Horses that are pushy or aggressive when you enter the stall can be frustrating to handle. Follow these training tips to help develop better behavior.
One area that’s often overlooked is how a horse behaves while in a stall. When people attend my clinics, I have an opportunity to evaluate their interactions with their horses before the formal clinic even begins. After all, if you’re handling your horse, you’re training your horse.
Developing good stall manners
Most of the time, the horses are allowed to behave like puppies – a dangerous prospect in a large animal. Some horses strike the front of the stall in anticipation of feeding, others “frisk” their owners in search of a treat. They do so with such persistence and force that most of us would claim police brutality if it were an officer doing it, and not our horses!
Even if your horse isn’t so extreme, imagine how nice it would be to stop him from digging up the stall while you prepare the evening feed, or being able to clean the stall with your horse standing off to one side. I guarantee these stall-work sessions will carry over and help your horse better behave himself in lots of situations. As the old saying goes, “You ride the same horse you lead.”
Begin by turning your horse loose in his stall. Have something such as a lunge whip or a stick-and-string to serve as an extension of your arm while you work. The best time to practice this is after returning from a ride or some sort of work session. This way, your horse will already be willing and focused. Our goal later, after much practice, will be to have the horse so well trained that even if he’s fresh he will still respond correctly.
Have something such as a lunge whip or a stick-and-string to serve as an extension of your arm while you work.
Stand in the doorway of the stall with the whip inside the stall. (If your horse is excessively agitated by the presence of the whip, you need to do some groundwork in a bigger area, such as your arena or round pen, to familiarize him with the whip.) Reach out and touch the horse’s body with the end of your whip. Get accustomed to standing in, or very near the doorway, so that your position lets you block the horse’s escape but allows you to exit quickly if you have to.
The two biggest hazards you will potentially face are:
1. A horse that feels comfortable running you over to escape.
2. A horse that kicks at you. That’s where the extension of your arm comes in handy at the beginning.
Use the end of the whip to rub your horse all over. When he’s comfortable with that, you can progress to the next step – asking him to move. Keep in mind that your end goal is to be able to ask your horse, by using your body language, to stand alongside a selected wall with his nose facing the corner. This is taught most easily by sending the horse to the corner where you feed, but any corner will work.
Remember that game when you were a kid, when someone would pick a spot and as you walked around they would guide you to it by telling you “you’re getting warmer” or “you’re getting colder”? Well that is what we are going to do with our horses. Pick the corner you want your horse facing and the wall you want him up against. Begin tapping him rhythmically (gently) with the whip, encouraging him to give to that pressure by moving away from it. If the front end needs to move closer, then tap the neck, with rhythm, until the horse moves. If he moves in the direction you want, reward him by stopping the tapping. If he moves in the wrong direction or not at all, continue tapping until some part of the horse gets closer to where you want him.
Honing your skills
If your horse overreacts, it is a good sign you may have been tapping with too much enthusiasm, pressure, or even with a rhythm that’s too fast. Remember, you are only trying to motivate the horse to move – not run. On the other hand, if your horse is shutting his eyes and enjoying the free “massage” from your tapping, you can probably step it up a notch. The training will progress much more quickly if you have already practiced moving your horse’s shoulders and hips during prior groundwork lessons.
Once you have mastered consistently moving your horse to one wall, try sending him to a different corner. I like to spread these lessons out and use them on a daily basis. By changing corners, you’re making your horse do a little more thinking. I like to be able to put my horse against any wall, facing any corner, all while I’m standing in the doorway. Once I accomplish this, the horse is reading such subtle cues that I can move in to clean the stall and, by just using my arm (remember the whip was just an extension of it), I can cue my horse to side-pass up to the wall and move slightly forward or backward without darting for the door.
Create a quiet barn at feeding time
You can go further with this exercise to teach patience to horses that are unruly during feeding time. You probably already know who these stompers, pawers and pushers are, so as you walk into the barn, position your whip outside the stall. Open the door and send the horse to stand along the back wall. Bring back some of your feed – let’s say the water first. As you approach the stall, send the horse to the back again if he has moved while you were gone. If you turn to go and notice that the horse has charged back to the front, move him to the back once again. Remember to work from the doorway of the stall and use your whip if you need it. Repeat this as you bring the hay and grain. Eventually, you can keep the horse away from the stall front (and eliminate striking and pawing) by repeatedly moving him back.
Even if your horse is not tearing the barn down at feeding time, or searching you for treats, these tips should help build a language of communication that will help you understand each other better. Remember – you are always training.
Your horse doesn’t have to be perfect. Here are a few common mistakes I see:
- Tapping harder if the horse moves the wrong direction – remember to use rhythm to tell your horse he is moving wrong, and stop the tapping for his reward.
- Not rewarding for small efforts – the more you reward each tiny step in the right direction, the more curious and open to learning your horse will be.
- Getting the horse worried or worked up – if your horse is getting agitated, spend time rubbing and scratching him with the whip after he takes a correct step.
- Asking for too much too fast – reward the slightest move in the right direction. This could be turning the head slightly or shifting the hindquarters towards the wall.