Perfect Ground Manners

A horse will only become dangerous when he is scared. If you have a horse that is difficult to catch in the stall, or on the ground, John Lyons teaches you how to approach a horse in a stall so horse owners can stay safe and develop solid training methods to improve ground manners.

There’s a long-standing comic line that asks, “Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?” The answer is, “Anywhere he wants to.”

While it still gets a chuckle, the moral of the story is: The gorilla is so big and dangerous, he can call the shots.

That’s exactly the situation that we don’t want with our horses. Our safety, and often theirs, depends on our being able to control them and their good ground manners. And since we can’t control our horses by muscling them around, we have to depend on good training.

That’s all fine and good when we have our horses bridled, or even at the end of the lead rope. But what about when we enter the stall and they’re less than pleasant?

We know from watching herd dynamics that horses generally go out of their way to avoid a fight. But when they feel threatened, they may lash out. A horse who is aggressive in the stall is most likely scared. But he’s also dangerous.

In some situations, a stalled horse may have developed the bad habit of threatening the horses next to him and has carried that over to threatening people. Or he may feel insecure or aggressive. In many cases, it’s not yet a full-blown aggression – just a brash move to tell that us we’re not very high on the pecking order in his mind. But we can’t let that go on or it will become outright aggression.

We can’t fault a horse for his attitude, and we shouldn’t punish him for being scared. Threatening him or scaring him further will only compound the problem and make it increasingly dangerous for us. However, we can use a series of small moves to teach him what we want him to do. And the better he knows his job, the less fearful he will be.

Turn and Face
We’ll start by establishing a standard: What do we want the horse to do?

I want a horse to turn and face me when I open the stall door. That way, I’m in a safe position, away from his hindquarters. And I want the horse to come toward me in a friendly, non-aggressive manner, so I’ll set out to teach that response.

You can use this method with a horse who ignores you when you come to the stall. But it’s especially helpful for the horse who threatens to kick. Normally, that horse will put his nose in the corner farthest from the stall door, with his rump facing you. So that’s the position we’ll work with.

If the stall door opens on the right of the stall, move the horse clockwise, so that he’s facing you as he comes around. If the door opens on the left, move the horse counterclockwise.

We’re going to apply our magic formula to getting our horse to turn around. We need a motivator to get him to move, a spot or part of the horse’s body that we want to control, and a direction in which we want that spot to move. And, of course, we need a reward, which is usually the release of the motivator.

For purposes of photography, we’ve taken the stall door off. But if your horse is at all dangerous – turning his rear toward you or threatening to kick – you should work from outside the stall with the door open a foot or so, only enough for you to stand in the doorway. Be sure to control the door, so you can close yourself outside the stall anytime you feel that’s necessary. Be sure that no one stands behind you, blocking your path. Under no circumstances should you get in the stall with a horse who threatens to kick you.

1. Stand in the stall doorway, letting the horse settle down and get used to your being there.
That lets him know that you’re not a threat. (He doesn’t have to “kick you out.”) Your next objective will be to move him around the stall a step or two at a time, teaching him where you want him to stand.

2. Kiss to the horse, then make a noise or movement to get the horse moving a little. We want the horse to take a step or two, but not to run around the stall. If the horse gets upset, close the stall door and let him settle down. The next time, use a much softer motivator.

Typical motivators might be shaking a halter or tapping a lead rope against the stall door. Use very light noise to begin with-just a little irritant, an attention-getter like a “knock, knock” sound.

When the horse takes a step, stop bugging him with the noise or motion. Some horses are too afraid to move, so you might have to settle for him turning his head in your direction. If you get a reaction, stop the noise as a reward. It’s a starting point to communicating with this horse.

If you don’t get any reaction, you can toss a lead rope or lariat, for instance, at the wall behind him. But hold onto the other end so you can reel it back to yourself. You don’t want to have to go into the stall to retrieve it, and you want nothing dropped into the stall that the horse could get tangled up with. All you want to do is stimulate a little movement on his part. Also, be sure not to let the rope get near the horse, so he doesn’t think he has to protect himself by kicking at the rope.

The moment the horse takes a step forward, let him relax. That tells him he did what you wanted, and that he’s safe. You might even step out of the stall to let him settle down and realize that you don’t intend to hurt him.

If the horse backs up, use the same motivator to get him to step forward. If he’s backing up, he’s protecting himself and perhaps preparing to kick. You want him to think “forward.”

3. After a little break, ask for another forward step or two, and then let him relax. Keep him moving in the same direction. Use that process until you can get the horse to move around, to face you for a moment. He’ll likely look at you, then circle the stall, going back to his original position. Don’t let him hang out in his favorite corner; ask him to step forward again. You can let him stop a few steps past the corner.

Ask him to step forward again, until he’s looking at you again. He’ll probably look at you a little longer than the first time, but he’ll likely circle the stall again. After about five times like this, he’ll probably stop in the middle of the stall, deliberating which way to go.

4. Step toward the horse as if you’re planning to pet his face, but step back, ideally before he moves. (Do not turn your back on the horse as you exit the stall). Remember, you are a threat to him. So you want to remove the threat before the horse thinks he has to move.

Many times, the horse will stand in the middle, looking as if it would be safe to approach him. But as you get close, he gets scared and wheels around to go to his corner.

If that happens, don’t punish him. Just repeat the lesson as you did before until he’s back in the middle position. Then begin to approach again. Don’t walk all the way up to him, but back out of the stall before he moves. After a few times, he’ll realize that you don’t mean him any harm and that it might be okay to stand there.

5. Work up to where you can pet the horse’s face, and eventually halter him. Once you’ve done this a few times, the horse will begin to associate your call, whatever that is. You can say his name, kiss to him, or use body language – just be yourself. He’ll learn your pattern and that it means you want him to come to greet you. If he doesn’t, use the lesson to position him facing you.

You’ll want to repeat the lesson for several days until the horse gets into the habit of greeting you when you come calling. Don’t get sloppy or in a hurry and just walk in to get him. Spend time petting him and hugging his head, and he’ll learn to look forward to your arrival.

Out of the Stall

Let’s say that your horse wouldn’t think of kicking, but he might inadvertently bash you into a stall door as he rushes to get out of the stall. If that’s the case, it’s not fun and definitely not in the category of perfect ground manners. If your horse is a bit pushy in that department, it’s time to “raise the bar.”

In previous months, we worked on using bridle or halter cues to get the horse responsive while leading. In a perfect world, you’d do those lessons before this one. In this session, you are going to show the horse that he can only take the steps forward that you allow.

Put a halter and lead on the horse and lead him around in the stall, asking him to go forward and to stop on cue. When you feel that you have reasonable control, ask the horse to stand while you open the stall door. Do not allow the horse to walk forward until you tell him to do so. Take a step forward, ask the horse to take one step forward, then stop him. Pet the horse when he stops.

If the horse tries to push past you, pull the lead rope toward his left shoulder. Continue to hold pressure on the lead until the horse backs off. Let him stand and pet him. Begin again.

When you get to the door, have the horse stand and wait inside the stall while you step outside the stall. Do not get yourself into a position where you can get crowded into the doorjamb. Ask the horse to step forward, but stop him before he walks completely out of the stall. You are aiming for one foot at a time, though that may be hard to do the first few times.

Keep your horse straight as he comes through the opening. Make sure that you do not pull his head toward you, which could cause him to bang his hips as he goes through the door.

With a little practice, your horse will learn to wait for your signal, and you’ll have transformed pushy, rude behavior into polite obedience.

Into the Stall
Many people have been trained to lead their horse into a stall and turn him around before they remove the halter. There’s nothing wrong with that system, but I prefer to do it another way, one that’s just a little safer. I send the horse into the stall ahead of me.

To do that, be sure the door is fully open. Lead the horse toward the stall and ask him to stop facing the opening. Let’s say that the stall door slides to the left. Standing to the left of the opening with the horse’s nose facing into the stall, ask him to step forward into the stall. Be sure to let out the lead rope so that you don’t force him to turn too soon, hitting his hips as he goes through the door.

If the stall door opens by sliding to the right, then stand on the right side of the horse as you send him into the stall. That way he has enough room to turn around to face you.

Continue to hold the lead, as that will signal him to turn around to face you. Now you can enter the stall and walk up to the horse’s head. Pet him, ask him to drop his head (which is good practice for getting him to drop his head prior to unbridling), and remove the halter. Pet him, and walk out of the stall.

Bringing your horse to a point of perfect ground manners in his stall isn’t hard. It’s just a matter of spending a little time teaching him what you want, and then being consistent each time you’re in the stall with him.

When Home is Castle

• The horse who kicks at people in his stall is most likely scared, but he’s also dangerous.

• Do not punish the horse for kicking out.

• Wait until you’ve trained your horse to turn to you on cue before entering the stall.

• Get the horse to move a step or two at a time, so he learns you can control him without hurting him.

• Once he’s haltered, spend lots of time hugging his head.

• Continue your lessons by teaching your horse good leading manners.

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