Finding a Kid’s Horse
Older is Better—You want a horse that is set in his ways, experienced and unflappable. The Rule of 20 says that the age of the horse plus the age of the rider, must at least equal 20. Often you can find better trained and very experienced horse that is best suited to a child and also very inexpensive in the 18-22 year old bracket.
Been there, done that. Look for horses that have been used a lot, done many different things and worked hard for a living. He’ll be more solid and he won’t be looking to work any harder than he has to. If he has done activities that required him to travel off the farm—all the better! There’s probably nothing that will surprise this horse.
Babysitter wanted! You want a temperament of solid gold. Calm, friendly and willing, with an eagerness to please and a cautious approach. A thinking horse that will act as a supervisor to your child when you are not present. Look for a big, kind eye, a flat forehead and a calm awareness.
Size matters. Try to find something ‘right-sized’ for your child. If they can brush, clean feet and saddle themselves, it will be much better for everyone—but all the stuff above matters more than size.
Discipline doesn’t matter—for a starter horse, what you care about is safety and fun. A well-trained and experienced horse from any discipline will fit this bill—she’ll get more serious later on.
Start saving your money now! If your child is seriously smitten, her first horse will not be her last one. Plan on her outgrowing her first horse after a couple years—not so much in size but in performance. Her second horse may be more expensive as she moves into more advanced activities.
Don’t get cheap. Sad but true: the least amount of money you will spend on this horse is the purchase price. Spend as much as you can to get the best horse (again, buying an aged–but sound horse may give you more bang for your buck). Factor in the cost of one trip to the emergency room and spend that much more money on the horse for your child, in the hopes that you will avoid the doctor bills!
Written by 30 professional horsemanship instructors from the United States and Canada. This four level manual contains a complete program for all levels of riders, with many illustrations by noted author and illustrator, Susan Harris. Available as separate level manuals or all four levels in this Composite Manual. Has a written test and riding test patterns at the end of each level.
Even if you haven’t had a big wreck with your horse, you’ve imagined what can happen out on the trail. You’ve felt your stomach tie in knots as you headed up a steep hill, passed through deep water, or worse, seen a friend slip or fall with her horse. Those moments of fear aren’t bad and shouldn’t be dismissed says natural horsemanship trainer Julie Goodnight. “Fear is a natural response,” she says. “It can keep you alive. With horses, it’s always important to think ‘what is the worst-case scenario?’ If you know what can happen, you can make plans to avoid it.”
Here, Goodnight has outlined potential tragedies that can happen because of faulty tack or fastening, because of what you’re wearing, or because of who you’re riding with. Read on to find out what can happen and what you can do to avoid the scenario. Keep in mind—ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to horses and safety. Once you know what may happen, you can take the necessary steps to ensure your safety and health for your horse. When you know what steps to take to be safe, you can envision a safe and relaxing ride.
Before you ride
Check your cinch
Problem: Your saddle becomes loose and swings beneath your horse.
Worst-case scenario: You’re going along the trail at a brisk pace when you realize you haven’t checked your cinch for almost an hour. And you can’t quite remember—did you check the cinch after stopping for a lunch break? Your saddle slips to the side—taking you with it. Your try to untangle yourself from the saddle—which is now upside down and hanging below your horse’s belly—but your foot is caught. Your horse is moving faster as the “attacking” saddle chases him. You’re terrified as you’re being dragged down the trail. If you’re lucky, your worst problem will be a horse that’s terrified of being saddled for the rest of his life. If you’re not so lucky. . . .
Solution: Goodnight says she’s seen many saddles slip and flip during her years as a horse trainer and trail guide. “That traumatizes a horse for the rest of his life—he’s afraid of a saddle after it slips and that’s a difficult and sometimes impossible fear to un-train.” Avoiding this wreck is simple—take time to check your cinch (or girth as it’s sometimes called) and know where to check.
How to go about it: You may have been taught to check your cinch at a point parallel to your horse’s elbow. The horse is concave in shape on his side, so the cinch will almost always feel loose at that point—it’s a false reading. Check the cinch between the horse’s front legs at the point where the cinch crosses your horse’s sternum—that’s hard bone. You’ll get a true feel for the looseness or tightness there. To be sure, straighten your index finger and place it between your horse’s haircoat and the cinch. Reach in from the side closest to your horse’s tail so that when you pull your fingers out, you’ll leave the horse’s hair flat and avoid causing him to be sore. If you can push one finger in up to your first joint, your cinch is tight. If you can easily push two fingers—or one finger farther than the first joint—between your horse’s body and the cinch, your cinch may need to be tightened. If you can’t get your finger in at all, the cinch is probably too tight—causing your horse to feel undue pressure.
Keep in mind, how tight your cinch should be depends on how your horse is built. If your horse is round and doesn’t have high withers, you may need to ride with a tight cinch to be safe. If your horse has high withers and is somewhat thin, your cinch won’t need to be cranked. You may be safe if you can fit two fingers in up to your first knuckles.
You’ll want to check your girth before and after mounting because your weight compresses the saddle and the pad and may allow for extra room. Plus, when your horse warms up and his muscles tighten during exercise, he begins to sweat and air rushes away from his body and out of the saddle pad. All these factors create space between your horse and the cinch. You may have heard that horses hold their breath during saddling to create more room between their bodies and the cinch. Goodnight says horses don’t plan ahead for a way to escape pain, but they do remember if someone has cranked up their cinch too much at one time. If your horse braces against the cinch, consider tightening his cinch in increments so he doesn’t flinch and tense then relax and loosen the pressure later on.
Get in the habit of checking the cinch each time you mount up and again about 20 minutes into each leg of your ride. Tip: to remind you to re-tighten your cinch after you break for lunch, put your stirrups up over your saddle horn or, if you’re riding in an English saddle, leave a billet hanging down. You’ll see the strange set up and remember to adjust your gear before moving on.
Analyze your bridle
Problem: Your bridle comes off because you don’t have a throatlatch or your rein breaks away from the bit.
Worst-case scenario: You’re loping across an open meadow when suddenly you realize you have no contact with your horse’s mouth. You’re holding on to your reins as your bridle drags along the ground beside you. Your horse senses your panic and takes off faster—and heads straight for the tree line. Without reins, you don’t have a way to steer your horse through the approaching trees. Will he rub you off because you can’t maneuver quickly? He knows how wide his own body is, but you probably can’t trust him to judge how wide he is while you’re on his back. How will you stop without your trusty rein aids? The trees are getting closer. . . .
Solution: Make sure your headstall has a throatlatch and it’s properly connected. Also take time to analyze the screws or leather pieces that connect your headstall to the bit and your bit to the reins. Goodnight says losing one rein isn’t as traumatic as losing your entire bridle. Still, if your horse isn’t properly trained, you may have trouble stopping without pulling the bit through his mouth. Plus, stopping for repairs during a ride is never a fun way to spend time.
How to go about it:
Goodnight recommends purchasing a headstall with a throatlatch included. She says many riders who show in Western classes ride without the throatlatch attached so that their horses look refined. But out on the trail, your horse can easily pull off even a split-eared headstall if there’s not an extra fastener around his jowl. Put on your horse’s throatlatch and make sure you can fit three fingers vertically aligned between your horse’s jaw and the latch’s leather.
While you’re checking your bridle, look closely at the connections between leather and metal—that’s where you’ll first see wear and breaking. Replace any worn leather before you leave for a ride. Also check your bridle’s Chicago screws to make sure they’re tightly fastened. Consider dotting the back of the screws with super glue to ensure you won’t lose a rein (just make sure you know you won’t want to change your tack set up later).
Double check your halter and bridle
Problem: Leaving your halter and lead attached beneath your bridle may leave dangerous loops for your horse to step through or tangle on passing brush.
Worst-case scenario: You’re almost ready to stop, rest and eat some lunch. You’ve left your rope halter on—with the lead in place—beneath your horse’s bridle to make sure he doesn’t get away in the wide-open spaces. When you stop, you’ll take off his bridle and allow him to rest and graze. As you approach your lunch site, you realize your halter’s lead has come untied and hangs down near your horse’s lower chest. Since you’re almost at your stopping point, you think you’ll fix it later. As you step over a log, your horse places his foot in the swinging loop. He raises his head to find he’s tied to his legs. He pulls against the solid rope and finds no relief. If the halter doesn’t budge, your horse could break his neck. You’re out of balance and risk falling as your horse continues to bob and fight the connection.
Solution: Goodnight says she’s not against riding with a halter under a bridle, but recommends using a flat, nylon break-away halter instead of rope. She also recommends detaching your lead while you ride. “A rope halter may feel uncomfortable for your horse if it rubs beneath other layers,” Goodnight says. “Plus, if you have a heavy rope lead swinging from the rope halter, your horse may become insensitive to any pressure on his face. He’ll feel a constant downward pulling pressure all the time—which fights the cues you’re giving with your rein aids.”
How to go about it: Choose a flat halter that fits your horse well. When you put the bridle on over it, make sure to adjust the bridle. It may suddenly be snug with the extra layer beneath it. You’ll know you need to loosen your bridle if you see more wrinkles than usual at the corner of your horse’s mouth—where the bit and bridle meet. Instead of attaching your lead and tying it anywhere on your horse’s neck, choose a lead with a snap and simply detach and store away in your saddlebag until it’s time for a break.
Take off the tie down
Problem: A tie down interferes with your horse’s balance.
Worst-case scenario: You’re riding down a steep hill toward a deep-water crossing. Your horse slips sideways as you head down the hill and needs to correct himself and take a step up to be back on the trail. He could correct himself easily if he wasn’t tacked up. You outfitted him in all the gear that came with him—including his tie down. With a tight strap connected from the bridle to his body, he can’t use his head to balance his bodyweight. As he attempts to climb back onto the trail, he stretches the tie down and slips again. You’re sliding toward the water. With his tie down in place in the water, you’re in even more trouble. Your horse must keep his nose above water to breathe as he attempts to swim across. The tie down keeps his nose under water. If you can’t find your knife in time to cut the line, your horse may drown. . . .
Solution: Make sure you’re using tack that you and your horse really need—don’t use equipment just because it came with your horse or because every one else is using it. If your horse tosses his head and a tie down keeps him more calm and manageable, make sure your gear is fitted appropriately—with enough room for him to move and save his balance. Any time you’re headed toward water that may be deep, make sure to stop and take off the tie down before entering.
How to go about it: If you feel you must use a tie down, make sure your horse has plenty of room to move his head. That’s his balance mechanism. When your horse is standing still and relaxed with his head in a neutral position, lift up on the tie down. It should have enough slack to reach up to your horse’s throat. If it’s shorter than that length, it will interfere with your horse’s balance. Always take off your tie down before entering deep water.
Wear a helmet
Problem: Wearing a helmet is hot and just not stylish.
Worst-case scenario: The Rocky Mountains are a great place for your first ride of the season. In cowboy country, you decide to wear your hat instead of your helmet. After all, you have a trustable horse. Your helmet is in the truck, but it’s so hot in the sunshine. You think your hat is an acceptable choice. Twenty minutes into your ride, the trail opens up onto a rocky climb. The footing smooth and covered with small rocks. Your trust your horse to move on—and he tries—then slips backward. You lose your balance and roll off of his back onto the hard rock. Your head hits with a thud. . . .
Solution: Goodnight says most trail riders don’t wear a helmet for one of two reasons: helmets are too hot—and not ‘cool’—or riders trust their horses and don’t think there’s any chance of bolting or falling. The justifications don’t make sense. Wear a helmet.
“When I made the decision to ride a helmet when I do my demonstrations and clinics, it was difficult because none of my peers did the same,” Goodnight says. “I was concerned that it would make me appear un-cool. I also worried about getting too hot and not looking nice later. Then I realized that no one was going to not like me because I wore a helmet. No one else cares that much about you. Now, if anyone comments on my helmet, I tell them that obviously I’m smarter than them and my brains are more important.”
Modern helmets are designed to allow more airflow than their older counterparts. New helmets come in a variety of colors and styles—not just the big black versions you may remember from your younger days.
If you’re still arguing that you have a safe, well-trained horse, Goodnight lends this wisdom, “You’re in an uncontrolled environment with unmanaged footing. Even the best-trained horse isn’t guaranteed not to slip or fall. There’s more of a chance that your head would hit a rock if you do fall off on the trail. It just isn’t worth the risk.”
How to go about it: Look for lightweight helmets designed for horseback riding and that carry the ASTM/SEI seals. The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) includes doctors, engineers and physicists. ASTM sets standards especially for riders—judging the impact that could happen falling from a tall horse at high speeds. The criteria for horseback riding helmets are different than any other sport’s helmet. Workers at the SEI (Safety Equipment Institute) test equestrian helmets to be sure they meet the ASTM standard. Don’t be budget conscious and decide to wear your bike helmet while you ride your horse. The standards are quite different.
Slather on the repellent
Problem: You and your horse may be mosquitoes’ victims.
Worst-case scenario: While you’re trotting through the mosquito-infused forest, your horse—accustomed to a bug-controlled barn—gets a terrible case of itchiness. Hoping to rid his skin of the pests, he purposefully aims for the bushes. As he brushes off the bugs, you lose your balance and come off, too. Worse, if the wrong bug bites, you or your horse may also come in contact with West Nile Virus. Horses infected with WNV may stumble, stagger, grind their teeth, lose the muscle strength to stand, have facial paralysis, go blind, and suffer effects of encephalitis that ultimately take their lives. If an infected bug bites you, you’ll experience headaches, a high fever, a stiff neck, disorientation, coma, convulsions, muscle weakness, and even paralysis if the bite results in encephalitis.
Solution: Avoid mosquitoes to avoid the virus. Protect your horse with a vaccine against WNV. Protect yourself with long sleeves, bug spray and bug-repelling clothing. Even if mosquitoes in your area don’t have the virus (yet) new research from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston shows that bites by “healthy” bugs may prime your system and make it easier for you to contract a severe virus variety. To find out more about the mosquito population in your area visit AABB’s (the association formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks and now known by its acronym) web site, www.aabb.org, and search for “2008 West Nile Virus Biovigilance Network.” You’ll find up-to-date charts and maps showing where the virus is found; you’ll also find tips to help you avoid the problem.
How to go about it: Get your horse vaccinated each spring and ask your veterinarian what boosters are needed to keep your horse safe throughout the warm mosquito season. Before you get ready for a trail ride, make sure to pack a mosquito-repelling spray for you and for your horse. Ask your veterinarian which brands she recommends for ultimate bug control and safety for your horse. If you plan many ventures into the woods, consider adding mosquito-repelling clothing to your wardrobe. Fabric is infused with Permethrin, a man-made form of a natural insect repellent found in Chrysanthemum plants. Check out the Buzz-off line at www.exofficio.com.
Watch for catching clothing
Problem: Hoodies, loose-fitting shoulder bags or fanny packs, dangling jewelry, and jackets with zippers all can cause hang-ups.
Worst-case scenario: As you dismount for a lunch break, your zipper-closed jacket slips over your saddle horn. With your feet already out of the stirrups, you can’t push yourself up to free yourself. Your horse feels your strange movements at his side and takes a step to the side. When you move along with him, he steps away again then starts to trot and canter to get away from your too-close stance. Your horse is dragging you by your unbreakable jacket. . . .
Solution: Make sure all of your clothing and accessories fit close to your body and that no straps or outerwear layers can catch.
How to go about it: Look for equestrian-specific jackets that have snap—rather than zipper—closures. A snap will come apart much faster than a zipper will break. Make sure to tuck in your shirts and hoods. Tuck the base of loose sweatshirts and any under-layers into your jeans or jods. Pull your hood out from beneath the smooth protection only when it’s time to put it on. When it comes to accessories, leave your jewelry at home. If you wear a fanny- or backpack, make sure the straps are adjusted so that they lay flat next to your clothing. Consider turning your fanny pack toward your backside so that it’s out of the way as you mount and dismount. Better yet, store all that you can in your saddlebags and hide your needed emergency items (your cell phone with in-case-of-emergency number clearly labeled, knife, ID, protein bar, compass or handheld GPS) in a zip-closed pocket or hide-away satchel beneath your outer layer—or shop for a specially made wallet that attaches to your leg. Check out www.cashelcompany.com for non-catching totes.
Problem: You’re riding alone and no one knows where you are or when to expect you back.
Worst-case scenario: You take off for some personal rejuvenation time. It’s just you and your horse out on the trail. No one knows where you are or when you’ll return—and for a while, you’re glad for that freedom. Suddenly, a summer storm sweeps the sky. A lightening bolt lands too close for comfort and your horse charges off. You’re left behind and you’re far from home. Worse yet, your cell phone was stored in your saddlebags. Your horse doesn’t know how to dial and you don’t know how you’re going to get back to the trailhead and out of the storm. Which way did you come from? You hope your husband will miss you—but he won’t be home until at least 9:00 p.m. It’s getting scary and darker. . . .
Solution: Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll return. Goodnight says “Riders’ lives have definitely been saved when they’ve left word—clearly stating when they should return and when to send help.”
How to go about it: Call a friend—whom you know will get the message—from your cell phone as you set out on the trail or before you leave home. Let your friend know which trail you’ll take and how long the trip should take. Also let her know whom to contact if you haven’t checked in by a certain time. Have a list of park ranger or other emergency numbers ready.
Once you mount up, stick to the trail you told our friend about—and don’t tarry. Make sure to have your cell phone, a GPS or compass, and a protein bar stored on your person—not in your saddlebags. Your horse may not be with you when you need the items. Also make sure to attach some form of ID on your horse—use a luggage tag to list your name and contact info—and your emergency contact’s number. A rescuer may find your horse before they find you—and your friend will know what trail you took. That information will speed up your rescue!
When you’re done riding—and if you didn’t have a problem—call your friend to check in.
It can take weeks for new horses to settle into an established herd—be prepared to see aggressive behavior during the initial introduction. Adding a male to a female brood can extend the time and add extra stress
Two weeks ago I introduced my new Appaloosa gelding to my well-established and friendly mare and mule. The mare and mule—both female—are sweet and quiet. They have been in with other horses in the past, but that was about two years ago. When I first introduced the new gelding, all three had time in stalls to snort and touch noses. When I first turned them out together, they seemed calm and fine. After a few days, the gelding became increasingly aggressive to both females. All three horses are in a pasture with a 32 by 36-foot run-in barn. There‘s plenty of room for all to run free, then stand separated in the barn if they choose. However, the gelding is intimidating the females and pushing them out of the shelter whenever they approach. It’s getting cooler and I want all three to have access to the shelter. How long does it take for new horses to settle into the herd? What can I do to facilitate the process?
Driven Out, via e-mail
Dear Driven Out,
It sounds like normal herd behavior going on with your bunch and yes, sometimes it can take weeks for the pecking order to be fully re-established after a new horse is added to the herd. The gelding is trying to make the mares submit so that he has total control over them. Naturally, mares are more likely to form bonded relationships with other mares; while a mare in the wild might bond to a stallion too, mostly they are tight with each other. Probably they are more bonded to each other than to him and that is driving him crazy. A stallion in the wild will herd his mares until they become submissive and obedient. Hopefully they will accept his authority soon, show the appropriate signs of submissiveness and respect then he will settle down.
If you look at the natural herd setting, there are brood mare bands and bachelor bands. The broodmare band generally consists of a stallion, any number of mares he might possess, and their young off-spring. They are a bonded herd. The bachelor band consists of all the colts and stallions that don’t have their own mares and they are not particularly bonded, they have just formed a herd of convenience, since horses are reliant on the herd for survival.
In domestication, we generally turn the natural herd setting upside down and horses are grouped together for our convenience. Most large operations keep all the geldings in one pen and all the mares in another; this makes for very peaceful coexistence. As soon as you add one member of the opposite sex to either group, the sparks will fly and horses will start vying for position: “It’s my mare, not yours,” or “I am the favored mare, not you.” While it is certainly possible for a mixed gender herd to get a long well, it can also be a recipe for disaster.
Whenever you introduce a new horse into a herd, especially a more dominant horse, it is likely that sparks are going to fly and it is quite possible that someone will get hurt. It’s a good idea to introduce them slowly in adjacent pens, over a week or two, preferably so that they can touch and sniff over a tall, sturdy, safe fence. When you turn out the new horse to the herd, there will still be some posturing so you may want to supervise for a while, to make sure things don’t blow up into a full-scale war. I usually hang out in the pen for a while with a whip in my hand, in case I need to break up a scuffle. Try to introduce them in an area free of traps, like corners or stalls where a dominant horse might trap a subordinate and wail on him. It is also very effective to introduce one horse at a time to the new one, by putting one horse from the herd in with him, let them become comfortable, then turn the two out together. Sometimes, if the new horse already has a buddy, he’ll be less likely to be aggressive.
It is possible that your gelding is just a bully. A good herd leader will establish his/her authority and then leave the other horses alone, only discipline them if they are disrespectful or disobedient. However, some horses are just bullies and will pick on the other horses in the herd relentlessly. In time, the herd hierarchy should have straightened out and he should start treating the mares better, or at least ignore them. If not, he may be a relentless bully and may need to be separated from the girls.
If the gelding’s aggressive behavior continues, you may want to start separating him for feeding or pull him out altogether. An incorrigible bully either needs to be put in with a more dominant horse that will put him in his place (at the risk of injury to both horses) or be kept separate from other horses. If you choose the latter, make sure he’s in a pen where he can see and touch other horses—that way he won’t feel alone.
If his aggressive behavior continues or if separation is a problem, consider the use of an electric shock collar called “Vice Breaker.” It is only used in cases where it is in the horses’ best interest (we’re talking about safety for the bully and for the females) to eliminate the unacceptable behavior–in this case the unacceptable behavior is aggressiveness. People have had remarkable and quick success with aggressive horses using a shock collar. The shock collar is similar to what they use on dogs, but with a much lower level of stimulation (at the lowest level, a human cannot feel anything). Basically, you put the collar on the horse, stand at a distance, and (unbeknownst to him) hit the remote button to shock him every time he acts aggressively. Like all training, timing is quintessential and it requires skill to use this device effectively. With good timing, you could eliminate the undesirable behavior on the first session, but generally it will take a few sessions. The remote control works up to half mile away so it is easy to stay ‘hidden’ so that your horse doesn’t associate the correction with your presence. This device is also very handy for barn or trailer kickers, aggressive biting, etc. Generally, in one or two sessions the horse is cured.
Good luck with your new horse. I hope they all settle soon!
Until next time,
Appropriate stirrup length is critical for all levels and disciplines of riders. It is important for safety, for rider balance and for the effectiveness of the rider in developing correct riding skills. Time and time again in clinics, I see riders with stirrups mal-adjusted. Over the years, I’ve developed a keen eye for knowing when the stirrup length is appropriate and when it needs adjusting, but I can tell you that it is not always easy and there is a lot of variance.
For starters, you need to know the appropriate stirrup length for the style of riding, or discipline, such as English/Western, Dressage, Reining, Saddle seat, Cutting, Jumping, Roping, etc. For instance, dressage and saddle seat are generally the longest lengths, while jumping is the shortest. Some western disciplines such as roping, cutting or barrel racing are short, while other western disciplines need longer lengths.
Fortunately, there are some commonalities between all disciplines of riding that will help you determine if the length is correct for the rider. There is a wide range of acceptable lengths, but too long or too short can cause major problems in your riding. More often than not, I see riders (particularly western) riding with their stirrups too long, making their lower leg dysfunctional and putting them out of position. Occasionally riders have their stirrups too short (mostly hunt seat riders), but since this tends to be less comfortable, it is not as common.
For balance, the rider must be able to sit comfortably in the balanced position of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment. If the stirrup is too long, no matter what discipline, the rider will have to reach with her toes for the stirrup and this will cause her to ride in the heel-up position, with the leg too far forward. No matter what the discipline, when the heels are up and the leg is not aligned, the rider is not balanced, anchored on the horse or able to use her leg aid to communicate effectively with the horse.
To gauge proper stirrup length, I check the stirrup length visually from both in front of the rider/horse (with her feet out of the stirrups and saddle square) and from the side, perpendicular to the horse.
From the front, check that the stirrup length is equal on both sides. Uneven stirrups are amazingly common—I find it in almost every clinic I do. Make sure to have the rider square his saddle and then take his feet out of the stirrups, to determine if the rider’s stirrup length is level or not.
My two favorite ways to judge by eyesight if the rider’s stirrup length is correct, are to 1) look at the angle of the rider’s leg between the thigh and lower leg, and 2) by comparing the angle of the rider’s thigh and the horse’s shoulder.
1. Looking from the side, the angle of the rider’s leg, between the thigh and lower leg, should be an equal angle. If the angle of the leg is not equal, it usually means that the rider’s stirrup is too long and the lower leg is hanging straight down while the angle of the thigh is more or less at 45 degrees, making the angle unequal.
2. Looking from the side, the angle of the rider’s thigh should be more or less parallel with the angle of the horse’s shoulder (the line from mid-withers to point of shoulder). This handy eyeball check is helpful for insuring the best ride when the rider is mounted on a choppy, straight-shouldered horse. In general, the steeper the angle of the horse’s shoulder, the rougher the horse’s gait. When the horse is rough gaited, the rider needs a longer-than-normal stirrup length to help anchor the rider onto the horse’s back.
Conversely, if the angle of the rider’s thigh is high compared to the horse’s shoulder, it is easier for the rider to ride in a more forward position and get up off the horse’s back. This might be important for riding jumpers, racehorses or for roping.
There are a few measurements that I know of that you can use to gauge appropriate stirrup length. One is to measure the stirrup length compared to the rider’s arm, from the ground. To do this, the rider puts his fingertips on the stirrup bar and pulls the stirrup into his armpit.
This gives you a ballpark figure on which to judge proper length; the length of the stirrup should be about the length of the rider’s arm.
The stirrup length may need to be fudged in length one way or the other depending on the horse’s build. Awkward scenarios like a big person on a little horse or a little person on a big horse or a narrow person on a wide horse may have a bearing on which way you fudge the stirrup length.
Another way to measure stirrup length, once the rider is up on the horse, is to have the rider hang his leg straight down and see where the bottom of the stirrup is in relation to the anklebone. If the stirrup hits right at the ankle bone, it is a good length for most riders. Once again, this will provide you with a ballpark figure, but fine-tuning of the length may still be in order.
Personally, I am not a fan of the third technique for measuring the rider’s stirrup length, although many instructors are. This measurement is taken by having the rider mount, then stand in his stirrups to see if you can fit your fist between the rider’s seat and the seat of the saddle.
The problem with this technique is that unless and until the rider can properly stand in the stirrups, this measurement is useless. If the rider rises in the stirrups by pushing up off the stirrup, straightening the knee and lifting the heel (as most novice riders do), there will always be plenty of room between the crotch and saddle. Only when the rider uses correct rising technique and rolls onto his thighs while the leg and heel lengthens, will this measurement be accurate.
As you can see, there are many methods to judge the proper stirrup length and there are many variables that affect the proper length, such as the rider’s build, the size and gait of the horse, the saddle and the activity the rider is participating in.
Since there is a wide range of acceptable length, there can be small adjustments up and down considering your activity. For instance, when jumping you will generally raise your stirrups one or two holes from where you would ride doing flat work only. I raise my stirrups when I am working cattle, but drop them down a hole for trial riding. In general, I prefer a little shorter stirrup than average, but I make sure the length I ride promotes good position.
Having the right stirrup length is a critical ingredient to a rider’s success. Being able to judge if the stirrup length is correct in other riders can be a challenge and judging your own stirrup length can be even more challenging. If you have been riding for some time with an inappropriate length, it may take some getting used to when you adjust them—but if it makes you a better rider, then it is worth it!
Enjoy the ride,
Sit the Spook
Learn how to sit the spook on trail for safety and control with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
All horses are capable of spooking. Horses are hardwired to flee in response to fear. They’re naturally programmed to watch for danger and for the herd leader’s cue for when to bolt.
Get away first; think later.
While you can desensitize your horse to most any stimulus you may encounter on the trail (and you should), there’s always a chance he’ll see something new, scary, and spook inducing.
“I laugh when I see sale ads boast a ‘bombproof’ horse that will never spook,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
Of course, horses are individuals and some may spook more often than others. Put the word “never” in there, and horses will prove you wrong.
Arabian Horses are stereotyped to be more flighty than Quarter Horses, but there are individuals who prove the stereotype wrong for each breed.
Quarter Horses bred for cow work may see a slight movement and look for something to chase.
You can’t totally remove the spook from the horse (though you should desensitize him as much as you can), but you can program your brain to know what to do in the moment when your horse spooks. You’re the part of the equation that can change.
A great trail-riding horse doesn’t need to be “bombproof” if you prepare your mind and body.
Here, Goodnight will give you her six-step method on how to sit the spook: (1) Envision perfection; (2) relax; (3) sit well; (4) be the herd leader; (5) react quickly; (6) convert his behavior.
Goodnight will also provide a special riding exercise just for kids.
Step 1: Envision Perfection
Is your horse tense on the trail? Envision your horse as well-behaved and calm, and ride him in a way that lets him know you’re in charge.
Don’t allow your horse to look around and find something to spook at. He doesn’t need to look from side-to-side and take in the scenery. His job is to look at what’s in front of him and mind the footing.
You’re in charge of where your horse looks. His nose shouldn’t move beyond the width of his shoulders. Looking straight ahead is the obedient response.
Ride with two hands. If he turns his head to look at the scary bushes, wildlife, etc., bump his nose back to center with light rein pressure.
Avoid gripping the reins tightly. Keep the reins loose, so your horse doesn’t feel your anxiety and think he should be worried. But don’t allow too much rein slack. You’ll need to have enough contact available to turn your horse if he reacts to something scary. (More on that in a minute.)
If your horse is tense, calm him by showing him you’re a worthy leader. Get him moving, and give him something to do. You don’t have to ride in a straight line. Guide him to the right and left; go around a bush.
Turning in different directions will get your horse thinking and give you control. Control his space, and remind him that you’re in charge of where you both go.
Step 2: Relax
Relaxing can be a tall order — especially if you think your horse might spook. To relax, close your eyes momentarily, and picture a balanced rider. Assume a centered, balanced position, with your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel in alignment.
Then systematically relax every joint in your body. Imagine relaxed toes. Unlock your knees. Relax your hips, and move with your horse’s back. Drop your shoulders. Unclench your fingers, wrists, hands, and shoulders.
If you’re worried that your horse might spook and become uncontrollable, you’ll probably tense your hips, clamp your legs, and grasp at the reins. You might even go into the fetal position.
These are normal reflexes in response to fear — your body pulls into the center for protection. But when you’re riding, this isn’t a safe posture at all.
Rolling into a ball causes you to pull on the reins, and drive your heels and legs into your horse’s sides. These actions tell him to be worried and move quickly — so you’re actually cueing him to spook.
What’s more, when you’re worried, you tense up your joints, locking them into position — a dangerous riding posture.
Tense a bicep as though you’re showing off your arm muscles. Notice that when you do so, your wrist elbow and shoulder joints lock.
Responding to a spook by tensing up and locking your joints is like hitting an ejection button. When you stiffen your back, shoulders, and legs, your body becomes one tense, locked object that can’t move with your horse. Instead, you’ll likely to bounce right off.
Step 3: Sit Well
On the other hand, you can be too relaxed, riding with your feet out in front of you, as though you’re sitting in a recliner with a remote control in your hand.
This isn’t a balanced position. If your horse spooks, you won’t have time to regain your balance to correct him, and you’ll likely be left behind.
Do you lengthen your stirrups for trail riding because it seems more comfortable? Don’t think you can ride with too-long stirrups because you’re “just trail riding.” Let’s take “just trail riding” out of the vocabulary.
Choose a stirrup length that allows your feet to rest without reaching — and while keeping your knees slightly bent so you can move like an athlete. Also, make sure your legs will stay underneath your seat.
Instead of sitting far back in the saddle, maintain an active, athletic stance. Suck in your belly button, rock back on your pockets, and sink your heels deep into the stirrups.
For a balanced, anchored position, ride with your toes up and heels down. Roll your ankles so that the bottoms of your feet are angled away from your horse.
Rolling in your ankles and slightly lifting your pinky toes move your legs into a close contact position and wraps the stirrup leathers around your legs.
There’s a yoga term that will help you imagine sitting up, back, and in balance: back body. Ride with your back body extended. That is, lengthen all your back’s bones, ligaments, and “energy.”
Almost everything in life causes you to cock your chest and abdomen forward and lock your hips, that is, living in the front body. Think hunching over the computer or slouching on the couch.
In riding, you want to elongate your back body and be conscious of your back. Relax and round your lower back, and extend your torso up; shorten your front-side and lengthen your back-side.
Stay in your back body, and don’t allow your energy to move forward. Use this visualization to prepare for riding — and prepare for a spook.
Step 4: Be the Herd Leader
Your horse is a herd animal, wired to notice the reactions and tension of the herd members. When you ride your horse, you’re in his herd, so he looks to you to make sure everything is okay. Imagine yourself as a strong, calm leader.
If you even think your horse might spook, start deep, abdominal breathing. He’ll detect if you’re holding your breath, which signals to him that he should be afraid.
Breathing with purpose will extend your spine and help you think about riding in your back body. Breathing is critical. Do it. Air is free.
Moving your eyes will help keep your whole body relaxed. Your horse will notice your tension if you lock your gaze on something you think may spook him.
Focus where you want your horse to go — not at something that’s potentially scary. When you focus on where you are now or where your horse is going, your eyes lend weight and point your body to that point.
What’s more, when you turn and look at where your horse is headed, instead of where you want to go, the problem gets worse.
Let’s say your horse spooks at something to the right of the trail and that’s what he’s moving away from. But you’re more afraid of the drop-off to the left of the trail that he’s moving toward — so you look left.
Your horse usually goes where you look or follows your focus. So by looking the wrong way, you’ve encouraged him to spook. Instead, focus where you want to go so that everything in your body gives him a consistent cue to go where you want.
Step 5: React Quickly
When your horse spooks, you won’t have time to stop and think. Spooks happen fast. You’ll only have an instant to stop your horse’s desire to bolt and focus him on the path you want.
This is the time that your at-home, in-the-car, thinking-ahead mental practice comes into play. Here’s a breakdown of what happens during a spook and how you’ll need to respond to keep your horse from bolting — all while keeping yourself relaxed, in your back body, breathing, and looking where you want to go.
In a spook, your horse first turns in the opposite direction of the scary object and tries to get away from it. He’s acting on his deep-seated flight instinct to survive.
Get in your mind that you’ll always turn your horse back toward the spooky stimulus any time he spooks. Lock in that image. Practice the motions and scenario over and over. Facing fear countermands flight.
Your horse will never run toward the spook-inducing stimulus, so a turn is required. Be prepared to turn with one rein. This flexes his neck and encourages the turn. Then ask for the stop.
If you pull on both reins at once, your horse will run right through the reins, and you’ll be in a pound-for-pound battle you can’t win.
If you shut off his escape path, he’ll try to turn another way. Be prepared to turn to the right then to the left with one rein while avoiding putting any pressure on the opposite rein. Block each escape path, and point him back at the scary stimulus. He won’t bolt toward what he’s afraid of.
The further your horse gets into the flight response before you intervene, the harder it is to get him out of the bolting run. Your reaction has to be quick. You might have to take a sudden, hard hold of your horse so that you can stop him before he bolts too far. If he gets four or five strides into the bolt, you may not be able to stop him.
As soon as you turn and stop your horse from bolting, he should stop and look at what scared him. Program in this response by approaching scary objects at home. Praise your horse each time he stops and looks at the scary object.
Repetition locks in this response and will help you on the trail. You can’t take the spook out of your horse, but you can teach him how to deal with it.
During a spook on the trail, your horse may be so scared that he won’t be ready to stop and will instead turn away again. Each time he turns, block his path. By doing so, you’ll leave him no other option but to face his fear.
As your horse calms, ask him to stop again. Encourage him to take a breath by taking a deep breath yourself. When you eliminate his flight option, he’ll calm down and listen to your cues. Soften your body, and sigh out the air. Pet him on the neck. Let him know you’re the leader in your herd of two and that all is okay.
If your horse flies backward, chances are, you’re pulling back on the reins. Note that pulling back on the reins doesn’t stop your horse. In fact, it may be causing the problem.
Instead, reach your hands straight toward your horse’s ears, and pump your legs on him from behind the cinch.
If you can’t stop the backward motion, pick up one rein toward your opposite shoulder, and cause him to cross his back legs. He can’t back and cross his legs at the same time. (You might want to practice this at home.)
Step 6: Convert his Behavior
When your horse determines that the scary monster isn’t going to kill and eat him, he’ll “convert” to investigative behavior. Investigative behavior is simply curiosity and will cancel out his flight behavior.
If your horse moves forward toward the scary thing, allow him to check it out, and praise him. This will convert him — replace one natural behavior with another without getting into a fight.
When your horse is curious about what spooked him, he’s suddenly brave. He’ll want to go closer. Praise him for his courageous actions, look for a new location to ride toward, and move down the trail.
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com
This article first appeared in The Trail Rider ~ September/October 2014
Question Category: Safety Concerns
Question: I work for a large lesson/boarding facility – we have about 50 school horses, 50 boarder horses, and a couple hundred students come through each week. I am concerned because we have had a string of pretty nasty falls recently and I am wondering if this is normal for such a large facility or if there is something unsafe happening. Is there an average number of falls that is acceptable for a facility? Is it pure chance whether a fall is minor or requires an ambulance?
Answer: Through my work with CHA, I have worked with numerous large program operators (50-100+ school horses; 200-300 students per week) that have virtually zero incident rates. I am not a believer in the statement that falling off and having injuries is just a part of the sport. I believe if you have that attitude then you will have wrecks and injuries.
I am not aware of any statistics that say how many falls or injuries are normal, but I think we should all have a zero tolerance policy. Without question, riding is a risky sport and there is nothing we can do to totally eliminate the inherent risk involved with horses. However, risks can be mitigated and with a serious focus on safety, there will be fewer injuries. Certainly some riding activities are riskier than others, such as jumping, and you would expect a higher fall rate with the riskier activities.
Whether or not there is an injury associated with a fall depends on many factors, however, many people advocate teaching people how to fall by relaxing and rolling into the fall rather than bracing against it. There are many good models for this in martial arts and it may not be a bad idea to address this with your students.
Every time there is an incident, whether someone is hurt or not, there should be an incident report made and careful scrutiny by managers as to how the incident might have been prevented. There are few, if any, freak accidents and almost every incident is preventable in some way. When incidents are reported and reviewed, they become excellent training tools for improving the safety record at the facility.
I have spoken with many instructors that share your frustration in seeing the opportunity to improve the safety record at a facility, but feeling powerless to take action. The best you can do is work within the system and be persistent in making suggestions on how to improve. If you have exhausted this approach and made no progress and you still feel that the safety at the facility is unacceptable, then you may have to consider resigning. If that is the case, you should write down all of your concerns and send them in a certified letter to the owner/manager and/or board of directors. Also send a registered copy to yourself, but do not open it, just save it for your files, in the event that any future litigation arises.
The most important thing is for you to keep your high standards in safety, maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward incidents and injuries and when incidents do occur, always examine them closely and find a way to prevent it from happening again.
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