It’s the middle of winter.
Inside, it is snug and warm. It’s blowing a gale out there and the rain is coming down heavy and horizontal, mixed up with what you are pretty sure is sleet. As you sip your tea, you thank your lucky stars that your pony has shelter out there. You haven’t long finished getting an expensive stable built for him. Then, as you look a little closer, you notice that he is standing right out in all that weather, next to the brand new, empty stable, head down, grazing. He appears to be soaking wet and there is definitely some hail on his back. Not quite what you had in mind. You start to focus on how to get your pony into the stable or barn.
Table of Contents
Food, water, and shelter. We all know that these are the three basic requirements for us and our animals.
There is a lot of pleasure to be had from knowing that we are looking after our horses and ponies properly. Providing them with a healthy diet, clean water, and snug, weatherproof stables and barns is the least we can do as responsible owners.
Who doesn’t love the satisfaction of mucking out their pony’s stable? Nothing beats cleaning out the old manure, (pop it straight out in the veggie patch and get ready for the best pumpkins ever), and leaving the stable filled with fresh, sweet-smelling sawdust, ready for that beautiful pony to rest comfortably in.
What isn’t so satisfying, and in fact can be downright stressful, is having a horse or pony that simply refuses to go into their stable. This can range from balking at the stable door, refusing to be led in, or, as is going on in your wet, wintery field, choosing not to seek the shelter of their stable when free-roaming out in their pasture.
So Why Won’t the Pony Enter the Stable or Barn?
On the surface, it is a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t a pony want to hang out in a warm, dry stable when the weather is bad? What is so wrong with a nice solid barn, cool and shady in the heat of summer? To answer this, let’s look at it from the pony’s point of view.
Horses and ponies are herd animals. In their natural state, they wander around the countryside in groups, often covering distances of 20-30 miles (32-48 km) in a day. With strong fright and flight instincts, they love the wide-open spaces so that if danger is present, they can run away from it. In a stable, there is little space for them to move around and if something frightens them, there is certainly no scope for them to run away from it.
Starting to see the Problem now?
Horse and ponies are intelligent. It isn’t just their bodies that get exercise when they are in their natural state, it is their minds too. All that space, all the different things they can look at, all the different plants they can graze on. Put a pony in a stable for long periods of time and they will get bored. Those four walls might be the most solid and beautiful walls that money can buy for your pony but they are still four walls.
A Stable Reelationship
Now you have walked a mile in your pony’s shoes. As you drink your tea and gaze out of your kitchen window, you understand why your pony is choosing not to use his stable. It is great to have this insight but it doesn’t end here.
There are plenty of times when it is very much necessary and reasonable to have your pony in a stable. This can be range from having him all caught and ready to go for the farrier or vet, to stopping him rolling in that puddle down at the bottom of the field when you have just plaited his mane ready for pony club in the morning.
Stables and barns are also extremely useful for pasture management. Horses and ponies are big, heavy animals and those four feet of theirs can do a lot of damage to the ground, especially in smaller parcels of land and around feed and water areas where they spend a lot of time. Stabling them is a good way of resting the pastures, allowing the land to recover from those hooves.
Not all horse and pony owners are lucky enough to have pastures to manage in the first place. When this is the case, stables and barns are essential.
Right. It is time to get your pony into that stable. The farrier is coming to put on a new set of shoes this afternoon and you need to have things all ready to go for him. There’s been a bit of a hitch in your plans though. Your pony is refusing to go in. You have been standing at the end of the lead rope for over half an hour now and he simply will not budge. What do you do?
First, stay calm. If you start to get angry, if you lose your patience, you will be even less likely to succeed in your mission. Yell and shout at him and he will get scared and lose trust in you. Hit him and there goes the friendship completely. There is never an excuse for hitting any animal!
Second, your pony is stronger than you. Pull hard on that lead rope and he will pull even harder back, and rope burn hurts. A fate worse than rope burn can happen if you have wrapped that lead rope around your hand. What if your pony takes off across the field? Well, you won’t have time to release your hand and will end up getting dragged.
Trying to push him in from behind is also not a wise move. You run the risk of getting kicked or trampled.
Rule one when handling horses and ponies, NEVER wrap the lead rope or the reins around your hand. It won’t end well.
Rule two? Those back legs can kick out hard and do some real damage to you. Don’t take your pony’s goodwill for granted, especially when you are trying to do something with him that he isn’t sure about.
Always remember that force and impatience can quickly turn to danger, injury, and failure.
There is a great tip for getting your horse or pony to do what you want, and need them to do. It applies to many situations, from walking them into a stable, to riding out nicely on a trail ride, to standing still for the farrier. What is it?
Pressure and Release.
Let’s look at how this works in our ‘how to get your pony into the stable’ situation.
That lead rope attached to your pony’s headstall hasn’t been much use so far, but with the right technique, it can be invaluable.
Instead of dragging constantly on it, trying to get your pony to step forward through that stable door, try a short, firm pull, then stop. This is going to get his attention a lot more than a constant pull. Jiggle that rope a little as well, then stop. Repeat this a few times and see what happens. Hopefully a step forward!
When applying this pressure through the lead rope, as soon as there is even a small step forward, release that pressure immediately. That doesn’t mean let go of the lead rope, just make sure it isn’t pulling anymore. We don’t like pressure on us and neither do our horses and ponies. Letting the lead rope go soft is a reward for taking that step forward. Ponies and horses are smart and will quickly learn that a step forward means no more pressure. It is a win-win situation.
If this intermittent pressure and release on the lead rope isn’t doing the trick, you can incorporate a whip into the mix. This does NOT mean hitting your pony with the whip! Use it to gently tap around his rear end, anywhere from his feet up to his bottom. This is also a form of pressure, like an annoying little fly. Your pony should move forward to get away from this pesky sensation. As soon as he does, stop tapping, straight away. See? Pressure, then release as the reward.
Do this and your pony should be calmly in that stable in plenty of time for the farrier.
Patient, intuitive, perfectly timed, pressure and release.
Food Glorious Food
Ponies are smart and they can also be stubborn. Even with all the patience in the world and some great pressure and releasing, you may still be having trouble getting your four-legged friend into the stable. Life isn’t perfect and it is always a good idea to have Plan B.
Most ponies and horses love their food. There is no shame in using this love to gently bribe them into the stable. Basically, it is a form of positive reinforcement.
Just as with the pressure and release method, timing is everything when using food rewards. As soon as your pony takes a step towards the food, let him take it. We are not talking about a big bucket of food here, just a tiny snack, like a small piece of carrot. Repeat this as he makes his way into the stable. Don’t let him have a treat for every single step. It is better to keep him guessing a little. This will stop him from getting complacent and cocky. We all want what we can’t have.
Speaking of cocky, giving food treats to horses is a little contentious. It can turn them into pushy little monsters if it is overdone, so don’t overdo it! Sometimes, less is more.
On A Positive Note
Food reward is a form of positive reinforcement but it isn’t the only one.
A soft, encouraging word of praise from you goes a lot further than you might imagine. The tone we use when speaking to our animals is a very powerful tool.
Have you ever noticed horses grooming each other around their necks and withers? It is an important feel-good social behavior for them and you can do it too. A nice scratch on your pony’s wither as soon as he takes a step towards that stable door is a great reward. Do it as soon as he moves forward so that he associates this pleasurable sensation with the act of walking towards the stable. He will learn quickly to keep going if it means a lovely scratch. By the way, we are talking a scratch or rub here; slap your pony on the withers as a reward and you might find that all of a sudden he is sitting in your lap. Horses don’t slap each other so you shouldn’t either.
You have been patient. It hasn’t been easy and there have been times when you wanted to yell and throw something but you held it together and now it has all paid off.
You have put pressure on your pony and then released that pressure as soon as he started to walk into the stable. You have waved bits of carrot in front of his nose and let him eat them the moment he put his best foot forward. You have used your nicest, most soothing, and attractive voice to tell him what a good boy he is for stepping onto the pristine sawdust floor of his stall without pulling back, rearing, or bolting. His withers have had lots of social scratches, just at the right time.
You have spoken your pony’s language and he has responded to all of your patience and wisdom. He is in his stable, warm and snug. The door is shut, the pony has landed. Give yourself a scratch on the back for being such a good horse whisperer.
Now it is time to head back into your nice, warm kitchen, put another log on the fire, and make a fresh pot of tea. Job done.
- Horse & Hound
The fire is crackling away in the hearth, there’s a batch of chicken soup bubbling quietly on the stove and you’ve got your hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea as you gaze out of the kitchen window, across the wet fields you can relax knowing your pony is warm and dry in the stable or barn.