Overcoming the Grooming Grumpies

You're not just teaching your horse to stand patiently for grooming with these exercises. The training will carry over into almost everything else you do with your horse.
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You're not just teaching your horse to stand patiently for grooming with these exercises. The training will carry over into almost everything else you do with your horse.
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Some horses love to be handled, and they'll stand quietly for everything from ear clipping to washing their tails. But if your horse doesn't stand like a statue, don't worry. We'll talk about what you can do to make grooming a better experience for both of you and what cues you'll need to establish good, safe control.

Emphasize the Positive

  • Choose a time and place to groom when and where your horse is most likely to stand quietly.
  • Don't tie your horse when you first start your grooming lessons.
  • Use leading lessons, moves and counter-moves to position and reposition your horse.
  • Focus on the positive. Don't react to your horse's moody mannerisms.
  • Spend plenty of time petting your horse's head before you approach his body.
  • Use patterns and timing to build your horse's confidence that he's not going to be stuck standing still forever.

De-stress the Situation
If you have a horse who gets crabby when it's time to groom him, you've probably already learned that trying to "discipline" him into cooperating doesn't work… or it doesn't work for very long. You have to take a different approach, one that will set you and your horse up for success.

To find a good starting point, you want as many things working in your favor as possible. Choose a time when your horse is most likely to be relaxed. Avoid busy or confusing times, such as when the tractor is picking up manure, at mealtime, or when horses are going in and out of the barn. Consider working with your horse after he's had some turn-out, or after a ride, when he's relaxed and not brimming with energy or nervousness like he might be when he first steps out of his stall.

Then find a good "classroom" for the first stand-for-grooming lesson. If you normally groom in the barn and that's the scene of your horse's restlessness, try beginning the lesson out in the pasture, or maybe in his stall.

By doing that, you're not giving into him and he's not getting away with anything. You're just breaking the lesson down into pieces and getting good control of the individual parts. Later, you can move from the classroom into the real world of the barn aisle.

Don't tie your horse to begin with. Ironically, you have to be able to tell him to move in order to show him that you want him to stand. So put a halter or bridle and lead rope on your horse, and use the lead to cue him. I usually use the bridle because it gives me more precise control.

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Clarify the Signals
Next, consider specifically what you want your horse to do. Though it may seem obvious, it isn't to him. You have to be able to tell the horse where to move his head and feet. You can't just tell him when he did the wrong thing.

When I'm grooming a horse, I want his head at a relaxed level-not too high, as if he's on alert, and not too low, so that I have to bend down to brush his face. I like him to stand relatively square, so that he can stand relaxed for a while. I want him to move around easily when I request it, such as to shift his weight or to pick up a foot. And I want him to do all of that with a trusting, rather than a defensive or aggressive, manner. Everything I do has to build that trust.

Trust comes as a by-product. As the horse learns that I can control him, he also learns to trust me. While feeding him carrots gets him to trust me as a carrot-provider, it doesn't necessarily translate to letting me groom him. For that, I have to set up small requests that he can easily answer correctly and that I can reward him for.

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Let's take the parts individually.

Begin by leading your horse to the classroom. We ask the horse to move forward by telling his hip to move forward. We don't pull him along. We want him moving on his own steam; we're not dragging him.

Stop him when you're at the place you want to work and pet him. If he doesn't stop easily, pull the lead rope toward his shoulder until he takes two big steps over with his hindquarters and stops his front feet. The moment those front feet pause, release the lead.

You may have to do the hips-over maneuver a few times before he gets the idea. Pressure on the lead means you want him to move a part of his body. Release of that pressure tells him he did what you wanted.

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Now you have a way to stop his front feet. If the horse walks forward when you begin to groom him, you can move his hip in order to stop him. If he backs up, tell him to step forward. His move, your countermove.

Standing still is hard for some horses. We can't force them to stand still. We can only offer them the opportunity and show them that standing still is an okay-and even safe-thing for them to do. Don't punish your horse; just give him an alternate activity.

You may need to work on leading lessons for a few minutes, then offer the horse the chance to stand. If he doesn't accept it, work on leading lessons for a few minutes more. When he makes the mental connection that moving around sent him back to work, he'll stand for longer periods.

Next is head position. If you've taught your horse the bridlework lessons that we've talked about in previous issues, then you're way ahead. You can position his head, his hip or his shoulder and establish control easily. If not, here's how to teach your horse to drop his head on cue, using pressure from the lead rope:

After you've worked with the hips-over exercise about 50 times (changing sides each time), you'll find that the horse begins to relax and his head hangs lower. When you see that happening, you can move on to controlling the elevation of his head more specifically. Pull the lead rope down, using light pressure. Hold the pressure steady, and the moment that the horse drops his head, release the lead.

He'll most likely raise his head before he drops it. Don't pull harder, but just keep the pressure steady. Be sure to release it the moment that his head drops. Work with that exercise until the horse will drop his head on cue.

The key to teaching a horse to be comfortable about standing for grooming is to spend lots of time working on his head. It's not uncommon for a horse to be defensive of his sides, so the more you build a horse's confidence by stroking his head, the more he's going to allow you to do with his body without getting tense.

We want to get our horse past the point of just tolerating being groomed. We want him to love it, so we have to get him to the point where he's willing to relax and let his head hang naturally. We can give him that idea by telling him to drop his head, and then we can reward him by releasing the lead and smooching with him when his head is down.

Once you've told your horse to drop his head, you can begin to pet him for very short periods, a second or two at a time. If he tries to pull away as your hand approaches, drop your hand and use the lead rope to ask him to bring his head back to you. When he learns that you won't "chase" his head with your hand, he'll be more accepting of your petting.

Timing and Patterns Matter
Setting up a pattern will also build the horse's confidence, especially when it comes to getting past his head and neck.

When the horse is comfortable with you petting his head and stroking his ears, then pet his head, make one stroke down his neck, and immediately return to petting his head. Repeat that a few times, then stroke his head, neck, shoulder, then his head again.

In time, you can build up to grooming more of the horse, each time beginning with and returning to his head. When the horse gets familiar with the pattern, he's much more likely to allow you to do additional things, such as rub his belly or lift his tail.

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Timing is important for helping the horse get comfortable with handling. Our training objective is to get the horse to do something for a split second.

If the horse is not accepting of you petting his ears, for instance, then start by petting his forehead. When you feel he's okay with that, then zoom your hand lightly but firmly up over his head. He's likely to shoot his head up with a "What was that?" type of response. That's okay, because your hand will have been long gone by then.

A few times like that and he learns that he can live through his ears being stroked. If you use the opposite approach, creeping up to try to touch his ear, you'll be all day with him playing "keep away."

When we first ask the horse to stand, we'll accept him standing for a moment or two. We can teach the horse to stand for longer periods by not trying to make him stand for longer than he's comfortable.

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For instance, if you think that your horse will stand quietly for four seconds, then ask him to move after three seconds. He'll realize that he's not trapped, that you're not going to make him stand forever.

After a few steps, offer him the chance to stop and stand again. This time, you may feel that he'll stand for five seconds. Rather than test it and have him make a mistake, ask him to move in four seconds. Pet him and tell him that he did a great job. Don't ask him to do something for so long that he makes a mistake.

The same principle applies to handling the horse's head or holding up his feet. Begin by petting the horse's head for just a stroke or two. Then withdraw your hand. Pet his face and let your hand run quickly over his forehead and up over his ears. Don't worry if he raises his head. Your hand will have already been gone by the time he raises his head. Work with the idea that you are going to get him comfortable with having his head handled.

Ask the horse to drop his head again. Pause a moment before you pet him if he's not really comfortable with having his head petted. That way, you reward his obedience by not fussing with his head. If you pet him as soon as he dropped his head, he might be reluctant to drop his head the next time you ask, knowing that you'll immediately pet him.

This is just a stage in the training. After a few minutes, he'll get comfortable with you petting his head.

When it comes time to pick up the horse's feet, don't hold the foot so long that the horse pulls it away. Initially, horses may only tolerate you lifting the heel off the ground momentarily. That's fine because if you put the foot down before the horse feels he has to pull it away, he'll begin to wait longer and longer periods for you to put it down, which means he's allowing you to pick it up more often and to hold it for longer periods.

Use the same strategy with handling any part of the horse's body. For instance, pet his tail, lifting it a half-inch and for just a split second the first time. Or to brush his belly, stroke down his shoulder and under his belly just one quick stroke, then return to petting his head. Whatever the objective, combine the familiarity of a pattern with good timing, releasing the horse from the unfamiliar sensation before he feels so uncomfortable that he has to wiggle around.

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When the Horse Messes Up
Notice that we said "when," not "if." Training is a process, and we're looking for improvement. Your horse will seem to understand what you want, and then seem to not have a clue. That's normal, and he's not being ornery. It's just part of the learning cycle.

You can minimize the times the horse makes a mistake by setting him up to be successful, as we've described. You can also watch closely for improvements and reward the horse's good efforts.

Allow minor corrections to just seem to happen naturally. Let's say that your horse reaches around to give you an ugly look as you brush his belly. (Of course, be sure you're standing so he can't "cow-kick" you.) Unless he's threatening to bite, ignore the ugly look and continue with the lesson. If he swings his nose around, raise your elbow to hit his nose, as if it just happened naturally and you had nothing to do with it.

The idea is to discourage the behavior, not scold the horse for it. Don't let the horse change your focus from what you're trying to do (brush his belly).

Operate on the idea that if the horse has enough time to grump at you, he doesn't have enough to do. Ask more of him. Perhaps ask him to move forward a few steps and then reposition him. Ask him to drop his head. Do something that has him obeying your signals and getting a reward from you for his effort. Remember that you're trying to build a partnership.

If you're picking his feet and he pulls his foot away, forget about it. You misjudged when to put the foot down. Pick it up again, and put it down right away. Reteach the lesson until the horse is comfortable with you handling his feet.

Keep your grooming sessions short, perhaps grooming for a minute or two, then do some leading work, then groom again. Remember that for the moment, you are training. Actually getting the horse groomed is secondary.

It only takes a few training sessions to overcome the grooming grumpies, but it does take dedicated effort and positive training. Your horse doesn't want to be a grump, so help him learn to be a happy camper