The Inadvertent GO!

By Terry Golson

Three years ago, when I purchased Tonka, I did so thinking that he and I would be trail partners, and for the first year, walking through the woods was what we did.

His previous owner told me that Tonka was good alone or with company and that proved true. The trails here are mostly rocky and narrow. We walked. That was fine with me. I’m not one of those riders with a need for speed. Tonka is never in a hurry, either. In fact, when we go out with friends they note how slow Tonka is. I like to call it steady.




After that first year, I got a hankering to do more. Tonka wasn’t as balanced or responsive as he could be, and so we started dressage training. But we still went out on the trails. We still walked. I like to say that we meandered.



Our dressage training has progressed. Tonka is getting into first level work, which requires him to carry more weight on his hind quarters and to engage belly and loin muscles.


My trainer says that the best way to build up his physique is to canter up hills.

The first time that I asked Tonka to change gears on the trail he was surprised. Really? You want me to canter? he asked. He said that he was concerned about uneven footing. He cantered a few strides and stopped. We tried again. We trotted on straightaways. He gained confidence. We cantered up small hills, and then longer ones. He seemed to be having fun.



The other day we were walking in the woods, slowly, as usual, with looped reins. But I didn’t like how Tonka was going, he was walking in way that is called downhill, his back a bit hollow, his weight heavy on the forehand. Ergonomically this isn’t so healthy a way to move when there’s a rider sitting up there. So, I shortened the reins, thinking that I’d rebalance him by bringing his head up a bit and engaging the rear legs. It’s something that I do in the ring, that Tonka responds to every time. But out on the trail Tonka felt the reins shorten and interpreted that as GO!

I have inadvertently taught him that when I pick up the reins that we’re going to ratchet it up a few gears.

On the one hand, it’s impressive how quickly he connected a shortening of the reins with the fun of cantering. On the other hand, it’s humbling that I’m slower to make connections than my horse.

It goes to show that the cues that you think you’re training aren’t necessarily the ones that your horse thinks are important. And, just because something that you do is understood in one context (i.e. in the ring) doesn’t mean that it’s interpreted the same somewhere else (i.e. on the trail.)

Yesterday, out in the woods, I began the process of reworking the GO cue. I picked up, and then released the reins. I let Tonka know that rein contact is something I’ll do for many reasons, not simply before galloping off. I’ll be doing that throughout my rides to come. He’ll learn that the contact in our dressage work is the same as the contact on the trail. Then I’ll be able to add the canter cue, and it’ll be the same as what we do in the ring. Sometimes I’m slow on the uptake, but I’m hoping to catch up to my horse!

Have you taught something inadvertently? Let me know in the comments.

10 thoughts on “The Inadvertent GO!

  • HeatherE

    Way back in ’93 I somehow taught the new dog/puppy to poop on the couch. We’d go outside for peeing, and then he’d come in, get on the couch and poop! He had previously done all his going outside, so it was something I did but I still have no clue. It was entirely fixable but I sure wish I knew what I’d done…

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Oh, that’s a bad one! 🙂
      But I’m so impressed that you didn’t blame the dog but figured it was some cue from you and that the solution was to retrain. Well done!

  • Emily

    I’ve found that the trail is a great place to work on lateral movements. It engages the mind (I ride an Arabian), as well as the hindquarters.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I have a friend who competes at the FEI level in dressage. She doesn’t have a ring! She schools in hay fields. I’ve always treated trail riding as our totally relaxed place, but I’ll have to revise that being as how it seems I’ve been teaching stuff there inadvertently 🙂

  • Tara Gifford

    My first pony had a bad habit of taking off in the pasture before I had unclipped the lead rope. He was fine to unclip the lead in the barn or his stall, but would bolt in the pasture. I wish I knew back then what I do now about teaching an incompatable or alternate behavior to the bolting, but I found ways to work around it. I would open his back stall door to the pasture and stand back as he ran out!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I agree about wishing that I knew then what I know now. But I bet that in 10 years I’ll be saying that same thing about what I’m doing now!

  • Lizzie in Cornwall

    THREE YEARS?!? Where’s that gone?!?
    Lovely photos of your boy – seeing him from all the different angles. Looks like a different horse from the back! Are you sure thatTonka’s not three horses rolled into one?

  • Pat van der Byl

    Excellent post – but I just HAD to comment on your stunningly beautiful trails! I sure hope you really appreciate them – just gorgeous! I dream of seeing such beauty – let alone being able to ride in it! (I’m in South Africa and in a particularly bad area for trails).

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Our trails are gorgeou, and I even know a few without rocks 🙂 I’ve heard that your country is quite beautiful – but my friends who have visited weren’t riders so weren’t looking at it from that perspective.

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