SpiderOak Online Backup, Storage, Access, Sync, and Sharing

How to teach your horse to stand
perfectly calm while
totally UNRESTRAINED
for shoeing / trimming / etc.

by

Certified Farrier - Barefoot Horse Specialist
Jack Griffes

Onsted, MI 49265
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

This article is a compilation of letters originally written to several clients during 1995 and published on the World Wide Web, Friday 31 Jan 1997. I think the information will (if used) prove helpful to many horse owners. It would make your horse so much more pleasant to be around - it really is worth the time and effort. Additionally it will help improve the longevity of your farrier if your horses stand dead calm and offer no resistance - you all know how hard it is to find a good farrier so perhaps that factor will help motivate you. Training horses always involves some risk of injury (or even death) to the horse, the trainer, any spectators, equipment used, etc. - this risk is totally your own as you will be making your own judgements on what to do. As with any suggestions on any subject you must weigh them out for yourself and proceed accordingly - at your own risk.

Here's a review of one way to use a round pen to teach your horse to stand calm, relaxed, without fear, without any restraint to get its hooves trimmed. It takes time but not near as much time as it takes to recuperate after being severely injured by an unruly, untrained or undertrained horse. More than length of time the critical factor is thoroughness.You have to outsmart AND outlast the horse. You have to get the horse to willingly acknowledge that it is your subordinate after which it will quite naturally and cheerfully comply with orders from you its superior. This is not accomplished by cruelty but by sound reasoning at a level a horse can understand. The horse is at liberty (no tack on including no halter) inside the round pen and thus has the ability to fully exercise its agency (ability to choose for itself). You as the trainer simply reason with it until it understands that choosing to do what you (the superior officer) want done immediately, without hesitancy, is the wisest of the available alternatives. You simply limit it to two possible choices. One you can enforce (run) and another which is what you want the horse to do.

Here is the gist of the round pen technique geared towards training a horse for "Halterless Horseshoeing." The round pen is ideally a 60 foot diameter round pen with seven foot high walls that a horse cannot readily see through. The size is to save you steps - so you can pretty near stand in one spot and pivot most of the time. The height and opaqueness are to thwart attempts at escape as horses are far less inclined to charge through a fence they cannot see through and far less likely to try and jump or climb a fence they cannot see over - thus the height and opaqueness is to prevent injury to the horse. IF the horse highly respects another type of fence you can sometimes get away with using less adequate facilities as a make shift round pen (which may actually be square). I have done this numerous times - results generally take longer and you the trainer end up far more tired because the horse will try all kinds of evasive maneuvers which you must thwart. Generally thwarting these maneuvers involves A LOT of running to bust them out of the corner they keep stopping at - or the far end (in a rectangular pen) where they think they know they are out of your range of control (because they are thinking about the range at which a boss horse can get them).

Remember you are a predator and the horse is a prey animal. Much of the trouble people have with horses is due to this difference in the way things are viewed and thought about by predators and prey. How you move often looks scary to a horse because you move like a predator and that is undeniably terrifying to a prey animal unless they are desensitized to certain predatory behavior (or the predator moves in distinctly non-threatening ways like the lion pride walking through a herd of antelope as they give room but keep grazing you've seen on TV). That is exactly what you are going to do - teach the horse that you (a predator) can be trusted along with teaching them you are the ultimate boss horse (requiring instant obedience even from long range).

So you turn your pupil out with no halter into the round pen. You are aiming for a level of control over the horse that stems from their willing compliance so the halter will not be needed (this will also prevent you from foolishly and impatiently grabbing for the halter and screwing up the reasoning technique used in the round pen). You place your large towel or cloth gunny sack in the middle - this is your only tool needed aside from those tools firmly attached to your person (your eyes, legs, arms, mouth {optional}, and mind) which are the most important tools you need. You speak calmly and softly ask the horse to stand still while you approach its shoulder. If it lets you walk right up you rub its withers much like horses do to each other when grooming each other in the pasture when they are relaxed. This has a calming effect on the horse. You read the horse to know when it is calm enough and you then calmly bend over running your hand down its leg until you are grasping the tendons that run behind the cannon bone. You calmly tell it to pick up the foot and immediately squeeze the tendons a little. If the horse gives the foot and stands calmly for about 15 seconds (the first time) you then put the foot down. Stand back up and praise it calmly again rubbing its withers. Most times the horse does not respond correctly the first time - this is their option and should not anger you because they are being reasoned with - they have a choice. You can rest assured that your reasoning will prevail in the end (you must not stop until it does). At the first hint of resistance (using this technique) you realize that they have chosen not to accept you as boss so you step back and say "Run!" then IMMEDIATELY wave your sack or towel to insure your command (not request) is complied with. At this point your job becomes that of a command enforcer. You will not strike the horse but use explosive motion (scary because it is predator-like) to keep the horse running in one direction around the round pen. You cannot let the horse outsmart you and steal a break or you will not prevail (because you don't deserve its respect if it canget away with it). If you let the horse stop it is obvious you are letting the horse take a break. You are also letting the horse steal a break if you let it trot, walk, or switch direction even if it continues to run. Horses have no sense of equality like humans - we humans want to be equals - horses understand dominance and submission. Their herd hierarchy is more like the line of command in the military. You must be the Commander in Chief having authority over the general of each herd as well as all the other herd members down to every private. Horses work best for those they respect. Respect must be earned and constantly renewed since in a horse herd the chain of command can change due to age, new herd members, injury, etc.. If you wimp out (fail to be respectable) you are confusing the horse by giving it mixed signals - "sometimes I'm dominate - sometimes I'm submissive" to you - this makes no sense to a horse. When this happens can you truthfully blame the horse for failing to obey? So get that horse running when it chooses not to comply willingly and make sure you don't let it steal any breaks from you - think dominant like a boss horse - respect must be earned so earn it and more importantly earn it in a way the horse understands. Now comes the trickier part - not truly hard but requiring you to be able to accurately read the horse - you initially need to get the horse running and keep it running. Then once it complies and is running along and not trying to take a break you watch for it to soften up like it is thinking "I would sure like to stop and rest." With some horses you will have to wait a long time before this happens with others one or two laps and they are ready - that is why you have to read the horse. If you misread them you just carry on and adjust the number of laps until you get it right. I don't so much count laps as read the horse. So you see it softening (asking to stop). You take this as "okay give me another chance and this time I will do what you want boss." Accordingly you quit pushing them and let them stop. If they stop with their rear facing you that is a sign of threatening. Since horses don't threaten their superiors be assured that any horse facing you with its rear hasn't caught on - get it running again pronto. If the horse stops side on then approach its shoulder and rub it briefly then reach for the head (when the horse turns it to you) with one hand and turn the horse to face you. By turning to face you head on the horse is showing you a higher level of respect (like standing at attention and saluting) - insist on it. After a few times you won't manually turn the horse you will expect it to turn and face you automatically (and on command - say "turn around here" while manually turning it). Remember it is always the horse's option to run - you are giving it two choices - do what I ask OR run. Any time it resists to any significant degree you take that as "I'd rather run some more than comply with your command right now" and act accordingly. Often when you stop the horse (let it stop) the first time or two you will catch them being dishonest with you - they said "give me a rest break and I'll do what you want" then when you get close they break away and run. I hate dishonesty so that costs them a couple extra laps after they start asking to stop again. In short order they learn to be honest (oh that it were so easy to teach humans honesty). Since you are always trying to get the horse to comply and always watching for it to soften up and always giving it another chance you can see it is the horse itself that is choosing to run and you can be sure that the horse won't run itself to death (when it can choose to stop). It may however surprise you how long some horses can and will choose to run particularly the ones people have given good reason to make them believe that "if I hold out pretty soon this annoying human will leave me alone." You continue on until the horse will let you handle each foot as long as you want while offering you no resistance. When you finish that first round pen session (30 minutes to two hours depending on the horse) the horse will stand perfectly calm - it will not lean - it will not snatch the foot away - it will not saw with the leg - it will stand perfectly calm until you give it back the leg even if you hold it up half the day. It will do this with no one holding it - indeed with no halter on. This takes only one round pen session to teach although additional sessions may be needed to cement it in particularly hard (read "spoiled") cases.

Given a choice, the right facilities, and the time I prefer the round pen technique. There are times when another technique may better fit the current need however. Sometimes completely new methods must be invented and very often old standby methods must be modified to help the current pupil learn the appropriate lesson.

Truly it is the horse owner that is responsible for havingthe horse trained to willingly allow its feet to be handled. Ideally this should be done before the farrier is summoned. Since the horse needs hoof care within the first month of life (and here in the Midwest every 4-6 weeks each Summer and every 6-8 weeks each Winter thereafter) the mare owner should train each foal to yield its feet within moments of birth. Unfortunately in real life this happens all too seldom because most horse owners either don't take the time or perhaps more often don't really know how to get the job done effectively (though they often won't admit it). Some horse owners are actually afraid of horses (and unwittingly telegraph "you are the boss" to the horse) though very few of them will admit this though it is plainly obvious by reading their body language (which is telling the truth). Don't forget that horses do little in the way of spoken communication - they are EXPERTS at reading body language - they read yours in horse dialect which makes body language the easiest way to speak horse (similar to using sign language).

I have successfully used several other techniques to rapidly teach horses to stand. I will outline only two here. These techniques require more skill and more self control as they involve what is essentially a controlled fight with a larger, quicker, more powerful animal. They do not involve beating the horse. Generally under severe time restraints the fastest technique (with a mature horse) is to put a properly long lead shank chain up through the bottom ring through the side ring over the nose through the off side ring and back through the bottom ring where it is snapped back to the lead shank (clear around the nose - snapped to itself at bottom). If your lead shank chain is too short (most are) DON'T USE IT - instead use a long welded link chain dog collar (choke chain type). I prefer the dog collar myself because then I can snap a long rope on it and that makes it easier to keep hold of the horse. When thehorse failsto comply you back it up rapidly using the chain over the nose as your leverage to get the horse to back. Horses that are spoiled often resist backing because to a horse backing is a sign of submission (they are backing down from a superior). Think about what that means. If the horse won't back for you (when you are on the ground facing them) they are saying "you aren't my boss." So you use the chain over the nose only just as much as needed and only just as hard as needed to get the horse to back quick until it will back with light or zero pressure on the chain. At times, with spoiled horses, you will have quite a fight on your hands at first which is why I want a 30-40 foot rope snapped onto the dog collar - this gives room to maneuver while keeping a hold of the horse. Some horses will end up with scuffed up noses due to their own choice not to comply which forces you to keep after them with the chain over the nose until they change their mind. As stated before horses have no equalswithin the herd hierarchy only superiors and subordinates. If you expect the horse to do your bidding you must be its superior in its mind. You back the horse until it softens up and backs willingly (submits - usually this is indicated by lowering and slightly tucking its head while continuing to back). Then you lead it back to the exact spot you started and try again (horses are area or location conscious). If the horse complies you praise it (get your voice in praise mode first - it was probably in scold mode while backing the horse). If it again bucks your authority you back it twice as far this time. Each time it bucks your authority you double the distance backed (yes you may end up backing the horse a long long ways with tough cases). Eventually it will catch on and stand properly - keep at it until it does. With skill this takes less time and no round pen BUT you have to win the fight you are joining (the horse started it by non-compliance) and you have to win it completely. You have to keep your temper under control and that is harder when you are getting after the horse. The situation is not as clear (compared to the round pen) and you are throwing in lots more variables which you must quickly judge and properly deal with. Using this technique I generally end up with a horse that will back away from me when I use my eyes and posture to indicate threatening intent and yet will let me walk right up and pet it one second later if I change my posture to non-threatening. That is what you are aiming for - that means the horse acknowledges you as boss and can read your intent toward it and act appropriately. Some of these horses will even stand halterless after one session to get their feet handled but that is not the norm with this method - generally it takes longer because the message is not as clearly spoken in "horse." Backing the horse rapidly as a form of reprimand is a very good thing to remember because it can be done with no special preparation in other situations as well.

Another technique I use is the one used on your weanling last evening. It can teach multiple lessons at once if done skillfully - teaching the horse to lead, come on command, stand as long as required, yield feet freely. A 35' - 40' long rope fashioned into a come along (a mild form of war bridle) on the horses head. The come along puts pressure on several of the horses seven pressure points on the head. Even a small person (90 lb.) can make a very large horse come with a come along. Once again the initial response by the horse can be dramatic so be prepared (some horses rear the first time or two pressure is applied). Unfortunately there is no way I can adequately describe in writing how to put on a come along. But the gist of this technique is that you teach the horse to come to you on command. You command the horse to come, if it doesn't you pull on the rope and wait - eventually the horse WILL come because of the pressure on the pressure points. When it does come you must manually release the pressure on its head right away (then pet and praise it for coming no matter how furious the struggle was - it finally did do your bidding and that is praiseworthy). It soon views you as a savior of sorts. This rope bites it if it stays far away - you save it if it comes to you - the best place to be is next to you. Once it will come all the way (that last half step is the most important one) to you the instant you command with no pressure applied (just gathering up the rope as it comes so it doesn't step on it and jerk itself) THREE TIMES IN A ROW then you begin teaching it to pick up its feet. You reach down and pick up a foot. If the horse pulls away you jerk on the come along - then tell it to come to you and when it does release the pressure and praise it. Pretty soon it has learned that it is not only best to be near you it is best not to hop away from you and also best not to take its foot away from you.

With each method youhave to recognize that a horse is very simple minded. Each leg is a new lesson to it. Just because you have shown it how to hold up one leg doesn't mean it will give you the rest. You can tame one leg on a kicker and still get kicked by the other. Even the brightest horses rarely transfer more than about 10-20% of a lesson you taught them on one side over to the other side (expect zero transfer - be overjoyed when you get some). So be sure you work with each leg until your pupil stands perfect. When you can walk out anytime day or night, rain or shine, calm or hurricane force wind and the horse will let you walk right up (or come on command is better) and pick up any foot you want for as long as you want then you will have finished that part of its training. Then you will have truly shouldered your responsibility as the owner. I don't tell you this as theory it is a fact. I have trained horses professionally - for pay - for others. I have used each of these techniques and othersto train horses to stand for shoeing. Interestingly enough all the horses I have trained which are still in the area stand perfectly to be trimmed or shod - for me or anyone. My own mare is a good case study. She was fully mature (5-1/2 years old) and untrained (hardly leadable) when given to me. She was a dog food candidate because of a lack of training. She had kicked another farrier at least twice (once in the jaw so hard his jaw was sore for eight weeks after which he wisely refused to do that horse ever again) and had kicked other people as well. If you touched her on or behind her hip she would try her darnedest to kick you. It took me about a week and a half of working with her to get her to the point where I could trust she wouldn't kick even if I provoked her. It was dangerous to try to reform such a horse and she still has a very dominant minded personality which most people could get into real trouble trying to deal with. She actively watches for signs of submission and if you show one she will try to dominate. She requires a horseman not just a rider to get her best performance but she is safe for me to put any little kid on and lead around or my wife to ride down the road. Just last night with only a halter and lead we rode her triple - my three year old daughter in front of me - my five year old daughter behind me. She had never been rode triple before but I have that kind of confidence in her now. I know that she is still a horse but she now tends to try and do anything she is asked calmly. (I might note that this is true despite the fact she has mostly sat around the pasture all this year.) She is broke to drive and is a great buggy horse - my boy could drive her when he was four (or was he three?). She is one of the best "real" trail horses I've had - surefooted, smooth trotting (the trot is the most energy efficient working gait of the riding horse), willing to go nearly anywhere including traversing obstacles never encountered before (not just ones trained for). She is also regularly trimmed standing halterless in one of her pastures (two of which belong to a neighbor) - just take out the tools - lead her by her mane to where you want her to stand - say "whoa" and start working - she will stand perfect and never hassle you (if she does shake a foot a stern word is generally all that is needed now). Sometimes one of the kids holds her - since she really requires no holder even a three year old child can hold her (and boy does that make a kid feel important). The point here is simple - one owner of this horse failed to train her (to be fair - she broke her back and was unable to in this instance) and ended up with a quite dangerous animal - the next owner (me) spent countless hours training the animal and now has a useful work horse (yes she pulls a spring tooth harrow, logs, and a manure sled too), good saddle horse, excellent buggy horse - that is safe to be around. She keeps getting better and better because when I train her I do it in a way a horse can understand - thus she remembers it. Then we all act respectable as well. That means we always expect her to act like people are the boss - she is not let to give any slight sign of dominance over people. She has been taught as well that the little kids are the "foals" of the boss - you mess with them and you die - this was essential to kid safety as sooner or later they will get in with the horse and one kick could be fatal remember she is a reformed kicker - I've seen her use those hooves to dominate horses - she rarely misses - she doesn't use them against us because she now views us as her superiors and horses don't even threaten a superior except as a test if they think they saw a sign of submission exhibited. All of this makes sense to a horse - it is horse logic not human logic - it works that way in a real herd. After all if we humans are truly the smarter ones shouldn't we learn and "talk" the language of the less intelligent beasts when we are dealing with them rather than expect them to learn our language? So start walking and talking horse when you deal with your horse - you'll be amazed at how quick a horse can learn and how well it will retain lessons taught using horse logic. Just last week a client made the remark "Angel still remembers everything you taught her" she cited specific things and said how amazed the young neighbor girl that rides her was to see the horse do these things with a hand motion command or a soft whisper. The client said this with a bit of amazement in her own voice as well. Though I no longer do any professional training (don't have the time) I keep getting told this with the same tone of amazement by owners of horses I trained. Generally they are people that have owned a number of horses trained by various people. Why are they surprised a horse can remember and willingly do what it was taught to do? I keep wondering that - why does it amaze people? - what is the difference? I think the difference is that the horse best retains lessons it understands - lessons that were taught using horse logic rather than brute force (though a certain controlled amount of force is used in horse logic oriented training). So it becomes your job (as the trainer) to make sure the horse understands what it is supposed to do - then it will remember and cheerfully comply IF you are the boss (in its mind not just yours). Every moment you are around the horse you are training it for better or worse (whether you mean to or not). Make sure you are making it better and better all the time. Follow through - follow through - follow through - that is the crux of it all - don't fail to follow through. Get the lesson taught and once it is taught accept nothing less than proper execution of your command EVERY time. When the horse tests you to see if you are indeed serious (which it will do repeatedly) - your answer had better always be clear to it - "INDEED I am serious" - no matter if the test (of your position as Herd Boss or something less) comes while in the show ring or when a mare owner has come to see your stud or when you don't really have time (boss horses don't have anything else to do) - then as the horse increases in respect for you (because it sees your steady hand at the helm) it will more and more willingly obey and become less inclined to test you. It will try to comply once it views you as the ultimate boss horse.

(My own Mare has come around even more since this was originally written - My Kids ride her now and she does dandy for them. Her personality remains the same - dominant minded - but she is now cooperative and safe to be around - she was uncooperative and unsafe to be around prior to my training work with her. She views our children as "the herd Boss's foals" which must be treated with respect - at least it seems so - you see I am still learning more horse talk too.)

Best wishes in learning more "horse" (language & logic),

Jack Griffes
Our Church's Site
Certified Farrier - Barefoot Horse Specialist - Jack Griffes
Start right! Safely mounting a totally green horse for the first time. Defusing the anti-predator responses associated with mounting a horse.
Griffes Family Index Page



Changes last made on: 21 May 2011

Accessed times since 26 Oct 1997.