Well-mannered, easy to handle horses are a joy to be around—it’s like pushing the easy button. A calm, patient, focused horse that respects your boundaries, is eager to please and willing to do you bidding is not only fun, but safer too.
If a horse could be an Eagle Scout, my horse Eddie would earn the rank. He always tries hard to please, he follows the rules, works hard to earn approval and will try hard to conquer any challenge I present to him. By my standards, he would easily win a good citizen award. Although he hit the ground with a stellar temperament, which certainly helps, good citizens are made not born.
Horses are very precocious animals—they are fast learning and their education begins in the first moments of life. Unfortunately, they learn inappropriate things just as quickly as the good stuff, so it is easy to make mistakes and turn a young horse into a pushy, impatient, tantrum-throwing brat. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, horses have simply missed a proper education and must be patiently taught manners later in life and/or after being mishandled.
Good manners aren’t always natural to the horse, at least not in the way us humans define them. Horses must learn what is expected of them while being handled by humans. Many of the skills we require of well-mannered horses, like ignoring their surroundings and instead focusing on the task at hand, like facing and approaching a fearful stimulus instead of running from it, come from clear and consistent training and competent handling over time.
We have an obligation to teach good manners to the horse, not only for our own benefit, but also to ensure that the horse is well-treated by others and has the best opportunities in life. Your horse knows nothing more and nothing less about how to behave around humans than what he’s been taught. Inappropriate or undesirable behaviors in a horse reflect on his handlers, in the same way that spoiled children are a product of their parents. We cannot blame the horse or the child.
I spent some time thinking about what expectations I have of a well-mannered horse and what skills are important to instill so that he is safe, pleasant and fun to be around. These are lofty goals, yes, but for centuries and millennia, people have been successful in training horses to do incredible things and be amazingly cooperative partners.
Below, I have compiled a list of ten ground-manners and skills that I think a horse should have in order to win a good citizen award. As you read through the checklist, score your horse on a scale of 1 to 10 for each category, with 10 being perfect. Tally your score for all ten categories and you’ll know if your horse passes the test!
- Respects my boundaries: does not crowd my space, put his mouth or lips on me, shoulder into me, or sling his head at me.
- Easy to catch, halter and leads politely alongside me in the position I have designated, from either side, rating his speed on mine, never getting ahead of me and never lagging behind me.
- Stands quietly whenever and wherever tied; ground ties; stands still for vet and farrier; stands perfectly still and does not move his feet unless I ask him to.
- Desensitized for easy handling of mouth, nose, face, ears, legs, tail, under belly and between the hind legs; lowers his head when asked.
- Picks up his feet when asked, holds them up without leaning or fussing and allows me to place the foot back down in a particular place.
- Accepts confinement in a stall and trailer. I love for horses to be turned out and not confined, but there will be times when confinement is necessary, and I need my horse to accept it.
- Loads and unloads from a horse trailer willingly; rides quietly. Even if you don’t plan to travel with your horse, this is an important skill for his safety and well-being.
- Keeps his focus on me and is always present with me, not distracted by others, looking for an exit or searching for his friends.
- Does not interact with other horses or display herd behaviors of any kind when being handled from the ground or ridden in a group of horses.
- Willing to leave the safety and comfort of the herd to go with me anywhere and without question. Acts the same way away from home as he does at home.
So how does your horse score? A score above 90 or above means you have an equine good citizen. Good job! This did not happen accidentally—it takes, time, patience, consistency and skill. If this test has revealed holes in your horse’s training, it’s never too late to teach him. My videos, Lead Line Leadership and Raised with Manners, are great resources for you (available in DVD and streaming online at juliegoodnight.com).
A horse with good manners is truly a pleasure and the prospects for his future are good. Every horse is worth this investment in your time and energy; every horse deserves a chance to be a good citizen—it’s all up to you. Horses crave leadership, structure and rules. When we have high expectations of the horse and teach him good manners, the added bonus is that your horse will look up to you, be eager to please you and want to be with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!