By Liv Gude of Professional Equine Grooms, special contributor to Heels Down Magazine.
How do you make your horse stand still in the cross ties for the farrier or vet? Or while you groom and tack up?
Well, for one thing, remember that you need to outsmart your horse, not outmuscle him. Equestrians are strong but horses are clearly stronger, bigger, and generally more likely to freak out over a butterfly.
The key here is positive reinforcement. And patience. And more patience. And still, even more patience.
When you are training for any behavior, from being haltered to jumping a scary flower box to piaffe, your horse must know he’s on the right path. The way to do that is to express positive reinforcement. You have to ignore the attempts and mistakes but reward the positive. So, getting back to standing still for the farrier or the vet.
You must get into the habit of rewarding simple behaviors, such as lifting a hoof to be picked. Verbally tell your horse “good boy/girl/alien” and give a scratch in his favorite spot. Same when you are in the saddle.
Before you even begin, make sure his cross ties are not filled with horse-eating goblins. Remove hazards, make sure he can see a buddy, and turn off the radio. Make sure his belly is full, and he has already been exercised and turned out.
Now, when he’s still, if only for a second, he gets rewarded. If he shifts, simply ignore the shifting. And by ignore I really mean don’t react to the shifting. Don’t talk to him, don’t block him, don’t growl at him, don’t write him a snarky email. Then you can correct him by lining him back up. THEN REWARD LIKE MAD! When he shifts, ignore, correct, praise praise praise!
Eventually he will start to understand that where you put his feet is where you want him all the time, and it’s in his best interest to play along if he wants attention/scratches/rewards.
Keep in mind: this is a training process. Practice it in short bursts, like five minutes at a time. There’s no reason in the world to do this for six minutes or more. If you simply can’t help yourself and MUST drill this behavior into your horse, it will take 97456 years for your horse to not resent you.
Resist the massive urge to get frustrated and interfere when your horse wiggles or shifts. You must remain cool. Simply make a correction and move on. Part of the reason for only practicing in five-minute bursts is so that you, the human, doesn’t get peeved when he’s not perfect after countless repetitions. Give yourself a break! But do work on this EVERY SINGLE DAY. You must also teach others that handle your horse to do exactly as you do. While horses are smart, they can be even smarter if we all talk to them in the same language.
And don’t forget to reward, reward, reward! You can even reward so much that your barn friends start rolling their eyes and avoiding you. You may consider rewarding them when it’s time to hang out. Only then it’s really called a bribe….