Wouldn’t it be nice to have your horse stand and wait for you like your dog sits and waits on command? It can be done! The way to get a horse to do (or not do) anything is to change his mind and opinion about the situation.
So let’s say you have a horse that won’t stand at the mounting block, or won’t stand tied to a hitching post, or loses his mind if put into cross-ties. You’ve done all the traditional things to change his behavior like making him jog a circle over and over until he wants to stop. Or you’ve made him spin on one front leg until you both are dizzy and half delirious. You’ve made him sweat, you’ve had another person stay with him, holding him while you get on, or get the saddle, or whatever. You’ve smacked him, yelled at him, and tried bribing him into standing, but he just won’t. If all this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
Before going into how to teach your horse to stand, whether tied or not, remember that there are exactly two things we humans cannot ever “make” a horse do.
We cannot make a horse move.
- We cannot stop a horse from moving.
Wonderful, you think. Why bother teaching anything if those two things are true? The answer lies within the horse’s innate willingness to do what we want if we convey that desire fairly, consistently and calmly.
Sure, but how do we do that?
By changing your horse’s mind, you will be able to change his feet. If you can get your horse to want to do what you desire—either move or not move—he’ll comply happily. There are things to consider before beginning: intention, energy, time and space. Your intention must be clear, your energy must be even and low, time the lessons for when he’ll most want to be with you, and when you aren’t rushed, and pick a place you can safely work him.
Changing his mind is not hard if you know how to exploit his natural tendencies. Not what you’d expect to hear, but it’s true. Changing, or managing his mind is a matter of thinking about your desire and how best to convey it to him in a way that makes him want to oblige. In traditional fear-based training, this is taught by making what you want the easy thing for him to do. Basically, it’s the idea that moving a horse will put you in a dominant position so the horse will respect you and do whatever you want; think round pen work.
Another way to change the horse’s mind is to use positive, reward based methods with no fear or intimidation being employed. This way of approaching horse training doesn’t look like what most of us are taught, and some even pooh-pooh it, saying it’s too soft and babying a horse won’t work. You’ll need to decide upon what kind of relationship you most desire and go from there.
Using positive, reward-based reinforcement means that to get him to move forward, you’ll simply get him into a position that he wants to walk forward. Reframe your intention from the traditional release of pressure to rewarding for doing the task. For example, if you are outside of his corral, away from his horse friends, stand facing them/it and your horse’s mind is already wanting to walk forward. That’s simple enough, but how do you keep him from moving? How do you teach him to quietly stand tied if he’s one to sit back and break halters, ropes and hitching racks?
We exploit his desires and set him up to win the reward for doing what you want.
One method is to Clicker Train—it’s easy to learn, just look on YouTube—and incorporates using reward, play, curiosity and interaction between you and your horse. If you choose to follow this method, you will begin by teaching him to “target” and then move on to teaching him to stand on a mat or towel or a circle painted on the ground. This training method is highly successful and is used on wild animals of all species to train them for veterinary care or any number of other desired “tricks.” The best part is just how fun it is to do with your horse! They love games, but people may not realize how important “play” is when training.
For this discussion, I won’t go into the specifics of Clicker Training, but will show how you may use positive reinforcement with reward-only to teach the horse to stand. To begin, take him out of his living quarters, away from his friends to a safe, enclosed area. Facing him away from his desired locale, stop him and ask him to stand using whatever cue you normally would. You can pretend to tie him by laying the lead over the hitching rail or fence so he understands that you want him to stay “tied.”
Your goal is to praise him for standing still, so your timing for rewarding him must be impeccable. As soon as he stops moving, praise him by petting his neck or scratch his withers. He won’t know why he’s getting praised at first, but your timing and the repetitions will teach him that he gets rewarded when not moving his feet. Repeat and repeat. As soon as you take a small step away, step back into him and reward before he moves. Repeat about thirty-seven more times, then go do something else and come back to the standing lesson.
Each day, you will build upon that first lesson by repeating what you did the day before. As you begin to see your horse standing and waiting longer, you’ll start tapering back on the time spent near him and can venture a bit further away from him, or you can increase the time he stands. So far, your horse has not been truly tied, but he’s standing and you can walk away. Watch for his attentiveness and desire to stay with you playing this odd, new game. This is how you know if it’s making sense to him and if you’ve begun changing his mind. Then, you’ll see his feet follow suit and your horse will stand calmly waiting for the next game you want to play with him.
You may need to leave the rope looped and not tied for longer than you hope, but eventually, you will be able to tie your horse every time. If he pulls back and feels the pressure, you will need to start over at step one, so don’t rush the process. Make it easy for your horse and have fun!
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Have fun training, Happily Ever After,