In this series, we’ve already covered many big lessons that lead to good ground manners for your horse, such as bridling, understanding body language, leading lessons and trailer loading. But a truly essential element of impeccable ground manners is getting a horse to stand tied patiently. But that doesn’t begin when we clip your horse to a tie post. It begins with mini-lessons that condition the horse to give to pressure rather than pull on the lead. As you might guess, that’s our topic for today.
“Why bother?” you might ask. After all, you get along okay and figure that you can live with the little tugs here and there. Because just as a horse gets out of control one little move after another, a series of small lessons adds up to a dramatic improvement in his performance. The horse who pulls back-even a little-will pull on the reins when we ride him. He’ll jerk the lead rope out of our hand (or our arm out of the socket) when he gets scared. Sure, 99 days out of 100 he may lead fine. But unless we keep his manners tuned up, that hundredth time may cause major problems.
The good news is that we don’t have to have big blocks of time to work on these mini-lessons. And they’re fun, to boot.
- Use training mini-sessions. Three-minute workouts will add up.
- Focus on what you want the horse to do.
- Keep the pop in pop quizzes. Make it fun.
- Make the effort to sharpen up your horse’s manners.
- Work for 100% no pull.
Pretend you were walking through a crowd and someone grabbed your shirtsleeve. Your immediate reaction would be to pull your arm away. You wouldn’t even stop to think about it. That’s the same instinct we’re asking our horse to overcome when we teach him to give to pressure. The idea of developing perfect manners is that not only do we want him to move his head toward whatever’s pulling on him, we want him to do so without having pulled away first.
When a horse is wearing a halter and lead, there’s no physical pressure except the weight of the tack, like a hat on his head. When you pull the lead rope forward or down, it pulls on the halter, which presses into the top of the horse’s head. The horse naturally raises his head, which increases the pressure.
If the lead rope gives way as soon as the horse raises his head, he learns that raising his head relieves the pressure. That’s often what happens when we try to bridle our horse, for instance, and he gets in the habit of holding his head just above our reach.
But if raising his head doesn’t release the line, the pressure on his head increases. The horse gets scared, and he raises his head more and he starts to back up-to get away from whatever is pulling on him.
Our goal is to reverse that process. When the horse feels the halter tighten on the top of his head, we want him to move his head forward or down.
You probably introduced your horse to that lesson when you first asked him to drop his head. You may have pulled down on the lead rope and held light, steady pressure until he dropped his head an inch or so. You would have immediately released the line to teach him that if he moves toward the source of pressure, he’ll find a release.
You may have continued the lesson when you taught him to give to the bit. You picked up the rein and held steady pressure until he moved his nose in the direction you were asking. Then you let go of the rein, to reward his correct move.
Our challenge will be to improve his responsiveness, to condition him to give to pressure, so that he does it automatically, and without raising his head first.
We’ve all been in situations where we knew someone’s name, but we couldn’t remember it on the spot because things around us were happening fast. When things happen fast in a horse’s world, he can’t remember what to do either. So he depends on his instinct and training. The difference between a horse dropping his head in a relaxed setting and doing that when he’s startled is a matter of how well we’ve trained his emotions along with the physical response.
Once the horse knows to drop his head in a quiet setting, then take him outside, where there are more distractions. Don’t become more demanding. Let the cue and the environment work for you. He won’t do as well with distractions as when you were alone in the stall. That’s okay, because it’s part of the learning process.
Practice the exercises until you can have the horse drop his head all the way down to his knees. At any point, if the horse hangs up or seems to get stuck, walk him forward and move his hips.
When the horse does well, increase the level of distraction around him. You don’t want to overwhelm him, but to teach him that he can give to pressure even when other things are going on around him.
Speed is always exciting to a horse. Try trotting the horse, and then ask him to give to the halter. You can bring another horse into the arena, or have someone outside the arena make noise, gather trash, or kick a ball around.
Each request is like a mini-lesson. When your horse passes the quiz and you release him, you’ve ended that lesson. You can repeat the lesson or try another one in a minute or two. But remember to reward the horse for his right answers and give him a little break. Otherwise, his reward for answering your question correctly is a harder question, and he’ll get discouraged.
Now that you understand the theory, we’ll show you a few fun exercises you can do with your horse. When a horse is tied, depending on his head position, he’ll likely feel a pull from in front of him, from below his head, or from either side. So before we consider tying a horse, we’ll practice each of those pulls, and make a game of it.
Tell your horse that any horse can learn to have his head down, but not just any horse will keep his head down despite a distraction, like having his face brushed with a tissue. Since he’s a special horse, no doubt he’d like to learn this special trick.
Of course, he doesn’t care if he’s special or not. It’s just our way of keeping things light. Ask the horse to drop his head, and then pet him with something distracting, like a tissue or plastic grocery sack. The moment he begins to raise his head, use the rein or lead rope to ask him to drop it again…and again. Be sure to release the moment that his head is down and he’s still. Play with various things until you can approach your horse from either side or from the front and have him drop his head on cue-even with the scary tissue present.
Am I stepping on your rope?
When you have the basics down, ask your horse to stand with his head at a normal height. Let the lead rope drape on the ground, and step on it, near the horse’s front foot-not directly in front of him.
With your foot on the lead, brush the horse’s neck or head, or do some other distracting thing that might cause the horse to raise his head in a casual “What’s up?” move. If he drops his head when he feels tension from the lead, remove your foot from the lead and pet the horse. If he pulls or jerks his head, take the lead rope in your hand (ideally without releasing it), and ask the horse to move forward and give, as you did when teaching him the basic move. Be careful not to stand where he could hurt you if he rears or strikes.
Walk beside the horse with the lead rope in your right hand. Pull the lead rope forward as you begin to trot. The trick is not to drag the horse forward, but to use the lead rope to cue him. If he doesn’t obey the cue, switch hands and use the go forward cue to get his hindquarters moving. Then switch hands again so that your lead rope tells him “come forward.” After a few times he’ll get the idea and trot along beside you. Remember that when you use the lead rope to ask him to slow down, you’re also testing whether he gives or pulls.
Come here, please
Stand facing the horse’s nose. Step back several steps. Pull the lead rope steadily, inviting the horse to step toward you. Release the line the moment that he begins to step forward. If he doesn’t step forward within two seconds, step to your right, drive him forward, then move his hip. Repeat the exercise.
Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone while your horse fussed around, essentially saying, “Mom, can I go now?” We often manage his activity the best we can, and finally end up jerking the lead rope in frustration.
Instead, after you’ve worked through the basic lessons, how about putting your rein hand into your pocket, as if the pocket were a post? Give the horse about 12 inches of rein, and lock your hand into your pocket. Try to ignore him. Watch that you don’t get your feet stepped on, but as best you can, stay in one position. At minimum, don’t back away from the horse, but if you feel that you have to move, choose a direction other than where he’d like to push you. Keep on talking to your friend, or at least trying to.
At first, your horse will be like a little kid who wants attention. He may nudge you, bob his head, or try to get his rein back by jerking his head. If you can ignore all that, before long he’ll put slack in the rein and stand there, as if he’s eavesdropping on your conversation.
Over the head
This is a simple exercise that will both condition the horse to what you want and let you know how well he responds. With the horse wearing a halter, bring your lead rope up over the horse’s head, on top of the halter. Pull the end of the rope, but watch that you don’t get the snap up by the horse’s eye. If the horse raises his head significantly, that will tell you that the horse will likely pull back if he were tied and something startled him. If he drops his head, then he’s made great progress in the “give to pressure” exercises.
We’re sure that you can find time to work on these lessons. Even two or three minutes at a time will help.
Use your imagination to come up with other pop quizzes that test your horse’s ability to move his nose in the direction of the pull. If you get in the habit of using pop quizzes to train and test your horse, you’ll keep the sessions fun and won’t overwhelm either one of you. Remember that if the horse doesn’t pass the pop quiz, the teacher has more work to do.