Here we are at the peak of riding season and I’m happy to report that our horses are all healthy and sound, even our foster horse, Doc Gunner. For the last 90 days, Gunner has more or less been the center of attention around here. He likes it that way. Gunner is a kind and gentle four year old whose magnetic personality stems from his deep need to belong. Gunner was born completely deaf, which makes him special in several ways—he’s way more communicative than most horses, he seeks acceptance more, and he’s far more interested in people than a lot of horses. While all horses learn fast, Gunner tries so hard to get along that it seems like he learns and absorbs faster too. Find out more about Gunner’s story here.
I am learning more about the genetics of deafness in horses and soon we’ll have a full genetic workup on Doc Gunner that will tell us a ton about his health, his pedigree, and even his behavior. We sent off genetic material (tail hairs) to Etalon Diagnostics. If we’re lucky, we’ll get some confirmation about his breeding, which may lead us to his beginnings. We’ve made tremendous progress in getting him healthy and started under-saddle; soon we’ll begin the search for his perfect home. To find out more about how you can help horses in transition and horses at-risk in your area, visit MyRightHorse.org.
We’ve been live-posting with Gunner at least once a week, and a lot of people wonder why I don’t adopt Gunner. First, my job as a foster parent (or in this case, foster-trainer) is to help as many horses as I can, not acquire more horses for myself. Secondly, I have two fabulous riding horses already, Annie (my pretty little diva) and Pepperoni (my young, athletic training project). That’s about one and half more horses than I have time to ride. Thankfully, I have Melissa to help me keep the horses going strong.
Annie is a mature AQHA mare, finished under-saddle and a solid working partner for me, in all the media production that we do on a weekly basis around here. It’s been my ambition to train her into being a gelding, and we are getting closer all the time. Pepper is super fun to train; he learns lightning-quick and is always game for an adventure. With Gunner getting so much attention lately, I haven’t ridden Pepper as much as I’d like, but I’m happy with his training level. His classical training foundation is solid and strong. For the most part, he is 100% obedient to my aids, when I am riding mindfully. Of course he’s more than happy to let me know when I make a mistake—and that’s when his red-headed temper kicks in. I love riding this horse; he keeps me honest.
We’ve been fortunate to have a great summer with our horses so far and I’ve got fall riding retreats coming up soon at the C Lazy U Guest Ranch. I’m looking forward to getting back on the road with my horses and helping riders develop their skill set. Here in the Rocky Mountain west, we’re having a terrible drought and wildfires are raging everywhere. It’s a stressful time for everyone, especially those of us that might have to evacuate with our horses. God bless the firefighters and let’s all pray for rain. Hay already is at a premium, due to low yields, so grab up what you can.
These are challenging times, to say the least. Thankfully, we have horses to keep us grounded and strong. And remember, riding is a great sport for social distancing!
All the excitement around my barn in the last month was about Doc Gunner, my new “foster horse.” He arrived at our place on June 18th after a long haul from Oklahoma City. Doc Gunner is a 4-year-old Paint gelding (no papers) who was rescued from a kill pen in December. He is completely deaf, in an unthrifty condition, seemingly untrained, but very sweet-natured and compliant. The first week he was here he literally slept and ate, slept and ate, nonstop. I’ve never seen a horse sleep, flat-out and snoring, for so many hours of the day and night. Perhaps his deafness is a bonus here?
We have been live-streaming all my training sessions with this young horse, from his arrival at our farm to the first time I took him out of his pen, to now—four weeks later. He’s such an interesting horse, full of character, wary, but extremely willing. My job as his “foster trainer” is to give him the foundational training he needs to be successful, and wanted, for the rest of his life. So successful, in fact, that he will not only find a perfect home when I think he is ready, but that he will never be at risk again, for as long as he lives—no matter how many times he changes hands.
Maybe you have an empty stall in your barn and the experience to care for a horse that needs TLC or rehab? Maybe you have the skills to evaluate the training of a horse that has come into the rescue pipeline with no history whatsoever, and needs to be matched with a perfect adopting family? You could jump into the game with me and help horses in need, starting with just one foster horse.
Before the economic shutdown started, there were already more than a hundred thousand horses at risk in this country. Many of them end up going over our borders, north and south, to slaughter. The good people that work in horse welfare need your assistance, because more horses will be surrendered during economic strife. If everyone who is qualified would step up to help just one horse, think of the good it would do! If you want more information about fostering a horse in need in your area, please go to MyRightHorse.org.
Let’s face it, we’ve become a society of instant gratification. From fast food, to fake nails, we like immediate results. This quest for instant results carries over to horsemanship, too—from flying lead changes, to side-passing, to collection. These are skills that riders everywhere hope to master, yet aren’t willing to “do the time.”
Horses and riding sports don’t mix well with instant gratification. Riding is a sport that takes years and decades for the human to master. And horses are not animals that react well to rushing and cutting corners. When training is rushed and important steps are missed, mastering even the simplest skill can seem impossible. In most cases, slowing down will get you there faster with horses.
Without question, when it comes to training horses, cutting corners always results holes in your horse’s training, which will come back to haunt you at the most inconvenient time. Undoing poor training is much harder and way more time consuming that training an untarnished horse the same skill. Cutting corners will cost you more time in the long run, which is why for thousands of years, horse trainers have known that slower is better when it comes to horses.
Horses are Fast Learners. People … Not So Much
Although horses are incredibly fast learners (a by-product of being flight animals and prey animals), there’s a significant difference between acquiring a new skill and mastering that skill. The challenge with horses is that how fast they learn and how fast they master any given skill is directly related to the effectiveness and consistency (skill level) of the rider or handler.
Because horses are prey animals, they are highly sensitive, and they feel all kinds of pressure (physical, mental, environmental) keenly. Therefore, we apply pressure and release it to train them (negative reinforcement refers to the removal of pressure). Two factors dictate how quickly the horse learns: timing and pressure. A timely release/reward comes within one second; using adequate pressure—neither too little nor too much—requires excellent judgment and ability from the rider. With good timing and adequate pressure, the horse learns rapidly. If the horse isn’t learning fast or is learning the wrong things, you must consider the human side of the equation.
Because horses are such fast leaners, they unfortunately learn the wrong things just as quickly as they learn the right things. The horse may learn to perform the skill incorrectly because the rider inadvertently released the horse at the exact wrong moment. I see this a lot in teaching complex maneuvers like pivot on the haunches. The horse takes one or two good steps in the pivot, then the rider gets greedy and asks for more, then the horse steps incorrectly and the rider releases him. I see riders asking for collection or some sort of head set, but instead of releasing that horse the instant he’s giving the correct response, they hold the horse too long until he starts resisting, then they release him, training the horse to throw his head up.
Whatever your horse is doing at the moment you release him, is what you just trained him to do. “My horse is having problems with this,” is code for, “I taught my horse the wrong thing.”
Why Slower is Faster
Getting in a hurry rarely works with horses. Their perspective of time is much different from the average human, who tends to think in the future and dwell in the past, but is rarely present in the moment. We always have a plan, an agenda and a schedule to adhere to. Horses don’t.
Horses are very much here-and-now animals. We humans stand to learn a lot from horses on this subject. Have you ever tried to train a horse to trailer load when you had limited time to load and get somewhere? Have you ever had a normally easy-to-catch horse stick his tail up in the air and run around for twenty minutes on the day you were pinched for time? I rest my case.
Sometimes going slower with horses is very literal. Slowing down your body language and reactiveness when you are doing groundwork, will almost always have the effect of softening the horse’s response. Slowing down your hands when using rein aids, literally moving them slower, will improve the responsiveness of your horse. Try it.
Going slowly in the training of a horse means that we take small baby steps; we walk before we run and we don’t skip steps. We follow the important tenants of classical horsemanship, which have proven to be a successful recipe for training horses for thousands of years. We teach foundational skills before asking for complex maneuvers. Trying to teach a horse collection, before he has mastered the most fundamental skill of a riding horse—to move freely and willingly forward—will never work.
There are many seemingly simple skills of a riding horse that riders are often impatient to learn, like collection, flying lead changes and side passing. Rarely have I done a clinic (in the past 30 years) where a rider didn’t state one of these skills as a desired outcome for the clinic. Each of these skills require the horse (and therefore the rider) to master many foundational skills, a pre-flight checklist so to speak, which may take weeks and months to achieve. Only the most dedicated riders will devote the time needed to build the proper foundation for that skill and not get frustrated with how many steps are required to get there.
Stages of Learning
For both humans and horses, when mastering a new skill, there are stages of learning that describes how the individual typically advances through a predictable series of learning stages before mastering the skill. At first, the student (two-legged or four-legged) is halting and uncertain is using the skill, but gradually, through practice and guidance, the individual becomes more proficient and confident in the skill.
When we partner with horses, both horse and human are sometimes learning the skill for the first time together, and both animals have to move through the stages. With horses, it usually works best when one individual has already mastered the skill. In other words, if the rider does not know the skill, let’s say how to cue for and ride the canter, she will move through the stages must faster on a horse that has already mastered this skill. If the horse knows nothing about cantering with a rider on its back, it’s best trained by a rider that has already mastered cueing for and riding the canter.
The hierarchy of learning a new skill involves acquisition, fluency, generalization and adaptation. While this is common knowledge among educators of humans, it’s also highly applicable to the training of horses. Let’s look at the most fundamental skill of a riding horse—to go forward.
The very first time we ride that young horse, we have to teach it to go, turn and stop, but at first, he knows absolutely nothing. So, you flap your legs, cluck, wave your arms and otherwise apply pressure until the horse takes a step forward—then you immediately release the pressure, praise, and hopefully the horse learned something. The next time you ask that horse to move forward and it only takes a little wiggle of your legs and a couple clucks before he steps off, your horse has just acquired a new skill.
The next phase the horse moves through is fluency, and that will take some time; how long, depends on the skill of the rider. Although the horse has acquired the skill, he is still tentative and slow to respond. As he becomes more fluent, his response time increases, your cues get lighter, and he becomes more confident. Now the horse moves off with a slight closing of the rider’s leg.
Then we reach one of the most challenging and time-consuming phases when it comes to training horses, and that is generalization. This phase is not complete until the horse can perform the skill in any situation or any setting. No matter where you are or how emotionally your horse has become, he still responds accurately and promptly to the cue and performs the skill. Since horses are very location-specific in what they learn, having to perform the skill in many various locations requires a lot of time and effort. You can train a horse to perform to a very high level at home and practice for years, then take him somewhere else to perform, only to have him fall apart and become nonresponsive (or worse). A generalized horse is what we call a “seasoned” horse—he’s been hauled around and learned to perform his skills at the same level away from home that he does at home. This can take years.
Adaptation occurs when the horse or human is so accurate and confident in using the skill, that it can be applied to new and unique situations and the horse will adapt his skills to the demands of the new situation. Think about the high-level cross-country jumping horse, who adapts the jumping skills that he learned in an arena starting with ground poles and cavaletti, and now he gallops boldly through a course he has never seen, jumping huge, scary obstacles, landing blindly in potentially hazardous footing like a water obstacle. He can adapt his jumping skills to any type of obstacle, in any situation, even one he has never experienced.
Teaching Complex Maneuvers
Complex maneuvers are almost anything that we teach a horse beyond stop, start and steer. Advanced maneuvers generally require putting two or more foundational skills together to perform the maneuver, like collection, leg-yielding, side-passing, pivots on the forehand and haunches, lead changes, jumping, rollbacks, and the like.
One of the earliest complex maneuvers we encounter in the training of a riding horse is the canter departure. Before that horse learns to step off quietly and smoothly from a walk into a canter on whichever lead asked, there are many smaller steps which take time to accomplish. Knowing what the smaller steps are, being able to break down that skill into the smallest steps, and being willing to spend whatever time it takes at each step of the way, are the hallmarks of success in training horses.
Precursor skills always exist in complex maneuvers. For instance, before a horse and rider can flawlessly perform a flying lead change on command, they must both be able to execute walk-to-canter transitions on the correct lead 100% of the time; halt-to-canter transitions, dead-leaded; collection at the canter; an obedient and balanced counter-canter; haunches-in walk, trot and canter; leg yielding walk, trot and canter; etc. When you take the time to accomplish these lesser skills, flying lead changes are easy.
Because horses are very fast learners, acquisition of a skill can (and should) happen fast. But one response, does not a habit make. How fast a horse moves through the stages of learning is directly proportionate to the talent of the rider. Whether it takes a day, a week or a month to get fluent in a skill, fluency must occur before moving on to the next phase. This is true of each smaller step or precursor skill. When you try to fast forward though any stage of a horse’s training by skipping steps, you end up training the wrong response to the horse.
For all the complex maneuvers that we train horses to do, physical strength, stamina and coordination are required—that takes weeks and months to develop, not hours or days. While most of the maneuvers we ask horses to perform are movements they can do naturally, packing the weight of the rider (who is often getting in the way of the horse) makes it much more difficult for the horse. Pushing a horse faster than his physical strength and coordination can develop generally results in a burned-out horse, an injured horse, or both.
It’s no wonder that slower is faster when it comes to horses and learning to ride. When both the horse and the rider are learning new skills together, it will take even longer. It’s important to strive for correctness in training, which means releasing at the right moment, and making sure that you are giving the correct cues and training the correct response. Quality versus quantity.
Beyond precision, it’s important to be patient, to slow down your actions and expectations—to walk before you run. The ability to break down complex maneuvers into the smallest steps and then refine each step, to build a solid foundation, is one of the most crucial factors in successful horse training. This requires a lot of knowledge and a high skill level; if you do not possess the knowledge and skills yourself, you need help from someone who does. You can find that help online, at JulieGoodnight.com/Academy.
We’ve just returned from an incredible 4-day ranch-riding clinic at the C Lazy U Ranch and soon I am headed to Spanaway, Washington, for my last 2-day horsemanship clinic of the year, then I get to go back to C Lazy U for the riding and yoga retreat (treat is the operative word!). Soon we will be releasing my 2016 clinic schedule, but you can always check my website for details on my full clinic and expo schedule.
I am also excited to be going to Amarillo, Texas, in October for the CHA International Conference and to visit the AQHA Hall of Fame; to Springfield MA, in November for Equine Affaire; then on to Las Vegas with the good folks from Cosequin for the equine vet tech conference, held in conjunction with the AAEP conference and the National Finals Rodeo (this is the time of year that Sin City becomes Cowboy Central).
We’ll be doing our fall TV shoot at the Grove River Ranch in Georgia the first week of November. I’m excited to head south to my old neck of the woods! This is a gorgeous facility and a place where you can trailer in to stay at their cabin, fish and ride!
The fall is always busy for me but I still manage to get some good riding time on my horses. Dually, my number one horse (and the most high-maintenance horse we own) is fully recovered from his near fatal bout with Colitis in the spring. In fact, he’s gotten a little cocky and full of himself—a good sign that he is feeling better but also a sign that we need to get back to more structured training. It’s back to school time for Dually!
Eddie’s Pick is my junior horse and he would love to step into the number one spot. He comes off the renowned 6666 Ranch, by their World Champion stallion, Sixes Pick. Eddie, a handsome reflection of his daddy, is one of the most eager-to-please and hardworking horses I have ever ridden. Now, as a 6 year old, he has matured physically and mentally (especially the latter) and is becoming a good working partner for me. I don’t know that he could ever fully replace Dually—those are some BIG shoes to fill—but he is sure giving Dually a run for his money!
Although I was sad to say goodbye to summer, I love the fall and getting back on the road and working with horses, and their humans, is very rewarding for me. I enjoy getting to know all the horses I meet, even the naughty ones. Maybe especially the naughty ones—helping horses and their humans get along better is a fun challenge to embrace. I hope to see you on the road this fall and together we will talk horses!
Clinician Julie Goodnight tells you how to use pre-signals and breathing techniques to improve your horse’s transitions between gaits.
Are your horse’s transitions between gaits as smooth as glass? Or do you hold your breath and hope for the best as your horse hops on his forehand to slow down and lurches forward when asked to go?
If your response is the latter, then it’s time to relax and take a big breath, in and out, says horse clinician Julie Goodnight.
That deep breath, she finds, is the first step to making well-balanced and easily executed transitions in your horse from one gait to another. By combining breathing with a good pre-signal and consistent cues, you’ll set your horse up to smoothly switch gears.
Level of Intention
To get a good transition from your horse, you have to make your intentions really clear to him. If you’re unsure about making a transition, your horse will feel that apprehension.
“The rider has to be committed to whatever she’s asking the horse to do,” Julie says. “Horses are really keen to your level of intention when you’re riding-sometimes they know it better than you know yourself.”
For example, if you’re asking your horse to canter, but you’re nervous about cantering, it’s likely that you’ll unintentionally pull back on the reins as you’re kicking your horse forward. That sends your horse a mixed message. When the lines of communication falter, you’re unlikely to get that beautiful, prompt transition.
The inadvertent use of the reins during a transition, whether speeding up or slowing down, is one of the most common problems Goodnight sees. The end result is a horse that becomes nervous, antsy, angry, or indifferent in response to his rider’s unclear directions.
If you are unintentionally grabbing for the reins, you need to address the underlying issue. Are you scared of your horse’s next gear? Nerves are okay, and pretty darn normal. You just need to find a way to deal with them. Maybe you need more riding lessons to improve your balance, or your horse needs time with an experienced rider to build his confidence as he moves to the next gait. Or maybe you just need to work through the transition and really focus on not pulling on your reins when you become uncomfortable.
Perfecting the Pre-Signal
The best way to get a good transition is to give your horse a clue that you’re about to change something. Julie refers to this as a pre-signal. “It’s typically just a matter of shortening the reins and closing your legs around the horse,” Julie says.
With that subtle shift, your horse’s attention should switch directly to you, with him waiting for your next request.
“If your horse isn’t listening to you, then you might as well not bother asking for the transition,” Julie adds.
When your horse does respond appropriately to your pre-signal, you should feel like he’s tuned in mentally-and preparing himself physically-for the transition, whether you’re going to ask him to speed up, slow down, or stop.
As a pre-signal to her horse, Julie shortens her reins and applies pressure with her legs. These pre-signals let her horse know that he needs to pay attention, because something is about to change.
Your breathing can also become part of your cue to your horse, Julie says. Before an upward transition, she suggests inhaling, which is associated with movement. For example, a deep inhalation fills the lungs, and then the blood, with oxygen, which helps prepare the body for exertion or exercise. Breathing in also fills your chest with air, and naturally moves your center of gravity forward into an anterior tilt. “Inhaling is like saying, ‘Okay, get ready to move with me,’” Julie says.
When pre-signaling for a downward transition, do the opposite by exhaling and emptying your lungs.
“When you exhale, you kick back and relax,” Julie points out. Often, breathing out-or sighing-releases stress and tension. In the same way, it tells your horse it’s time to slow down, too.
If you’re consistent with your breathing, your horse will begin to associate your deliberate breathing with your pre-signal and, ultimately, the transition.
Cueing for the Transition
The next step for your transition is to actually cue your horse. Make sure your cues are deliberate and consistent, so your horse understands the request.
For your upward transitions from a halt to a walk, or a walk to a trot, squeeze both of your legs and give the go-forward cue. Also use a verbal cue, such as a specific word, cluck, or chirp. To ask for the canter, Julie suggests applying pressure at the girth with your outside leg as you tip your horse’s nose to the inside. Then add the motion of your seat going into the canter. Again, combine your body cues with your verbal cue, this time a kissing noise, the word “canter,” or whatever word or noise works for you.
If your horse is unresponsive to your request for a transition, Julie suggests the “ask, tell, demand” method of cueing. Start by asking nicely, then up the pressure and tell your horse what you expect, and, finally, demand with a light tap or spank with a crop or the ends of your reins, Julie says. Let your horse know exactly what you expect him to do.
Julie uses her breath to help cue her horse. Here, she blows out, letting the air expel from her lungs. This action causes her body to sit back, another clue to her horse that he’s supposed to slow down. The opposite happens when Julie breaths in. Now her chest rises and body moves forward, telling her horse to get ready to move forward.
When executed properly, the upward transitions should feel as though your horse is springing and stepping forward into the next gait.
In the downward transitions, you want to help your horse stay balanced, so he steps down from the gait, rather than lurching and falling on his forehand. To help your horse stay balanced, Julie says to avoid using the reins to slow your horse. Instead, use your breathing, along with the weight of your seat. Sit back and down into your saddle, and combine it with a verbal cue. The word “easy” is a popular choice for slowing between gaits. The word “whoa,” of course, should be reserved for complete stops. Most horses are pretty happy to stop, and will happily do so without their riders pulling on the reins, Julie points out. If you always use your aids in this sequence when you cue for the stop: voice-seat/legs-hands (only used if needed), your horse will elect to stop before the pull on his mouth comes.
Practice Makes Perfect
Once you’ve perfected your pre-signals, breathing techniques, and cues for transitions, it’s time to keep practicing. The more transitions you do when you’re riding, the more responsive and engaged your horse will become. He’ll also become physically stronger, especially through his back and hindquarters, which only makes his transitions better. Pretty soon, you’ll feel like you’re sailing over glassy water to get to your horse’s next gait.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem, since I didn’t find that our instructor found the right thing to do. Instead of finding an answer, he did what a program told him to do.
I have a friend whose horse is a 16-year-old QH gelding and a former roping horse. He still has some trust issues in my opinion and he’s very brace-y when he gets upset. He will lope with her riding him, but he tends to have this “I’m running away from you” lope. He has a hard time in the corners and on a circle, but he will lope. I noticed that she tends to brace in her knees and ankles and that she has her ankles to far forward which of course doesn’t help the horse to lope confidently…
Now, when she tries to lope him on the ground with the 22-foot line, he starts his race trot and carries his head as high as he can and he simply will NOT lope. They were working with him the other day (together with the instructor) for about 40 minutes and all they got was maybe a quarter circle at best at a lope. Her horse was soaking wet and I really didn’t see any real success.
Here’s what they tried: Trot the horse towards the fence and then put pressure on when he leaves the fence. Did NOT work at all! He just ran at a faster trot. Then they tried to bring the horse closer, “reel” him in, lift line, step out, swing and touch hard on his shoulder if he didn’t leave. The horse would make a few jumps and then would race around at a trot, so immediately bring him in again and start the whole thing over etc.
WHAT I SAW:
The horse obviously “shut down” and did not respond anymore besides “running at a trot for his life” (in his opinion anyway). I think his previous owner/s literally beat the crap out of him. It looks to me as if he was abused mentally and probably physically and he somehow learned to live with it by shutting down. I believe that in this state he’s absolutely UNABLE to learn. He braces and tightens up and it makes it even harder for him to get into a lope. I have to add that I’ve been watching the owner for a few months now. I don’t want to say that she easily gives up; she rather thinks she has to live with his antics and makes excuses for him. This of course doesn’t help to turn her horse around. I find that the horse is a mix out of fear and bully, which seems to me especially difficult.
I would really appreciate your input. The owner was heart broken, the horse looked like it’s going to have a heart attack any minute and I really don’t think anything got accomplished! I tried to put myself in her situation and I’m sure I would have told the instructor to stop. At one point he actually got a decent lope off with a few additional steps but he missed the release and felt that he had to “stop on a good note”.
Looking for the Answer
You have made some very astute observations with this horse. When a horse shuts-down mentally, he is no longer thinking about his situation and looking for the right answer that will get him the release. Some horses shut down more easily than others. There are many team-roping horses out there with trust issues and a lot of baggage from the high-stress work that they do and the sometimes harsh and heavy pressure put on them. These horses respond well to slow, quiet and clear handling and do not do well with pushing them beyond the boiling point. A team roping horse that has not been trained and worked in a balanced fashion (schooling on fundamentals of bending, turning, collection) and is only blown out of the box, running hell-bent for leather, only taking the left lead and only turning left when it reaches the steer, doesn’t really know how to do anything else. In some instances, the horse has had so much physical pressure put on his mouth and sides and so much mental stress on him waiting in the box and blowing out after the steer, that he has a total melt down when asked to perform. These horses can have a lot of baggage. But it doesn’t have to be that way; there are many excellent rope horse trainers that school their horses more holistically.
When the rider braces any part of her body, especially the knees and ankles, the horse will always become stiffer, hollowed out in the back and more anxious. The reason why is that the rider is no longer absorbing the motion of the horse’s movement and instead is opposing the motion and bouncing on the horse’s back and bracing on his mouth. Bracing or stiffening joints causes the riders legs and hands to become jerky. The increased pressure causes the horse to tense; at the same time the rider is sending a message of tension through her body to the horse (you have to tense muscles and lock joints to brace). Horses will learn that when the rider tenses and braces, that pain in the mouth and back will follow. A horse’s natural response to discomfort is to run away from it, so these horses will generally speed up in a effort to run away from the discomfort. Unfortunately, that will generally cause the rider to brace even more and the downward spiral spins out of control.
In clinics when I am teaching groundwork, I am constantly telling people to move slowly and progressively and never give the horse the sense that you are chasing him. You always want him to be thinking for a way out of his problem, the problem being the mental or physical pressure that you put on him when you ask him to do something. If the pressure (either mental or physical) becomes too much for the horse, his mind shuts down and he kicks into his survival/flight (or fight) mode. From this point, you have very little to gain and much to lose.
In the situation you are describing, it sounds to me like damage was done to this horse and certainly there was no positive benefit from the training session. Perhaps there would have been if the person had capitalized on the horse finally doing the right thing by removing all pressure and leaving the horse alone for a while.
It is an old-school of thought but one in which I believe very strongly: whenever you have trouble with a horse getting something (which probably means you are not a very effective teacher to your horse) always return to something more fundamental so that your horse can find some success and be in a better frame of mind.
There is a dilemma because once you have asked a horse to do something, if you don’t reinforce your request and follow-through; you have trained the horse to ignore you. However, if you are not as effective in teaching your horse or communicating with him and you keep asking something incomprehensible to him over and over again, and putting more and more pressure on him until his mind shuts down, you have taught the horse to be frightened and reactive to you, but he hasn’t learned the skill you were hoping for. Knowing when to push and when to back off a horse is a pre-requisite for being a good horse trainer.
There is no one system that could ever account for all the variances and intricacies of horses. The judgment and horse sense you need to train horses comes from the experience and wisdom gained from working with many, many different horses.
Timing is another essential skill needed to train a horse effortlessly. Although you hear a lot about repetition in training horses, if your timing is good you’ll need little, if any repetitions to train a horse a new skill. It is hard enough to teach people the physical skills they need to work horses from the ground or from the saddle, but to teach them timing is really difficult. Getting people to understand that to the horse, it is all about the release- of both mental and physical pressure. I’ll bet that with this exact scenario, if they had just stopped the horse and let him chill out for a few minutes here and there during the session when the horse made some kind of effort in the right direction, he may have made some progress toward the goal.
Of all the training systems, programs and techniques in the world, the one thing that they all have in common is that ability to give a timely and significant release to the horse and the judgment to know when to press your horse and when to back off. You only have 3 seconds with a horse to reward, release or correct, in order for him to make an association between his actions and the release/correction. It is a well-documented fact that the sooner within those three seconds the release/correction comes, the more meaningful it is to the horse. So by the time you have to think about what the horse did or what you should do to correct or reward, you are well past the optimal time period for training your horse.
Unfortunately, there are lots of horses out there like you describe, with baggage from bad handling. These horses will turn around dramatically, in the right hands with a trainer that is competent, clear, consistent and kind.
One final thought has to do with asking the horse to canter on a 22′ line. This is an awfully small circle for a horse to execute at a slow and balanced canter; it would be less than a 15-meter circle. There are some articles in the Training Library on my website that detail my opinion of cantering a horse (unmounted) in a round pen, which is closer to a 20 meter circle. For most young horses and for all un-athletic horses, this is very difficult, even when they are at liberty. A much smaller circle and the interference from the human on the other end of the rope make it hard for the most athletic of horses to canter, especially if they are untrained. In my experience, you are more likely to cause balance problems with the horse or problems with its purity of gait by working at the lope on a line or in the round pen.
I hate to pass judgment on a person when I have not personally witnessed the event, however, since I have known you for some time and know that you are an astute student of horsemanship, I am taking your descriptions of the event at face value, and it does not seem like the horse left the training session a better trained horse.
I have a two-year-old mare that’s an eager learner and wants to spend time with me. She readily approaches me and wants to be in on the action when I work with other horses. It’s been snowy and icy here so I have not had the opportunity to do the groundwork I usually do with her. So today I spent time brushing and cleaning her up and I took her for a walk. When I brought her back, I let her loose while I was grooming another horse—a gelding I am bonded to and have worked with for many years. While I was grooming him, the mare put her head on his back and placed her nose on his hoof. I continuously backed her off and returned to grooming. Then she nipped at my arm. To my surprise, I hit her and said “no.” I’m embarrassed to admit what came automatically. How do I teach her to not to interfere when I work on another horse and how to I teach her not to bite to get my attention?
Sick of Envy
Dear Sick of Envy,
First of all, give yourself a break for your reaction to your mare’s nip. You followed your instincts and acted much like a dominant horse would in the same situation. Think about what would happen in the natural herd setting if a subordinate horse bit a dominant one. The dominant horse immediately restates his or her position by biting, kicking and even running the subordinate horse away. Your reaction matches what would have happened naturally—and shows your reflexes are working! When a horse bites or nips she is challenging your dominance and he needs to be immediately and firmly corrected. You’re keeping yourself safe by teaching your horse you’re in charge and won’t put up with aggressive moves.
While we’re talking about safety, I think the scene you described may not be the safest way to teach your young horse or the safest place to groom your older horse. With one horse tied and the other loose in the same area, you’re inviting trouble. There’s no question that this is dangerous—I once saw a person get killed in a similar situation. I’m guessing that the older gelding is dominant over the mare. When he’s tied and can’t react like he usually would, the young mare may find it tempting to challenge him. Tie them both up or move the horse you’re working with to a separate area where you can’t be bothered. If you tie your mare, she’ll learn to stand patiently at the same time you are working on the other horse.
Now lets talk more about horses and jealousy. Horses are emotional animals with feelings more simplistic, but similar to humans’. Horses can certainly be jealous. Some of the behaviors you describe indicate that this horse is jealous of the attention you pay to your older horse. Horses can become very possessive over another horse and will sometimes go to great lengths to keep that horse from interacting with other horses. You may see a horse in the pasture or turnout herding another horse to keep it away from the others and he may even make threatening gestures and aggressive actions towards the others to keep them away from “his” horse. It is always helpful to understand how horses interact in the herd so you know the origins of their behavior and how you fit into the mix. You definitely don’t want your horse to treat you like another horse and you don’t want to be one of your horse’s possessions.
Even though it is pleasing to us when our horses want our attention and interaction, you must be very careful not to give the impression to this filly that she can control your actions and gain your attention any time she wants. Be very clear about not letting her invade your space and do not let her prompt you into giving her attention and learn that she can control your actions.
To start your anti-jealousy training, make sure you only give your mare attention when you choose. In other words, make sure not to give attention when she’s seeking it, but only when she’s calm and relaxed. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Horses will try to get your negative attention if they can–by acting up then causing you to come to them to provide discipline. Even though it’s negative attention, the horse is still in control when she nips, kicks, paws, chews, etc. in an attempt to get a reaction from you. For example, if I have a horse tied and I am doing something with another horse, the first horse may paw in impatience and frustration. If I go over to her and reprimand her, she has successfully won my attention—getting me to stop what I’m doing and move into her space. She’s controlling my actions. The best thing to do is ignore her behavior; it will eventually go away.
Your filly sounds very gregarious and that is a great quality. Just don’t let that turn into her being pushy. Biting is the most dominant behavior of horses and you need to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak.
Question: I am buying a 3 month old colt that I would like to remain/turn into a stallion. I would like to teach him to be well mannered and to give specific commands for breeding, so he does not associate breeding with every mare he comes into contact with. He may anyway, but if there is a way or a system that you know of, please let me know. I know of a couple stallions that are crazy and I don’t want to regret leaving him au natural! I also want a recommendation on whether to keep him totally separate from all horses, or if being around his own little herd will help.
Answer: There are several things you can do with your colt to make sure he remains a well-mannered stallion. First of all, let me say that in my opinion, there is no excuse for a poorly behaved stallion, other than poor training and handling. There are many breeding stallions that are just as well behaved, if not better, than the average gelding. It is simple a matter of training and discipline. Socializing a young colt with other horses is VERY important. He should be turned out or housed with other geldings as much as possible. You cannot allow him to hang out with fillies or mares, from the time he is a yearling on, because he can and will breed mares. But if he is stabled with other geldings from the time he is a yearling on, he will be much happier and better socialized to herd behavior. I would highly recommend this plan if it is an option.
Some older breeding stallions may not tolerate geldings well, but many will remain “gelding friendly” throughout their lives. As for breeding, first off, I would recommend NOT breeding him until he is 3 or 4. Sometimes breeders will do “test” breedings of a young stallion as a 2 or 3 year old and breed to one or two mares. Just remember that he is still a youngster and needs to focus on his performance training during this time. Once he goes to the breeding barn, his priorities will change. Breeding takes a lot out of a horse physically and it will be tough to focus on his training. It has also been researched and proven that the foals produced from very young or very old stallions (and mares) are not their best get.
When you do start breeding him, it is critical that everything associated with breeding is completely different and separate from the other parts of his life. For example, you use a totally different halter, have a separate area for breeding and teasing and have a different set of rules for handling him when he is breeding (behaviors that you would otherwise disallow, like hollering and squealing, nipping and strutting, sniffing and fondling mares are acceptable when courting a mare). When he is going out of his pen for training purposes, he should not even be allowed to turn his head to look in the direction of a mare without receiving a correction from you. Breeding stallions learn very quickly that putting on the one halter means we are going to work at the training barn now, while the other halter means, yee-haw! We’re headed for the breeding shed! Many breeders use a halter bit in their breeding halter, which not only gives you a better handle on the horse, but makes it even more clear to the horse that this is the breeding halter, not the training one. As your colt matures into a stallion, he will naturally become more dominant and possibly aggressive (if this is tolerated).
It is important to maintain strict discipline and make sure that the person handling him is dominant. Behaviors such as biting are very common in breeding stallions, but this vice will only develop if his handler tolerates it. It is best to “nip in the bud” any such behaviors as a youngster. Be very firm and very disciplined with him and give him lots of training early on, so that you can fall back on this training as he matures into a stud-muffin. Lots of round-pen work and lead-line work will be beneficial in developing a relationship with your colt in which you are clearly the dominant one. Be very consistent in enforcing your behavioral rules for the colt and he will learn from an early age to follow the rules. I can tell already that your colt will turn into a very nice and well-behaved stallion. By addressing these concerns early in his life, you will give him a great start and he will turn out to be the charming young horse you want him to be. Good luck and I hope these answers have helped.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
Ask Julie Goodnight: What to Know About Rope Halters
Question: I have what’s probably a silly question…. My mare is 15 years old and I’ve never used a rope halter with her. What do I need to know to help me better understand how a rope halter works?
Answer: I wish more people would ask simple questions like this– it’s not silly, but smart! When people stop and think about what they fundamentally know (or more likely, what they do not know) they generally get a lot further with their horsemanship. There’s a lot to know about using rope halters: how they work, how they should fit, when to use them, and when NOT to use them.
I think of rope halters as a training aid-it’s a way to apply enough pressure on the horse’s face to get his attention and/or gain control. It’s a far superior tool, in my opinion and experience, than using a stud chain to control a horse because you can finesse the pressure with a rope halter. A stud chain will put constant pressure on the horse-you can make the pressure worse but you can never totally release it. With the rope halter, there’s only pressure when you manipulate the lead rope, so you have more training ability and finesse. But all rope halters are not created equally! A rope halter can be harsh or mild, depending on the diameter of the rope (thinner is harsher) and the number of knots on the noseband (more and bigger knots create more pressure)
For groundwork, I prefer to use a rope halter (my halters are specially designed for comfort, fit and effectiveness) and a long training lead—12 or 15 feet. I do not have metal buckles on my training leads because when I snap the rope, the chin knot will bump the horse in the chin (that is the pressure he feels when he is doing something wrong) and a metal buckle hitting the chin can be too much pressure for many horses (and they become afraid of the correction and quit thinking). To me it is critical that the training lead be made of the highest quality marine rope that is soft in your hands and heavy enough to have good feel so that you can make subtle movements with the rope and impact your horse.
The rope halter should always be adjusted correctly and make sure you learn how to tie the halter knot right. At the start of every groundwork clinic that I do, I spend a few moments adjusting halters and retying the knots correctly on most of the horses in the clinic. A rope halter that hangs too low can really hurt a horse’s nose and if the noseband were to sag so much that the horse could get a foot in, it could really hurt your horse.
As for the DONT’S: never turn a horse loose in a rope halter. For that matter, I wouldn’t turn a horse out in any halter but definitely not a rope halter. Generally they are made of high-tensile rope that will not break; a horse turned loose in a rope halter could catch it on something and panic and get hurt. For the same reason, I would never tie a horse in a trailer in a rope halter. You know he will get off balance at times and end up pulling on the halter—I don’t want him to have too much pressure on his face, just because he got off balance. Plus, in the trailer the horse should be outfitted in a break away halter in case of an emergency. In the trailer I want him to be safe and comfortable, so I’ll use a leather halter with sheepskin lining. Don’t use a rope halter that’s too snug—there will be constant pressure on his face so you lose the ability to release the pressure. Don’t use one that’s too big either; the noseband should not be so large that the horse could get it caught on something like his foot.
Tying a horse in a rope halter can be good training or can cause a problem if you have a horse that has a pull-back issue. We tie all our yearlings and older in a rope halter as they are learning to stand tied quietly. They learn not to pull on it because they’ll feel pressure every time they do. But if you have a horse that is already a chronic panic puller, the rope halter may make him worse by increasing his panic and fear when he pulls.
An important thing to know before you invest in a rope halter is that all ropes are not created equally and all halters are not tied correctly. With rope, you get what you pay for. Really high-quality rope that does not stretch out or break and works well in your hands is more expensive. You may have already figured this out with cheap lead ropes that break and burn your hands. Also, if not made correctly, the proportions of the halter can be off so that it never quite fits your horse’s face right—I see this a lot with home-made rope halters. As with most equipment that you buy for horses, it is best to stay away from the really cheap stuff.
Of course, the real benefit from rope halters is in the training techniques you use to teach your horse obedience and ground manners. Once you invest in a good rope halter and training lead, use my video, Leadline Leadership, to learn specific training techniques and exercises to teach your horse to stand quietly, walk and trot off your body cues, back, circle and change directions so that he becomes focused on you as his leader. Thanks for asking a great question!
Horse Master How To
“Get it Straight” Helping a frustrated rider find the right bit and cue her horse to move straight ahead
By Julie Goodnight
In the Horse Master episode we named “Get it Straight,” master bit maker, Dale Myler, joined me to help a horse and her frustrated rider move ahead with relaxation—and without a constant fight as the horse yanked the reins out of the rider’s hands. The show, featuring Julianne and her horse “Cherokee,” was named in part because Cherokee took any bit pressure as a cue to turn her head and move into a circle; it was also named to allude to the mishmash of information available about bits and bitting. As the Mylers like to say, “Help a horse be relaxed first and he can focus on what you’re asking.” If a bit is too big or has pressure points that interfere with the horse’s ability to swallow, the horse can’t relax and can’t easily focus on what the rider wants. While choosing to ride with no bit is an answer for some, the truth is that a kind and thoughtfully-created bit can provide you with a chance to cue your horse precisely for advanced maneuvers. Not all bits are bad, but it’s time to “Get it Straight.”
Types of Bits
There are two main types of bits–snaffles (direct pressure) and curbs (leverage bits). You may think that a snaffle bit is automatically mild and a curb bit is automatically harsh. Nothing can be further from the truth. There are many incredibly harsh snaffles on the market and there are very mild curbs.
In a snaffle bit, the reins are attached directly opposite the mouthpiece and cause a direct (pound-for-pound) pull on the horse’s mouth from the rider’s hands. A leverage bit has shanks (bars running alongside the horse’s mouth) and a curb strap (or chain) and the reins are attached below the mouthpiece. There isn’t direct pressure but leveraged pressure on the horse’s mouth. A curb bit can apply pressure to the horse’s lips, tongue and bars; as well as the poll, chin and palate.
A joint in the middle of the bit isn’t what makes a bit a snaffle; direct pressure, with the reins attached at the line of the mouthpiece, makes a snaffle. A bit with shanks, a traditional-styled jointed mouthpiece and a curb chain isn’t a snaffle—that bit is called a Tom Thumb and is one of the harshest bits available.
The Rider’s Hands
Many, if not most bitting problems originate with the rider’s hands. No horse wants pressure on his mouth, so he will always look for an escape from the pressure. If doing the right things (dropping his head and giving to the pressure) doesn’t get the release he is looking for, he begins to try other things, such as throwing his head up or rooting the reins. He’ll look for an answer that provides a momentary release. If he inadvertently gets a release when he is doing the wrong thing, the wrong thing becomes a learned response.
It isn’t important whether or not the bit is mild or harsh; what’s important is the way the rider uses her hands. The mildest bit in the wrong hands can be harsh and the harshest bit in the right hands can be mild. Also, changing bits will not fix a training problem with a horse. In other words, if you have a horse that’s going too fast, putting a stronger bit in his mouth will not fix the problem. Only more training will fix it. Changing to a harsher bit will often make a training problem worse because it causes the horse to feel anxious. A fast horse already has a tendency to speed up when he feels anxious, so the problem escalates.
The Horse’s Comfort
My tack room has been filled with Myler bits since they came on the market in the 1990s—and long before Dale Myler appeared on the TV show. I love them and have a tack room full of them-both snaffle and curb. They’re manufactured with the highest-quality materials, they’re ergonomically designed to fit a horse’s mouth comfortably, and they’re also designed for specific effectiveness. Myler makes a variety of but styles and each is rated for the horse’s level of training, so that your horse can move seamlessly from one bit to another as his training level increases and his needs change. The bits also come in a variety of cheek pieces—so you can choose the amount of leverage depending on who is riding and how educated the rider is about how to keep their hands quiet.
My favorite Myler bits are the comfort snaffle and the jointed curb bits. The snaffles have a curved mouthpiece, so that the bit is actually the shape of the horse’s mouth, giving him tongue and palate relief and making the bit more effective working off the corners of the mouth with the lightest possible pressure. The mouthpiece is made with sweet iron with copper inlays–giving the horse a sweet and saliva-producing taste in his mouth. I like a bit with the copper roller in the middle. I have about every level of curb bit too, for the Western horses that need to work in a curb. They’re made with the same high-quality materials and an effective shape and function.
Proper Introductions and Training
Many horses were never properly “bitted out” (taught to work in and accept a bit and understand the bit’s cues) and don’t know the correct way to respond to bit pressure. A surprisingly high number of horses were never really trained properly. Instead, well-meaning trainers stuck bits in their mouths and forceful pressure made the horses respond. A horse must be systematically trained to know what to do when he feels pressure on the bit and how to give both laterally and longitudinally (vertically) when he feels pressure. (I describe this process fully on my Bit Basics DVD available at www.JulieGoodnight.com.) Many older horses that fight the bit have become desensitized to bit pressure because their riders pulled too much. It’s common for horses to come “untrained” because of poor riding when they become defensive about their mouths because they never felt a release of pressure when they cooperated.
Many horses who have learned to ignore bit pressure—or who never learned how to respond in the first place—can learn quickly in the Goodnight Bitting System. The piece of tack, commonly called an elbow-pull biting rig teaches the horse to give longitudinally to the bit and be soft in the mouth and jaw. Without a rider on board and while working in a round pen, the horse gets an instant release when he places his head in the optimum self-carriage position. With his new learning in place, horses can more quickly understand an educated rider’s rein cues and move ahead without fighting and without confusion. It’s also important to do lateral flexes until the horse gives to the side, and then start over from the saddle teaching him to give to light pressure both vertically and laterally and find the release.
Good luck finding the correct bit for you and your horse—and keep in mind that you, the rider, have just as much to do with what bit will work best as what the horse is used to and most comfortable feeling. For more precise answers to your bitting questions, check out Dale’s multi-part video series online with a link at www.JulieGoodnight.com and visit the Myler’s online bitting questionnaire and guide at: http://mylerbits.com/bitting_assistant.php