Halter Training A Challenging Horse

Last week I shared my procedure for starting babies on learning to lead using as stress free, low pressure methods as possible.

I got several questions from people asking me about what to do if their horse was older, or already had a poor association with the halter.

So this week, we’ll discuss when it’s not going well and your horse already has some experiences that have make them think that a halter or leading isn’t a good idea.

When Halters Are Scary

When I got Bentley, my miniature mule, he was a year old and had very little handling, simply due to a lack of time of the part of his breeder. Then I turned up and put him behind a gate to get a halter on him and pulled/pushed/shoved (as kindly as possible, but still …) him into my van, then he had to be castrated, and in between he escaped and got lost in the woods for a few days, so his early halter experiences were not positive.

What all that taught him was that halters were for pulling on. If I tried to work with him with the halter on, all he would do was brace against it. But I didn’t want to be in a constant tug of war with my mule (that I wasn’t sure I’d win) and I definitely wasn’t going to resort to using aversive tools like knotted rope halters, chains, Dually or other “control” halters. All of those simply use pain to keep them from being able to pull, and that’s not the relationship that I wanted to have with him.

Start Without A Halter

Rather than use a stronger aversive, I stopped working with the halter altogether for a while. Instead, we worked at liberty.

I’d already done some targeting, and just feeding lots of treats to convince him that I was a source of good things, and once he started being less than careful with his teeth and mugging me for cookies I took that as an excellent sign that he was comfortable being around me. And that it was time to teach some treat manners!

I taught him to “be polite” – where he stands beside me in a leading position, without touching me. I made this spot very rewarding – no treats for biting at my pocket or rubbing on me or walking around me, or facing me, but all the treats for standing quietly at my side with his nose turned away.

He is very smart, so quickly caught onto this easy way to make me give him a treat.

Once that was established as a very reinforcing position to be in, I took a step, and sure enough, he walked with me to maintain his position. Then I added a few steps at a time, then a few more, then changes of direction, then trotting, whoaing, backing, even sidepassing. Since farrier care was a challenge for him, we worked, still at liberty, at standing while I picked up his feet.

He was able to demonstrate all the skills associated with halter breaking, without the halter being involved.

THEN Add Halter

And once those skills were solid, I was able to reintroduce the halter. As he was reluctant to put it on, I had him stand in his highly reinforced “be polite” position, and practiced putting my hand over his neck. Once he was comfortable with that, I was able to work up to holding the crownpiece of the halter in the hand on the offside of his neck, the buckle in my other hand, and simply slipping it over his nose and buckling it up, all while he was focused on his “be polite” skill, and then rewarded.

Once the halter was on, I was careful not to use any leadrope pressure at first, instead simply holding it in my hand with a nice drape and doing the movements the same as we always did – walk, trot, whoa, changes of direction, back, sidepass, and since he was already confident in those, there was no pulling.

Since then, there have been many times when I was introducing something new to Bentley, and he started to pull or brace on the halter, so I would simply take it off. It’s always easier to teach him something new when he has control of his feet and makes the choice to participate. And it’s a tool I regularly use with other horses as well now – Bentley taught me that I am far too likely to rely on my leadrope to try to move my horse to where I want them to be. Removing it instantly makes me a much better trainer, and it’s easy to add back in once I’ve done a better job of explaining things to my horse.

Avoid Pressure

When we start getting into a tug of war with our horse, our only options are to win the tug of war at any cost, using stronger, potentially painful aversives and damaging our connection and relationship, OR to refuse to engage in that tug of war in the first place. No matter what your approach, do your best to avoid teaching your horse to pull – you’ll be glad you did!

Be patient, be kind and think outside the box. Your horse WILL figure it out!

If you’re new to using food rewards in training, you can find a step by step guide to getting started on the right foot inside my Introduction to Positive Reinforcement online course.


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