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Article #4:  More Ground Manners

by Wil & Beverly Howe

Equestrian Connection, 1988


   Ground manners are the way a horse responds to you while handling on the end of a lead rope. This subject is of such importance that we decided to go on a little further about it this month by discussing the effects of proper and improper handling of horses during ground work. As spring approaches, many of us will soon be dealing with our horse’s babies. Also, we have to ask the big question of "what do we do with last year’s colts, who now weigh 600-800 pounds and are full of spunk!??"

   First of all, there is a great advantage to starting ground work early in your horse's life. A young horse is much easier to persuade and has learned submissive behavior from the dominance of its mother. The older a colt grows and the more independent it becomes, the less it needs its mother, or for that matter discipline--sound familiar? While a horse is young and small in size, the less likely they are to hurt themselves or their handler.

   Preparing you horse for its life in our world should be done at an early age. We encourage handling and halter breaking a foal as soon as possible, and next month we will present a step-by-step program for safe halter breaking and weanling handling. This is a horse’s first start in life, and this first relationship with humans is very important. It sets a pattern for the rest of that horse’s life. Our goal, as this animal’s leader, should be to create an attitude of cooperation, willingness, and respect without any fear in his mind.

   Many people will buy or raise a young foal rather than buy an adult horse with training. They are fun and seem to be a breeze at first because foals are small, cute, cuddlely and easy to handle. As summer rolls around and the people lose interest in the new family member, up grows this youngster, or should we say, monster. Fall comes and "Oh! Junior needs a worming, call the vet and the shoer, he needs his feet trimmed!" Next thing you know, you have a rodeo on your hands because Junior is now too big to manhandle. It can be a bad ordeal for everyone concerned. Had Junior been halter-broke last spring, taught to tie and lead, etc., his encounters with these necessary ministrations could have been a more pleasant experience.

   The object of teaching your horse to give to limitations and restrictions at a young age is to never let a horse know its own strength. This will help prevent the horse from harming himself, his handlers, or equipment. For example, you should never allow your horse to pull back and break the lead rope or halter and get loose if it can be avoided. Once they’ve done it and won, they’ll try it again. The same goes for resistant behavior, like a horse jerking away from you while leading it. They’ll do it again and quickly learn that they are strong enough to do so. Horses learn in patterns; more than two times can become habit. We must be smarter and more quick-witted then our horse to maintain the upper hand of leadership and instill submissive behavior. If we succeed in this, the horse will usually give in rather then resisting when tests of will are required.

   For the most part, backyard pet horses receive far too much fondling and hand feeding. From a trainer’s point of view, this creates a rather spoiled and demanding attitude. When a horse shows disrespect to its handler, we have lost our leadership role. This kind of equine response is resistance and no respect. What we as the handlers want is respect without fear or resistance.

   To maintain this positive response in our horses, here are a few more helpful hints for preventing bad manners on the ground. These ideas apply to horses of any age, but again, it is easier to instill this message in the mind of a young horse with less experience than an older horse who is more set in its ways.

  1. Avoid petting and rubbing your horse on the head and around the muzzle, especially in a stable situation where a horse hangs his head out of a box stall door. You often see cranky horses caused by too many unaware passers-by randomly petting a horses head as they walk by. Again, keep in mind the horse’s limited close-range vision; this will surely cause a horse to become head shy. Would you like it if someone rubbed your nose?

  2. Keep your horse a bit hungry for attention. A little bit can go a long way in creating that willing and cooperative attitude we are seeking. The reward of an occasional stroke does wonders. Teach your horse to know the difference between discipline and reward, then your horse will seek that reward of a comfort zone if you make it obvious and are consistent.

  3. Give your horse pleasing attention, the kind he as a horse can relate to, such as a good pat on the shoulder or neck rather then the head. A scratch or rub on the mane or wither area is much like another horse shows affection. A good grooming is recommended occasionally, but not too often. You don’t want to create a pattern that results in boredom or irritability about being over-fussed with. A grooming should be a pleasurable treat, not a dreaded routine for the horse.

  4. Refrain from regularly feeding your horse carrots, apples, or oats by hand. This will cause your horse to become pushy, nosey, and can lead to nipping or biting very easily, rude behavior you can’t afford! 

   Remember that the goal of teaching ground manners is prevention rather than trying to cure a problem after the fact. There is no reason why a horse cannot behave like a gentle giant.

   To learn how to keep that cooperative attitude in your horse, order Video #1

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