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Equine Etiquette: Teaching a Horse to Stay

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Instead of juggling, train “stay”

I board my gelding, Tonka, at a stable that has an indoor ring. We all contribute to its upkeep by picking up our horses’ manure after we ride. This simple chore maintains good footing, and it is the polite thing to do. It can be awkward to lead a horse over to the offending pile, use the pitchfork, and then walk it over to the manure bucket, all the while holding onto the mount’s reins. I decided it would be much easier to teach Tonka to stand and stay while I complete the task. That way I would not have the tangle of tack or the worry that he’d jostle me and that I’d drop the manure.

So I taught Tonka to stay. Just like a dog. Why not?

Dogs and horses and…

Often, horse people are also dog people. Barn dogs learn to greet animals and people with good manners, come when called, and remain still when necessary. But, for some reason, equestrians don’t think to train their horses to do the same behaviors. I’d like to see that change.

As a recent graduate of Karen Pryor Academy’s (KPA) Dog Trainer Professional program, and a KPA Certified Training Partner (CTP), I understand that the principles of training apply for all species. I have had success teaching my own horse a number of useful behaviors using a marker and rewards, including the desired stay during cleanup.

Prerequisites

To train the stay behavior, the horse needs to understand the concept of clicker training. Start by teaching a “nose to a target” touch. This early goal is to have a horse that touches a target, with a default stance of standing quietly looking forward. Working with horses, large and potentially dangerous animals, it’s best to begin training using protected contact.

At this stage, teach polite treat-taking, too. Finally, an understanding of horse body language and ethology is integral to the success of the training plan.

Tonka in a stay at the far end of the arena.
Notice the square stance, relaxation
through back and neck, and happy ears.
Good boy!

End goal

The desired behavior is for the horse to stand calmly while the rider walks away, does the task, and returns. This end goal is rather complex. For one, the behavior must account for variation. At times the handler’s back is to the horse, she is carrying a tool, she might walk out of the horse’s direct line of vision, etc. And, of course, the manure isn’t dropped in the same spot of the ring each time. To train completely and successfully requires practice going away and returning to the horse from all corners of the arena.

Step-by-step

  1. Set yourself up for success by doing training sessions when you and your horse are the only ones in the arena and the doors are closed. Train only if your horse is calm and relaxed in the ring. If he is tense or spooked, work on desensitizing him to the space and on the foundation behavior of targeting. Work your horse in a halter with a soft cotton lead rope attached and resting over his withers. You never know when something is going to happen and you have to stop or catch your horse. For example, at the boarding barn where I keep Tonka, anyone can enter the indoor ring at any time. Using the halter keeps you, your horse, and the others around you safe.

  2. Get your horse into work mode by asking for a couple of target touches. (Read Alexandra Kurland’s article for more information on teaching a horse to target.) Then, put the target out of sight and stand next to your horse. (I’ve taught my horse to hand target, so this is easy!) Have 15 treats counted out and in your treat bag. While the horse is standing quietly, click and treat. Take a small step away, and click and treat before your horse has a chance to move. If taking a full step is too much for your horse and he follows you, for the first step substitute simply shifting your weight. Each time that you step away, step to a slightly different place than the previous step. Once you click, step back to the horse, and treat so that he is eating while looking straight ahead. In this way, your horse will learn that the point is to stand still while you move around him.

  3. Continue to do short training sessions of no more than 15 treats at a time. Increase the criteria. Take two steps away. Then more steps. Vary your movement. Step away and to his side, then to his other side. As you increase the distance, be aware of how that changes the rate of reinforcement. After all, it takes more time to walk a few steps than just a half-step. Only increase the criteria if the horse remains relaxed, yet engaged with the work. It’s okay if he swivels his head to look at what you’re doing, as long as his feet stay planted in place. If your horse does move, simply return him to position, and try again. If your horse moves twice in a row, then you’ve likely raised the criteria too quickly.

  4. Once the behavior is taught, it needs to be put under stimulus control. At this stage, I add a cue. For a cue I use two gentle taps to Tonka’s forehead, which are distinct from any other touches that I do. Before moving away from your horse, use or say your cue. You can use a verbal “stay” instead of the tap.

  5. Once you can walk around your horse without him moving, it’s time to change the criteria again. Turn your back on the horse. Carry the pitchfork. Walk away and stand for a few seconds before moving again.

By following this training progression, you will be able to park your horse in place safely while you walk around the indoor arena.

Taking it further

Tonking posing for the camera

The stay is also useful when you want to take a photograph of your horse. Here is Tonka, posing for the camera. His tongue sticking out is a happy response to his highest value treat—a peppermint. But, don’t assume that the stay in the halter (or in the case of the photo, naked) will work when your horse is tacked up. Any time you change the criteria, check to see that the horse continues to understand the task.

A stay in a quiet, indoor location is a useful behavior, but there is more! Proof for an open door. Enlist a friend and her horse to add the distraction of other horses in the arena. Then, take the stay on the trails.

Recently, I was out in the woods on Tonka and spied a leather wallet barely visible under a cover of leaves. I dismounted and cued Tonka to stay. He understood that his job was to remain planted in place while I fussed a few steps away from him. There are times when I’ve had to dismount to move something dangerous off of the trail (like an old strand of wire). If Tonka had not learned the stay behavior, he would have followed me over to the object, which could have caused him harm. Like teaching the stay behavior to a dog, teaching stay to my horse provides a way to communicate clearly what can be a lifesaving behavior.

At the very least, it makes picture taking and manure scooping easier!

About the author

Terry Golson, KPA CTP, is based in Carlisle, MA, and maintains two websites. CooperativeHorse.com focuses on her horse work and positive reinforcement training. She’s also a recognized expert in backyard chicken-keeping, and helps people worldwide with their flocks via www.HenCam.com

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