Acting Up On The Trail

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Why does my horse act up on the trail?
Questions about how your horse should act on the trail –and why he doesn’t do what you want when you’re out in the open—are some of the most common topics. In our episode of Horse Master titled “Close for Comfort” viewers learned about a mare that was suffering slightly from PMS (prissy mare syndrome). She bit and kicked at other horses that she deems as too close when out on a leisure ride. She was making unauthorized decisions that should only be made by the one in charge.

She was actually a very sweet, easy-to-train horse that has just not had good leadership. ALL horses must learn this very important rule from the youngest possible age: YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO FRATERNIZE WITH ANOTHER HORSE IN ANY WAY WHEN I AM AROUND YOU.
This includes sniffing noses, flicking ears, showing teeth, herding gestures, swishing a tail, picking up a foot to kick or any other gestures, interaction or displays of herd behavior.

This should be one of the Ten Commandments for horses and it is a subject I talk about in every clinic that I do. It is of paramount importance not only for your safety and the safety of those around you (horse and human) but it is also a critical issue of manners and respect for authority. Besides, it’s a hygiene issue too—I don’t want my horse sharing snot with all the horses around him.

The safety issue I think is fairly obvious. If horses are allowed to fraternize, sooner or later someone’s going to throw a kick or bite and you or the person you are riding with might get caught in the fracas. I saw my good friend get killed this way when I was 12—so you can see why this has become an important issue for me. She was breaking another all-important safety rule by sitting on the ground by her horse at them time—never sit or kneel around a horse, always stay on your feet.

The manners issue has to do with your horse’s respect for your authority as the leader of the herd. If you are the one in charge, he has no business herding or acting aggressive to any other horses—it’s your herd. And, if he is doing his job, he is focused on you, waiting patiently for your next directive—just like a good first mate to his captain—not looking around, acting bored and looking for a party.

This fundamental rule explains why a breeding stallion can be used in the show ring or go on group trail rides and be tied up right next to another horse without incident, if he is well-trained. Horses are very good at learning and following rules when rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced.

For this episode of Horse Master, it turned out to be an easy fix. First, the owner simply needed to learn about this and step up to the helm, then she needed to know when and how to correct her horse when she breaks the rule. I also taught her how to deal with kicking in an emergency situation, to make sure everyone stays safe. You can watch a clip from this show at: http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight and type “116 Kicking Horse” in the search box.

Does your horse see you as his leader?
The bad behavior seen in the episode happened when the horse made her own decisions and before her rider stepped up to correct her and be the leader. To make sure your horse doesn’t escalate and become a behavior challenge, make sure you’re always in charge.

An obedient horse that knows that the rider is in charge will be focused straight ahead and will go in the direction you ask, at the speed you dictate, without constant direction from you. Many riders micro-manage their horses by constantly steering and correcting speed with the reins, so the horse becomes dependent on that. Once you cue a horse to go at a certain speed and in a certain direction, he should continue on that path and at that speed/gait until you ask him to speed up, slow down, turn right or turn left.

To check how obedient your horse is, find a target and give him a cue to walk or trot straight toward your target, then lay your hand down on his neck with a loose rein, and see if he continues. If he changes speed or direction without a cue from you, it means you have a horse that is either disobedient or co-dependent on you and you have some work to do. You need to break your habit of micro-managing, give clear directives, then give your horse the responsibility to obey. Correct him with your reins and legs if he makes a mistake; but leave him alone when he is obedient. Use enough pressure in your corrections that he is motivated to behave.

You control your horse’s nose and where he should look while on a trail ride and during any time you’re together. He should not be looking around while you are riding him, either in the arena or on the trail. Simply correct the nose with the opposite rein—if he looks right, bump the left rein, and visa-versa. Do not try to hold the nose in place; just correct it when he is wrong. I use the point of shoulder as a guideline; he can move his nose all he wants as long as it stays between the points of his shoulder; as soon as it crosses the line, he gets a correction. In short order, he will keep his nose pointed in the right direction.

Keep in mind that just because you control the nose, does not mean you control the rest of the horse. He can easily run through his shoulder and go in the opposite direction that his nose is pointed. The most important thing is to control the horse’s shoulder but if you cannot control the nose, you have little chance of controlling the rest of the body.

How strict I am on the horse’s nose placement depends somewhat on the horse, his level of training and his willingness to be obedient and subordinate. If I am riding a horse that has proven to be well behaved, responsive and obedient, I may let him look around a little, as long as he does not alter the course I have set in either speed or direction. On the other hand, if I have a horse that has proven to be disobedient, spooky or otherwise fractious, I will have a zero tolerance for looking around.

More help on the trail
With so many questions about how your horse should act on the trail, I compiled a training video called Trail Solutions. It’s all about trail riding, and features some of my favorite Horse Master episodes.

Trail Solutions will help you get to the trail safely and help with any problems evaluating a horse. You’ll have help with barn sour behavior, you’ll teach your horse to stand still as you mount, you’ll learn how to approach any new obstacle or water crossing with your horse, and more.

The topics:

  • Horse evaluation and understanding mares and geldings
  • Buying a horse with training
  • Using the idea of making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy for trailering
  • Learn leadership skills so that your horse knows he can trust you on the trail
  • Learn to direct your horse’s path.

Get Trail Solutions at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com