One of the most basic things people do with their horses is move them from the stall to the arena or pasture. We often don’t think of how important even such a mundane task is to having a safe horse, but it is these small training opportunities that help to build up a safe and harmonious relationship with your equine friend.
I know that it seems ridiculous that I am writing about turning out a horse. “I do that everyday, Elizabeth- what of it? I’m not an idiot.” And yet, what may seem very basic to a lot of people, I see being done incorrectly- or at least, could be done better- by a number of people.
A few key points:
Entering/Exiting the Turnout
Make sure to hold onto the gate when walking the horse in/out of the turnout/paddock, etc. I cannot tell you how often I see people open the gate, then let it go, and it swings back, hitting the horse on the side or the rear. Sometimes the horse just takes the brunt, and just gets a bruise for his pains. That’s not OK to do to your horse, but for some reason, people don’t seem to see that this is an issue. Seriously- put yourself in your horse’s place. Do you want a gate slamming into you? Have a little empathy.
Sometimes, however, this “attack” of the gate on the horse causes him to kick, bolt, spook, or run over the person walking him. Quite frankly, I don’t blame him. That puts the handler at a great risk, however, and it’s completely unnecessary. Walk your horse in and out of the gate while holding onto it, and swinging the horse around you. If your horse shies or rushes the gate, it’s probably because he’s been hit by one; the more often you take him in correctly, without having a gate crash against him, the more Training likely it will be that he will walk calmly in and out.
Once Inside, Don’t Let Your Horse Immediately Take Off
Your horse should not anticipate being immediately let go once he enters the arena. What happens when horses anticipate freedom, is they often will preemptively want to run away from the handler. This is a huge issue that I see quite often, and often have to deal with when we get a new horse into the rescue- I put him into the arena, and before I can even get my hands up to the halter, the horse is trying to run away. Or, I have the halter halfway off of his head, and he’s already trying to bolt across the arena. This is unacceptable behavior, and can get you hurt- your fingers can get caught in the halter, you can get stepped on or knocked over, kicked, etc. In order to prevent this, I’ve found that it’s helpful to do the following:
- Walk at least six feet into the arena/turnout before turning out your horse. This prevents you from being caught up against the rail if something does happen.
- Put the rope around the horse’s neck before untying the halter. This tells him that he’s still “caught” and can give you something to hold onto if he starts to walk away.
- Untie the halter, but keep some pressure on the rope around his neck so he still feels “caught.”
- Once the halter is off, I pat the horse twice and say, “OK.” This is my release command. You need to do this EVERY time you release the horse- either in the stall or the arena or wherever. Eventually, the horse will understand that the double-pat and “OK” mean that you are releasing him, and he will wait for that command.
- If your horse does not respond to the rope around the neck as being “caught,” you may have to train him to acknowledge the feeling of being “caught.” Instead of letting the horse go immediately when you get into the arena, walk him around for a minute or. This will stop him from anticipating being immediately let go once he enters the arena. Then, put the rope around his neck (with the halter still on), and walk him around, keeping some pressure on the rope. You should eventually be able to walk him around just with the pressure of the rope around his neck. You can stop a few times and fiddle with the halter, but DON’T untie it- just fiddling with it will create anticipation- but once the horse realizes he’s still attached to you, after a few times, he will stop. If you feel like he is calm and responding with just the rope, then take the halter off, and walk him around with just the rope for a short time. Then, release him using the double-pat and “OK.”
- The first few times may be ugly- I’ve had horses run away from me even though we walked around with the rope around his neck. It takes practice. Depending upon the situation, if the horse pulled away from me, I may catch the horse again and then release him when he is calm and acting appropriately. I may have to do this several times before he understands. I would rather spend a little time training the horse at the beginning and then reinforcing that training, than wondering if I am going to get hurt every time I try to turn the horse out.
- You must also be consistent with your handling. The minute you stop using your release command, your horse will ignore it as well. Training is a lifetime commitment- it doesn’t stop once your horse “gets it.” Your horse will be happier and safer- and so will you- if you commit to a regiment. This includes ALL of the people handling your horse- your groom, farrier, trainer, friends, etc. Remember, everyone who works with your horse is a trainer- not just your trainer.
- Take improvement over perfection. Maybe your horse didn’t release as perfectly as a horse I’ve been working with for a decade- so what? Some days are going to be better than others, but the most important part of working with horses is PRACTICE and acknowledging IMPROVEMENT. Anytime your horse releases calmly, without acting like a crazed beastie, count that as a win, and a step towards being the safe horse you want.