Horse Tip Daily #34 – Julie Goodnight on Trailer Safety
Horse Tip Daily #34 – Julie Goodnight on Trailer Safety
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.
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.
Question Category: Issues from the Ground
Question: Hi Julie,
I was at your clinic in Colorado Springs—I don’t know if you’ll remember me, but I had the 4 year old black BLM mustang, Ranger, with whom you worked on “stand still.” He’s the one who laid down for a nap in the arena on the second day. Ranger did GREAT after the clinic, for quite a long time. However, we moved to a new barn in November. Since our move, he’s gone downhill and seems nervous and defensive most of the time.
He won’t stand still more than a few seconds, regardless of how many times I correct him. Standing tied has become a nightmare and a battle, and it’s to the point that I don’t enjoy working with him right now (although I do, because he’s my horse, my responsibility and I love him dearly). I read every related article on your website, and am going to modify a few of the things I still do (kissing him on the nose), but didn’t see anything that addressed this level of disrespect. The tie area is inside and about 20’x20’. He’s tied to a ring on the wall, so can’t see forward. He usually stands with one side against the wall. I tie him with about 12”-18” of line. He will not stand still at all—he slings his body back and forth (usually running me over), slams his head against the wall, paws, tries to “push” through the lead rope, tries to slam his head into me, has started trying to nip when I groom him, etc. He gets so wound up that he’s shaking and sweating—he’s clearly stressed by being tied, but I don’t think that he’s afraid. He has always tied pretty well in the past, but has never stood well—previously he simply moved his body back and forth but the other behaviors are new. This is the first solid wall, though—the others were tie racks, fence posts, etc, so he could see forward. He will pull back, slowly, to find the end of the slack, but doesn’t fight—he usually has slack in the line, but will sometimes lean against it. He doesn’t set back or fight unless he’s truly scared, and when he does, it’s one or two head shakes with a sort of half-rear, then he comes forward to stand. Those events are very rare.
I have tried several things in order to help him understand that he has to stand tied, quietly. I spent days simply asking him to stand quietly without being tied, moving closer to the wall & tie ring. He did pretty well as long as I was on the other end of the line. The minute I tied him, he resorted to these behaviors. When he is tied, I have tried getting “big” and using the end of the lead rope to define my space—he runs through it and slams into me anyway. I now use a dressage whip to ask him to stay off of me, and smack him on his hip or side when he moves towards me, but he runs through that, runs me over, then goes back to his original position. I’m escalating to the point of being worried about hurting him, although I know that I’m probably not big or strong enough to do that. I’ve also used a second lead rope on his halter to correct him (so that he’s tied, but I also have a lead rope) and that helps somewhat, but doesn’t seem to matter when he’s slinging his body back and forth. This has gone on, on a daily basis, for the past two months. I don’t know what else to do. He has also started to yank his foot away and step on me or hop and jump on me when I’m trying to clean his feet. Last week, he tried to pull away from the farrier, then jumped on top of him when he couldn’t pull away (we resorted to a stud chain at that point—his first time with one, because he’s always been pretty good, but I can’t let him hurt someone. He did behave very well with the stud chain—I don’t blame him because I know that it hurts.)
When he does stand still, I praise him, rub his withers or neck, or scratch his butt and step away for a second, but then he tries to move towards me and starts pawing frantically. It’s as though he can’t stand not to have me near him, but doesn’t want me near him at the same time.
The barn managers really get after him, much harder than I do, with the lunge whip when he moves. This doesn’t seem to help at all. One is a quiet man, who is firm and clear, but the woman is loud and much harder, so there’s not a lot of consistency between them. I will say that their horses are very well behaved and stand very quietly when tied. They have trained horses for over 30 years, each. Anyway, she thinks that I need to tie him all day, for as many days as it takes, as short as I can until he works through the fact that he’s tied. The barn manager thinks that I need to tie one leg up, particularly after he yanks a leg away when I’m cleaning his feet, to teach him a lesson. Again, I don’t see how this teaches him anything, particularly since there isn’t a release until we get around to untying his leg—and if he panics and falls, he could break his leg or his neck.
He doesn’t do this body stuff when he’s on the lunge line or lead line. His whoa is terrific although his “stand still” has degraded. I continue to work on it as much as I can. Some days, that’s all we do—stand with the goal of standing for 30 seconds. He’s also not standing under saddle at all—the barn manager says that he’s just not tired and I should work him until he’s ready to drop, and Bill Dorrance’s book says that horses like him need a job and need to be moved before it’s their idea, and eventually they’ll understand that standing still is OK. Ranger, at this point, seems to think that standing is the worst punishment ever—no matter how much we work on the lunge line (start, stop, turn, turn again, work hard, disengage, etc), standing still isn’t a reward. Julie, he will back himself around the arena just to avoid standing still because he knows that, when he moves, he gets backed (when he starts backing, I “help” him, then we disengage a lot, then try standing again).
The most ironic thing is, when I free-lunge him then ask him to join up, he will stand still beside me, head down, and not move until I ask him to move. I can pick up his feet, clean his sheath, do whatever, and it’s as though he’s dead broke and 25 years old—but only when he doesn’t have a halter on. We’ve been able to stand quietly while I putter around him for up to an hour, without anything more than a shift in weight. Probably not the smartest or safest way to clean feet and sheath, but thus far, it’s the only way I can do it without a fight. When he’s totally unfettered, he behaves the way I’d like him to behave when he’s tied. It seems as though everything starts going wrong when the halter is put on, and it’s downhill from there. Do you have any ideas that might help me? I love my horse and want him to be a good citizen, and we will both be much happier when I learn how to assert my leadership and he submits. I just don’t know where I’m going wrong at this point, or whether I should let the barn manager up the ante, or what. I suspect that there’s a battle for leadership going on, a lack of obedience, understanding & training on his part, and a lack of knowledge on my part. I think that there has been an erosion of trust due to the battles that we’ve been having, too.
I don’t think he has pain issues as the root of this—I had a chiropractor adjust him about a week ago (his shoulder was a little out, but not badly, and there were no other sore spots). His teeth were floated about 6 months ago and his jaw moves freely, so I don’t think that he has teeth issues.
I’m hoping to ride again at your August clinic, if I can get the days off, and I hope at that point all we’re working on is “smoother lead changes” or “better trot transitions” or something like that! Thanks, Julie, for any words of wisdom you might have.
Karen and Ranger
The behaviors you describe are certainly very extreme and it seems like these issues are a result of your horse having a volatile and temperamental disposition and his being a BLM Mustang. BLM Mustangs are wild horses that have been brought into captivity; thus making them potentially much different animals than their domesticated cousins. Not all Mustangs take well to domestication and confinement and taking away the horse’s ability to flee and putting him in a cave where he cannot see or hear potential threats, may be too much for some Mustangs. I would back up and try to work with him in a situation that is more reasonable for him, like being tied outside. I would also continue to do as much work as possible with him at liberty so that he knows the way you want and expect him to act. Then add a halter, but ground tie, and gradually work up to tying him, starting with tying him in the easiest place (outside).
Your horse is employing full-blown temper tantrums and once he has crossed that threshold, training and reasoning with him will not work. I have worked with other horses that have similar tempers and I have learned that you cannot fight fire with fire. Harsh treatment, whipping, tying up legs, etc., will only fuel his anger and validate his desire to fight or flee. Whipping a horse to make him stand still is not logical and will never work. I have seen some incredibly brutal techniques employed in situations like this but I have never seen them work.
Although I am a big fan of the ‘patience post’ (letting horses stand tied for hours on end), in this circumstance, I am not sure that will work. I have seen tantrumming horses go on for days, at great physical detriment to themselves. Eventually they break down physically out of exhaustion, but once they regain their strength, they revert to their former ways. Training will not occur unless a horse is thinking and in the midst of a severe emotional episode like you describe, there is no thinking going on, only instinctive fight or flight response. Back up and work on smaller goals with this horse. Try to recreate the previous situations under which you were making progress with the horse. Use ground tying and/or liberty work as much as you need to help re-establish a norm of behavior. I do think there have been some mistakes made in timing and judgment that have exacerbated your problem, but without witnessing them, it is hard to say what must change.
Good luck and I hope to see you at another clinic this year.
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