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Ground Manners

Written by Ray Miller
Category: Essays For Horse Owners
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Site Manager's Note: Although this essay doesn't directly address a farriery or hoofcare issue, one of the most serious problems farriers face is dealing with unruly horses. Horse owners place posting after posting on the forums of this Site describing the behavior problems of their horses, and requesting advice about "curing" the bad behavior. This essay is the answer to those questions.

A common complaint among horse owners and their professional caregivers is a lack of ground manners. The animal may refuse to stand still, resist having his feet handled, pull away from or crowd his handler when led, or any number of other misbehaviors. His lack of ground manners may be a mild nuisance or verging on the dangerous; regardless, it detracts from the pleasure of working with him. However, by establishing limits that the horse knows and follows, he become a well-mannered horse that everyone enjoys.

Most problems that arise on the ground are usually based on a lack of training: the handler failed to teach acceptable behavior. It is easier, though, to get angry and believe the horse is being deliberately disobedient instead of taking responsibility for the holes left in the animal's training. To correct this trend, step out of the saddle and spend some time working on the lessons of the ground.

Patience is a key ingredient to good ground manners. The horse must be taught that quietly waiting is required and will be rewarded. A horse's lack of patience usually shows up when he is tied or held for any length of time. He may pull back, paw or constantly dance around.

Teaching the horse to wait is very difficult, since most humans also lack this essential virtue. To overcome ingrained habits such as these require that the handler devote the time necessary to uncover the root of the problem and then finding the solution that will work with that particular animal. Once a course of action is selected to establish a pattern for patient behavior, horse and handler must stick to the program. Begin with short periods -- just a few seconds even -- and generously reward the animal when he meets the goal of standing quietly. Slowly work up to expecting longer and longer periods of the good behavior. The handler must exhibit patient behavior as well, to prevent rushing these steps.

Relaxation is another key ingredient to teaching good ground manners. If the horse is fresh from the stall or small paddock, allow some time in a large turnout, arena or on the longe line before beginning the lessons in manners. (This is true when just starting the program. Once the horse understands the behavior expected of him the handler should require it at all times, in all situations. That is why we teach ground manners.) Remove irritating stimuli from the area so that the horse can concentrate. Eventually introduce distractions to test progress. Over time the horse learns to ignore or becomes habituated to that outside stimuli and maintains his good manners. Again, the handler contributes a great deal toward the success or failure of the session; he or she must be in the proper frame of mind to work with the horse.

Consistent handling is important whenever schooling. Ground manners develop after repetitive practice in which the same rules apply. It is unacceptable as a trainer to confuse the horse by changing the rules or allowing misbehavior one day and punishing it the next. Be aware when starting of the goals, short and long-term, and the limits. If the handler does not know them, it will be impossible for the horse to learn them. Maintaining a schedule also affects the success of the program. If the horse is learning ground manners for the first time, whether young or mature, training should follow a regular routine. If the horse needs a brush-up, a more relaxed program may work. Once the animal is well-mannered, standing quietly, picking his feet up on cue, leading calmly, and respecting his handler's space, more time can pass between sessions. Even the best trained horse, though, will regress if completely ignored.

One of the main reasons horses develop poor ground manners is that the handlers reinforce bad behavior. It is usually inadvertent, but the lesson is powerful nevertheless. Frequently, patience is expended and the handler wants to accomplish a task as quickly as possible. This is when the bad behavior becomes tolerated -- even rewarded. For example, the feet need to be cleaned, and the horse pulls his leg away or struggles while the foot is held. A common response to this situation is to offer a distraction - a bucket of grain or flake of hay. Very quickly the horse makes the connection; "I misbehave, I get a treat." The hard-to-catch horse learns exactly how long he must play "keep away" before the snack arrives. To reverse this training is usually a long, slow process and requires a total turnaround in the way the horse is handled. The owner must regain authority with the horse and establish a position of respect, understanding how the horse's mind works. Setting the guidelines for proper behavior is the next step, maintaining a clear idea of what is acceptable and what is not.

Most horses are generally good-natured, but without proper training they can be difficult to handle. It is the owner's responsibility for the horse to be safe and well--mannered. It also makes it easier for the proper health and hoof care to be administered by the veterinarian and farrier when the animal is properly behaved. Finally, there may come a point in time when selling the horse becomes necessary. The chance of his finding a good home is vastly improved when the buyer sees his gentle ground manners.