Friday, March 2, 2012

Back to Basics II: Stall Manners

I have been fortunate enough to have horses with good stall manners, but I've met my fair share of those who are less than friendly in the stall. I'm not talking about common stall vices such as cribbing, wood chewing, or weaving, but more dangerous antics like lunging toward anyone who opens the stall door or turning around as if to kick. Maybe it's just me, but I find that sort of behavior to be completely unacceptable.

When I open a stall door, I expect the horse inside to turn and greet me in a calm, friendly manner. Unfortunately, there are plenty of horses who don't react that way. The good news is that stall manners are largely learned behaviors and can be modified with a little work.

There are a couple of methods that can be used to reform the horse that habitually turns his rump to you when you open the stall door.

  1. If your horse is food-oriented: 
  • Call your horse's name to get his attention. 
  • When he turns to look at you, call his name and give the cue "Come!" or "Come on!" to invite him over toward you.
  • After your horse stakes a few steps in your direction, praise him for the effort by meeting him part way, giving him a pet, and offering a treat.
  • Repeat the process several times, gradually increasing the distance your horse has to travel before he his given a verbal or edible reward.
  • When your horse is reliably coming to you when you open the stall door and call him, you can begin weaning him off of the food rewards so that he doesn't expect a treat every time you come to get him out of the stall. (This will also help prevent your horse from learning the horrible habit of "frisking" you every time he sees you in search of treats. Not only is his invasion of your space rude, you are also at a greater risk of being nipped if your horse becomes overzealous in his search for goodies.)
  • NOTE: Do NOT show your horse the treat before he has made the effort to come to you. Showing the treat before your horse has done anything means that you are merely bribing him, not conditioning him to accept and respond to a specific verbal cue cue.
  • BONUS TIP! Once you have taught the "Come!" cue, you can begin using it at far greater distances, such as calling your horse over to you in his paddock or pasture. You can use a round pen or longe line to begin practicing the cue at a distance of your choosing, graduating to greater distances after your horse is coming to you consistently. Trust me when I say this is a great cue to have in your "toolbox" when it's pouring down rain and you've got to feed a pasture-full of horses before dark!
  1. If you prefer not to use treats:
  • Call your horse's name to get his attention and give him the opportunity to turn toward you.
  • If he does not turn toward you, flick the tail end of a lead rope toward his hindquarters. This taps into the horse's natural inclination to move away from pressure, encouraging him to move his feet and swing his body away from the pressure.
  • When your horse turns to face you with both eyes, stop swinging your lead rope at him and take a few steps back. In so doing, you are removing the source of the pressure and rewarding your horse for his efforts.
  • With practice, the horse will learn that he can avoid the pressure all together by turning to face you when you open the stall door.
  • NOTE: This method can be tricky if your horse is aggressive in his stall or is a known kicker. PLEASE be careful! Knowing your horse's personality can help you decide when you should keep going and when you should take a step back and consider another approach.
Regardless of which method you choose, BE CONSISTENT! Horses, like most creatures, learn through repetition and consistency. If you create an environment where your horse can predict your behavior in a certain situation, he will learn to modify his own reactions accordingly.

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