Teaching A Horse To Stand Still

By Terry Golson

As fun as cantering down the lane is,

if your horse can’t stop, you’re in trouble. So, we all teach the whoa! I’ve written about how I’ve taught Tonka to stop. When doing dressage, I rely on communication from my legs, seat and hands, and he halts balanced and square (see the video at the end of this blogpost.) When I’m riding along on the buckle, I don’t have to pick up the reins, all I have to do is say ho, and Tonka halts. (I’ve written about that here, video included.)

But we are so focused on the go and the whoa that we fail to teach what comes comes between them: quietly standing still. I recently realized that I was guilty of this oversight. There are few things more uncomfortable and unsettling (and sometimes scary) as a horse that is stopped, but won’t stand still. The horse jigs, circles, tosses their head, and in the worst case scenario is so frustrated at not going forward that they go up into a rear. But this isn’t the horse’s fault – it’s ours – we haven’t trained the horse what to do after the halt.

All stops aren’t the same. I’ve taught Tonka how to halt at X for a dressage test, to stand immobile while I salute, and then to continue on. That is not the same thing as stopping to pull out one’s phone to take a photo, or to wait while a mountain bike passes you on a the wooded trail, or to chat with a friend while sitting in the saddle in the ring. Also, a horse might stand quietly when in the company of other horses, but dance around when by themselves. This week I realized that I hadn’t trained for all of these contingencies. On Tuesday, I rode down a new trail over to a friend’s house, and shouted a hello so that she came out the front door. This is already a lot to ask of a horse. I should add that it was an exceptionally windy day. Tonka was on high alert. This is what he looked like before we headed out on the trail. Note the flared nostril taking in the scents from the blustery wind.

Tonka and I have a high level of trust in each other. I wan’t over-facing him. But, he obviously wanted to get going. Tonka had little patience for standing around while I chatted with my friend. I realized that I didn’t have a clear way to let him know what I did want – for him to relax and hang out, so I let him move a bit as we talked, and made plans to teach him a stand and wait later.

Yesterday, I began the training. When teaching something new, reduce the criteria so that you’ll have success. Since I wanted a relaxed stand, I rode Tonka until he had used up some of his energy and was moving along calmly. I picked a spot that rarely holds surprises and that was near to home. I asked for the ho. He stopped.


Usually at this point I would praise or reward, and move on. This time, though, I counted to see how long it would take him to get antsy at the standstill. It was only 6 seconds!. So we walked on and I asked for the ho again, counted to 5, and gave him a cookie. We moved up the trail, I asked for the ho again, and this time counted to 6. Tonka looked back at me, with a what’s going on? expression, but his feet remained planted and I could feel him settle. He got a cookie.

As we walked up the trail, I repeated this exercise, increasing the count to 8, and rewarding him for his patience. In this way, he’s learning that a cue to halt also means to stand quietly until asked to move on. I’ll be doing this in different locations and under a variety of conditions, while gradually increasing the duration. Soon enough he’ll know what to do (relax and wait quietly) between the ho and the go. I think we’ll both enjoy our rides more with this behavior in our repertoire.

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15 thoughts on “Teaching A Horse To Stand Still

  • Lizzie in Cornwall

    What a clever boy!
    Enjoy a few relaxed stops and breathe in the Spring air! ☺️

  • Karen Pryor

    So important, teaching an active busy animal how to stay quiet and be still when necessary.
    Having this behavior on cue, so you can ask for it when necessary, and (and be prepared to following up with a cookie when action can start up again) is something every parent should know how to train!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      You are so right about this applying to parenting. I once taught a minivan-full of rowdy Cub Scouts to yell, and then be quiet, on cue. It took all of 3 minutes and the rest of the ride was quite pleasant.

  • Gin

    One of the first things I try and teach is to ground tie. For whatever reason I never thought about giving them a cue to stand when I’m riding them. I usually ride far enough and often enough they figure out for themselves to stand quietly when we stop. But that isn’t really the same as me giving them a cue to stand still. Good advice.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Do you use split reins? I’m too worried about the horse getting tangled in tack to ground tie, but I’ve taught a “stay” and a “come.” Same thing?

      • Gin

        I do use split reins, and the “stay” and “come” command would be sort of the same, especially the “stay” I guess. That needs to be taught in and out of an arena or indoor barn. One of my horses “ground tied” with the reins wrapped around the saddle horn. I kind of liked that way. I usually teach them to get used to things being wrapped around their legs without getting excited. Kind of like getting them used to a hobble. That can keep you out of a whole lot of trouble if they step into a hidden vine or something on the trail.

  • Chicken Carol

    I am learning so much about communication with horses. I had no idea how much there was so much to it. Every time I see a horse and rider on the road I think about it more than I did before. I have always given loads of space and passed slow so as not to spook a horse, something I think/hope all drivers have taken on board but I have seen horses doing the back up thing while their rider is trying to get them to move forward and I now think that they need a lesson form you. I have also seen a horse turn full circles while the rider tries to get it to go forward, again I think some lessons from you. I notice these things so much more now and can tell when the communication is obviously not as good as your’s is with Tonker.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I’m so pleased that you’re enjoying these posts. So often, learning about a species different than what we work with helps us with our own animals. I’ve learned much from my friends who work with zoo animals.
      By the way, THANK YOU for slowing down when you see a horse on the road. Even the calmest horse can swerve in to traffic in the blink of an eye.

      • Tracy

        Boy, let me second Terry’s thanks for slowing down when passing a rider or carriage driver on the road. And whatever you do, don’t honk, even a gentle tap; the rider or driver knows you’re there. If possible and safe, swerving as far away from the horse is very appreciated, as well. I was always amazed when neighbors used to honk and wave to me when I was out on the roads riding or driving. I know they meant well and were just being friendly, but….yikes!

        • Chicken Carol

          I can’t believe people could be so daft. I have always swerved to give maximum space to horses and gone slowly and quietly or waited stationary if needs be. I have always been rewarded with a wave and always wave back.

  • Jennier Grossnickle

    I LOVE your blog and journey with Tonka; THANK YOU for sharing!! I’m currently training a standard donkey to drive (we are only ground driving at this point). I find so many of your tips useful! Training a cue for standing still is EXACTLY what i need to do with my donkey, Jack. Thank you for sharing your tips; I’ll be doing the same with Jack! (100% trained using positive reinforcement!)

  • Cindy D. Seward

    Thank you for your sharing. Do you see any parallels with The All Mighty? Doesn’t God make us to “stand & wait” sometimes? Also, my Daddy, who trained horses for years, would make ’em simply “stand still & wait”. I would help my Daddy train horses & I wondered why we did this. Like you stated, they must learn patience & trust. May God bless you in all you do for mankind & horses! 🙂
    Cindy D. Seward

    • Terry Golson Post author

      It’s a question of how to get anyone (human or animal) to stand still. It can be done with kindness and in increments. Rewarding the calm and the moments of stillness. Or it can be done with unyielding restriction and force. I prefer the former 🙂

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