In-hand training (aka groundwork) is not just valuable for enabling safe and calm handling, it also establishes and improves many of the responses we use under-saddle.
Whether we are working with a young naïve horse during foundation training or we are re-training a horse with behavioural problems, setting good ground rules is all about teaching the horse how to respond to different signals to enable us to manage them safely from the ground. The series has covered, ‘Stop’, ‘Step-back’, ‘Park’, ‘Go’, ‘Yielding the shoulders’, ‘Yielding the hindquarters’ and ‘Head control’.
In this part, we discuss one of the day-to-day applications of in-hand training that will greatly improve welfare and safety – catching and releasing your horse in group housed situations.
This is because a horse that is easy to catch and release, and one that can be manoeuvered through gateways safely, will have a better chance of living with other horses.
Why should my horse live with other horses?
We hear it more than ever nowadays – horses must have socialisation. They don’t just like it, they are hardwired to need it. To truly provide the best welfare practices for our horses, in addition to feed, water, shelter, exercise and health care; socialisation is an imperative.
At the very least, horses should be able to touch each other. At best, they are housed with another horse (or more, if space allows) to be able to play, interact and form bonds.
Horses, unlike us, don’t have a language to communicate from one paddock away to help each other feel secure. They need the touch and interaction of each other for their mental wellbeing. What’s more, there are behavioural benefits of socialisation!
There is growing evidence to suggest that horses whose socialisation needs are met are less anxious, more ‘brave’, and generally calmer in their demeanour.
One of the biggest concerns we hear at ESI is the challenge of dealing with separation anxiety, and to this we advise that, as the horse’s training becomes clear and consistent, the horse’s desperate need for security from other horses whilst not in their company diminishes.
In time and with good training, security is drawn instead from the consistency and clarity of their interactions with their handlers and riders. All of our horses at ESI are grouped in paddocks of 2 or 3 (paddock size depending), and none experience separation anxiety.
The second concern we hear, is the risk of injury, and while there’s always a level of risk, we should also remember that fence-related injuries which happen when horses try to get to one another over a fence, are even more common.
Choosing the right paddock mate
The risk of injury is very low if you chose the right paddock mate. In order to do so, we recommend:
Allowing the horses to meet across a safe fence – it’s normal for them to squeal, and perhaps even a mild strike. It’s what happens next that’s important. Ideal paddock mates will investigate each other with sniffing, and any hostility will diminish quickly.
If possible, group them together for the first time in a new paddock that neither were in before, so they begin on ‘common ground’ discovering the resources at the same time.
If you’re very concerned, remove hind shoes to mitigate risk of an injury from a kick, but rarely do we see horses connect in a serious kick, providing the horse has room to move.
Ensure the paddock you put them in for the first time has plenty of space to escape threats. Many horses will display threatening behaviour – this is their way of developing boundaries and understanding each other. Generally, horses are very good at reading body language and knowing when to retreat from a threatening situation.
Space feed bins out – many horses display food dominance, so ensure each horse has the space to eat in peace.
Signs horses enjoy each other’s company:
- They stand close to each other
- They groom each other
Signs you might need to consider a different paddock mate:
If the horses have not bonded after a few days, or one appears to be relentlessly bullying the other, it is worth considering that these horses are not a suitable match.
If you have a horse that is notoriously aggressive, don’t give up and isolate them. Dominance is a fluid concept based on resources. Your horse might seem like he/she is permanently dominant, but you can find a match for them if you try, and it’s well worth trying.
If you are still unsure, I strongly advise you to do a YouTube search for a study by the Swiss National Stud Farm on the integration of stallions in a group (German translation: Integration von Hengsten in eine Gruppe).
A large group of stallions were released into a paddock together and observed for their behaviour. It’s a very entertaining video! Whilst there were many squeals and threats, there were no serious attacks. After 30 minutes they were grazing together, and after 1 day they had found their ‘friends’ and were happily living, all together.
Let’s not forget these are stallions – the most commonly isolated sex in the equine world due to their perceived ‘aggressive’ nature. So, for the good of your horse’s mental wellbeing, let them have friends!
Catching and releasing group housed horses safely
There are a few things to consider to ensure handler safety when catching and releasing a horse into a group situation. This is a topic that understandably, many people have concerns over.
Before I begin on the training components of catching and releasing, there are a couple of precautions you can take to stay safe:
Wear your helmet and horse safe footwear when catching/releasing your horse. Whilst we can mitigate risk as much as possible, this is a small, simple step you can take to ensure that in the event of an incident, your head and feet will be protected as best possible. We also advise taking a long whip or sticklike tool to be able to manoeuvre other horses from a distance.
Ensure your gate is balanced and easy to move with one hand. Gates that drag on the ground or catch can take your attention from the task at hand.
Follow safety protocols. According to Meredith Chapman, an expert on safety and horse-human related risks, the safest ‘release position’ for you and the horse is as follows:
- in a clear area of the paddock, at least 10m from the fence and/or gateway.
- facing the other horses.
Note: Most of us have been taught to turn and face the horse towards the gate before releasing, but new guidance suggests the horses are happier facing and seeing the other horses, and there is less risk of the horse panicking and attempting to jump the gate, or causing injury if they swing around to escape. It is safer to have plenty of room away from any obstacles.
The training foundations
Horses are often excited to be heading back to their friends, so it’s important we still have complete control to ensure the horse stops, moves when asked, and remains still until we’re ready to release them, all from light cues.
In the earlier parts of this series, I went into detail on how to train the basic responses in-hand required for safe handling of horses.
The basic responses are useful in many handling situations, and are very relevant to safe releasing of horses to group paddocks.
The importance of the ‘Go’ and ‘Stop’ response
Our horse must have clearly trained responses to our in-hand aids for ‘Go’ and ‘Stop’. They must be able to walk up close to the gate, stop (and ‘park’ or stand immobile) while you attend to the latch.
They must obediently walk through the narrow opening of the gateway, and be able to stop at any moment should you need them to.
Horses that rush through gateways have possibly experienced a gateway hitting them causing fear associations, so thorough retraining (when the paddock is free of other horses) is required:
Start with a larger opening, and test and train quietly walking through, stopping at the smallest sign of fear, and applying desensitisation techniques such as counter conditioning (scratches/food associations) or overshadowing (stepping back and forward until the horse is responding to light aids) to reduce fear.
Practice until the horse can walk, stop and step-back from light aids, as well as ‘park’ at all stages of walking through the gateway. Gradually make the gate opening smaller and repeat until the horse is comfortable walking through the smaller gap without any tension.
Never under-estimate the value of scratching at the wither – this is not only pleasant for the horse, it is relaxing too.
The importance of ‘Park’
When being released into the paddock, we need our horses to stand still until we have taken the halter off and moved away a few steps. (This is discussed in Part 3 of the series which you can download as an eBook here).
Allowing the horse to walk towards their friends whilst wrestling the halter off will only get worse, as the horse values escaping from the halter and getting closer to his friends will act as a reward.
Horses seek reinforcement, so ensure you reinforce the behaviour of waiting with you until you’re ready to walk away, as this is a really important step for your safety. Enjoy a nice scratch and a cuddle with your horse before letting him go.
The importance of ‘Head Control’
While parked, we need to be able to manoeuvre the horse’s head to ensure we can easily put the halter on and off, so training the horse to lower the head is useful here. (This is discussed in Part 6 of the series which you can download as an eBook here).
Managing with other horses
The last little challenge is the risk of other horses ‘crowding’ – that is, coming to crowd around you while you close or open the gate and release their friend.
If the other horses are your own, you can train these horses to step-back from a whip-tap on the chest (or other stick-like device). Ensure your training involves pairing the response with a word such as “baaaack”, so that you can enter the paddock, cue the other horse to move “baaaack” and apply a whip-tap on the chest if need be.
Of course, the other horses need to be trained gradually to back from the word cue and whip-tap on the chest – first with a halter until the response is really well consolidated and will also work without the halter on. You don’t want to surprise untrained horses with a command to back up, as they may take fright, turn around and kick. But with one-on-one training, all your horses will soon learn to stand back and wait until you release the other, or leave the paddock.
If the other horses are not your own (you’re in a group agistment situation, for example), consult with the other owners about your intentions of wanting their horses to allow safe space for you to release your horse. You will find that many horses naturally do step back from pressure on the chest, but always check with the other owners to ensure they don’t mind you interacting with their horse (or better yet, help them train their horses themselves!).
If these options are not possible for you, throw some hay or treats (again, consult with owners) to draw the other horses away while you release your horse. Ensure you keep a treat in your pocket for your horse to reinforce the behaviour of staying with you.
Group housing can have its risk factors, but the benefits to your horse are invaluable. As with all of our interactions with horses, we can improve safety and lower risk factors by ensuring we have clearly trained responses that are reliable in all situations.
There may still be times your horse is more eager to get to the paddock (perhaps after a day away at a competition, or feeling fresh after a bath), this is normal, but it’s their reactions to your signals that are important.
Feeling energised some days is normal, but good, clear in-hand training means that even in these situations, we have control and can remain safe.
After completing the training of the basic responses in-hand, use the day-to-day handling situations as a ‘litmus test’ of your horse’s basic in-hand responses.
It is normal for these responses to wear off over time but whenever you notice a problem arise or you find yourself in a situation where your horse becomes heavy or delayed in one of the learned responses, take note and schedule a refresher course!
As legendary Australian trainer Tom Roberts said:
“If you are fond of a horse and wish to do him a real favour – train him well. Teach him good manners, good habits, both in the stable and under the saddle.
“You need never worry about the future of such a horse if for any reason you may have to part with him. You assure him of friends wherever he goes.
“Perhaps the greatest kindness you can do any horse is to educate him well.”