Work Ethic: How Your Determination (And Your Horse’s Consistent Work) Leads To Dreams Fulfilled

A strong work ethic ensures an individual’s success—for both horses and humans. Whether you are bussing dishes or doing brain surgery, a good work ethic will make a difference in the rewards you reap and how far you will go in your career. For horses, it is no different.

Horses do better when they are gainfully employed and regularly worked—useful, fit, skilled and purposeful; healthy and gratified, they would even show up for work on their day off if you asked. Like humans, when horses are instilled with a strong work ethic from an early age, they strive to work hard and reap the rewards of a purposeful career and their individual talent is developed to its fullest potential.

I’ve never known anyone that was inherently lazy to be successful with horses—it’s a lot of hard work! If you have horses at home or have been in charge of a stable full of four-legged friends, you know that working with horses is a dusk to dawn, seven day a week job. Holidays don’t matter; horses still have to be fed.

The Human Drive

I’ve known the importance of a strong work ethic since I first started my career–over 30 years ago. The importance is magnified when you work for yourself. Working with horses is the only job I know of where you normally work six days a week–but you only get a day off if you pay someone to cover for you.

I first started into business as a young, independent trainer, starting with an initial capital investment of zero. I opened my doors with a dozen or so horses in my barn. Some were boarded, some in for full training, but they all had big mouths to feed. It was during that time that I worked the hardest—but also learned so much.

I was going through a ton of hay per week but I couldn’t afford to buy in bulk or get it delivered. So every Saturday I would coax a friend to come with me to help stack 30 bales precariously on my over-loaded truck, drive it back to the barn and unload it. I went through a lot of friends.

It was a year before I could afford to start buying hay by the semi-load and from that point forward, I vowed to always get my hay delivered and stacked, no matter how much more it cost– a promise to myself that I have kept. The horse business entails a lot of hard work, dedication and persistence but the rewards are great.

I am one of four siblings and all of us are blessed with strong work ethics. I’ve long known that a huge part of my success being self-employed, has to do with my work ethic and I’ve often wondered what is it about our upbringing or genetics that has led us all to this trait?  We were raised on a horse farm where we knew that lives depended on the chores we were assigned to do. We were taught from an early age that there was time for play, but that taking care of the animals came first.

Within the chores we had to do, we knew there were consequences for not doing the job correctly. If a gate was left open, horses were in danger of getting loose (and they did). If a gate that should have been open was closed, a horse may not have access to water (thankfully no one died).

We saw our own parents have dreams and business goals that they regularly tended and saw through to fruition. There’s no one parenting strategy I can point out, but I know a combination of teaching showed me that there was a benefit to my hard work. My parents taught us that we should love what we do and enjoy life to its fullest every day and that if we wanted something, no matter how far-fetched, it was within our power to make it happen, even though it may take a while. And that fairness and a sense of objectivity are very important in all matters.

As parents, we think about these things—how do you help a child learn a good work ethic in today’s culture of instant gratification and risk-averse attitudes? I believe teaching young humans about horses is one step we can take to keep the term “strong work ethic” in the vernacular. I am a huge fan of the “Time to Ride” initiative, http://timetoride.com/ designed to help introduce horses to the younger generations. Not only is it critical for the growth of our industry, but it is important to our youth because of the life skills that working with horses brings.

Horses and Work Ethic

While we as humans need to be dedicated to our horses and have a strong work ethic for our riding and horse goals to flourish, it’s also important to think of the horse’s work ethic. While horses definitely need turnout time to “just be horses,” I have found that most horses do better when they have regular and purposeful work.

In my long and varied career training horses, I have found that it is best to teach a work ethic when a horse is young, just like teaching a toddler to pick up his toys. A mature horse that has never been worked is a challenge to train– like training a 30 year old man, who had never had a job, cooked a meal or picked up his dirty clothes off the floor in his life to be a good husband. Sure, it’s possible, but brace yourself because you may be in for some resistance.

Learning a good work ethic starts with learning good manners and how to follow the rules—that you will be rewarded for compliance and that noncompliance will not be tolerated. This is kindergarten for horses. Well before a horse is started under-saddle, he should learn to respect authority, be careful not to infringe on his handler’s space and to look for the cues that tell him what he should do. As a yearling and 2 year old, he’ll also learn to stand and wait patiently while tied, knowing full-well that he could be there all day, so best make yourself comfortable. Patience and stick-to-it-ness is a virtue.

As the young horse progresses toward being ridden, at some point he must learn the cold, hard facts about working for a living—that sometimes he has to work when he doesn’t feel like it, to do what he’s told and to meet certain expectations that his job requires. But that he will always be rewarded for his efforts.

This is easily taught to the horse while doing ground work and the horse learns to go where you direct him without argument, at the speed you dictate, until you tell him to stop. I can teach this on the lead line in one session by setting rules and boundaries for the horse—you cannot get in front of me, you cannot crowd me with your shoulder, and you cannot drag behind me like an anchor. That there are rules I expect to be followed, ramifications if you don’t and comfort when you do. That it is your responsibility to know and follow the rules and I won’t remind you or count to three. Oddly enough, horses learn these things quickly and they take great comfort in knowing the rules.

When we advance to the round pen or circling on a long line, I’ll teach the horse that I expect a ‘yes mam’ response when I ask him to step out and that he should keep going until I ask him to stop. This is a critical stage in training a work ethic, both on the ground and in the saddle—a horse must learn that once I tell him to do something (like trot at this speed), he must continue on his own (without prodding, pleading or pedaling) until I give him the signal to stop. I run across horses every day in my clinics that have never learned this lesson (or actually been taught the opposite) and stop or take off whenever they want.

By nature, horses are an incredibly impulsive species. Take the flight response, for example—clearly a react-first, think-later behavior. Imagine if horses could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted while you were riding them. Lazy horses would go nowhere and do nothing. Energetic horses would go faster and faster. Nervous horses would spin and bolt whenever their fancy struck them. A cranky horse might kick or bite you just for getting in his way or break in two bucking at the slightest provocation.

 

Horses and Humans

No matter what their default behavior type, all horses can learn to work and it is critical to their success—be it a world champion or the best trail horse ever. Learning a good work ethic and that there are rules to follow, ramifications if we don’t and certain expectations of our behavior, is a critical stage of training in horses and humans both—best taught at an early age! It’s also about learning the great satisfaction and reward that comes with working hard and a job well done. Even if I have to stack a ton of hay again someday, I know I’d be satisfied when I was finished at the tightness of the stack and the good workout I got!

Horse Shopping 101

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Horse Shopping 101
I am getting an increasing number of inquiries from people looking for a new horse. So it is with no small amount of forethought that we did a Horse Master episode featuring a young woman looking to find her dream horse. She also happens to be a riding instructor and in that role she finds herself looking at horses for others as well—either a horse for a client or a school horse for the program where she is employed and the episode is about the horse buying process. (Tip: Visit http://www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/ to see a clip of Shop ‘Til You Drop or http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com to purchase a DVD of the episode.)

I love shopping for horses—one significant reason behind the sale horse side of my business. I just love the hunt for a good horse and I love finding the perfect owner for that horse as well. In this case, the buyer is looking for an all-around horse that she can do just about anything on—trail, arena, pleasure—but she also has a hankering for cowhorse events. Whatever your desires, it is first and foremost important that you decide what your goals are because it is critical that the horse matches those goals, particularly when it comes to cowhorse disciplines. Not just any horse is suited for that.

Next, it is important that you spend some time thinking about how much money you can spend and that you have an appreciation for how much horse that will buy you (consider looking at a few horses above your limit so you have a realistic frame of reference). You should stretch your limits here as much as possible, keeping in mind the old axiom—the purchase price is the cheapest amount of money you will spend on your horse. You can always BUY training cheaper than you can put it on a horse, so don’t get sucked into the mistake so many people make in buying a young, green horse. His board, health maintenance, farrier, etc., will far exceed the purchase price in a short time so spend as much as you can up front to get the best trained horse you can (but only if the horse is worth it).

I wish I had a dollar for all the people I have met that made the mistake of buying a young, green horse. I’d be retired by now. Some survive this mistake and eventually end up with a decent horse; some don’t. You know the saying: green plus green equals black and blue. But even if you are not a novice rider and you have the capability to train a horse, do you really want to spend your precious time at that? Do you really want months and even years to elapse before you can attain your goals? Or do you want to begin enjoying your horse tomorrow at a level that you’ve dreamed of? I wonder how many of you have bought a green horse and regretted it and how many of you have had success with that youngster?

Currently we are in a buyer’s market, thanks to the recession and the glut of unwanted horses. While the economy has not greatly affected the high-end horse market, it has impacted the mid and low range horse market. The horse you would have paid $10,000 for a few years ago, you may now get for $7500—so it’s a great time to parlay your money into more horse, no matter what price range you are in.

In the end, you should spend your money on training and temperament. Conformation follows closely as a must-have because it has a bearing on performance, soundness and longevity. For my sales program, I rarely look at a horse under 10 years old to buy. I try to find those “cream puff” horses that are safe, solid and fun to own and ride. To have the experience, training and seasoning they need to be a solid, “bomb proof” kind of horse, they need some age on them. No matter how well trained that 4 year old is, he cannot have the life-experience he needs to be a sure bet. It’s amazing how quickly training can be un-done in a young horse, or any horse for that matter. I get emails on a daily basis from someone who bought a horse that seemed very well trained when they looked at it (or they took the word of the seller that he was well trained) and a month later the horse has major problems. Have you had this experience? I cannot always fault the seller because any horse can become untrained quickly with mishandling—here’s where temperament comes in.

Depending on your goals and pursuits, breeding (pedigree and type) can also be a big factor. If your ultimate goal includes endurance racing in the Tevis Cup, you’d be well advised to stay away from draft horses. The more specific and more demanding your riding goals, the more important breeding and training is. The frustration of an unsuitable horse and/or a poorly trained horse trying to do something he’s not ready for or capable of is real for both horse and rider. We do horses a huge disservice trying to make them into something they are incapable of or asking more of them than their training allows.

If you are currently in the market for a new equine partner, where are you looking? Where have you found the greatest success? Word of mouth? Classified ads? Internet? Trainers? Has it been frustrating and impossible or easy and successful? How many near-perfect horses flunked the pre-purchase vet exam before you found the right horse? Was the horse you bought everything you thought he’d be or did you find holes in him after you got to know him? It is certainly not an exact science and to some extent, being in the right place at the right time is priceless, when it comes to finding the perfect horse. The best horses don’t stay on the market for long. But the more you know, the easier the buying process is to navigate.

If you’re in the market for a new horse this spring—good luck! And there’s even more advice on my new Buyer’s Guide. Search for “buyers” on the search page.

Until next time,
–Julie Goodnight

Teaching Young Horse Collection

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight: How do I teach my young horse to collect?

Dear Julie,
Firstly, let me tell you that I appreciate very much your website and information! Thank you!
My question is: I have a 3 yr old gelding Welsh Cob, just under saddle and I am trying to find the way how to ask him to loosen in the movement. It is ok for him to loose when we are standing (asking to turn the head to me and then he puts it down) but I have no clue how to proceed in movement. I either can’t keep him moving or he keeps moving but I can’t find any reaction for the head to go down. Do you have any suggestion for us?
Best regards from the heart of Europe,
Karola (in Prague)

Answer: Karola,
Thanks for visiting my website and it is good to know I have followers from so far away! You’ll be happy to know that my TV show, Horse Master, is playing in a few countries in Europe now through RuralTV, so maybe it will be available in Prague soon!

I am assuming that what you mean by getting your horse loose, is to have him break at the poll and round his neck and back, while staying soft and relaxed throughout his body, so that his movement is rhythmic and fluid; with a rounded frame, rather than arched and stiff through the top-line. It sounds like you are able to ask your horse to flex laterally (side to side) and vertically (drop his head down as chin comes in and face comes to vertical) when you are standing still, but not while moving.

First, it is important to understand that for young horses that do not have much training, forward movement is the most critical thing to focus on. Breaking at the poll and rounding through the body (collection) come later as the horse develops physically and mentally. The horse’s conformation and natural carriage also play a big role in how easy it is to round his frame and carry himself and the rider this way. Usually Welsh cobs are built well enough in the front end for collection, with a rounded neck and an upright head carriage.

Focus first on just getting good forward, fluid movement from your horse without asking him to give to bit pressure and flex vertically. Then you can start asking him to gradually round his frame just a little at a time. Continue to work on lateral and vertical flexion standing still, then at the walk, then at the trot. If your horse is having trouble keeping his forward impulsion when you are asking him to round, you may be asking for too much too fast and may need to go back to basic training with a focus on forward movement. Make sure he learns to carry himself in the rounded frame and does not become reliant on you holding him up with the reins.

There are several articles in my training library that can help you with your youngster and I have two videos that could help. One is volume 5 in my riding series called “Collection and Refinement.” It elaborates on the mechanics of collection and how to use your aids to ask for it (as well as for lateral movements like leg yield and side pass). Also, my video called “Bit Basics” explains the process of teaching a horse to relax, drop his head and round his frame in response to bit pressure.

I hope this helps! Good luck with your gelding.

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Teaching Babies Not To Bite

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Babies, Don’t Bite!
Babies like to have their mouths on everything. But the behavior that helps them learn to nurse and get nourishment can become annoying and even dangerous if allowed to continue past the first months of life. Lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) and eventually leads to biting. These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the young horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries to see if he can gain dominance over you.
It has been my experience that horse owners escalate the behaviors by allowing their horses to enter their personal space. By nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time, the horse begins to think that the lipping behavior is acceptable and continues. Another common action that leads to nipping/biting is when you hand feed treats to horses. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you will be the dominant leader and one of you will be the subordinate follower. If you were dominant in his mind, he would not dare move into your space or put his lips or teeth on you.

Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the resources of the herd (food and water) and by controlling the space of the subordinate members (running them off, pushing them around). If you allow your horse to move into your space at all, it confuses the dominant-subordinate relationship. Horses are much more aware of spatial issues than humans are. When we get horses in training here at my barn, whether youngsters or older horses, one of the first rules of behavior they will learn is to never move into our space with any part of their body, including the nose. Most people constantly allow their horses to move into their space especially with its nose. In fact, it is often encouraged by feeding treats or by playing with the horse’s nose. All of these actions confuse the horse and make him think he is dominant.

With youngsters, it’s important for you as the handler to establish what distance is allowed and what’s too close. Do not stand close to your horse’s face or pet him on the face and do not allow him to move his nose toward you at all while you are working around him. Every time he moves his nose toward you, correct him by poking a finger in his cheek or just pointing at his nose until he puts it back to its proper place, in front of his chest. I’m not advocating pain at all, but a correction similar to what another horse would do to say he wasn’t pleased with the behavior. If you establish this basic rule (your nose must stay in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn this important ground manner quickly. Also, any time any other part of his body moves toward you, back him out of your space. This will help him to learn a respectful distance and to be respectful of your space as the dominant herd member.

When the colt reaches out to nip or bite, you should instantly correct him. This correction must come instantly without any pause at all on your part. The optimal time for a correction is one-half second after the behavior, in order for a strong association between the behavior and the correction to be made by the horse. There is a 3 second window of opportunity within which to reward or correct a horse, but the sooner in that 3 seconds the correction or reward occurs, the more meaningful it is to the horse, and the optimal time is one half second.
If you are leery of poking the horse in the cheek, then you can give him a pinch on his neck, to simulate the alpha horse biting him. Take your thumb and index finger and give him a hard squeeze at the base of his neck muscle. Wrap your fingers around several inches of the big strapping muscle that defines the bottom line of his neck and then give a quick sharp squeeze. This will give him quite a shock and simulates biting. It gives him a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. Your timely and appropriate response will teach him manners instead of allowing the behavior to escalate and possibly become dangerous. A horse that bites is dangerous and you don’t want the baby you love to be exiled or kept away from horses and humans in the future.
I want to reinforce the fact that as likely as not, the human is the one that has made the horse nippy by crowding his space, playing with his mouth, feeding treats and allowing the horse to push him around. So make sure that you correct your behavior too, if necessary, so as not to encourage the horse to be disrespectful.
–Julie Goodnight