Winter, Barns and Space Heaters

Winter, Barns and Space Heaters

When winter arrives, the need / desire to keep warm becomes important. However, there’s one way of staying warm that bothers me….space heaters. We’ve all used them…..and many people use them in their barn’s tack room, bathroom, or lounge.

Every year structures burn down in the winter due to electrical fires and often the cause of the electrical fire is a space heater. In the majority of the cases, the cord of a space heater burned through right where it connects to the plug. That is the weakest point in a space heater (when unplugging one, always pull on the plug itself….not on the cord!).

Every winter, we hear of people and animals dying in structure fires, so I’d like to address some safety concerns that are often overlooked or unknown by many people.

One concern is the false sense of security people can get from plugging a space heater into a GFCI outlet (Ground Fault Circuit Interruptor). These are the ones you most often find near kitchen and bathroom counters, in the garage, and outdoors. They are designed to prevent a person from being electrocuted in case the power shorts against the frame of whatever they’re using, and they work well for that. However, they sense a problem from ground to hot….but not from neutral to hot (in all outlets, there are two slots….the bigger one is neutral and the smaller is hot….but there is a third round hole below or sometimes above these slots….that one is ground). It’s not unusual for a fire to get started with the space heater plugged into the bathroom GFCI outlet and it did not trip because many space heaters do not have a ground (third) prong. Imagine how much chance of a fire there is in barns with dust, dirt, spiderwebs, bugs and all built up in and around wiring and plugs? Yet a GFCI will not protect a space heater from shorting.

There is a solution for this, although it could be a bit pricey (still, how much is your life or your horse’s life worth?). Any electrician can install what is called an AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interruptor) at the breaker panel to protect any circuit where a space heater may be plugged in. The cost of the breaker is usually around $35 – $40 U.S., plus the cost of installation. These will sense any arc between hot and neutral and will trip instantly (turn power off), and they can be used in conjunction with GFCI outlets. In other words, an AFCI breaker could be installed to protect a circuit which has GFCI outlets on it. It does not interfere with the GFCI at all.

NEVER, NEVER go to sleep with a space heater running in the barn, and never leave your barn with a space heater running. Of course, they should also not be used near anything flammable (clothes, flammable liquids, etc.). Use them only when you need them, while you’re right there, and turn them off (or, better, unplug them) as soon as you’ll no longer be nearby. This is not to say they shouldn’t be used, but just that people should be aware of the potential problems with them.

One of the main things to check for in an older barn is whether it was wired with aluminum wire (instead of copper). They were done that way for a time….way back when…… Fortunately, that was finally done away with….they’re wired with copper wire now. Also, there was a time between aluminum wire and copper wire when they used copper-clad aluminum (aluminum wire with a coating of copper on it). It was a slight improvement, but not much better than aluminum. The problem is that aluminum is weak. It is more prone to breaking and burning through than copper. If you are not familiar with doing electrical work, it would be well worth it to hire a qualified electrician to check it out. In fact, insurance companies will not insure a barn wired with aluminum wire (for obvious reasons).

The weak point of any electrical circuit is where wires are spliced together. This is especially true of aluminum wires. Many barns have outlets spliced in as more horses are added and more people are around. There is a specific procedure requiring special equipment and special training in order to splice electrical wiring correctly, and some electricians can do it. They will need to go to every single place in the structure where wire is spliced and redo the splice using a special crimping tool which makes it so tight that the spliced wires become like one wire. Downside is, it’s expensive to have it done (not to mention finding someone qualified to do it).

Even if a home or barn isn’t old enough to have aluminum wiring, it still doesn’t hurt to check the circuits and connections, since they can loosen up over time; particularly in a barn where they are often not installed as securely as in a home. When that happens, they can start arcing and eventually arc so bad they could start a fire. In short, all connections should be tight and splice boxes should be checked to be sure splices aren’t working loose and starting to arc.

Another thing to watch for are old outlets which seem loose when you plug something in. If they feel too loose and plugs don’t go in good and solid, the outlet should be replaced.

Best overall way to handle it if it’s in the budget is to hire a qualified, licensed electrician to just give the place the once-over. They’ll know what to look for.

Since there are fires every winter caused directly by use of space heaters, I just feel that putting out a word of caution doesn’t hurt, especially the part about not leaving the barn with the space heater running or going to sleep with one running.

I wish everyone a comfortable and safe winter!

Spooking When Outside of the Ring

I ride a horse at a stable not to far away. Some other girls and I go trail riding alot but it doesn’t always work out to well. The main reason is that the horse I ride is often skittish and doesn’t like to do the things I ask of her. In an arena she is perfectly fine but when she sees the trails she seems to freeze up or just start spinning. What can I do to help relax her and keep her well under control? Thank you!


This can often be the symptom of a lack of confidence, both in her ability to handle the scary and unexpected, and a lack of confidence on her part in your ability to handle potentially (in her perception) harmful situations and protect her.   Most likely, she is fine in the ring because the ring is familiar and comfortable.

It’s this basic, underlying lack of confidence that you may need to address.

To do so, you will need to teach her to have more confidence in her own abilities and to have more confidence in you as her “protector.” As with most things, you will need to take time to show her. You will need to put in the effort it will take to convince her that you are her protector and one she can trust implicitly and to do this may even require a complete revamping of your relationship with her.

There are several things that you can do, depending on your situation and the availability of space and materials.

The first, easiest, most often overlooked, and yet the most important thing to consider is how you and her interact in the little, everyday activities you do with her. Things like feeding, grooming, tacking, vet care, leading and handling. In these activities, do you take time to pay attention to how she is “treating” you, or do you get in a hurry, do things out of habit, and don’t really focus on her expressions and her body language? These little, everyday things are critical to how a horse views their companion (you, in this instance). You want to make sure your leadership qualification is firmly established in your horse’s mind.

When horses interact with each other, you will notice some set procedures that they will for follow for certain situations day in and day out. For instance, when you throw out piles of hay, the dominant horse will often go from pile to pile, pushing the other horse off of that pile, taking just a bite or two from each one and moving on to the next one, until all the piles have been visited. They generally end up back where they started and everyone falls to eating. They do this without rancor, generally without aggressiveness, but with assuredness and confidence that the other horses will move off when the more dominant horse says to. Most importantly, they will do this EVERY time. These types of set routines are a comfortable equine way of showing that the leader horse is still the leader and the other horses are respecting that leadership. It’s something all of them expect and it’s done instinctively and consistently.  Therefore, you want to behave the same sort of way. When you feed, insist that your horse stand back for a minute and wait for your permission to come and eat. When you lead, insist that your horse stay at the proper distance and keep her head level with your shoulder without you needing to push and pull her to keep her there. Anytime you need to lead her somewhere, practice leading at a walk, a jog, make turns in both directions, halt and backing up. She should perform all of these things without any tugging on the rope and while maintaining proper spacing and staying level with your shoulder.  When you are grooming or tacking, insist that she stand still and not fidget or walk around. In other words, her focus should constantly be on you and on what you are doing. The herd is always, down to the very last horse, constantly aware of what the leader horse is doing and where it is. You need to have the same respect from your horse.

Now, you also will need to be able to clearly and effectively communicate your horse what you DO want her to do when she is uncertain and nervous and frightened. As with any equine communication, you cannot expect her to listen to you when she has not learned what you want, and you especially cannot expect this of her when she is frightened. With this in mind,  attach a longe line and teach her to walk past you and then halt on command. Then teach her to walk between you and a wall or fence on command and stop on command. Work on these things until she is consistently responding to the commands “walk on” and “whoa” in a variety of common situations.

Once you have your horse focused and seeing you as their leader in little everyday things and she also understands and responds to “walk on” and “whoa” you can start working on your leadership qualifications in the scary things.

Set up as many scary obstacles as you can in the area you have available. Start in the ring where she is most comfortable and set up things like strips of plastic garbage bags suspended from a line, a crinkly tarp to walk over, a large patio umbrella (you can even hang small stuffed animals from it), gaudy lawn and garden ornaments (trolls are especially effective), One very effective idea is to have a friend put on a large backpack or a rolled-up sleeping bag across their shoulders (or wrap a large blanket around their head and shoulders) and walk towards the horse without speaking.  While this may sound odd, you would be surprised how many backpackers and hikers simply do not speak when you encounter them on the trail, sometimes, not even when you ask them to say something.  Always, of course, use common sense and use good judgement on how close and/or quickly to work with each new scary thing.  Use your imagination and whatever you can get your hands on that would be spooky-looking. Practice leading your horse to, past, and over these things Starting from the ground, work with leading her around these exercises, expecting the same focus and respect as always. Then, ask her to walk between you and a scary obstacle, and past you towards a scary obstacle. Remember to give lots of praise and encouragement when she does these things correctly. Your horse should learn to “whoa” when you say to, even when nervous or frightened, and should also learn to “walk on” when you say to, even when nervous or frightened.

Eventually, progress to mounting and riding up,over, through, under and around everything again, using the same “walk on” and “whoa” commands. When riding, make sure you are sitting confidently upright and with solid contact with your seat and legs. Many people, when they feel their horse getting tense, will tense up themselves and lean slightly forward which lightens their seat. To the horse, this feels as if their rider, their leader, has just left them! At the very least, it feels to them as if their rider is ready to jump off and run, too.  Instead of lightening your seat, straighten your shoulders and sit deeper, pushing” her forward with your seat and closing your legs firmly around her.
When she hesitates, tell her to “walk on” with your voice, seat and legs, and when she tries to spin away from something, tell her to “whoa,” in a confident voice (hopefully as confident as you were on the ground), stopping her with your seat and legs and reins.

When you feel confident that she and you are working well together in the arena, take her out for a very short ride along the trail. Don’t go out very far or for very long, and do go with another, confident horse. Keep things simple and easy and practice your voice commands and pay attention to how you are sitting and using your legs and seat. Once you have successfully negotiated 15 or 20 minutes, turn around and go home with lots of praise and encouragement. Work up to longer and further rides as her confidence in herself and in you grows.

Remember, you will NEVER eliminate all spooking, that’s just part and parcel of being a horse. However, you CAN reduce the number of spooks by giving her confidence in herself and in your leadership as well as teach her to control herself when she does spook; that there is no need to bolt, spin, or panic because she CAN trust you. That trust is what will give her (and you) the ability to overcome the fright quickly and proceed calmly with the ride.

Am I Overmounted?

Please help!? I’ve read many of your articles and could really use some feedback from someone experienced in teaching new and/ or intermediate riders.


– exchanging barn work for riding time @ stable where sales, not lessons, are the focus

– am on my own (but not riding alone) where riding practice/ development are concerned

– reading voraciously btwn weekly rides in an effort to focus practice time/ better my skills

– lessons not possible ’til autumn 2005

– receiving occasional pointers + general supervision from barn staff

– thrilled about the chance to ride again and throwing myself into it happily and whole-heartedly : ) I’ve ridden before but years ago. I’d place myself at the high-beginner or bottom-rung-of-intermediate level in terms of awareness and use of basic seat, aids and general horsemanship. I’m in my early 30’s; confident and fit but definitely less willing to take risks I may have taken as a teen, when bones healed up better.


I can ride a number of quiet, old horses at the barn but have been working lots with a tall, forward mare. Well-schooled in terms of her aids, she’s sensitive, intelligent and energetic; very forward but also quite headstrong. Allowed too much down time between rides and work in the arena, I think she’s developing some bad habits and tricks to avoid being worked- and controlled, at all. That said, she can be a joy to ride and I come away from most practices having learned a great deal. I want to continue working with her but I also don’t want to hurt myself or to shake my newly emerging confidence with an unnecessary and punishing fall. So… how does one know when one is over-mounting??? What principles can I use to judge whether I’m on a horse pushing me (positively) forward at the top end of my skill level or on a horse that’s pushing me into unsafe territory?


1. This mare bucked thrice under me in arena practice last month. I stayed on and worked in circles ’til I had her head again. We worked well together in control and collection for a further 40min. that day.

2. She refused to slow from a fast, off-the-bit canter in the snow two weeks ago. Having read your article, I know my aids weren’t all in agreement and she chose flying around the outdoor arena over paying me any heed. I panicked a little, and tensed up, which then compromised my seat and scared me. She slowed when I asked much harder. I finished w/ something simple and direct that I knew I could expect her to do in order to end the ride on a good note for both of us.

3. She’s been dancing at the mount; refusing to stand still. I’ve learned to collect the outside rein which forces her movement to carry me into the saddle but her behaviour is unmannerly and speaks to a larger issue of respect, I think. How can I teach her to stand quietly for me when I mount? Resorting to tricks doesn’t seem a great idea.

I don’t want to get hurt but I don’t want to avoid the challenges of riding either. I really want to improve. I’ve thought about working with this mare from the ground, in complement to riding.

P.S. The horse has also frequently been lunged under saddle, during which she’s allowed to buck her “sillies” out, just before a ride. I’ll be asking other staff not to do this anymore. It’s probably not helping things… : )


If you are having feelings of nervousness that INTERFERE with riding that particular horse, I would say that is one one good indication that a person is overmounted. Of course, we all have feelings of nervousness at times about particular horses, but when overmounted, these feelings get out of control to the point that a person freezes, clutches up constantly when on the horse, or, sometimes, they can become overly aggressive with that horse to compensate. On the ground, they often experience feelings of panic as they are saddling, are very quick to temper when dealing with the horse, and often find themselves coming up with perfectly logical reasons NOT to ride that horse that day. From your description, this does not sound like what you are experiencing, even when you’ve had some problems, you’ve seemed to have kept your wits and worked through it, continuing on to work some more. Bringing the horse back to an exercise or activity that you KNOW you could accomplish correctly was exactly the right thing to do. Even if you have to walk a pattern, just insisting your horse do the exercise YOUR way is getting the point across to the horse.

However, you are right to be concerned and seeking advice. One of the things that can be a very real problem in your situation is that an unsupervised, less experienced person riding a somewhat strong horse can very quickly develop bad habits that will follow them for years and can be extremely hard to get rid of. Even if that person is not particularly afraid of the horse, these habits develop because the rider becomes a “defensive” rider. To guard against this, you could video tape yourself and see if a trainer would be willing to go over the tape with you at their convenience and give you some pointers. Many will do this, you just have to ask around. Or, if you feel the people at that barn are good enough riders, you could ask them if they see you doing something that should be worked on. When something is pointed out, use the older, experienced, quiet horses to practice your form, technique, or work on eliminating a bad habit.

Working with the horse on the ground and longeing would be a great help to both you and the horse, so do as much ground work as you can. There are many things that can be taught from the ground, not the least of which are respect and trust. You will also become much more familiar with how she reacts (both in movement and temperament), to certain situations. For instance, does her way of moving change when she is nervous or angry (do her steps get choppy and more elevated)? Does her tail swish a certain way when she is getting silly or annoyed? How does she move her head when she feels nervous or silly or excited? How does she move and hold herself when she is relaxed and happy and concentrating? When you can tell what is normal for her in different situations and you have a good idea of how she will react (does she tend to spin and bolt, or jump in place when startled, does she want to stop and look at something, or does she do better if you distract her? ect.) you will feel more confident when riding her and better able to deal with her reactions most appropriately.

The dancing around when mounting is often the first thing that the horse tries to disrespect the rider about. If you let this continue, you will begin to see other areas of disrespect, like during grooming or tacking, leading, ect. In my Article, “Training for the Trail,” there are sections that describe some great exercised for ground training. The specific ways of leading would be good exercises and there is a description of the technique I have found to be very successful for teaching a horse to stand quietly and patiently.

Here are some leading exercises that can be a lot of fun. Make obstacles in the ring using poles, barrels, tarps, rain coats, brush, whatever. Work on the horse’s head staying level at your shoulder when teaching her to work out to the side, gradually increasing the distance to the end of a lead rope. Work on the horse staying a set distance behind your back when teaching her to lead behind you and playing “follow the leader.”

Teaching her to back from the ground (if she does not know how to back) is helpful, and eventually work on it under saddle. Knowing how to back in both situations teaches the horse to have confidence and trust in you, and to “give” to you and the bit when asked. You could also work on turns on the forehand from the ground and eventually the saddle. I would not advise working on the turn on the haunches from the saddle without supervision, though, it is much more difficult for the horse to do and very easy to teach a horse to do it incorrectly. With the longeing, I, personally, have found it better to either let the horse work off the sillies on the line with just the halter and lead (using a chain over the nose if necessary) AND THEN tack up and longe for 20 minutes or so to be serious and work, or to let them goof around in a paddock (if they are coming out of a stall). I NEVER allow bucking when a saddle is on. I have found it to be much less “open to interpretation” to the horse if I am consistent with insisting that if that saddle and bridle is on, there is NO BUCKING, whatever the circumstances or the work is. If you feel she is too silly to work yet, then longe with only the halter and chain until she settles, then tack up and WORK on the longeline. The more ground work you do with her, the more of a relationship you will develop with her.

Finally, pick your riding times carefully. Cold, crisp, windy days are going to make a more sensitive horse spooky and silly and flighty. Riding on days like that are probably setting yourself and the horse up for frustration and even injury. Even if you don’t come off, she could over-strain something acting silly before you could get her under control. Ground work or longeing on these days would be best. Longeing can be a great workout if you have a plan. Set up poles on the ground, changing the distances occasionally to keep her interest and make her work. Work on changing the stride within gaits from extended to collected. Work on proper balanced, quiet transitions. Make sure she is reaching nicely with her hind legs and not leaning on the bit (especially if using sidereins). If all you are going to be doing is longeing that day, you could do about an hour of it, including the warming up and cooling down. Spend the majority of the time at the walk and trot, with smaller amounts of cantering. Done properly, a good longeing session can be a real workout and extremely helpful to the horse’s manners and way of going and understanding of what you want when under saddle. And if you want to ride, ride one of the older horses.

One last thought, check into her feeding, if you haven’t already. If she is not being worked hard, she should get very little cereal grains, if any. Lots of hay and a good vitamin/mineral product. If she is a hard keeper, a fat source like beet pulp, rice bran, black oil sunflower seeds or whole flax seed is best. These will provide FAT, not ENERGY. Lots of cereal grains and sugar, like sweet feeds (added molasses) that contain corn, oats, barley provide ENERGY, not FAT, and can make it not only HARDER to keep weight on a horse, but harder for you to ride the horse.

My Horse Adds Strides to Jumps

My horse keeps adding strides when he jumps. When I try pushing him, he only goes faster and rushes the jumps. What can I do to get the right strides?

Two things will cause a horse to rush with short quick strides on approaching a jump. He has lost his balance and is scrambling to find it, or he doesn’t understand what you asking for when you want him to extend and simply speeds up his rhythm.

As with most problems over fences, this can only be fixed with greater attention to flat work. This will take some time, but to truly correct this problem, there are no shortcuts.

Several things will need to be addressed. Before a horse can change the distance of a stride, he must first know how to be rhythmic.  If your horse understands that he is to maintain an established rhythm, he will be less likely to speed up in response to the lengthening aids.  You will need to spend some time working the horse in circles and figure 8’s to as well as the outside track of the arena to establish a relaxed rhythm at the trot. Once you know the horse can maintain a cadenced beat at the trot you can begin to work on changing the length of the stride. At this point, it must be understood by the rider that the majority of the pace control comes from the rider’s back. Not the reins. Trying to control the length of stride by pulling on the reins will only cause tension in the horse. For instance, if your horse is rushing along with quick, little steps, then you must slow the rhythm of your posting, and ask the horse to relax by a soft, gentle squeezing and releasing of the inside rein. As the horse begins to relax, his head will lower. Make sure you allow that by softening your hands and following the head. Be sure to maintain the established rhythm of trot.

Both horse and rider need to understand the aids for shortening and lengthening the strides. A horse cannot learn how to lengthen a stride while maintaining it’s balance without first knowing how to shorten and balance and respond to a half-halt, so lets look at those first.  The aids for shortening a stride are to close the fingers and hold (the rider must refrain from pulling back on the reins). The rider’s spine establishes the new rhythm, and the legs close around the horse, to maintain the desired gait.   This means one needs to consider if the horse understands the aids for a half-halt. Lengthening and shortening a stride requires a great deal of balance from the horse. A half-halt is an invaluable tool for helping the horse to balance properly as well as being a cue to make the horse aware of any upcoming changes. The rider’s aids for a half-halt are to push the horse forward with seat and legs into a fixed hand, never pulling back on the reins, simply creating a wall, for a brief moment, in front of the horse while the seat and legs drive the horse “up” the wall, resulting in a lightening of the shoulders and withers with the hindquarters and hocks more underneath the body.   Your horse must understands that the difference you want should be in the length of his stride, not the speed of the stride.

Now lets set up some exercises to teach the horse to lengthen and shorten on cue. To begin with, I will establish a steady, relaxed trot. When the horse is going nicely, I will ask for a shortening of his stride every step, until he lowers his croup and drops to a walk. After walking three to four steps, I send him back into a trot, this time asking for a longer stride every other step until his stride is as long as it can be without him losing rhythm and balance, asking for no more than 2-3 strides at this length.  The aids to lengthen the stride are to give slightly with the reins without losing contact so that the horse may extend his body and stretch, allowing his stride to lengthen, while sitting balanced and lightly, using the legs to create a greater degree of engagement from the horse’s hindquarters.   Asking every other stride allows the horse time to think of what you want, and time to give you the thrust you are looking for.  I have found that asking for length every stride may cause the horse to tense up and hurry, resulting in shorter, quicker steps. At this stage it is important to move continuously between the walk and the longest trot stride. Moving back and forth between these two gives the horse a definite goal that he can understand. It will also develop the strength in his topline that he needs to hold his balance. Asking the horse to get to a particular “shortness” or “length” of stride and hold it there is, at this point, too demanding, and will cause anxiety. Moving from one point to the other should take about 6-8 strides in the beginning. When the horse has become proficient at this exercise and will move smoothly and quickly from trot to walk to a large swinging trot stride and back, it is time to ask the horse to maintain a specific length of stride. I usually ask the horse to increase the number of long strides by one or two at a time because a horse that is moving forward energetically with a long, free, swinging stride will stay relaxed. Then I will ask the horse to shorten as usual, until I get to a short stride just before the walk. I will ask the horse to hold this for 3-4 steps by maintaining a somewhat more active leg than usual with firmly established posting motion and a holding hand on the reins. I will then let him drop to the walk and praise and pet him. Gradually you can add strides at the shorter step and at the longer step. When he is comfortable doing this at the trot, and can hold the shorter or longer strides for as long as you need, you can ask him to shorten and lengthen the canter strides easily.

If a student or horse has never learned to half-halt,  I teach the half-halt using the same idea and exercise as above. When the horse is listening and very relaxed, I will ask for the shortening of strides as usual, but this time, about half-way to the walk, as the horse begins to lower the quarters, I will send him right back up to his previous stride and level of energy. This is an elementary form of a half-halt. It is also done over several strides, but, from this, the movement simply needs refinement. As the horse gets physically stronger and mentally quicker, it will eventually be executed within half of a stride.

Now that your horse understands these cues and can consistently perform them, you can now use them to fix the jumping problem.

First, practice changing the number of canter strides between two points. Use two cones or letters on the rail, or even two posts. For instance, if it usually takes eight strides between those points, try to get six strides. Then try for ten. Next, place a pole on the ground and canter over it, maintaining a relaxed rhythm. Place another pole about three strides away and canter over both. If the horse is maintaining his rhythm and is staying relaxed, it is now time to set up a small crossrail. Establish a rhythmic canter both before and after the jump, gradually raising the jump to the horse’s normal working height. Now is where the flatwork training will be used. If at any time, the horse begins to drop the forehand and rush toward the jump, ask for him to rebalance by using a half-halt. When the horse works well over a single jump, it is time to add a second jump. I will usually set this second jump about 8 strides away. This gives a rider plenty of time to determine the horse’s balance and way of going upon landing from the first jump, give a half-halt if needed, and for the horse to respond. When the horse will consistently jump with a relaxed 8 strides in between, I will ask for 7 strides in between. I advise asking for a lengthening of strides and eliminating one for the first change of striding, so as not to confuse the horse and possibly lose impulsion. It’s important to count the strides to make sure the horse has actually lengthened and not just sped up the tempo. The final step is to ask the horse to shorten his strides and add a ninth stride in the line.

Many people find cavelleti work and gymnastic lines helpful now to increase the horse’s strength and agility and to encourage it to maintain rhythm and balance. These are very useful, and now that the horse understands shortening and lengthening, these exercises will be helpful in further developing and maintaining that skill.

Age Limit for Longeing a Horse

Ask The Trainer

At what age should age should you start teaching a horse to longe?

I don’t think there is any hard and fast rule as to a specific age, but there are some concerns when longeing a young horse with immature bones and joints.

Working a horse in a circular pattern such as longeing and roundpen work is very stressful on a horse’s joints and legs. Because of this, most professionals agree that any circular work with horses under the age of three should be done at a walk and slow trot only, and for no more than 10-15 minutes at a time, especially to start. Precautions should also be taken. A horse should not be longed with only a longeline attached to the head when it is first being introduced. A horse tends to “lean” on the line, torquing the body and joints. If it gets excited or frightened and runs, the horse can exert a tremendous amount of strain on the neck, back and spine as the head is pulled in and the haunches fly outward as in a game of “crack the whip.” Even if stopped quickly, this can result in injury, it doesn’t take but a second to twist or sprain something. “Free longeing” inside a round pen can also lead to injury. Though the head is not being pulled in, and the haunches do not fling outward, if the horse takes of running for some reason the bending and twisting of the legs while traveling in a circle can cause damage. splints are common injuries in these situations.

Ideally, if any longeline work with a young horse is to be done, it should first be taught inside a roundpen to protect the body with a longeline attached so to maintain control and keep the horse at a gentle walk or trot to protect the legs. As the horse grows accustomed to working on the longe line and gains experience with the signals, the amount of time can slowly be increased. Still, I personally would only longe a horse under three for no longer than 30 minutes total and at no faster than a working trot, with plenty of walking.

One last thing to consider is the horse’s mental ability to concentrate on something that requires quite a bit of physical control and ability. In my opinion, the majority of horses under the age of one do not have either the necessary mental or physical control necessary for longeline work. Its been my experience that time spent with a horse this young is much better spent on other things such as manners, leading, standing tied patiently, picking up hooves, ect.

Longeline work can be a great training tool, but care must be taken in the early stages of teaching this technique with any age horse. The younger the horse, the more cautious one must be.

Attaining a Deeper and More Balanced Seat

I feel like I need a deeper, more balanced, and relaxed seat. Are there any exercises I can do to help me attain this?


A balanced, relaxed, deep seat is dependent upon the spine being very supple and relaxed, and totally under control. There are many exercises one can do to help supple the back and get control of the back muscles. Having a supple, relaxed back is critical to staying deep in the saddle With the back relaxed, it becomes the shock absorber that takes up the motion and bounce of the horse so that the shoulders, arms, and hands may be still and quiet, allowing a more perfect communication between horse and rider. A rider’s back brings the leg aids and the rein aids together in harmony. This will encourage the horse to relax and become more accepting of the aids, allowing the horse to travel better.

To attain a better seat, first make sure that you are sitting on the seatbones, not the buttocks nor the crotch. A rider’s weight must be carried on the seatbones for proper balance. It’s easy to have a nice, deep, secure seat when the horse is standing still. When the horse begins to move, however, it’s the rider’s back is what will either allow that deep, balanced seat to continue when the horse is moving, or destroy it.

To stretch and supple the spine, there are two exercises that can be done without a horse that are very helpful: sit-ups (reaching all the way to the toes) and toe-touches (reaching as high as possible). Do these very slowly, and pause for a count of four at each position. Don’t do more than twelve of each at a time.

For mounted exercises, nothing beats riding without stirrups. There are several different ways to work on stirrup-less riding. One can ride on a longeline, in a roundpen, or simply in the arena with reins knotted in the mane (requires a well-trained horse). To supple and increase relaxation, here are a few warm-up exercises to do without stirrups. Practice these first while the horse is standing still, then do them with the horse walking. First, hold the arms straight out and twist slowly from the waist to look behind you. Move slowly but steadily, twisting as far as possible in both directions. Next, without using any hands, slowly lower yourself down to lie on the horse’s neck, and then sit up straight again. Remember do NOT use your hands. This requires one to keep the lower leg steady and in the correct position. If your leg is allowed to swing back behind you, you will find it virtually impossible to regain the upright position without using your hands to push yourself up. Concentrate on using the back muscles to bring yourself up, not squeezing with the legs. Another one that will both increase flexibility and control of the back, and control over the legs, is to reach as far down the horse’s shoulder with one hand as possible, then sit back upright. Do this on both sides. Finally, take a few minutes with the horse standing still, and roll your head around, pausing for a few seconds when your head is forward, backward and on each side. Roll your shoulders, also, until everything feels very relaxed.

Now, still without your stirrups, imagine sandbags tied to each foot, and get the horse walking. Concentrate on feeling the forward and side-to-side motion the horse has as it is walking. Hold the pommel with one hand, and ask the horse to trot a few strides quietly. Just a few strides, then back to a walk.  It’s important to imagine your legs as very heavy or with “sandbags” tied to the ankles, rather than pushing your legs down.  The idea of pushing often makes people try to force their legs down and this can cause tension.  Your seatbones will not have the correct contact if there is tension in your body, or if you try to “push” or “force” your legs down.

Remember to breathe deeply and regularly;  you would be amazed at how many people tend to hold their breath in these situations! When walking and a few steps of trotting feels comfortable, gradually ask the horse to trot for a longer distance and be more forward. As you become more relaxed and can consistently keep your legs long and “heavy,” with all of the motion of the horse being taken up in your spine, so that your seat stays firmly in the saddle, you can start to do this without holding the pommel. When the trot is mastered, move on to the canter.

A deep, secure, balanced seat requires the rider to be calm, relaxed, and in control of their body. It takes time and practice, but is one of the most critical requirements to becoming a great rider.

What is the difference between a “head set” and a “frame?”

Ask The Trainer

What is the difference between headset and frame?


There seems to be some confusion surrounding the terms, “head-set,” and “frame.” While these two terms are often used interchangeably, with many people thinking they mean the same thing, they are actually referring to two very different concepts.

The term “head-set” is heard most often in the hunter and western pleasure show industry. This term is used for judging purposes, to indicate where a horse’s head is in relation to his body. It is referring to where, in physical space, the head is, and is not in any way referring to how a horse is balancing or using the rest of his body. It is used for clarification of judging standards to indicate a horse who is calm and obedient, yet alert and capable of doing it’s job, according to it’s conformation. A horse who’s head is too low indicates dullness and lethargy, and horse who’s head is too high indicates tension and stress. One with the nose stretched too far forward would indicate resistance to the bit, and one with the nose tucked too close to the chin would indicate evasion of the bit. So for proper understanding of what a judge is looking for, these things must be put into words. For an AQHA hunter under saddle, for example, the poll should be level with, or slightly above the withers, the head position should be slightly in front of, or on, the vertical. (AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations.) Rules for other breeds are similar, with details pertaining to their specific breeds’ conformation. The term is used for a static condition, meaning that the horse’s head should always be within defined parameters.

The term “frame,” on the other hand means something entirely different. This word is used primarily in the dressage world, and refers to the horse that is being ridden in optimal balance for it’s level of training. The horse is ridden in balance, and his balance is ever changing, therefore the rider must adjust his aids constantly in order to keep the horse balanced. A “frame,” therefore, is not static at all, but constantly changing and adjusting. A frame refers to the entire horse, and is not particularly concerned with the head position, rather referring to a horse who is bringing its hocks up underneath its belly in order to support its weight on its hindquarters. This, in turn, causes the back to round up slightly, elevating the withers, which causes the poll to flex and bringing the head into the vertical position. It must also be understood that what may be considered a proper frame for one horse is not necessarily the same for another horse. What is a proper frame for each horse is dependent on that horse’s level of training and conditioning. A Grand Prix level dressage horse’s frame will be very different from a horse at training level. At any level, however, the rider asks the hind legs to be active and engaged, which results in a rounding of the front end. With horses that are beginning their training, the rider does this practically every stride. Even with advanced horses, the riders still do this, just not, perhaps, every stride. So the term “frame” does not refer to a set of defined physical parameters applicable to all horses, but, instead indicates each individual horse’s ability to balance itself and it’s rider.

Most likely, confusion arises because when a horse is properly balanced, relaxed, and accepting of the bit and aids, it’s head and neck will be placed in such a way as to help provide optimal balance. This placement is usually within the parameters defined by the term “head-set.” Therefore, many people mistakenly assume that if the horse’s head is in the “correct” position, then the horse is balanced. This is a gross misunderstanding. A horse’s head and neck can be forced into this position, and a horse can be “trained” to keep it’s head in this position for fear of punishment. But simply doing so will, in no way, magically grant the horse optimal balance. A horse can carry it’s head at a certain position and still be unbalanced, without impulsion, or engagement, of the hindquarters.  Forcing the head to stay in that position when the horse has neither the strength nor understanding to balance properly will cause it distress and resentment. It also causes undue stress and possible injury to a horse’s back and muscles because it is being forced to hold itself in a position it is not physically capable of maintaining.

Another possible cause for confusion is the appearance of a horse and rider in the upper levels of training. An upper level horse appears to be maintaining a properly balanced frame with very little effort, and very little help from the rider. This is often not what is actually happening. While a horse may be strengthened, or trained to the point where it can be put in a certain balance (frame) and stay there with no help from the rider, unfortunately, many times a rider does not take the enormous amount of time this would require. In most cases, the rider must constantly be “feeling” the horse’s balance and adjusting aids, even at upper levels. So, while this may always happening, but one of the points of upper level dressage is to make the aids as invisible as possible.

Perhaps the worst result of this misunderstanding, however, is the overuse of artificial training aids. Uneducated people will often apply a device to the horse’s head or bit that will restrict the horse head to a certain position, believing that simply having the horse “look” a certain way is the ultimate goal. These people do not even realize that the goal of all training is to help the horse attain it’s optimal balance while carrying a rider. The correct “look” is all they are after. The seem to think that because it makes the horse “look right” that it has completely fixed the problem, or completed the training. Others assume that these devices will teach the horse to balance correctly simply be limiting the movement of the front end. Many of these people are under the impression that placing the head and neck in a certain position is what causes the horse to be balanced. They don’t understand that the balance begins at the horse’s hindquarters and results in rounding the front. Used for these reasons, artificial training devices are inappropriate. The purpose of artificial training devices are to facilitate understanding during training. In the hands of an experienced trainer, with a particular horse have a specific problem, they may be of help to a trainer. But they can never be a substitute for a trainer, or a strong training program, as so many people believe.

Help with de-worming

Ask The Trainer

I’ve always had trouble de-worming my horse. He is a picky eater, and sometimes doesn’t finish his feed, so I really don’t want to use a daily feed-through de-wormer. I’m certain it’ll be wasted at times. I’ve been trying to use a paste de-wormer, but he fights me so badly. It takes me forever to get it in him, and we’re both angry by the time its done. It’s a huge battle that sometimes takes several people. He’s even lifted me off my feet! I’m desparate to find a way to get him to accept the syringe of paste de-wormer, especially now that spring is on the way! Help, please??

Most often, the horse fights because he is either frightened and defensive by you trying to force something into his mouth, or he plain finds it a weird and nasty experience and doesn’t want to do it. The solution is to show the horse that there is nothing to fear and accustom him to the procedure. Additionally, you want to him to think that this is actually a GOOD thing to do, you want him to accept it. Here’s my technique for a horse that does not like to have something pushed into his mouth, such as a paste de-wormer.

I take a carrot and stick it into the corner of the mouth as if it is a dewormer tube. I take it out, and put it back a time or two, and then give it to the horse. I do that for several days. Then I take an empty dewormer tube and fill it with pureed carrots, or applesauce, and squirt it up in the horse’s mouth like you would the dewormer. Then, I give the carrot, as usual. I do that for a few days. Then I take the the empty tube, and fill it with plain water, and squirt that in the mouth, and then give the carrot. We work on that for a few days. If you take your time, by now the horse loves the sight of that tube. Finally, I give the actual medicine, and then the carrot.

The idea is to de-sensitize the horse to the idea of sticking things in his mouth, and then to the idea of squirting things in his mouth. Squirting the water is not particularly delicious, but it is familiar and non-threatening, and at that point the horse usually switches its attention from goodies in the tube, to goodies AFTER the tube. The tube itself, and the processes of squirting has become non-threatening. Now, to the horse, it’s just an end to a means (the carrot).

Good luck!

Why does my horse cut off corners in the ring?

Ask The Trainer

I’m having a difficult time getting around a jump course. My horse always tries to cut corners, I’m always having to pull him out to the rail, and a lot of the time, he misses the jumps across the diagonal. Also, he will often wobble in between two jumps that are in line with each other, making me correct him. Even then, we will still sometimes go around the second jump. What can I do to correct these things? He seems to love to jump, and we jump single jumps with no problems. We can jump up to 2’6″ and he is very confident and relaxed over one and I know he knows how to do courses, because he was shown quite a lot before I got him, but, when I ask him to do a whole course, all we do is fight!


It sounds like the problems you are having are miscommunication problems. Several things you’ve said indicate this. Each of the problems you mention are all related, and taken together tell me you are not giving the correct aids to communicate where you want your horse to go, nor are you coordinating your aids to eliminate conflicting signals. I believe there are five aids that a rider uses to control a horse. These are: legs, seat, back, weight, and reins. Of these, the reins are the most overused, to the exclusion, sometimes, of some of the others. They must all be coordinated and in agreement with each other for effective commmunication. Aids in conflict with each other will confuse a horse.

When you say that you “pull him out to the rail,” I see some conflict going on here. In my experience, horses drift in when they are allowed to, or if they are actually encouraged to, however inadvertently, by the rider. The underlying reason and correction for both is the same. The reason the horse is allowed, or even encouraged to come in off the rail is lack of proper aids and/or conflicting aids that allows drifting or is confusing the horse. Correcting this requires the rider to coordinate all the aids in the proper manner. Learning how to keep the horse on the rail properly will put you well on your way to fixing the rest of your course problems. Lets take a moment to go over each aid and to understand how it effects the horse. I will only go into detail about using these aids for directional guidance, which is the focus of your question, since you have not indicated a need to control the horse’s rythm or gaits or impulsion.

The first thing I’d like to address is how a rider’s weight effects where a horse goes. This is, in my opinion, one of the most forgotten or ignored aids, yet it has a distinct effect on the horse’s movements. Since the rider’s weight is so seldom focused on, it usually is the aid that is in conflict with other aids. Try this exercise: Walk your horse around the ring, on the buckle. When the horse is going forward in a relaxed manner, shift your weight to your inside seatbone. Don’t move your shoulders or the rest of your body, don’t tilt your shoulders out of the horizontal. Just “cock” your hip and place more weight in the inside seatbone. You will notice two things. Your horse will flick an ear back at you, the ear on the same side that you are sitting heavier on. This is an indication that the horse has “heard” you, and then you will notice that the horse will start to drift to the inside of the ring. You have, in effect, asked your horse to turn, by shifting your weight in that direction. A horse follows your weight. Therefore, if your horse is constantly wanting to drift in off of the rail, I would venture to say that you are probably leaning slightly to the inside, particularly as you anticipate a turn coming up. To help hold you your horse on the rail, makd a concious effort to shift your weight to the outside when you want to stay on the rail. Only shift to the inside when you WANT to turn off the rail. Shifting to the inside at that point will help your horse balance to make a tighter neater turn.

The next thing I’d like to address is the use of the rider’s legs. A horse moves AWAY from the rider’s leg. Using an active inside leg at the girth, will incourage the horse to keep his ribs out towards the rail. You want to keep the leg at the girth, to effect the ribs, not behind the girth, as this will cause the horse’s hips to drift out too much. On the long straight sides of the ring, your outside leg will be passive. Approaching the corner, the outside leg should shift back slightly to keep the hips following the shoulders through the line of the curve, not allowing them to “swing wide.”

To see how much these two aids can influence your horse, ride your horse in a circle at a walk or a trot. Then, without changing the use of your reins, sit with more weight on the inside seatbone, and use a stronger outside leg. You will notice the horse spiraling in. Then, switch your weight to the outside seatbone, and use a stronger inside leg. Your horse will move out. It may not be as crisp or as quick a movement as it could be in conjunction with the rein aids, but you should notice a difference. As you will see, these things have a great impact on your horse, and if they are not in agreement with the other aids, the resultant confusion will cause the horse to be sloppy, sluggish, and resistant in it’s turns and straight lines.

The next thing to talk about is the reins. The most important thing a rider needs to understand is that a horse cannot be controlled effectively by dragging it around by it’s nose. As you’ve come to find out, simply pulling one rein does not guarantee that the horse will go where you want it to in a balanced enough manner to perform as you want it to. In fact, since a horse actually being pulled around by a bit can experience a good deal of discomfort, this is one of the quickest ways to encourage disobedience, resistance and tenseness. The reins HAVE to be used in conjunction with the other steering aids. They provide the detail needed for exacting manuevers, but one cannot force a horse to perform these manuevers by pulling harder on the reins. There are five rein aids, of which only four, the direct rein, opening rein and indirect rein, and bearing rein, are of interest to this discussion. The direct rein makes a straight line from the mouth to the rider’s elbow. When pressure is applied with this rein, it controls the horse’s speed, however, when the horse is ridden forward up between two soft direct reins, it has the effect of straightening the horse. The indirect rein indicates direction and bend. This is applied by moving the hand toward and slightly obove the withers. Care must be taken to not actually cross over top of the withers to the other side. In an opening rein, the hand moves slightly away from the horse, never backward, to indicate direction, however, it does nothing whatso ever to create or maintain a proper bend in a turn. A bearing rein is a rein placed against a horse’s shoulder, causing the shoulders to move away from the rein. It is used mainly in conjunction with an opening rein for tight, trappy turns, or in conjunction with leg and weight and opening rein for correcting a run-out.

At this point, I suggest taking a few weeks to practice on the flat, getting to know these aids and how to effectively use them to control your horse. I would suggest using circles, figure eights, ect. and concentrate on using all the aids to turn the horse, and try to use as little rein as possible.

So, to pull the use of all these aids together, I will talk you through each problem you’ve mentioned.

To begin with the problem of cutting corners, ask your horse to pick up a trot on the rail tracking left. To proceed down the long straight side, Take up contact in both reins, just finding the mouth. This is your direct rein. Make sure you are sitting with your weight distributed evenly in both seatbones. Push the horse forward into your hands with both legs equally each time you sit at the post. If your horse starts to drift in, correct the horse by shifting your weight to the outside, activating the inside leg at the girth, and opening the outside rein. When approaching the corner, use an active inside leg to push the horse’s ribs into the corner, use an opening outside rein to encourage the horse to stay deep in the corner, and use an indirect inside rein to create and maintain the proper bend and indicate to the horse to turn through the corner. This will keep the horse bending properly, prevent him from cutting a corner, while maintaining his balance for the work ahead.

To come off the rail to the jumps through the diagonal, work through the preceding corner correctly, but when ready to make the sharper turn into the diagonal, shift your weight to the inside, use a stronger outside leg, use an opening inside rein, and an outside bearing rein. Be sure to get the horse straight in time for the first jump.  Be aware, however, that in a larger hunter course, even the turn into the diagonal line is not overly difficult or sharp, so you may not need to use an outside bearing rein if your horse is balanced and listening, and you may be fine with a direct inside rein.  But for sharper turns, such as one might experience in a Jumper course, using the outside bearing rein and the inside opening rein may be more helpful.

To keep your horse straight between two jumps, use the aids as mentioned above for traveling down the long straight stretch. The correction is also quite similar, should the horse start to “wobble” in his line. Most likely he won’t, if your direct reins are equal, and your weight is distributed evenly, but if he should, you should shift your weight in the opposite direction of the drift, use a strong leg on the side he is drifting towards to block the movement, use a bearing rein on the side he is drifting toward to re-inforce the leg and block the shoulders from drifting, and use an opening rein in the opposite direction of drift. Once he is straight, IMMEDIATELY go back to your “straight” aids to keep him so.

Once your aids are all in agreement, (all telling him to do the same thing) and your reactions and timing are perfected, you will find you and your horse flowing around a hunter course with rythm and relaxation, and in harmony.  Your Jumper courses will be better balanced and more athletic with less pulled rails.

Lengthening a Trot Stride

Ask The Trainer

How can I help my 5 year old mare to lengthen her stride at the trot? (She naturally moves ‘flat kneed’) Her canter is beautiful.

I ride with minimal rein contact if any but she tends to tuck her chin a little too much. I use my seat and legs to drive her up into the bridle, but usually results in ‘speeding’ which leads to more distraction. Any exercise ideas?


I will assume that you have made sure that your horse has no physical reason not to want to lengthen, such as a sore back or hocks, or an ill-fitting saddle.

First, make sure that you understand and are correctly applying the aids for shortening and lengthening the strides. The aids for shortening a stride are to close the fingers and hold. The rider must refrain from pulling back on the reins. The rider’s spine establishes the new rhythm by posting smaller, and the legs close around the horse, to maintain the desired gait. The aids to lengthen the stride are to give slightly with the reins without losing contact so that the horse may extend his body and stretch, allowing his stride to lengthen, while sitting balanced and lightly, using the legs to create a greater degree of engagement from the horse’s hindquarters. I find that it works best if, initially, the rider uses the legs every other stride, rather than every stride. This gives the horse a chance to respond without rushing. The rider begins to post bigger which encourages the horse to lengthen the step. It’s important to know how to correctly ask for both shortening and lengthening, and to practice both, so the horse knows there is a definite difference between the two. If you are sure that you are consistently applying the aids correctly, yet your horse still is not responding, then I would suggest using cavalletties to help your horse figure out what you want.

You will want to have the cavalletties poles on the lowest height. Initially, set them up so that the horse is comfortable trotting through them with her normal stride, and, starting with one pole, gradually work up to using three or four. When you are sure she is relaxed and confident with this, move the poles apart a few inches. Establish a rhythm and approach the line. As the horse is crossing the last pole, apply the aids for lengthening and try to maintain the longer stride for as long as possible after clearing the last pole. When the horse falls apart, relax and simply keep a rhythm around the ring and make another approach. Eventually, start asking for the lengthening on the approach, keep asking through the poles, and keep asking for the longer stride after the last one. You can also set up more sets of three to four poles in other places around the ring, making sure that all the sets of cavalletties are arranged so that the horse can easily maintain a steady rhythm around the track. Eventually, vary the distance between the poles of several sets, and ask the horse to lengthen or shorten when approaching the appropriate set, and to maintain that length of stride for as long as possible after. When you feel the horse is responding well, start asking for the lengthening of stride where there is no cavalleties, if the horse responds by speeding up the short steps, calmly steer into a set of cavalletties set up for the longer stride and ask again. Eventually, your horse will understand what you are wanting, and you will find that you need to cross a set of cavalletties less and less.

For more detail, you may want to read the article on using cavalletties in my Training Column, as well as this question: Cavalleti Training which also has some details relevant to your problem.