Teaching Cross-Tie Manners

Q. How do I get my horse to be polite in the cross-ties, be it starting young to instill good ground manners or curbing existing rude behavior?

Carolyn Arnold, Colorado

A. When introducing a young horse to cross-ties, I like to try to have a calm companion nearby whenever possible—preferably tethered or cross-tied, as well. This is what behaviorists often call a “helper companion.” I find it best to have the helper settled in and comfortable before bringing the young horse to the cross-ties.

Personally, I find well-timed small food treats to mark and reinforce desirable behavior very effective in training horses for these routine management tasks. As soon as I see the first sign of relaxation in the trainee, I say “good” and offer a treat from a small pan, reaching under the neck to the off-side. (Delivering the treat in this manner results in the horse turning away from rather than toward you when anticipating a treat. This helps avoid reinforcing nudgy “asking” gestures or nips.)

For many young horses, scratching at the withers is an effective substitute for food treats as a primary reinforcer, either intermittently or entirely.

Then I proceed by starting to do something with the horse, such as brushing or currying. Should any undesirable responses occur, I find it most effective to simply ignore them and continue with whatever I was doing to the extent safe. Ignore means no verbal response, no tension on your part. It can help to organize the situation to make the undesirable behavior, should it occur, the least annoying to you and anyone else in the space. So, for pawing, I like to have a ½- to ¾-inch-thick rubber stall mat covering the floor. That way, the pawing is least annoying to me and probably least self-reinforcing to the horse. Similarly, I like to have stout cotton ties with fittings that are quiet so any wiggliness makes less noise.

It is always helpful to start with a procedure such as grooming that:

  1. I know the young horse seems to enjoy in other settings, and
  2. I will be most able to keep doing through any anticipated wiggliness.

As soon as the horse demonstrates a pause in undesirable behavior, I again say “good” and reinforce the relaxation with the food treat or scratching. Clicker trainers often use a clicker or audible sound, instead of a word. The point is to have a standard marker that tells the horse, “Yes, that’s what will lead to a treat.”

As you go, the objective is to wait for longer periods of relaxation before reinforcing and only intermittently deliver the primary reinforcement (food or scratching), while using the secondary reinforcement (the “good” or the clicker) more liberally. One of the valuable skills some people have naturally, but usually develop or hone with experience, is the intuition to instantly adjust their pace of reinforcement “to effect” in any given situation. The goal, of course, is to hold off on reinforcement just long enough to keep increasing the target behavior (called shaping) of standing calmly, without accidentally inciting counterproductive frustration, confusion, or ­overexcitement.

For young horses that start out, as most do, with the tendency to pull back or lunge forward, I find it effective to drop back to a more gradual introduction to cross-ties. I have a handler hold the horse from the left side with a usual cotton lead while I groom. I often also ask the handler to perform the reinforcement and robotically deliver the treats or scratches whenever I say “good.” Once the horse stands well for long periods with that arrangement, I try attaching the far-side cross-tie, with a handler again standing at the shoulder and holding the lead on the near side. Next, I may attach the offside and do a sliding tether on the near side. My objective is to avoid any wrecks by gauging the horse’s animation and adjusting the tension on that lead, as the handler would have done, balancing teaching the horse to be stationary with avoiding a punishing, scary event on the cross-ties.

Horses are great spokesmodels for teaching behavior modification, ­particularly shaping relaxation in these positive-reinforcement-based operant-conditioning scenarios, where we ignore undesirable behavior and focus on recognizing and reinforcing gradual increments of desirable behavior. They are exceptionally quick at associating their behavior with positive outcomes. Some are so quick at making associations and patterns of our behavior, they appear to learn that with each successive replication, they must relax for a longer period before you offer the reinforcement. At some point they start to relax in general and anticipate reinforcement from actions that imply imminent treat delivery—such as you reaching for the treat delivery bowl. Eventually, they relax entirely, and you can end by delivering one “thank-you treat” for the entire session. That’s the ultimate goal.

This ability to make quick associations can also be a disadvantage. For example, if the pace is too rapid at first, and the horse gets really excited for ­reinforcement, it’s easy to accidentally reinforce the sequence of wiggle/paw/vocalize, then relax, then receive a treat, such that the horse’s response suggests he thinks he has to first do the undesirable action before relaxing to get the reward. While it’s best to avoid this, it, too, can be fixed.

Once the horse is comfortable and remains relaxed while I tend to him, doing something he enjoys, I then like to work on reinforcing standing relaxed behavior when nothing is being done. In my experience, this is the stage at which many handlers accidentally teach their horses undesirable behaviors. When a horse is restrained and nothing is happening, it is his natural response to paw, wiggle, or vocalize. The consequences of the pawing will dictate whether this continues. So the trick is to ride out any undesirable behavior as much as is safe. When there is pause, approach and resume working, all while stretching out the pauses.

Sitting here writing this response, I worry it sounds like a long, ­drawn-out process, and it might seem that way at first. But working with students and clients, I am always impressed by how many people have the natural intuition to make this go very smoothly and efficiently. The first and only hurdle for most seasoned horse people is to give up the punitive (punishment) approach and focus only on rewarding the target behavior.

For horses with a history of cross-tie problems, the behavior rehab concepts are similar. You know the horse’s issue, so you can customize your behavior modification plan. On the other hand, it will likely take longer for the undesirable behaviors to “extinguish” than to prevent them from developing in the first place.

Having said that, in my experience, older horses that have been getting into trouble when on cross-ties, loading, or even during farrier work do really well when you change your routine and consistently use a new approach based on learning science. They often respond faster than you would imagine.