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  • Erin Long

Tying Your Horse

I'm sure you've heard of it or seen it done - a horse is left tied to the "patience pole" for hours at a time to "teach him something". Today I want to talk about how that logic is flawed with relation to horses, and what are the pros and cons of tying your horse.

First, let me state that I am NOT advocating against tying a horse, even for a long period of time. This is an important skill for a horse to learn to be able to navigate domesticated life safely. HOWEVER, there are right and wrong ways to go about tying a horse, both in purpose and methods.

Scenario #1, The Wrong: Bob's horse Mosey has been misbehaving. Today she was pushy on the ground while tacking up, and set back against the rope several times. As a result, Bob ties Mosey to his trusty "patience pole" without food or water for 1-3 hours. When he returns, Mosey's pushiness is gone. Bob is satisfied with these results.

Why This Is Wrong: First, the lack of food or water. Mosey's digestion system kicks into high gear when she rests, especially when she's tied so she cannot walk around. This means she can become lethargic, or even colic as a result of her lack of hydration and roughage. A horse who is tied for more than 30 minutes should always have access to these things. Most likely, Mosey's pushiness vanished as a lack of her nourishment, and she went along in the hopes that she would receive those things in the near future.

Scenario #2, The Right: Bill's horse Shiloh is misbehaving. He will not stand tied, and repeatedly sets back against the rope. Bill works with Shiloh in a safe area with positive reinforcement to reward Shiloh for standing quietly. Over a period of several days, Shiloh learns to stand for progressively longer increments patiently, and eventually can stand indefinitely so long as he is provided with food and water.



Why This Is Right: Bill taught Shiloh to tie in a safe and positive manner, without relying on the pain (and danger) of setting back to do the work for him. Shiloh was taught to tie patiently, and as a result learned patience himself.

Scenario #3, The Wrong: Bob's horse Mosey is having trouble again. Now Mosey is refusing to turn right in the arena, and will only turn left. Bob is frustrated, and dismounts, tying Mosey to the side of the area tacked up while he works with other horses. When he returns, Mosey does as he asks, and the ride ends. "Hooray!" Bob thinks, "Mosey stood and thought about what she had done, and now is a better horse for having stood and thought"

Why This Is Wrong: This goes back to understanding equine learning theory. Prolonged and delayed punishment does not teach a horse anything. Between the time the unwanted behavior was performed (not turning right), Bob had to stop, dismount, walk to the fence, and tie Mosey. Thus, Mosey has effectively forgotten about not turning right, and no longer understands why she is being made stand with her saddle on in a hot arena without food or water. All she knows is that she's uncomfortable. When Bob mounts back up, Mosey is compliant due to lack of sustenance, boredom at standing with no stimulation, and stiffness from sudden lack of movement during exercise. She never thought about her misbehavior - her discomfort only prompted her later compliance, and tying did nothing to explain how she had misbehaved or how she could improve in the future.

Scenario #4, The Right: Bill and Shiloh are having trouble with backing undersaddle. Bill dismounts and adds an additional vocal cue using positive reinforcement from the ground, as he knows Shiloh readily understands body language cues on the ground. Once Shiloh understands the vocal cue, Bill adds it in the saddle and rewards profusely when Shiloh gets the hang of it. Eventually he associates this vocal cue with a leg cue, and weans off the vocal cue, resulting in Shiloh backing nicely just off of his leg.

Why This Is Right: Bill took the time to explain to Shiloh what he was doing wrong in a way Shiloh could understand, and presented a better path of learning for Shiloh, in which aversives were not necessary to motivate his behavior, and he actually learned something about his actions.

Scenario #5, The Right: For some reason, Shiloh seems incredibly anxious about being in the arena today, and no amount of praise of groundwork with Bill can calm him. Fearing that he may be adding to the horse's stress, Bill ties Shiloh in the arena with a rope long enough for him to lower his head to rest, and hay and water. Bill stays within ear and eyeshot doing barn chores. When he returns later, Shiloh is dozing and munching on his hay.

Why This Is Right: Bill recognized that Shiloh just needed time to "chill out" so to speak. He wasn't trying to teach him anything by tying, only give him a safe place within the arena that he could relax and overcome his anxiety.  ​ I hope these scenarios have helped explain to you how and when and why tying can be appropriate in a horse's training. Please feel free to ask questions below.

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