One of the aspects of teaching that you aren’t warned about when you take your exams is the advice-seeking. As a BHS assistant instructor you have your Stage III care, so are qualified to teach stable management, but everyone is different. And every yard is different. On a weekly basis I find that alongside my teaching or riding of horses I talk to clients about
- Feed – he’s put on weight/there’s too much grass in his field/how do I get him fitter?
- Shoes – usually I observe a loose shoe, or a set that need attention
- Rugs – my worst nightmare – what rug should I put her in today?
- Tack – a piece of wearing tack or something not quite fitting as it should
- Behaviour. This is the hardest because, unless I observe the behaviour it is very difficult to guess it’s cause, or route to solving it.
A few weeks ago I had an email from a young client who was very distressed because she couldn’t tie up her mare anymore. The mare is an Arab – many of you will be thinking “say no more” – and is a clever pony who knows every trick in the book.
However, I had to advise ways to sort this little problem out.
The mare has spooked at something one day, pulled back and galloped away. However, whenever she was tied up from then on she instantly pulled free.
First of all I suggested she had her poll and neck checked to make sure she hadn’t physically hurt herself.
Then came the issue of ensuring that the behaviour didn’t become learnt.
There were a couple of things I suggested:
- Move the tie up place temporarily, to the other end of the yard, so that the environment doesn’t put her on edge and trigger her to pull back.
- Tie her up in company. If she can see others tied up quietly she should be more likely to settle. On that note, make sure she isn’t left alone on the yard, by either people or horses.
- Tack up quickly! When she gets better at standing she can be groomed for longer. Practice tying up when she’s tired, after exercise.
- Put a haynet up to encourage her to stand quietly. Unfortunately spring is not the time for feed to be the best motivator, so I suggested a lick treat as an alternative.
- If she still isn’t tying up then have someone strong hold her, settling her with their voice, so that they can hold onto her if she does try to run away, providing some resistance on the lead rope, without causing her to jerk her neck on the string as it breaks. When she is standing quietly they can also verbally reward her. Obviously the handler needs gloves and a hat on.
- The next step on from holding the mare is to thread the rope through the string and the handler take more of a back seat.
- If she’s fidgeting a lot and pulling back still then this is a last resort, but I’ve seen it used effectively. Using a lunge line instead of a lead rope, thread the line through the metal ring. The handler can then stand out of reach of the fidgeting horse, who prances round, feeling some resistance against the ring. The idea of this is that the horse fights the ring on the wall and doesn’t win. Holding the lunge line means that it is safer for the handlers too, and they can release the line if the horse gets into trouble. It’s an old fashioned trick, and in theory not needed for most horses, but I think it’s worth remembering these tricks in case there’s ever a horse that it would help.
- You can go down the route of the plastic quick release ties, but I have to say that I’m not the biggest fan. If the horse has learnt to pull back as a game, which I strongly suspect this mare had, then the plastic encourages them to pull back even more as there’s less resistance. What’s wrong with a bit of small-bale string? Also, the plastic rings get easier to undo the more times they’re opened, thus rewarding pulling back. They have a use in some situations though, but I wouldn’t choose to use them with this mare.
The biggest factor in this situation was time and patience. If we believe the mare was frightened and now associates being tied up with being frightened, then it is a long process of forgetting the incident, calmly being held in a mimic of being tied up, tied up with just the rope threaded through, rewarded for standing, and not let alone until they have built up their confidence again. Eventually they will relearn the correct behaviour.
However if, like this mare, she got spooked, pulled back and galloped off, then decided that galloping off was a good addition to the daily routine, you need to squash this new behaviour ASAP, taking a tougher line of attack so that the behaviour didn’t become ingrained.
Managing behaviours is all about knowing your horse, and what methods work best with them. Do they respond well to a shove on the hindquarters to move over, or are they more of a delicate flower and need a push from the finger? Do they respond well to your voice, or does a tap on the chest get their attention?
I know the horses I work with pretty well, but when people ask me for advice on behaviours I’ve not seen, my best approach is to list various potential reasons for the behaviour, different approaches to preventing the behaviour, and then let the client make up their own mind, knowing their horse better than I do, when they’re next in that situation. After all, they might notice something they hadn’t thought of before.