Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Laying a horse down by using body language, is an exercise of trust and leadership. A horse that doesn’t trust us, will not offer to lie down in our presence. When laying down, the horse considers us worthy of keeping guard as he or she takes a rest. A role normally assigned to the older and superior mares in a herd.
When I lay down a horse off my body language there is no pressure involved and the horse is free to choose to lie down or not. In this way I do not risk putting the horse into a state of tonic immobility.
Tonic immobility is a paralysis prey animals go into when being eaten by predators or when there`s no escape. Horses are prey animals and the less knowledge they have of how to respond to pressure, the more likely it is for a horse to go into tonic immobility, when pressured to lie down. Tonic immobility is strongly correlated with learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is basically teaching the horses that no matter what they do, it doesn’t matter, so the best solution is to be quiet. With this in mind, I think it`s quite drastic to use pressure-based laydowns as a method for taming green horses. But the biology behind also explains why using pressure to lay a horse down is effective in creating so called “bombproof” horses in a very short amount of time. I think the method can produce a ticking bombs, rather than quiet horses, cause we risk teaching the horse to block things out rather than learning to cope. There will come a day when the horse doesn`t block out, but rather freak out, and since the horse hasn`t learned to deal with anxiety while being present it`s going to be very hard to calm the horse back down.
To allow a horse to find rest and lie down in our presence is a completely different story. I use positive reinforcement for this combined with teaching the steps necessary for laying down separately.
When horses lie down, they often walk in a small circle, shorten the distance between the front and the back feet, drop the head down and lie down with the front feet first. Any lowering of the front end can be rewarded, as well as a shortening of the distance between the front and back feet.
An easy way to practice laydowns is to do it after training when the horse is sweaty and wants to roll. The horse is in a state where he or she wants to lie down in the first place, which increases our chances of success. Also, make sure the ground layer is something your horse wants to lie down on. Grass, sand, or snow are better options than hard ground.
The method I use when teaching horses to lay down consists of 4 steps:
It is essential that the horse can relax in our presence without being in our personal space. Also, to be able to use body language we need to be a bit away from the horse, where they can see us. Furthermore we want to make sure the horse is relaxed and not just being obedient. To stand with the horse until he or she yawns is for obvious reasons a good warm-up to lying down.
2. Shorten the distance between the horse’s front legs and hind legs
Walking slowly in small circles is something horses do before lying down. To shorten the distance between the front and hind legs in a natural way, I walk with the horse in small circles. The aim is to get the horse to move with a relaxed body posture, preferably with lowering of the neck and a bend in the body. You want the distance between the front and the back legs to become shorter and the steps to become slower. When you see an improvement in the horse’s body posture in terms of being more relaxed, reward the horse by scratching the horse on its favorite place, give a treat, or take a break.
3. Lowering of the neck and head to the ground
I don’t pull the lead rope to make the horse lower the head, I lower my own body position and point to the ground. When the horse responds to my body language by lowering the head, I reward. You want to practice this until your horse can easily drop the head down to the ground off your body language.
4. Combine short distance between the feet with head down
The final step is to get your horse to slow down into a body position that combines a short distance between the front and back legs, with dropping the head to the ground. I use the small circles as a starting point and add on the head down cue. It’s important that the horse doesn`t feel trapped when doing this. If your horse paws the ground to investigate the layer, or wants to move to another spot, allow the horse to do so. Let the horse choose the spot for lying down.
Some common problems and how to solve them
Before attempting laydowns, make sure your leading is great and that your horse can follow you in a mindful way with slack in the lead rope.
If your horse gets distracted and tense, get the horse`s attention back by walking in the opposite direction of where the horse looks.
Whenever stuck in the process, work on the separate elements needed for a lay down to happen, before combining them.
How long does it take?
As for the time frame needed to make a laydown happen, this will depend on the nature of the horse and our relationship with the horse. Some horses are very comfortable around humans and prone to lie down. These are the ones who will learn this fast, but they might also offer laydowns when it’s inappropriate, for example when having a kid on their back. Be mindful about putting a distinct body language cue on the laydown. If the horse lies down without being asked to do so, ask the horse to rise again, but do not punish the horse for lying down.
If you have a tense horse, who doesn`t relax in the presence of humans and is watchful of the environment, it will probably take a while before he or she offers to lie down. These are the type of horses who will benefit the most from lying down. Because, by lying down, they give us the guard and will not feel the need to be as watchful of the environment. Also, keep in mind that if a tense horse doesn`t lie down it`s not a big deal, by doing the exercises the horse will become more relaxed, which is a good thing.
Look at the laydown as something that will happen when the time is right, it could be today, in two months or after a year. Focus more on the progress and benefits of the path to the laydown, than the end result.
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