Bitting System Logo

Using The Goodnight Bitting System
The self-correcting bitting system I use is often called an elbow pull and it is a long harness leather cord with snaps on each end. To use the bitting tool, you place the middle of the cord over the horse’s poll and then run each end through the rings of the bit, between the horse’s legs and up to the saddle. Adjust it so that when the horse is standing square and relaxed, there is no pressure on the bit. The pressure will come as the horse walks or trots; his elbow will cause a pull on that side of his mouth.

It is a self-correcting tool– meaning that when the horse does the right thing (brings his nose down and in), the pressure goes away. It teaches the horse to drop his head, bring his nose in and round his back when he feels pressure on the bit. Since the horse is coming off of the bit pressure, he is required to hold himself in the frame rather than have something to lean against like with side reins. This requires the horse to bring his hind-end up underneath him and lift his back in order to hold himself in the frame while keeping slack in the reins.

I like this training tool much better than other bit-training techniques because it gives an alternating pull on the bit, not pulling on both sides of the bit at the same time, so it keeps the horse very soft and relaxed in the neck and jaw. Also, you can mimic the action of the bitting system from the saddle, by using alternating sponge squeezes in time with the horse’s front legs. Finally, I like this system because it teaches the horse to give to the slightest rein pressure and to seek out the slack in the rein.

I think is very important is to teach the horse to seek out the slack in the rein. From day one, I teach the horse that when he gives to the bit, he will find slack in the rein. Whether the horse is giving laterally (to the side) or vertically (bringing his nose into his chest) you should relax the reins as soon as the horse makes an effort. Again, this will reward the horse for his efforts (all any horse wants is less pressure on his mouth) and will teach him self-carriage.

I am not a big believer is holding a horse in a frame. I believe if you are light and responsive to your horse’s efforts, you can teach him to carry himself in whatever frame you ask of him. This may sound like a simple concept, but I have found that most riders have difficulty with the release. When a rider picks up the reins and asks the horse to give, most riders will continue to apply pressure to the reins even after the horse gives. I think this is in an effort to maintain direct contact, but it is typically done without feel. Therefore the horse gives in some small way but if he does not find a release, he does not know that he has done the right thing. The horse is searching for a way out of the pressure on his mouth. By and large, horses will gladly hold whatever frame you want if they know that in doing so, you will release the pressure on his mouth.

Again, the beauty of this system is threefold. One, the instant the horse gives the right way he gets slack. Two, the elbow-pull creates a rhythmic alternating pull, rather than a static pull on both reins (like side reins), and it is far more effective to use one rein at a time rather than two (a horse stiffens his neck and leans into it when you pull on both reins at the same time). And third, once the horse has learned to respond correctly and carry himself in a collected frame with no contact on his mouth, you can mimic this action on the reins when you are on his back.

This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my video, Bit Basics. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills in my Training Library,

–Julie Goodnight

Advance And Retreat Logo

While shooting a Horse Master episode on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts I was introduced to a woman, Vickie Thurber, who had an accident with her young pinto eventing horse and wanted help introducing “Poco” to new possibly scary stimuli. She wanted to make sure he—and she—knew what to do if he spooked again. In their initial accident, Poco spooked and Vickie injured her arm. I decided to take Poco to the beach to introduce him to the surf. Though he lives on an island, the surf was new to him. Although not everyone can ride their horse on the beach, the technique I use to help Poco face his fears can be used to approach any scary object or scene. Read on to learn more about “advance and retreat”. Plus, watch a clip online now:

Advance and retreat: These days, with military actions and wars consistently in the headlines, thoughts of aggression make it easy to think of “advance and retreat” as an aggressive move. But in case of horse training, advance and retreat is an important concept to understand and when utilized properly, this technique can effectively train your horse to quietly and peacefully accept all sorts of scary and uncomfortable stimuli.

When training a horse to accept a scary or adverse stimulus, whether it be clippers, fly spray, the water hose, the bridle, or taking a horse to the beach for the first time, it’s important to understand the theory of advance and retreat. First, you must understand that whatever a horse is afraid of, be it a sound, a feel or a touch, that factor is considered a stimulus. A stimulus is an environmental factor that motivates the horse to action. If the horse is afraid of the stimulus, the action will likely be to snort and run away.

The advance and retreat method of horse training is a way to desensitize the horse to a scary stimulus and teach him to respond to the stimulus with willing acceptance. Let’s say, for the sake of explanation that the scary stimulus is fly spray, although this method will work with any type of stimulus. The first step, in any training process, is to determine what the desired outcome is. In the instance of fly spray, the desired outcome is that the horse stands still and relaxed while you spray him.

With the case of fly spray, as with just about any scary stimulus, there are many different sensations that may frighten the horse. It maybe the sound of the spray bottle, the smell of the chemical or the feel of the droplets on his body (or all of the stimuli combined) that causes fear in the horse. Regardless of what actually causes the fear, it’s an honest emotion of the horse and he should not be reprimanded.

The theory of the advance is that you approach slowly with the stimulus, starting far enough away that the horse is not uncomfortable and advancing slowly until you reach the place that causes discomfort or a slight tensing in the horse. It may be that just spraying in close proximity to the horse causes him to tense and become frightened (helpful hint: use a bottle with water in it so you don’t waste your fly spray). Only advance as far as you can until the horse becomes tense, advance no farther but maintain your ground.

Continue applying the stimulus, at the distance that caused the horse discomfort and let him move as fast as he wants in a circle around you. Do not try to hold him still, don’t impede his forward motion; keep his nose tipped toward you so that he has to move in a circle around you. It’s important that he is allowed to move his feet because that is his natural reaction to a scary stimulus.

The theory of retreat comes into play once the horse voluntarily makes the right response, which is to hold still and/or relax. As soon as the horse stops his feet or relaxes, even if it’s very briefly, immediately remove the stimulus (stop spraying). Turn your back on the horse and take a few steps away and allow him time to relax and take a deep breath. Removing the stimulus when the horse makes the right response rewards him for stopping his feet. Timing is everything, as with most aspects of horse training.

Apply the stimulus again (advance), as close as causes discomfort and remove it the instant the horse stops moving his feet or relaxes (retreat). In very short order, the horse will make the association that if he holds still and relaxes, the scary thing will go away. Once he makes this association, it will diffuse his fear altogether.

It’s critical in this training technique that you not advance beyond whatever causes discomfort to the horse. Once he stands still and accepts the stimulus (because you have retreated a number of times), then you can advance farther. I have seen too many horses traumatized by people advancing too far initially and overwhelming the horse, sending him into terror and panic. Then often, the person removes the stimulus when the horse is reacting poorly, thus rewarding his behavior.

Advance and retreat, when applied with good timing and a calm and humane approach, will help the horse learn to stand still and accept scary stimuli. Furthermore, once a horse has been desensitized in this way to a number of stimuli, he learns to carry over this response to new stimuli as well and to think his way through a scary scene.
–Julie Goodnight

My Horse Spooks And Lacks Focus Logo

Dear Julie,

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


Dear 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!


The correction:

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.


The outcome:

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, that can help you along the way.

Enjoy the ride!

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician