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Julie Goodnight: Curing a Horse From Being Tense on the Trail Starts with the Rider

Does your horse ever act tense and fearful on the trail? Julie Goodnight answers one reader’s question about what to do, and the answer, below, may surprise you (hint: this may be more of a rider issue than a horse issue). She also offers some specific things you can do with your horse to calm him down.

Goodnight's Guide to Great Trail RidingAnd if you trail ride now or are thinking about starting,  I can happily recommend Julie Goodnight’s all-encompassing book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding-a How-to for You and Your Horse,  available for $29.95 from HorseBooksEtc

Everything you need to know to prepare yourself and your horse for trail riding is in this book, written by Julie Goodnight and Heidi Nyland Melocco, with photos by Heidi that demonstrate every lesson.

There is also a bonus DVD in the back of the book that is a free segment on how to teach your horse to sidepass.

The lessons in Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding include:

  • How to ride in a balanced position
  • How to handle hills
  • How to stop any horse
  • How to handle a spooky horse
  • How to cross water with confidence
  • How to ground tie

-and more! I’m given two so far to friends who could use the book (the segment about the best way to open gates will hopefully help my friend whose gelding always rushes through, and my friend whose mare hates water will hopefully make use of the water crossing chapter).

And for those of you who like to read your books electronically, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding is now available in digital form—in other words, as an e-book, through Kindle, Nook or iPad.

Now on to one reader’s problem of what to do about her tense and spooky horse on the trail, reprinted with permission from Julie’s website.

Dear Julie, 

I have an 8-year-old gelding that is very easy to work with on the ground and in the arena. He tends to become uptight, and nervous when he goes on the trail, even when he has ridden on the same trails and pastures for three years. He holds his breath and seems to be very wary of things that he has always seen. Tonight he was particularly tense. It felt as though his barrel was full of air when I got on.

Is this about me? Yes, I could sense his predisposition when I got on. He was particularly bothered tonight and we just made the same ride a few nights ago. I pay attention to my body and make sure that I am doing deep breathing, etc. There are times when he is not like this at all. He is overweight right now due to all the rain that we have been having, could that have something to do with it? He also tends to chew his bit when on a trail ride, and I know that it is a sign that he is bothered inside.

He does not appear bothered when you catch him or work with him on the ground. Often, you need to bring his life up. I know that he is holding back in some way, but do not know how to free him up. I would appreciate any suggestions.

Thank you, Carol



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

Obviously your horse likes the comfort and security of being in the arena and around the barn in confined areas and does not feel comfortable out of those very controlled settings. Since horses are prey animals that live in herds, he is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of the animals around him; this is an important survival skill for prey animals.

When you go out on your own, out of his comfort zone, this behavior is compounded and he becomes even more reactive to the animals and emotions around him.

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

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

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

We have a horse in training right now that is very spooky, reluctant and balky out on trail with its owner. However, for both Twyla and me (Twyla has trained horses with me for many years and is now my Business Manager), he is steady, relaxed, willing and obedient and we have only had him in training for one week. Part of the problem is engrained disobedience and part of it relates to the confidence and leadership of the rider. We expect the horse to behave, insist upon it really, and we expect him to go down the road like a horse should; and that is indeed what he does.

However, he does not yet have that much faith in his owner, and she does not yet have that much faith him (yes, those two things are very connected), but things are improving as 1) the horse becomes more habituated to being an obedient, subordinate horse, and 2) the owner recognizes that her horse can indeed be a good citizen.

You may want to consider putting the horse in training to work through this issue and get some miles on him going down the trail. That could help both of you to be more confident.

Doing lots of meaningful groundwork that results in a more confident, relaxed and subordinate horse is always a good thing to do and should help your situation. You also need to teach your horse a calm down cue. We teach most horses that come into our barn, and all horses that are nervous and high strung, to drop their head to the ground whenever we ask, either from the ground or from the saddle.

Start on the ground with a rope halter and simply put gentle down pressure from the chin knot, watching the horse’s head very closely so that you can release at the first sign of the head dropping. At first, you must release when the head moves down just a fraction of an inch; as the horse comes to understand what you want and what will get him the release, you can hold the pressure a little longer so the head comes down lower. The first few inches of head drop are harder to get, but in short order, the horse’s head will drop all the way to the ground.

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

Teaching the horse to drop his head from the saddle is a little more difficult but if you have him well trained from the ground, it is much easier. You’ll pick up (not back) on ONE rein (not two) and repeat the steps above, releasing as soon as the horse even thinks about dropping his head. Then pick up the rein again until the horse makes the connection that lowering his head makes the rein pressure go away. Soon he should be happy to go to “the closet” and stay there when you pick up one rein. Remember, you’ll have to release the reins to let him drop. If you ask him to lower his head and he does, but then hits the bit, you have punished him for doing what you asked him to do.

By the way, pulling on two reins will always make the horse more anxious because now he is worried about his mouth, too, and that makes him a whole lot more scared. That is a real common way the rider contributes to the horse’s fear when he becomes spooky.

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

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

Good luck and be careful.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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