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Teach your horse to stand still at the end of a loose 12ft line.

So much of horsemanship is based on the ability to stand still. Without this foundation solidly in place, it is likely that cracks will show elsewhere in your relationship with your horse. Begin by asking your horse to stand. Notice exactly where each of his feet are, so that you can correct him if he moves them by moving each foot back to approximately where it started from. Facing your horse, back away a couple of steps, being careful to keep the line (lead rope) loose, as any slight pressure could be interpreted by your horse as you asking him to move towards you. Aim to stand for at least a minute. If your horse moves a foot, instantly correct him by moving him back until the foot is where it started from, then immediately release all pressure and take a couple of steps back again. Timing is key - the quicker you correct and the quicker you release, the quicker your horse will learn what you are asking of him. Use a level of pressure in your corrections that is proportionate to the level of mistake he's made, so if he's just crept forwards then gently ask him to move back. As you progress, take another step back, then another, until you are at the end of a loose 12ft line. Repeat consistently until you and your horse are able to stand relaxed for up to ten minutes.

Teach your horse to stand quietly while you pick up each of his feet in turn, in the order you decide

Allowing you to hold his foot up is a sign of your horse's trust in you, since he is giving away his option to flee. Picking the feet out as quickly as you can or not picking out the hind feet altogether to avoid problems can often degenerate into further difficulties. Have someone hold him to start with, or tie him up - although eventually the goal is to be able to do this exercise with your horse loose in the stable or field. Start with one of his front feet. Position yourself safely so that you are standing beside his shoulder facing his tail. Always touch his neck or shoulder then run your hand down to his leg, rather than surprising him by touching his leg first. Run your hand down the back of his leg to the fetlock and ask him to pick up his foot. Be calm but firm, insist that he gives you his foot, even if only for a second. Don't give up because he's resisting or fidgeting, unless safety is a concern. Once he's given you his foot and you've chosen to release it, make sure you reward him with something he enjoys, perhaps a scratch on the withers (the use of food as a reward here is not appropriate). When you are confident with both front feet, follow the same procedure with the back feet. Again be careful to put your hand on his quarters and slide it down to his leg rather than surprising him by touching him on his leg straight away. Over time, vary the order in which you pick up his feet. Build up how long you can hold each foot for, up to a minute or so (if you are holding his foot up for more than a few seconds keep it fairly close to the ground to avoid placing undue stress on the joints by flexing them). Try to find a way to reward your horse while he is holding his foot up for you, rather than when he has placed it down on the ground again, since it's the lifting that you want to encourage.

Cause your horse to move just one foot.

This might sound simple, but most people don't find it so easy when they give it a go! It doesn't matter if you're moving the foot forwards or backwards. The key is in the communication you and your horse must have to achieve such a precise goal. Start with your horse standing still, with you facing him. Ask him to move just one foot backwards. Watch really closely - in my experience people often don't notice that two or even three feet have moved! Experiment with how much pressure you need to use to ask for the initial movement, and how quickly you need to release any pressure so that he only moves one foot, as opposed to several. It's likely that you'll find you need to 'reward the thought' by releasing the pressure as you see / feel him thinking about lifting one foot, because if you leave it any longer than this you'll have triggered the movement of a second or third foot. This a great exercise in teaching you how to listen to your horse, and almost more importantly, in teaching your horse that you are listening to him and responding to his actions. Once you've mastered moving one foot backwards, try moving one forwards, or a front foot sideways towards you, or a hind foot sideways away from you.

Preparation is key, and safety is essential...

Make sure you are loading in an area that ultimately is enclosed. Begin by making sure you shut the yard gate, or work in an arena or field that is fenced with the gate shut. Have the lorry or trailer ready before you approach, with the ramp down, appropriate blockades in place if necessary to stop your horse from swinging round to the side of the ramp, partitions open and in the right place, a bucket of food at the front (rubber bucket with no handles) as a reward for your horse once he's loaded, and a safe surface for your horse to load from and unload onto (not concrete, gravel or tarmac). Have the appropriate and safe kit for yourself, including hat and gloves, and body protector if you feel safer that way. Keep your horse as safe as possible with brushing boots all round, overreach boots all round, and a poll guard (avoid travelling boots for loading practice, at least initially, as they can slip and cause problems). There are risks inherent to loading horses, and you can do your best to minimise them.

Teach your horse to stand still, and to move one foot at a time.

First establish communication with your horse, by teaching him to stand
still, and by learning to cause him to move just one foot at a time. This
sounds simple, but in my experience, most problem loaders are not able to achieve it to the level required. Your horse should be able to stand still at the end of a relaxed 12ft rope, in a calm fashion, for as long as you ask him to, even if that's ten minutes or more. In reality, I think most of us as people find it very difficult to stand still for ten minutes without doing
anything, and so it's not even something we'd think about attempting with our horses. I've found that the greatest behavioural and performance changes have been made by those horses whose owners are willing to put in the time it takes to teach them to stand still. Causing your horse to move one foot at a time requires subtle communication,
and detailed focus on your horse, so that you can respond at exactly the right time to whatever move he makes.

Lead through narrow gaps, and block front and back.

For some horses, the problem with loading is essentially a claustrophobic response. Equally, it can be difficult for the handler to figure out how to manoeuvre their horse through narrow gaps and in enclosed spaces. You can begin to overcome this, either horse or handler, through simulation. This is a time-tested technique used in many disciplines, even to help learn specialised skills like astronauts learning to space walk! Set up a safe enclosed space that’s about the same size as your lorry or trailer, perhaps with plastic jump blocks and poles for example, and teach your horse to lead through the narrow space calmly. If he really struggles, you may even have to start with poles on the ground, and of course you can start with a wide gap and gradually narrow it. Once you can lead your horse calmly into the enclosed space, and have him stand there in a relaxed way, you can 'close off' the front and / or the back, again using something safe such as jump poles. At all times, your own safety is paramount, so be very aware of your positioning in relation to your horse and to any obstacles.


The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines on
osteoarthritis, one of the most common causes of stiffness in both
humans and horses, state that practitioners should ‘advise people with
osteoarthritis to exercise as a core treatment, irrespective of age,
comorbidity [the presence of one or more additional diseases], pain
severity or disability.’ The guidelines also recommend that ‘manipulation
and stretching should be considered as an adjunct to core treatments…’.
It seems perfectly valid to transfer this approach from humans to horses,
given that we share many of the same characteristics in our
musculoskeletal systems. The rest of the exercises in this book are mobilisation techniques targeting specific areas of the body, and it’s easy to overlook the fact that exercise is a whole-body mobilisation technique, and one of the most
effective. There are some specific in-hand exercises in ’10 Of The Best:
Exercises To Improve Your Confidence With Your Horse From The
Ground’, and there will be more to follow in later books in this ’10 Of The
Best’ series. For now though, think of general in-hand exercise, for
example leading your horse out, or long reining. Lungeing may or may
not be appropriate for your horse, and should certainly not be done too
often or for extended periods of time – please contact your local
Chartered Physiotherapist ( or Registered Animal
Musculoskeletal Practitioner ( for individual
advice. Follow similar guidelines to those you would for introducing or
maintaining an exercise program yourself, including building up the level
of exercise gradually and allowing appropriate rest periods.
If you struggle with this mobilisation technique or any of the others in
this book, or have any concerns about your horse’s reaction, please
contact your vet, a Chartered Physiotherapist, or a Registered Animal
Musculoskeletal Practitioner (see website addresses above). A wellqualified
physiotherapist or other musculoskeletal practitioner will advise
on exercises specific to your horse, and will recommend onward referral
if necessary..

Spinal mobilisation: Exercise One What to do: Carrot stretches / Baited stretches

In detail: ‘Carrot stretches’ or ‘baited stretches’ are well known exercises
used to mobilise the horse’s spine. They involve using ‘bait’ (a treat of
some kind, often a carrot) to encourage the horse to bend around to the
side, down towards the ground, or a multitude of combinations of those
movements. You can find plenty of examples of baited stretches on the
internet, and my favourite books and DVDs on the subject are ‘Activate
Your Horse’s Core’ (book and DVD,, ‘Pilates and Stretching’ (book) by Gillian Higgins, and ‘Pilates for Horses’ (DVD) by Gillian Higgins.
People often think of baited stretches as ‘stretching’ just the neck,
whereas in fact they mobilise the entire spine, because of the
connections throughout the body. Baited stretches act both as a dynamic
stretch (lengthening restrictions in the soft tissue, particularly in the
muscles and fascia, through movement), and as a dynamic joint
mobilisation (the horse moving the affected joints through range of
movement). If you look at a horse from the side who is stretching for a
treat near the ground between his front feet, you’ll see that his entire
back is rounded. If you could see a horse from above as he stretched
round to take a treat from towards his hip, you would see that his entire
spine was flexed to the side. Care must be taken with baited stretches if
you are using treats to achieve them, as they are not suitable for all –
some horses quickly come to expect and then demand the treat, and their behaviour can become difficult to manage. In these cases,
alternative techniques can be used to achieve similar mobilisations, such
as training the horse to respond to a signal from the rope, but this can
take longer, and a greater level of skill from the handler.
If your horse finds this difficult: If his behaviour is the problem, then
avoid this particular exercise or find an alternative way of approaching it.
If restricted movement is the problem, then repeat the exercise twice daily, three times each way, until the range of movement improves..

Spinal mobilisation: Exercise two What to do: Move the base of the cervical spine (neck) from side to side, encouraging a relaxed side-to-side movement throughout the spine.

In detail: Stand to the left side of your horse, with your left hand supporting your horse’s head collar, and your right hand on the base of his neck, in front of the
shoulder blade. Apply pressure to move the base of the neck away from you in a steady rhythm while his head stays relatively still, and then release, possibly around
once a second or once every two or three seconds depending on what feels right for
you and your horse. Imagine the spine, running through the middle of the neck,
swaying rhythmically away from you and back towards you. As the base of the neck
moves away from you, the top of the neck and the quarters will move towards you,
and vice versa, giving a whole-spine mobilisation. Continue for around a minute, or until your horse is relaxed and gently swaying. This can feel like dancing with your horse, almost a meditative feeling. If your horse finds this difficult: Try asking less of him, or moving slightly more quickly or (more often) more slowly. Try different hand and body positions, until you find one that works for you and your horse. As always, if you struggle, seek professional help.

Establish the ground rules.

Having a good relationship with your horse from the ground is an essential precursor, in my opinion, to hacking out safely. Firstly, your relationship in the saddle is often linked to your relationship on the ground. Secondly, there may be a situation when you need to get off and lead your horse, and it’s essential that you are safe to do this.

To be confident riding your horse out hacking, your horse must be confident in you as his partner. In a partnership, sometimes one partner acts as the leader, and sometimes the other – your horse must have enough confidence in you to accept your leadership when necessary. Start, as always, with standing still. Are you confident that your horse would stand still in a relaxed fashion for at least 10 minutes pretty much anywhere you asked him to? Can you lead him on a loose rope? Will he walk when you walk (or when you ask him to), and stop when you stop (or when you ask him to)? Can you get him to move just one foot (as opposed to taking several steps)? Will he move his quarters or forehand over, as much or as little as asked, without him grumbling at you? Can you lead him up and down slopes and steps (for example, on and off a pavement), and over different surfaces (grass, mud, or through a puddle)? I like to be able to achieve all of these things on the yard, in an arena, and even at various points out on a hack, and many of my clients have overcome their fear of hacking by starting with the basics in hand. If you’d like help getting started, try my earlier book ’10 Of The Best: Exercises To Improve Your Confidence On The Ground With Your Horse’, available from Amazon and from

Get the physical checks done.

The scientific evidence isn’t yet there, but anecdotally it is clear that the greater the level of discomfort a horse is in, the more likely he is to spook. To me this makes perfect sense – I know I’m more likely to react in an over sensitive manner if I’m hurting! I think that basically it’s like an overload of the nervous system – the body is working hard to deal with the pain and it doesn’t have the energy left to remain calm under pressure. Both horses and humans are hard wired to look for danger. If you assume the bush behind the rock is a lion until proven otherwise and so you run away, then even if you are wrong, you are still alive. If you assume the bush behind the rock is just a bush until proven otherwise, it’s too late. As humans, we are living in a permanent state of stress, albeit at a low level, because of the way our brain perceives threats. Horses, also, are kept in very unnatural conditions, and it’s quite possible they are suffering in a similar way. As an ACPAT Chartered Physiotherapist ( and equine behaviourist (, the first thing I look for in a spooky horse is whether or not he is sound. Low grade lameness can go unrecognised for a significant period of time, and the horse’s behaviour may gradually deteriorate. If I feel the horse is unsound, I refer him to the vet for further investigation. The next place I look is at the neck, poll and ears. Many spooky horses are ear shy, hypersensitive when you stroke the inside of their ear with your thumb, or head shy. The tension in the neck that causes these problems can often be removed, or at least eased significantly. I also question whether gastric ulcers may be a contributing factor – around one in two ‘leisure horses’ (for example, riding club level or happy hacker) has been found to have gastric ulcers, although the ulcers are not always clinically significant (i.e. they don’t always cause problems). I also ask, if it’s a mare, whether she’s ‘mare-ish’, as again this is often linked to spooky behaviour, and is treatable in many cases. Poor saddle fit, poor foot balance, and dental problems, can all lead to an increase in spookiness. I have listed the relevant organisations where you can find a qualified practitioner in each field at

Leading out

Taking your horse for a walk, in much the same way as you might take your dog for a walk, is I believe one of the best ways of gaining confidence out hacking. To start with, you have to have a good enough relationship on the ground to be able to consider leading him out, and so considering this option can flag up that this is an area you would benefit from working on. As with everything with horses, it takes the time it takes, and just because the person in the stable next door is able to do something in their way doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it the same. Every horse is an individual, as is every person, and therefore every relationship is different, and it’s not at all surprising that your horse might behave one way for you and another for your instructor, or that your friend’s horse might behave one way for you and another way for your friend. After all, you interact subtly differently with every single person that you meet and develop a relationship with, whether that’s on a work basis or a social basis. So if being able to lead your horse out on a half hour hack means spending three months working in hand in the arena and then an open field and then on the track leaving the yard before you actually attempt even the beginning of the hacking route in hand, that’s fine. Equally, if you’re confident in the arena and in an open field and get going straight away hacking in hand, that’s fine. The point is that unless you are confident enough to lead your horse on the route that you would like to hack, then you are not ready to ride your horse on that route. This is a goal that is achievable by almost everyone (barring medical reasons), if you are willing to dedicate yourself to achieving it and to accept help as needed along the way.

Learning Theory

The term ‘learning theory’ has only recently come into fashion in the horse world, led by Dr Andrew McLean through Equitation Science ( Great horse people over the centuries have of course applied what is now known as ‘learning theory’, and I learned much from growing up with a variety of equestrian experiences as well as from Monty Roberts ( and Kelly Marks (

The website presents ten training principles which are presented as "non-negotiable obligations for trainers to maintain optimal welfare in trained horses as well as optimal training efficiency.” They are:
1. Take into account the horse’s ethology and cognition
2. Use learning theory appropriately
3. Train easy-to-discriminate cues
4. Shape responses and movements
5. Elicit responses one-at-a-time
6. Train only one response per signal
7. Form consistent habits
8. Train persistence of responses (self-carriage)
9. Avoid and dissociate flight responses
10. Demonstrate minimum levels of arousal sufficient for training

I highly recommend visiting the website and reading the in-depth information given there on this subject. It’s important to understand the theory behind the different ways to desensitise a horse to an aversive stimuli (something he doesn’t like), and the difference between positive and negative reinforcement as well as between positive and negative punishment. The clearer you are in your head about what you would like to achieve and what you are prepared to do towards achieving that, the more likely you are to succeed. Try explaining these concepts to a friend, or even just to your horse, as the act of putting them into words will in itself deepen your understanding. Remember to break your goals down into bite-sized chunks, so that you can build a good foundation of learning.

Let’s begin with the senses. I will take you through the different senses and explain how to tackle each one. If you are experiencing a problem that I don’t specifically refer to, remember that the rules of approaching a problem are always essentially the same. Break the problem down into small pieces, build the horse’s confidence gradually one step at a time, don’t worry how long it takes and remember how far you have come!


Most of us think of the things that our horse ‘sees’ when we think about what he spooks at. The pheasant jumping out from the wood, the crisp packet hiding in the hedge, the dustbin by the side of the road, the flag blowing in the breeze, etc. One of the key elements of bomb proofing your horse is to remain calm yourself. It is very likely that the heart rate of your horse, and his adrenalin levels, can be affected by your own heart rate and adrenalin levels. But how do you stay calm when you know your horse is going to jump?

Start on the ground. I hold to a basic principle that if you’re not confident enough to lead your horse on a particular hack, then you shouldn’t be riding him on that route. That might well mean starting in the arena. Begin by building your skills on the ground with your horse without any spooky objects around (see ’10 of the Best: Exercises to Improve Your Confidence With Your Horse From The Ground’ if you need help). Become calm and confident (you and your horse!) doing a set of groundwork exercises including standing still at the end of the rope, moving the quarters or the forehand a step, backing up one step, moving sideways, walking and stopping on a loose rope, and circling around you in each direction in walk. This will help you to feel more in control of your horse, which will improve your confidence in your ability to have an affect over his behaviour.

Then gradually add in the things that might cause him a problem, for example tie a flag to the fence, put a dustbin in the middle of the arena, or pin some crisp packets to the ground (don’t let them fly around in the wind!). Work your way through your set of groundwork exercises moving gradually closer and closer to the problem objects, until your horse can walk past them with nothing but a sideways glance. Progress perhaps to placing spooky objects in a field, on the drive, or even somewhere safe on your hack, and repeat the exercises as many times as necessary. This could take days, weeks, or months depending on you, your horse, and how much time you have to dedicate to the issue.

Only once you’re 80% confident all of the time leading your horse out hacking should you consider getting in the saddle - and this could be for all or part of the ride. Leave your head collar on under the bridle and take a lead rope with you, so that at any time, you can dismount, (where safe to do so) and work through those groundwork exercises yet again..


Probably the most common ‘touch’ problems are clipping, fly spraying, and washing down. The key with these is to find a milder stimulus that you can introduce first. This will build up your horse’s own confidence in his ability to cope with the stimulus. So if clipping is the problem, you can first use an electric tooth brush, an electric razor, or a hair dryer, to introduce your horse to the feel of vibration on his skin (more about clipping in the ‘Hearing’ chapter)? If it’s spray, can you first desensitise your horse with stroking, or with a sponge, or can you spray once rather than 50 times? If it’s washing your horse down, can you use a dribble from the hose rather than a gush, or can you use a bucket and sponge? I have worked successfully with countless horses to overcome all of these problems and more, and often the bottom line is whether or not you want to put in the time and effort it takes. As with most issues, you first need to establish ‘standing still’ (see below). The techniques given here for spraying and hosing can be adjusted to fit your horse’s specific phobia.

At all times, in all your work with your horse, safety must be your first priority. Often, your horse will overcome his fear more quickly if you reduce his options for flight. This doesn’t mean pinning your horse down, but it does mean holding him on a rope to enable you to keep him close to you. If your horse is reactive to being fly sprayed, first check whether it’s the smell that is the problem, by putting plain water in a spray and assessing his reaction. If it’s the action of spraying that’s the problem, begin by making sure that he will stand relaxed while you stroke him all over with one hand with the spray held in your other hand. Gradually, a little at a time, progress to stroking him with the hand that is holding the spray bottle. Next give one short, quick, gentle spray with the bottle held really close to his body, then immediately return to stroking. Once he’s relaxed for a while, repeat the spray again, gradually shortening the length of time between sprays. When you can give 3 or 4 sprays in quick succession, occasionally move your hand a little further away from his body. Build on this until eventually you can spray your horse without any adverse reaction. Start your work in an area of the body that is generally less sensitive, such as the shoulder, back or ribcage, and gradually move to other areas until you can work over the whole body. You might work through these steps in a matter of minutes, days, or weeks, depending on your horse.

With hosing your horse’s legs down, you may need first of all to desensitise him to the hose. You could use a length of rope perhaps to begin with, as often the problem is something ‘snaking’ along the ground. Start with a short length of rope, and then a longer one if necessary. Move the rope, or hose, towards your horse, as though you are going to hose his legs. Watch him closely, as you want to push him just outside of his comfort zone, but not so far that you trigger a flight reaction. You’ll see him start to tense, in preparation for moving, and that’s far enough. At that point, back off just a little, and wait for your horse to relax before backing off completely. Repeat, and over time you’ll find that you can get closer and closer before the tension appears. Once you can touch your horse’s leg with the hose without him being noticeably concerned, you’re ready to begin the entire exercise again with just a dribble of water coming out of the hose. Over time you can increase the pressure of the water coming out of the hose, and before you know it you’ll be washing his legs off with no trouble at all!

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