Training Your Horse for Procedures--And Everything Else

Picture this: You're at a horse handling clinic watching the clinician's horse do pretty much anything you can think of and 50 other things you hadn't. You sit there amazed and envious, wishing you could get your horse to lead or sidepass that well with no visible cue, to say nothing of the ease with which that clinician can clip, load, and give shots to that horse. How do you get your horse to handle that well?

At the Healthy Horses Workshop (held Dec. 2 in San Antonio, Texas, in conjunction with the 52nd annual American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention), clinicians John Lyons of Parachute, Colo., and Mark Fitch, DVM, of Boulder, Colo., spent several hours on this topic for more than 300 horse owners, trainers, and veterinarians in attendance. Using attendees' horses, they demonstrated how to work around the problems of problem horses, and in doing so increase their compliance with more handling procedures than just those at hand.

"What we want you to be able to do is learn how to read these horses and do what's appropriate to work around them without scaring them more and making it more difficult to work around them," began Lyons.

 The main message both clinicians emphasized was that handling and training horses isn't just about what you're trying to get the horse to do (or not do) at that moment. The way a horse responds to you for one activity is the same way he responds to you for other activities, so by improving your handling of your horse in one area, you'll see benefits in your other interactions with that horse as well.

It's Your Job

A key point emphasized by Lyons is that it is the owner's job to train the horse to behave for the veterinarian, farrier, or whomever.

"It is our responsibility to have the horse so well trained that we can do whatever we need to do without a problem," he stated. "Our horse does not have the right to hurt anyone. It's not because the vet smells funny that a horse hurts him, it's because we didn't train that horse well enough. It doesn't take that long to train them.

"If you really want your vet to love you and want to come see your horse, get him to act perfect for that vet," he added." 

Handling Basics

Several of the horses Fitch and Lyons worked with during the clinic were not properly responsive to their cues to move forward, back, or sideways. So they started there, often using a snaffle bridle for more control and to help extend the cue lessons to riding work.

Working with a young horse that was there because he was head-shy and needle-shy, Lyons said, "He's never been taught to move away or to the right, so he crowds us. He's not doing anything wrong, he's just being a horse. It's like taking a kid to a nice restaurant but never teaching him how to eat. You can't get mad at him because he's a horse. I just want to teach him to move away and what manners are."

Fitch added, "He has to have a balance between the respect and the fear in his life. We must remove the fear first, and instill respect in its place. Fear is removed using approach and retreat. Respect is instilled by teaching the horse to yield to and from pressure."

While repeatedly asking the horse to move forward, back, sideways, and stop, Lyons remarked, "Even after five minutes of doing this, you see a big change in the horse. Plus you're teaching him sidepassing, turns on the forehand, to move his haunches in, move laterally, get off the haunches, and to get far more responsive to the bit. As we get to the end of the lesson, it takes less and less pressure for him to move. So we're getting him more and more responsive."

Trailer Loading

Next Lyons worked with a Paint mare who reportedly used to load in trailers fine, but had a bad experience getting on a trailer. "She fights a lot and got worse and worse," said her owner. "It takes several people and a butt rope to load her now. I have put her grain in the trailer in a round pen; she will go in and eat, then comes back out. If I move a partition or something, she's out of there."

"The first step in is also the last step out," said Lyons. "Our job is to get the horse to back calmly from the front of the trailer all the way back. Really all you have to teach this horse is to put one foot in the trailer 200 times and take it out, put two feet in 200 times and take them out. You don't have a cue to ask the horse to back out of the trailer, so the horse decides to come back out on his own. I'm not getting up in there with her. I'm going to need a cue to ask this horse to stop and back up, and one for that shoulder to go away. I'm trying to control her all the way in, and all the way out.

Lyons offered several tips related to trailer training during his work with the mare:

  • "When the horse rears, while he's is in the air I hit his front feet (with the crop). When they come down, I back off. That's how we start taking away the option of 'up.' "
  • "Sometimes I reward a forward movement, sometimes just a forward thought. He has to think about getting in the trailer before he can actually go in."
  • "Actions will follow thoughts. If he keeps coming out of the trailer and looking out to the side, about the fourth time he'll try pretty hard to go that way."
  • "They start out bad, learn a little, get better, then get worse. They start trying other options because they're afraid, then they'll start getting in the trailer, then get a lot worse. They'll try every single option and put a lot of effort behind it. At this point a lot of people get real worried and wonder if they should have stopped. Don't."
  • "Once the horse is in the trailer, you can start making noise and stuff, but don't trap the horse in there (by shutting the door). I don't ever trap them in the trailer until they're 100% solid in the trailer. Never ever, under any circumstances, do you close the door if you think there's the least chance he's going to flip out."

Lyons' General Handling Tips

  • "You're not building a partnership, you're building a leadership."
  • "I don't want my horse to know I have a watch, a time frame, or that I get frustrated or upset. I want my horse to think I'm flatline no matter what he does."
  • "Good training is never a waste of time. Take extra time if you need it, even if a particular thing is not what you planned on doing today."
  • "If you tap the horse (asking him to move forward) and he starts to back up, and he keeps going back, then you have to keep tapping until he goes forward. If you stop tapping when he backs up, then the taps start meaning 'back up.' "
  • "A horse's skin is seven times more sensitive than yours. So if you wouldn't hit a person that way (he demonstrated with loud pats on the horse's neck), definitely don't do it to your horse! A rule of thumb is if you can hear your hand hit the horse, it's too hard. Do not hit that horse loud enough at any time to hear it--that's punishment, not praise."



Get research and health news from the American Association of Equine Practitioners 2006 Convention in The Horse's AAEP 2006 Wrap-Up sponsored by OCD Equine. Files are available as free PDF downloads.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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