Bad Habits Or Bad Training?

Changing the Way You View Horse Problems

By David Shoe

When a horse rears we have a dangerous situation. The good news is that solutions do exist and we can teach the horse the correct response, once we understand the horse and the source of “Bad Habits”.


How many people have seen a horse exhibit a “Bad Habit”? The answer is you all have. Do horses come into the world with bad habits? The answer is no. Horses come into the world to be a horse. They run, eat, reproduce, and sleep. They are members of their own society, the herd. Since we have observed horses with “Bad Habits” and we can agree they are not born with bad habits, then we might assume they learned these unacceptable behaviors. Unfortunately, that’s not totally correct either. The truth is the horse was never trained properly and these “Bad Habits” occur as a result of asking the horse to accept unnatural things and provide unnatural responses. The good news is solutions do exist and you can teach your horse the correct response, once you understand your horse and the source of “Bad Habits”.

Bad habits are actually manifestations of inadequate training. To discover where the true problem exists you need to dissect the issue and take it back to the most basic root. If you peel back the layers you will discover your horse was never taught some of the most basic and important cues. Remember a cue can be whatever you want. It could be as simple and light as shifting in the saddle or it can be audible. Once you have determined what type of cue will be most effective, you will use it every time to gain a desired response.

The number of “Bad Habits” is too extensive to list, so let’s examine some of the more common ones.

Horses you can’t catch

Horses that rear

Horses that won't load

Horses that won't stand tied.

I want to start with the horse you can’t catch. If you correct this problem / habit in the proper manner you will create a foundation to build on. As enticing as it may be for you and the horse, using feed does not constitute teaching your horse to accept being caught. Treats can be a means to initially maneuver your horse to the area you want. For me that place is the round pen. After I have the horse in the pen I want to teach the horse a cue that will eliminate this problem and begin a building process.

To accomplish this I set a very specific training goal. I want the horse, on cue, to stop, face me, calm down, focus on me and pay attention and I want him to perform this response anywhere and anytime. To achieve this goal I will break it down into the minutest steps and create a training program. The reason for placing so many small steps into the program is the horse will comprehend my request easier. The easier he understands and grasps the request the faster I will reach my training goal.

Once I teach the horse to stop and face me he is no longer running from me. When the horse controls his fear and focuses on me, catching him is no longer an issue. After I accomplish this in the round pen and it has become a conditioned response, I will, if possible, introduce another horse into the round pen. The second horse is to be used as a training aid while I repeat the process with my horse. When I attain the desired response with another horse present it is time to move into a larger area such as the riding arena. When I consistently receive the proper answer of stop, face me, calm down, and focus on me in the arena I begin adding more horses. Ultimately I will be able to initiate my cue in the pasture with other horses present and receive the correct response from my horse. By teaching my horse the response I am looking for I eliminated the problem and I have a more calm and receptive partner.

With this one cue in place I have the foundation needed to help eliminate the next three issues. We will call this first cue the “calm down and pay attention cue.”

The next three issues are rearing, loading and standing tied. Two new cues in conjunction with the first will correct the next three “Bad Habits”. These two additional building blocks in the training foundation create specific desired responses. The first cue is the “move forward” cue. The second is “yield to pressure”. When you and your horse master these two training principles you will no longer witness any of the three problem areas.

When a horse rears we have a dangerous situation. However, if you set in motion our first cue of “calm down and focus on me”, then ask the horse to yield to the pressure of the halter, and move forward, we have eliminated the problem.

The same is true for loading. If we approach the trailer, instruct the horse to calm down, and ask him to move forward, loading should no longer be an issue.

Finally, if we break down standing tied to its most basic root it is yielding to pressure. A 'pulling back' problem is not yielding to the halter pressure - when the horse feels the halter pull we want him to step forward, not back.

If you apply these three cues and teach them until they have become a conditioned response you will no longer witness these “Bad Habits”.

I understand these answers sound simplistic. They are supposed to be; working with your horse is not rocket science. Too often we get caught up in observing the symptoms surrounding a situation. Remember, break your problem/ habit down to its most basic origin. Define your training goals for each step. Be as concise and specific as possible. Build as many steps as you can into your training program and you will be amazed at how quickly “Bad Habits” disappear.


About the author:

David Shoe's “no secrets” approach and philosophy of Leadership and Respect enable individuals to successfully build working relationships with their horses. He gives energetic, thought provoking, problem-solving and relationship-enriching clinics around the country. David’s desire is to promote knowledge so horse and human can mutually succeed. David can be reached at 605-863-0225, and