Julie Goodnight has kindly shared with Barnmice some of the questions that come her way:
I’ve got a question about our five-year-old Paint gelding. My wife swears that he prefers men riders to women riders. I’m almost to conclude the same thing, even though I really am skeptical about that. It seems the women who have ridden him, including my wife, have had him act up consistently, and are fearful of him.
Another question following the first of gender preference…If it is true there is such a thing? Is there a way to “unlearn” this behaviour over time and how would you suggest I help him accept women riders?
Although many horses respond differently to men and women, I do not believe it is because they intellectually know the difference between men and women. I think that they are responding to the way they are handled and whether or not the handler has good leadership skills. The horse is responding to the body language of the human, which tells the horse whether or not the human is confident and potential leadership material.
Most humans are not fully aware of their body language and the messages that they are constantly sending to the horse. A horse that has been abused will be reactive and frightened of a human that approaches him with what appears to be aggression (as many men do); while a horse that has learned to be dominant over a human will react in a dominant way when a person approaches him showing a lack of confidence and uncertainty (as many women do).
I talk a lot in my clinics about the first 10 minutes of your ride being the ‘golden moments’ where you show your horse your ability as a leader. And during that time, the only conversation you should have with the horse goes like this: “Hello. This is your Captain speaking!” Most people allow constant small erosions to their authority over the horse by doing things like letting him walk off without a cue to walk or letting him cut the corner in the arena, come into the middle of the arena, speed up or slow down, etc.
In the horse’s mind, either the rider is in control of the ship all of the time or she/he is not the Captain. Horses are quick to learn this about any given rider (by testing) and an opportunistic horse will generally take advantage of the situation. Many riders have already flunked the test before they have any clue whatsoever that there was a test.
Unfortunately it is impossible to unlearn this behaviour. Your horse knows too much already and it cannot be unlearned. This is a common problem with young horses that have been trained by a professional and then are handed over to an amateur rider. The horse quickly learns the difference between riders and will begin to test the rider to see how much he can get away with.
This is something we work very hard to prevent by making sure the amateur rider has a thorough understanding of what it is like to ride a green horse; then hopefully the horse will never learn that he can act differently for different riders. Better training for your horse will help but the rider will have to step up to the plate and prove to the horse that she is indeed a capable leader and the captain of the ship. Unless and until that happens, the horse will continue to take advantage of a passive or subordinate rider.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host