Part 1: Foundation and Basics of Halter Training

Halter training can be fun for you and your horse if done properly. The image of the intimidated, shaking horse at the end of a taut lead has gotten less and less common as people have realized that you can train the horse to look just as tight and just as exotic without fear or intimidation. It just takes a little time, methodical patience, and a little know-how to get it done. A well-trained halter horse will remember his job forever due to a solid and patiently built foundation. He will have no fear of whips, chains, or people, and he will enjoy it — which will show in his happy charisma as he hits the showring.

Halter training and showing a young horse is actually beneficial if done methodically and positively, due to the exposure, handling, and experience the horse will gain.

This step-by-step column over the next few months is designed to give you a solid and consistent method to train a halter horse from the very basics to the showring. We will go over the foundation, finishing, troubleshooting, and ways to keep it fun, as well as presentation techniques and strategies based on your horse’s strengths.

One thing to keep in mind — most, but not all Arabians, will find that they enjoy halter. But if you have one of the few who truly dislikes it, you will never have a good presentation as your horse’s attitude will show. This doesn’t mean he is mad or mean or deliberately saying “NO,” it just means that he is either bored with the whole thing, finds it pointless, hates posing and standing and making weird contortions with his neck, and really doesn’t have any desire to trot around with his tail in the air. These are the horses you generally will have to get tougher on to get a stand-up; the ones that give halter horses a bad reputation. If your horse hates it to the extent that you have to be mean to him to make him do it — find him another job. A horse who enjoys halter, who likes to show off, and wants to work with you in this endeavor will be easy to train and show much more confidence and presence and type than one who dislikes it — no matter how pretty and correct he is.

EQUIPMENT:

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Plain leather schooling halter with a captured chain. The schooling halter gives the same pull and feel as a show halter which uses poll, nose, chin, and lower jaw pressure, vs. a stable halter which has the addition of cheek and upper jaw pressure that in turn dilutes your signals. 

• With a captured chain, the lead goes through the center of the chain as well as the rings so there is no leveraged pressure. Your cues will come mainly from poll pressure, nose pressure, and sides of the lower jaw. This is less intimidating to the horse and the added poll pressure encourages the horse to relax through the throatlatch and give the neck from the withers. 

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A leveraged chain will cause an untrained horse to tense his underneck and brace against you, giving an unclean line. Some horses will do better with a “live” chain as they gain in training and understanding of giving to pressure, but you will almost always want to start with a captured chain. 


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• Halter whip. I don’t use a whip much, if at all, for the first few schooling sessions. When you do start to use one, you’ll want a medium length halter or driving whip with a short lash and popper. I like to tie a small strip of white rag around the end to add to the popper — this will prevent the whip from leaving accidental marks on a thin-skinned horse should you need to tap him — it brightens up the whip a bit so the horse can see it easily. It is legal to have a bit of plastic on the end of the whip in the showring, so the white color of the rag will aid in that transition as well. 

• An enclosed workspace with few distractions. Your first few schooling sessions may best be done in the barn aisle or an enclosed round pen. Walls are helpful for working on straight lines, hence the barn aisle. Round pens are handy, especially if fully enclosed, because they minimize distraction and get your horse thinking just about you. The area where you usually work him will be fine as long as it is enclosed, since your horse will be comfortable in a familiar place. The priority is to keep the horse comfortable and able to focus on you.

It helps in the beginning if your horse has been worked or longed before you start your halter schooling sessions. He will be better prepared to take in the new training if he is not hyper and full of excess energy.


Step 1: Walking at your side

Sounds simple, right? Not always. The walk on a loose rein is the most basic part of showing a halter horse. It is the foundation for everything that is to come. In this exercise, you teach your horse respect, to watch your body language, “whoa,” and moving away from pressure. I recommend spending about 5 minutes at the beginning of your first few halter schooling sessions on this. 

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Walk at his shoulder and teach him to walk with you. This may position you further back than the horse is used to, so it may take some encouragement from behind to get him to understand what you want. You may need to use your halter whip as an aid to tap him up to your side. Give him about 12- 18 inches of lead between his chin and your hand so you have plenty of leverage. The way horses in the wild interact, walking at your shoulder would be something done as equals. Most young horses are either trying to be the boss or trying to be submissive, so they will want to walk behind you to keep an eye on you. This simple exercise may be harder than it sounds. 

• Do several walk-to-halt and walk-again sequences. The idea behind this is to get the horse to watch your body and stop when you stop — use the word “whoa” and shank him with a swift jerk on the lead toward you, so that it pulls on his nose as well as the off side of his jaw. Jerk once and leave it. Give him the chance to stop with your motion before correction. Two to three times of halt, whoa, correction and he should start to think about watching you. Praise him big when he gets it right. If your horse is overly pushy you may want to shank a couple of times and back him a step or two until the idea of “whoa” sits firmly in his mind. Walk off with a purpose, no moseying along.

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Turn toward the horse, staying at his shoulder and teach him to move away from your body. His instinctual response will be to push his shoulder into you as you turn his head to the right, making it an awkward, wide turn, mainly on the forehand. You want him to hesitate and move away from you with his head mostly straight, bending around his hind end. To accomplish this, turn and move into him and with the lead still in your right hand, use your right wrist and the lower edge of your hand to bop your hand into his lower neck, as hard as it takes to get him to move away. You may have to alternate this action with a tug on the lead and the bop on the neck a few times so that he gets the idea. It will take a few tries but eventually you will be raising your right hand slightly and moving your body into his body with purpose, and he should move away from the pressure without any touching of his neck or the lead as he watches your body position. 

• Continue to do lots of walk, halt, walk, turn right, turn left, using your lead, hand, and whip as aids to give your horse the idea that he should watch you and do as you do. This can become quite a fun game as he advances into trotting and quick halts and near spins. Be fair and give him some warning and a chance to respond before you correct him. Also remember that a horse’s body is a lot more cumbersome than ours so he can’t always stop and turn as easily as we can. Use your voice to say whoa, click to move, and praise when he does it on his own.


STEP 2: WALKING TOWARD YOU IN A STRAIGHT LINE

Another simple sounding exercise that is not quite as simple as it sounds. This is the foundation for setting your horse’s feet, giving to pressure as well as learning to watch you. Some horses take to this very easily, others apparently have no idea how to walk forward if you are not beside them, many just want to be right up close to you in your pocket, and some seem to be just plain drunk, weaving from side to side. While you work on this exercise, make sure you are not walking too slowly — walking backward is not always the easiest thing to do, but if you are going very slowly, the horse is generally going to either stop and give up or he will run you over. Walk backward fast enough that he can walk at a normal or even brisk pace. 

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• What you are looking for. The goal is to have your horse walking straight towards you, at least 2-3 feet from your hand, the rein neither too loose nor too tight. If you can accomplish this, then move on to the “whoa.” 

Balky horses: Go back to his side and get him walking. Once he is moving at a fairly brisk pace, turn and face him and walk backwards, keeping him walking. Gradually move farther and farther in front of him, encouraging him verbally, with clicks and noises to let him know you want him to move. If that doesn’t work, you can resort to your whip (remember the whip is only an extension of your hand, not a torture device) and smack the ground with it to make a little noise, or have a friend walk behind and tap his rear while you pull on him from the front, until he gets the general idea. With a balky horse, be cautious about how strongly you correct the whoa and do minimal backing up. Always make doubly sure you are walking backwards briskly, and go until he is walking easily along with you. Don’t do a halt or whoa while he is being hesitant. The trick is to get him to learn to move along easily with little to no pressure on the halter. 

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• Pocket ponies: While you don’t want him to always be six inches from you, you also don’t want to discourage his adoration of humans or scare him. Work on lots of “walk-to-whoa and walk again” and teach him to stay at the end of a three-foot lead. Walk backward and shank lightly down as he tries to get too close to you — if he becomes insistent, whoa and back up. Stand there at the end of the three feet for a moment, then walk again. Again, make sure you are not walking too slowly.  


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• Drunken horses: they are walking, and they aren’t too close but they don’t want to walk straight toward you. Listing left or right like a drunken sailor, their behavior can be quite comical but also quite frustrating. This is frequently stage two of a balky horse’s response to this exercise, but some horses just start out this way. Using the aisleway of a barn can help a lot because there is less room for them to stagger sideways. But eventually you will need to graduate to a bigger space. The best method I have found is to use your halter whip as an extension of your hand and tap whichever shoulder they are listing toward, just hard enough to get them to move in the other direction. Try to tap less and less until they are more or less moving toward you in a straight line. Praise them verbally and keep walking. The brisker the better (so fun going blindly backwards watching your horse do the drunken sailor dance, and doing it with speed!) to keep them thinking forward and straight. 


STEP 3: WHOA

Whoa means stop, and stop now. It also means stay stopped until I give you another cue. To start teaching this, you just want your horse to walk and whoa, and back up. But as the training increases you want him to whoa and stay stopped while you move around and do all sorts of crazy dances. And other people walk around him and examine his beautiful dapples, even if you are still in front of him doing crazy dances. If you said whoa, he must … whoa. 

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• Walk him in a straight line toward you, and keeping your hand in a natural position, say “whoa” — not necessarily loudly, but loud enough to make sure he has heard. Tone is very important — whoa is not a question … “Whoa? Please?” is not likely to get much serious attention. Nor do you want to yell “WHOA!!!!” and scare the bejeebers out of him … save that for when you really need it! A calm, confident command. “Whoa.” Give him the chance to respond and then shank once, down. If he ignores you or merely hesitates, then shank harder, left and right and back him up a few steps. Let him stop and reaffirm, “Whoa.” Stand for a few seconds and then walk forward and start again.

• The level of correction and how far you make your horse back up should correspond with the degree to which he ignored you. The first few times while he has no idea what you want, he may back six to eight steps. When he hesitates but just sort of thinks about drifting to a stop, back three to four steps. If he halts and then immediately walks forward, back the number of steps he walked forward after stopping. 

• Try to get him to back up true and straight. Turn his head as a guide as best you can to straighten him out. It will take some time but he’ll get the hang of it. 

• Some horses don’t like to back up, in which case you may need to get a little more aggressive with the shank or even wave the whip at them until they learn, but only put on as much pressure as it takes and always ask with the least pressure possible before escalating so that they strive to respond quickly.

• Some horses like backing too much — in which case back minimally and always test the ability to walk forward. If they balk, go back to walking forward easily before working on “whoa” again. 

• The goal is an immediate response, stopping quickly and firmly, feet planted, eyes and ears on you. Give them a chance to do just that before correction. If you correct while you say the word and stop your own feet, they have no chance to respond. Horses are pretty in tune with us but they are not mind readers. Likewise, stopping your body, then saying whoa and waiting 10 seconds to correct doesn’t give them any reason to be in any rush about it. Be firm and confident, stop, say whoa while you stop, give them a second, and then correct. Praise big when they try, and bigger when they stop without any help from you.

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Once they have the whoa down, practice moving around while they hold their position. Move back to the very end of the lead and back in to the halter position two to three feet from them. Move to your left a few steps and then all the way to your right a few steps. Correct them with a firm “whoa” as needed, backing them as many steps as they took forward. Praise verbally when they are good and walk up to them and pet them when they are especially good. Don’t expect them to stand still while you jump around and wave plastic bags at them whooping and hollering — we are not desensitizing them. We are just teaching them that “whoa means whoa.” 

This step of your training will take from a week to a month, depending on how often you can work with him and how much groundwork your horse already has. Try to work with him consistently, a minimum of every other day — every day is preferable at this stage. Don’t overtax your horse; your sessions shouldn’t last any longer than 10 minutes or so in this early stage of training. Arabians are smart, don’t go overboard with the repetitions or they will get bored and possibly look for trouble to entertain themselves. Get the response you want two to three times and quit or move on to something else. If they are having an especially hard time with something, try to get a small, positive response, even if it’s not exactly what you were looking for, go to something else for a few minutes, and come back to it. If either of you gets upset or loses patience, put him away and try again in a few hours or the next day when everyone’s in a better frame of mind.

Horse training in general takes patience and time. Like people, some horses learn faster than others, some need to take a different tack, and some just won’t seem to get it until suddenly it clicks — just when you thought it never would. Don’t go into any training session with a definitive goal, just try to make an improvement each time. Most importantly, enjoy your time spent with these magnificent creatures.

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