Recently I had someone ask me how I teach my horses to stand still. The answer is that I don’t. At least not directly. My horses are all quite good about standing tied, and standing for the vet or farrier, and most of them are easy to be around at shows, standing quietly and not fidgeting. Even my young ones. But I don’t ever spend time working on directly that. I know there are some methods… every time the horse moves, drive them forward in a circle until they want to stop, go a little longer, then allow them an opportunity. This teaches them that fidgeting will be more work. .. offering some type of negative experience when they move and positive experience when they don’t, etc. I have never found this to be very effective, mainly because it doesn’t take into account why the horse is moving in the first place.
Most horses who don’t stand still are experiencing nervous energy, whether it is excitement or anxiety, the experience is usually similar, they dance around, whinny, tail high, head high… (Think about yourself, you are getting ready to go on stage for a big performance, how do you feel? Sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat, etc. You might be excited, you might be terrified, but the physical experience can be quite similar) This is a result of high emotion, and is usually triggered by predictable circumstances.
- Going somewhere new
- Introducing new horses
- Removing familiar horses
- Adding new unfamiliar stimuli
- Things that trigger the horse’s memory of a bad experience
When I am working with my horses I keep myself aware of three things:
- How well does my horse handle unfamiliar situations?
- Young horses are not likely to handle unfamiliar situations well without being taught.
- Older horses who have not been handled with patience, or who have been placed in situations where they became significantly frightened or even hurt, will also not tend to handle unfamiliar situations well.
- Horses who have a nervous temperament will tend to show nervous energy with less stimuli than a laid back confident counterpart.
- How likely is it that one of these situations may occur?
Being at a boarding facility there are often horses coming and going, but for most of my horses this means this is no longer an unusual circumstance. They tend not to notice horses coming and going unless it is the horse stalled beside them or a horse who pastures with them. What does come up frequently is that my young horse who is typically ridden in off hours when no one is around behaves much differently when another horse enters the arena during a ride. I prepare myself for the possibility that our ride may be interrupted by this and I have an alternate plan.
- What options are available to me should my horse experience nervous energy?
I have a separate set of expectations for my horses during times of nervous energy than during times of calm. In any situation my rules for my horses are:
- They move when I say move
- They stay where I put them until I ask them to move
- They do not come into my space uninvited
- When I walk they walk with their head at my shoulder and at my speed.
In a high energy time with my horse my rules are the same, but my expectations are different.
Ex. When I am saddling up in a quiet barn I will expect my 3 yr old to stand quietly for 15 minutes and I know that this will not cause undue stress for either of us, nor will we end up in a fight with me trying to force her to do something she refuses to do. I have this expectation because she has proven she can do this.
When I take her to another barn with an indoor arena for her first outing, I will not expect her to stand to be saddled at all. I won’t even consider saddling her until I walk her around and lunge her and see that she has settled. The first trip I might not saddle up at all. When I do, I will likely have someone assist when I saddle so that one of us can focus completely on her.
I have these different expectations because I do not put my horse in a situation that they aren’t ready to handle. To do that is setting them up for failure (which is also setting myself up for frustration). Horses who are routinely set up to fail become those older horses who do not know how to handle nervous energy.
So my answer to how I teach my horses to stand quietly is that I set them up to build confidence with every encounter they have with me. I don’t ask them to do things that they are not ready to do, and I don’t put them in situations where they will become genuinely fearful or hurt. I gently stretch their comfort zone in the beginning until they have proven they are ready to handle more. I keep working to stretch their comfort zone through training until they can quietly handle any situation they are likely to encounter. This results in a quiet confident horse who stands nicely and does not overreact.