“What can I do if my horse pulls back while tied up?” This is one of the most common questions I am asked and people are usually desperate to find a solution to this big problem.
Many horses, especially young and sensitive ones, have this dangerous and destructive behavior as soon as they are tied up. Some do it right from the start as soon as they are tied up, others after twenty minutes, but most horses only pull back when they are frightened by a noise or movement. This is a dangerous behavior that can injure both the horse and the people; the horses by slipping on the ground or even falling, and the people by getting under the horse or injuring their fingers on the rope.
Many people are looking for a solution with technical aids to avoid this problem. For example, they use a strong rubber band to tie the horse up, which can expand, or a lead rope with a so-called “panic hook”, or a fine hay line that breaks immediately when the horse pulls back. In my opinion, however, these are not permanent solutions and I would like to present a technique here with which I have already helped many horses to overcome their fear of being tied up.
“Many horses, especially young and sensitive ones, pull back when they are tied up, a dangerous and destructive behavior for horse and human!”
First we have to ask ourselves why the horse is pulling back at all. Horses are flight animals by nature and have developed a great sensitivity for dangerous places, strange things and especially for predators. Their first instinct is flight. As soon as they feel trapped and can no longer run away, they fight with all their strength against the pressure that keeps them trapped and thus try to free themselves, this is their natural survival instinct. Here in this case it is the pressure from the halter and tether.
What happens before the horse pulls back? An experienced horse usually stands quietly in its tie-up place; if it hears a noise or sees a strange movement, it simply moves its feet, turns around a bit and sees what is going on. However, this situation changes drastically as soon as we have a horse pulling back; his senses are always a bit on the alert and as soon as he sees or hears something, he just moves his feet but feels that he cannot leave. At that moment he feels the pressure of the halter in his neck.
In order to free itself from this pressure it will press against it, this is a natural instinct of horses. But this only increases the pressure and now it panics and fears for its life. This feeling is comparable to what a zebra experiences when it is attacked and grabbed by a lion. Horses do not think in these moments, they only react.
“Horses are flight animals and their strongest instinct is to escape. Once trapped and flight is no longer an option, they will try with all their might to free themselves.”
These are reactions from the right hemisphere of the brain, where the instincts live, naturally programmed for survival. Flight animals have an extremely short reaction time, there is no time to think or hesitate, first react and then think; this is the only way to survive attacks by predators.
Despite thousands of years of breeding and selection by us humans, this survival instinct has been preserved in horses, in some more, in others less. So how can we teach our horses not to react like flight animals, but to behave like partners?
With the concepts of natural communication in the AsvaNara program, we can teach horses to stay calm and relaxed, to become more courageous, to think and reason even in difficult situations, and not to run away in panic from any perceived danger like fleeing animals.
Horses can learn to use more of their left brain, the collaborative side. When we start to communicate with our horse in a natural way, it will transform its natural instincts into constructive behavior.
His need for safety and protection, his instinct to be always mindful, will transform into attention to us. Its flight reaction will turn into a good impulse and joy of movement and its herd instinct into friendship towards us.
This does not mean that it will lose its natural instincts, this is confirmed by the horses in our herd; because in winter, when they have hardly any contact with people, they rather resemble a herd of mustangs than “well-bred” schooling horses of the academy.
To solve the problem of “pulling back”, we start by desensitizing the horse.
To do this, we use the Carrot Stick with a plastic bag at the end; with calm and careful movements at first, we “pet” the horse with the bag, and then move the stick around the horse with round and rhythmic movements.
This concept of desensitization is very effective and useful, but two things are important; first, the movement should be round and rhythmic, approaching and moving away, increasing in intensity. Secondly, do not stop when the horse is afraid, but only when the horse gets used to it and calms down.
We thus reward the collaborative left brain. If I stop at the wrong moment, when the horse is moving and excited, I encourage his instinctive right brain.
The horse should follow the pressure and the feeling and not hold against it
The neck is a very sensitive area for the horse, it is the point where the lion grabs when he rips the zebra, and it is the same point where the halter exerts the pressure. The horse has to learn to respond to this pressure and to follow the feel of the halter behind the ears instead of pressing against it as his instinct would be.
We can teach the horse exactly this by pulling down the rope; first with a light and steady pressure, the horse should follow this feeling and not press against it. To teach him to find comfort, we start with a light pressure, the hand slowly closes finger by finger, the pressure gets stronger and stronger until the horse gives way and lowers his head, at the beginning only a few millimeters.
At this moment it is important to open our hand immediately and take away the pressure, this is difficult for most people, because predator paws close quickly and only open when the prey is killed … and we are predators in our DNA.
As soon as the horse lowers its head, we let go immediately and then start again with little pressure. We repeat this exercise until the horse quickly and easily complies with the pressure. Then we do the same movement, lowering the horse’s head to the ground, but this time with a finger pressure behind the ears.
It is the same exercise as before, but this time we apply the pressure with the fingertips, again behind the ears, on the neck where the halter is. We need a slow, steady pressure that increases in intensity until the horse lowers its head.
Again we let go as soon as the horse has responded correctly and lowers its head. These exercises may take a few minutes, half an hour or even a few repetitions on different days, but it is worth investing this time. This way the horse learns to cope with the pressure and find comfort instead of leaning against it and withdrawing.
With these preparations the horse will already react differently to pressure, movements and sounds. He is ready for the next step and we will now ask him to react to pressure in this way and to behave like a partner, even if he is tied up.
First of all we have to find the right place to tie him up, for example a solid tying bar. What we definitely want to prevent is that the horse runs away in fright with the thing it was tied to, putting itself and us in real danger.
A solid wooden or even better metal tying bar is best, ideally if the crossbar is round. This will help us teach the horse to be tied up without any problems. What does not work for this exercise are tethers on the wall.
I now wrap the 7 meter rope twice around the crossbar and stand on the opposite side of the horse. At this moment it is important not to tie the horse with a knot, but to wrap the rope only around the pole so that it can slip through as soon as the horse pulls back.
Then I start to swing the Carrot Stick with the plastic bag up and down vigorously in front of the horse. I thus imitate a sound and a movement that will frighten the horse and as it is “tied up”, it will most likely pull back.
“Horses learn quick when they have the ability to think, consider and decide.”
At this moment our timing is extremely important; the concept is not to stop shaking while the horse is pulling back, but to stop immediately and reward the horse as soon as it stops pulling and takes a step forward.
This means rewarding the horse with comfort as soon as he has made the right decision, i.e. to accept the pressure instead of fighting it. The horse learns that the perceived “danger” does not go away as long as he pulls on the halter, but only when he thinks and acts like a partner, not as a flight animal.
The secret here is to let the long rope drag a little of the bar when the horse pulls back. It still feels the pressure of the halter in the neck, but it can still move away from the danger.
This way he is not in a “swim or sink” situation and does not get totally lost in his right brain hemisphere because he has to fight for survival, but he can still think and find the right solution for this problem; namely to follow the pressure and take a step forward.
When a horse is tied up, it can easily happen that it thinks it is trapped. His first instinct at this moment is to flee … at the beginning we wrap the rope twice around the pole and stand on the opposite side of the tying bar.
We repeat this exercise a few times, possibly spread over a few days, until we finally get a positive answer from the horse. In this way, even if the horse is frightened by a noise or a movement in the future, it will not pull back when it feels the pressure of the halter in the neck, but it will take a step forward to give way to the pressure.
The problem of pulling back may be more or less pronounced depending on the horse. Sometimes horses react very instinctively with a lot of force and violence, which is not without danger, be it for the horse but also for us.
It is therefore very important to be very present, attentive and careful in this work. If we have doubts or are unsure whether we are doing it right, it is advisable to call in an experienced professional for this type of work.
Pulling back, as well as other similar behavioral problems, can usually be solved quite easily once we start to establish a relationship with the horse, teach him to use his left brain and once we become a good Alfa leader for our horse. As always, it pays off to be calm and patient with the horse.
I hope you enjoyed this article and that you found many useful hints and tips in it. Feel free to leave your comment below.
If you have any questions about this topic, contact me and I will answer you in the forum.
I wish you much success, fun and joy with your horse … and remember, it has never lasted longer than two days.
With kind regards, Edwin