It’s easy to lose confidence on the trail if your well-trained horse has defied you or refused to go forward. A threat to bolt or rear can make a confident rider worry and, in turn, contribute to the problem.
In that moment of refusal, you can choose to head for home or to step up and take charge.
If your well-trained trail horse suddenly throws a fit and refuses to ride out alone, chances are, you’ve allowed little acts of disobedience before this blow up.
It’s time to stop putting up with blatant acts of disrespect and confidently ride ahead.
“I’ve seen horses get away with little acts of disobedience and thus start to think they — and not the rider — are in charge,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
“Soon, instead of simply turning to look back toward where he wants to go, the horse escalates his threats. He might raise his front end as if to rear, or he may simply balk and refuse to keep moving down the trail.”
When a formerly well-trained horse starts with this type of behavior, Goodnight says riders often lose confidence and fear the worst will happen — that the horse will actually rear or turn and bolt.
If you turn for home, even just momentarily, instead of riding ahead, your horse learns just what to do to manipulate your emotions and “win” a chance to stop working.
“Your horse may just need a reminder that you, the rider, are in charge,” says Goodnight. “He may’ve been testing you, diminishing your confidence and manipulating your ride time. Stop the cycle by showing him you’re calmly in control.”
Here, Goodnight helps you observe your horse’s behavior patterns so that you can identify disobedience at its most subtle level and correct it before your horse has an all-out tantrum.
She’ll help you understand how the behavior escalated, how to fix your focus, and what to do to retrain your horse so he’ll move ahead willingly on the path you choose.
Goodnight will also explain to kids how to watch a horse’s ears to learn what he’s focused on.
Inside the Behavior
Understanding your horse’s motivation and behavior will boost your confidence and help you formulate a plan.
“Horses can threaten a lot of scary behaviors,” Goodnight says. “As much as we love them, horses can be willful and obstinately refuse to move forward. They’re master manipulators if they’ve learned that they can succeed with their antics of turning, stopping, threatening to rear, etc.
“If your horse can get you into an emotional state, he can learn that if he rears or threatens to rear you may turn for home — and he doesn’t have to work. To him, that means he has won points in a game called Let’s Go Home.”
When Goodnight was called in to help a horse-and-rider pair in Tucson, Arizona, she’d planned to observe what happened on the trail. However, she soon realized that the horse wasn’t even willing to leave the barn.
The rider, Liz, reported that she’d ridden her horse on the trail successfully in the past — he was a tried-and-true ranch horse. But lately, his tantrums kept Liz from riding out alone. He wouldn’t step forward; he’d turn his head and circle back to the barn.
“Liz had great riding position and was an experienced rider, but she’d allowed her horse to be disobedient without knowing it,” Goodnight says.
“Every time the horse turned his head to look back at his pen, Liz allowed him to turn in the direction he wanted to go before circling him back to the trail.
“While to Liz it seemed as though she was in control and pointed her horse where she wanted to go, her horse thought he ‘won’ with each step he got to take toward the barn.”
Goodnight explains how your horse keeps score of his steps and your ability to confidently direct his speed and direction.
“Say you want your horse to go right, toward the trail. He refuses, so you circle him around to the left. He has won. To him, his refusal paid off at the moment you turned him the way he wanted to go, to the left.”
In Liz’s case, she’d allowed the turn back to the barn too many times, so her horse thought he was in charge — each time she circled him, he ended up closer to the barn.
When Goodnight took the reins, the horse tried his antics only once. He quickly realized that he wasn’t going to get his way and walked obediently forward.
“This was a trained horse that had learned to test and threatened to throw a fit,” Goodnight says. “He’d learned that the game worked with Liz and that he would get his way when Liz would give up and go home.
“With me, he learned the game wouldn’t work and quickly was reminded of his training. It was time for Liz to break the cycle and teach her horse that his antics wouldn’t control her emotions and confidence any longer.”
If you’re observant, you can tell what a horse is thinking and feeling. Your horse is also very keen on your current emotional status.
Horses are quick to learn how to push your emotional buttons. They learn that when they get a tense, emotional response, they’ll get to turn home in just a few minutes.
Goodnight notes that horses are transparent in their communication. If your horse turns and looks toward the barn, that’s where he wants to go. If he’s whinnying, he’s calling out to find his friends, saying he wants to be back with the herd.
If your horse whinnies, you may be embarrassed, but it’s just horse behavior. It’s an expression of his emotion. He’s saying he feels alone, and he wants to be back with the herd. You can’t punish him for having that emotion, but you [ITAL]can[ITAL] correct the behaviors that follow that emotion.
Here’s how to regain your status as herd leader.
Step 1: Regain Your Confidence
How do you break the cycle and tell your horse that you’re in charge? The key is to put him into action and to make sure you know what to do in advance.
“As soon as Liz knew that she couldn’t allow her horse to turn toward his pen and the barn, she was on a new path,” Goodnight says. “With less than an hour’s practice, she was riding down the trail and away from the barn.”
Horses are great at detecting when your confidence lessens or your determination to move forward down the trail wanes, Goodnight explains.
“When you ride, your body is in close contact with your horse,” she says. “Your horse can feel when you’re tense and when you’re relaxed. If he begins to refuse or starts a temper tantrum, you may tense your body or simply shift your focus down onto him instead of where you want to go. He can feel the difference between when you look ahead. Your posture suggests you’re ready to move ahead on the trail. When you’re tense, you send the opposite message.”
Here’s the fix.
When you start to feel tense, keep looking ahead to where you want to go. Keep your eyes focused — not in a blank stare —and observe what’s in front of you on the trail.
Start to put your horse to work. Turn right, turn left (always turn away from the barn; never circle in the direction your horse wants to go), speed up, slow down, then turn right and left again.
Just changing your horse’s direction will give you more control and therefore more confidence. Any time you change direction, you remind him that you’re in control of where he can go. He’s not in control of the direction he goes.
Step 2. Break the Cycle
Both you and your horse need to make a big change if your horse is going to learn that you’re in charge and that he can no longer throw a fit to get his way.
How long this process will take will depend on how many points your horse has scored in the past. If he has a history of getting his way, it’ll be harder to correct your score.
The moment you step in the stirrup, let your horse know that you expect him to keep his nose in front of him and stand still. Basic obedience and control come first. As the rider, you control his direction and speed.
At first, work close to the barn in an area where you are more confident and feel at ease issuing a command. Chances are you’ll be more worried the farther you are from home. When you’re farther away, your horse will be thinking more about heading home, too.
To make a correction for turning his nose, pick up and bump with the opposite rein, using enough pressure to point his nose back toward the trail and dissuade him from doing it again.
If your horse turns his head toward the right, bump his head back to the left. Don’t allow him to turn to the right, and definitely don’t allow him to circle to the right to get back toward the trail.
If your horse looks back toward the barn (or his friends or the trailer) multiple times, put him to work.
When you ask him to change direction, stop, back up, trot circles one way then the other, etc. He then won’t have time to think about what’s behind him and will start to tune into your cues.
As you ride around the barn, always turn away from the barn each time you change direction. If you feel your horse’s focus shift to the barn and away from you, turn away from the barn and pick up the trot.
“If your horse throws a tantrum, he’ll soon learn that if he’s disobedient, you move him farther from the barn,” says Goodnight. “To expedite the training, I turn a horse toward the barn only when he’s calm and listening. I want to teach him that if he’s obedient and willing, he may get to go home and have a break.”
Gradually work your way farther from the barn. If you consistently insist on obedience, you should be able to work farther and farther away without having a big blow up. You horse will know that you’re now in charge.
Step 3: Get Back on the Trail
If your horse tries his antics on the trail, practice the same skills. Be sure to end your rides when you’re in charge and your horse’s training is on the upswing.
Horses are all different. If your horse has a short fuse or has had much success getting you to turn for home, it may be more of a challenge to ride out on the trail.
If your horse became more obedient when you worked him close to home, quickly changing his attitude, it may be time to push him when you’re farther from home.
If you have a problem away from home, dismount, and perform ground work with a rope halter and lead. Turn him left, turn him right, and make him move his feet.
Keep your horse’s motivation in mind, and don’t reward bad behavior. Even if you have to dismount, if you do that ground work, you’re ending on a good note. You’re letting him know he won’t get a break by pulling his usual antics.
Once you remind your horse that you’re in control, you may even be able to step back up in the stirrup and ride more.
Once your horse is compliant, you can head for home, knowing you’re not losing points.
But be careful — don’t throw in the towel and let your horse get everything he wants. You’re the herd leader. If you feel him (or yourself) getting tense, look confidently where you want to go, and remember that you have a plan.
Once you control your horse’s direction, you’ll boost your confidence and your horsemanship.F
For more on-the-trail skills every rider needs to know, check out my book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with free bonus DVD, It includes:
- Balance & Posture in Steep Terrain
- Safety: Emergency Brake, Stand Still for Mounting, & Reprogramming Spooky Behavior
- Training: Get Your Horse to Go the Speed you Ask—Every Time
- Jigging: Stop That Forever
- Sidepassing Skills
- Gate Opening & Closing
- Water Crossing
- Ground Tie
- Much More
Behavior Tip: Watch the Ears
Horses point their ears toward what they’re interested in and what they’re looking at. When you’re riding on the trail, watch your horse’s ears to tell whether he’s focused on the trail ahead and listening to you or thinking of heading home.
Practice paying attention to horses’ ears. Make it a game to find out what’s holding their attention. It may be a visiting deer or a horseback rider passing by.
Whenever you pass a field of horses, note what they’re paying attention to. This skill will transfer to your time in the saddle, helping you notice what your horse is paying attention to and thinking about.
When you ride, make sure your horse is looking straight ahead on the path you’ve chosen.
Horse trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight answers a reader?s question about trail riding on a new horse and how to stay calm on the trail.
Pick a safe path up the hill. Photo by Heidi Melocco Do you dread seeing a steep hill on the trail?
Improve your horsemanship, and develop a kind, trustworthy relationship with your trail horse with top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight. Teach your horse to sidepass for greater on-trail maneuverability.
When you teach your horse to sidepass, you learn to control his every foot placement and guide his every step. If you teach your horse this skill correctly, he’ll respond to your every cue and to your natural aids (seat, hand, and leg).
Here, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight will teach you how to position your body so that your horse will quickly understand that you’re asking for sideways movement. She’ll help you reinforce this new skill by asking you to practice it using a fence line as a guide.
Natural-horsemanship lesson: You’ll learn how to use your primary natural aids – your seat, legs and hands – to cue the horse to move sideways. You’ll apply these aids to control his every step.
Why you need it on the trail: On the trail, sidepassing is an important skill. Without it, you may find yourself in a jam when you need to dodge through timber and tight openings or sidle next to another rider to offer aid. Sidepassing also comes in handy when it’s time to open a gate, drag a log, pony another horse, push aside brush, and avoid a rock or even a snake.
What you’ll do: You’ll begin by learning how to position your body so that your horse will understand the go-sideways cue. Next, you’ll reinforce your sidepass cues as you ride next to a fence or barrier to help him understand which direction to go. Once you’ve mastered your work on the fence line, you’ll progress to sidepassing over a ground pole and logs.
What you’ll need: If your horse hasn’t been trained to sidepass at all, it’s best to start out with a snaffle or curb bit with articulation between the shanks (rather than a solid mouthpiece). A bit with movement will help him better feel your side-to-side rein aids.
Skills your horse will need: Your horse needs to know how to stop with just a seat cue, go forward off your leg cue, and back up on cue (using more leg than rein).
Step #1. Learn the Cues
Tack up (see bit recommendation, above), and warm up as usual. Practice starting, stopping, and turns to make sure your horse is listening to your cues.
In this step, you’ll learn how to use your body to ask your horse for this precise cue. In the next step, you’ll introduce him to the training process by using the cue.
Keep in mind that there are only six ways a horse can move: forward, back, through the right shoulder, though the right hip, through the left shoulder, and through the left hip. Imagine these directions as the “doors” that you can open and close with your leg and rein aids. To start, we’ll open the doors to the right and close the doors to the front, back, and left.
Pick up the reins, and slightly shift your weight back to block your horse’s forward motion (that is, close the door to the front). For a sidepass to the right (shown), open the right rein (lift it slightly to encourage your horse to lift his shoulder), and slide your left hand to his neck’s midline (closing the “door” to movement to the left and opening a passageway to the right).
Open your right leg by stretching your foot to the right. (Be careful not to stiffen or brace this leg.) Close your left leg on his rib cage, and bump your lower leg against his side.
By disallowing forward movement with your hands, opening your right aids, and closing with your left aids, your horse will move toward the opening, that is, to the right (Photo 1).
Step #2. Use a Fence Line
Now that you know how to position your body, it’s time to teach your horse to move sideways. For this, you’ll need the help of a fence. Use a safe, solid fence to remind him to move sideways and that there’s no chance of moving forward.
Fence work will give you a visual guide to work with and provide a natural barrier to block your horse’s forward movement. You’ll also make sure that you’re truly moving to the left or right and quickly make any corrections.
Walk your horse up to a fence, and stop him with his nose to the rail and his body perpendicular to the fence. Keeping his body straight and perpendicular to the fence, ask him to sidepass using your opening and closing aids.
As soon as any movement occurs, release the cue, and return to a neutral sitting position. Reward your horse with a release and a pet no matter how small of a sidestep he takes. This lets him know that he moved in the correct direction.
Pause briefly, then ask your horse to move to the right once again. As soon as he steps to the side, however small, reward him with a quick release of cues
and a pet. When he associates your new cue with moving sideways, you can begin to ask for more steps before rewarding him.
Repeat these steps to ask for a sidepass to the left. That is, open the doors to the left, while closing the doors to the right, front, and back.
When your horse understands your sidepass cue and is responding well (that is, he’ll easily walk two or three steps before needing encouragement), ask him to sidepass a longer distance.
Troubleshooting tips: As you begin to teach your horse to sidepass, he may (1) move forward or back too much; (2) move his shoulder in front of his hips (this is most common and causes a turn instead of a sidepass), or (3) move his hip before his shoulder.
To fix these problems, use your aids either to block movement of a body part or to encourage more movement of another body part. For instance, if your horse moves his shoulders too far and lags with his hip, block his shoulder a little by closing with your right rein.
To do so, bring your hand back toward his neck (don’t pull back), and bring your left hand back and up toward your belly button in an “indirect rein.” At the same time, reach back more with your outside leg, and bump his side to encourage his hip to move. Apply slight, backward, equal rein pressure to close the door to forward movement.
Any time your horse moves correctly, or tries extra hard, reward him with a release and a pet. Moving laterally isn’t easy for him, so don’t overdo it. Once you get a few steps, reward him, and end on a good note.
If your horse gets nervous when working on this, he’s feeling too much pressure. Slow down, shorten your training sessions, and reward him for a smaller amount of steps.
Work on a sidepass to the right until your horse is compliant (Photos 2A and 2B). Repeat to the left. Then gradually increase the number of steps until he can sidepass 10 to 15 steps while staying fairly straight through his body.
When your horse is moving well off your aids, try sidepassing away from the fence, with his tail near the fence and his nose pointed away (Photo 2C). Focus on keeping him straight through his body so that his shoulders and hips are fairly even. In this position, he won’t have the fence to guide him visually, but you can easily note and correct any straightness problems.
Step #3. Add a Ground Pole
As your horse progresses, test your sidepassing skills over a ground pole. Work to keep the pole between your horse’s front and back feet. You’ll quickly notice any idiosyncrasies if your horse steps forward or back.
Work to the left and right, and always remember to stop and praise your horse for his efforts. Ride around the pole, then return to sidepass over it, in front of it, or behind it. Then he won’t learn that his feet must always be over a pole.
When your horse easily sidepasses over a ground pole, progress to sidepassing over larger logs on the trail. Look for other opportunities to sidepass, such as moving toward a post to pick up a slicker or rope.
Improve your horsemanship, and develop a kind, trustworthy relationship with your trail horse with top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight. This issue: Teach your horse to stand still as you mount.
Is your horse “jiggy” and tense on the trail? Does he trot anxiously in place, refusing to move forward slowly and calmly? If so, you’re likely tense and worried that he’ll take off if you don’t hold
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.
Levels” of Horse Camping
I would love to camp with my horse, but it feels like a scary step to take. I have taken my horse on daylong trail rides, but I haven’t stayed overnight. I would like to try some trails that are too far away to ride and get home in the same day. What do I need to know as a first time horse camper? What’s different than packing for a daylong trail ride and how do I need to prepare myself and my horse so that all can go as smoothly as possible?
If you haven’t camped with your horse before, it can seem like a big undertaking with lots of logistics. If you break it down into steps and start with a simple trip, I trust that you can handle it.
In any camping environment, you need to make sure you plan for food, water and shelter for horses and humans. That’s it. How complicated you make each of those simple needs is up to you. You can keep it all simple, and have others help along the way, or you can decide to master the wilderness and pack all of your needs far into the forest.
I advise starting small and working up to a more rustic adventure. Here, I’ll share some info about how to prep your horse for overnight stays then tell you the camping progression I’d suggest.
At each “level” of camping, keep notes about what you needed to have with you and what you forgot. With every trip, you’ll figure out how you can organize more and you’ll find out what little things to bring that will help you feel more comforted on the trail.
Prepping Your Horse
No matter what type of camping you choose, the experience of being away from home will be a great lesson time for your horse. He’ll need to get used to sleeping away from home.
You’ll find out if your horse will keep his usual routine, how he’ll do if there’s an unknown horse next to him, if he’ll challenge the fencing or enclosures, and lots of other details about your horse’s habits away from his usual abode. What you learn about your horse during your first overnights will help you plan for the type of corrals and environments that will be best suited for him. You may learn that you need to teach him to stand tied; you may learn that he will challenge temporary panels. Find out how your horse reacts and choose the next step for him based on his reactions and behaviors away from home.
If you overnight in a place where your horse is stabled and near horses he doesn’t know, make sure to take some precautions. Not all horses have been well socialized, so it’s important to keep an eye on your horse if he might be housed at a place where a more aggressive horse may be penned beside him. Ask the facility manager about who your horse will be housed next to, make sure to watch your horse (to ensure he isn’t an aggressor), and don’t be afraid to ask to move if needed.
Plan your first overnight trip at a ranch or resort that offers accommodations (a lodge or cabins) for you and pens for your horse. This way you don’t have to think about corrals or tents and gear. You can have a 5-star experience while you practice packing for overnight needs for your horse. You’ll also get to see how your horse acts in a new environment.
This is the kind of ranch we like to work with as a place to shoot my TV show—the horses have great pens to stay in and our cast and crew get to be a little bit pampered. The Sister Creek Ranch near San Antonio, Texas hosted us and has a set up like this. In Massachusetts, the Inn at Richmond and adjacent Berkshire Equestrian Center have a similar set up. There are stalls available and the accommodations are great. The trails are accessible without having to trailer outside of camp.
At each level, we have to plan for food, water and shelter for you and your horse. At this level, you are well taken care of. Your horse’s shelter and water are easy to plan. You’ll still need to plan for your horse’s feed and get used to packing all that you’ll need to ride and care for your horse.
If you’re ready for a little more adventure, look for a campground that has corrals. Some of the nicer resorts also offer camping options. You’ll stay in a tent or RV, with your horse in a nearby corral.
Securing your horse overnight is one of the biggest challenges and this option still rules out that obstacle. You can build up your camping experience without worrying more about your horse. You will still need your horse’s food—just like the starting level.
The only change from the last level is packing more for your own overnight. You might start by camping in your trailer’s living quarters then step up (or down) to a tent. Make sure to pack your own food and find recipes to cook at the camp or pack pre-packaged meals that you can keep with you in a cooler.
In this next step, you can stay farther away from a “civilized” campground, but you’ll still have access to your vehicle. Having your vehicle nearby means you can still keep coolers with you.
The biggest change here is securing your horse overnight. You’ll be away from a pre-planned campground. You have options such as tying to the trailer, setting up portable corrals or setting up a highline.
I’m presuming that you have a well-trained trail horse that ties well without pawing or carrying on; if not, you have some work to do at home. You can leave your horse tied to the trailer overnight. You’ll give him just enough lead line to allow him to lie down and allow him to get his head down to eat hay. By putting his head down to the ground to eat, you’ll find out how long to leave the line—if the line is long enough to allow him to eat, he’ll also find that he can lie down. While you shorten the lead while you’re saddling or working with your horse, it’s not good for your horse to leave the rope so short overnight.
A high line is just that—a line tied between two trees or poles (make sure to attach with tree-safe methods). This is required in many national forests where you can’t tie to trees (horses often chew on and destroy bark and roots).
You can build a temporary corral with panels designed for portability. If you’ll always stay near your vehicle, you can even take full-sized panels. I’ve also seen electric fencing used—if you choose this, make sure that your horse is very comfortable staying in electric tape without challenging it. Find the containment system that works well for your horse and make sure to practice that containment at home first!
In the Open
Now we switch to multi-day trips into wilderness areas—I consider this the pro level. You’ll need lots of experience under your belt before you approach this level. You’ll need permits, sometimes insurance, you’ll need to file your trip plans. There might be restrictions as to the number of heartbeats allowed in a specific camping area, counting humans and all animals.
Camping in the open is a big step because you need to know about backpacking and pack animals. You need to decide how much you’ll need with you and if you’ll need an extra animal with you to help pack the gear. It is possible to start out small and for one horse and human to carry what you need, but it’s very important to not overload your horse—especially if you’ll be going over tough terrain.
You’ll need to ask your veterinarian how much weight your horse can carry comfortably then decide if you can pack all that you need and stay under that number.
If you do need a packhorse with you on your trip, it’s best to go along with a practiced guide at first. Learn all you can about packing from a pro who can show you what to do along the way. There are many mistakes to be made!
Since you won’t have access to a bale of hay in your truck, you’ll need to know the trail well—and know what grazing areas and water sources are available. All of those factors will tell you how much you need to take with you. If you have to pack in your horse’s feed (like cubes or pellets), you’ll probably need more pack animals.
The farther you are from civilization, the more planning you’ll need to do ahead of time. If you go to a state park or national park, consult the rangers. If you’ve never done this kind of camping, go with a professional outfitter first. You’ll be with someone who has ridden that trail and knows just what to do. When you see how the outfitter works, you’ll be more comfortable with what you need to learn to do. After you have some experience built up, you can probably talk to a ranger or guide to find out what you need to know to go it alone.
Stay as comfortable as you can, but don’t be afraid to move out of your comfort zone so that you can grow in your horsemanship experiences.
Condition for Long Rides
I’m planning ahead for summer, when I plan to go on daylong trail rides. I haven’t been riding much, because I work full-time. I want to make sure my horse is in shape and conditioned by summer. How should I safely build up his stamina?
This is an important question, Roni. I’m so glad you’re planning ahead.
While it’s difficult to ride regularly during the busy workweek, it’s important to avoid riding your horse hard only on the weekends. This can lead to a sore, stiff horse. It’s much better to find a conditioning routine that fits your schedule and gets your horse in shape.
A horse in average condition can usually handle a one- to two-hour trail ride on the weekends without too much stress. But for longer rides, you’re right — you need to plan ahead and start a conditioning routine.
When my horses are in conditioning programs, I like to think of ways I can boost my fitness, too. If you start walking, jogging, dancing, and just plain moving more, you’ll feel much better after the daylong rides, too.
Horses, like people, must train to build strength and endurance. Here’s what I recommend.
Get Him Trail Hardened
Your horse needs to become “hardened” to the saddle, tack, saddlebags, and your weight.
Like breaking in a new pair of shoes, your horse will need time to get re-acclimated to the rub and feel of the saddle, breastcollar, and cinch. It’s not painful, but there’s some toughening that takes place.
Your horse will also need increasingly longer periods of time with you in the saddle. Weight-bearing conditioning helps him improve his balance and stamina, and helps get him in shape much more quickly than round-pen exercise or longeing.
You’re building up to a long trail [ITAL]rides[ITAL], so you’ll need to [ITAL]ride[ITAL] to get your horse in shape.
If you’ll be riding your horse in the mountains, you’ll also have to condition him to hills, as well as walking on shifting rocks and through other challenging terrain.
Look for sandy areas to condition your horse. Sand builds condition and strength more than does solid ground. However, stay at a walk to avoid tendon injury.
Schedule at least 90 calendar days of conditioning before your first big daylong ride.
It usually takes 30 calendar days of a conditioning program before you’ll see physical changes in your horse. At that time, you can see how he’s looking and feeling, and raise your training goals.
You say you have a busy schedule, so start by riding your horse three days per week for the first 30 days. I suggest two weekdays (say, Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday) and one weekend day.
Alternate aerobic (oxygen-based) and strength conditioning, and work to get your horse “hardened” for the trail with increasingly longer weekend rides.
You’ll know your horse is working hard when you can see his nostrils dilate; stop and flex his neck to the side so that you can see.
When your horse starts to breathe hard, push him just a little, then give him a break. You have to push so that you’ll get past what’s easy for your horse and make sure you’re progressing.
During the week. Start by riding for one hour on each of the two workweek days. Begin riding at a marching walk on even ground. Alternate walking and trotting. (Long trotting is the best conditioning gait.)
If you and your horse are really out of shape, start by walking for 50 minutes and trotting for 10. You can even break up the trotting time. As you progress increase your trotting time as much as you feel you safely can.
Be sure to plan a day of rest between rides — both you and your horse will need the recovery time.
On the weekend. On your third riding day — a weekend day — plan a two-hour ride. Build in some strength conditioning. Ride up and down sloping hills; plan an easy trail ride with friends. If you can, ride on similar trail terrain you plan on tackling this summer.
Increase Training Time
After your first 30 days is up, I suggest adding in a fourth riding day if your schedule allows.
On Day 1, ride for an hour and long trot. On Day 2, I’d suggest one hour of hill work (trotting or walking up and down — both directions are beneficial).
On Day 3, go back to long trotting on the flat. On Day 4, gradually increase your time on the trail; ride on varying terrain for two to three, then three to four hours.
By the end of 90 days, I’d expect a horse to be able to trot for almost the entire hour when we’re working on the flat. With that amount of ride time to boost his aerobic, strength, and weight-bearing conditioning, he should be ready for longer rides.
Of course, you know your horse best and know when to ask for more.
You’re doing the right thing by having a workout plan and working toward a riding goal. If you don’t have time to condition your horse as much as is suggested, think about planning some shorter rides.
You and your horse can find a beneficial conditioning plan that will fit your schedules and be enjoyable for all.
For your horse to build up condition for long summer rides, he’ll need increasingly longer periods of time with you in the saddle, notes Julie Goodnight (shown). Weight-bearing conditioning helps him improve his balance and stamina.
If you’ll be riding your horse in the mountains, you’ll have to condition him to hills, as well as walking on shifting rocks and through other challenging terrain, says Julie Goodnight.
I have a 15-year-old quarter horse that has decided he must be in the lead on the trail. I ride alone most of the time but do enjoy the company of others. When he feels any competition from another horse, he arches his neck and sets his head as if he’s ready to attack. Then he’ll hop and rear. It all happens so fast, I don’t see it coming. He’s rearing more and more often. I have been working on the behavior by allowing another horse to lead off on the trail and having my horse follow. As soon as my horse gets excited, I ask him to move away from the lead horse. I’ve also thought about outfitting him with a tie down. What would you do?
Dear Trail Woes,
This is not a matter of your horse rearing or whether or not you can ride with others. It’s a serious indication that your horse is dominant (over you and the other horses), aggressive and in need of further training (and/or disobedient.) It’s certainly not an issue that a tie down could resolve, since these behavior problems are related to herd behavior, not raising his head (head raising and rearing are symptoms not the cause of the problem).
I choose not to use tie downs to resolve training problems. When it comes to rearing, a tie down simply masks the symptoms and can get in the way of a horse’s natural carriage and balance. If your horse were to rear with a tie down in place, it’s possible he could lose his balance and turn over.
Your horse needs to learn, right here, right now, in no uncertain terms, that his aggressive, herding and dominant behavior is absolutely intolerable when he is under saddle. Any transgression should be met with a firm, direct correction. Aggression and rearing are potentially life-threatening behaviors. Young horses should be taught this rule from an early age and this fundamental expectation should be strictly enforced at all times when you’re riding alone or in the company of others. Saddle horses must be taught not to fraternize or interact with other horses at any time that they are being ridden or handled by humans. Horses are good at obeying rules when the rules are clearly explained and enforced.
Your horse’s behaviors—arching his neck and rearing— are all natural herd behaviors. Your horse wishes to be in front because that is where the alpha horse should be. He is intolerant of any subordinate who dares to get in front. He is arching his neck in a display of might in a prideful manner. It’s a warning to “his” subordinates that he is about to become aggressive, should they persist in their insubordination.
Horses have three weapons in their personal arsenal when they choose to become aggressive or combative: bite, strike, and kick. Your horse is displaying threatening gestures with all three weapons. The rear is the threat to strike and the arch and whirl is the threat to kick; horses make biting gestures with their head and mouth making snaking or herding gestures.
Clearly your horse thinks he’s dominant and does not think of you as the herd leader, or he would never act this way. There’s no quick fix to repair this relationship between you and your horse. You’ll have to work at it by doing ground work and changing your impression to the horse both on the ground and in the saddle. For an more in depth review of ground work, check out Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership (www.JulieGoodnight.com or 800- 225-8827).
Your horse must learn that certain behavior is simply not tolerated while under saddle—specifically displays of aggression and herding behaviors. My expectations of any horse I ride would be even greater: no fraternization at all with other horses and its nose must remain right in front and it must not deviate from the path and speed that I have dictated. There should only be one conversation between you and the horse, “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.”
Any deviance to the expected rules of behavior should be met with immediate correction (within less than three seconds, preferably less than one second), since this behavior is dangerous for both the horses and the humans. The best way to correct a horse is to “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.”
Remember, the pressure you put on the horse should be no more and no less than the pressure required to motivate him to change. If it’s not enough pressure, he will continue the unwanted behavior (all the while learning to ignore and disobey your commands). If it’s enough pressure to motivate him to change, he will then immediately look for a way out of the pressure. As soon as he finds the right answer, he gets an immediate and welcomed release and life gets easier.
Comfort and security are the two greatest motivating factors for horses. It’s always best when the motivating factors are something that come naturally to the horse. One of the greatest motivating stimuli for horses doing something you perceive as wrong is to make them work hard and remove companionship. The release (reward) is letting the horse rest and be with the herd. Thus the hard thing is work and isolation, the easy thing is rest and companionship (comfort and security).
While you’re out on the trail, anytime your horse even hints that he is concerned about another horse in the group, at the very first flick of an ear, you should immediately take him away from the herd and put him to hard work (turn, circle, change speeds, lope circles, go-stop-go). When he becomes obedient and responsive to you, let him rest and come back to the herd. When and if he becomes aggressive again, immediately take him away and put him to work again. Repeat this process until the horse makes an association between his behavior and the negative stimuli. Depending on how effective your timing is (both with the correction and the reward), he may make the association the first time or it may take dozens of times.
Remember, there’s an old axiom about horse training that says, “It always gets worse before it gets better.” Since your horse has been displaying dominant and aggressive behavior, chances are he will not easily be dissuaded from his bad behavior and he may challenge your authority and control to an even greater degree. Therefore, be very careful and make sure you’re up to the task. If you have any doubt about your ability to get the job done without a greater risk of getting hurt, consider enlisting a professional to help retrain your horse and teach him some manners. From the sounds of it, this horse might be a tough customer. But in the right hands, he can learn these fundamental manners in short order.
Until next time,
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
When I have to negotiate around a trail obstacle into tight places with trees and low limbs, my mare gets very nervous. She barges through, and it’s hard to hold back and maneuver through. She’s normally not a spooky horse and is a good trail horse. How can I get her to relax and not get hurt in the process?
This is a great question and one that you need to address quickly for your and your horse’s safety.
All horses are naturally claustrophobic to some degree. Their ingrained fear of tight places helps them survive in the wild. They don’t want to be in tight places or any situation they can’t run from quickly.
Therefore, we must train our horses to accept tight places and to trust us to decide where it’s safe for them to be.
A Natural Fear
You can see horses with the worst cases of claustrophobia panic in horse trailers. If a horse is truly claustrophobic, he may load into the trailer easily, then become alarmed and try to crawl out through any opening (emergency escapes, windows, etc.).
You may also see horses with this fear rush through gates or speed through their stall entrances. Panic takes over, and they suddenly have no ground manners. If they’re allowed to rush through consistently, their fear leads to dangerous behavior.
Keep in mind that there’s a broad range of reactions to being in tight places. Some horses may be fearful but quickly get used to tight areas, while others may become extremely panicked in any tight area.
If your mare is panicky or rushing anywhere besides your tricky trail scene, she may take longer to train — the fear may have become more of a learned reaction. If she’s only having trouble on the trail, your training plan shouldn’t take too long.
For either situation, the training process is the same.
Think of your mare’s problem as a disobedience problem, as well as a claustrophobic issue. She might be fearful, but if you coddle her and try to relax her instead of correcting her disobedience, you won’t help the problem.
Your mare should move at the speed and in the direction you choose at all times. When she’s rushing through, she’s making her own decisions and not listening for your cues.
You need to address this behavior. It’s dangerous for your mare to speed through tight places or areas with tricky footing.
If I came to a tight space on a trail and didn’t trust the horse I was riding to listen and go slowly, I’d probably choose to dismount and lead the horse through. I don’t want to risk hurting my knees or hitting my head if the horse rushes through while I’m on horseback.
However, being on the ground isn’t always a safe place to be, either. If you lead your mare, stay to the side and well out of her way, in case she panics. You don’t want her to run over you.
Before you ride your mare through that tricky patch of trail again, schedule some training sessions at home to avoid any unsafe moves.
From the Ground
To work on this disobedience problem, you’ll first work from the ground to help build your mare’s confidence and remind her that you’re present and in charge.
Look for tight obstacles around your barnyard, or create some of your own. You may pile brush close together. Here at my ranch, I like to lead young horses in and around the pines that grow around our barn.
If you’re close to a trail, lead your mare around the natural obstacles you’re having trouble with.
Before you begin: Outfit your mare in a rope halter and long training lead.
Step 1. Approach the obstacle. Walk your mare up to the tight opening, and stop. Make her stand. When she stands still, pet on her, and tell her she’s a good girl. Move forward toward the obstacle one step at a time. Stop and praise her at every stage.
Step 2. Correct her. When your mare’s shoulders reach the tightest spot, she might become worried and get ready to rush through. This is the critical moment. If she rushes through without you prompting her for a step, say “whoa,” and correct her by snapping the lead rope and backing her up.
Step 3. Regain your authority. Use enough pressure to stop your mare in her tracks. You don’t want to apply so much pressure that you start a fight. However, you need to regain your authority, stop her rushing behavior, and let her know she must obey, go at your pace, and walk through the tight space one step at a time on your command. Under no circumstances can she rush through without your permission.
Step 4. Practice. Practice around your barnyard or local trails every day until your mare seems calmer and is obeying. You may only work from the ground 10 to 15 minutes a day or until she walks through the tight space, one step at a time, without rushing.
Step 5. Invest in the training. If you can’t work every day, practice at least twice a week — and don’t ride your mare through tight spaces until your training feels improved. You need to invest in the training to correct the problem. Just going out on the trail and trying it again probably won’t work.
From the Saddle
When you’re ready, ask a friend to take a training ride with you. Make sure your buddy knows that you may need to stop and work your mare from the ground, and make sure you both have time to work as you go.
A few safety notes: At first, choose a tight obstacle that isn’t as demanding or unsafe as where the problem began. Make sure you have ample room to back up and room to move through on either side of the obstacle.
When you progress to riding with a group, make sure the leaders know to stop and wait for you to get through any tight areas before moving the whole herd down the trail.
Before you begin: Outfit your mare with a rope halter and training lead; have your trail tack at hand.
Step 1. Walk her. Walk your mare through the tough spots.
Step 2. Tack up. Tack up your mare in your usual trail-riding gear, applying the bridle over the halter. Attach the training lead, coil the extra length, and tie the coil to your saddle’s front latigos. Then, if you need to lead your mare, you can use the halter and lead, rather than the bridle, for safety.
Step 3. Mount up. Mount up, and walk your mare in the open to warm her up and relax her.
Step 3. Approach the obstacle. Head toward the first obstacle, and repeat the procedure you followed from the ground. That is, walk your mare to the tight place, then stop. Praise her for standing still. Take one step, stop, and praise.
Step 4. Correct her. Keep walking through one step at a time. If your mare rushes, correct her, and back her up.
For more information, see Julie Goodnight’s new book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, available from HorseBooksEtc.com. Also, watch the Horse Master,television show, which airs Monday and Saturday nights on RFD-TV. Check your local listings.
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: My 6 y/o AQHA gelding is very focused in the arena, on or off cattle, keeping his face directed at our target or direction. On the trail, he likes to look all around and, if I don’t re-direct him, follow his face off toward whatever catches his attention. If I allow that behavior (meandering, I call it), am I creating long term problems for us? As always, I appreciate your expertise.
Answer: In defense of your horse and in the spirit of “you can’t have everything,” you have to understand that a horse bred to work cattle does not always make the best trail horse. A “cowy” horse’s mind is keyed into movement and wants to follow it; he notices every little thing and tends to stay on alert. While this works out great in the arena and on cattle, it is not ideal for trail riding. Having said that, being cowy is no excuse for disobedience, and yes, if you allow disobedience it will cause bigger problems for you down the road because it erodes your authority and leadership.
An obedient horse 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.
I have written a lot about having nose control on your horse. 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 and his looking around, 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.
For your cow-bred horse, you will have to factor in his training, temperament and obedience and decide how strict you will be. Always correct a horse when he changes course without a cue from you, but with a cowy horse, that is bred to be very alert to any movement in his environment, you may have to cut him a little slack as long as he remains obedient. The most important thing for you is that you have a clear and consistent view of what will be corrected and what is expected of your horse. That’s why I use the points of shoulder as a landmark—that way I have clearly defined what I expect and I know exactly when to correct the horse and when not to, so that the horse can clearly understand the rule and that I can give consistent corrections.
You’ll have to use your own judgment with your horse, but as long as it is clear and consistent, your horse will learn quickly. Good luck!
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