TRUE TRAINING 51 - Ground Manners
Ground manners in any horse are very important and often overlooked. Why? First, they transfer to mounted work. A horse who’s been taught to pay attention to you, follow your instructions, and respect your space will succeed under saddle more quickly and effectively than one who hasn’t. Second, they’re necessary for safety while grooming, leading, and tacking up. Not just your safety, but for your horse’s safety, too. And third, ground manners are critical for your horse’s veterinarians and farriers, especially during unexpected emergencies.
I taught True to catch during his first weeks with me (see True Training Posts 2 and 3), and I reinforce the lesson each time I enter his pasture and call his name. About 75% of the time, he comes to me. The rest of the time, he waits for me to approach. Often, this is because his attention is distracted with an event elsewhere near his pasture—a horse or dog coming down the road, maybe a car driving in. What is most important in my mind is that because of this catch training True has never evaded me.
Most of his other ground manners have been taught little by little on a daily basis, while preparing for our rides. I rarely need to remind True of his manners now. If he slips up, I correct gently. Now and then, I discover a gap in his knowledge and work on it specifically for a week or two. My standards for ground manners are fairly high based on what he has learned over two years of lessons with me so far. I believe a five-year-old horse should:
- catch easily even from a large pasture, typically by calling his name
- allow the halter and all other tack to be placed on him easily
- lead willingly at a walk, trot, halt, and reverse—all on a slack lead
- stand quietly without moving until I say otherwise, and without moving into my space
- lead through gates or stall doors without rushing or balking
- allow all forms of grooming—brushing, bathing, fly spraying, sheath-cleaning
- readily pick up each foot and hold it up as long as needed
- stand still while a rider mounts or dismounts, then wait for the cue to move forward
- accept deworming or medicated paste and injections
- relax upon hearing my voice, so that I can calm him in emergencies
True had not learned to do many of these ten items upon arrival at his new home with me at age three. He has a few problem areas still – he tends to stand closer to me than he should and moves forward into my space at times. To change this behavior, I back him one step for each forward step he takes, returning to his original position. Occasionally, I have to remind him to stay there with a firm “Whoa.” He balks at gates now and then, so I reward him when he passes through without much hesitation. He hangs back on the lead sometimes, walking or trotting more slowly than he should. These, then, are the manners we spend time practicing.
The ten items I’ve listed here are basic ground manners, in my mind. I was fortunate that True’s breeder taught him to load onto a trailer before I came along, but I reinforce her work whenever True hesitates at the ramp. I have taught him where it is not acceptable to urinate (barn aisle, wash rack, arena)—all through training by reward. He knows how to be vacuumed, but still needs more practice with ear-trimming. These are higher-level manners, still important but less critical than being caught or standing still.
No horse can be trained, shod, or treated for illness or injury if he cannot be caught. Many horses who do not catch well for a daily ride are even less interested in being caught for a veterinary emergency or farrier work. Each horse should be taught to accept and like his veterinarian and farrier. Create a team for your horse that remains consistent —rider, trainer, owner, veterinarian, and farrier. Let the horse get to know these people over time. This practice relaxes the horse, but it also allows each professional to provide better care. The vet who sees your horse for seasonal vaccinations and tooth floating knows a lot more about him, medically and behaviorally, than a new vet would—and that allows for faster diagnosis and more effective treatment at the unexpected moment of a colic or tendon injury. Changes in any member of the horse’s team will affect the horse’s behavior and can affect the horse’s health.
I thought of this blog topic the last time True needed to be dewormed. I’m not particularly handy with paste tubes, especially when the temperature is close to zero, and I’ve dealt with many horses who won’t tolerate them. True happened to be lying down in his pasture when I arrived, snoozing in the sun. I walked over and spoke to him, squatted down and stroked his warm fur. He looked so comfy I hated to make him stand up.
So I didn’t. I just reached over with the deworming tube while squatting next to his head. He’s had many positive experiences with deworming by now, and many rewards from me for good deworming behavior. He never moved. I placed the paste in his mouth, easy as feeding custard to a baby, then sat on the ground and leaned against True’s warm back, stroking and talking to my fine young horse. That was enough learning for one day!