You’ve got your stop response in place from last week’s instructions. Now your horse stops quietly, quickly, and willingly, and all your friends are impressed. Of course you told them all about this web site…. Well, the next step, which is even more impressive once it is taught, is to teach him to stand still on command.
Here you will see the importance of some of the things I stipulated last week that may not have made sense, like asking the horse to move with the lead rope first before moving your feet, and releasing pressure immediately. Those actions make it easier to teach this step to the horse.
By making sure you cued the horse before advancing yourself, you put him under control of the stimulus instead of your actions, and it was probably a difficult exercise for both of you! In this step, you will be moving away and you will not want him to follow you. He won’t know the difference between when you want him to follow and when you don’t unless you keep this distinction clear by cuing him with what you want.
Releasing pressure immediately gives the horse some control over the cues he is given and the pressure he feels. It helps him learn faster and more willingly with less confusion, and begins to foster creativity in him to search for the answer that will bring him release of pressure.
Now for standing still.
Walk him forward and ask him to halt. If he is a little rusty, adjust his response before continuing.
If you want this to be a cue for standing still, drop the lead rope on the ground. Alternatively, you could swing it over his neck. However, for the first stages, especially in the hyperreactive horse that does not stand still under any circumstances, I keep the rope in my hand.
Begin by voicing your command (‘stand’ or ‘stay’ work well) and step from one side of the horse to the other, giving him a loose rope. Act as though you expect him to stay rooted to the spot, even if you know he is going to move. If he moves even one foot one centimetre in any direction, have him step back a full step immediately. If he moves a full step in any direction, ask for two steps back. Do not be unfair about this — as for any cue, use the least amount of pressure that will induce him to do it, always escalating from the lightest cue to heavier pressure.
Ensure that when he stands for even two seconds, you praise him and make a big fuss. Rubbing the withers is a prime reward spot. Using a clicker and treats is handy, if you know how to use them well.
Important: When required for safety, it is alright to use strong pressure, but do not make it the basis of your training program.
As your horse becomes confident that you wish him to stand still if you have not cued him to move, begin going more rapidly from side to side. If he remains rooted, you may begin to step away and around. Return regularly, after one step away, to praise and rub him on the withers with a big smile, letting him know he is right.
Now that you can move one step away, try two. Return and praise. Can you move away one step with your back to him? What about when you are facing him? Which is harder? Consider why. Usually moving away with your back to him is harder for him, because in the past it was a conditioned cue to follow you. You’ve changed the rules.
Can you go to his haunches and pat him? Can you go behind him and come up the other side to reward him for standing? If you can, it is time to make this a little harder.
If you have kept the lead rope in your hand up until now, decide whether you want the rope to be on the ground or on his neck for the final product. Put it wherever you decide, and go back to the baby steps of moving in front of him. Praise him again.
Why did we go right back to the beginning? When you introduce a new parameter, in this case standing without the rope in your hand, you should always relax the previous requirements. This reduces the mistakes your horse will make and allows him to feel out the new rules you have created. This is a principle of shaping.
You can progress faster now than before, quickly beginning to move in bigger circles around him, always frequently returning to praise. It can be helpful to try to complete a task, such as putting on a blanket or brushing him to practice standing still. The biggest challenge for one horse I worked on this with was standing while I picked out his hooves. For another, it was being saddled. Jogging circles around a horse is challenging, too.
Experiment and have fun with this. I usually work on staying in one place for two to five minutes, depending on the mental state the horse is showing me, and then ask him to move and we go do something active. This way, as the horse becomes tired of standing still, you preempt his motivation to move by asking him to before he reaches his breaking point. The more you work on this, the longer he will be able to stay put and the farther away you will be able to go.
When you can go out of the arena to put away your saddle after a ride and your horse remains where you put him, imagine the convenience (and the compliments) you’ll have!
Watch for next week’s post, on tying (which, believe it or not, is a relative of stopping, backing up, and standing still).