Jonathan Field: The secret to safe turnout

To reform a horse who is ill-mannered at the pasture gate, revisit basic groundwork exercises and establish your leadership.
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To reform a horse who is ill-mannered at the pasture gate, revisit basic groundwork exercises and establish your leadership.

 Q: I recently bought an 11-year-old gelding with a potentially dangerous habit. This horse is a bit high energy, but he generally behaves well in the barn and under saddle. The problem comes when I turn him out each day. As we approach the gate to his field, he rushes up to it. He will not stand quietly while I open it, and once inside it is a struggle to get the lead rope unclipped before he runs off. He sometimes pulls so forcefully that I cannot keep my grip on the rope, and I have no choice but to let go for fear of being dragged. He behaves this way whether or not his buddies are already in the field.

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I would like to be able to lead him calmly to the gate, through it, and then turn him to face me so I can unclip the lead rope before he moves away. There seems to be a lot to contend with here, including herd mentality, his desire for the freedom of turnout and his sheer strength when he decides it’s time to go! How can I break this habit and get a safe, well-mannered horse at the gate?

A:You’re certainly correct that your horse’s behavior poses a serious danger---to you as well as to anyone else who turns him out. He could easily run over you or kick out at you in his rush to the pasture. Another downside you might not recognize is that his last thought about you before he gains his freedom is “Let me go, and get lost!” Over time, this lack of respect for your authority will trickle into other aspects of your relationship.

I also agree with your vision for how you’d like your horse to behave at the turnout gate, and I believe it is a goal you can reach. The training steps I’ve outlined below are a general guideline. You may need to spend more time on one stage of training than on the others, and if your horse begins acting up again, you may need to backtrack to remind him of what he’s already learned.

The retraining process will take time, and I’d suggest that you schedule the first session on a day when you can devote a significant chunk of time to it and preferably after a long ride. This way he is more in a frame of mind to take in a lesson. Then continue to make time to deal with this issue for at least a few minutes each day.

The fact that your horse’s behavior is the same whether or not his herdmates are present indicates that this is a well-established habit, and you will not be able to change it in one session. It is important that you do teach him turnout manners regularly because the respect you earn from him will affect all of your activities with him. During your training sessions, remember that your primary goal is not specifically to turn your horse out, but to change his behavior as you do so. Of course, in the end, you will get him into his field, but you may need to put in a lot of extra time at first to get him into the right frame of mind before you take off the halter and lead.

The first step in training your horse for safe turnout involves brushing up on your groundwork. Your statement that your horse is generally well behaved in the barn suggests that he does have some respect for your ground handling, but you may need to up your game. You must be in charge of where his feet are at all times and then when he does go where you want him to, leave him alone and give him comfort. If he occasionally forces you to back up a step, he is in control. The leadership can change that quickly.

So before you even go near the pasture, spend some time on these ground skills. For turnout, at a minimum, your horse must respect your personal space, and he must circle around you at the speed you choose and then face you respectfully with his head lowered. To establish your personal space, your goal would be to back him away from you at least four feet. You can do this by shaking the rope to get him to back up or driving him backward with a stick. But with each step he moves away from you, reward him with a release of the pressure and give him a moment or two so he can think about that and understand what you are asking. This space is key because when he acts up, he must direct his antics away from you so he doesn’t run you over. You want your horse to be respectful and connected in an easy situation before you head out toward the pasture and it gets difficult.

Once you are ready to turn your horse out, start walking with him toward the field. But the moment his antics begin, ask him to get busy with his feet by turning in small circles around you. Maintain high focus and strong intention for him to move.

As he circles, watch for him to relax. You want to spot the point he begins moving because you are asking him to and not because he is anticipating turnout. When you feel or see this change, allow him to stop and relax. Then walk him away from the pen a few yards before turning back toward the gate. You are going back and forth a bit to change the pattern.

Once you get though the gate without incident, walk your horse deep into the pasture and ask him to circle you again until you are in complete control of his movement. This session is not directed toward turning him loose; instead, it is a ground-training session in the field where he normally gets turned out. Then take him back to the barn, stopping to circle him anytime he acts up. The idea is you are dissipating and directing his energy toward relaxation each time he gets animated.

I would repeat this exercise at least six times the first day. But the number is not as important as the behavior. I would do it until your horse can walk into the field and relax and stand beside you. In time, he will understand that his high-energy behavior will no longer earn him the reward of being turned loose, and you will begin to shape a new habit---one where he doesn’t associate walking through the gate with being turned out immediately.

I hope that repeating these exer-cises will help you create the change you want in your horse. Even after he consistently behaves as you’d like him to, it’s a good idea to repeat exercises like these periodically throughout the year to reinforce your horse’s good habits. Everything in training comes back to the foundation---and the one thing that will always help you when dealing with horses is to establish and maintain your leadership while on the ground.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #449, February 2015.