When I was young and learned to ride in the local riding school, we sometimes were allowed to bring the ponies to the pasture. This came with a simple warning: ‘Always turn your horse to the gate before you take the halter off, so they don’t kick you.’
I still use that advice and teach it to others but there is more to learn about safety. Some horses run off, kick or bolt when released. How to handle those horses?
Horses that run off, kick and bolt
Some horses like to run off immediately and kick or bolt in the process. If you stand ‘in his way’, there is a chance that you get hurt. I’ve seen people deal with this problem by taking the halter off and shooing them away with it! I think the idea is to get them as quickly as possible out of their personal space.
I don’t think shooing away a horse that already has a tendency for bolting and running away will make a horse behave more safely.
On the contrary, it will add to his stress and he might anticipate the next time by shooing you away from his personal space. That is the last thing you want him to do, right?
There is a simple way to prevent horses from running off when you take the halter or lead rope off. You have to teach them that:
- They won’t get chased or shooed away by you, and there is no need for them to run off or defend themselves
- It’s safe and fun to stay a little longer with you
- They can leave in a calm way, there is no need to rush
When a horse displays undesired behaviour, in this case dangerous behaviour, the simple solution is to teach them incompatible behaviour and reinforce that behaviour more.
An incompatible behaviour is a behaviour that simply cannot be displayed while doing another behaviour.
Step 1: What is the undesired behaviour?
- Running off immediately with the chance of you getting hurt in the process
- Turning around quickly and bolting when leaving
- Keeping their head up and/or walking backwards so you can’t take the halter or lead rope off safely
Step 2: What is the cause?
Knowing what causes these behaviours is a huge step towards preventing them.
It can be learned behaviour: the horse has learned that the person will shoo him away and he anticipates by trying to get away before that happens. This creates a dangerous vicious circle that is hard to break when you don’t realize what drives the behaviour.
It can be a lack of education. I always teach my horses to turn around every time we go through a gate. One day I was leading a young stallion pony out of the arena. I didn’t realize that he had not yet learned to turn after walking through a gate. I wasn’t prepared that he simply walked straight out the gate, directly towards the barn. I expected him to turn around or at least wait for me, but he didn’t, because no one had taught him that. I tripped and was dragged on my belly in the mud for several meters. When he finally stopped to see what made walking so hard, I could get up quickly and reinforce him for stopping. It was not the smartest idea to hold on, and I was lucky he didn’t panic.
It can be fear: the horse is afraid of the other horses or one horse in particular that approaches him. If he feels trapped because he is still on a lead rope that can cause him to panic and flee.
It can be impatience: maybe the horse is super excited to go to the pasture to have a good run. He simply can’t wait to stretch his legs.
Step 3: Work on the cause
If the horse hasn’t learned to stay with you until you cue him to wonder off, you can teach him to wait. If he hasn’t learned to turn around, teach him that this will be reinforced and that it’s worthwhile for him. Simply offer him a treat before you take the halter off and one after. He will learn to wait for his treat before he leaves. Better even is to use a bridge signal (a click) before you give the treat to mark the desired behaviour.
If he is fearful for the other horses, you have to find a way to distract or prevent the other horses from coming too close and crowd you.
If your horse is super excited you have to keep him calm and keep his excitement low so he won’t run off and take you with him in the process. You can train this easily with positive reinforcement training.
Step 4: Teach an incompatible behaviour
In order to prevent undesirable and dangerous behaviours you can work on an incompatible behaviour and reinforce that more. Punishment the way we apply it, is usually not very effective. Teaching and reinforcing an incompatible behaviour is and will give you quick results, too!
What is an ‘incompatible behaviour’? A behaviour that cannot be displayed at the same time as the undesired behaviour. It takes a bit of thinking out of the box to master this skill, but it will bring you so much clarity once you can!
Incompatible behaviours: a horse can’t run off or kick when he is standing still (focus on reinforcing ‘4 hooves on the ground’), a horse can’t lift his head if he keeps his head low, a horse can’t bite with his mouth closed or when his head is turned away from you. He can’t be excited and calm at the same time! Teach him to be calm and focused on you.
Teach you horse to stay with you until you give him the cue that he can leave now. I do this by simply creating the expectation that there is something in it for the horse. I use high value reinforcers: super yummy treats or if a horse loves scratches and attention more, I will use those.
I start by reinforcing incompatible behaviours and work on the cause of the dangerous behaviours. I reinforce turning around after entering the pasture, standing still, keeping head low and after I take the halter off. Then I get out of the pasture before I give a clear signal that the horse can’t expect any more treats, my ‘end-of-training-signal’.
Then I fade out the treats slowly. I never totally quit forever with the treats because I want to keep us safe. A treat can also be just a bit of grass that you plucked just outside the fence, where the grass always is greener….
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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