Q&A On Horse Behavior; Protecting the Alpha; Aggression over Feed Time; Ground Tying; Catch a Horse; Pawing (Rick Lamb with Julie Goodnight)

Have you ever had a horse stand over you in protection? If you’ve fallen or become injured on the trail? I have a photo of my horses where 7 are laying down and one is standing sentry. The boss is in the very middle– laid out and snoring. The horses around her are laying down but have their heads up. They know she is dominant, but she has to sleep sometimes. The leader can’t always be on but they look up to her and protect her. They know she has to sleep sometimes. This same thing can happen with you and your horse if your horse sees you as the leader and has that bonded respect. I have heard of horses protecting or taking over momentarily when they know that you need a rest or are injured.


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Horse Standing Still While Tied And In The Saddle

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Common Complaints
My horse fusses and fidgets when tied or when I ask him to stand still

Julie Goodnight helps you calm your fidgety horse—helping him to be the rock-solid, trustworthy, still-standing horse you deserve. You’ll tie your horse and trust that he’ll be patient as you groom and tack—just as Goodnight and husband Rich demand of their favorite mounts.

Does your horse paw relentlessly when tied, like he’s digging a hole to China? If asked to stand and wait–under saddle or in-hand–does your horse fidget and fuss, causing you to constantly correct him? Are you playing a game of cat and mouse, where he fusses and you try to fix him, in a constant game of tit for tat?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to train your horse to stand quietly and patiently anytime you ask. With the right training, your horse will stand still like a statue.

The Reason
Horses that fuss and fidget, refusing to stand still have either never been taught to stand or have been “anti-trained” by a handler. Let’s look at three different origins for this obnoxious and destructive behavior. Then I’ll suggest three different solutions for its cure.

While one cause comes from the horse’s lack of good experience, the remaining two causes are human induced. Any horse’s behavior is a sum total of his instinct and what he has learned (or not learned) from his experience. A fussy fidgety horse must learn to be patient and must also have some structured rules of behavior–dictated by you, his leader.

First, it’s possible your horse hasn’t learned patience at the hitching post. If this is the case, the cure is fairly simple. He’ll need to spend hours on end standing at the patience post–until he learns to wait quietly.

I prefer to teach my horses to stand quietly when they’re young (yearlings or two year olds). The older a horse gets without learning to stand quietly when tied, the more hours he’ll need to spend at the post. He’ll be tied minimally for a couple hours every day for a couple of weeks and will only be put away when he’s standing quietly. For older or spoiled horses, the standing-still lesson may take all day—even for days on end. I tie young horses while I am working with older horses. That way, I can supervise the youngsters while making sure they have other horses in sight. They’ll have company and lots to look at while standing.

When you’re teaching your horse to stand tied, make sure you have a safe and comfortable place for him to stand. Your locale should be shaded, have good footing, be bug-free, and the post should be safe and unbreakable. Make sure your horse is never left unattended. Overhead ties work well for horses that are learning. Please don’t use crossties for lesson time–the horse will think of them as a gymnastic apparatus and may easily get tangled and twist the multiple ropes. Make sure your horse is securely tied with equipment that will not break. I prefer to use a rope halter so that my horse will never learn to lean or pull on the halter—the pressure and knots will stop him from pulling back and apply pressure, asking him to move toward the tie post. If your horse is a digger, put heavy rubber mats down to prevent him from digging a hole. Eventually your horse will learn that his fussy antics serve no purpose, so he may as well be patient.

The second cause of fussiness originates with the human responsible for his training. It’s quite easy to anti-train a horse. In just one or two instances you can teach a horse to do the opposite of what you want. If you’re not consistent and aware of your cues and timing, you may inadvertently give your horse a reward–releasing him when he’s doing the wrong thing and not releasing/rewarding when he’s doing the right thing.

Every time you release your horse from being tied while he is fussy, allow him to move on his own accord, let him lean or step into you (or the farrier and the vet), or give him attention while he’s pawing, you are training your horse not to stand still at the patience post. With good timing and meaningful pressure and release, your horse can be taught to stand like a statue in one session–although he’ll need plenty of practice to make it a habit.

You’ll have to invest some time when teaching your horse that you control his feet (and the rest of his body) and that you want his feet to be still when appropriate. You’ll teach him while you’re on the ground and he’s outfitted in a rope and long training lead (I prefer 12-15 feet of heavy marine rope, without a metal buckle at the chin–available at www.juliegoodnight.com)

In an open area, ask your horse to stand still by turning and facing him, saying “whoa” firmly and snapping the lead if he doesn’t respond to your body and voice cues. It’s important to face him–standing 6 feet or more away from him–with your toes pointed toward his shoulders and your feet firmly planted. This position is his cue not to move. As long as he obeys, keep the rope slack. Anytime he makes an unauthorized movement of any foot, pop the rope, so that the chin knot bumps him in the chin and causes him to back up. You must use just the right amount of pressure to make sure he’s motivated to change his behavior without causing him to move too much or seem startled.

With consistent and timely corrections, your horse will learn to stand perfectly still on a slack lead, knowing that you control his feet. With just a little more work, you can train him to ground tie, which is a very handy trick for your horse to know. These techniques and many others are explained in detail on my DVD called Lead Line Leadership.

Finally, let’s consider the horse that doesn’t stand still under saddle. Again, this is human-induced behavior–based either on a failure to enforce rules or failure to release the horse when you should. From day one in a horse’s under-saddle training, he should be taught to stand perfectly still when mounted and to only walk off when given a cue. Every time your horse walks off without a cue, you are training him to be disobedient. Your horse should stand still while you’re mounting and even when another horse walks off in front of him.

Every time you have allowed him to move on his own accord, you’ve reinforced that he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Never allow him to walk off right after mounting; always make him stand patiently and await your cue. Be aware of your horse and what he’s doing; he should only take orders from you, not the horses around you. Allowing him to get away with an unauthorized movement because you were getting ready to ask him to do it anyway is a lame excuse.

I often see riders teach their horses to fidget when asked to stand under-saddle—they think they’re holding the reins tight to control and stop the horse, but the opposite lesson takes place. Believe it or not, horses learn that we’ll pick up and engage the reins before asking them to do anything (stop, go, turn). When horses feel that the reins are slack, they know you’re not asking anything of them.

When you’re riding your horse, you may be teaching him to fidget when you think you’re holding the reins tight to control and stop him. If you’re used to riding a fidgety horse, you may hold the reins tight all the time, eager to correct your horse when he moves on his own. As a result, the reins are never released when your horse does stand (rewarding him for his behavior), so he’s confused and thinks you’re asking for movement. The horse becomes impatient, looking for a release by doing something else (moving).

When you ask the horse to stand, cue him to stop with your voice, seat and reins, and then release the reins to total slack, laying your hands down on his neck to reward him once he’s stopped. If he moves, pick up the reins quickly and harshly, enforcing the stop. Instantly release when he stops, even if only for a second. Make the release dramatic and meaningful by laying your hands down on his neck and giving him lots of slack.

So which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are you fixing the fidgety horse, or is he fidgety because of you? Most seasoned horsemen know that nine times out of ten, horse problems are human induced. If your horse needs education and experience, or if you need to change your ways, the problem is fixable with time and consistency.

Building A Better Relationship: Pawing

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Question Category: Building a Better Relationship

Question: Hi Julie,

Awesome newsletter as always, my name is Tina and I have a question about pawing. I am a new horse person I have had my Arabian/ QH gelding for 1yr now he is 6 yrs old and when I got him he was perfect in every way except he was very head strong. I have been taking lessons with a trainer so I can be taught the proper way to work and ride him. He has been at the same place now for a yr and it seems he is picking up habits and one being the worst is pawing, he paws as soon as I walk in the barn or as soon as he sees me walking toward the paddock, he is often getting his foot caught in the buckets, (they have been moved all over his stall) I have tried all kinds of things not to reinforce this behavior (such as no treats if he does this), I wont take him out to groom him if he paws and sometimes when I am grooming him it seems he paws right at me. The barn manager wants to use hobbles on him and I am not sure if that is the right thing to do, can you suggest anything I can do to stop this behavior? I do see him every day we do have a fair to good relationship he does test me from time to time but I don’t know if what I am doing is wrong and makes him do this. I know I have a lot to learn so I am sure part of his problems is because of my lack of knowledge. If you have any ideas they would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,


Answer: Dear Tina,

Pawing is a common problem and it is a communicative gesture on the part of the horse that means that he is frustrated and wants to be moving. And yes, people contribute to this behavior in several ways. Probably the fact that you give him treats at all is a big cause. He has learned to associate you with a handout and when he sees you he is very anxious to receive his treat (the feeding of treats erodes your leadership over the horse). I would suggest that you not give treats at all- ever- and that will help to resolve this problem and other problems that you are having with leadership with your horse. There are numerous articles on my website about the problems that hand-feeding treats cause and once people understand the horse’s behavior better, they generally will stop giving treats (you’ll find very few professional horsemen that give treats to horses).

Another common situation that exacerbates the horse pawing is that when he paws he gets attention from you. Horses are just like kids sometimes- they would rather get negative attention than no attention. So if every time your horse paws, you come to him to stop him, he begins to think he is controlling your actions (and he is) and getting you to come to him and keep him company. Therefore it is best to totally ignore his pawing and only come to him when he is quiet.

Like most trainers, I am a big believer in the “patience post.” We will leave young or untrained, ill-mannered horses tied at the hitching rails for hours each day. In the beginning the horse will fuss and paw and carry on, but eventually he will learn that his fussing does him no good and he will learn to stand tied patiently. This may take a week or two, but eventually he’ll learn to have patience when he is tied. Using rubber mats at the hitching rails will help prevent a horse from digging a big hole when he paws.

There is certainly nothing wrong with hobble training a horse and in fact, many people think that all horses should be hobble broke so that they learn not to fight restraints. This way if the horse is ever caught in the fence or a rope, they will not fight it and injure themselves. Just make sure your hobbles are soft, comfortable and well fitted and that whoever is helping you is knowledgeable about training a horse to hobbles. There was recently an article in Western Horseman about hobble training a horse (summer 2004). Craig Cameron, a clinician from Texas, makes my favorite kind of hobble. They are made of re-braided cotton rope and are very soft and easy on the horse’s legs.

One more thought on your pawing problem: you need to do more ground work. Your horse should know to stand still without moving a foot when you are around him or when you ask him to. Your horse should not be moving at all when you groom him and if he is, it is an indication that he has poor ground manners, is disobedient and does not think of you as his leader. There are numerous articles on my website about ground work and teaching ground manners to your horse, but you’ll probably need some on-site help to do it with your horse. Groundwork done well will always result in a quiet, more responsive and willing horse that is focused on you and totally obedient to you.


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