Horsemanship Homework

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. Despite our best efforts, there are times when life-events will supplant your horsemanship activities. Putting in too many hours at work, an illness in the family, a new job, building a house, starting a family, moving or changing jobs are all events that can put your riding on hold for an extended period. But who knew a viral pandemic and national stay-at-home orders would stand in the way of improving your horsemanship?

Right now, people all over the country and all over the world are home from work or school, helping to curtail the spread, with nothing but time on their hands. Have you ever thought how much time you’d spend riding if you didn’t have to go to work or school? Or fantasized about being able to spend all day at the barn, with no other demands on your schedule? Be careful what you wish for.

The truth is, in this new reality, some of you are stuck at home WITH your horses, while some of you are stuck at home WITHOUT access to your horses. I’m sure most of you would prefer to be in the former group—to be able to get outside, do the physical chores, groom, ride and train. But without guidance, supervision and structure, how will you improve and what will you work on? If you’re in this boat, you might want to check out my riding audios that you listen to while you ride.

For those of you experiencing separation from your horses, not only are your goals and dreams temporarily suspended, but you’re also worried about your horse and the separation must be heartbreaking. Still, there are ways to make lemonade.

Sometimes life gets in the way of our plans. That’s our current reality and the hand we must play. No matter what your circumstance, whether you’re isolated from your horse or not, able to ride or not, there are ways to stay on track with your horsemanship, to grow your knowledge, to improve your balance and fitness, to learn more about horse behavior and influencing a horse’s behavior.

I often talk about the Mind-Body-Spirit connection, or, if you prefer, the Mental-Physical-Emotional connection. These are three parts of our being that are inseparable and inter-connected. When you have a thought, it affects you physically. When your emotions surge, it affects the thoughts in your mind and has a physical effect. We do best when these three parts of our being are in balance.

To take it one step farther, if you’re stuck at home, separated from your horses or feeling like you’ve been set adrift, there are many things you can do to keep you mind, body and spirit engaged in a positive direction to further your horsemanship, even when times are tough.

Mental Connection

If you can’t go out and ride your horse or your regular riding lessons are cancelled, you can still improve your horsemanship by studying! Read books and research articles, listen to podcasts, and watch videos to learn more about horses and riding. I love to read, especially about horse behavior, and recently I dedicated a blog to my favorite horse books.

I shudder to think where would we be without the internet in times like these. Online courses about horses and riding sports makes study-at-home easy. I started converting all my content to the digital space about a decade ago, in the form of articles, videos and audio recordings and we’ve amassed a huge resource library. We’ve got hundreds of episodes of Horse Master, all searchable content, streaming on-demand. My Interactive membership includes an online curriculum, study resources and assignments, plus personalized coaching from me. There are plenty of educational resources out there, both paid and free. And remember, when you read a term you don’t understand, look it up in your Equine Dictionary!

Study horsemanship theory—classical riding. The higher you go in your riding level, the more important riding and training theory comes into play. It’s less mechanical and more cerebral. Read the Book of Xenophon, the oldest known complete work of horsemanship (written almost 4,000 years ago). Take a cross-discipline approach and study skills and techniques in other disciplines of riding than the one you are used to. There’s more to riding than heels down, eyes up and shoulders back!

Focus is an important mental skill in all areas of life, but especially with horses. Multi-tasking is not as valuable as the ability to bring 100% focus onto a singular task. I’d guess that all accomplished riders have exceptional focus. It’s a skill you must hone and practice. To me, riding my bike on a single-track trail in the mountains, is as much an exercise on focus as it is physical. Riding a horse can be similar. Check out this exhilarating helmet-cam video that shows the amount of focus it takes to pilot a powerful horse through a five-star cross country jumping course.

In everyday life you can find ways to improve your focus with brain teasers, meditation, exercise, jigsaw puzzles, or simply putting your phone down and practicing listening skills.

Physical Connection

Riding is a very physical sport, so getting in better shape will help. Also, since horses communicate primarily with gestures and postures (body language), having good control of your physicality and body language helps you communicate more effectively and actually will help you ride better.

Balance is the #1 skill required of riders. It’s a challenging balance sport, because it’s a balance-in-motion and the synchronization of the balance of two animals—horse and human. Each has a will of its own and a balance of its own. Balance is a skill that naturally declines with age, peaking at about 18-20 years old. But no matter your age, young, old or in-between, you can always improve your balance through exercises that challenge your balance.

I’ll give you a full refund for the price of this blog if you practice a simple balance exercise two days in a row, and don’t see a huge improvement the second day. Balance improves rapidly when you work on it. Whether your exercise is as simple as balancing on one foot when you brush your teeth, or as complicated as walking a tightrope, you get better every time you practice and anything you do to improve balance off the horse, will help you on the horse as well.

Core strength is essential to good balance and to great riding skills. Riding is a weird combination of balancing while seated and synchronizing your balance with the horse—making your core strength and center-of-gravity critically important. It’s not enough to just do sit-ups and strength-building exercise, you must also use your core for balance and coordination. There are many great workout routines that address core strength and balance, and you can look at my favorites here.

Bi-lateral coordination refers to being equally strong and coordinated on both sides of your body. But the sad truth is, most of us are one-side dominant—as are most horses. Once again, getting older doesn’t help because often old injuries, scoliosis or arthritis will make lateral imbalances more pronounced. I seek out activities and exercises that help me develop bi-lateral coordination and I like to work my weak side more than my strong side.

I enjoy exercise routines like Pilates because it helps me identify my lateral weaknesses, which in turn affect my horse’s performance. Exercises that improve bi-lateral coordination are fun—try patting your head with one hand and rubbing your stomach with the other at the same time. Try signing your name with your other hand. Groom with two brushes– wax-on-wax-off (one of many reasons why I love the HandsOn grooming gloves

Most riding errors are posture related. If you do it on the ground, chances are you do it on the horse. Also, posture declines with age—that’s a fact of life. Our body shape changes with age from year one to 100. But like balance, you can always improve your posture. Just simply making an effort to sit up straight or making a mutual agreement with your friend or spouse (I’ll remind you if you remind me) to kindly point out when you are slouching, will go a long way to improve your posture. Better posture is good for your health, your confidence and your riding! 

Emotional Connection

Having faith in a positive outcome is important no matter how bad or chaotic it seems in the moment. Things will look different with time and perspective. Having confidence in yourself is not easy, but sometimes it’s required. “I’ve got this,” “I’ve been through worse,” “I love this!” (as my friend and colleague Barbra Schulte would say in any moment of adversity), are productive messages to give yourself. Just like when your horse spooks and blows up on you, you need to stay focused and proactive and do what you and your horse know how to do.

Everyone has moments of self-doubt. It’s normal. But not everyone has the grit to deal with it. The ability to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn more and succeed next time, the ability to lean-in when the going gets tough, and the ability to have faith in the positive outcome require true grit.

Building confidence and honestly examining your fears will not only help with your horsemanship, it will impact everything in life from scolding a naughty horse to asking your boss for a raise. Building your confidence will not happen automatically, it’s an attitude you must develop and maintain. There are many tools available for building confidence on my website, including a motivational audio and an online short course, both called Build Your Confidence with Horses.

Practice controlling your emotions through deep abdominal breathing and mental relaxation techniques. This stuff works, but only if you practice it. Next time you are startled and feel your heart rate shoot up, practice calming yourself through deep abdominal breathing and positive imagery. Next time you have an emotional confrontation or even just a welling of emotion, practice these skills. Sometimes when I am speaking in front of a crowd, touching on something poignant, I feel myself starting to cry and I view it as an opportunity to push through and take control of the emotion. Calming yourself and steeling your emotions is not always easy but like any skill, it gets easier when you practice.

There’s so much you can do to improve your horsemanship, even when you are secluded at home, unable to ride or feeling disconnected from the sport. While it’s great to have a trainer and/or riding instructor to motivate you and guide your learning, with some dedication and self-discipline, you can achieve your goals independently.

Take the time to study, read, watch and listen. Study classical riding theory and science-based research on horse behavior and training. Improve yourself physically and learn to steady your emotions. It’s a wholistic approach, to address the Mind, the Body and the Spirit in your horsemanship pursuits, and it will cause your horsemanship to soar. Regardless of your current situation, there is much you can do to become the horseperson your horse deserves!

Consistency Counts

Photo by: Tina Fitch

On one of my many visits to southern California, I was conducting a horsemanship clinic in the town of Norco, renowned for its horse-friendly lifestyle. On any given day in “Horsetown USA,” you’ll see horses being ridden on the dirt sidewalks along Main Street  or parked at a tie rail in front of a shopping center, or even in line for the drive-up window at McDonald’s.

While there, I was invited to tour the Circle D Ranch, home to Disneyland’s herd of gorgeous draft horses. Having worked behind the scenes of the horse operation at Disney World, on the other side of the country, I was not surprised to find an immaculate, state-of-the-art horse facility, that was custom-built to suit the exceptionally high standards of Disney.

The ranch is home to 18 draft horses, who work 3-4 days a week in the theme park, some thirty miles away, where they are stabled in a similar barn while “on duty.” The horses come to the Norco ranch for rest and pampering on their 3-4 days off. Aside from the incredible horse flesh and the five-star facility, I was most impressed by the consistency with which the horses are handled. Strictly enforced, detailed policies and procedures are designed to make sure the horses get handled exactly the same way every day, by each of the many employees tasked with their care, both in the theme park and at the ranch.

From the way the horses are haltered and led, to how they are tied, to the order of the brushes used, to the process for turning them out or to their daily hand-walking– it was done exactly the same by every handler, in the same order, at the same time, in the same places. There’s almost no stress for these horses, because of the consistency. They always know what to expect and what is coming next. They never have to guess or question. There is great comfort in order and predictability.

Horses are prey animals and it’s easy for them to feel like victims in a chaotic world, when there is a lack of consistency or predictability. Small changes in a horse’s known environment can send him into a tailspin. For the same reasons, horses thrive on routines, law and order and consistency. It makes them feel safe and calm when they know what will happen next.

Horses always do better with consistent handling and regular routines. They learn patterns quickly and they love to be able to predict what is going to happen next. Most horse owners have learned the benefits of feeding and turning out horses in the same order, and how quickly you can train horses to a routine. Professional horse trainers tend to be very consistent and systematic in the way they ride and handle horses, and their horses are usually a reflection of that. But I often see a lack of consistency in novice horse owners, particularly when it comes to establishing boundaries, communicating clearly and displaying consistent leadership to the horse.

Draw a Line in the Sand
If a dog has poor manners and jumps on you, rubs against you, roots his nose under your arm so you’ll pet him or jumps in your lap uninvited, it may be obnoxious but it’s probably not going to kill you. When a horse has no boundaries and no manners, it’s downright dangerous and is a problem that will snowball. Remember, one way that horses establish dominance is to move the subordinate out of their space.

My horsemanship clinics typically start with groundwork. This is my opportunity to get a feel for the horse’s temperament, to evaluate the relationship between horse and handler and to refine (or establish) the horse’s ground manners. Since horses basically do what you’ve taught them to do (for better or for worse), it’s often the way that a horse is being handled that is leading to the problems.

Typically, in groundwork sessions I see a lot of inconsistency in boundaries or no boundaries at all. Sometimes the person stands too close to the horse, constantly in the horse’s personal space, and choking up on the lead. But when the horse gets irritated and starts throwing its head or nipping, it’s often wrongly concluded that the horse is the problem.
People are sometimes totally unaware of space and boundaries when it comes to horses. Just like a toddler, horses will push on you until they find the limit of their boundaries. If the person is unaware of her own personal space and has no boundaries, the horse will react to that by pushing until he’s slinging his head at you, dropping his shoulder into you and moving you out of his space. Even then, sometimes the person is unaware of their own boundaries.

It’s unfair to be in a horse’s face, kissing all over his muzzle, and standing up under his neck, but then get mad at him when he crowds you, nips at you or worse. To be effective (and safe) with horses, you need to be very clear of your own personal boundaries and diligently enforce the boundary.

My personal boundary is as far as I can reach around me with my arms outstretched. If the horse moves any part of his body into my space uninvited—even just his nose—I will correct it. If I’ve set a forward boundary of where the horse should be while I am leading him and he crosses the line, I will reinforce the boundary—100% of the time. A boundary is

only a boundary if it is consistently enforced. If you are clear on where the boundaries are and you consistently enforce it, the horse learns quickly.

Say What?
Horses are very communicative animals—that’s a big part of why they became domesticated to begin with and why they have remained an integral part of human society for thousands of years. Although they have some communication through sound (audible signals), most of their communication is through postures, gestures and gazes. Yes, it can be subtle, but the information is there if we look for it.

Horses are more adept at reading people than people are at reading horses. As verbal communicators, we put far too much stock in the spoken word and often miss the subtleties of body language—both in our horses and in ourselves. Learning to be in command of your body language and use appropriate gestures, will help you send the right message to your horse.

For instance, when a horse is shying away from something or refusing to go in a certain direction, the rider often does the opposite of what they should do—staring at what the horse is spooking at or looking in the direction the horse wants to go. What you do with your eyes is very meaningful to the horse in these moments—your eyes will reveal your determination (or lack thereof), your intentions (where you want to go) and your confidence level. If you say one thing with the reins (go this way) then the opposite with your eyes, you’ve contradicted yourself.

When doing groundwork with horses, our goal is to move the horse out of our space, in order to reinforce who is in charge. Yet, time and time again, I see handlers approach the horse as if to move him off, but then withdraw if they think the horse is not going to budge. Often, the person is completely unaware that they are withdrawing or even stepping back—but the horse always sees it. Always. Even the smallest retreat will be detected. Being in command of your body language and sending intentional nonverbal signals to the horse will bring your communication to his level.

Perhaps the biggest area of miscommunication with the horse comes when we are riding. Complex cues for movements and guidance require skill from the rider, yet it’s usually the horse that’s blamed for a poor response. A horse can only perform to the level of the rider and when the horse is not performing well, it’s usually the rider that needs fixing.

Conflicting signals and inconsistent expectations are often to blame for a horse’s poor performance. Pulling back on the reins at the same time you want the horse to move more forward is super frustrating to horses and I see it in every clinic I teach. Pulling on two reins to turn is another frustrating example of miscommunication, often seen when people are riding two-handed. If I want to turn right, and I pull both reins to the right, my right hand is pulling his nose to the right, but my left hand is pulling his nose to the left, once it crosses the withers. How can he respond correctly to that?

Another example is when I do training demonstrations on canter leads at horse expos, most of the time the “lead problem” is fixed by simply clarifying the cue the rider gives. The horse doesn’t have a lead problem, the rider has a cueing problem. Clarifying your cues and using a consistent sequence in your cues will get you the response you want. You could teach a horse almost any cue, by consistently applying the cue and reinforcing it. But if the cue is a little bit different every time or if you fail to reinforce your cues consistently, the horse will fail to respond.

Think about the cues you give to your horse when you’re riding—cues to walk, trot, canter, stop or turn. What are the precise aids you use? In what sequence do you apply the aids? How is the trot cue different from the canter cue? How do you prepare a horse or warn him that a cue is coming? How does your body change when you are tense, upset, tired or nervous that may change the clarity of these cues? When you are clear and consistent in the way you cue your horse, your horse will respond like clockwork.

Following Your Lead
You don’t have to be around horses very long to figure out that you want to be the one in charge. It’s not a good idea to let a one-thousand-pound scared rabbit call the shots. Horses seek out leadership because it makes them feel safe and protected. But there is never a void of leadership in a horse herd. If the leader falls down on the job, either figuratively or literally, another horse will immediately step in to fill the void. You’re not the leader unless you act like the leader all the time.

A comment I often hear from horse owners is, “every day, I feel like I am starting over with my horse.” They do the groundwork exercises, designed to establish authority and control, and get a good response in the moment, but the authority does not stick. The next day, the horse is challenging their authority again. It’s not the horse that’s the problem—he’s just doing what horses do. It’s a lack of consistency in their leadership (and therefore a lack of leadership).

If it is a daily battle to be in charge of your horse, you’re doing something that is eroding your own authority. Are you controlling the actions of the horse? Or are his actions dictating what you do? It’s a simple equation—action and reaction. If you are making an action, to which the horse is reacting, you are in charge. If the horse is making an action, to which you are reacting, the horse is in charge.

It amazes me how often I see handlers work hard in the arena, during the clinic, to establish good ground manners and authority over the horse, then throw it all away the moment the session is over and they leave the arena. Walking back to the barn they let the horse get in front and pull them to the barn or get impatient and start fidgeting and fussing. Rules of behavior must apply all the time and be enforced all the time, or they are not rules.

Little things can erode your authority or leadership with the horse– letting him grab the hay out of your arms when you feed him, hand feeding treats, letting him rip away from the halter when you turn him loose, stepping back when he moves into you. Being the leader to your horse is a full-time job.

Without question, horses will make us better at being humans, if we rise to the occasion and resist the temptation to blame the horse and instead look to ourselves. Consistency in defending your boundaries not only keeps you safer around the horse, but also helps the horse accept your authority. Achieving command of your body language and the subtle signals you constantly send to your horse, helps you communicate to the horse and may help you receive the subtle signals he’s sending you.

Nothing is more important to your horse than your consistency of leadership. Horses yearn for a strong and fair leader, but it’s not always easy to be the one at the top. As the leader, you’re not really allowed any down time. It’s a hard job—to be consistent in praise and reinforcement, to be consistent in your rules and expectations of behavior, to be consistent in your emotions and confidence, to be consistent in the way you communicate. It’s not an easy job, but the payoff is huge. When the horse puts all his faith in you and is willing to follow you anywhere, it’s a feeling like no other.

Confidence From The Core

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As we age, our balance, core-strength and posture can be negatively affected and all of these things have an impact on your confidence. If you think of the image of an elderly person tottering down the street, the posture is hunched forward, with rounded shoulders, looking down and a shuffling gait. Now picture Superman’s posture. Posture and confidence are closely related, as are age and posture.

The good news is that we can reverse the ageing process, or at least slow it down, by building core-strength and correcting bad habits in your posture. Every day, I try to make myself taller by lengthening my spine, lifting my shoulders and flattening my upper back. Even though I am an older person, I don’t want to look like one. I work hard to maintain my core-strength and improve my balance by choosing workouts that focus on these areas.

There is an important connection between fitness and confidence, and I can prove it to you. Have you ever, at any point in your life, set a goal to lose weight and/or get in better shape? I do, almost every year, usually around January 1st. Let’s say you decided to power-walk a mile every day after work; so on the first day, you come home, put on your trainers and hit the tarmac. After your walk, you come home, grab a cold drink and already you feel better about yourself. There’s no better feeling than being done with a workout. You feel better about yourself, and therefore are more confident—even though you are in no better shape than you were an hour ago.

So it is not being fit and buff that gives you confidence, it is the simple act of doing something to better yourself and to build strength that makes you feel better and stronger. The beautiful thing about workouts that focus on core-strength and balance, is that by the second day you can already feel a difference and after a week or a month, the difference is tremendous. Knowing that your balance is better and that you can move with the horse easier, most definitely will give you more confidence when you are stepping onto that keg of dynamite (I mean, horse).

Strength Leads To Confidence

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Strength Leads to Confidence

By Julie Goodnight

“That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” By and large, these are good words to consider when it comes to horses. Confidence is such a prevalent issue in horse sports, and with good reason—a horse can build your confidence over time, or take it away in a heartbeat.

After three decades of training horses and riders, I am not sure a day has gone by that I didn’t work with confidence—or a lack thereof—in either horses or their humans. Whether it’s a spooky horse and a clutching/gripping rider; or a calm and wise school-master patiently training a novice rider; or a strong handler settling a horse who is in the midst of an emotional melt-down, confidence always comes into play, for better or for worse.

Fear as a Teacher

Fear is a powerful emotion for both horses and humans and a complicating factor in all horse sports. It’s kind of crazy if you think about it—sitting on top of a thousand pound prey-animal whose number one response to danger is flight, is a little bit like strapping yourself onto a keg of dynamite. Some horses have longer fuses than others, but they all eventually explode.

Horse sports are uniquely challenging in the emotional department because horses, being herd animals and prey animals, are psychologically programmed to adopt the emotions of their herd mates—when one horse in the herd becomes frightened, the others respond in kind. So if my horse and I are a herd of two and I am frightened, my horse may respond in-kind.

Therefore, one of the most valuable skills we stand to learn from horses is to control our emotions and develop our patience. “Fake it until you make it,” is a phrase I use often to remind people to show confidence in their posture, breathing, focus and actions, even when you’re scared spit-less. When you are in control of your posture and body language, you will have more confidence immediately.

One of your greatest tools in fighting fear is to look up, stay aware of your environment, take deep breaths and adopt a confident posture like the Superman pose. The mind-body-spirit connection is strong and if you can control yourself physically and mentally, the emotion of fear doesn’t stand a chance.

Strong Bodies

As we age, our balance, core-strength and posture can be negatively affected and all of these things have an impact on your confidence. If you think of the image of an elderly person tottering down the street, the posture is hunched forward, with rounded shoulders, looking down and a shuffling gait. Now picture Superman’s posture. Posture and confidence are closely related, as are age and posture.

The good news is that we can reverse the ageing process, or at least slow it down, by building core-strength and correcting bad habits in your posture. Every day, I try to make myself taller by lengthening my spine, lifting my shoulders and flattening my upper back. Even though I am an older person, I don’t want to look like one. I work hard to maintain my core-strength and improve my balance by choosing workouts that focus on these areas.

There is an important connection between fitness and confidence, and I can prove it to you. Have you ever, at any point in your life, set a goal to lose weight and/or get in better shape? I do, almost every year, usually around January 1st. Let’s say you decided to power-walk a mile every day after work; so on the first day, you come home, put on your trainers and hit the tarmac. After your walk, you come home, grab a cold drink and already you feel better about yourself. There’s no better feeling than being done with a workout. You feel better about yourself, and therefore are more confidant—even though you are in no better shape than you were an hour ago.

So it is not being fit and buff that gives you confidence, it is the simple act of doing something to better yourself and to build strength that makes you feel better and stronger. The beautiful thing about workouts that focus on core-strength and balance, is that by the second day you can already feel a difference and after a week or a month, the difference is tremendous. Knowing that your balance is better and that you can move with the horse easier, most definitely will give you more confidence when you are stepping onto that keg of dynamite (I mean, horse).

Get There

Gaining confidence is a journey. If you need a confidence boost, start with focusing your attention on the current moment. Then make sure to add physical activity to your day. Schedule in a daily walk, boost your active time by taking the stairs. With a combination of mental focus and physical determination, you’ll soon feel stronger and ready to take a step forward toward your horsemanship goals.

Do you want some inspiration along the way? Check out my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv and free online group called “Julie Goodnight’s 5-Pound Challenge.” That’s the place to announce your own confidence and fitness goals and to get some positive feedback along the way!

Enjoy the ride,

 

Julie Goodnight

Winter Workouts – Ride Right With Julie Goodnight

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The Trail Rider ~ January/February 2015

 

RIDE RIGHT WITH JULIE GOODNIGHT

Winter Workouts

Hone your horse’s manners and your leadership skills now for a better ride in the spring with these tips from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

By Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight ~ Photos by Heidi Melocco

 

Unless you’re in the sunbelt, winter may mean less ride time and more turnout for your horse. Until the ground thaws and is safe for riding, what can you do to keep your horse focused on you?

When horses are turned out for the winter—they may quickly revert to a herd mentality. In that mode, horses follow the herd’s cues and aren’t tuned in to your leadership. Make sure to spend quality time with your horse this winter so that you won’t have to start over in the spring.

“If, in the winter, you only see your horse at feeding time –or when you step in to rub on him and bring him treats— and he’s otherwise turned out with buddies, you may be undermining instead of boosting your leadership,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “It’s not that you’re never going to hug on your horse or love on him, but respect has to come first and you need think about how you’re interacting with your horse 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.

Groundwork done well all year long can help you keep your horse looking to you for leadership. Your horse will continue (or become) a respectful partner who is looking for your leadership and permission.

You can do groundwork in a small space—in your barnyard or even inside the barn. You only need a small area that isn’t slippery and that is fairly level. Outfit your horse in a rope halter and a long training lead with a rope-to-rope connection at the halter.

You can always do groundwork and you and your horse will never outgrow it—just progress to more challenging skills. Over the winter, do these exercises as often as possible. Once a day is ideal, but once a week or once a month is much better than not working with your horse in the cold season.

Here, Goodnight gives you three exercises to work on throughout the winter. Plus, she’ll provide a rope-halter tying tip that kids can practice inside.

 

Step 1. Body Awareness

Help your horse tune in to your body cues and 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 sign language and body 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.

Define your personal space every time you are near your horse. Stretch your arms out around you in all directions. That is your space and space your horse should not enter without permission.  Free yourself of the need to be in your horse’s space all the time. That’s beneficial for you but not helpful for your relationship with your horse. If you enter your horse’s space all the time—kissing and hugging—your horse will not have a clear idea about your personal boundaries. While you sometimes want to love on your horse, start with a clear boundary and only allow that closeness after you have set up a clear expectation of his space and yours.

Practice your body postures. Away from your horse and in front of a mirror, practice your submissive and more aggressive postures. If your shoulders are rounded and your toes are pointed away, you’ll appear unthreatening to your horse. If your shoulders are up, your chest is puffed and your chin is high, and you look straight at your horse, he will take that as an aggressive or admonishing posture.

Think about when you’ll use each posture with your horse. If you want your horse to have a break and not be reactive to your every move, you want your posture to be less threatening. Roll your shoulders forward and divert your eyes to take the pressure off your horse—or to help your horse know that you’re not an aggressor if you are trying to catch him in the pasture. When you get ready to move with your horse, you’ll want to appear active and confident.

No matter what posture you adopt, know when and how you are moving.

 

Step 2. Stand Still

When you ride in the spring, you want to know that your horse will stand still for mounting, you also want your horse to stand still if you need to hop off and help another rider. Standing still is beneficial for many trail applications and learning to stand still reminds your horse to focus on you.

Your horse needs to be focused on you. Your horse should get in the habit of reacting to your cues—instead of looking for something to spook at or focus attention upon. Your horse needs to look at you and think before making a move. That mindset taught now on the ground, will apply to your saddle time in the spring. If your horse knows he needs to look to you first, you’re training him to listen and obey whether you are on the ground or in the saddle. You don’t want a trail horse to look around and react to external stimuli. You want him focused on you and the trail ahead of him. Teaching him to stand still and ground tie will help him stay tuned in to you.

As a bonus, adding in the command to “whoa,” will teach your horse to stop and focus on you—no matter where you are. When you’re on the trail next season, you’ll solidify your horse’s ability to focus on you. If he does spook when you’re riding, you will have a horse that knows that whoa means stop now. You’ll program in a command that may keep him from running off on the trail—and instead he’ll focus on you.

If your horse has been cooped up and confined, you might start with an exercise that allows the horse to move around, but if your horse has been turned out for the day and has moved a bit on his own, this is a great place to start.

This is an exercise you can do most anywhere. You’ll ask your horse to stand still like a statue and not move a hoof. Place your horse where you’d like him to stand then turn and face him—make sure you’re not standing too close. You don’t want to hold your horse still, you want him to know that he must listen and choose to stand still. Stand about 6 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.

If he 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 line 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.

Your horse will quickly learn that every time he moves a foot without your authorization, he’ll get in trouble. That lesson happens quickly, in the very first session.

When your horse obeys, heighten the challenge. Step farther away and eventually lay the middle of the rope on the ground while you hold the end. When your horse is listening well, you can lay the rope down and teach your horse to ground tie. That’s an invaluable skill on the trail and something that will easily apply to your summer rides when your horse is saddled up.

Want more of a challenge? Ask your horse to stand still when he doesn’t want to—before it’s time for turnout or when other horses are moving into the barn to eat. Your horse needs to listen to you no matter what the horse herd is doing around him. Once your horse knows the lesson, it doesn’t matter how much energy he has-he should stand still when asked.

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. Work up to 10-15 minutes of practice a day and you’ll have a horse who can successfully ground tie before spring.

 

Step 3. Leading Manners

Ground manners are paramount on the trail. You might be riding in an uncontrollable environment. If you one day need to pony a horse, lead line lessons will translate to being able to ride next to another horse. There are also many times when it may be safer to get off and lead your horse across difficult terrain. If your horse knows how to follow you well when you’re leading, it may help you both stay safe on a narrow or cliff-lined trail.

Sequence your cues so that you always do the same thing in the same order. Break down your cues into step 1, step 2, step 3. First you’ll look up and lean your shoulders forward then you’ll move your feet, then he’ll get a pull on the lead if he doesn’t move.

This is an important lesson for you as the handler to practice. If you can understand how to break down your cues and sequence every cue you give your horse, you can apply that skill to any lesson you’d like to teach your horse. When you learn to sequence your aids, your horse will learn and respond very quickly. You’ll build your relationship with your horse over the winter so that you’re ready to teach your horse anything new when you’re back in the saddle. Let’s apply that sequencing to teaching your horse how to maintain a respectful position as you lead him.

Get your horse to focus on your movements and maintain a position by your side—no matter how fast or slow you move and no matter what direction you turn. This is similar to teaching a dog to heal—there is a correct position where he should be and a line that he shouldn’t cross. You don’t want your horse to move into your space or move ahead of you.

Move deliberately and be consistent with your body language. When you start to walk, lean your shoulders forward and use a verbal cue to tell him to walk on. That movement comes before you pull on the lead. Don’t hold constant pressure on the lead, but hold the lead loosely so that your horse learns to follow your body language without expecting a pull. You want to teach him to move with you—not depend on a tight lead line.

Your horse’s nose shouldn’t move past your lead hand and his shoulder definitely shouldn’t move past yours. If your horse crosses the boundary, snap back hard on the rope, turn around and face him, stomp your feet and cause him to back up; admonish with your voice.

Use the amount of pressure that causes the horse to think “what did I do and what can I do so that doesn’t happen again?” Some horses may only need you to turn and look at him with a stern look, other horses may need more pressure and need you to stop, turn and back him up a few steps with authority. If you’re using enough pressure and good timing, your horse will learn the precise place he should be very quickly. If you find yourself constantly pulling or initiating a correction multiple times, check to make sure your corrections are consistent and escalate the pressure slightly and add a verbal admonishment.

Note: Make sure you aren’t pulling back on the lead line to hold the horse back. If you pull on the lead all the time, the horse will forever rely on that pressure to tell him where to be. You’ll constantly have to hold him back. You need to give him the responsibility to keep himself in the proper place.

If your horse doesn’t want to move forward enough and lags behind, you’ll also need to change your body language. When you move your shoulders forward (telling the horse that you’re about to move) then move your feet, your horse should step with you. If you have to also pull on the rope, bring your arms in close to your body and lean forward hard on the rope. Make sure your are not too close to your horse. If you lean forward quickly as a correction (and 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.

Some people turn and swat the horse with the end of a lead if they don’t move forward. This can be confusing for the horse because you’re actually turning around and changing your direction. If your horse doesn’t move forward, spend more time asking your horse to move forward (especially into the trot) and make sure to lean your shoulders first, start to move, then lean forward into the rope to make the correction. Praise the horse when he moves into the trot then ask him again. Soon he’ll learn that when you first lean forward, he better move or he’ll soon feel much more pressure on the halter.

Escalate the challenge by changing speeds, turning (always moving the horse away from you and out of your space instead of pulling him toward you), then turning at different speeds and degrees. To turn, simply walk toward the direction you want to go. If your horse doesn’t move, pick up your hands and defend your space—waving your hands just behind your horse’s eye without touching him will help him know to move away from you.

Soon you’ll be able to walk in all directions with little to no pressure on the rope and only with your body language. You may even choose to work with a neck rope instead of a halter and lead to test your horse’s obedience while maintaining a way to correct him if needed.

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 helps your horse to learn quickly and easily. With that lesson learned, you’ll be able to teach your horse most anything you’d like to for great trail rides.

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.

Tying a rope halter can be a challenge. Goodnight says she often sees rope halters tied with an incorrect knot and the excess “tail” aimed toward the horse’s eye instead of his tail. It’s time to practice tying so that you’ll always tie the rope halter correctly.

Take your horse’s rope halter inside and practice haltering a stuffed horse or have your parents hold the halter as if it were on a horse’s head.

Tie the halter knot by bringing the crown piece down through the halter’s loop. Then tie around the bottom part of the loop, making a figure eight appearance and ensuring that the excess strap is pointed toward the horse’s tail.

Need more help? Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPYy-3A8s8k

Horseback Riding Basics: Position

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Julie riding Dually bridleless with a neck rope.
Photo by: Melissa Arnold

Become a more effective rider by perfecting a proper horseback-riding position.

Correct body position is as basic as it gets. Without it, you and your horse can’t balance properly, and you can’t deliver your aids correctly. It’s one of those things you need to master before you can really advance with your riding.

We’re talking about the alignment of a rider’s ear, shoulder, hip and heel. When you’re sitting on the horse, someone looking at you from the side should be able to draw a vertical line through the middle of your ear, shoulder and hip, going down behind the back of your heel. It’s pretty much the same position for all sports that require balance.

It’s interesting that although the stirrup length can change – as well as the type of the saddle – this basic alignment never does, whether you’re doing reining, western dressage, trail riding or English. It’s the same for all disciplines, because the horse is the common denominator.

This body alignment isn’t about looking pretty in the saddle (although it does look good). It’s about finding balance for yourself and your horse. He can’t be balanced, after all, if you’re out of whack on his back. Think about giving somebody a piggyback ride on your back. If he or she is lined up with your center of gravity, it’s much easier to keep yourself in balance than if your passenger is leaning forward or backward.

Sometimes being in balance is easier said than achieved, though. Riding is a challenging sport, because not only are you balancing while in motion (like snow skiers or ice skaters do), but it also requires the synchronized balance of two animals working together. And that second animal has a mind of his own, so he may not always move just exactly as you intended.

There are two types of balance for both horse and rider: longitudinal and lateral. Longitudinal refers to a front-to-back balance, and it can be challenged when your horse slows down or speeds up. Lateral balance – side to side – changes as your horse turns.

Sitting in the correct position, you’re just above and behind the horse’s center of gravity, and as an added bonus, your aligned body actually makes it easier to stay on board. It brings your skeletal system into alignment, and that in turn provides stability. Your skeletal system – not your muscle strength – is keeping you balanced and erect, and relaxed joints can act as shock absorbers to help you move fluidly with the horse.

Now that you have improved your position, improve your horsemanship. AQHA’s Fundamentals of Horsemanship will take you through the basics of horsemanship and help you become a better horseman or -woman.

I’ve read about a university research project in which it was proven that for beginners, riding is excellent strength-building aerobic exercise, while expert riders got very little exercise from riding. As you become a better rider, you’re moving with the horse, letting the horse move you, letting your good balance do all the work. Beginners have to use quite a bit of muscle strength to stay on the horse.

Riders who have to use muscle strength to stay secure in the saddle are riding into a vicious circle. By definition, using muscle strength means gripping and holding on. Plus, whenever you tighten your muscles, you lock your joints, which keeps you from being loose, fluid and able to follow the horse’s movement with your own body.

And when things go wrong from our driver’s seat in the saddle, you can bet that will have an effect on the horse beneath you.

Let’s take a rider whose shoulders are in front of her hips; she’s leaning forward in front of the vertical. If she’s on a forward-thinking horse, he’s going to take that as a cue to speed up. The rider might pull on the reins, which tips her even farther forward, and her lower leg slides backward and inadvertently squeezes the horse. Some horses will speed up even more then and run through the bridle.

Other horses who might be a little lazier and not quite so inclined to speed up will just learn to ignore those movements from the rider. In effect, the rider has just trained her horse to ignore seat, weight and leg cues – things that should be very important points of communication with the horse.

The good news is that there is a simple fix for these problems. You have to fix your body position. There’s no sense in talking about any other training issues with a horse. You can’t communicate effectively, and you can’t balance effectively if you’re not in position.

I think riders, even if they don’t have a regular instructor, can police themselves and make improvements on their own. Another set of eyes to critique you is wonderful, but a video camera works, too. Then, if you have the knowledge of what good body position should look like, you just have to have the discipline to work on it and constantly check in as you ride, asking yourself, “Am I doing this right?”

Here are some tips to get you started:

Ears
The easiest way to ruin the alignment from ear to shoulder is to look down, which brings your ear in front of your shoulder. That, in turn, tends to put the horse heavier on his forehand, which is not what we want. Keep your eyes focused ahead of you, looking where you’re going. Don’t look at your horse’s head.

It’s also common for people to jut their chin forward and tense their neck, which is a posture some people adopt when they’re concentrating. That changes your balance, and it’s also very hard on your neck. Again, any time you tense a muscle, you stiffen a joint. Even if you clinch your teeth, you are stiffening a joint, which causes tension where there shouldn’t be any.

Shoulders
If people don’t carry their tension and concentration in their neck, they often carry it in their shoulders. Tense shoulders lead to bouncing hands, which are highly detrimental to the horse. You want to have long and relaxed, but not rounded, shoulders. The solution is not to put your shoulders back, but to lift your sternum and sit as tall as possible.

Hips
Often, the most common problem riders battle is having their shoulders in front of their hips, which causes a closing of the hip joint. Your hips are the biggest shock absorber you have while riding, and having a full range of motion in the pelvis is critical to balance and to sitting the trot and riding smoothly with the horse. You get that by keeping your shoulders in line, so that the hip joint stays as open as possible.

Another important consideration is keeping your lower back flat and relaxed. Think about sucking your belly button in and tucking your tailbone underneath you, which also keeps the hip joint open.

Improving your riding position is only part of the battle; improve your horsemanship with AQHA’s Fundamentals of Horsemanship. Master the basics of horsemanship and improve the relationship you have with your horse.

Heels
The most common problem here is having the lower legs creep too far forward. It’s comfortable, which is why we do it, and unfortunately, many saddles are made with the stirrups cut forward, which encourages you to keep your leg too far forward.

Your calf is a major means of communication with the horse, and it has to be in contact with the horse all the time. You want your leg underneath you, just as if you were standing on the ground.

An easy way to self-diagnose: Glance down at your kneecap. If you can see your toe in front of your knee, your legs are too far forward.

More than likely, you’ve heard the “Heels down!” mantra. And your heel does needs to be long, but don’t force it too far down. That pushes your leg forward and stiffens your joints. You shouldn’t put much weight in your stirrups, either, because that leads to a tense leg and a bouncing rider. You’re pushing yourself out of the saddle. The more trouble you’re having staying on the horse, the less weight you want in the stirrups.

Think about stretching and lengthening your leg muscles, so you have weight in your heels. That’ll give you an anchor, and you won’t be fighting gravity.

These position problems can form as a result of bad habits, or maybe because of posture problems we have off the horse. Anything that helps with body alignment and core strength – such as yoga or pilates – is going to translate into better body position in the saddle. With self-awareness and self-discipline, you’ll be able to improve your body position – and that will help you become a more effective rider.

How To Stay Comfortable In The Saddle

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How to Stay Comfortable in the Saddle—No Aches or Pains

[Question]
Julie, I have a question about how to be more comfortable during my long rides. What causes my knees to hurt after about an hour riding at a walk? What can I do to stay comfortable in the saddle?

[Answer]
Being comfortable in the saddle is crucial for long rides. Joint pain is a complaint I hear about often. I’ll share some tips about proper alignment then help you consider the tack and riding gear that can help or hinder your comfort as you ride.
Line it Up

I hear riders ask about their feet falling asleep or of constant knee pain when they ride. When you sit on a horse, your legs are being spread apart and the unnatural alignment causes pain over time.
When you’re sitting on your horse, your alignment changes from the posture you use to stand upright. Your legs are wrapping around the horse’s barrel instead of hanging straight down. To get the picture, imagine sitting on the long side of an oil barrel with your legs wrapped around. Because of your position, your joints come together at angles instead of in their usual straight alignment. Your knee and ankle joints now have uneven pressure and that causes pain.

The solution is pronation (rotational movement of a joint). With this move, you’ll bring your ankles back toward your midline. When you’re sitting with your legs spread around the horse without pronating, your ankles roll to the outside and also impact your knees. To correct that alignment with pronation, flex your foot so that your weight rolls toward your big toe. This simple move realigns the bones that comprise the knee and ankle joints. It reduces the pressure and the pain after a long ride.

You can try this while you’re sitting in a chair, too. Roll your foot toward your pinky toe and press your weight down to your feet. You can feel the strain on your ankles and knees. That’s what it feels like without pronation. Then roll your foot toward your big toe. Notice that it’s easier to hold this pronated position.

If you were taught to ride with your toes straight ahead and your heels pushed far down, it’s time to reconsider your alignment. Keeping your toes straight ahead isn’t helpful for ergonomic riding. In this position, you can’t pronate your ankles and you don’t have your lower leg available for cueing your horse. No matter what your riding instructor said when you were young, it’s fine to have your toes pointed out a little. To feel better in the saddle, you need to allow yourself to turn your feet out slightly. I’m not talking about pointing your toes directly east and west—just relax enough to allow your legs to hang more naturally.

Tack Evaluation

You’re only in balance when your skeletal system is in alignment. When you’re sitting on your horse, you should have a straight line running down from your shoulder, through your hip and down to the back of your heel. Your saddle can help or hinder this position.
While you may think all saddles should help you be in a balanced position, it’s just not true. If your stirrups hang far forward, you can be pulled out of alignment. Stirrups that hang forward put you in a “chair” position that may seem comfortable at first, but can cause you to push down or reach for your stirrups and stiffen your legs. If your stirrups hang straight down from the saddle’s seat when you evaluate it on a saddle rack, your saddle will help you be in a balanced position throughout your long ride. If your stirrups hang far forward, consider shopping around.

If you find your seat bones hurt after a long ride, your saddle may have too wide of a twist—the part of the saddle just in front of the seat that rises toward the pommel. If the twist is wide, it will push your legs farther apart and causes pressure onto your seat bones. Your entire body weight then pushes down onto your seat bones in that spread position. That doesn’t feel good after a long ride. Look for a saddle with a narrow twist to avoid sore seat bones.
Dress the Part

While your clothing might not directly impact your joints, it does impact your overall comfort on the trail. If you ride in jeans, make sure that the inside seams aren’t bulky. If you shop for jeans made for riding, you’ll notice that the bulkiest seams are on your outer leg—not inside. If there’s too much fabric inside, you can get sores at your knees from rubbing against that extra fabric.

If you’re riding for long days and it’s not too hot out, try wearing silk long johns under your jeans. The light layer can help with chaffing and can help you avoid saddle sores. If you’re going to be riding for several days, you need to make sure your joints and your skin stay in the best shape possible.

To keep my skin in good shape, I make sure to carry big Band-Aids and Cortisone cream. Cortisone will help with chaffing and will help you ride without changing your posture to avoid further rubbing your saddle sore. You won’t ride correctly if you have a saddle sore on the inside of your knee so taking care of your skin can help your overall posture and alignment, too.

Riding Skills: Using Your Upper Body Properly

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: How should my upper body be as I ride?

Answer: Much focus is given to the rider’s seat and leg position, as it should be, for these are critical areas that effect equitation. However, the upper body (head, neck, chest, shoulders and arms) should not be forgotten and constant diligence must be given to these body parts as well, to develop effective riding skills.

Remembering the all-important balanced riding position of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, you might say that half of your balance comes from upper body position. And for the horse, nothing is more important than correct arm and hand position, which in turn leads to soft and clear communication from the rider’s hands to the horse’s mouth. In this article, we will consider each of these upper body parts, their proper position and effective use.

Starting at the top and working our way down, we must first consider head and neck position. The most common equitation mistakes in this area are eyes looking down and the rider’s chin jutting forward with the ear stretching in front of her shoulder in a position I fondly refer to as “the Cro-Magnon look.”

As discussed in previous articles, your eyes are an important means of communication with your horse, not to mention a critical tool for balance (look down and you’ll go down, look forward and you’ll go forward). Your horse is naturally programmed to look and go where the boss mare (alpha individual of the herd) looks and goes. This is an important survival tool and ingrained herd behavior. If you have developed the kind of relationship that you should with your horse, he should consider you to be his leader and will be tuned into your eyes and where you look, so it is important to keep that line of communication open.

As for balance, our heads are pretty large and heavy so any fraction of an inch out of the balance position (you are balanced when your ears are over your shoulders) will throw your balance off considerably. If you struggle with ear alignment, think of keeping your nose behind your belt buckle or touching the back of your neck to your shirt collar.

Shoulders are another common area for equitation faults, but often the root of the problem of rounded shoulders is over-looked. An old-fashioned style of teaching is to ask riders to “put their shoulders back” in an effort to keep the rider more upright and fix poor posture. I find that the rider with rounded shoulders does not really have a shoulder problem at all but is instead collapsing in the rib cage. The solution does not lie in stiffening the shoulders and back, but rather in lifting the sternum (breast bone) and lifting the rib cage off the spine.

If rounded shoulders and poor upper body posture are a problem for you, try lifting your sternum toward the sky or inflating your lungs fully and just breathing off the top of your lungs. Remember, poor posture in the saddle probably started with poor posture on the ground, so work on these issues when you are not riding too. Arm and hand position can be all over the map instead of in the neat and tidy “box” of proper position. Upper arms should stay close to your body with your shoulders hanging straight down and the line from your neck to your arms should be long and relaxed. Elbows need to stay bent and will open and close to act as shock absorbers as your horse moves, allowing you to maintain a steady amount of contact with the horse’s mouth. Any pulling action on the reins should come from your elbows, pulling your hands toward your hips, not pulling down or up on the reins. Your upper arms and elbows should always be connected to your ribcage and your arms should move with your ribcage and body, not independently.

There should always be an imaginary straight line from your elbow to the horse’s mouth. Try to visualize this line as you ride and realize that your hand position will change as the horse’s head changes in elevation. A common problem in beginner riders is hands held too high, and a common fault of more experienced riders to keep their hands too low. Imagine a six-inch square box in front of the pommel of your saddle and try to keep your hands always “in the box.”

Another common problem seen in hand position is broken wrists or flat “piano hands.” The straight line from elbow to mouth can be broken in many ways through the wrists. Wrists should always remain straight with the hands angled slightly inward, just as if you were reaching out to shake someone’s hand. Hands must not be too close together or too far apart because this too can break your straight-line from elbow to horse’s mouth.
Straight lines are an important component of proper riding position, whether it is the straight line of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, a straight head and neck, a straight spine (flat back) or the line from your elbow to the horse’s mouth. A straight line is always the shortest distance between two points and the strongest, most balanced and most effective line of communication with your horse.

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Coordinated Grooming

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Grooming is a great time to get some exercise and develop the bi-lateral coordination and symmetrical strength that you need to become a better rider. Many riders have a strong dominant side—which can mean that the horses they ride also have a strong and weak side or direction. Strengthen right and left by grooming with both hands at once—you’ll strengthen both arms and make sure you can cue your horse with symmetrical strength.

Start with duplicate brushes: two curry combs, two stiff brushes and two soft brushes. Put a currycomb in each hand and start your normal grooming technique, using both hands in a “wax on, wax off” motion. If you normally make circles with the currycomb, make the same circles with both hands, starting with circling both hands inward then both hands outward. You’ll repeat the two-handed process with all your grooming tools.

Pick up your stiff brushes and repeat the process, using both hands equally as you flick the dirt out of your horse’s coat from his ears to his tail. Finally, you’ll use the soft brushes to bring the shine out in your horse, nose to tail. If you are right handed, make sure you use your left arm at least as much, if not more than the right; and visa-versa.

Double grooming will help you build strength on both sides of your body and will develop your coordination as well, making you more ambidextrous in the saddle. The added benefit is that your horse will get twice as much grooming and his coat will gleam. For more strength-building exercises, check out Shop.JulieGoodnight.com for volume three in the 5-video riding series, Perfect Practice: Exercises to Improve Your Riding.