Q: I have a 4-year-old gelding. He is a greenie, and whenever I put him in cross-ties, he freaks out. No matter what I do to calm him down, with treats or a soothing voice, he still prances around as I try to brush him. It's not really annoying, but I'm afraid he might get hurt one day. How can I get him to relax and stand still?
A: This behavior is not uncommon in a young horse. It usually stems from discomfort about having his head restricted, rather than resistance to standing still, which bothers very few horses. Our step-by-step training process has successfully cured this problem in countless youngsters. With patience and consistency, you can teach your horse to accept the cross-ties, move his feet minimally and perhaps even fall asleep during his massage! This may take several weeks, and you'll need the assistance of a friend in the beginning. But in the end, you should have a safe, confident horse who thinks nothing of hanging out in the cross-ties.
First be sure your cross-tie site has the following safety features:
- A solid barrier behind your horse: either a wall at the back of a grooming/wash stall or closed doors at the end of the barn aisle. Adjust your cross-ties so, if your horse backs up, he will hit the wall before the cross-ties tighten. This will prevent him from fighting the cross-ties or feeling trapped by them and panicking.
- Short lengths of breakable twine tied between the cross-ties and the walls. (Commercially sold "breakaway ties" don't always release when horses pull hard on them.)
- Rubber mats or some other secure, nonslip footing.
Lead your horse into the grooming area and ask him to stand still in the middle as if he were tied, but don't attach the cross-ties. Ask your assistant to hold him with the lead shank while you go about your grooming routine quietly and confidently. Create a predictable routine: use brushes in the same order each time, start from the same side with each brush and work your way from front to back on each side. As he becomes familiar with the routine, he will grow more relaxed.
While you groom, have your helper soothe your horse with a soft voice and gentle stroking, while also monitoring his body language closely for signs of increasing tension (eyes frequently looking back at you, swishing tail). If she sees his muscles begin to tense (possibly indicating an imminent explosion) she should warn you ASAP and try to get his mind back on her.
Work together to reposition him each time he moves out of place, using a tug on the lead shank or a nudge on his shoulder or haunches. When he steps back into the original position, give plenty of quiet verbal praise and stroking to tell him he has done well, even if you suspect that he'll only hold that position for a minute. Don't speak to him or reward him in any way if he is moving excessively or being unruly.
During your first few sessions, he may move out of place 100 times, which means you and your helper will have to reposition him 101 times. That's OK! At age 4, he should have a long enough attention span to stand quietly for an entire grooming session. Let his comfort level dictate how long the sessions last. If he appears to be losing patience toward the end, wrap up your routine quickly and try to finish on a good note. Always end his lessons during a moment when he is standing still.
Once your horse is standing quietly throughout the grooming sessions with very little correction, you're ready to try them without the helper. Use a lead rope long enough to allow you to reach his tail without letting go (still not attaching the cross-ties). Holding the rope in one hand while you brush with the other, follow your normal grooming routine, quietly correcting him whenever he steps out of position and praising him when he repositions himself properly. Pay special attention to his head, which should be as still as his body. If he moves it excessively in any way, gently guide it back to center with a tug on the lead shank, again quietly praising him when he obeys.
When he's standing happily for Step Two, attach one cross-tie to his halter on the opposite side of where you are working. Keep the lead rope attached to the halter on the side on which you're working. Follow your normal grooming routine, reminding him to keep his head straight and using tugs on the lead rope when necessary to discourage him from chewing on the cross-tie. When you switch sides, change the lead rope and cross-tie to the opposite sides.
By now your horse should be standing still throughout his grooming sessions with very few reminders. When he seems calm and steady, attach both cross-ties, keeping the lead rope attached for necessary corrections. As soon as he settles into a relaxed posture, remove the shank and finish your routine.
If, at any point during this process, your horse reverts to his original poor behavior, go back to the previous step, even if that means asking your helper to repeat Step One with you until he improves. The time you spend now reinforcing this quiet behavior in the cross-ties will be more than worth it in the long run!
Top groom Laurie Pitts traveled with the US Equestrian Team to the 1978 World Championships in Aachen, Germany, and the first World Cup in 1979 in Sweden. Laurie now co-owns Junior Johnson Training and Sales, a Chesterfield County, Virginia-based business specializing in starting young hunter prospects. She also served as the barn manager for George Morris's first four annual Horsemastership Training Sessions.
This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Practical Horseman.