Overcoming Fear: My Horse Doesn’t Respect Me & I’m Scared To Correct Him

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Question: Hello,

I just found your website and think it’s great. I have a 15-year old gelding – appaloosa/Clydesdale cross, Copper. My problem is that I am not confident enough to follow through with things that I ask him to do. This happens mainly when I ride him – he’s lazy and doesn’t want to go, or doesn’t want to go in the direction I want to go. That is partly because I don’t have a lot of experience with horses, but mostly because I saw Copper buck someone off that he didn’t like, and I don’t want that to happen to me! I know that he knows that I am fearful and not the dominant one. I just don’t know how to turn myself into the leader in our relationship, and get that confidence so that he will listen to me, and do what I ask. He is also generally a spooky, jumpy horse, which doesn’t help. Do you have any kind of step-by-step ideas that I can use with him to have him listen to me when I ride, without compromising my safety?

Thank you,

Answer: Jill,

The problems you are having with your horse are not at all uncommon—I see them in every clinic I do. There are two issues to consider here: raising your confidence level and becoming a respected leader for your horse. While they are clearly related, I think you’ll have to deal with them as separate issues.

As for the confidence issue, you need to do some introspection and come up with a plan to control your thoughts and develop more confidence. This process is outlined very clearly in my audio CD, “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” and in a book called, “Ride with Confidence,” authored by myself and four other authors. I know hundreds of people that have followed the recipe and had great success in overcoming their fear. Once you have your emotions in check, you’ll be able to work through the issues with your horse.

Because of the herd nature of horses and the linear hierarchy that exists within the herd, horses are very keen to your level of confidence and intention. He knows, probably better than you, that you aren’t willing to reinforce your commands and discipline him if needed. Therefore, he cannot possible see you as his leader.

Once you have issued a command to a horse, it is imperative that you enforce it. Otherwise, you are training him to be disobedient. If you are incapable of enforcing your commands, it is better that you do not ask your horse to do it to begin with because every time you ask and fail, you are further convincing him you are not in charge and his opinion of you worsens.

There are dozens of articles in the Training Library on my website that talk about this issue. You need to examine all of your interactions with your horse to discover the less obvious things you are probably doing on a daily basis to undermine your own authority with your horse. Remember, horses gain dominance by controlling resources (food and water) and by controlling the space of subordinates and controlling their actions. If you look at your interactions closely, you’ll find many instances in which you are giving away your authority.

The most effective way to establish leadership over any horse and to gain his respect is through ground work. I hear lots of people say, “But I’ve done that and I still have problems,” and what I know is that they’ve done it inconsistently, not systematically or ineffectively. It is not enough to just run a horse around the round pen; you have to know what behavior you are trying to affect, what the desired response is and how to get it.
I have two videos on this subject: Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership. They both show step-by-step exercises for establishing a productive relationship with your horse. In each video I work with several different types of horses so you can see their different reactions—although the process is always the same. You can order online or by phone at 719-530-0531.

If you work through these obedience issues on the ground first, it will give you greater confidence in the saddle and also your horse will be less challenging, since he will come to respect you as his leader and to respect your authority. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have some expert help along the way—a trainer or instructor that can help you discipline this horse and guide you through this process.

Good luck and stay safe!

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

Overcoming Fear: Instilling Confidence In Young Riders

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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 tad 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.

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

Issues From The Saddle: How To Deal With A Spooky Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hello Julie,

I was glad to see you are doing a clinic in my area in NH. I have a 10 year old who was born on my farm who from day one has been an ADD/spooky horse. He has been a challenge and although we have made progress, I’m always back to square one. I have done so much with him, my background is in dressage, but I do a lot of ground work, some round pen, longeing, I take him places, clinics and shows now and then, but I still struggle with getting his attention. Is it possible that he doesn’t like ring work, he does like trail riding with his buddies, but is still spooky and inattentive most days, once in a while he’s kind of relaxed. Progress is very slow. He knows all the Pat Parelli ground exercises etc. But I can’t get beyond the inattentiveness to really start being able to school him. Any suggestions?

Answer: Holly,

It sounds like you have already tried a lot of different things with this horse with some success, but the progress has been slow. At 10 y/o he ought to be getting pretty mature and reliable especially with all the work you have done. I would like to have an opportunity to see your horse and work with him a little, but in lieu of that, here are a few things I might try with a horse like this.

I like to teach spooky horses to face their fear and as long as they face it they can stop and relax, with lots of reassurance from me. So the first cardinal rule is that when the horse stops and faces when he is afraid (instead of spin and bolt) he gets a reward. He gets a rub on the neck and gets to stop and relax. Then I will gently encourage him to move toward whatever he is 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 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 on the ground too.

One big problem with a horse like this is that they do not focus on you and do not look to you for leadership. This kind of relationship (focused and obedient) is best accomplished with groundwork, both lead line and round pen. It sounds like you have done a lot of this already, but in my experience, I have seen a lot of people do the ground work but 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 is not on you almost all the time, then the round pen work may have been 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, then I want to establish a line of communication with him so that he is 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 see what I am going to ask him to do next, I let him stop and relax. This same concept can be applied for lead line work and mounted work. Just be careful that when you ask the horse for more focus, that you are not getting fast and reactive to him and escalating his tension but just quietly issuing directives to the horse and reinforcing what you ask of him. It is very important that you have and keep control of the horse’s nose, both on the ground and especially in the saddle. Most people let their horse’s nose wander all over the place and look at whatever interests them. 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 is when the nose leaves its position from in front of his chest. We work very hard with our colts and any older horses that come for training with behavior problems to teach this very, 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 obedient.

I think it is important to master this rule on the ground first, but I also work on it riding 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. Correct his nose with a gentle bump of the halter rope 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. If he moves his feet when you correct his nose, put him back where he was and tell him whoa (standing still is another rule that must be reinforced in the same way). Work on nose control standing in an open area for 5-10 minutes and the horse will learn his parameters. Then I want to reinforce this rule at the hitching rail and at all times I am working around the horse.

When a horse moves his nose toward you, unasked, that is an invasion of your space and an indication that the horse does not respect your space (often because he has been hand fed treats and this has caused major disrespect, see the article on my website called “Trick or Treat”). So when he moves his nose toward me that is a greater infraction than moving the nose away. Depending on the horse, that might get a harsher correction from me, especially if it is a horse that has proven his lack of respect by walking all over me or ignoring me or even being aggressive.

Carrying over this rule (nose control) to the saddle is very important for a spooky horse. When he learns to obey this rule he will not really be able to spook and his focus will remain on you. 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, I will correct it with a gentle and slow bump of one rein (if he is turning his nose to the right, use the left rein and visa versa). Again, it is not a pull or a jerk, but a slow gentle bump up on the rein and I will 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. He may still make the occasional mistake and you will have to correct him consistently for some time.

One common scenario I see in horses like this is a co-dependent relationship with the rider. It goes something like this: the horse is spooky or fractious and the rider gets uptight and since horses reflect our own emotions, the tension escalates on both sides. Then the riders, knowing the horse is going to do it again, keeps a tense and tight hold on the reins and begins to look for the next spooky object, telegraphing to the horse that “I don’t trust you and there must be something out there to be afraid of.” Again, horses reflect our emotions so the horse becomes more tense and irritated from the rein pressure, causing an escalation in the rider’s tension that leads to irritation and anger in the rider. So now the rider is getting mad and frustrated at the horse and jerking and hitting, instead of calm and consistent correction, and the horse, again reflecting our emotions, gets frustrated and mad too. This is a terrible dynamic that can go on for days, weeks, months or years but at some point, either the horse or the rider will reach the boiling-over point and a major problem may ensue.

This negative dynamic must be stopped at some point, the sooner the better. When a rider is resentful, angry or emotional toward the horse, the horse is typically reflecting those same emotions right back at the rider and this is a terrible dynamic that has little chance for success. At this point, it is important to look for a way to change the dynamic and do something different. Often, the rider needs to take a deep breath, summon up some patience and most importantly, relax and SLOW DOWN your corrections and communications to the horse. Hopefully you and your horse have not yet fallen into this trap and some of these things may help you break the dynamic. To me, if I can teach the horse to respond to some basic rules and he can trust that I will enforce the rules, his life becomes more predictable and safe and he will relax and know that as long as he follows the rules everything is good and his focus will be on me as his leader. Good luck with this horse and I hope I get the opportunity to work with you both in person sometime.

Julie Goodnight

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

Issues From The Saddle: Fear Of Riding And Inappropriate Horses

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hi Julie,

I first saw you in 2005 at the Louisville Equine Affaire. You were awesome, and you were so right about fear management, your seminars are packed yet nobody ever talks about the issue of fear!! Here’s my situation – I am somewhat of a nervous, timid rider. Every time, and I can’t tell you how sincerely I mean this, EVERY TIME I get on the horse, it is an accomplishment for me. That is how I view it.

I bought a well-trained, well broke paint horse 4 years ago, when he was 15 years old. He’s a real cutie, but boy does he have my number. I regularly work with trainers to help me be the leader for my horse, because I know that this is not my strong point. Here’s what happened – I hopped on today and went outside to the outdoor arena to putz around before picking up a trot. Before I knew what was happening my horse rolled – I rolled out of the way and was not hurt, but boy did it scare me. Is this common? I was having trouble getting him to stand still while I was mounting – was the rolling his way of telling me he didn’t want me to ride him?

Here are the emotions I am feeling – fear, anger, hurt feelings (yes, believe it or not I am trying not to take this personally, but I can’t help wondering whether he did this because he didn’t want to be ridden). I have had trouble with him lately in the cross tie putting his ears back when I approach with the saddle. He does not try to nip but gets a sour puss face and wrinkles his nose. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to get him to stand still when I mount. I do give him treats before I ride, but only in his bucket in his stall. Thank you for any help you can give me. I don’t want this to happen again. It’s never happened before. Is this a behavior problem?


Answer: Christine,
I commend you for your courage and also for getting a mature, well-trained horse to help you gain confidence. Far too often, people that are dealing with fear issues are also riding totally inappropriate horses: too young, too green, ill-tempered or with other training issues. The horse is a very important part of building your confidence.

It sounds like your horse is a pretty good guy and the issues you describe are minor. All horses, no matter how wonderful they are, need leadership, guidance and discipline from their owner or rider. They need you to be a leader and they are very adept at discerning your leadership skills. There is never a void of leadership in the herd and at any time that you fail to show your self as the competent captain of the ship, the seeds of mutiny are planted. When you are dealing with a fear issue, it is easy for the horse to pick up on your uncertainty and therefore hard for him to view you as the leader.

The best way to maintain your authority over the horse is through ground work, where you control his actions and move him out of your space, and by being aware of your actions and the horse’s reactions at all times, from the ground and from the saddle. We often allow small erosions to our authority over the horse with little things like not correcting him when he moves into you, letting him walk off without a cue when you mount, letting him cut the corners of the arena or slow down or speed up, unauthorized by you. You must be thorough and always follow thorough on what you have asked your horse to do, no matter how small a thing it is.

As for the rolling, this is not uncommon and usually not too big a deal. The horse is not rolling because he doesn’t want you to ride him, although that can become a learned behavior (if your horse rolls and then you put him away and don’t get back on). It is not too big a deal because when the horse goes down, he goes down slowly, giving you plenty of time to slip your feet out of the stirrups, stand up and step off. Usually what makes a horse roll is an itchy back, sweating, after a light rain shower or when he comes upon a particularly choice rolling spot that is irresistible. Most horses will try it at some time or another and when they do, they should be spanked, kicked and yelled at until you get them moving. Then you might want to trot a little, so he associates his actions with having to work harder. A horse will usually give you warning that he is abut to roll by pawing or gathering his legs up underneath him; when you feel him do this, get after him right away and move him off.

Your horse pinning his ears when you saddle is also not too big a deal, as long as he doesn’t gesture like he is going to bite you or break some other rule like moving when you told him to stand still. If he does break a rule, correct him. If he is just expressing his emotion (ears back and wrinkled nose), ignore it. You can’t punish him for having an emotion. Of course, you want to make sure your saddle fits him well and that he is not anxious over being saddled because of pain or a sore back.

The horse not standing still for mounting is more of a problem and it indicates that your horse is willfully disobedient and does not respect your authority. You need to work through this issue from the ground, by going back to lead line work and getting control over your horse’s feet. He needs to know that you mean what you say when you ask him to stand still. This is covered in detail in my groundwork DVD called Lead Line Leadership and there are some Q&As on my website about retraining a horse to stand for mounting.

The fact that you are taking your horse’s behaviors personally and having your feelings hurt is more of a concern to me. I think you know that you are being very anthropomorphic (instilling human characteristics in an animal) and that is dangerous territory with horses. He is a horse and he is acting like a horse; he is not trying to get back at you or hurt your feelings. By taking things personally, you are not able to be an effective leader and you are not controlling your own emotions. Horses are very emotional animals and they will mirror the emotions of the animals around them, so it is imperative that you remain cool, calm and objective. Don’t ever get sucked into a horse’s emotion and don’t give the horse more credit than he deserves. He is just a horse, not a human, and he doesn’t have the complicated mixed emotions that come with human relationships.

You have come a long way and you can become the leader that your horse needs you to be. Review the article on my website about coping with a fear of horses again as a reminder of how to control your emotions. Continue your work with trainers and keep investing lots of time doing ground work. With persistence, you can work through these issues and your horse will give it up.

Good luck!


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