Behavior Bummers

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Does your trail horse paw, walk off when you mount up, or go at an inconsistent speed? Correct these behavioral woes with these techniques from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

BY JULIE GOODNIGHT WITH HEIDI MELOCCO 

Horses behave in the way they’re most motivated to act at the moment. Sometimes, what we might call “bad” behavior is simply what your horse has been trained to do — or what he’s been allowed to get away with.

If your horse thinks he’s in charge or that there’s no penalty for behaving badly, his behavior may turn from annoying to dangerous.

When I’m trail riding, I want to relax and take in the scenery. I want a horse that’s calm in his new environment and isn’t pawing as we get going or taking off too soon when I saddle up.

I also want a horse that goes at the speed I choose. I may want to relax and ride slowly, or pick up speed and have a little fun when the terrain allows.

You have to be a strong leader for your horse to act as your partner, and follow your lead and expectations. You have to teach him what you expect and be consistent with your rules so he knows how you expect him to act on and off the trail.

When your horse knows you’re the leader, you won’t have to micromanage him on the trail. You’ll gain confidence, knowing he’ll be a patient, willing trail partner.

Here, I’ll explain my three top pet peeves when it comes to trail-horse behavior. I’ll tell you what caused the behavior, why it’s annoying, and how to avoid or fix the behavior so that it doesn’t detract from your riding enjoyment.

 

Before You Begin

Don an ASTM-approved, SEI-certified riding helmet. Practice these skills at home, on a flat area with good footing. Set up productive training scenarios geared toward success on the trail. When you’re ready to test your horse’s skills on the trail, go alone, without riding buddies, so you can concentrate on reinforcing good behavior.

Behavior Bummer #1: Impatient Pawing

What caused it: Pawing is a gesture that horses use to communicate that they’re frustrated and wish they were moving. Many horses get frustrated when they’re asked to do something that they don’t want to do. Your trail horse might paw when you hold him back from moving on with a big group of horses. He wants to get moving and stay with the herd. He might also paw when he’s bored, and you’re not paying attention to him, such as when he’s tied inside or to your trailer, or during a riding break.

Why it’s annoying: If your trail horse is highlined, his pawing can harm the terrain. Inside the trailer, pawing is loud and distracting. He can injure himself if he’s allowed to continue and throw a fit.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: Using the technique I describe below, teach your horse to stand tied without showing any signs of frustration or impatience. Teach him to stand quietly as you groom him, tie him to a post, and during your designated training time.

Your horse will soon learn that there’s no sense in getting frustrated or showing impatience — pawing doesn’t lead to a release or a reward. He’ll learn not to waste energy if pawing has no reward.

To teach your horse to stand tied, start teaching him to ground-tie every time you work with him. Outfit him with a rope halter and 15-foot training lead. Holding the lead in one hand, turn and face him. Give a verbal cue to “whoa.” If he stands quietly, lay down the middle of the rope. (Maintain your hold on the end of the rope if you must correct your horse often.)

If your horse moves a hoof or turns his head too far to the side, correct him by moving the rope in a snapping motion toward the halter, and return him back where he started.

When your horse knows he must stand still, lay the rope on the ground to test him even more. (Note that this process takes time to develop.)

When your horse understands that you have authority and that he must follow your voice command, the cue to stand still can carry over to any time he’s tied. Tie him, tell him “whoa,” and walk away. If he paws, avoid approaching him to give him any kind of attention. You must expect him to do what he knows how to do — stand still.

If your horse paws often, make sure he spends time tied at home in a safe environment before expecting the behavior to diminish on the trail. He should stand tied for up to an hour (making sure he’s in the shade and has access to water and before and after).

During the time your horse is tied, leave him alone; don’t approach him if he paws. Attention of any kind would reward him for the behavior. If you run back to your pawing horse, and give him attention, he’ll think his pawing caused you to come back.

If your older horse has an ingrained pawing problem while standing tied, ask a professional trainer to help you train your horse to stop pawing by using soft, rebraided cotton hobbles. Use caution, and make sure your horse is monitored by someone who’s done the process many times.

Note: If you’re under saddle and your horse begins to paw, you mustn’t hold him still. He’s having an emotional meltdown and won’t be able to keep his feet still. Instead, move him in turns from right to left to keep him moving but focused on you. When he seems calmer, ask him to stand again. If he doesn’t stand still, turn him to the right and left again — making it a challenge not to listen and easy to stand still and be patient.

Behavior Bummer #2: Walking Off as You Mount Up

What caused it: A horse should learn from the very first time that he’s ridden that mounting doesn’t mean “go.” Most horses that walk off without a cue either never learned the skill as a colt or have been untrained by the rider.

This movement without a cue annoys me, because I want the horse to see me as the leader. If he steps off without a cue, he thinks he’s in charge from the first step of our ride. I don’t want that first interaction to be one of disrespect and disobedience.

Horses constantly look for patterns in your cueing and, if allowed, may come to their own conclusions about what they should do next. If you never require your horse to stand still when you mount up, he’ll quickly learn a new pattern — a person sitting in the saddle means “go.”

Why it’s annoying: Your horse soon learns to step forward as soon as you sit down or put your foot in the stirrup. The trend worsens until you have trouble stepping into the stirrup without your horse walking off.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: This problem is easy to prevent. Don’t allow your horse to step forward at all until you actively give a cue to step forward.

If your once-well-trained horse suddenly decides that he should step off without a cue, go back to ground work, and ask him to stand perfectly still with a rope halter and long training lead (similar to the ground-tying lesson described earlier).

Ask your horse to stand still by pointing your toes toward his shoulder and giving a verbal cue to “whoa.” Then correct him every time he takes a step or moves his nose to the side. Wave the lead rope toward the halter as a correction.

When your horse will stand still on command with a halter and lead, saddle up, and place his bridle under the rope halter with the lead attached. (Never correct your horse by pulling on the bit or bridle reins — the pressure from the halter and lead is enough and prevents you from harming his mouth.)

Keep your expectation that your horse will stand still as you start to mount up. Mount slowly, with the lead line in hand. Watch for the moment he begins to move. If he takes a step, step down, and correct him, requiring him to stand still.

If you get so far as to sit in the saddle, your correction switches to controlling your horse with the reins. Keep your reins short enough so that you can control him immediately if he takes a step. If he does take a step, sit back and pull back on the reins, and require him to stand still.

If your horse is agitated and anxious, and continues to move his feet, put him to work. Circle to the left; circle to the right; circle again to the left. Then allow him to stop and take a break. Reward him if he stands still. If he wants to walk off again, repeat the circling exercise. Show him that standing still is what you asked for and is the easiest option.

Sometimes a horse that won’t stand still may be uncomfortable because of the rider’s static weight (horses are built for strength while moving, not while standing still) or because his saddle doesn’t fit. He may shift from side-to-side and fidget. You might get the impression that he’s attempting to stand still, as he’s otherwise not showing impatience or seeming to want to do something different.

If your horse fidgets from side-to-side rather than walking forward when you ask him to stand, consider checking saddle fit and consulting a veterinary chiropractor.

Behavior Bummer #3: Going Too Slow or Too Fast

What caused it: You’re not in control of your horse’s speed, and therefore, not in control of your horse. In the saddle, there are two things you should control — speed and direction. If you don’t control how slowly or quickly your horse moves, you aren’t the one in charge. If he hasn’t been trained to follow cues to go at the speed you

dictate, you need to train him now.

Why it’s annoying: Riding a trail horse that only moves slowly or takes off at full speed (with no middle gears) is annoying for you and for anyone riding with you. Other horses have to work to keep up so the group can stay together. A horse acting badly can get the whole group amped up to go at a fast speed that no one really wants. If you’re dealing with a speed demon, you might feel frantic and out of control.

How to avoid/fix the behavior: If your horse ignores your speed cues — and takes off at a pace that you don’t want — first make sure you know how to perform the emergency-stop cues. (To learn how to safely use a pulley rein, and perform the one-rein stop, go to TrailRiderMag.com.)

Practice a one-rein  slow-down  technique at home in a flat area with good footing. Turning a horse quickly with the one rein stop on the trail can cause him to lose his balance and fall. Also, not all trails have the space needed for a horse to turn. When you practice this turning technique at home, you’ll soon teach your horse that he can continue to move forward, but at a slower pace.

When your horse speeds up, pick up one rein, and pull it up and back toward your opposite shoulder. This will cause him to turn and disengage the hindquarters.

Any time your horse speeds up without a cue, slide your hand down one rein and start to pull up and back. With enough repetition, you can teach the horse that when you slide your hand down the rein, you’ll be slowing or stopping him, and he should slow down. He doesn’t have to make a full turn. He knows what’s coming next and will learn to slow his gait while moving ahead. Soon, your horse will slow down easily when you pick up slightly on one rein.

You can also  check and release  your horse. Pull up and back on the reins as you sit deep into the saddle, then immediately release when your horse slows. He’ll learn that you want to slow down.

Be very careful not to pull on the reins with constant pressure — that will actually teach the horse to pull against you and continue to move fast. If you don’t release at the first hint that he’s slowed, you’ll cue him to fight against you and cause a tug-of-war.

Horse Afraid of Mounting Block

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What To Do With a Horse Afraid of His Rider

Question: Hello Julie, I have a 4 year old registered paint gelding, Zippo Pine Bar bred, tall and gorgeous that I have had for just over a year! But, he is terrified when I step near or into the saddle. I bought him knowing he had a troubled past, but I can’t seem to make any new progress with mounting. I have done a ton of groundwork and desensitizing which he does great with.

The problem comes in when I am on the mounting block. His body gets very tense, his lower lip will quiver with concern and his eyes look terrified. I usually stand on the mounting block doing stretching exercises and touching/patting him all over until he relaxes, which sometimes doesn’t happen! If I get on without using my stirrup he is OK, still nervous but stands fine. However, if I even start to put weight in my stirrup he will bolt away from me, and once that has happened I will not be able to mount that day (he gets way too freaked out).

Strangely enough though, once I am on you would never know he is such a challenge to get on. He rides like a dream, still green, but a wonderful 4 yr old! I have all the time and patience in the world for this horse, he truly is an amazing animal that was damaged by an uncaring human by no fault of his own. I just want some direction on where to go with him!

Thank you so much!
Nichole

Answer: Nichole, Sounds like your horse was lucky to find you! It is not hard to make drastic mistakes in the process of starting a horse under saddle. There are many steps at which things can go very wrong and there are many stupid mistakes to be made by people in the complicated process of training a young horse to be ridden.

Who knows what happened with your horse in the past, but chances are it was entirely preventable. That’s why I always encourage people to hire a professional to put a good foundation on your young horse—it is a time that can make or break a horse’s riding career. In your case, it seems like his previous training left him broken, but not broke.

During the process of introducing a horse to the saddle, to mounting, to balancing the weight of the rider, to taking cues from the rider, there are many crucial steps that, done wrong, can turn into a very negative training experience for the horse which may cause problems for the rest of his life. Something went wrong with your horse—either something hurt him physically like an ill-fitted saddle or something scared him so badly that his reaction caused him to get hurt (a self-fulfilling prophecy to the horse).

So now you are left to undo the damage that was caused when the horse was “broke.” Good training and many, many repetitions (until the good experience far outweighs the bad) will fix this horse. The good news is that he is young and still impressionable. It’s really good news that he is working well under-saddle—it tells me if you find the right technique, he will be entirely fixable.

It’s critical to make sure your saddle and/or poor mounting technique is not causing the problem. If it is digging into his wither or shoulder when you mount, he has good reason to react poorly. Unfortunately, the fear of pain may have originated from his previous training so even if your saddle is not currently causing a problem, in his mind, he may think mounting will always hurt him.

After you’ve ruled out a physical problem, only time and patience will reprogram your horse. You need to retrain the mounting process as if you were starting from the beginning, only it will take much longer. It always takes much longer to undo training mistakes than it does to train a horse right to begin with. Wouldn’t it be nice to know about all the potential mistakes you could make in training a horse before you actually do it?

We have four new episodes of Horse Master coming out in February 2012 about starting a young horse under-saddle—each step you take, how to do it right and what mistakes to avoid. This same info is also available in my full-length training DVD, Ready to Ride. One whole section is on mounting and I would use the same process on your horse. It is my hope that this information will help people avoid making the mistakes that were made with your horse.

Based on the info stated in your question, the first thing I would do is get rid of the mounting block. It is possible that it is contributing to his fear and I would want to see what his reaction to mounting was without it. I’ve seen a lot of training problems that involve a mounting block.

Of course, this means you have to be very good at mounting from the ground and getting your weight centered over the horse’s back as soon as possible, so as not to hurt his back. I have also seen many mounting issues caused by poor mounting technique on the part of the rider.
Next, you’ll break down the mounting process into tiny steps and then use a process known as pattern conditioning, where you repeat a certain pattern over and over until the horse has a conditioned response that is relaxed and accepting. Your horse already has a conditioned response to being mounted, but it is not a good one. Breaking it into small steps, releasing the pressure on the horse when he responds correctly and repeating this pattern again and again, will fix your horse.

There are a lot of articles in my Training Library, http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php, on desensitization and dealing with fearful behavior. You may want to read some of them—even if the articles are not exactly the same as your horse, you will likely find some info that helps. It is important that you fully understand the process of advance and retreat desensitizing and when you give the release.

Also, be sure to tune in to Horse Master on RFD-TV in February to see the episode on first mounting. If you don’t get RFD, you may want to order the DVD, Ready to Ride. It is the fourth DVD in my “From the Ground Up” series and covers the very critical stage in a young horse’s training when you first begin riding him. BTW- the previous three videos in the series are pre-requisite to this stage and cover round pen work, lead line work and training the horse to respond properly to bit pressure.

Take your time, have lots of patience and you will get past this problem with your horse. He sounds like a good egg—he just needs some reprogramming.

Enjoy the ride!
Julie

Find more free articles to read and refer to in Julie’s Training Library: http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php and watch Horse Master on RFD-TV every Monday at 12:30 and 10:30p EST —Direct TV channel 345, Dish Network channel 231 and on many cable outlets. Then visit http://www.horsemaster.tv and http://www.juliegoodnight.com/clinics for the clinic schedule, articles related to each episode, the gear used in each show, and for training DVDs and publications. Plus, see clips from each show at: http://www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com and check out specials and even more clips on Goodnight’s Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at: http://juliegoodnight.com/emailsignup.php. Goodnight is proud to recommend Myler Bits, Nutramax Laboratories, Circle Y Saddles, Redmond Equine, and Bucas Blankets. Goodnight is the spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association.

My Horse Won’t Stand Still For Mounting

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Common Complaints

My horse won’t stand still for mounting.

Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to teach your horse to stand still while you mount up.

Does your horse begin the ride before you do? When you put your foot in the stirrup to mount, are you hopping and scrambling, reaching for a handhold on the saddle, or dangling from your horse’s side while he heads down the trail? Or does he take off the instant you skim the leather—leaving you grabbing for the reins as you struggle to get your foot in the stirrups before he reaches full speed?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and dangerous behavior then give you steps to take to teach your horse to stand quietly and relaxed for mounting. Soon you’ll have a horse that stands like a statue on a loose rein as you mount.

The Reason
Many horses have never been taught or required to stand still on any occasion, let alone for mounting. Until you can control your horse’s feet (both moving and not moving), you don’t really have control of the horse; this is as true on the ground as it is for riding.

Horses are very impulsive when it comes to moving—remember they are flight animals. To get a horse to think before he acts—and not move impulsively—takes good training and strong leadership skills. A horse must not only learn what rules to follow, but also that there are ramifications if he breaks a rule—that’s where your leadership comes into play.

For young horses, it’s important to learn good ground manners, including standing still when asked. A good trainer will start with lots of ground work to gain control over the horse’s feet. When the youngster is started under saddle, from the first time he’s mounted, he learns to stand quietly and wait for a cue before walking off.

Many older horses that do not stand still for mounting have been inadvertently trained to act this way. I call it “anti-training.” Generally the rider has been condoning the horse’s impulsive movement for months, if not years before realizing there’s a problem. It starts with little infractions—small but unauthorized actions– and gradually it snowballs until your horse hardly listens to you at all.

Often the horse has gotten into this habit from an eager-beaver rider that mounts and takes off. Soon the horse expects it and he makes an association with mounting and moving his feet—this the action of mounting becomes his cue.

Instead of correcting the unauthorized actions of the horse, many riders cave in to the horse’s actions, thus condoning it. This is often rationalized by the rider as being okay because “I was going to ask him to walk anyway,” but the horse sees it for what it’s: he’s making the decisions therefore he’s the leader.

In short order, you have trained your horse to walk off as you mount. Since he thinks he’s doing the right thing, he’ll begin to walk off sooner each time you mount until you won’t even have a foot in the stirrup before he’s headed down the road.

Whether your horse has never learned proper ground manners or has inadvertently learned to walk off through inaction or a lack of authority on your part, there are some simple steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, take assessment of your horse’s general ground manners and respect for authority. Is he always respectful of your space? Does he lead with good manners, matching you step for step, stopping when you do and going as fast as you ask? Will he stand patiently and wait for you whenever you stop and does he stand quietly for the vet and farrier?

If you have complete authority over your horse, you can control his feet entirely, both moving and standing still. If this is not the case for you and your horse, you probably need to start doing groundwork to develop this critical connection with your horse. There are numerous articles on my website on how and why you do groundwork. I also have DVDs that will explain horse behavior and training techniques; the videos and all the equipment you’ll need are available packages at Shopping.JulieGoodnight.com.

I teach my horse that he can’t move a single foot unless I authorize the move. I practice this stand-like-a-statue game a lot, especially at times when I know my horse does not want to stand (like when all the other horses are headed back to the barn). These exercises are thoroughly explained on my website and in my DVD called Lead Line Leadership.

Once your horse is obedient and mannerly from the ground, you can start retraining him to stand still for mounting. The first step is to realize that whatever you have been doing, hasn’t worked. You have probably condoned the behavior many times or not given adequate corrections or insisting on obedience. You’ll have to make a commitment to change that—to be the captain of the ship.

It may have been your impatience that has led to this problem, so you’ll need to get in the habit of standing for a moment after you mount and never letting your horse walk off without waiting for a cue. If he just walks off because you’re mounting, he’s making an unauthorized action and it needs to be met with a swift and certain correction. Pick up on the reins, back him up and say “whoa!”. Be adamant about not letting the horse walk off until you cue him and you should only cue him when he’s standing still (just a momentary pause will do).

If your horse is walking off before you even get a foot in the stirrup, there’s a simple exercise you can do to change his associations. It’s a classic case of making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard for the horse. Like all horse training, this exercise requires an excellent sense of timing and consistent reinforcement.

Outfit your horse in his normal riding gear, with the reins secured to the saddle and a 25’ longe line clipped in the left ring of the bit. Approach your horse in slow motion, as if to mount; it’s important that you move slowly so that the timing of your corrections is precise. Keep the reins and line loose and do not make any effort to prevent the horse from moving off—let him make that decision—through this exercise, you’ll make him rethink that choice.

As you go through the motions of mounting, your horse will begin to move—you’ll have to concentrate hard to find the right instant. At that time, step back (well out of the kick zone) and get after your horse; send him out on the longe circle, making him trot long and hard until he’s eager for a stop cue. Then ask him to stop and repeat, approaching in slow motion to mount.

Each time he walks off without authorization from you, longe the pants off of him—give him a reason to think about how he can get out of this dilemma. You may need a training flag or whip to keep a safe distance from his flying hooves and to motivate him to action.

Each time you start the mounting process over, look for an opportunity to reward him. As you go slowly through the motions, if you reach a milestone—say, you put your foot in the stirrup and he holds still, reward him by turning and walking away from him and leave him in peace and comfort for a moment.

In the process, while he’s thinking and holding still, pet him and tell him he’s a great horse when he’s doing the right thing and hiss and spit at him when he’s not. Put him to work when he decides to move on his own.

When he begins to understand that you’re asking him to do something really easy, you’ll be able to go further and further in the mounting process until you’re on his back with him standing still. Once you swing your foot over his back, your hands control his movements. When he stands for mounting, reward him by getting off right away. Repeat this numerous times during each training session so he really understands what is expected of him.

If your timing is good, it should only take a few repetitions before your horse begins to make an association with his decision to walk off and having to work really hard. Suddenly the easy thing to do is stand still. If it takes you more than 6-8 circling episodes to make progress with your horse, it probably means you do not have the skills needed to have good timing in the release of pressure. He may be learning the wrong thing and you probably need to enlist some professional help.

With repetition, good timing and lots of enforcement on your part, your horse will soon learn to stand like a statue when you mount. For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit TV.JulieGoodnight.com.

Issues From The Saddle: Horse Won’t Stand For Mounting

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: I ran across your website while searching for an answer for a behavior problem with my daughter’s 7 year old quarter horse mare. We have owned this mare about 2 1/2 years. The mare is very sweet and was well behaved when we first got her and would do anything my daughter asked to do. During this past spring the mare has started stepping away from Michele (my daughter) when she tries to mount her. At a horse show on Sunday the mare would not even let her tighten the girth when Michele tried to saddle her. Michele ended up loosing her patience with her mare and I think made the situation even worse. The look in the mare’s eyes was one of fear when Michele got upset with her. We did take her to the horse chiropractor in July and he said the mare’s neck was sore. In August she was tied in a stall at our county fair and I don’t know if the situation at the fair has somehow made her afraid of horse shows. Do you have any other suggestions? The mare has turned into a completely different horse and I want to get her back to her old sweet self again.

Thank you for any information you can provide.
Vickie

Answer: Vickie,

The first thing to do when a horse’s behavior changes is to rule out any physical problems. Based on what you describe, I would look for saddle fitting problems. Even if you have not changed saddles, it is possible that the horse may have changed her shape enough to develop a fitting problem; the problem may be exacerbated at mounting since a lot of torque is placed on the horse’s back at that time. There is also increasing research being done on mares that indicates that at various points during their heat cycles the mare may be experiencing back pain when under saddle. I would have the mare checked thoroughly by an equine vet and have them check your saddle fit as well.

If you are still having difficulty tightening the cinch, most likely the horse has become “cinchy,” which simply means reactive to the cinch or girth. Generally humans tightening the girth too hard too fast induce this problem. There are several Q&As on my website about how to prevent a horse from becoming cinchy and how to resolve it once the problem has occurred.

Ruling out any physical problems with the back or saddle fit, we must look to a training issue regarding the horse moving away for mounting. It is very common for a horse’s training to deteriorate when being handled and ridden by novices and especially a horse as young as yours. Given that she was less than five when you got her, even though she was very well trained, she was not very seasoned, or experienced. A horse this young is pretty easy to untrain. Horses are very good at following rules and behaving in an obedient manner, when the rules are clearly and consistently enforced, as they are with a trainer or very experienced rider. When the horse is not handled consistently, it leads to small erosions in the training, which tend to get bigger and bigger over time.

If the horse is not standing for mounting, you need to first work on teaching the horse to stand when you ask her to. Then carry this over to mounting, take it very slowly and correct her when she moves. Again, there are several Q&As on my website that explain in detail the process for teaching a horse to stand for mounting.

Make sure that the horse is standing square when you go to mount and that there is not excessive torque being put on her back and withers. If you unbalance the horse during mounting, it is hard for to stand still. If you hang on the horse’s sides, it can put excruciating pressure from either side of the saddletree. If the rider doesn’t square the saddle before asking the horse to move off, the pressure can lead to serious damage to the horse’s back.

Finally, it is quite possible that if your horse had a bad experience at a show that she would have a bad association with shows. I am not sure why being tied in a stall would cause this, but horses are very place-oriented when it comes to the associations they make. In other words, if a horse has an unpleasant, frightening or painful experience, it will tend to associate the place where it happened with the bad memory. This is why it is extremely important to make sure a horse has a very pleasant experience at its first few shows. Even if it means not actually showing the horse, but hauling it to the show to simply let it become accustomed to the environment with as little pressure as possible being put on the horse. There is also a Q&A on my website called “Seasoning a Horse for Shows” that will explain this process. There will always be small setbacks to a horse’s training and times when we have to back up and iron out the rough spots. In addition to consulting with a veterinarian, you may need to get some help from a trainer or instructor that can take an objective look at what is going on with your mare and help you develop a plan to counteract it.

Good luck!
JG

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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?

Christine

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!

JG

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