Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How I taught Hank to stand still

Last week, I posted about Handsome Hank, the 5-star General, and the evolution of our partnership. A few of you asked for more of the gory details, and I’m only too happy to share.

When I brought Hank home, I discovered he would always walk off when I tried to mount, and I mean always. Unless I could find someone to hold the reins, I absolutely could not climb into the saddle. Then, as now, I lived alone, so this was an insurmountable problem.

I tried parking him head first into the side of the barn - he’d move sideways. I tried moving him in front of and practically inside a juniper tree - he’d move backwards. I tried flexing his head toward me and giving him no slack in the rein - he’d move his hip over.

I turned to the internet for help and found a step-by-step exercise to help me solve my problem. (I wish I could give credit to the site where it was posted but I gave up trying to find it again - google just gave me 292,000 results for “horse walks off while mounting.”)

I knew about 1% more than nothing about horse training when I tried this exercise with Hank, but it worked – completely and unequivocally. It’s simple and straightforward, and there’s no magic involved. The lesson took about 35 minutes for us to complete, and the problem went away just like that. For those of you familiar with the training concept “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult,” that’s all this exercise is. I’m sure there are other ways to teach the same lesson, but all I can tell you is this is what worked for me and Hank.

Tools needed:
• round pen
• a crop, flag, rope or whatever you’d normally use to put pressure on your horse to move
• a watch
• mounting block (optional but highly recommended)
You will be getting on and off your horse multiple times, and using a mounting block will be easier and more comfortable for both you and your horse
• patience (mandatory)

Don’t start this exercise if you’ve got to be somewhere else in an hour - it may take a half an hour or it may take a couple of hours. Approach the exercise with the confidence that when you are done, your horse will stand still when you get on him. Don’t get mad or frustrated, be patient, be calm, and this will work.

1. Tack up your horse with his saddle and bridle, then lead him into the round pen.

2. Make him trot around you for 5 minutes. Don’t use a lunge line - just keep him moving at a trot. He can change directions, but if he stops or slows down, pressure him back up to a trot and make him trot for the full 5 minutes.

3. Bring him into the center of the round pen. Start to mount. The instant he moves the tiniest bit, stop what you’re doing and make him trot for 2 minutes. If he moves when you raise your foot off the ground, stop right there and make him trot for 2 minutes. If he moves when your foot touches the stirrup, stop right there and make him trot for 2 minutes. If he moves as you’re swinging your leg over his back, stop right there and make him trot for 2 minutes. The key is to make him work (trot) the instant he does the wrong thing.

4. When the 2 minutes is up, bring him back to the center of the round pen and try again to mount. The instant he moves, make him trot again for 2 minutes.

5. Keep doing this until he stands still for the entire mounting process.

Your horse will figure out that moving equals work and standing still equals no work. You’re making the right thing (standing still) easy and the wrong thing (moving) difficult.

Hank got this figured out in 35 minutes. When he finally stood perfectly still and I mounted, I just sat there and smiled. I got off and mounted again while he stood perfectly still. (But had he moved one inch, I would have made him trot for 2 minutes and started the process all over again.) Then I put him away. We were both pretty tired.

The next time I rode him, he did not move a muscle when I went to mount. It was like having a brand new horse!

After that, on the rare occasion he did move or even think about moving, I made him work - maybe by backing him up for 50 feet or circling him around me on the lead rope a few times - I made the punishment fit the crime. If he moved alot, he’d have to work pretty hard. If he moved just a little, he still had to work a little to reinforce that moving while I was mounting was simply not acceptable. Over the years I’ve been consistent in never allowing him to move while I’m mounting, so he doesn’t even try.

And they lived happily ever after.


  1. That's an interesting post. I had the same problem with my gelding. I solved it by holding the reins in my left and hand the riding crop in my right. If the horse moved forward, I pulled back on the reins. If he moved backward, I slapped him with the riding crop square on the rear. If he moved his hip left, I smacked his left hip and vice versa. He learned that if he held still, he didn't get corrected. Now the only time he walks off is when I forget my riding crop! Horses are so dang smart.

  2. Oh, that's brilliant. I like it. Thanks for sharing. I'm sure the technique could be adapted to work with other animals too.

  3. This technique really DOES work. I used the exact same thing on a very hard to shoe horse. Neighbor's horse, from the charro rodeos. Great rope horse, terrible about feet. Wouldn't even pick them, had to be shod with the vet there to sedate him. I said let me try. They did, thinking it couldn't hurt to let me.
    I did EXACTLY what you just did. Every time I'd try to pick up a foot and he'd freak out, around he'd go. After 3 days, 2 hrs each day, I got all four shoes on him. I must have said "Pick it up" at least 1,000 times. Never once lost patience. The horse was sure I would.
    The owner went to a roping and came back saying "I picked out all his feet!" He couldn't get over it.
    To this day I'm still the only person shoeing this horse. For me, he's fine, stands ground tied like a champ.
    I'm so glad to see it used for different purposes. That's excellent horsemanship!! Glad you posted this!

  4. This is very clever and amazing that it works so well. I don't remember any of our horses having an issue with standing still while we mounted. We (as in all my siblings-7 of us) trained our own horses. Perhaps it was no problem because we handled them as soon as they were born and never stopped. They were as gentle as can be by the time we began training them to ride. We did use the lunge line to teach voice commands but that is about it.

  5. Oh, wow! I'm going to have to remember that! I have one horse who is ready for his saddling and I'll remember these tips!

  6. I used this same technique (of sorts) when my horse wouldn't stand still. Ever. If I was mounted he wanted to be moving. Instead of trotting, I used small circles. I just love small circles as a way to remind those big animals that they really want to let their rider decide what to do.

  7. I've just recently found your blog, and enjoy it immensely!

    I had to go through the same thing with my boy, and now I can stand on pretty much anything and he'll sidle right up to me and let me hop on. Very helpful, especially when your horse's legs are twice as long as yours! Lord help me if I ever have to get off in a totally flat and featureless area; I'll never be able to get back on.

    I've been contemplating teaching him to kneel.

    He does get me back now, though. If he's feeling especially turd-ish, he moves in VERY CLOSE, making it just as difficult to get on.

    Who says horses don't have a sense of humor?

  8. Sounds like it worked perfectly!

    Our method with Cody the QH, who had apparently never seen a mounting block when he came to us, was taught by our trainer.

    She had us break mounting down into baby steps - walk him up to the block and step up on it. If he moved away we simply held the reins until he stopped but didn't step off the mounting block until he stopped. Then, start over.

    Once he stood still for the block with me on it, I progressed to putting foot in stirrup, and removing it. If he moved, I had to keep my foot in the stirrup until he stopped. (this did require some dexterity on my part)

    Once he was standing still for that, proceed to put foot in stirrup and put weight on his back. Same thing, all the way up to mounting.

    The key was never to remove the "pressure" until he stopped moving. Then you removed the pressure and started over.

    It took about 10 minutes and is easily reinforced. I like it b/c it requires no equipment. So if you're out someplace new and need to reinforce, you can do so.

    It would be the same process if mounting from a log, fence rail, the ground, etc.

    So many great ways to work with these big guys. :)

  9. I would love to try this with my horse. He is not horrible, but sometimes he just decides to walk off when I'm half on. The only problem is that we, like many English barns, do not have a round pen. Does anyone have a suggestion for an alternative to this?

  10. OMG! I just found you. You are living part of my dream. Good for you . I LOVE your blog. Please visit mine. I love your " god bless cowgirls" pic. Where do you find your vintage pics?

    After reading your profile it gives me even more hope and courage to follow my dreams and try and make it happen:) Thank you!

  11. Good advice - and the part about being consistent is so important - if you start to let the little things slip, these guys think that they can get away with anything!

  12. Well done. That principle (right thing easy, wrong thing difficult) is the fundamental principle in training in my humble opinion. Most of the long-time, respected trainers use it in their training. One other key which was evident in what you did is to keep the 'making it difficult' part unemotional so that it's not punishment. The way you did it was to give the horse the choice and you did it well.

    Again, well done.


  13. I agree that this is a great method. Haven't used it to get a horse to stand still as we haven't had that problem--yet. I have, however, used a version of the technique on a hard to catch horse.

    My Auggie used to be terrible to catch. I tried everything from bribery (grain buckets) to harsh words to pitching a fit. Nothing worked. He would let you get nearly up to him then just before you touched him, he'd take off.

    I don't know who it was who suggested that I give him the choice of working or coming to me. And it works!

    OK. I looked like an idiot out in the paddock swinging the lead rope over my head and chasing him around, but it didn't take long until he figured it out. He could come to me or he could run around. Horses don't like to expend energy if they don't have to.

    I was really amazed, but, like the mounting problem, it worked. It's a great technique and thanks so much for sharing it.

    (Love reading your blog...one of my special treats for myself in the morning.)

  14. Great post! My sister used this method (I think she got it from Clinton Anderson resources) and it worked for her mare!!
    Also, I have used the method Pamela mentioned for my hard to catch horse. My pasture is bigger than I'd wish for chasing, but small enough to make it possible. The key is to make sure they think they have brought the exercise upon themselves. I just hope he doesn't stumble and hurt himself running around like an idiot!

  15. Can't comment on the technique but wow, that picture is amazing. At first I thought it was a painting.... just gorgeous. Janex

  16. Do keep these sort of things coming please! I really enjoyed reading this, especially since I've 'broken' two horses out of this same habit...although one thing wouldn't work for the other. My gelding was the first, the probelm didn't really get to me, until one day he decided, "hey! why walk off when she's half on when you can CANTER off?!?!!" I fell off and all it took was being temporarily paralysed for 5 minutes for me to decided, this had to stop! The cure for him was once I did get on, not to move off straight away. I'd just make him stand there, sometimes for 2 minutes, sometimes for 10minutes. Nevertheless, he had to wait until I patting him and told him to go. Rowie, when I got her did the same thing. I tried the same method but that wasn't her 'cure'. She just stood there getting wound up ripping my arms out the their sockets. To stop her I had to pull her head towards me. I wouldn't have counted on this for working because it didn't with Bundy, but she's very thick (muscle not brains! lol) and not very flexible, so she physically couldn't walk off with her neck bent that far.

    Do post more like this if you have anymore! =)

  17. Perfect, I'm going to try this training exercise on Dusty. She is really annoying at the mounting block and this seems like the perfect way to make her stop her nonsense. I was going to try clicker training when I start to ride again but I like this better. This may be the classic 'war of the wills' and take hours but I'm much more stubborn than she knows. Thanks for a great post.

  18. Great post and news I can use, since I have 2 wiggle butts!

  19. THIS. IS. GENIUS. i admit i'm bad about letting my horses walk off from the mounting block as i'm getting on and, as they're generally 17hh, i don't have a prayer from the ground in my current state of fitness :-\
    but i have recently decided that, from now on, i should enforce the 'would you please just stand still and let me get on' command instead of just shouting it at them fruitlessly. but i wasn't sure exactly how i'd go about it. now i know! thanks :-) now i just have to wait for the snow to melt so i can set up my round pen... heh, heh, heh...

  20. great idea and i think you should repost this one to.. there are many who missed it

  21. Excellent advise. I have two that I will be working this summer. I'll get in shape as well. Thank you