Just like us, manners are not something horses are born with. They are not born speaking human. Just like us, they are not born with impulse control. These are all things they have to learn. They have to learn how to relate to other horses, their first language. They also have to learn how to relate to humans and that is their second language.
We teach them to respect our personal space. We teach them that when being led they should not pull and that their shoulder should stay behind our shoulder. They learn that they shouldn’t push and shove us. When we are mucking their stalls with them in it, they learn to stand where we ask them until we are finished. They learn that once we finish one side of the stall, they need to move to the other side without running us over so we can clean that side. Charging through gates is unacceptable. Flying away when released into the field is not smiled upon and many other things.
They have a lot of things to learn about being around us. We teach them these things because they are big and could very easily hurt us! They are smart and they become quite fluent in human! Thankfully!
But just like when we learn a second language and don’t use it for awhile, we lose it. If you are pretty good and speaking Spanish and can have a conversation with someone in Spanish today, but then don’t do anything but say “Hola, como esta” for the longest time…guess what happens? Yes, eventually you can only say a few words.
Well it’s no different for horses and speaking human. Horses that are being handled regularly keep fluent in human. Their ground manners remain good as long as the humans handling them are consistently speaking correct human to them…that is practicing good ground manners with the horses. Horses that are being regularly groomed, ridden or having ground work done with them, get a very different conversation than horses that are not.
They are asked to stand still in cross ties or in their stalls while a human spends time grooming and tacking them. They are asked to pick their feet up; to move over here and move over there. They are reminded not to kick, bite, crowd our space and to be aware of where we are in relation to them. They need to pay attention to what we are doing together; stand still at the mounting block and many other things. All these things add up to a conversation, not just saying hello, how are you.
If horses are not being handled regularly their ground manners begin to slip. Have you ever considered how much a horse in a boarding situation is actually handled by a human staff member? We are very attentive at Biamonte Stables however, I think you will be surprised at how long it takes us to actually handle your horse. It takes me 1-2 minutes to turn your horse out and bring it in. I can muck 10-15 stalls an hour which means I am not in each stall more than a few minutes. Applying fly spray to legs a few times a day only takes a few seconds each time. Clipping up that hay net takes about 10 seconds. Taking down and putting back up the water bucket for daily scrubbing takes a few seconds. The actual scrubbing takes place away from the horse. Many of these things are typically done while your horse is on turnout so they aren’t even getting that time with us. The rest of what we do with your horses does not involve going into the stall and handling your horse. We don’t have to go into the stall to water, feed, sweep or check on your horse. That can all be done from outside the stall at the stall front. Everything else that is in our job description, unless you are paying for extra services like grooming or riding, does not directly involve your horse.
The horses doesn’t even know the rest of the stuff on our list of things to do like: watering and dragging the arena; mowing pastures, weedwacking fence lines; fixing fencing; cleaning the bathroom; watering the flowers; shoveling the snow; taking the manure out of the pastures; cob webbing; taking out the manure spreader…
Important to remember is why we ask the horse to have these ground manners. It is because they are stronger than us, and typically bigger than us, and could easily injure us. So when horses are not getting handled often enough, they typically become more difficult to handle as their human slips, and it is more physically demanding to handle them as we try to keep ourselves safe.
A second language comes back to us if we start to speak it again. Fortunately, it comes back to us faster than we learned it the first place. What is the take away here? Come spend time with your horse. If you can’t, you need to make sure someone else is. Find someone else to ride your horse, pay your trainer to ride your horse, part lease your horse, or pay for the extra grooming service at your barn. You have a horse, why not enjoy it? You owe it to your horse so they are not always “getting in trouble” because their ground manners are bad. It is not pleasant for the horse that the whole time we are handling them they are being told they are doing everything wrong because they are crowding us, jumping around, pulling on us, rearing, charging through gates, pulling away when we release them and so on. We can’t just look the other way when that is happening as staff. We have to try to keep their ground manners as good as we can for our own safety, so we are spending our entire 2 minutes on the way to the field correcting them. But the amount of time we are handling them is the equivalent of just saying “Como Esta”, you need to be having regular conversations with your horse in order for their human to remain fluent.
That way everyone who is handling your horse, including you, will have a much more pleasant and safer experience. So will your horse!