Trust is an elusive thing, both to give and to get. You cannot force or implore someone to trust you, you can only earn it. If you feel as though you have been wronged by someone else, unjustly criticized, punished or lied to, it’s really hard to give them your trust.
Lately, I’ve been working with a lot of people, in my clinics and in my Interactive Academy, who list developing trust from their horse as an important goal in their personal horsemanship journey. It is a good goal, maybe one of the best. Because a horse that trusts you and wants to please you will jump the moon if you ask him. But trust is a two way street.
Although the clients I work with don’t often state this goal (never that I can think of), I often find myself telling riders and handlers they need to develop trust in their horse. I know it’s hard to do, especially if the horse has done some scary stuff in the past, or when the rider/handler lacks confidence. But if you do not trust your horse, why would he trust you?
By and large, horses want to do the right thing. They are willing animals that seek out acceptance to the herd, respect the hierarchy and obey the rules (wait your turn, stay out of the boss’s way, be a good citizen of the herd). Horses recognize strong and fair leadership; they crave it more than anything else in life.
The greatest motivating factors in a horse’s behavior is to feel safe and comfortable. He feels safe knowing he is accepted into a herd, that there is a strong leader watching out for his safety, maintaining order, making good decisions. He gains comfort from having the security to rest, socialize and relax in peace even though the world is full of predators.
I want my horses to give themselves over to me completely and to trust me enough to follow me wherever I go and do whatever I ask. In exchange for that huge gift, I promise to be fair, make good decisions and trust him to do the job I ask without me second-guessing and doubting him. When it comes to trust, it has to be a two-way street.
Can Your Horse Trust You?
Horses can spot a strong leader a mile away, because in their minds, their very life depends on it. I always say, if horses could vote, we would not have the mess in Washington DC that we have today. It’s easy to fake leadership to humans, especially since our lives don’t depend on it—we are far too eager to believe the words coming out of the politician’s mouth, disregarding his actions and judgment. But you cannot fake leadership to a horse; your actions speak louder than your words.
A true ‘Alpha’ horse is propelled into the leadership role by the other members of the herd. I remember a leadership quote that reminds me of horses; “Leadership is borne from the needs of those who follow.” The leader of a horse herd is responsible for the safety of the herd, motivating the herd to flight when necessary, leading the herd to food and water and maintaining discipline within the herd. Horses worship their leader because she’s fair and consistent and gives them a sense of safety and comfort.
To lead, one must have good awareness of the environment, its hazards and its opportunities; plus have the ability to foresee and steer clear of danger. The leader defines and enforces the rules of the herd and disciplines unruly herd mates when necessary. A true alpha horse is not a bully; she’s strong and firm, but fair. I see people fall down on these obligations all the time, with little awareness that they are eroding their horse’s trust in them.
People are often on their own agenda and totally unaware of the environment, so they ask the horse to do things the horse perceives as dangerous, like passing between the wall of the arena and another horse. From the horse’s point of view, that’s highly dangerous, it could result in injury to him and if he questions the rider’s judgment, he gets punished for it. The erosion of your horse’s trust in your leadership ability begins with little things like this.
I’ve seen riders and handlers from the ground both, cueing a horse to back-up when the horse knows there’s a fence or another horse behind him. He perceives the danger of what they are asking of him and he starts to doubt their leadership ability. Same thing with circling and longeing in an arena with other horses—it’s quite easy to end up on a collision course with another horse but the human doesn’t see it. The horse does see it and now he’s pretty sure your judgment cannot be trusted anymore.
People get tunnel-vision and stuck on their own agenda and forget their responsibility to be aware of danger and make good decisions. Then we wonder why a horse challenges our authority and questions our leadership.
Sometimes riders give conflicting messages to horses that leave them not only questioning the rider but feeling confused and frustrated too. How many times does a person have to lie to you before you won’t trust anything coming out of his mouth? One of the saddest examples of this occurs when a reluctant rider asks the horse to canter, then at the moment the horse begins to canter, the rider freezes on the reins and the horse hits the bit hard. The horse feels like he’s been punished for doing the very thing he was asked to do (and he was) and the rider is left wondering why this stupid horse won’t go into the canter anymore.
The same contradiction occurs frequently when a rider asks the horse to go, then pulls him abruptly into a one-rein stop because he was going too fast. Riders are constantly asking horses to go more forward, then punishing him in the mouth when he does. Or asking the horse to turn or flex his neck to one side, then hitting him with the outside rein when he does. This starts feeling like a trap for the horse, not only eroding any trust he may have but also leading to an adversarial relationship.
If we can begin to think from the horse’s point of view and what makes sense to him, then it’s easier to see the mistakes you are making. If a horse is constantly challenging your authority, it’s likely he does not view you as the leader because you are not always acting like one. Rather than looking to change the horse, we must look within to see how we can change and be a better leader to the horse.
Can You Trust Your Horse?
I’m not saying horses are always perfect and never try to get away with anything, but for the most part, they are kind, generous, willing animals that want to be good citizens. But I’d be willing to bet that most everyone reading this article thinks of themselves that way too—a good solid citizen. Yet occasionally we drive a little over the speed limit, run a yellow light or call in sick to work because we want a play day.
Although horses occasionally try and get out of work, for the most part they are willing to do what we ask. Horses prove again and again that they are willing to let you ride them, willing to stop, go and turn when you ask. Any horse is capable of ditching the rider at any moment, yet they not only let us ride, but a horse that trusts you will try and jump the moon if you ask.
On a daily basis, I see riders taking a death-grip on the reins, micro-managing every move that the horse makes—asking him to go, then restricting his ability to move forward with the reins; asking him to turn, then impeding his ability to bend his neck with the outside rein. I see handlers from the ground so afraid the horse is going to leave that they are holding onto the horse’s face with a tight lead (or worse, clamping on the reins, putting his mouth in a vise grip). These are constant ongoing messages to the horse that you do not trust him one little bit.
When a rider/handler does not trust the horse to do the right thing and begins to micro-manage, it sets up a very bad dynamic that leads to frustration and aggravation from the horse and a co-dependency of behavior. An obedient horse goes in the direction the rider dictates and the speed the rider requests. He’s perfectly capable of maintaining whatever direction or speed the rider wants without constant interference. When the rider tries to hold the horse in a direction or hold the horse in a speed, it absolves the horse from any responsibility and tells him that you don’t trust him to do the right thing.
Once I’ve asked my horse to do something for me, I trust him to do it, I give him the freedom he needs and I let him do his job. I praise him and let him rest when he does it well. I correct him if he makes a mistake and ask him to try it again. But I never try to prevent him from making the mistake. If I ask the horse to trot and he misunderstands and takes a canter instead (because I was not clear), I don’t get mad or hold him tighter, I just clarify the cue, correct him and move on. Just like us, the horse learns from making mistakes. But the next time I ask, I have to trust him to do the right thing and let him do his job.
When the rider lacks confidence or has reason not to trust the horse (maybe the horse has bucked or spooked or done something to frighten the rider), it’s really hard to let go and give him the chance to do the right thing. But when the rider sends a constant message through the reins, through her posture and through her actions that she is afraid and thinks the horse is going to be bad, you can see how the horse might have a hard time accepting the rider as the leader.
On the other hand, it’s amazing how willingly a horse will follow your lead when you trust him and treat him as if you are 100% certain he will do as you ask. Horses are incredibly keen to your level of intention, determination and trust, be it high or low. When we doubt ourselves, the horse sees it and begins to question our leadership ability. When you doubt the horse, he feels it and starts questioning if he really does have to do what you ask.
Think of it like raising children. We educate them and teach them how to follow the rules and make good decisions but at some point we have to give them the freedom to make their own decisions, right or wrong. By making mistakes, we learn to have better judgment. If you are afraid to trust your horse and you never give him a chance to do the right thing, he cannot learn from his mistakes and he is reliant on you forever to tell him what to do.
The End Game
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about developing trust in horses and it’s something I’ve worked hard for all of my life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes with horses—we all do—but realizing the mistake, owning it, and learning from it so that you never make that mistake again, is the important part. Realizing and understanding the mistake in the first place is the hard part. You have to know you are making a mistake before you can own it. On a daily basis, I see people making inadvertent mistakes with horses that they have no idea they are making.
Most anyone who has been around horses for very long comes to see that 99% of horse “problems” are rider-induced. Yet we as humans have a never-ending capacity to always blame the horse, “my horse has a problem with his canter leads.” Really? Last time I saw him running out in the field, he took the correct lead every single time. Maybe the problem is in your inability to communicate the lead you want to the horse.
When the rider understands that as the true leader, she is not only responsible for her own actions but also for the actions of those who follow her, then real progress can be made. What am I doing that is causing this response in my horse? How am I falling down on the job of leader and causing my horse not to trust me? If I can recognize my own mistakes and take responsibility for my own actions, not only will my horse trust me more, but my horsemanship will drastically improve too. When the rider/handler improves, the horse always gets better.
RIDE RIGHT WITH JULIE GOODNIGHT
Hone your horse’s manners and your leadership skills over the winter for a better ride in the spring with these tips from top trainer/clinician
For more on how to ground-tie with guidelines from Julie Goodnight, go to TrailRiderMag.com.
Unless you’re in the Sunbelt, winter means less trail-riding time and more turnout for your horse. Until the ground thaws, you’ll need to keep him focused on you with targeted ground-work exercises.
The more you work with your horse over the winter, the more he’ll be focused on you when it’s time for more saddle time in the spring.
Plus, you’ll keep up your own horsemanship skills and learn to be aware of how your body position and sequencing of cues help your horse to learn quickly and easily. You’ll then be able to teach your horse most anything for great trail rides.
Here, top trainer/clinician Goodnight will first explain how the herd mentality your horse can develop in winter turnout can present training challenges.
Then Goodnight will give you three ground-work exercises to work on throughout the winter to keep your horse looking to you as his herd leader: (1) Practice body awareness; (2) teach the standstill; and (3) teach leading manners.
Goodnight will also provide a rope-halter-tying tip that kids can practice inside this winter.
The Herd Mentality
When your horse is turned out for the winter, he may quickly revert to a herd mentality. In that mode, he’ll follow the herd’s cues, rather than keep tuned in to your leadership.
“You may undermine instead of boosting your leadership if, in the winter, your horse is turned out with his buddies and you only see him at feeding time, or when you step in to rub on him and bring him treats,” says Goodnight.
“It’s not that you’re never going to hug on your horse or love on him, but respect has to come first. Think about how you’re interacting with him every time you’re near him.”
How long does it take a horse to be turned out and become part of the big herd instead of part of your horse-and-human herd of two?
Goodnight says that as horses approach middle age, they may become more herd-bound, but individual horses react differently with more or less time away from work.
To be safe, perform ground work all year long to help keep your horse looking to you for leadership. He’ll continue to be (or will become) a respectful partner who looks for your leadership and permission.
Before You Begin
You can do ground work in a small space — in your barnyard or even inside the barn. You need only a small, fairly level area with good footing.
Outfit your horse in a rope halter and a long training lead with a rope-to-rope connection at the halter. A rope halter better translates your cues than a flat nylon halter does.
Over the winter, do these exercises as often as possible. Once per day is ideal, but once per week or even once per month is much better than not working with your horse at all.
Exercise 1: Practice Body Awareness
This body-awareness exercise helps your horse tune in to your body/sign language, and begin to have more deference for your leadership — and your personal space.
A horse’s spatial awareness is acute — he has a greater appreciation for body/sign language than humans do. It’s your job to mind your position and body language and make sure that you’re aware of your posture and consistent cues.
Step 1. Define your personal space. Every time you’re near your horse, stretch your arms out around you in all directions. That’s your space — space your horse shouldn’t enter without permission.
Free yourself of the need to be in your horse’s space all the time. That’s satisfying for you, but not helpful for your relationship with him. If you enter your horse’s space all the time — kissing and hugging — your horse won’t have a clear idea about your personal boundaries.
While you sometimes want to love on your horse, start with a clear boundary. Only allow that closeness after you have set up a clear expectation of his space and yours.
Step 2. Practice your body language. Practice submissive and more aggressive postures in front of a mirror.
If your shoulders are rounded, your toes are pointed away, and your eyes are diverted, you’ll appear unthreatening to your horse.
If your shoulders are up, your chest is puffed, your chin is high, and you look straight at your horse, he’ll take that as an aggressive or admonishing posture.
Match your body language to the situation; always be aware of when and how you’re moving.
Adopt less threatening body language if you want to give your horse a break and not be reactive to your every move (or help him know you’re not an aggressor when you’re trying to catch him).
Appear active and confident when you get ready to move with your horse.
Exercise 2: Teach the Standstill
When you get back in the saddle this spring, you’ll want to know that your horse will stand still. This is an important trail skill.
You’ll want your horse to stand still for mounting, and in case you need to hop off to help another rider. The standstill also is the basis for learning to ground-tie.
Learning to stand still also reminds your horse to focus on you and get in the habit of reacting to your cues, rather than looking for something else to focus on — and possibly spook at.
Your horse needs to look at you and think before making a move. Teach this mind-set on the ground, and this lesson will carry over to your under-saddle time in the spring.
Add the command “whoa,” and you’ll teach your horse to stop and focus on you no matter where you are.
When you’re on the trail, this command will solidify your horse’s ability to focus on you. If he does spook when you’re riding, he’ll know that “whoa” means “stop now.” You’ll program in a command that may keep him from running off. Instead, he’ll focus on you.
Note: If your horse has been confined, start with another exercise that allows him move around. If he’s turned out all day, this is a great place to start.
Step 1. Place your horse. Ask your horse to stand still like a statue and not move a hoof without your permission. Place him where you’d like him to stand, then turn, and face him. Avoid standing too close. You don’t want to hold him still; you want him to know that he must listen and choose to stand still.
Step 2. Move away. Stand about six feet away, and point your toes toward his left shoulder. Make sure you’re not standing directly in front of him, but just off to the left side of his body.
Step 3. Correct him. If your horse moves a hoof or turns his head so that his nose passes his shoulders, issue an immediate correction by sending a wave through the lead rope so that it puts pressure on the rope halter. Use the amount of pressure needed to get his attention. Some horses need only a small movement of the rope to remind him to listen; others need more pressure.
Your horse will quickly learn that every time he moves a foot without your authorization, he’ll get in trouble. He should learn this lesson quickly, in the very first session, if your timing and corrections are effective.
Step 4. Heighten the challenge. When your horse obeys, heighten the challenge. Step farther and farther away. Eventually, lay the middle of the rope on the ground while you hold the end. Even if you only ask him to stand for 30 seconds, you’ll strengthen your relationship as your horse looks to you to know what to do and how to act.
Step 5. Teach the ground-tie. When your horse is listening well, lay down the rope, and teach him to stand still with the rope on the ground. Work up to 10 to 15 minutes of practice a day, and you’ll have a horse who can successfully ground-tie before spring.
Step 6. Increase the challenge further. Ask your horse to stand still when he’s antsy, such as before it’s time for turnout or when other horses are moving into the barn to eat. He needs to listen to you no matter what the horse herd is doing around him. When he knows the lesson, it won’t matter how much energy he has — he’ll stand still when asked.
Exercise 3: Teach Leading Manners
Leading manners are paramount on the trail. You might find yourself riding in an uncontrollable environment and need to dismount. You might need to dismount, and lead your horse across difficult terrain. You might need to pony your horse.
If your horse will obediently follow you when you lead him, you’ll likely both stay safe on the trail, even a narrow one carved into a sheer cliff.
With this exercise, sequence your cues, so that you always do the same thing in the same order, step-by-step: Look up, lean your shoulders forward; move your feet; pull on the lead, if necessary.
When you sequence your aids, your horse will quickly learn and respond. You’ll carry the leadership role that you’ll develop practicing this exercise into your spring riding.
Here’s how to apply this sequencing to teaching your horse how to maintain a respectful position as you lead him.
Step 1. Gain his focus. You’ll first need to teach your horse to focus on your movements and maintain a position on your side, regardless of your speed and direction. He’ll need to learn to stay in the correct position and within the acceptable boundaries. He shouldn’t move into your space or ahead of you. To gain his focus, move deliberately, and be consistent with your body language.
Step 2. Walk on. To initiate the walk, lean your shoulders forward; this tells your horse you’re about to move. Then move your feet, and say “Walk on!” or cluck to him. Give him these cues before you pull on the lead.
Step 3. Apply lead-rope pressure. If your horse doesn’t walk when you give him the above cues, reinforce them with lead-rope pressure. Lean your body weight into the rope if necessary.
Step 4. Release lead-rope pressure. As soon as your horse takes one step forward, release the lead-rope pressure, and continue walking. Hold the lead loosely so that he learns to follow your body language without expecting a pull. You want to teach him to move with you, not depend on constant lead-rope pressure.
Step 5. Correct him, if necessary. As you walk your horse, don’t let his nose move past your lead hand, and definitely don’t let his shoulder move past yours. If he crosses the boundary, snap back hard on the lead rope, turn around and face him, stomp your feet, flap your arms and back him up while admonishing him with your voice.
Use the amount of pressure that causes your horse to think: What did I do wrong? What can I do so that doesn’t happen again?
Some horses may only need you to turn and look at him sternly; other horses may need more pressure. If your horse falls into the latter category, stop, turn, and back him up a few steps with authority.
If you use enough pressure and good timing, your horse will very quickly learn the precise place he should be. Soon, he’ll learn that the moment you lean forward, he better be ready to move.
Tip: If you find yourself constantly pulling or initiating a correction multiple times, check to make sure your corrections are consistent. Slightly escalate the pressure, and add a verbal admonishment.
Step 6. Don’t hold him back. Don’t pull back on the lead rope to hold your horse back. If you pull on the lead all the time, he’ll forever rely on that pressure to tell him where to be. Instead, give him the responsibility to keep himself in the proper place, using the correction outlined in Step 4.
Step 7. Regulate his speed. If your horse lags behind your walking pace, change your body language. When you move your shoulders forward then move your feet, your horse should step with you. If you have to also pull on the lead rope, bring your arms in close to your body and lean forward hard on the rope.
If you lean forward quickly as a correction, not as a constant pull, you’ll teach your horse to pay attention to the body language that came first instead of waiting for the pull.
Tip: Avoid turning and swatting your horse with the end of the lead rope to propel him forward. This action can confuse him, because you’re actually turning around and changing your direction. Simply continue the correction outlined in Step 4.
Step 8. Change direction. At the walk, ask for a change of direction. To turn, simply walk toward the direction you want to go. Be sure to move your horse away from you and out of your space; don’t pull him toward you.
If your horse doesn’t move, pick up your hands, stomp your feet and defend your space by waving your hands just behind your horse’s eye without touching him.
Step 9. Ask for the trot. To pick up the trot, lean your shoulders forward, then start trotting while saying “Trot!” If he starts to trot, praise him. Then go back down to the walk, and ask for the trot again. Just trot straight lines; don’t trot around turns.
Step 10. Change it up. Escalate the challenge by changing speeds, turning, then turning at different speeds and degrees. Soon, you’ll be able to walk in all directions with little to no pressure on the lead rope and only with your body language.
Step 11. Use just a neck rope. If your horse leads well with the halter and lead rope, try working with him in a safe, enclosed area with just a neck rope. With this gear, you can test your horse’s obedience while maintaining a way to correct him, if needed. [BUG]
For more training tips from Julie Goodnight, and to access her free online library, go to www.juliegoodnight.com.
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from HorseBooksEtc.com.
JUST FOR KIDS
How to Tie a Rope Halter fasten/put on? Does this sound like you are going to make a rope halter from scratch?
Rope halters are great training tools, but unlike nylon and leather halters, you need to tie them onto your horse’s head. This can be a challenge for anyone.
Julie Goodnight says she often sees rope halters tied with an incorrect knot. She also sees halters with the tail aimed toward the horse’s eye instead of his rear end.
Practice tying a rope halter correctly, so when you catch your horse, you can secure him quickly and get the knot undone easily. A correctly adjusted and tied halter will also translate your lead-rope cues more precisely to your horse than a sloppy halter will
Practice haltering a stuffed horse, or have a friend hold the halter as if it were on your horse’s head.
Here’s how to tie the halter knot:
> Adjust the halter so that the throat knot is all the way up to the horse’s throat.
> Bring the length that comes down from the crownpiece (the part that lies behind your horse’s ears) down through the halter’s loop on the left-hand side of his face.
> Tie this length around the bottom part of the loop, making a figure-eight.
> Make sure the excess length is pointed toward your horse’s tail.
> Watch Goodnight tie a rope halter on this YouTube.com video: http://tinyurl.com/prn3pe5.
Your horse sees objects far away much better than those nearby. As a prey animal, he’s programmed to scan the horizon, searching for predators. His brain is also trained to react to quick movements, such blowing branches and strangely moving unidentified objects-even items that you know to be harmless. Until proven otherwise, your horse assumes that an unidentifiable object may kill and eat him, which can lead to nervous, spooky behavior.
Your horse also has difficulty seeing when moving from light to dark and vice versa. While your horse has excellent night vision, his eyes dilate and constrict tremendously to see by both sunlight and starlight. As horses in the wild rely on their vision for survival, compromised vision can lead to a spook.
This in mind, keep your eyes moving and looking far down the trail. Scan the horizon for any object (such as a blowing grocery bag) or potentially scary scene (such as a dark, shaded area), that may cause your horse anxiety and lead to a spook.
By simply looking ahead, you can avoid circumstances that may trigger your nervous horse’s fears. If you can ride proactively toward whatever lies ahead, you may ride right past the threat before your horse acts out with fear.
When you spot a potential problem object or scene, follow these steps:
Step #1: Take charge. Remind your horse that you’re in charge and worthy of following in the case of a crisis. Remind him of your leadership skills and his ability to be obedient.
Step #2: Cue your horse. To establish your leadership, ask for simple, continuous moves, such as stop, go forward, turn, back, etc. Star your series of cues as soon as you see the scary object, before your horse detects it.
Step #3: Keep him focused. As you approach the object, keep your horse focused and his nose pointed directly down the trail; no looking around is allowed. If his nose isn’t pointed straight ahead, he’s thinking about his surroundings and preparing to take off on his own path.
Step #4: Stop and relax. Stop regularly to remind your horse that you’re in control. Let him drop his head, take a deep breath, and relax; then forge ahead. As he relaxes, take a moment to breathe deeply yourself. Your attentiveness and calm disposition will also cue your horse to relax.
Teaching leadership to horse owner’s
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
Ask Julie Goodnight:
What can I do to keep my horse focused when we’re on the trail?
Question: Dear Julie,
My 6-year-old-AQHA gelding is very focused in the arena, on or off cattle, keeping his face directed at our target or direction. On the trail, he likes to look all around and, if I don’t re-direct him, follow his face off toward whatever catches his attention. If I allow that behavior (meandering, I call it), am I creating long-term problems for us? As always, I appreciate your expertise. Thanks, Doc.
In defense of your horse and in the spirit of “you can’t have everything,” you have to understand that a horse bred to work cattle does not always make the best trail horse. A “cowy” horse’s mind is keyed into movement and wants to follow it; he notices every little thing and tends to stay on alert. While this works out great in the arena and on cattle, it is not ideal for trail riding. Having said that, being cowy is no excuse for disobedience, and yes, if you allow disobedience it will cause bigger problems for you down the road because it erodes your authority and leadership.
An obedient horse will be focused straight ahead and will go in the direction you ask, at the speed you dictate, without constant direction from you. Many riders micro-manage their horses by constantly steering and correcting speed with the reins, so the horse becomes dependent on that. Once you cue a horse to go at a certain speed and in a certain direction, he should continue on that path and at that speed/gait until you ask him to speed up, slow down, turn right or turn left.
To check how obedient your horse is, find a target and give him a cue to walk or trot straight toward your target, then lay your hand down on his neck with a loose rein, and see if he continues. If he changes speed or direction without a cue from you, it means you have a horse that is either disobedient or co-dependent on you and you have some work to do. You need to break your habit of micro-managing, give clear directives, then give your horse the responsibility to obey. Correct him with your reins and legs if he makes a mistake; but leave him alone when he is obedient. Use enough pressure in your corrections that he is motivated to behave.
I have written a lot about having nose control on your horse. He should not be looking around while you are riding him, either in the arena or on the trail. Simply correct the nose with the opposite rein—if he looks right, bump the left rein, and visa-versa. Do not try to hold the nose in place; just correct it when he is wrong. I use the point of shoulder as a guideline; he can move his nose all he wants as long as it stays between the points of his shoulder; as soon as it crosses the line, he gets a correction. In short order, he will keep his nose pointed in the right direction.
Keep in mind, that just because you control the nose, does not mean you control the rest of the horse. He can easily run through his shoulder and go in the opposite direction that his nose is pointed. The most important thing is to control the horse’s shoulder but if you cannot control the nose, you have little chance of controlling the rest of the body.
How strict I am on the horse’s nose and his looking around, depends somewhat on the horse, his level of training and his willingness to be obedient and subordinate. If I am riding a horse that has proven to be well-behaved, responsive and obedient, I may let him look around a little, as long as he does not alter the course I have set in either speed or direction. On the other hand, if I have a horse that has proven to be disobedient, spooky or otherwise fractious, I will have a zero tolerance for looking around.
For your cow-bred horse, you will have to factor in his training, temperament and obedience and decide how strict you will be. Always correct a horse when he changes course without a cue from you, but with a cowy horse, that is bred to be very alert to any movement in his environment, you may have to cut him a little slack as long as he remains obedient.
The most important thing for you is that you have a clear and consistent view of what will be corrected and what is expected of your horse. That’s why I use the points of shoulder as a landmark—that way I have clearly defined what I expect and I know exactly when to correct the horse and when not to, so that the horse can clearly understand the rule and that I can give consistent corrections.
You’ll have to use your own judgment with your horse, but as long as it is clear and consistent, your horse will learn quickly. Good luck!
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series
Avoid Gate Sour Behavior…
Is your horse gate sour? Does he want to stop at the gate and think he’s headed back to the barn? All horses have this tendency instinctively, and if not handled correctly, it can escalate into very difficult behavior. Sometimes known as “gate gravity” and it is an indication that your horse is disobedient and does not trust your leadership skills or respect your authority over her or want to have anything to do with you.
First, you need to have better knowledge of horse behavior and the whole leader-follower/ dominant-subordinate part of horse life. You can get all the information you need on this from the articles and Q&As on my website, It is worth your time reading a few articles to make sure you have a thorough understanding of the fundamental principles of equine behavior that governs a horse’s motivation for the comfort and security he gets from the herd. Only by emulating the structure and hierarchy of the herd, and being a strong leader to your horse can you give the horse the confidence he needs to feel safe with you.
You can attain this level of authority and control of your horse by doing groundwork with your horse so that she respects your authority, looks to you as her leader and is calm and obedient. There are numerous articles and Q&As on my website about this groundwork process but you may need help from a qualified coach to execute the groundwork correctly. The articles will give you a better understanding of the principles behind groundwork, but reading is never enough. You’ll need some coaching as well to make sure you are safe and using correct technique. Groundwork done poorly can make a horse irritated, defensive and even aggressive and if you have a proven track record with your horse of not having authority, your horse will likely resist your attempt to take charge.
Secondly, when you ride any horse, it is important that you choose the path that he walks on at all times. If he is making decisions on his own at any time about where he goes or how fast he gets there, then he will become increasingly disobedient. In my clinics, I see people eroding their authority with the horse all the time with little things like letting the horse walk or trot without being cued or letting the horse come off the rail a step or two when riding in the arena, letting him cut the corners, slow down/speed up or walk off when you mount. Each time the horse is allowed to make a decision unauthorized by you, it erodes your authority and leadership and leads to more unauthorized decisions, like no, I am not leaving the barn right now.
Consider that if every time a horse got away with disobedience and unauthorized decisions that he had scored a point of dominance over you. Typically before the rider realizes that she has a control problem, the score is already 250 to nothing and now she has a lot of catching up to do. Being persistent and particular in the beginning with a horse and insisting that he walk exactly where you say (not approximately) will put him in line in such a way that he wouldn’t think of varying from the path.
But to do that, you need to ride correctly and give clear, consistent and meaningful signals to the horse; not signals that are conflicting with each other, like pulling on both reins when you want the horse to turn or pulling back on the reins when you want the horse to go. My audios and videos explain how this is done, but again, you’ll probably need some good personal instruction too.
You need to learn to correct the horse with one rein, not two and by lifting up or sideways with the rein, not back. Pulling back on the rein, whether it is one rein or two, always opposes a horse’s forward motion and makes him want to stop (which is what he would prefer to do at the gate). Lifting your hand up or to the side will give you turning control without opposing his forward motion. You will also use your legs at the same time to both push the horse back into a straight line and keep him moving forward (the horse should move away from your leg- left leg makes the horse move right- both legs together makes the horse move forward). There are lots of articles on my website about using your aids properly, just make sure you are not pulling on both reins at the same time.
When a horse is moving out of the designated track you put him on, often just a lift up toward his ears with the outside rein is enough to block the horse’s movement in that direction. Which is the outside rein can become a little confusing at this point. Remember, the term outside or inside has nothing to do with the arena fence and has solely to do with the horse’s arc or bend. In your case, if the horse is pulling toward the gate, his nose is probably pointed toward the middle of the arena and his body is pulling toward the gate, so the outside rein is the one closest to the rail. If the horse were coming off the rail toward the middle, his nose is probably pointed toward the rail and his body is coming in toward the middle so the outside rein would be the one closest to the middle. Clear as mud, right?
Finally, make sure that you have good arena training practices. NEVER stop a horse at the gate. Never dismount at the gate and leave the arena; never ride your horse out of the arena. I always dismount far away from the gate and lead the horse out of the arena, so as not to make him focused on the gate. Furthermore, you may even want to ask the horse to work hard at the gate (ask him to trot every time he approaches the gate) so that he associates the gate with not such a great place to be. Similarly, if you ask a horse to circle and change directions every time he comes off the rail, he will eventually learn that the rail is not such a bad place to be because he doesn’t have to work as hard.
Remember, learning to ride and handle horses competently is a life-long pursuit. Every month you’ll be better and better, especially if you have some competent coaching along the way. Good luck to you!
Why are horses so spooky?
Before we can ever hope to understand, let alone control the movement of a horse, it is important to know the various behaviors that motivate a horse to move in the first place. Being a prey animal means the horse’s first reaction to danger is to run, hell bent for leather, away from the perceived threat. React first, think later.
Everyone knows that horses are flight animals; in fact, horses are the very definition of flighty and depend on this behavior for survival. What is often misunderstood about horses is, how deep the flight response goes in a horse’s nature and that every movement a horse is capable of and every step he takes has some significance. Everything about the horse is linked to its flight response. Crazy as it sounds, even their laziness is related to the flight response. By nature horses are generally lazy, for the sole purpose of preserving energy in case it is needed in flight. In the current trend of natural horsemanship, far too much is sometimes made of the predator-prey relationship, since horses, after all, have been domesticated for thousands of years and don’t really think of humans as carnivorous predators. However, it is important to understand that the prey instinct is the origin of the horse’s behavior as we know it today and it is what motivates their movement.
Horses are herd animals, again related to prey-dom, meaning their survival is dependent on the herd. There are safety in numbers. Herd behavior is another important motivating factor for a horse and is present in our everyday dealings with horses, more so than is often recognized. Again, every movement a horse makes has meaning and when given a choice, the horse will always move toward the protection of the herd. These are fundamental and deep layers of horse behavior and the subject could fill many volumes, but the one thing we can deal with here, is to develop an understanding of how we can control the movements of a horse in our presence.
The first thing to understand is that the horse feels safer when he is moving his feet, and the more nervous or uncertain he gets, the more he wants to move his feet. Yet there is nothing a horse likes better than to feel protected enough that he can snooze, standing or prone, knowing that the herd leader is watching out for his safety. The herd leader, a/k/a boss mare, is responsible for the safety of the herd and with a second’s notice, must be able to motivate the entire herd to flight. She earns the respect, admiration, obedience and, most importantly, attentiveness of the herd by dominating every move they make and by controlling the resources of the herd (you’ll recognize the boss mare easily, she’s the one standing in front of the water trough, playing in the fresh clean water and slowly sipping until she is satiated, while the rest of the herd stands in line, thirsty but patient, awaiting their turn in the pecking order). The boss mare controls the actions of each herd member through her body language. When her head is down in the grass and she is quietly munching, her herd mates will be relaxed. When her head comes up, ears prick forward and her muscles tighten, the rest of the herd knows to prepare for flight. They will follow her anywhere on her signal.
Just to make sure the horses all pay attention to her in times of stress, the boss mare will periodically push the herd individuals around a little so that they are in the habit of responding to her. When she directs her gaze at an individual flattens her ears and takes a step toward him, the subordinate horse knows to immediately move away. If they don’t respond quickly enough, she might leave some teeth marks on his rear end. Subordinate herd mates will quickly learn to watch the body language of their leader at all times and to respond without question to her movements.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of relationship with your horse? If you have the opportunity to observe a herd, you will learn to recognize the subtle communications that constantly occur. For instance, a frightened horse will elevate his head, tense his ears, stiffen his tail and hold his breath; all of these actions communicate an outside threat to the other horses and they will instantly act the same way and look in the same direction. A relaxed and safe horse will lower his head (the lower it goes the more relaxed he is), relax his ears, lick his lips, chew, drop his tail and take a deep sigh.
Horses communicate with their body language, with the head position, ear position, facial expressions, feet, tail, mouth and nose. Horses receive communication from us in the same way, whether we know it or not. The desired relationship between horse and human is that of a herd of two. According to the laws of the herd (the only rules horses really understand) the hierarchy is linear, meaning each and every individual of the herd is either dominate over or subordinate to each and every other individual. In your herd of two, your choice is clear: you must be the dominant member, the alpha individual, the “boss mare.” You must earn this respect, admiration and obedience by controlling the space of your horse and the “resources” of your herd (if your horse is frisking you for treats, HE is controlling the resources).
The first step in controlling your horse’s movement is to control your own body language. Your horse will notice your posture, eye contact, your foot movements, the elevation of your shoulders, the tone of your voice and the rhythm of your breathing. Be aware of the actions on your part and know that you are constantly communicating with your horse through your body language.
If your horse takes a step toward you and you back away, you have just told him he is in charge. If you get scared, tense your muscles and hold your breath, your horse will mirror your actions and instantly become frightened. All horses, no matter how high in the hierarchy, will gratefully accept the leadership of another individual, as long as the leader has demonstrated their commitment to controlling and protecting the herd.
For a horse to accept a human as leader, that human must be able to control the horse’s space and must never betray his trust by causing him fear or pain. Once they have accepted the individual (horse or human) as leader, they will be relaxed, compliant, obedient and happy. In natural horsemanship, we use ground work (round pen and lead-line) to control the horse’s space so that he becomes subordinate.
Beyond just controlling his space, we learn to communicate with the horse through our body language, to develop a strong bond and trust between leader and follower. The horse must be treated firmly but with kindness and above all, your interactions with the horse must be consistent so that he can learn to trust them. This kind of relationship with the horse is the ideal, but one that many horsemen find illusive.
To have a horse that is happy, respectful and obedient, who willingly does whatever you ask and responds to your most subtle cues, you must first become his leader and earn his respect. Learn to control your horse’s space and communicate with your own body language in a way that he understands, and you will not only earn his respect, but admiration as well.
–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer
I tend to be a big softy when it comes to dealing with my horse. Now I have created a horse that knows this and takes advantage of me, especially when doing groundwork. He pushes me and tries to pull me when I am leading. He does not do this to my husband, so I know he accepts him as the leader, but not me. What are your suggestions?
Dear Pushed Over,
I can tell you already know what the cause of your problem is: you have indulged your horse and through your lack of leadership he has become increasingly rude and thinks he is the boss of you. This is natural horse behavior in its finest and purest sense. And the solution involves natural horsemanship, and its logical and sensible approach. Natural horsemanship is simply knowing and understanding the horse’s natural behavior and using that information to train him in a language that he understands.
Horses are very communicative animals, communicating largely with non-audible language. The horse uses sign language with every part of his body: head elevation, ear position, nostril and mouth gestures, nose movements, front feet, hind feet, tail position, plus a few distinctive audible calls. It is an intricate language and a very distinctive one; once you can learn to ‘read’ the horse, you can understand his emotions, motivations and behaviors.
Horses are also very physical in their communications within the herd and even the most novice of horse people can watch any herd of three or more horses and see the bossiness, pushing, shoving, kicking and screaming that goes on in the herd. Horses are very demonstrative and make their emotions, directives and intentions known.
Horses are also very happy, serene and obedient in the herd when there is a kind but strict benevolent leader in the herd. That’s your job in your herd of two. They are also instinctively gregarious animals and they yearn to be with a herd mate that makes them feel safe, secure and comfortable; not unlike humans. It is your job as herd leader to make your horse feel safe, secure and comfortable, but you’ll never get there by indulging and babying your horse.
Only two factors are involved: resources and space. The resources of the herd are anything that the herd values, such as food, water, shelter, and companionship. The dominant horse always has first access to the resources; therefore one of the easiest ways to determine the pecking order of a herd is to throw some feed out and look for the sharks.
The second factor in establishing dominance is spatial. Spatial issues are constantly at work within the herd setting. The dominant horse controls the space of the subordinate horse. A subordinate horse would never think of invading the space of its superior; if he did, he would probably lose some hair and possibly some skin over the deal. In NH, we strive to be a kind and benevolent leader for our horse. This involves setting parameters and ground rules and giving fair and consistent leadership to the horse. Spoiling, pampering and coddling the horse will only lead the horse to disrespect you and search elsewhere for leadership.
If you are interested in improving your leadership to the horse, with the added bonus of teaching your horse good ground manners, to respect you and want to please you, you must learn to set boundaries and enforce good behavior. There are articles on my website about doing this kind of ground work with horses and my DVD on Lead Line Leadership available at http://www.juliegoodnight.com/products.html explains this process in an easy to understand, step-by-step process, showing three totally different horses move through the process.
The good news is that it is never too late to make a change and with the right approach, your horse will turn around immediately. If you get educated and learn to treat your horse as the herd leader (I know it sounds very cliché, but it is true), you will have the relationship with the horse that you want. Besides, doing groundwork is fun and rewarding!
Take the first step, make a change and you will be rewarded by your horse. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer
I have a 10-year-old horse that was born on my farm. From day one has been an ADD/spooky horse. He has been a challenge! Although we have made progress, it seems like I’m always going back to square one. My background is in dressage, but I do a lot of ground work too; some round pen, longeing, etc. I take him places, clinics and shows now and then, but I still struggle with getting his attention. Once in a while he’s kind of relaxed but progress is very slow. I can’t seem to get beyond the inattentiveness to really start being able to school him. What can I do to help him be calm and focused?
Finding the Focus
It sounds like you have already tried a lot of different things with this horse with limited success. At 10 years old, he ought to be getting pretty mature and reliable especially with all the work you have done. Without seeing you and your horse in action, it is hard for me to make a diagnosis, but I can make some suggestions, based on my experience in working with horses and people.
First you’ll need to teach your horse how to properly respond when something frightens him—we’ll replace his spooky behavior with stop, think and relax behavior.
Next, you’ll probably need to go back to basics in your ground work, paying special attention to your horse’s focus. Just doing ground work isn’t always productive, unless you’re going about it systematically, with a keen sense of awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish.
Finally, you’ll have to work on nose control with your horse, both from the ground and from the saddle. Just like a child with ADD, sitting at his desk and focusing on the teacher can be tough, but it can be learned, even without the Ritalin!
I like to teach spooky horses to face their fear. As long as they face it they can stop and relax, and get lots of reassurance from me. So the first cardinal rule is that you must make sure your horse stops and faces the scary thing. When he’s afraid (instead of spinning and bolting), reward him. He’ll soon learn that when he stops he gets praise, a rub on the neck and gets to stop and relax.
Once he takes a deep breath and drops his head in relaxation, I’ll gently encourage him to move toward whatever he’s afraid of; I ask him to move forward one step at a time, stopping him with each step (so that I remain in control, issuing the orders, and so that he remains obedient) and rewarding him. This eventually becomes a game to the horse and he loves to work for the reward. He gets the ultimate reward when he will actually walk all the way up to the scary object and reach out and touch it with his nose. You can practice this exercise from the ground, too.
One big problem with a horse like this is that he doesn’t focus on you and doesn’t look to you for leadership. A focused and obedient horse—one that looks to you for direction, is best accomplished with groundwork, both lead line and round pen. It sounds like you have done a lot of this already, but I have seen a lot of people do ground work without succeeding in getting the horse’s total focus. For instance, the horse may run well around the round pen and do turns and stops, etc., but if his total focus isn’t on you almost all the time, then the round pen work may have been nothing more than meaningless chasing of the horse.
Once the horse is moving away from me well in the round pen and I can control which direction he goes, I want to establish a line of communication with him so that he’s constantly looking to me for directives. If his focus wanders outside the round pen, then I put him to work. Not harshly and not chasing him but asking him to do something like go faster, go slower, turn this way, turn that way, etc.
When his focus is on me because he has to watch me to see what I am going to ask him to do next, I let him stop and relax, for as long as he can stay focused on me. If his attention wanders, he goes back to work. This same concept can be applied for lead line work and mounted work as well. Just be careful that when you ask the horse for more focus by putting him to work, that you’re not getting fast and reactive to him and escalating his tension but just quietly issuing one directive after another to the horse and reinforcing what you ask of him.
Finally, it is very important that you always have control of the horse’s nose, both on the ground and especially in the saddle. Most people let their horse’s nose (and therefore his focus) wander all over the place and look at whatever interests him. This is a root cause of many behavioral and obedience problems. Usually, the very first indication that a horse is thinking about doing something he shouldn’t do is when the nose leaves its position from in front of his chest.
We work very hard with our colts and any older horses with behavior problems to teach this very important rule, “Thou shalt keep your nose directly in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you or riding you.” If you set this very simple rule with your horse and then enforce it 100% of the time, within minutes, your horse will become more focused and obedient.
I think it is important to master this rule on the ground first, but I also work on it in the saddle from the get go. From the ground, all you have to do is ask the horse to stand (that is another very important ground rule we set right away, “Thou shalt not move thy feet unless I tell you to move them.”) and then step back away from the horse. He should stand there on his own volition, not because you have a choke hold on the halter rope. See my Lead Line Leadership video if you have trouble with your horse standing still.
Correct his nose with a gentle bump of the lead every time he moves his nose away from you and point at his nose or twirl the tail of the rope toward his nose every time he moves the nose toward you. Just put his nose back where you told it to stay every time it moves; be slow and calm with your corrections but always consistent and firm when necessary. Work on nose control standing in an open area for 5-10 minutes and the horse will learn his parameters. Then reinforce this rule at the hitching rail and at all times you’re working around the horse.
Carrying over this rule (nose control) to the saddle is very important for a spooky horse or a horse that is easily distracted. He can pick his head up and look at anything he wants to, as long as his nose stays in front of his chest. If it moves to either side, correct it with a gentle and slow bump of one rein (if he’s turning his nose to the right, use the left rein and visa versa). Again, it isn’t a pull or a jerk, but a slow gentle bump up on the rein and keep bumping (not pulling) until the nose comes back to center. If you set this rule and then enforce it, in short order the horse will learn to keep his nose centered and his attention will stay on you.
If you set some basic ground rules with your horse, he will respond. Horses are very good at following rules—that’s how they get along in the herd. The alpha of the herd calls all the shots. When she says move, her subordinates move. When she says it’s time to relax and take a nap, they do it. When she says it is time for flight, they respond.
By teaching your horse how to react properly when he’s frightened, by doing ground work to increase the horse’s focus on you and by learning to control your horse’s nose—and therefore his attention—you’ll make a lot of progress with this horse.
No horse wants to be nervous and frightened. Horses seek out comfort and security more than anything else in life. You’ll have to provide your horse comfort when he’s focused and relaxed and give him security by him knowing that you’re the one in charge and that you call all the shots. In knowing that, he’ll find peace and not worry so much.
To me, if I can teach the horse to respond to some basic rules and he can trust me to enforce the rules, his life becomes more predictable and therefore he doesn’t have to worry. My groundwork DVDs will show you a systematic process for getting and keeping your horse’s focus, respect and willing attitude, both in the round pen and on the lead line.
Good luck with your horse and with a little work, you can teach your horse to be a relaxed and focused partner. There’s lots of information on my website, www.juliegoodnight.com that can help you along the way.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
My horse is generally great on the trails, but has one annoying habit that makes him uncomfortable to ride. Every time we head down a hill, even a small ditch crossing, he trots to the bottom like he was shot out of a cannon. This makes me uncomfortable and nervous and I feel like I have a lack of control. What can I do to make him walk down hills?
Down in the Dumps
This is an obnoxious and disobedient behavior that your horse is showing and it needs to be corrected right away. This is a bad habit that he has learned because you or someone who rides him has condoned it–and it most certainly needs correcting.
The reason why your horse prefers to trot down hills instead of walk is that he’s lazy and succumbing to the force of gravity. If you have done much hiking yourself, you already know that going down hills actually requires more muscle strength than going uphill—which stresses you aerobically more than muscle strength. If he gives into gravity and trots down the hill it’s actually easier than walking because he does not have to brake his body weight.
But when a horse trots down a hill, he lurches forward and leans into the bridle–which makes him feel heavy on the forehand and out of balance. Furthermore, if your horse breaks into a trot without a cue from you to trot, he’s disobedient and making an unauthorized decision. One unauthorized decision will always lead to another, so it’s a very bad precedence to set.
It’s also bad etiquette when riding with others to allow your horse to break into a trot when going down a hill. It will cause the other horses to want to trot and may catch a rider off guard.
To fix this bad habit, you simply need to think ahead of your horse and be prepared. As you approach the hill—small or large—shorten your reins and shift you weight back to check your horse’s speed. Let him know you are monitoring him closely. Stop him momentarily at the top and let him proceed slowly.
As you maneuver down the hill, do so in a “check and release” fashion, picking up on the reins and shifting your weight back on your seat bones, then releasing momentarily before you check again. Bring him to a complete halt with each step if necessary.
Enforce this rule each and every time you approach a hill. Horses are very good at following rules, if the rules are well-defined and consistently enforced. Be diligent about requiring your horse to walk slowly down embankments and hills and in short order, he will understand this rule and monitor his speed himself.
Your horse seems to think he’s allowed to trot when he wants to, regardless of your directives. This could be an indication that you have given your horse this opinion by not being assertive. Take a broad look at how you interact with your horse. Is he making other unauthorized decisions? Is he walking off when you mount without a cue? Is he veering from the path you have dictated to avoid a puddle or something he doesn’t want to walk through? Is he speeding up and slowing down without a cue? These are all indications that you are not being a consistent leader to your horse and they could be indications that you are eroding your authority with your horse every time you ride him.
Leadership is a very black and white issue to a horse. Either you are in charge of him or he’s in charge of you. Make sure that you exert complete control over your horse at all times and do not compromise in your authority. Once you ask a horse to do something, make sure you reinforce it. He will appreciate your authority much more and come to admire you as a worthy leader.
Fearful Trail Horse
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
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