A lot of handling and care takes place in the stable. For most horse owners, the stable is most likely where the horse is fed, groomed and tacked up on a daily basis. It’s important that a horse is easy to handle and work around in the stable for the safety of the horse and handler. A stable is a small space, leaving a limited area to move away from the horse if things go wrong.
A well-mannered horse should be able to stand still and quiet when being groomed and tacked up, and should not display any aggressive behaviour during feeding time.
Young or uneducated horses may try to move around in a stable when you are trying to groom and tack them up. It can make the task at hand very difficult if you constantly have to move around the horse. If you battle with this while grooming, try offering your horse some hay to munch on while you do it so that he gets used to the grooming procedure and learns to stand in one spot while you work. Make sure you run your hands over the horse as you move around him so that he knows where you are at all times. Ensure that the horse is comfortable with people walking behind him to avoid being kicked.
While you are tacking up, keep a halter on the horse so that you are able to reposition him if he moves around. Start by keeping him in one position (usually facing the stable door), and if he moves around while you tack up, ask him nicely to stand in the original position again. Don’t ever yank on the lead rein, shout or smack him, but rather keep asking the question until he understands that the answer is to stand still and quietly in one spot. Avoid using treats as an incentive, because you will likely end up with a horse who inspects you for food every time you come into the stable.
On the topic of food, a horse should also be well behaved during feeding time. While you cannot really stop a horse from nickering and kicking doors while the feed buckets are being filled, you can teach him to be polite when you come into the stable to feed him. There is nothing worse than being bowled over by a horse as you open the door. If you have a horse who does this, start by putting a halter on before the feeding process even begins. As you open the door, ask him to back up a few steps, and firmly tell him, “wait”. You can get someone to help you keep him back while you empty the bucket into the feed bowl. Every time the horse tries to launch toward the food, reinforce a backward step. Once he has stood quietly, you can empty the food into the bowl, step away and let him enjoy his food. You don’t necessarily want to force him to stand still for five minutes before letting him eat, but rather want him to give you space to come into the stable and empty the feed before you walk out.
An aggressive horse is more problematic and in most cases you may need to get an expert behaviourist involved. Examples of aggressive behaviour in the stable are biting, kicking, rearing and cornering the handler. This type of behaviour is very dangerous for both the horse and handler. In most cases, aggression can be traced back to poor handling in the past or a previous bad experience that triggers the horse to act negatively towards the handler. If you have a horse in the yard who is dangerous to work around, contact an equine behaviourist to assist with relieving this behaviour.
Horses should be taught to walk nicely next to their handler as early in their lives as possible. A common problem with uneducated horses is that they try to walk ahead and the handler ends up being towed behind. This needs to be corrected as soon as possible to prevent it from becoming a habit.
If you have a horse who likes to lead, you can work on this by starting in an enclosed area such as an arena or paddock. For this exercise you will need to have a halter on your horse and a dressage whip. If your horse does not like a whip, you can use anything similar such as a stick or your lead rein. Start by walking next to your horse in line with your horse’s neck. Do not stand at the shoulder or the head just yet. Walk forward and see if your horse’s neck stays in line with you or if he is already starting to walk forward. The moment you feel like your horse is overtaking you, immediately turn around so that you are facing his hindquarter, and ask him to back up by lightly tapping on his knee with the dressage whip or by swinging the lead rein in front of his legs. Once he has offered the backward steps, you can turn around again and ask him to walk forward. Repeat the exercise until your horse understands that every time he tries to overtake you, he is going to be asked to move backwards. Eventually he will learn that the answer is to walk quietly next to you at your pace.
Once your horse understands the concept of walking quietly at your pace in the arena, you can try this while leading him around the yard or to the paddock. Practise walking and stopping to make sure your horse is responsive to your movements. You never know when the horse might get loose as you’re walking him around the yard and you will need him to stop next to you.
Teaching your horse to stand still while you mount is very important for rider safety. Accidents can easily happen if you have a horse who swings out while you’ve got your foot in the stirrup, or a horse who walks forward as you get onto the mounting block. Start by having someone on the ground to help keep him still while you mount, and make sure to teach him not to walk off once you are in the saddle. You might need to change your stirrup length or tighten your girth.
Standing still while mounting is important to teach while you have extra hands available to you. You might be in situations in the future where there is no one to help you, such as when you need to remount after changing jumps in the arena, or if you need to remount during a hack.
Teach your grooms
Our grooms typically handle our horses more than anyone else on a day-to-day basis. It’s no good if good manners are only enforced when you work with your horse and no other time in the day. Teach your grooms to use the same teaching methods so that the behaviour can be encouraged consistently. Get your grooms to show you that they have understood how to handle the horse, and remind them to praise the horse when he has done as told.
With everyone’s efforts, you will hopefully have a horse who respects your space and is safe and easy to manage.