Horses often find doing nothing to be very challenging, and busy horse owners often fail to correct horses who move while being groomed, tacked, mounted or rested in the arena. Many trainers fail to include standing in the foundation training for horses, which leads to issues with being still anywhere. So it may fall to you to solve the problem. To do so, you need to rely on understanding the mind of the horse and the way in which they learn.
Horses are prey animals and they want to move when they want to move. That’s what keeps them safe. Constraints on movement for a horse, if not built on a solid foundation of self-control, are claustrophobic, making them feel the way you might feel in a deep, dark small cave. You need to understand that so you can be sympathetic.
The goal of stillness is to have the horse understand that it is rewarding to just stand. This doesn’t have to be too long a reach for them – they love to stand grazing or snoozing. But the self-control, self-carriage part of this lies in getting them to do it on demand for as long as you need.
Like everything else, stillness starts with a cue, but ultimately should be installed as a default behavior “If you are with me and I put you somewhere and don’t tell you anything else, just stand there”. But for a horse new to the behavior, this is some distance away.
Let’s start with standing in the aisle. This is a foundation for standing elsewhere. Ideally learning to stand in a familiar and somewhat constrained space with limited distraction is easier – so you have to pick a low volume time in your barn to work on this.
While somewhat tedious, the method is fairly straightforward. You need to approach it with focus, not casually, and dedicate about 10-15 mins a day in the early stages. Bring the horse into the aisle and position it. You will want to position it so that all four feet are making a “square” and so that the horse is not in a lean that suggests readiness to move. Say “Stand” in the tone of voice you will consistently use going forward (horses know sounds not words) – this is the cue. Normally, I recommend against reinforcing anything with treats, but used carefully, treats can help during the initial stages. For this, I recommend about five baby carrots in your pocket, easily accessible for rapid reinforcement of good behavior.
You need to set progressive goals for the length of standing and be realistic. A horse new to standing will move within seconds, and a five second length stand (one thousand one, one thousand two, etc.) is a good starting goal for the first day. If the horse moves, correct it by putting it back in the desired position and stance with the lead rope and then start counting again. When the horse goes five seconds without correction, use the phrase “good horse”, scratch its shoulder and give it a carrot. Say “Stand”. Then start counting again.
It is all right for the horse to look around, but be careful not to let the head motion turn into moving its feet. If the horse leans in a particular direction it is signaling a desire to go in that direction and you will want to press it back into a balanced “stand”.
Each day do this, and as quickly as you can, lengthen the time – in the first few days, adding 3-5 seconds per day is reasonable, but there will be days with setbacks and there will be days with breakthroughs. When you get to a half minute or so, only intermittently give treats but consistently use scratching and “good horse” as a reward. Eventually phase out the treats.
If the horse becomes mouthy about treats, don’t hesitate to correct it.
Stillness at mounting is the same process. You need to realize in this case, you have been rewarding (or at least not correcting) walking off. You now need to change your approach. The horse must never walk off, and it must stand for progressively longer periods. Mount with the reins on the withers. As soon as you are in the stirrups do not move at all and keep your legs in a relaxed contact with the horse.As soon as you mount, if the horse moves you must instantly go to a moderately harsh contact UNTIL FORWARD MOVEMENT STOPS. Do not release the pressure until the horse stops or the horse will not learn. As soon as the forward movement stops (the moment it stops), release the contact to a loose rein. This is the reward. The horse will almost certainly move forward as soon as you do this, so you must again exert moderately harsh contact until the forward movement stops and then instantly release to loose rein. Once the horse is still for about three seconds, walk it off using your normal cue (typically tip forward and squeeze lightly with legs). After a short distance, stop the horse, by removing your legs. Use the reins if the horse does not stop from the leg release. Wait for three seconds and correct the horse if it attempts to move, using the same technique you used when mounting. Get a three second stand and get off the horse. This is the ultimate reward. Pet the horse and put it away for the day. You’ve made the first step.
Next day, do the same thing, but this time after the first stop ride on. At various times during the session, go for a three second stop. Each time you get one, about halfway through, say “good horse” and scratch the top of the shoulder (this timing is to avoid the horse thinking “good horse” means “go”).
Then as the days progress, lengthen the time spent stopped. When a horse can stand for a minute or so without correction, you are in a good place.
Horses who learn this often are worried when stopped and anticipate going, so you need to be crisp and consistent in your reinforcement and corrections. You need to be compassionate and not get frustrated. Most horses being trained in this have been doing the opposite for years and think that’s what people want. They are bothered and conflicted that what used to be OK is not any longer. You need to be patient and consistent, and eventually they will embrace doing nothing and put their heads down and yawn. You also need to stay focused and relaxed when teaching this so that the horse is instantly corrected. Don’t get on your cell phone when the horse is doing nothing. Pet the horse with a scratch instead and think how nice this quiet time is.
In the more advanced stages, I like to integrate standing as a reward between maneuvers. They enjoy that and start to anticipate resting when they’ve done something right. And you can appreciate it as giving you time to assess and think and plan what comes next.