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Ground Manners with Neil Davies

This article is from the November 2020 Horse Deals magazine.


Neil Davies began training horses full-time in 1977. Over the next fifteen years, he started more than a thousand horses under saddle and trained thousands of so-called ‘problem’ horses. From $100 backyard ponies to thoroughbreds worth millions, Neil has seen it all.  Neil has conducted clinics and demonstrations in Australia, New Zealand and the USA and sold training videos and best-selling book Fear-free Horse Training worldwide.

Never approach any horse thinking that he has ‘bad manners’. Horses have no concept of manners. They don’t know what we think of as good or bad.

Some horses learn to be nervous and worried, then they run over you, rush away, kick, bite or rear. Others learn to be relaxed and confident, to lead alongside and to stand when you ask. These behaviours aren’t a reflection of the horse’s manners, they’re just things that horses learn.

Forget about manners, respect and saying horses are good or bad. Instead, build your horse’s confidence, be consistent and show him you can be trusted at all times.

I always start in a square yard between 4.5 metres and 6 metres square. The fence should be at least two metres high so the horse isn’t tempted to jump out. To safeguard against injury, it’s important to have a soft base of sand or sawdust.

My lessons last about 15 minutes, sometimes more, but mostly less. It’s important not to overdo them. Two lessons each day is ideal. If lessons go for more than 20 minutes, it’s always better to finish up and try again tomorrow.

Whenever you’re with your horse, don’t talk or yell when things go wrong and never chase him backwards away from you. Chasing a horse backwards won’t help to control him or stop him.

The first and most important thing I do with every horse I work with, is go to him and show him that it’s good to be with me, by rubbing his head, neck and around his ears.

People often say, “but my horse doesn’t like having his head rubbed”. This is a sign your horse is worried and not fully confident. In this case, you must take time to build his confidence.

Start by rubbing your hand up along your horse’s neck, towards his ears. Hold the headstall firmly so he can’t pull away. When your horse holds his head still for a few seconds, remove your hand from his neck.

Walk him around to give him a break, then repeat the process on the other side. After a couple of repetitions, move your hand around to your horse’s forehead. Again, when he holds his head still, take your hand away.

With consistency and repetition, your horse will soon accept your hand on his forehead and around his ears. Using this process, every horse will learn to enjoy having his head rubbed.

This rub is perhaps the greatest training tool available to you. Anyone can do it, it’s free, the instructions are simple and you can’t overdo it. When you rub a horse’s head and neck, he’ll learn that it’s time to switch off and relax. He’ll learn it’s always easy and pleasant to be with you, and that a stressful time is always followed by a rub.

I always use a plain leather or nylon headstall with a cotton lead rope. Nylon lead ropes will burn your hand if your horse pulls away and I find that rope halters can apply far too much pressure on the sensitive parts of the horse’s head and nose.

I always use a two-metre long lungeing whip, not for punishment, but to touch a horse’s rump when I stand in front of him.

If you want your horse to move forward, pressure must be applied well behind the girth area, towards his rump. If you use a short stick, you can’t apply pressure to his rear end when you stand in front of him. That’s why you need a stick at least two metres long.

Whether you realise it or not, every time you’re with your horse, you’re teaching him. Lessons don’t begin and end. You can’t say, “Oh but I’m just cleaning his stable, it’s not a lesson”. Well, yes it is.

You must be positive and consistent, and have a definite plan of what you want your horse to do every time you’re with him.


Whether I’m handling a foal, starting a horse under saddle or working with an older horse, there are four ground lessons I teach every horse. They form the basis of everything you ever want to do with your horse.


1.

I stand in front of the horse, facing him, and rub his head to show him it’s always pleasant to be with me.

Next, I take a few steps backwards in a circle and ask the horse to step forward to me. If he doesn’t understand to step forward, I tap his rump with the long stick, on the inside of the circle, to encourage him to move forward.

Immediately he steps forward to me, I put the stick to the ground and rub his head. This builds his confidence and shows him it’s easy and pleasant to be with me.

Then I move the stick to my other hand and ask him to step forward in a circle in the other direction.

With repetition, the horse will learn to step forward to me and keep his head with me.


2.

When the horse understands to step forward to me, I stand alongside him at his girth and ask him to stand and bring his head to me by pulling gently on the lead rope.

If he moves, I move with him and hold my position. When he stands and brings his head to me, I rub his head for a few seconds, then step away and ask him to step forward to me.

Next, I repeat the process on his other side — I stand at his girth facing him and ask him to stand and bring his head to me.

This standing lesson is one of the most important things you can teach your horse. You can use it for saddling, mounting, leg handling, treating an injury and much more.


3.

When the horse knows to stand and keep his head with me, I step back about two metres and ask him to walk forward around me in a small circle.

When the horse moves forward a few steps, I step backwards and ask him to come to me. As always, I spend time rubbing his head, then ask him to walk around me in a circle in the other direction.


4.

After a few lessons, when the horse understands to walk a circle around me in both directions, I stand at his girth, facing forward, in the normal leading position and ask him to walk forward in a circle.

When he responds well, I again ask him to come to me for a head rub. Then I repeat the process on the other side. I use the long stick behind me, at the horse’s rump, to encourage him to move forward.

No matter how old they are, teach all your horses these four ground lessons. Many older horses are nervous and worried and have never learned to walk a correct circle, or stand when you ask, or lead alongside you correctly.

Instead of thinking that your horse has bad manners or doesn’t respect you, please remember that he hasn’t been taught these basic ground lessons. He doesn’t know what you want him to do. It’s up to you to show him and teach him every step of the way.


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