before you teach them to your horse. Horses are excellent at following rules when they are clearly defined and consistently enforced. When it comes to handling horses, from the ground or the saddle, I have a few crucial rules.
• Rule #1, don’t move your feet unless I tell you too.
• Rule #2, keep your nose in front of your chest at all times
• Rule #3, when I ask you to, move your feet in the exact direction I say and the exact speed I dictate.
• Rule #4, keep doing whatever it’s I asked you to do until I tell you to stop.

If a horse breaks a rule—whether on purpose or accidentally—he’ll meet with an immediate and judicious correction. For instance, when I lead a horse, I expect him to walk in a very specific place; slightly beside me and slightly behind me, following the rules above. When he’s in that place, I make sure he’s comfortable; at any time he’s not in that place, I put pressure on him that makes him uncomfortable. The horse finds the safe and comfortable place and will pay close attention to you so that he always knows where he should be.
If I speed up, he speeds up; if I slow down to a snail’s pace, he matches me step for step, always remaining in his designated space to my side and behind my lead hand. To make it easy for my horse, I keep my lead hand up and out in front of me; pointing in the direction we are headed. My hand stays in a consistent place, giving hand signals to my horse as we move from point to point; it’s an easy landmark for the horse to follow.
If my horse doesn’t stay right with me, I’ll make sure to correct him with quick timing and the appropriate pressure. With immediate and consistent corrections, a horse will learn within a few minutes that he’s not allowed to get in front of me. I pretend that on the end of the fingers on my lead hand, is a solid brick wall. At any time that my horse’s nose comes in contact with the “brick wall,” I immediately turn around aggressively, shank him hard, stomp my feet and hiss and spit at him. The horse peddles backwards quickly. If you’re consistent in your corrections, only getting after him when he crosses a very specific line, he’ll quickly learn to stay within his boundaries.
Timing and pressure is everything when it comes to training horses. Whether you’re rewarding a horse (by a release of pressure or by praise) or correcting a horse, it must happen within three seconds of the behavior you wish to influence. This quick timing is crucial if your horse is to make an association between his behavior and your actions. The sooner the reward or correction occurs, the more likely the horse is to make the right association. Think three seconds is quick? The optimal time frame is actually one half of one second.

In addition to your quick timing, you must also know how much pressure to use during your correction. When I make a correction because the horse touched the “brick wall” with his nose, I need to make the horse uncomfortable and bothered so he thinks, “what do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” Depending on the horse, the amount of pressure will vary. The pressure could be just a growl and cross-eyed look or turning around, stomping your feet, swinging the rope and generally having a “hissy fit.” You’ll quickly learn how much you need to do to get the desired uncomfortable reaction from your horse. You’ll know he’s uncomfortable when he tosses his head, runs backwards and looks noticeably uncomfortable. Whatever pressure is required to get that reaction from your horse, use just that amount—no more or no less pressure. You’re simply stating your rules, not causing undue stress.
Remember, a horse seeks comfort and security above all else. By being an effective leader to your horse, having solid rules that are consistently and fairly enforced, he’ll quickly learn that when he’s following the rules he’s comfortable; when he breaks a rule, he’ll be uncomfortable, thus making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. He’ll have control over his comfort–by simply being Mr. Manners he’ll feel comfortable. When he knows his manners and follows the rules regularly, he’ll be secure in your leadership, wanting only to please you and be a part of your herd.
To learn how to teach your horse other important ground manners like standing still, following with forward energy, backing up, etc., check out Goodnight’s groundwork training package with the DVD series, Round Pen Reasoning, and Lead Line Leadership and other training tools at www.JulieGoodnight.com.
Coming Next:
Julie Goodnight reveals the scenarios and answers she’s asked to help with most often. Her Common Complaints series details what to do when your horse is disrespectful in the field, on the ground and when you’re riding. In the 12-part series, Goodnight will help you understand why your horse does what he does and give you step-by-step directions to help you solve the problem. Next month, she’ll help your horse stand still while tied—and avoid pulling back. JG

Issues From The Saddle: Gate Sour

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hello, I am have a Tennessee walker and she rides around the arena fine until she passes the gate. Then it happens, she starts to walk sideways in to the gate. I am a new rider so I’m not sure what to do. When I try to correct her she thinks I’m telling her to stop. How do I do it?

Answer: Your horse is simply gate sour and wants to stop at the gate and go out of it and back to the barn. All horses have this tendency, if not handled correctly, and it is sometimes known as “gate gravity.” This is an indication that your horse is disobedient and does not respect you as his leader or respect your authority over her. When you try to correct her with your hands, you are probably pulling on both reins, which means stop, and that is exactly what she wants to do anyway. In England your horse would be referred to as a “nappy” horse, which is a horse that refuses to respond to properly applied aids, particularly as it relates to leaving the barnyard. There are many ways to combat this problem.
First, you need to have a better understanding 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.

Then you need to learn to do groundwork with your horse so that she respects your authority, looks to you as her leader and is obedient. There are numerous articles and Q&As on my website about this but you will probably 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 doing it correctly. Groundwork done poorly can make a horse irritated, defensive and even aggressive.

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 disobedient. I see people eroding their authority with the horse all the time with little things like letting the horse walk off without being cued to walk or letting the horse come off the rail a step or two when riding in the arena or letting him cut the corners, slow down/speed up or walk off when you mount.

Every time a horse gets away with something like that he has 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

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

Horse Behavior: Do Horses Prefer Male Over Female Riders?

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Hi Julie,

I’ve got a question about our five-year-old Paint gelding. My wife swears that he prefers men riders to women riders. I’m almost to conclude the same thing, even though I really am skeptical about that. It seems the women who have ridden him, including my wife, have had him act up consistently, and are fearful of him.

Another question following the first of gender preference…If it is true there is such a thing, is there a way to “unlearn” this behavior over time and how would you suggest I help him accept women riders?

Neal

Answer: Neal,

Although many horses respond differently to men and women, I do not believe it is because they intellectually know the difference between men and women. I think that they are responding to the way they are handled and whether or not the handler has good leadership skills. The horse is responding to the body language of the human, which tells the horse whether or not the human is confident and potential leadership material. Most humans are not fully aware of their body language and the messages that they are constantly sending to the horse. A horse that has been abused will be reactive and frightened of a human that approaches him with what appears to be aggression (as many men do); while a horse that has learned to be dominant over a human will react in a dominant way when a person approaches him showing a lack of confidence and uncertainty (as many women do). I talk a lot in my clinics about the first 10 minutes of your ride being the ‘golden moments’ where you show your horse your ability as a leader. And during that time, the only conversation you should have with the horse goes like this: “Hello. This is your Captain speaking!” Most people allow constant small erosions to their authority over the horse by doing things like letting him walk off without a cue to walk or letting him cut the corner in the arena, come into the middle of the arena, speed up or slow down, etc. In the horse’s mind, either the rider is in control of the ship all of the time or she/he is not the Captain. Horses are quick to learn this about any given rider (by testing) and an opportunistic horse will generally take advantage of the situation. Many riders have already flunked the test before they have any clue whatsoever that there was a test.

Unfortunately it is impossible to unlearn this behavior. Your horse knows too much already and it cannot be unlearned. This is a common problem with young horses that have been trained by a professional and then are handed over to an amateur rider. The horse quickly learns the difference between riders and will begin to test the rider to see how much he can get away with. This is something we work very hard to prevent by making sure the amateur rider has a through understanding of what it is like to ride a green horse; then hopefully the horse will never learn that he can act differently for different riders. Better training for your horse will help but the rider will have to step up to the plate and prove to the horse that she is indeed a capable leader and the captain of the ship. Unless and until that happens, the horse will continue to take advantage of a passive or subordinate rider.

JG

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