I first started teaching this exercise when a friend of mine was injured and could no longer mount his horse from the ground. In addition, I teach this exercise because it is a great way to build your horse’s trust. When he lies down, he is putting all of his trust in you to look out for his safety. It is also a fun thing to be able to do with your horse, and can increase his value if you are looking to sell him.
For this exercise, you will need an enclosed area with soft footing. It is important that your horse have a comfortable place to lie down. Make sure that the area is big enough that your horse won’t hit the fence or get his legs tangled, and you have plenty of room to move away from him. You will need a nylon web halter (I prefer this over a rope halter for this exercise because the web distributes pressure over a larger area), two cotton lead ropes of different colors, a padded one footed hobble, support boots or leg wraps, and a western saddle with a horn and a back cinch. The back cinch should be snug, so you can just slide your fingers under it.
Since this exercise involves your horse putting a lot of trust in you, it’s very important that you are patient and reward him frequently as you go along.
To start the exercise, saddle your horse and put the halter and one of the lead ropes on. Stand in front of him, and put pressure on the lead rope to ask him to back up. Most horses will already be comfortable with this step, but it is important that you check to be sure before trying the next step. Your horse should back with his head down, tucking his nose in towards his chest. Next, starting with the lead rope on the side away from you, bring it back to your side, running it along the back of the saddle horn. Stand next to the stirrup, and put pressure on the lead rope. You want your horse to back up with his nose tucked, just as he did when you were standing in front of him. Release the pressure on the rope when he takes a step back. If your horse tries to turn instead of backing, just stay with him, neither increasing nor decreasing the pressure, until he takes a step backwards. Practice getting more steps back in a row. It is very important that your horse is backing with his nose tucked in and down. If he is backing with his head up in the air, you are going to have a hard time getting him to lie down. This part of the exercise cannot be practiced too much.
Once your horse is backing and tucking his nose well, you can move on to the hobble. Hobble your horse around the pastern on the front leg on the same side you are on. Put the hobble over the support boot or wrap if you can. The hobble needs to be sung, so there is no way the horse can yank his foot out. Attach your second lead rope to the ring on the hobble, and drape it around the front of the horn and over the seat so the tail of the rope is on the same side as you. Lead your horse in a circle so he can get used to the feel of the hobble on his foot.
Now, we are going to create a cue for your horse to lie down. I like to use a tap on the front shoulder, because I can use my toe to touch this same cue spot from the saddle. Tap your horse on the cue spot with your fingers, and then ask him to pick up his front foot. Use the lead rope attached to the hobble to support his foot when he lifts it. At first, reward him for just shifting the weight off his foot. Gradually ask him to let you pick up his foot higher and for longer periods of time. Run the rope around the front of your saddle horn so the weight of his foot is being supported by the saddle. Make sure you tap your horse on the shoulder each time you ask him to pick up his foot, and reward him with lots of attention and reassurance. Never tie the lead rope to the saddle horn. Always use a wrap around the horn, never a knot. You need to be able to release the rope quickly.
Once your horse will let you pick up his foot and bring it snug up towards his belly, and he seems bored and totally comfortable with the exercise, pick his foot up all the way and take one wrap around the saddle horn with the lead rope. Take the lead rope that is attached to the halter, and with it ask him to shift his weight backwards, as you did when you were asking him to back up before. To start, all you are asking for is a thought of going backwards. As soon as you get that, release. Move on to where your horse is leaning backwards, and then touching his bent knee to the ground. Once that is going well, ask him to come to one knee and stay there for a few seconds. If he goes to get up, just touch the rope going to his halter to ask him to shift his weight back to the knee. This process shouldn’t be done in a hurry, and it can take you 1 to 2 days or more to get your horse comfortable with all these steps.
Be sure to reward your horse frequently and keep the exercise fun and comfortable for both of you.
As you ask your horse to stay down on one knee for longer periods of time, he is going to start thinking. You don’t want him to get up, and he will get tired of being down on one knee. He will eventually decide to lie down. When he does, release both ropes, being especially certain to get the rope unwrapped from the saddle horn, and step back away from him. He will probably jump right back up, and you don’t want to be in his way. Whatever he does, give him a little space, and when he gets back up pet him and praise him. Lead him around a little so he can stretch his legs. It is very important that you release the leg rope before he tries to get back up. Horses are not designed to get up on three legs, and your horse could injure himself if you don’t allow him to use all his legs to get up.
Lay your horse down three times in the morning and three times in the evening for about a week. Don’t just do it once and let your horse set for a few days. You want to be sure he is really comfort- able and understands the exercise. Once your horse knows how to lay down and seems very comfortable with it, you can move on to teaching him to lay down with- out the hobble. Before doing this, your horse should have laid down at least fifteen to twenty times without a problem. The only additional equipment you will need for this is a dressage whip or a crop with a rubber handle.
Go back to the pen where you started the exercise, and move to a square corner. This will make the first part of the exercise easier because it will give your horse some boundaries, although you will need to move away from the fence before you ask the horse to lie down. In your corner, put the lead rope from the off side back over the saddle towards you. On the cue spot on the shoulder, start tapping gently with the handle of the crop in rhythms of three. As soon as your horse shifts his weight off that foot, stop tapping and reward him. Being in the corner keeps your horse from getting confused and trying to move forward or sideways as you teach him the next step. Once your horse will pick up his foot when you tap him on the shoulder, you are going to ask him to start holding the foot up. If he goes to put it down, tap him on the shoulder to ask him to pick it back up. He will learn to hold his foot up.
Now, ask your horse to hold his foot up, and with your hand on the snap of the lead rope, ask him to lean backwards, just as you did when you were starting this exercise with the hobble. Look for his withers to drop towards the ground just a little. Reward him for the smallest tries. Once he is starting to drop his withers, practice this step for at least fifteen to twenty minutes. Then you are ready to move away from the fence. Since you just moved to a situation that is more challenging, start back from the beginning when you were working in the corner. If your horse moves away or forward, just stay with him, and don’t release until he picks up the foot you want. It is very important that your horse already understands how to lie down and is comfortable with it before you move on to this part of the exercise. You are just going to repeat the steps you used to teach him to lie down with the hobble: foot up, shift weight back so he is on one knee, and then ask him to stay there for longer and longer until he lies down. Practice is the most important part of this whole exercise.
There are a few rules that I follow when I am laying a horse down. I will never mount a horse from the ground up (get on him while he is laying down and ask him to get up with me on his back) if he is four years old or younger. Never mount a horse from the ground up who has been laid down less than twelve times, or one who has been ridden less than thirty times. Some horses are not going really well even after thirty rides, and if that’s the case wait till your horse has sixty or ninety rides on him before riding him from the ground up.
Stay behind your horse when he is lying down. Don’t get tangled up in his legs. Don’t ever try to hold your horse down. You can cue him to lie back down if he is going to get up, but don’t ever physically try to force him to stay down.
Keep things fun and relaxing, reward your horse regularly, and enjoy the time you spend building his trust in you.
[This article was published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 1, Issues 4 & 5.]
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