For most of my many years with horses I didn’t think much about cross-ties. All of the barns that I’ve been in have them. Cross-ties keep the horse centered in the aisle. With lines clipped to both sides of the halter, a horse will stand where needed while the farrier works on them, or when you’re grooming them, or have to leave them alone for a moment while you nip into the tack room for something you forgot.
In cross-ties, the horse’s head is allowed only a little movement. This aged mare has taught two generations of children to ride and show. She stands patiently and without stress in the cross-ties. She is much loved and doted on and accepts this restraint.
Tonka, too, accepted the limits of the cross-ties. But he’s a horse who hates pressure on his nose and poll. Many cross-ties were too tight for him – like the ones that the grey mare is in. When I could, I’d loosen them up a bit for my horse.
All was fine until last winter, when, while standing in the cross-ties pictured above, I touched Tonka’s neck and gave him a sudden and very big static shock. He pulled back, then felt poll pressure from the halter and panicked. He pulled back harder. These cross-ties are “safety” ties. They are held together with strips of velcro. They’re also attached to the wall with a loop of baling twine. They’re supposed to release when yanked on. However, the twine was not jute, but nylon. It doesn’t break easily. The velcro was very strong and when it finally came undone, it did so with a loud rip. Tonka flew backwards as if flung out of a slingshot. It’s a good thing that the aisle is clad in rubber mats. Tonka backpedaled almost to the end of the barn before he could stop. He was uninjured, but he was terrified.
It took a couple of weeks of steady training for me to be able to get Tonka to stand in the aisle between where the cross-ties hung. It took training for him not to panic at the sound of velcro ripping. It took training to get him not to go wild-eyed when he felt the halter pressing on his poll. It took time and patience and cookies and trust. This blog and this one details some of that training. Now if I have to, I can cross-tie him, and that’s good. You never know what you’ll have to do in an emergency. However, even a year after that incident, when Tonka is in cross-ties, I can see in his eyes that he’s anticipating that zap and pressure. So, for everyday handling I wanted something other than cross-ties to keep my horse centered in the aisle. Because I’m at a busy boarding barn, it’s not just about us. I couldn’t leave him untied and hope for the best. There are times when there are five horses lined up here. It’s a joy to see little girls dancing around, learning to groom and tack up their ponies. I needed a way to keep not only Tonka in place, but everyone else safe as well.
I had already taught Tonka a stay. (More on that training here. ) It was time to teach him to ground-tie. A ground-tied horse will stay where put when the lead rope is dropped to the ground.
Tonka’s ground tying needed to be so solid that there was no risk of him leaving his spot to visit another horse, or go back in his stall to where the hay is, or to exit the barn to eat the grass right outside. Tonka is now that solid. He’ll even stand, immobile, when he knows there’s food a few steps from his nose – and I’ve walked away from him to take a photo!
I can’t give you a step-by-step tutorial on how to do this training, because it’s fluid and changes with the environment and the situation. I can give you a general idea.
Relaxation is your foundation. Standing without moving in the center of the aisle was not my end goal. The big picture was to be able to plant Tonka in a stay anywhere and have him do so with a relaxed demeanor. I train by breaking down behavior into the smallest of doable steps, and then I reward when each one is accomplished. Those small steps are building blocks, which, put together, eventually become one behavior. In this case the first step was calm acceptance. If that wasn’t there, then Tonka wasn’t ready to do more. The mistake often made is that you’re so excited to see your horse stand where you put them, that you reward that, but you don’t notice that you’re missing the foundation – the calm eye and soft facial expression. Instead, you end up with a tense horse that is thinking about what will happen next (and likely worrying about it) instead of a horse who’s able to relax into the moment and for a good length of time.
Observe and reward progress. If you repeat and reinforce one behavior too often, the horse will get ticked off when you increase your criteria. If you’ve heard the “100 reps” rule, ignore it. As you teach ground-tying, you can increase so many little details. Duration, stance, your distance from the horse, calmness in the face of distractions, etc. Always progress towards your end goal. Karen Pryor once told me that she never clicked for the same behavior twice in a row. She always worked towards the bigger picture. Additionally, if you train the same thing in the same place you’ll get stuck there. I see this when people clicker train mounting block behavior, but haven’t also trained for the end goal – which is to be able to ride off! So the horse becomes stuck at the block. When training ground-tying, Tonka got pieces of carrot for standing quietly in place while I was next to him. But only a few times! Then, the rewards came when the criteria were more demanding. But, I never sacrificed the foundational behavior of being totally chill. If Tonka stood still while I put the saddle on, but pinned his ears, he didn’t get a carrot. Instead, I’d reduce the criteria. Could he stand still and see the saddle move towards him and keep a relaxed face? If so, he got a reward.
Be aware of unwanted behavior chains. You’re teaching your horse, but they’re also teaching you. Let’s say that your gelding takes a step forward when ground-tied, so you step him back, then reward him with a cookie for being in the correct position. Soon, your horse will be taking that forward step, then shifting back for the reward. He’s taught you to feed him for movement. Instead of that scenario, if your horse moves, reposition them to the correct place. Then wait. When you get relaxed body language, you can reward. Or wait for more duration. Then reward. Or, continue on with what you’re doing. Kind interaction, grooming, simply being in an interesting place, the anticipation of going out for a ride, can all be reinforcing. It’s not all about the cookies. (Also, for you training geeks out there, I don’t use a clicker for this. The clicker denotes “game on!” and generates enthusiasm from the horse. For ground-tying, I want snooze. So I use the principles of the training method without the sharp bridge sound.)
Change criteria as the situation dictates. Be proactive and aware of what’s going on around you. When the situation changes – hay dropped in the stall, a horse walks past, the barn girl brings out the dinner buckets – your horse will react. How can you make ground-tying the option that the horse wants to do? Let’s analyze the scenario of the hay being tossed from the loft: Tonka is ground-tied in the aisle near the open door to his stall. There’s nothing physical stopping him from leaving his position and going into his stall. I can hear footsteps overhead when the hay is about to arrive. Before Tonka even shifts his weight, I feed him a peppermint. He focuses on the candy and remains calm as he hears and sees the hay come down from above. I put him in his stall so that he can eat his supper. Each time he’s ground-tied at hay feeding time, I give him something yummy in aisle, but each time I do that closer to when his hay is dropped. Eventually, he doesn’t get a treat until after the hay is tossed. Then, only after standing there for a few moments more. Each time, after eating his treat and standing calmly with me, I lead him into his stall to let him eat the hay. In this way, instead of being agitated at dinnertime, and wanting to leave me to get his food, Tonka believes that all good things come from chilling out in the aisle with me. There are other scenarios similar to the hay drop that can be trained for in this way. They all involve being proactive. Reward for calm before the mood changes. Then continue that training to get duration and patience. At this point, there aren’t many distractions that incite Tonka to move his feet when he’s ground-tied. But I don’t always expect perfect behavior. If Tonka has been out in a barren, snow-covered paddock, and he ate his last wisp of hay an hour before, and I’ve just brought him in, I’m not going to make him ground-tie while food is dropped. It’s not a matter of giving in, it’s simply being kind.
Be flexible. Horses have their own inner lives and it’s good to let them express themselves (as long as it’s safe.) There’s a gelding that lives across the aisle from Tonka. They see each other through the bars of their stalls but otherwise don’t get to interact. Their paddocks aren’t near each other. Somehow, though, these two have developed a friendship. When I bring Tonka into the aisle he stretches his neck and takes a step over to the gelding’s stall. They touch noses and say hello. There’s never a squeal or pinned ears. They like each other. Only after they greet each other do I ground-tie Tonka. How unfair would it be if I didn’t give them that moment first? I’ve also found that now that Tonka is unconstrained by the cross-ties that he appreciates being able to turn his head to flick off a fly, scratch his front leg with his lips, or get a good look at what I’m doing. I think it’s nice that he can do those things. Ground-tying doesn’t mean being dull to the world and immobile.
Know the limits. Tonka is rock solid in his ground-tying, but even a rock can be rolled. In places where I have to be extra-cautious, I use a quick-release line. When I’m off-property I will tie to the trailer, etc. Training and these precautions can work to give you an alternative to cross-ties. But, at some point, something will happen out of your control.
When that does inevitably happen, if you’ve trained from a foundation of calm, then the horse will not only quickly revert to that relaxed place, but also see you as the source of it. It’s a place the horse wants to be, and they’ll want to be there with you.