Expert advice to quell a kicking horse’s bad habits.
Expert advice to quell a kicking horse’s bad habits.
If your horse is well-trained, well-behaved and easy to work with, you’ll make your veterinarian’s job much easier and more effective. Even the best veterinarian must struggle to examine a horse that’s stomping, biting, moving away or just not cooperating.
While you might blame your horse’s “sudden” behavioral problems on sickness or pain, chances are, your ill-mannered patient hasn’t learned how to look to you for leadership and guidance. If he learns to follow your every command when he’s well, he’ll respect your cues when he’s hurt or when it’s time for an important examination.
We met up with respected trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight to find out the manners your horse should learn to make veterinary exams a breeze. She believes you must be your horse’s “captain” at all times to gain and maintain his respect. If he knows that you’re the herd leader, he’ll look to you for guidance in any situation, even when he’s uncomfortable, hurt or fearful.
Goodnight has witnessed many horse owners handle their horses during veterinary visits. She’s seen the bites and kicks that could’ve been avoided. “While most veterinarians love all horses, most have a few favorite clients—it’s just human nature,” she says. “When your horse is well-mannered and you know how to handle him properly, you’ll make your vet’s job easier. He or she will enjoy working on your well-trained partner.
“Proper training might also boost your horse’s chance for a healthy outcome,” Goodnight continues. “Your vet will be able to thoroughly examine a horse that stands still without fidgeting and allows touch. Plus, the best-trained horses often don’t need mechanical restraints or extra sedatives for veterinary work, which can save you money and save your horse from potential sedative side effects.”
While your vet wants to do what’s best for your horse and will perform the necessary examinations, diagnostics and treatments no matter how your horse behaves, he or she will appreciate your mannered horse and will gain respect for your horsemanship.
Here’s how to teach your horse four lessons in ground manners: hold still; accept touch; place each step; and match your pace. (Note: As you teach your horse these lessons, always stay safe; if you have any problems, ask a qualified trainer or certified riding instructor to help you.)
Connect the lead rope to the halter with a knot rather than a metal snap to allow your horse to feel a correction without causing undue pain.
You’ll need: A rope halter (to place pressure on your horse’s poll and sensitive facial areas); a long lead rope (at least 12 feet long, so you can command your horse from far away) with a knot to connect it to the halter instead of a metal snap (the knot will allow your horse feel a correction without causing undue pain); leather gloves; flag or whip/longe whip.
Before you begin: Choose a time to work with your horse when he’s fed, rested and wants to move. “Begin your practice when other horses are leaving the arena or your horse is next to be turned out,” Goodnight suggests.
Lesson #1: Hold Still
How it helps your vet: Your veterinarian will need your horse to stand still for examinations, injections and other procedures. If your horse stands still with his nose in front of his chest, he won’t interrupt your vet’s work by nudging or biting.
“You have to have a relationship with your horse,” notes Goodnight. “You have to have authority over him even when he’s scared, agitated or hurt. You might think you can hold him up close and keep him still, but you’re just not strong enough. You need to make him want to stand still.”
Training technique: Select a point several yards away where you’d like him to stand. Walk him to that point, and say “whoa.” Step away at a 45-degree angle from where his nose is pointing, so you’ll be in front, but safely off to the side if he does move on.
Once in place, point your toes toward your horse’s nose. Allow the rope to drape, holding it near the end. Stay still as long as he keeps his feet in place and doesn’t move his head from side to side. If he does, it’s time for a correction. Note that the lesson will go more quickly if he realizes his mission and can associate what he does just before a correction comes.
Start the correction by waving the lead rope up and down about one foot so that the movement travels through the rope and affects the halter knot. Make one correction, then allow your horse to lower his head and stand still again. If he picks up a foot or turns his head to the side, correct again. Be consistent with your corrections until he learns the new rule.
Next, face your horse with your feet pointed toward him. He shouldn’t move at all. Your physical presence and your leadership should keep him still. If he moves, lead him back to where he started. If you allow him to move, for instance, one step toward the gate, you’ll reward him for moving, rather than standing still. He should stand just where you tell him, until you cue him otherwise.
“You’re really teaching your horse to ground tie,” Goodnight says. As your horse begins to figure out his ground-tying lesson, back up even more, and lay a portion of the rope on the ground between corrections.
Lesson #2: Accept Touch
How it helps your vet: Your veterinarian will need to look in your horse’s mouth, ears, eyes and other sensitive areas during routine exams or if your horse becomes ill, sore or injured. If your horse isn’t used to having his sensitive parts touched, he might pull away and make an exam difficult. Here, we’ll focus on the mouth to prepare him for oral exams and dental work. “I’ve taught several of my horses to accept this pressure in their mouths so well that my vet doesn’t need to sedate before teeth floating,” Goodnight notes.
Training technique: Your horse needs to learn that if he accepts touch, the touch will soon go away—that it’s easier to stand still and accept the touch instead of fighting.
Don leather gloves, stand at your horse’s left side, and place two fingers at the left corner of his lip. He should open his mouth slightly. Move your fingers slightly back and into his mouth, avoiding his front and back teeth. He’ll most likely shake his head and pull away from your touch, but keep your fingers in place no matter where he pulls you.
Watch for an instant of relaxation. As soon as your horse lowers his head or stops resisting, pull your hand away. Keep the pressure until he accepts it, then remove your hand immediately. Repeat the process until he allows you to open his mouth from both sides without resistance.
Use this same technique to teach your horse to accept your touch on other parts of his face and body.
Lesson # 3: Place Each Step
How it helps your vet: If your horse needs a flexion test during a lameness exam, your veterinarian will need to pick up and hold your horse’s foot and leg without resistance or leaning. If your horse needs a radiograph (X-ray) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), he’ll have to place his foot on a small plate. Many horses are taught how to pick up their feet, but not how to hold them up or put them down with finesse. Your horse needs to trust you to hold his foot, then gently place it down onto any surface.
Training technique: Have a helper hold your horse, or tie your horse to a sturdy post. Stand at your horse’s left shoulder, facing his hindquarters. Place your left hand on his left shoulder, and lightly move it toward his fetlock. With your thumb and index finger, gently squeeze the tendon just above his fetlock joint.
When your horse picks up his foot, lift it so his lower leg is parallel to the ground, then hold that position. If you feel him squirm or pull away, maintain your hold, moving with him until he relaxes.
When your horse relaxes and accepts the foot hold, gently lower his foot to the ground, and place it in a precise spot. Don’t let go or drop his leg. If you do, he’ll learn that he can place his foot wherever he chooses, not where you or your vet needs it to be.
Repeat this exercise several times on each leg. When your horse understands that you’ll put his foot down when he’s relaxed, experiment with new foot-placement locations. Pick up his foot and place it on a block, piece of paper, a flat rock—whatever you can find that may mimic an item in your veterinarian’s clinic.
Lesson #4: Match Your Pace
How it helps your vet: During a lameness exam, your veterinarian will need to see your horse’s movement at a walk and trot. If your horse is pokey while you lead him, clinic staff will have to work extra hard to get your horse to move at an even cadence. If your horse moves smoothly and at the speed you request, your vet will likely be better able to see a change in stride and pinpoint the lameness.
Training technique: Work in an arena or other area with flat, consistent footing. Stand at your horse’s left shoulder, facing front, holding the lead rope about a foot from the halter. You don’t want to pull your horse forward, you want your horse to learn to match your step and follow your lead.
Walk forward a few steps, leading your horse at a walk, keeping his head just behind your shoulder. Then jog in an animated way to cue your horse to pick up the trot. If he does so, increase your pace. If he moves at your pace without lagging behind, allow him to rest as a reward. Then repeat the exercise until you know he’ll respond well to your trot cue.
If your horse is sluggish, ask a helper to jog along behind your horse waving a flag or whip/longe whip to prompt your horse to go forward. (Make sure your helper stays off to the side and out of your horse’s kicking zone; remind him or her to avoid actually touching your horse.)
Ask your horse to move on again, with your helper to reinforcing your trot cues. As soon as your horse moves forward easily, allow him to rest as a reward. Make sure he stops on your command or when you stop, not when he thinks it’s time.
Continue to trot your horse up and down the work area until he’ll stay at your speed without the prompt. When he’s cooperative, trot him in circles to make sure the change of direction doesn’t slow him down. You’ll get a good workout, while your horse gets ready for potential lameness exam
My Rocky Mountain/Arabian horse cross is five months old—I’ve had him for two months. He is calm and usually well behaved. However, he’s starting a new and scary behavior. He turns his rump to me when he’s in the paddock or when I enter his stall as he eats. Today he kicked at the man who owns the barn where I board. Please help—how do I stop him from doing this? I don’t want a horse that kicks.
Dear Kicked Out,
Yep, it sounds like you have a problem. What your horse is saying to you and anyone else that enters his stall is, “This is my space and you are not welcome here.” Turning his rear-end toward you is a threat to kick. It sounds like a threat he is perfectly willing to make good on.
This behavior is an indication that your horse does not respect you as his leader. In the horse herd (you and your horse are a herd of two) you are either leader or follower. Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the space and the resources of the other herd members. When you walk into a stall (the horse’s personal space) and he is eating (food is a primary resource to the herd) it’s normal for the horse to defend his space and food. Therefore, clearly your horse feels like he is in the dominant (leader) position over you.
Every time your horse is successful in pushing you away, it’s confirmation to him that he is in charge and you are a subordinate herd mate. The kind of relationship you need to have with your horse is that you are the herd leader and he is the follower (subordinate to you). To develop this kind of relationship, you will need to do lots of quality ground work during which you control your horse’s space and actions. When doing ground work, it’s important to ask your horse to turn towards you. With a rope halter and long lead line in hand, you’ll have the tools to correct his movements if he angles his hindquarters close to you. Leading your young horse, in general, will help him realize you’re in charge and he is to follow. As you work, make sure he doesn’t enter your space. For more tips and step-by-step directions, consider checking out a ground work DVD or attending a horse handling clinic. You can find my groundwork DVDs at www.juliegoodnight.com.
In the meantime, enter the horse’s stall with a lariat or long rope (or use your horse’s halter with a lead rope attached). Once the horse turns his rump to you, just start throwing the rope toward his rear-end and reel it back in (do not approach the horse at all). Toss the rope continuously at his rear end—not viciously but persistently—until he turns around to face you. The instant he turns to face you, turn away and walk out of the stall. Wait a couple minutes then start over. By throwing the rope at him, you’ll irritate him until he does the correct thing (turns and faces you). If you don’t feel comfortable with the process, ask an experienced horse person or trainer to help you.
Remember, it’s quite likely, even expected that the horse will kick at you (he has already proven that he’s willing to do that). So it’s your job to stay well out of the horse’s kick range. Sometimes this can be hard to do in a stall. That’s why I like to use a 12′ training lead for ground work. The reason you are using a rope is so that you can stay well out of the horse’s kick zone. Unless you are totally confident in your ability to stay clear, have someone more experienced help you with this. This little trick will teach your horse that it’s polite and expected of him to turn and face you when you enter his stall.
Good luck and be careful not to get kicked!
Until next time,
Ask Julie Goodnight: Help, my horse kicks at the canter!
Question: I have 3 horses, all of which do the same thing. They walk and trot quietly, but when you cue for lope, they will kick up in the back. I know it’s probably a training issue, but I don’t know what to do next to try to get them into a canter without the kick up. I am a senior and have been riding all my life and showed for years, so it’s not lack of riding ability, but may be related to not riding often enough. I’m sure I could carry on once I got them started loping without getting bucked off. Answer: Since all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior, you have to consider the common denominator, which is the rider. While you should always rule out a physical problem first, the fact that all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior tends to point to the rider. But don’t feel badly, most “horse problems” are actually rider induced and you’ll be way ahead of the curve just knowing this, because before you can solve a problem, you must identify it.
Answer: Without actually seeing you and your horses in action, I cannot really diagnose the problem, but I can tell you that this is a very common problem and I see it all the time in clinics. In fact, we have an upcoming episode of Horse Master on this very problem—over-cueing for canter.
Generally speaking, when you cue a horse for trot or canter and he launches into the gait like he was shot out of a cannon—you over-cued him. In the case of the canter cue, there are compounding issues related to the flight response. When the horse is cued to canter, in a way, you are cueing for the flight response; so if you over-cue him you may get more than you bargained for. It is not uncommon for horses to have an outburst of emotion when cued for canter and kicking out the heels is one such example.
To resolve this issue and get a smooth, relaxed canter departure, you’ll need to get more systematic in your canter cue and tone down the signal, adjusting to each horse’s level of sensitivity. While you are working to improve the canter departure, you’ll want to cue from the slow sitting trot. This gives the horses fewer options to get the right answer; but don’t cue from the long-trot. At the slow collected trot his legs are close enough together to reorganize easily into the canter but as he moves into extended trot and his legs spread farther apart, the canter is more difficult to pick up. If he misses the canter cue and goes into long-trot, bring him back immediately to slow trot by using your seat and reins to check him back. As soon as he comes back to slow trot, you’ll cue him again for the canter right away.
Before you give any cue, always prepare the horse that a cue is coming by shortening the reins slightly and closing your legs on his sides. You’ll know he is ready for a cue and listening to you when his head comes up a little and his ears come back on you; that is your horse’s way of saying, “what do you want me to do?” If you develop a consistent and systematic cue for canter, the horse will understand better and he’ll know what is coming next.
Once he’s ready and listening, you’ll give a cue using all your primary aids in sequence: legs, hands, and then seat. First, use outside leg, slightly back; this sets the horse up for the correct lead and also helps him differentiate from the trot cue, where you use two legs at the same time. Next you’ll slightly lift the inside rein; this is less of a rein cue and more of a repositioning of your body into the canter position for the inside lead, with your inside shoulder lifted and your weight in the outside stirrup. The last part of the cue is a push with your seat in the rhythm of the canter motion—like you are pushing a swing. Leg-rein-seat; in a 1-2-3 rhythm.
If your horse is eager to canter or exuberant in the departure, you’ll want to keep the focus on your seat aid, rather than on your legs. There are many horses that cue to canter just by a simple rocking of the seat in the canter motion. If the horse is over-reactive to the cue, use less and less pressure each time until he accepts the cue quietly.
By sequencing your aids and getting more systematic in your cue, your horse will learn what you want and will not stress over the cue. As you practice your transitions, you should be able to make your cues more and more subtle, using less and less pressure. Start by slowing the rhythm of the cue down so that you are taking longer to cue the horse. This helps him think through what is coming next so he is not surprised. Practice many trot-canter-trot transitions. Each time you make a transition, it should be a little smoother as the horse learns the cue better, thus reducing his anxiety.
When horses kick out at the canter departure, often it is because it seems to him as if you are yelling at him when a whisper would work. As you get more systematic with your cue and your horse comes to understand, you can use less pressure. If he is ready for the cue when it comes and you use less pressure, the kicking should go away. You’ll find more help on my Canter with Confidence DVD and my Perfect Practice DVD: http://shop.juliegoodnight.com/
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician