Monday, August 17, 2009

The Horsemen’s Guide To Ground Manners: Tying, Leading & Loading Safely

What is the single most important skill you can instill in your horse? Aside from getting the word “Whoa” ingrained in his mind from the outset, which of course comes in extremely handy while working on the ground manners phase of training, teaching him to tie and lead are paramount. One of my personal pet peeves is a horse who won’t stand tied without pulling back...and naturally that horse who decides he’s going to drag you all over creation instead of going where YOU want to take him.

Perhaps some of these little annoyances don’t really bother you, but I can guarantee your safety will at some time be compromised if your horse has issues in these areas. With a new horse (or any horse, for that matter), I suggest you go back to the beginning and be sure that “Whoa” lesson is well learned. This is covered in a future installment of “Laying The Foundation” that addresses halter breaking of foals, but the method and process is identical for horses of any age.

To start, I’ll tell the horse “Whoa” in a firm, moderately loud voice -- though not loud enough to scare him -- and insist he stand still in exactly the spot he was in when I gave him the command. When he moves, make him return to the same spot and tell him “Whoa” again, giving a slight tug down on the lead. Repeat each time he makes even the slightest step away from where you’re working him. He should plant those feet every time you tell him so. Skittish horses do tend to require a bit more sensitivity than more tolerant creatures, but the firmness with which you speak is of utmost importance. As soon as he’s gotten that down, you can begin to walk around him, again, telling him “Whoa” and insisting on his staying put every time he moves a hoof even the slightest bit. Generally this doesn’t take more than a couple of lessons for him to get the point.

Now we can begin teaching him to tie. Tying a mature horse who hasn’t learned respect for his lead rope means taking a little bit different approach than teaching a baby to tie. I’m going to want something VERY sturdy to tie him to, that he’s not going to be able to bend, break or pull over, along with a heavy duty halter and lead made out of virtually indestructible materials and hardware. No brass snaps or leather halters, please! For me at this stage, a bull snap is a must.

As a rule of thumb, with an older horse I’ll teach tying before asking him to master walking politely on a leadline, because it doesn’t generally sink in that he needs to yield to his lead unless and until he’s decided he cannot get away from what’s on the other end of that lead. Telephone poles work well for this purpose, or any large diameter pole, pipe or railroad tie -- just make sure it’s sunk into the ground at least four to six feet and set in concrete. Where you would not actually tie a baby at this stage, I’ll generally assume the mature horse (or one older than the weanling stage) knows what tying IS, he just doesn’t like to stand there and deal with it. For the sake of this column topic, let’s just say he’s really bad at dealing with the whole concept.

With a horse who fights being tied, the lack of ability to get away from what he’s tied to is my number one concern. Once he’s gotten free that first time, he’s going to be ever more likely to continue to fight each time you try to secure him to something. In fact, that’s usually why they fight it in the first place. Remember how a horse’s mind works on instinct. Chances are, there was some trigger that made his mind snap in order to cause the violent reaction you sometimes see from a horse to being tied. Fight or flight. If he can’t get away from it, he’s going to fight with it in order to possibly facilitate fleeing it. Our job is to teach him there’s nothing wrong with standing still being tied, no matter how long we’d like him to stand there.

Although I have seen some horses who would rather hurt themselves than be tied for any reason, most of them do ultimately come to an understanding that I mean business and that being tied is a fact of life. Try to remove any scary obstacles or anything that may have the potential to make the horse think it poses a danger to him in your working area. If the horse actually is visibly frightened by the act of tying itself, and just WON’T tolerate it, you’ll need to spend a lot of time reassuring him that he’s okay, but unless he’s putting himself in a position to hurt himself or especially you, DON’T untie him until he settles down. Then calmly yet firmly release him from being tethered. My manner of choice by which to do this is to use a second lead rope. You snap that rope to his halter, and then unsnap the one he’s been tied with. But should he try to pull back or fight again during your attempt to let him ‘off the hook’, so to speak, don’t do it. Make him stand still while you switch the ropes. It’s got to be understood that he has to stay put until YOU say so. Sometimes you may need to let him take a break (SAFELY yet quickly getting him unhooked from what he’s tied up with) if there is a danger of injury, giving him just a short breather while you rub on him and/or groom him, still making sure he respects your command to ‘WHOA’, but he will need to finish the lesson eventually and stand there behaving while he’s tied.

For my purposes, I also want the horse to be able to stand quietly in cross ties, too. This facilitates ease of grooming and tacking up inside the barn. Once the horse understands he will be made to stand tied to a post or pole, I’ll begin the cross tying portion of his schooling in a 12 to 16 foot wide pipe corral, preferably at least 24 feet long. There is plenty of room on either side of the horse to move around him once he’s comfortable with being tied, but you won’t risk injuring either him or you, or damaging your barn or tack, if he throws a fit. There will also be enough space in front and back of him to get out of his way while he’s having that fit. Make sure the panels you’ll be tying to are secured in concrete or are bolted to a permanent structure so when (not if) he fights the rope he cannot move any panels. Use two fairly long leadropes, with bull snaps, attached to each side of the halter and use your quick-release knot to tie him from either side.

Now, if he’s really learned the previous parts of this lesson, he should ultimately (within ten to fifteen minutes at the longest) stand tied quietly and understand he must tolerate your moving around him and touching him without throwing a tantrum. If he does not respond reasonably quick, you need to go back to the post or pole and let him stand there tied for a good, long while.

Okay, now that you’ve conquered his naughty streak and he both stands still when told as well as stands tied nicely, it is time to teach him how to behave properly while being led. Most horses who don’t have any manners on the ground will try several ways to get out of control when you simply want to lead them from one place to another. They may try to run over you, bolt away from you or just stop and stand there, not wanting to go anywhere. I’ll briefly cover those three scenarios.

I’m going to first work him inside his stall or, preferably, outside paddock. I’d like plenty of room (24’ x 24’ works best) but not too much in case he decides he’s not going for what I’m asking. If he’s inclined to want to occupy the same space I am in at the same time, the goal must be to insist he respect my personal space. When I halter the horse to begin this lesson, I want him to understand from the start that I’m not putting up with being crowded. He is not to be allowed to make any contact on me with any part of his head or body. If he attempts to rub or push me, he will be reprimanded by getting a quick tap on the nose along with the word “NO!” exclaimed rather loudly. It’s got to be lightning fast and before he even realizes it’s done -- remember, I also never want to make a swing at his head, because I don’t want him to become headshy. The other important thing is to always follow-up with a firm “WHOA” cue.

If he doesn’t get the point of my actions, I’ll be a little bit more aggressive the next time. The worst thing I can do is allow him to think he’s getting away with something he knows I do not want him to do. By aggressive, I don’t mean in an angry way, I just want him to know I mean business. Instead of that tap on his nose, he will get more of a slap with the back of my open hand. Again, not swinging my arm at him, just very quickly and measured. The point isn’t so much that he’ll feel a sting, but that he will hear the contact of my hand on his face somewhat akin to the effect using a bat-end crop has on a horse. It’s not the feel of it but the noise of it that works.

At this point, I’m going to ask him to move forward with me using my left hand on his halter rope and my right hand near his shoulder. Not on, but near. Should he decide to sidestep into me, he’ll get a shove of my hand pushing him away from me, a firm “NO!” and a slight downward shank on the halter. My primary concern is that he’ll respond to my request for forward motion in a relaxed yet direct way. In other words, he should be amiable to my request to move forward with me (rather than on me), and he should be going in the correct direction -- straight ahead -- rather than trying to drag me around in a circle, for instance. Each part of this lesson should be slow and methodical. The moment you try rushing him, you will reinforce his need to argue with you, because his nature tells him what it means when you push him too hard, too fast, is danger ahead.

If he’s the type of horse who would rather run away dragging his handler behind him, instead of walking calmly beside said handler, the foremost thing I need to remember is to keep myself from getting behind his shoulder. The instant I’m behind that shoulder, he has the advantage over me by sheer body mass and strength, and he’s going to use that against me, guaranteed. As soon as he tries to pull his head away from me, I’m going to need to use my weight to counter the pull he’s trying to give. My immediate goal needs to be getting his hindquarters swung around so that he’s facing me. Then we try again. Ordinarily this need not be a major drama. Once most horses start to understand their handler demands respect, the horse usually gives it. This means both respecting your space and having respect for your intentions.

The last and probably most frustrating leading problem we may infrequently encounter is the horse who just refuses to budge. For this type of horse, the most important thing to remember is the need to keep his feet moving, no matter what. With babies, it’s a pretty simple task of getting them to understand pressure on the halter. Once they comprehend that, no sweat. The recalcitrant horse, on the other hand, who simply wishes to be obstinate, is a different story entirely. If, after the horse is haltered and I attempt to lead him, he stops dead in his tracks and won’t lead at all, my first action will be to get him to think he’s off balance by pulling sideways toward the left. This will cause him to shuffle his feet generally in that direction and when he does, I’ll praise him for actually moving. He may not be headed in the right direction, but he at least did something right.

Sometimes on the tougher cases I’ll need to use some ‘friendly encouragement’ such as a long crop or, in a pinch, the end of his lead rope. The key here is not to make him think I’m trying to hurt him or scare him, just urge him forward. I would rather tickle his flank with the crop than let him stand there with smug satisfaction that I can’t get him to heed my request. Most of the time all it takes is once, because he’s already determined that I do mean business. If he’ll take even one or two steps when I ask, even if it’s not in the exact direction I desire, I’m ahead of the game. My only requirement of him at this point is that he move.

After I can get him to move around me in a circle, again, using the crop if I absolutely have to, I’ll graduate to using a mild stud chain on him -- always up from the bottom ring, through the near side ring, over the nose and back through the far side ring, attaching to that bottom ring. Of course I don’t want to hurt him, it’s the pressure I want to use to encourage him to move for me. If he doesn’t need that chain, all the better. But I’d rather be safe than sorry.

After he’s gotten the point that I want him to move when I ask, I’ll encourage him once again to move forward with me, and if he doesn’t respond right away, he’ll feel a good, sharp jerk on the stud chain. Now, this will generally send him backwards, but that’s okay. He moved. This results in praise. When he flat out refuses, I’ll pull his head toward me and get him to at least move a foot or two in some direction. As long as it’s movement. Soon, he will start to calmly walk with me when I ask him to, and after a short while I won’t even need that stud chain. Magic? No, plain old common sense. I don’t really care what side we start with, although I tend to prefer the horse’s right side (or counter-clockwise), because that’s the opposite side from which a horse is usually led. These leading lessons do, however, need to be done equally on both sides -- I spend as much time working off the horse’s right side as I do his left, and I’ll work him just as long clockwise as I will counter-clockwise.

Finally on the subject matter agenda for this post is trailer loading. But if the horse has learned to mind his manners when leading and tying, getting him into that trailer will be a snap. He trusts me, right? Knows I won’t let anything bad happen to him? So he should hop right in and allow himself to be transported anywhere I want to take him. But what if he doesn’t? My first line of defense against a horse who I’ve tried to load the easy way (leading him up to the trailer, letting him take a sniff of it then asking him to step on in) and gotten rebuffed, is to make being outside that trailer more unpleasant than being inside of it. I won’t beat him, hurt him or scare him, but I do want to encourage him to do as I ask and will reprimand him for disobeying. This is a lesson that you absolutely have to set aside a lot of time for, just in case. Feeling rushed will only exacerbate the situation and cause the horse to be wary of why you're trying to get him into that trailer!

First, using a long buggy whip and tapping the ground behind his hocks to get my point across will start driving him forward. If he resists and begins to move backward, I’m not going to spend a lot of time allowing him to drag me all over the place -- after the second time of insubordination, I’ll actually tell him to back up, because if that’s what he wants to do, fine, we’ll do that until he decides he doesn’t like backing up all that much. Pretty soon, going forward in the direction of the trailer doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Most of the time having a helper behind the horse with that whip is more effective than me trying to coax him by myself. Remember, unless he tries to kick at it, symbolically kicking at me (or whoever has the whip in their hand), we won’t be even so much as coming close to tapping him with it.

If he still resists even attempting to step up into the trailer, after the fourth or fifth try I’m going to change gears and put a stud chain on him. My philosophy is, I’m not about to take all day to get him to do something this simple. The method isn’t meant to hurt him, merely let him know this isn’t a game and I’m not playing. If he steps on the ramp or up into a step-up trailer, then backs out again, I’m not going to make much of a big deal about it. However, he’s only going to get a couple of chances to do that without progressing further. Personally, I prefer a trailer with a nice, wide ramp as it’s a whole lot more conducive to getting the horse loaded instead of having them launch up a big step.

At a certain point, if he’s just plain ignoring me, I’ll briefly go back and reinforce those leading and tying lessons by reminding him all about the word “Whoa!”, then moving off the pressure I place on his poll via the halter. Afterward, once more I’ll request he step forward in the direction of the trailer. As a rule, this process shouldn’t take longer than fifteen to twenty minutes at the most. Especially if I did my homework and made sure he fully understood those tying and leading exercises. Sure, you can park the trailer in a field, pasture or arena and feed the horse in there, but it’s no guarantee he’s going to want to go in when you want him to. Most horses under those conditions will jump in, grab a huge mouthful and hop right back out, gaining distance on that big box. It really doesn’t teach him anything other than ways to get out of there even faster.

My absolutely LAST resort will be the “butt rope”. It isn’t something I recommend, but for the most difficult cases it can come in handy at times as long as the individual using it is skilled, quick on their feet and remains calm should the horse pitch a fit. There is a distinct danger of the horse deciding to flip over and injure himself and/or the handler(s) working with him. I use a good, sturdy cotton, not nylon, longe line tied instead of snapped (lest the snap break when the horse puts pressure on it) to the right side of the trailer, and run around behind the horse to the left. This allows me to be on the horse’s left side (where he’s generally been taught he should be led from, not to mention more comfortable with me on) and asking him to move forward into the trailer. At this point, the rope should be against his rump, below (not under!) his tail above his hocks, but there should be no pressure placed on it yet. It won’t be until he tries to balk that I’ll ask for a tightening of the rope, pushing him toward the trailer. I want to give that horse every opportunity first to move on into the trailer without physical force.

No matter how I ultimately need to get the horse into that trailer, it is vitally important that I understand the crucial moments when the horse will start to walk in on his own and when he’s going to try refusing. Most horses decide eventually that they don’t have it so bad in a trailer, but I always want to get them hooked in and secured, FIRST having someone hold the lead rope as I close the door or divider, before he’s tied or snapped to a trailer tie. Also -- if I know the horse will have a tendency to try running backward out of the trailer and/or pulling back on the rope or tie before I can get that back door closed, I’ll have a third party there to hold the door mostly closed or be quick with the ramp while I get myself out of harm’s way before he “explodes”. I want an escape route!

Pretty soon trailer loading will become as routine as the simpler things like tying and leading. It’s all in how much time you want to invest in your horse and his education. I recommend taking the time to be sure there are no holes in any part of your horse’s training, to ensure you and he will both be safe in everything you two do together.


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