We've all had the horse, or at the very least, seen the horse, who just can't seem to keep his feet still, either under-saddle or on the ground. On the ground the horse usually crowds his handler's space and darts about like a fly on a wall, nostrils flared and eyes bugged out. Under-saddle, this horse is usually ancy to go, prancing, and jigging. It's frustrating!! All you want is for your horse to stand still and relax a moment, but they just can't seem to do so. So let's take a look at what's going on.
The horse is a prey animal and they do one of three things when threatened: flight, fight, or freeze. When they are anxious about something, most horses will pick flight. Sometimes freeze comes first, but usually flight follows. Fight will not typically occur unless the horse feels extremely threatened, or trapped with no flight option. We usually tend to envision flight as a horse bolting away, but flight can also manifest as a horse who just can't seem to stand still. On the ground, this is usually the result of a horse in a strange place or who spots something alarming, or who just has a lot of energy at the time and doesn't know where to put it all! Under-saddle, it can also be the result of a horse with a lot of energy and nowhere to put it, or it can also be the result of anxiety.
Starting horses, I find their first actual ride under-saddle, many horses might not want to halt and stand still. It takes a bit of time for the horse to halt and relax without moving her feet. Sometimes we can do it within one session (optimal, obviously), sometimes it takes a number of sessions. I'm working with one colt at the moment - Hard Twist (check him out at my other blog), who just couldn't keep his feet still really for the first couple of weeks under-saddle. He wasn't comfortable yet under-saddle and so he was constantly in a little bit of that flight mode. This is a horse who really has not been handled much throughout his life except for some (albeit limited) bad experiences and thus has a deep-seated fear of the unknown, including humans. He is doing excellent and becomes more confident day by day, but it has taken time. Today was the first time he stood still and actually relaxed on me, without trying to walk off again.
So, what do you do with a horse that won't stand still?
Well first off, it partially depends on why the horse will not stand still. If it's fear-based, you want to ultimately work on the reason they feel the need to flee. This might mean developing a stronger partnership so that they can better trust your leadership, or it might mean simply more hours spent together (say for Twist, it means more groundwork in addition to more time under-saddle). Either way though, you want to get your horse thinking again. When a horse is in full-out flight mode, they stop thinking. They are reacting purely on instinct. A horse who cannot stand still is not typically in full-blown flight mode, but they are obviously reacting a little, and thus fleeing. Obviously you want them back to thinking - relaxed and calm, so you need to put them on a track that gets them thinking - put them to work! If it's a horse under-saddle, get him turning on the forehand (best, because he's disengaging his hindquarters, which means no forward movement with his legs crossed!), turning on the hind, doing leg yields, doing patterns (circles, serpentines, figure-8's). Do not allow him to move forward in a straight line - rather, get his mind busy doing something specific. Allowing him to move forward on a straight line requires no thought and predisposes him to going into flight mode. If you are doing circles, do plenty of changes in direction rather than a pile of circles (he still may be moving forward too much). If you've got a horse on the ground, same deal - get him working. Have him do half-circles in front of you, changing in direction constantly. Back him up, have him move his front and hind ends around, whatever it may be, just keep him busy. You can also apply reverse psychology - the more he wants to move his feet, have him move his feet! Pretty soon he can't wait to stand still. Also, when he does stand still, don't expect him to then stand quietly for 10 minutes. Start off small. Allow him to stand for a brief moment (maybe even just one second in length), then ask him to move off again, before he makes it his idea to move off. If you ask him before he thinks of it, then it becomes your idea. Pretty soon it also becomes his idea to stop. Each time he stands, ask him to stand longer and longer, until you eventually get the time length you desire.
What not to do. As humans, as predators, when we become anxious, we tense up and clamp down. Riding, we'll clamp our legs against the sides of our horse, tighten our back, and clamp our hands down on the reins. All these signals tell the horse - run! Faster! The leader on your back is scared, you'd better damn well be scared too! We can check out whatever scared our leader later, after we've put some distance between us and whatever threat it is. Or, it tells the green horse - RUN! The predator on your back has latched on - get it off before it digs its claws in!! Or, better yet, the prey animal beneath us senses our tension and wants to take off (and perhaps wanted to do so prior to our tensing, but our anxiety has only added fuel to the fire), then we go and hold it back! Well horses, as prey animals, are claustrophobic. They do not exactly revel in being trapped. So of course the more you try and hold your horse back, the more he fights you to get loose so he can take flight. So, reverse psychology, let go. Do not, do not, try to hold your horse back. Instead, put his feet (and thus his mind), to work, on a loose rein (with corrections via rein and seat). This doesn't mean you have to have the reins drooping, but loose enough that there is no or little contact on the bit - you can still be prepared to take up the slack quickly, but just have a little looseness to the rein. Loosen your hold on the rein and soften your entire body, from your hands, to your seat, and your legs. Relax! If you absolutely need to correct your horse, bump him gently with one rein (or two, if necessary) as a sort of check, to get his mind back and to slow him up a little - but release immediately. On the ground, we tend to grip the horse right beneath the chin and try to muscle the horse into standing still. Well, last I checked, 1,200lbs weighs more than a measly 150lb human (or whatever it may be, your horse still outweighs you). It won't work. Instead, give your horse his head. Then get his feet moving and his mind thinking. I use 12' leads, and I'll hold the horse somewhere between the 2-6' mark. Our Thoroughbred needs to move his feet every once in awhile, and when he does so, he'll usually spurt around in front of me, nostrils flared, tail waving. Sometimes I need to get him doing something, but most of the time I simply continue walking, and he falls in behind me once again after his brief moment of alarm. Give your horse the room to do what he needs to. Make it his responsibility to walk with you, without trying to force him to do so.
When I worked at the track, I always led my horses on a loose lead. I cannot count how many times I was chastised (not by my boss and not when anything was ever occurring, but by random individuals and usually when the horse was quiet) for doing so, people telling me how unsafe it was to lead a racehorse on such a loose lead. He'll run over you! Was the usual comment. But their predictions never came true. First off, I never led a horse on a loose lead unless I could trust it wouldn't run over me. This meant acting in a manner deserving of respect and earning my spot as leader, earning the respect of the horse and thus ensuring it stayed out of my space. Once I could trust it would stay out of my space (and sometimes I had to reinforce this, many a time I had to back a horse up out of my space with body language or such), I could allow it on a loose lead. Some I kept on looser leads than others, but I never had constant, direct contact with the horse's chin. This allowed them to feel less claustrophobic, and thus panicky, and actually allowed them to remain calmer. It made being quiet and trusting in me their responsibility. It was incredibly how fast they could calm down when given their head. If necessary, I could give a short correction, a bump with the lead, but usually I could just use my body language. I never had problems with any of my horses, even the cantankerous ones. In fact the one horse, one we ended up buying and bringing home, I was able to remove the lip chain from that he usually wore when handled. He also never reared once with me in the paddock, when he had reared with everyone else. I didn't give him a reason to rear. I allowed him to keep his feet moving and I gave him his head so that he had no reason to go up. If I had to keep him still, I used pressure on his chest to back him up when necessary. There were several others I groomed who responded the same way to the aforementioned management, whereby I was able to remove the lip chain and have them actually behave better as I worked with them on a loose (or looser) lead. So, loose reins/leads, relax (take a deep breath), and get your horse busy thinking of something else!