Step One: Teaching Your Horse to Lead
Teaching your horse to tie safely requires that you first teach him two skills: to give to pressure and to ground tie. Giving to pressure is covered in our article, Teaching Your Horse to Lead. The goal is to teach your horse that when you pull against him, he should go with the pressure. As prey animals, horses instinctively do the opposite—they pull against pressure. But tying requires that a horse accept restraint without panic. It requires that, instead of pulling against the tie, the horse move toward it. Therefore, the first step in teaching your horse to tie is to teach him to lead properly—to give to pressure from all sides. Your horse should give to pressure:
- Forward, as when he’s pulling back against a tie and the pressure is at his poll
- Backward, as when someone is pulling his head toward his chest
- Left, both from the chin ring and the side ring of his halter
- Right, both from the chin ring and the side ring of his halter
- Down, as when he raises his head and is pulling up on the tie
To determine if your horse will follow pressure, take hold of his lead and calmly pull down until you get a reaction from him. If his reaction is anything but to move his head toward the pressure—if instead he does something such as jerk, rear or pull back—you should follow the steps in Teaching Your Horse to Lead until he’s accomplished at leading and following pressure. At that point, he should reliably give to pressure in all directions.
Step Two: Teaching Your Horse to Ground Tie
Ground tying refers to leaving a horse standing on his own, head up and attached to a line that isn’t secured to anything, while you walk away. It’s similar to teaching your horse to stay—as you might do with a dog. Ground tying is useful when your horse is in a secure area, but you wish him to stand for you while you see to something else or when you’re working on him and don’t have someone to hold him. As a step in teaching a horse to tie, ground tying helps your horse learn that he can stay by himself when you leave and nothing bad will happen to him.
- Your horse’s halter
- A 20- to 30-foot lunge line that doesn’t have a knob on the end You’ll need to slip the end through a tie ring.
- A familiar, secure and relatively quiet area An arena works well because it has secure footing and there won’t be enticing grass to distract your horse.
- Treats that your horse likes You can use carrots pieces, apple pieces, grain or horse cookies.
Teach Your Horse to Stand Still When You Leave Him on His Own
- Lead your horse into the arena and stand him. Make sure his feet are nicely under him. From your leading position in line with his ear and throatlatch, say “Stand.” Immediately put very light contact pressure on the lead line and then pivot out to face your horse. You should end up a step ahead of where you were at his throatlatch so that you’re just forward of his nose, still off to his left and facing him on a slight angle. The pressure should be feather light—enough contact so your horse knows it’s there, but not enough pressure to cue him to drop or extend his head.
Count to five, and then pivot back to your original position. Say “OK,” drop the contact with the lead and give your horse a treat.
Repeat this step 5 to 10 times, and then move your horse across the arena to practice again. If possible, ask a friend to walk past with her horse or toss a handful of hay in front of yours. Practice enough repetitions over several training sessions until your horse stands four square (unless he’s shooing a fly) and doesn’t attempt to move, regardless of the distractions.
- Because you’re staying so close to your horse, it’s unlikely that he’ll move. However, if he does move, say “Wrong,” and step forward toward him, keeping the contact on the lead constant. This should stop his movement. Once he stops moving, step back, returning to your position facing him on an angle in line with his eye and ear.
Gradually Increase the Distance You Move Away From Your Horse
As you increase the distance you move away from your horse, change two things. First, give a slight backward tug on the lunge line along with your “Stand” word as the cue to your horse that you’re leaving. Second, feed the lunge line out as you leave your horse so that it lies on the ground between him and you.
- Tell your horse “Stand,” give the lead a slight backward tug and walk away from your horse. Keep the lunge line in your hand, but feed it out between you and your horse. If he follows you, start over until he doesn’t follow. Once you can leave without him following, go out three or four feet and turn to face your horse. If he follows, start over. Count to five, and then return to your leading position in line with his ear and throatlatch. Say “OK,” and give your horse a treat.
- Continue practicing this until you can get to at least 20 feet out along the lunge line, you can drop the line and walk around your horse, horses can pass him, etc., and he still stands quietly. Be sure to include leaving your horse by walking away from his side, as opposed to always walking away out in front of him, because this is how you’ll leave him when you tie him. This training process could take from days to weeks, depending on how much time you have to work your horse. If you aren’t in a hurry—and training your horse always goes best when you aren’t in a hurry—it’s ideal to work him on this exercise every other day.
Step Three: Teaching Your Horse to Tie
When your horse will give to pressure no matter what direction he’s pulled and will stand ground tied indefinitely, he’s ready to be taught to tie. For these first lessons, use a ring attached to a solid, immovable object, such as a wall or post. The ring should be large enough to fit the end of your lunge rope through it. It should be set at or above the height of your horse’s withers. Ties set lower are dangerous because your horse could get entangled in the tie line. Make certain the footing is solid and non-skid. Dirt or mat floors are ideal.
- The first step is to teach your horse that it’s safe to stay by the wall or ring post. Lead your horse up to his position in front of the tie ring. Stand him, give your “Stand” and line-tug cues, and walk away.
Practice ground tying at the ring until you can get to the end of the lunge line and your horse stands, regardless of your whereabouts.
Next, give your “Stand” and line-tug cues, and thread the lunge line through the ring. However, keep hold of it rather than tying it to the ring. Walk away.
- Because he hasn’t had to stand in front of a wall or post alone yet, your horse may try to follow you. Simply say “Wrong,” return to him and start over. If necessary, do a few sequences where you leave by saying “Stand” and give a slight tug, but then keep contact on the line and simply pivot away from your horse’s side. When he’s comfortable with this—and only when he’s comfortable and standing quietly and confidently—you can add distance.
Work until your horse will stand quietly at the ring. Continue until you can first move to the end of the lunge line. Next, gradually increase the time you spend away from your horse. Work until he’ll stand quietly for five minutes while you’re far away from him. Ask a friend to help you. Have her hold the line (applying no pressure at all unless your horse tries to leave) as you walk around him, or while you groom him and tack him, etc.
- If your horse tries to follow you, say “Wrong.” Take a step toward him, but then stop and take up pressure on the line. Regardless of where you’re standing, the pressure will be forward pressure because the line is threaded through the ring. If your horse balks or backs up at the pressure, allow him enough line to keep the pressure even. Maintain the pressure without increasing or decreasing it, no matter what your horse does. The instant your horse steps forward toward the ring, release the pressure. Never pull him into the ring, post or wall. Use the pressure as an annoyance that he can control by moving into it.
Your horse should now be safe to tie. Be certain that you always use either a quick-release knot or panic snaps (see below) when you tie your horse. Always ground tie your horse in a new tie location before simply hooking him up. This will help reduce his stress and make tying pleasurable for him.
Cross-Tying Your Horse
A horse who has learned to stand tied can easily learn to stand cross-tied as well. You simply need to teach him about pressure on both sides of his head. Enlist the help of a friend for this training. You should each bring a lead line. (One or both of the lines should have a quick release snap.)
- Lead your horse into the area where you taught him to lead and ground tie. Once there, fasten your line to the near (left) side ring on the halter, and have your friend fasten her line to the off (right) side ring of the halter.
- First allow your horse to get used to having two lines on his head. At a stand, wait for him to become distracted. (He’ll probably turn and look at your friend.) When he turns his head, put light pressure on the side he turned away from. Keep it up until he turns back toward the pressure. The instant he begins to turn back, release the pressure. If he turns toward you, have your helper take up pressure on the opposite side, releasing instantly when he faces forward. Continue through at least 10 distractions that turn his head toward each side (20 distractions total). Eventually, your horse will figure out that it’s most comfortable to stand facing forward.
- Next, walk your horse with the two leads attached, you holding one on his left and your friend holding one on his right. Because you’ve taught him to lead well, he’ll cue his body movements off you, but he’ll probably also watch your friend. You should each walk at your horse’s ears, keeping approximately 1½ feet from him and staying in visual contact with each other. Walk slowly in a straight line. Keep your lines at nose height. As you walk, continue teaching your horse about the take and give of pressure on both sides of his head. Eventually, he’ll learn to lead with two people, just as he does with one. Introduce distractions to further enhance his understanding.
- Next, lead your horse into the cross-tie station. Make certain that the ties are at or above the height of the withers. It’s important that they’re not too long. If they are, your horse could get his forelegs over the ties. However, you don’t want the ties too short either. If the ties are too short, they’ll put constant pressure on your horse’s head. Proceed as you did when tying your horse to a single line in Step 3, above, but work with your friend’s help until your horse stands calmly in the cross-tie station.
Always keep in mind that a different cross-tie station is a new experience for even a seasoned show horse. Never simply assume that your horse will stand quietly in any station. Always acclimate him to the station by standing with him, one cross-tie attached to his off-side halter ring and your lead attached to his near-side ring. If your horse turns his head away, do pressure release exercises until he relaxes. Say “Yes!” and provide treats when he gives to the pressure. Releasing the pressure and offering a treat can help him over any anxiety about being in a new station.