How to Teach Your Horse to Tie Safely & Calmly

What would you suggest as a training tool for a horse who occassionally spooks and pulls, (breaking free) when tied?  She apparently has a history of doing this.  I’ve owned her since Dec. and it happened for the first time with me a week ago.  Her head was at the ground (nibbling spilled grain) while tied to a single lead line/hitch post. I gently moved her head back, with the intention of lifting her head and also wanting to get my hands on the saftey knot I had tied.  All was fine until her head reached the same level as the vertical 2X6 board she was tied to (about my chest level).  At that instant, she pulled back, breaking the lead line snap,landed on her butt & trotted off.  She was no trouble to catch.  I brought her in the barn, backed her into the cross ties and the farrier proceeded to trim her hooves with out incident.  Later that day, after I left, a do-gooder decided to tie her up with a rope halter.  On my next visit  (2 days later), I saw the rope burns on her face and was told she had pulled at the ties again. She is now nervous to walk into the outdoor tie-stalls.  I now back her in (so she has no where to pull) and use the cross ties.  This works fine, but I do want to solve the spooking-loosing-her-mind issues, as I have hopes of trailering this wonderful mare :).  I have purchased a special training snap called “The Clip”.  Are you familiar with them and what are you thoughts about “enabling” a horse that pulls. ~ Laurie

As with all training and behavioural issues, it is important to first understand the cause of the behaviour rather than just dealing with the symptoms.  With horses who do not like to be tied the cause is very straightforward. Horses are flight animals that panic when they feel they have no escape route available to them.  Therefore, it is perfectly natural for them to not want to be tied, confined or physically restrained.  It is also perfectly natural for them to pull against any pressure to their poll.  In fact, many horses panic when they feel that pressure and will pull until something gives.  Hopefully, as in this situation, it is the halter or rope rather than the horse that breaks.

Some people believe the way to train a horse to stand when tied is to simply tie them up with something that won’t break (such as a rope halter) to something else that won’t break (such as a tree or hydro pole).  People will say this technique teaches the horse “patience”.  What it actually does is teach “learned helplessness”.  In learned helplessness, the animal (or human) feels they have no control over their situation or circumstances and they lose the will to even try to change it.  Training methods that create learned helplessness also create an enormous amount of stress which can result in depression in humans (and I suspect in horses, as well).   This is what happens to people who live in abusive situations.

As you have described, your mare is now traumatized about the cross ties and fearful about what will happen to her if she goes into that space.  Her natural instinct to pull back from the pressure is fighting with her negative experience of not being able to get away from the perceived danger in an enclosed space.  Patience, consistency and empathy will be required to undo (untrain) what she has now learned.  Here are some tips to help you teach her to be relaxed, quiet and calm while she is tied.

1. Commit to taking the time and doing the work to help your horse. Training takes time, empathy and consistency. You cannot achieve behavioural change by rushing or being impatient. Set up time specifically to work with your horse on this issue.

2. Focus first on changing her frame of body in order to change her frame of mind.  A horse who is stressed mentally shows that stress by standing with her legs scissored, head high, back inverted and not wanting to stand still.  This frame keeps adrenaline pumping into the blood stream keeping her stress and anxiety level and, therefore her need to move, high.  Do not expect or ask a horse who is in this frame to be able to stand still.  Movement will  relieve some of the stress.  Walk her close to, but not into the cross tie space until she is able to walk calmly with a level neck.  Only then do you start to ask her to walk into the space.  Simply walk her in and out of the space until she is able to stay calm and level.  Then you can ask her to stand in the space.  If she starts to gets stressed and needs to move again, simply turn her in a very small circle around you while encouraging her to lower her heard and reminding her to respect your space.  In her mind, this behaviour builds her trust and respect for you as her herd leader and helps to alleviate her stress.

3. As she is able to stand still for short periods of time (this might be just a few seconds at first), then it is time to help her find balance. Your horse simply will not be able to stand still until she finds balance. Balance comes from straightness, being square and having a level neck. Your job then is to keep correcting her position until she finds that balance and keeps it on her own.

4. Straightness comes first. Having straightness means that the horse’s spine is in alignment from nose to tail. She will find & feel this straightness when the left hind lines up directly behind the left fore and the right hind lines up directly behind the right fore. Ask your horse to stand straight by pushing the appropriate hip or shoulder into alignment. As soon as your horse moves away from your push, stop pushing. You will have to move from side to side while keeping contact with the halter or head. As you move around her head, bend your near hip away from her head.

5. Stand four square. When your horse’s feet are scissored, she is mentally prepared for flight. When the feet are four square, it is like she is standing in box, balanced and parked. Being square means that the front feet are straight to each other and the hind feet are straight to each other. As you work on correcting your horse’s straightness, you may find that she starts to find square on her own. If not, you can encourage her to stand squarely by asking her to take a step backwards or forwards. For backwards, push on the front of the shoulder of the leg you want her to move. To encourage her to step forwards, tap her flank gently. You may have to ask for back and forth several times before your horse finds square.

7. Be level headed. A relaxed horse stands with her neck level so that the poll is the same height as withers. You can encourage your horse to bring her head down and her neck to level by gently moving her head laterally (side to side) with slight downward pressure. This is called “flexing”. Make sure you are not being forceful by pulling or pushing on the head. Think of this more like a rhythmic massage loosening her poll. You can do this with your hands on the halter as you stand in front of your horse (one hand on either side of the halter at the point where the cheek piece connects with the nose band) or by cupping the bridge of her nose in one hand as you stand to the side of her. Standing to the side is safer if your horse is still experiencing moments of high stress that might cause her to move forward quickly.  If you horse tries to raise her head or turn it left or right, use your hand or hands in the same place to block her effort. Remember that you are not forcing your horse into this posture, but are using blocks to encourage her to stay there long enough to realize how good it feels.

8.  When your horse is able to stand calmly in the grooming area and is responding well to your directions, then it is time to introduce the tie.  Use a long, heavy cotton lead rope (no chain) that will slide easily if your horse pulls back.   Clip the rope to the bottom ring of your horse’s halter, put the other end around a post or through a ring that is securely attached to the post and hold the end in your hand.  Do not tie the rope to anything yet. If your horse moves backwards and feels the pressure on her poll, her first reaction will be to pull back.  Immediately release some rope until she stops pulling.  Once she realizes there is no pressure on her poll, she will probably stop herself.  You can also encourage her to stop moving backwards by positioning yourself facing her side (or have someone helping you) so that you can push her at the flank which is the cue for go forward.  Continue at this stage until your horse learns to relieve the pressure herself by going forward instead of pulling back.  You can also reinforce this when you are working with her in hand.  Keep contact on the lead rope while you walk at her shoulder.  Use blocking (not pulling) pressure on the rope to ask her to stop.  If she throws her head up against the block or just barges through, pivot in place at her shoulder and push her around you in a small circle once or twice.  Then ask her to halt again with blocking pressure.  You may need to do this several times for her to realize that you are not pulling and she can relieve the pressure by stopping rather than pushing through it.

9. Once your horse is doing well with the previous step, tie her with a single rope or cross tie.  Use a quick release knot or quick release snap attached to the ring on the post.  This way if she starts to panic, you can quickly undo the tie without diving at her head and causing even more stress.  Ensure the tie is long enough to allow horse to comfortably lower her head and bring her neck to level without creating tightness on the tie.  Make sure she has enough room to avoid having her face jammed into the wall or post.

10.  When she has shown consistently that she is not panicking about being tied, you can put her on both cross ties.  Keep a lead rope attached to her halter and make sure the quick release snaps are on the posts rather than on her halter.  When she is in the cross ties, encourage your horse to stand so that the cheek pieces of the halter are lined up with the posts the cross ties are attached to. Always attach the cross ties to the lowest ring on the cheek piece as this allows more freedom to bring the head down.

This training process will take some time, but is well worth the effort. Both you and your horse will benefit as you will be able to enjoy the grooming and saddling time together and have quiet time to rest and relax between classes at the horse shows.

To see a short video clip showing some of these steps, follow this link

“The Clip” – I have not personally used this clip.  However, the description from the website states that it releases when a horse pulls back.  This would work in place of a quick release snap on the cross tie.

Do you have a question about your horse’s behaviour, training, riding or your own confidence issues?  Submit your questions at Ask Anne


3 thoughts on “How to Teach Your Horse to Tie Safely & Calmly

  1. I recommend that you take a look at the Idolo tether tie. It is very effective at teaching a horse not to pull back. My horse was cured in a very short time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s