Fearful Trail Horse

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Fearful Trail Horse

Question:

Dear Julie, I have an 8-year-old gelding that is very easy to work with on the ground and in the arena. He tends to become uptight, and nervous when he goes on the trail, even when he has ridden on the same trails and pastures for 3 years. He holds his breath and seems to be very wary of things that he has always seen. Tonight he was particularly tense. It felt as though his barrel was full of air when I got on. We casually walked around the barnyard, where there’s a variety of equipment etc. I was going to go on a trail ride but didn’t because a storm was imminent. This is not a new area to him. We stopped by a silo. He kept peering around the corner, and all of sudden he did a full body deep quiver/jump, he spooked in place. He continued to feel as though he was ready to spook at any moment, full of fear. I dismounted, and did some groundwork around the very same objects that seemed to bother him just a few minutes earlier. He became more comfortable. He walked over a tarp that was lying on the ground, without difficulty. When I got back on he once again became wary.
Is this about me? Yes, I could sense his predisposition when I got on. He was particularly bothered tonight and we just made the same ride a few nights ago. I pay attention to my body and make sure that I am doing deep breathing etc. There are times when he is not like this at all. He is overweight right now due to all the rain that we have been having, could that have something to do with it? He also tends to chew his bit, when on a trail ride, and I know that it’s a sign that he is bothered inside. He does not appear bothered when you catch him up or work with him on the ground. Often, you need to bring his life up. I know that he is holding back in some way, but do not know how to free him up. I would appreciate any suggestions.
Thank you, Carol

Answer:

Carol, As always, it’s difficult to diagnose a horse problem over the Internet 😉 as a third party observer. In person I can see the big picture and have a better idea of where the problems are originating. Nine times out of ten, the rider is contributing to the problem in ways the rider cannot see or feel or comprehend. My guess is that, at the very least, this is a problem of co-dependency between your horse and you. Obviously your horse likes the comfort and security of being in the arena and around the barn in confined areas and does not feel comfortable out of those very controlled settings. Since horses are prey animals that live in herds, he is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of the animals around him; this is an important survival skill for prey animals. When you go out on your own, out of his comfort zone, this behavior is compounded and he becomes even more reactive to the animals and emotions around him. When you ride a horse a whole lot of your body is in contact with him, so it does not take much to convey apprehension to your horse. He may even start it himself by sucking his air in and holding his breath (just like humans do when they get nervous) and that is probably putting you “on guard.” As soon as you start thinking that he may spook or do something, there are changes in your body that occur as you tense in preparation and to him, that becomes a prompt that something must be wrong, just like he thought. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most often when I see this situation developing, the rider picks up on the reins and that conveys even more tension and fear to your horse. Your horse gains courage on the ground because you’re there, in his eyesight, between the scary thing and him. When you’re on his back, he is in front and feels more vulnerable. Also, when you’re on the ground you’re more confident so he gains confidence from you (mirrors your emotion).

Conversely, when you’re on his back, you feel more nervous (because he is nervous) and that compounds his nervousness. It’s amazing how often horses will act the way you think they will. If you ride your horse with confidence and expect him to do something right, he’ll do it. When you think your horse is going to spook or misbehave, he’ll do that too. I am certainly not the first person to say that; you’ll hear it from many accomplished horse trainers. I know from my lifetime of experience with horses that this is true; maybe not all the time, but more times than not. We have a horse in training right now that is very spooky, reluctant and balky out on trail with its owner. However, for both Twyla (the trainer that works with me and runs my office) and me, he is steady, relaxed, willing and obedient and we have only had him in training for one week. Part of the problem is engrained disobedience and part of it relates to the confidence and leadership of the rider. We expect your horse to behave, insist upon it really, and we expect him to go down the road like a horse should; and that is indeed what he does.
However, he does not yet have that much faith in his owner, and she does not yet have that much faith him (yes, those two things are very connected), but things are improving as 1) your horse becomes more habituated to being an obedient, subordinate horse, and 2) the owner recognizes that her horse can indeed be a good citizen. You may want to consider putting your horse in training to work through this issue and get some miles on him going down the trail. That could help both of you to be more confident. Doing lots of meaningful groundwork that results in a more confident, relaxed and subordinate horse is always a good thing to do and should help your situation. You also need to teach your horse a calm down cue. We teach most horses that come into our barn, and all horses that are nervous and high strung, to drop their head to the ground whenever we ask, either from the ground or from the saddle. Start on the ground with a rope halter and simply put gentle down pressure from the chin knot, watching your horse’s head very closely so that you can release at the first sign of the head dropping. At first, you must release when the head moves down just a fraction of an inch; as your horse comes to understand what you want and what will get him the release, you can hold the pressure a little longer so the head comes down lower. The first few inches of head drop are harder to get, but in short order, your horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground. It’s physiologically impossible for your horse to be tense with his head down (and impossible for him to be relaxed with his head up). So once your horse is trained to drop his head to the ground (which in addition to causing relaxation also causes subordination) you can ask him anytime he gets worked up or “on the muscle” (which is what you’re describing in your question), you can ask him to drop his head down. This is known as “putting your horse in the closet;” the closet is a calm, quiet, safe place for your horse. Teaching your horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it’s much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as your horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until your horse makes the connection that lowering his head makes the rein pressure go away. Soon he should be happy to go to “the closet” and stay there when you pick up one rein. Remember, you’ll have to release the reins to let him drop. If you ask him to lower his head and he does, but then hits the bit, you have punished him for doing what you asked him to do. By the way, pulling on two reins will always make your horse more anxious because now he is worried about his mouth too and that makes him a whole lot more scared. That is a real common way the rider contributes to your horse’s fear when he becomes spooky. When your horse feels spooky to you, put him to work, giving him constant instruction and directives so that he has to focus on you and think of you as the boss of him. You might ask him to turn right, then turn left, then trot right and left, then stop, then go then trot then stop and turn around, etc. Not in a harsh punishing sort of way, just in a “here’s something to keep you form worrying about that” way. This is known as replacement training; you’re replacing the unwanted behavior with something else. Another favorite calm-down exercise for the nervous horse is the three-step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I believe you’ll find this on my website in the Q&A section. There are many Q&A’s on my website about barn sour horses and doing groundwork to establish a leader-follower relationship with your horse, and that will help with your situation too. What your horse needs most are your confidence, leadership and reassurance. Good luck and be careful.
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

Riding Skills: Sitting Trot

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: I ride an Arabian who has a very bouncy trot that I just can’t sit to. I ride in an event saddle that has a somewhat deep seat, but when I try to sit to the trot, my lower leg becomes unstable and bounces around. Do you have any ideas for exercises that might help me improve my sitting trot?

Answer: The sitting trot is one of the most difficult skills a rider must learn, especially if you are riding a horse with a bouncy trot or a trot with a lot of suspension. First let’s take a look at what might be causing your difficulties then we’ll take a look at some possible solutions.
The most common faults I see in riders learning to sit the trot are tense muscles/locked joints, a closed pelvis and pinching or gripping with the knees. Your joints, especially your hips, knees and ankles, are major shock absorbers that allow you to absorb the movement in the horse’s back. Anytime you tense a muscle, it locks a joint somewhere in your body and locked joints lead to bouncing.

Along the same lines, a closed pelvis prevents your hips from opening and closing to absorb the lift in the horse’s back when he trots or canters. An open pelvis refers to the angle between your hip and thigh; sucking your belly button in and rocking back on your seat bones opens this angle; arching your back and rolling forward onto your crotch closes the pelvis. It is important when you are riding to have your pelvis as open as it can be so that your lower back is flat, all of your weight is on your two seat bones and there is no weight on your crotch. Your hips will lift and open then drop down with each stride. Closing your pelvis or leaning forward will make this motion impossible. To open your pelvis, use your abdominal muscles, not your buttocks muscles. In fact, it is the psoas muscles that you use to open and close your pelvis. To feel these muscles, try coughing while sitting in a chair. You’ll feel your weight rock back on your seat bones and your pelvis open.

Pinching or gripping with the knees in an effort to hold on leads to locked joints and causes your pelvis to close and your heels to come up. When your heels come up, it causes you to push on the stirrup, which pushes you up and out of the saddle. Sometimes it helps to open your knees just a little bit to prevent gripping and to help open the pelvis.

To help you learn to sit the trot, here are a few exercises that you can do. First, make sure that you ride in correct position sitting vertical with your ear-shoulder-hip-heel in alignment, your pelvis open, your weight stretching into your heels, all of your weight on your two seat bones and with relaxed muscles and loose joints. Secondly, try riding without your stirrups. This will prevent you from pushing on the stirrup and pushing your weight up and out of the saddle. Finally, do exercises off the horse that will help you have better control of your abdominal muscles. Pilates and Yoga exercise classes are very beneficial to equestrians. Finally, there is lots of information on my website that explains in greater detail how to ride in balance and rhythm with the horse.

Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Riding Skills: How Do I Get A Secure Seat To Ride Out Spooks?

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Dear Julie,

Last night I watched your TV show on introducing the horse to the surf. It was very informative but the thing that impressed me the most was how you maintained your wonderful, balanced seat and body position while the horse was jumping sideways! Unfortunately, when my horse spooks and jumps like that, I look and feel like “Whiplash” the little monkey they strap on to the Border Collie’s back at the rodeo. Needless to say, this scares my horse even more. I have some pretty big confidence issues due to past experiences/injuries and know that having a secure seat during a spook would help my confidence tremendously.

I have read your article on rider position and feel like I have this pretty good under normal riding circumstances. My ankles and back are soft and my seat is following and mobile. Everything falls apart if he spooks. I’ll usually know that he’s distracted or tense before it happens (I’ve been practicing your calm down/lower your head cue, and your 3 step circling exercise), then a deer or invisible something causes him to blow up. I only ride him in my pasture and arena because he is hyper alert. I hope to get past all of this someday with a lot of desensitizing exercises.
Do you have any suggestions for me on how to develop the kind of secure, safe seat and following upper body that I saw on your show? My body whips so badly that I feel every muscle in my core working to keep me from flying off. I’m 50 years old and do yoga almost every day. I know the change won’t happen overnight and I’m willing to work hard to keep safe.

Thank you very much for any advice you can give me. I love your show and all the articles and information available on your website.

Lori, Malta, MT

Answer: Lori,

Thank you for watching the show. We have certainly gotten a lot of comments on the beach episode! It was called “Wave Runner” and aired on January 7th and will run again the week of February 18th. It was really fun to shoot and I can tell you, it was a really wild ride, but we did eventually make it into the waves, belly deep in the ocean!

Being able to stay in the middle of your horse even when he is moving radically is simply a matter of being relaxed. I know, easier said than done! Any time you tense a muscle, it causes you to lock a corresponding joint. Since your joints act as shock absorbers, a locked joint leads to bouncing and if it is your ankles, knees or hips that are locked, it is like hitting the ejector button.

It is important to learn where you have a tendency to tense and to always focus on seeking out the source of your tension as you ride. Most of us tend toward the same bad habits. So if you can determine what those are, you can constantly remind yourself not to do that. For instance, if you have a tendency to look down or lean forward and close your hips, you should be constantly checking yourself for those errors.

It sounds like you already know and understand the principles of good balance and position in the saddle (there’s lots of information on that in my Training Library and in my video series, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding), but now you need to be able to relax when your horse spooks or moves unexpectedly. For the most part, this will come naturally as you gain confidence but it will help if you can learn to focus on deep abdominal breathing, keeping your eyes up and active and continuing to ride through the problem instead of freezing up.

There is one suggestion I can make to help you learn to move with your horse when he jumps to the side. If you can find a cutting horse trainer in your area, perhaps you could take some lessons on a well-trained cutter on a mechanical cutting machine. At first, you may only be able to stay with the horse on one or two turns, but gradually you’ll learn to stay soft and relaxed in your joints as he makes the big moves from side to side. In addition to improving your seat and building your confidence, it will sure be a lot of fun!

Enjoy the ride!
Julie

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Nervous To Go On Trail

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have an 8-year-old gelding that is very easy to work with on the ground and in the arena. He tends to become uptight, and nervous when he goes on the trail, even when he has ridden on the same trails and pastures for 3 years. He holds his breath and seems to be very wary of things that he has always seen. Tonight he was particularly tense. It felt as though his barrel was full of air when I got on. We casually walked around the barnyard, where there is a variety of equipment etc. I was going to go on a trail ride but didn’t because a storm was imminent. This is not a new area to him. We stopped by a silo. He kept peering around the corner, and all of sudden he did a full body deep quiver/jump, he spooked in place. He continued to feel as though he was ready to spook at any moment, full of fear. I dismounted, and did some groundwork around the very same objects that seemed to bother him just a few minutes earlier. He became more comfortable. He walked over a tarp that was lying on the ground, without difficulty. When I got back on he once again became wary. Is this about me? Yes, I could sense his predisposition when I got on. He was particularly bothered tonight and we just made the same ride a few nights ago. I pay attention to my body and make sure that I am doing deep breathing etc. There are times when he is not like this at all. He is overweight right now due to all the rain that we have been having, could that have something to do with it? He also tends to chew his bit, when on a trail ride, and I know that it is a sign that he is bothered inside. He does not appear bothered when you catch him up or work with him on the ground. Often, you need to bring his life up. I know that he is holding back in some way, but do not know how to free him up. I would appreciate any suggestions.

Thank you, Carol

Answer: Carol,
As always, it is difficult to diagnose a horse problem over the Internet 😉 As a third party observer in person, I can see the big picture and have a better idea of where the problems are originating. Nine times out of ten, the rider is contributing to the problem in ways the rider cannot see or feel or comprehend. My guess is that, at the very least, this is a problem of co-dependency between your horse and you.

Obviously your horse likes the comfort and security of being in the arena and around the barn in confined areas and does not feel comfortable out of those very controlled settings. Since horses are prey animals that live in herds, he is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of the animals around him; this is an important survival skill for prey animals. When you go out on your own, out of his comfort zone, this behavior is compounded and he becomes even more reactive to the animals and emotions around him.

When you ride a horse a whole lot of your body is in contact with him, so it does not take much to convey apprehension to the horse. He may even start it himself by sucking his air in and holding his breath (just like humans do when they get nervous) and that is probably putting you “on guard.” As soon as you start thinking that he may spook or do something, there are changes in your body that occur as you tense in preparation and to him, that becomes a prompt that something must be wrong, just like he thought. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most often when I see this situation developing, the rider picks up on the reins and that conveys even more tension and fear to the horse.

Your horse gains courage on the ground because you are there, in his eyesight, between the scary thing and him. When you are on his back, he is in front and feels more vulnerable. Also, when you are on the ground YOU are more confident so he gains confidence from you (mirrors your emotion). Conversely, when you are on his back, you feel more nervous (because he is nervous) and that compounds his nervousness.

It is amazing how often horses will act the way you think they will. If you ride your horse with confidence and expect him to do something right, he’ll do it. When you think your horse is going to spook or misbehave, he’ll do that too. I am certainly not the first person to say that; you’ll hear it from many accomplished horse trainers. I know from my lifetime of experience with horses that this is true; maybe not all the time, but more times than not.

We have a horse in training right now that is very spooky, reluctant and balky out on trail with its owner. However, for both Twyla and me (Twyla has trained horses with me for many years and is now my Business Manager), he is steady, relaxed, willing and obedient and we have only had him in training for one week. Part of the problem is engrained disobedience and part of it relates to the confidence and leadership of the rider. We expect the horse to behave, insist upon it really, and we expect him to go down the road like a horse should; and that is indeed what he does. However, he does not yet have that much faith in his owner, and she does not yet have that much faith him (yes, those two things are very connected), but things are improving as 1) the horse becomes more habituated to being an obedient, subordinate horse, and 2) the owner recognizes that her horse can indeed be a good citizen. You may want to consider putting the horse in training to work through this issue and get some miles on him going down the trail. That could help both of you to be more confident.

Doing lots of meaningful groundwork that results in a more confident, relaxed and subordinate horse is always a good thing to do and should help your situation. You also need to teach your horse a calm down cue. We teach most horses that come into our barn, and all horses that are nervous and high strung, to drop their head to the ground whenever we ask, either from the ground or from the saddle. Start on the ground with a rope halter and simply put gentle down pressure from the chin knot, watching the horse’s head very closely so that you can release at the first sign of the head dropping. At first, you must release when the head moves down just a fraction of an inch; as the horse comes to understand what you want and what will get him the release, you can hold the pressure a little longer so the head comes down lower. The first few inches of head drop are harder to get, but in short order, the horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground.

It is physiologically impossible for the horse to be tense with his head down (and impossible for him to be relaxed with his head up). So once the horse is trained to drop his head to the ground (which in addition to causing relaxation also causes subordination) you can ask him anytime he gets worked up or “on the muscle” (which is what you are describing in your question), you can ask him to drop his head down. This is known as “putting the horse in the closet;” the closet is a calm, quiet, safe place for your horse.

Teaching the horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it is much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as the horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until the horse makes the connection that lowering his head makes the rein pressure go away. Soon he should be happy to go to “the closet” and stay there when you pick up one rein. Remember, you’ll have to release the reins to let him drop. If you ask him to lower his head and he does, but then hits the bit, you have punished him for doing what you asked him to do. By the way, pulling on two reins will always make the horse more anxious because now he is worried about his mouth too and that makes him a whole lot more scared. That is a real common way the rider contributes to the horse’s fear when he becomes spooky.

When your horse feels spooky to you, put him t work, giving him constant instruction and directives so that he has to focus on you and think of you as the boss of him. You might ask him to turn right, then turn left, then trot right and left, then stop, then go then trot then stop and turn around, etc. Not in a harsh punishing sort of way, just in a “here’s something to keep you from worrying about that” way. This is known as replacement training; you are replacing the unwanted behavior with something else.

Another favorite calm-down exercise for the nervous horse is the three-step circling and lateral gives to pressure. I believe you’ll find this on my website in the Q&A section. There are many Q&As on my website about barn sour horses and doing groundwork to establish a leader-follower relationship with the horse, and that will help with your situation too. What your horse needs most are your confidence, leadership and reassurance.

Good luck and be careful.

Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.