It’s important for your safety and your horse’s that he learn to stand still for grooming. This also will help condition him to stand for other necessary procedures, such as veterinarian examinations, shots and hoof care. Horses are intelligent with excellent memories, so with patience and dedicated time, you can teach your horse that standing quietly leads to positive experiences for him.
Your job is easier if your horse is young, depending on how much handling he’s had. Some owners handle newborn foals within minutes after birth, while others wait a few hours or days. A baby should at a minimum become used to a human’s presence, and then learn gradually to accept touch, handling, wearing a halter and pressure from a lead rope. Work with him a short distance from his mother; his reward for each successful lesson will be to go back to her. This early handling lets him know he can trust a human, and look to you for instruction and a pleasurable reward.
Responding to Pressure
The foundation of everything your horse learns is response to pressure. He leads because he understands that by following obligingly in response to lead rope pressure, that pressure is reduced or eliminated. He stands tied because if he backs up and feels pressure he knows that stepping forward or stopping eliminates that pressure. If your horse is lacking in any of these desirable responses, you must reacquaint him with the concept of pressure, and that he’ll be rewarded for the proper response.
Once your horse understands pressure so that he leads obediently, teach him to ground tie. This is just as it sounds -- your horse stands still while his lead rope is on the ground in front of him. Lead him into a safe, enclosed area, such as an arena or round pen and ask him to halt, keeping light pressure on the lead rope. Give a verbal command -- whether it’s “stop,” “halt” or “stay” doesn't matter, as long as you use the same word consistently. Step away from him while still holding the lead rope, and if he doesn't follow you, lighten the contact. If he takes a step in any direction, say “no” or “wrong” and increase your contact on the rope. When this is successful, drop the lead rope in front of him and increase your distance from him gradually as well as the amount of time that he stands still. Reinforce with your verbal cues and always reward him with something he enjoys: verbal praise, stroking or treats.
Your next step is to work on his standing still while secured to a post. Make sure the area is safe and that he is tied above his withers so he won’t get tangled in the lead rope. A stall mat will discourage him from pawing and digging a hole. Do other activities, but be close enough to keep an eye on him. Tie him for a longer period each day and always untie him only when he is standing quietly. In other words, if he has been tied for an hour and the last 15 minutes he has been standing still but begins pawing as soon as you decide to untie him, you need to wait until he is standing quietly again before untying him so you are rewarding his quiet behavior.
Some horses fidget because they don’t like being groomed, have sensitive skin or some grooming tools make them nervous, such as clippers. Be sure your demeanor is calm, your voice is quiet, and your actions are slow and deliberate when you’re grooming your horse. Talk to him quietly and reward him immediately for every acceptable behavior, but ignore the unacceptable ones. This means if he starts pawing his foot, you must ignore it, but tell him “good boy” and pet him as soon as he stops. Work on his least sensitive areas first so he's relaxed at the start. If you have to do something he finds unpleasant, like pulling his mane, take it slow and reward him immediately each time he stands still -- have treats ready. He’ll soon associate mane-pulling with treats.
If he has issues with clippers, you must work in desensitizing and conditioning him with clippers, getting closer to him each day. Don’t force him to accept them.
Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.