Andy Marcoux on Building Balance From the Ground Up, Part I: Training Your Horse to Stand

Andy Marcoux on Building Balance From the Ground Up, Part I: Training Your Horse to Stand

(© Andy Marcoux 2017. Photographs Courtesy Andy Marcoux.)

A well-executed halt must start with the ability for the horse to remain still in a given spot, for a given period of time. [In a dressage test] You will first be judged on your horse’s immobility. Only when that’s in place can we look at all of the cool other things that go into a great halt. You can add balance, engagement, and energy only after you’ve convinced the horse that remaining still in place is a priority of yours.

Recently I was reading an article here on Kip Mistral’s site written by Sherry Ackerman, PhD, titled Sacred Geometry and the Figures of the Manège, when a single sentence hit me like a nuclear dope-slap …”All movement begins with its antithesis, immobility.” The paragraph in the article referring to the halt is some of the best writing I’ve seen on the subject.

The article also got me thinking about the training that I use to teach a horse how to achieve immobility. In my article The Origin of Movement (link provided below) I describe how I use my training techniques to essentially capture the horse’s energy, rather than diffuse or dull it until the horse is so deathly bored that standing seems like the only reasonable thing to do.

The Power of Immobility

To begin the discussion, we have to ask the question, why do, or don’t, people teach their horses to stand? At one end of the spectrum there are recreational riders who spend lots of long days in the saddle without any particular mission other to enjoy their horse. I often find these people hold the horse’s ability to be still in quite high regard.

At the other end, I meet people who are intensely competitive with their horses and who attempt to justify their horse’s ill behavior by saying “He’s a performance horse.” That’s a great way to get a vein to pop out of my forehead as I struggle to muster the patience for the human in the equation.

There are lots of great reasons to teach your horse how to stand well, whenever and wherever you ask. For carriage drivers such as myself, it’s paramount to our safety during the hitching and unhitching process. Riders tend to see it as a pleasantry at the mounting block, but not 100% necessary. If they can at least one foot securely in the stirrup, they’re happy to swing the other leg over as the horse walks off.

It’s far more pleasant to have a horse that will allow you to stop and watch a class, or have a conversation while you’re mounted. It’s really nice when you don’t have to run a marathon around your horse to groom and tack him up at the trailer. But really, those are all just the convenient collateral benefits to having a horse that has been taught to stand. Those aren’t really reason enough for most people. If they were, everyone’s horses would stand nicely.

Respect or Priority?

So what does it take to elevate the priority of teaching a horse to stand to a level that is equal to (or dare I say?) or of greater importance than all other training combined? At this point, we could raise the issue of respect. “If the horse is unwilling to be still when you’ve asked him to, he doesn’t respect you and your wishes.”

Well, that’s certainly one emotionally-charged way to look at it. I’ve been in many circumstances that such lack of respect played a role in a poorly behaving horse. But explaining to a horse that his lack of standing is not respectful is about as effective as telling a teenager that texting at the dinner table is not respectful. And the emotional connection that we all make with disrespect leads us down some dark alleys.

Added to that, it the “respect” argument points the problem squarely at the horse and his priorities. Sure, a horse has priorities of his own, and any sentient being does. However, in your work with your horse, most if not all of the priorities are yours. You’ve given him the priorities he maintains in every interaction you have. Standing just hasn’t been a high enough priority.

A nicely balanced halt from an obedient pony.

Think about it. You’re able to get your horse to do some pretty amazing things that would never come up on your horse’s priority list. You get him to walk into a large tin box in which he’ll stand for many hours over winding roads while you make evasive maneuvers to deal with the bizarro drivers on the road. Then you get him out of the giant toaster and convince him to carry or pull you over hill and dale, doing all sorts of things that would never occur to a horse to do. Then the kicker is, he has fun with most of it!

He does all of those cool things for you because they are very important to you, so you’ve made them very important for your horse. Except for that standing thing. That’s not so important. Trotting is important. Trotting in very specific ways is important. Walking is sort of important, but mostly because you’re trainer said so. Since it’s important to her, it’s important to you. Of course, standing isn’t so important to your trainer, because she’d “never waste her time teaching you how to get your horse to stand still.” Yes, I’ve heard stories from students of trainers who’ve said such things.

The Importance of Standing Still

Let me offer some ways to think about getting a horse to stand still that may raise this on your priority list. We’ll start with the halt. After all, in dressage, this is the first and last impression that you make upon the judge. It’s your opening and closing argument that you need to deliver with confidence and conviction.

A well-executed halt must start with the ability for the horse to remain still in a given spot, for a given period of time. You will first be judged on your horse’s immobility. Only when that’s in place can we look at all of the cool other things that go into a great halt. You can add balance, engagement, and energy only after you’ve convinced the horse that remaining still in place is a priority of yours.

If a horse won’t stand still on the cross ties, why would we expect to be able to achieve and maintain immobility at the halt? The halt, at its core, is standing. Sure, you and I can see the difference in a photo if we’re looking at a halt, or a horse simply standing. But fundamentally, they share the same thing…lack of motion.

Of course, maybe you don’t ride dressage, so that’s not a big priority of yours. Here’s an idea that applies to anyone who does anything with horses from lawn ornament to Grand Prix Jumper. To get a horse to stand still you have to be able to gain and maintain his attention.

It’s a Skill, Not Happenstance

Here’s a different way of looking at teaching your horse the great lost art of being still. It’s a skill. It’s not a coincidence, it’s not a submission, it’s not out of the great kindness of his big squishy heart. It’s a skill.

Like any skill, it’s a skill that has to be taught, learned and trained. It has to be approached with all of the respect, devotion, and energy that you’d expect to put toward any “higher level” skill such as a collected trot or a half pass. I’d like to put that “higher level” in air quotes, but when you’re writing, well, they just come out as plain old quotes that don’t really express the sarcasm in my voice at the moment.

See, to me, there are few if any higher level skills than the ability to gain, and maintain your horse’s attention. I’ve found through experience, that forging ahead with other training before accomplishing this one aspect of your horse’s training is a fool’s errand. If you can’t gain and keep your horse’s attention, you don’t have the ability to communicate with him. You should know that just by trying to carry on a conversation with someone who is constantly looking down at their phone every moment you are with them. There is an impasse to communication.

I have found, without a doubt, the most successful place to gain access to a line of communication with a horse is through teaching him to stand. The training clears the air of any questions of miscommunication because the goal is so simple and straightforward.

The Short Lesson

If you’re still reading, hopefully, I’ve motivated you to raise your horse’s training to stand higher on your priority list. Of course, now you want to know how to make that happen. I frequently give entire classes on this subject, so boiling it down to just a few words is tricky.

The most important place to start is by making this training the sole focus of a few training sessions. They don’t have to be long sessions, 10 – 15 minutes at a time will do.

The key to the training is that when you ask him to stand, choose for him to stand very specifically in one spot. Motionless in an alternative spot does not count. Each time your horse moves, return him as close to the very hoof prints you started him on. Don’t circle him back to the spot. Circling requires walking, and walking is not being still. We’re trying to train your horse to be still.

Believe it or not, your horse will begin to pick up that you’ve attached importance to him standing on that spot. When you go through the dance of him stepping off of the spot, and you continue to return him to it, sometimes in awkward ways, he’ll start to figure it out.

When he does, make a big deal out of it. Tell your horse he’s the most brilliant thing on four legs. Continue to work with this while moving your position in relation to your horse standing alternatively on either side of him while he remains still. Then quit while you’re ahead. Put him away without continuing on with any other activity. You can always take him out for a ride later.

The training progresses in subsequent sessions to the arena, then with tack on in the arena. In my practice, I’m able to walk a full circle around the horse in the middle of an arena without a hand on him. For me to start a carriage horse, this is a minimum requirement before I’ll even consider hitching him to a carriage.

Carrying the work forward to under saddle or in harness training is important. Most people make the mistake of walking off just after mounting the horse or carriage. That creates the expectation that mounting equals movement. Just as you set out at the beginning of your training to work only on standing, you’ll have to address expectation in the same focused manner.

When you are able to mount with the horse moving, don’t ask him to go to work! If he does move, do everything you can to the best of your ability to return him to your chosen stand spot without circling. Move forward, back or sideways insisting that he gets those feet back into those original footprints.

Here’s where you really get to blow your horse’s mind. When he’s achieved immobility…dismount, congratulate him on a fine job and put him away. This sends a very clear message to your horse that you put a very high value on the art of being still.

This all is a very light thumbnail sketch of the training I do for teaching a person to teach a horse to stand. I think this gives a good place to start though.

For a more complete explanation of my techniques, including lesson plans to guide you and your horse to achieving immobility, take a look at my page devoted to the subject: www.CoachmansDelight.com/stand I host a live online class on the subject at least once a year (the next one is coming up December 13, 2017!)

I’ve literally seen this training change lives for horses and their people. It opens up lines of communication that simply didn’t exist between the horse and human. I’ve seen nasty, rotten horses with positively intolerable behavior turn into genuine good citizens. This clearing of the air has helped equestrians find problems with their horses that they didn’t know existed because the bad behavior was masking the true problem.

For me, the most gratifying part of the experience of this training is to see it being practiced by strangers. I’ve happened into more than one barn and seen a trainer I’ve never met, teaching my technique to get a horse to stand. The experience is both gratifying and confirming. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but also the best test that a technique really works.

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NOTES FROM KM:

Read Andy’s excellent article titled “The Origin of Movement” here:

 http://www.coachmansdelight.com/the-origin-of-movement/

Read more about Andy’s deep background in horsemanship and his experience here:

About Andy Marcoux

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