Having a horse that is a good citizen isn’t just a way to earn brownie points — it’s absolutely necessary for the safety of you as well as others who may have to handle or treat your horse at some point. Therefore, there are a few basic skills every horse needs to have.
Having a couple of jobs where I spend most of my time working with other people’s horses, the importance of equine education is driven home to me on nearly a daily basis. I am fortunate enough not to have to ride other people’s horses for a living, but through the course of managing a barn, working as an equine vet tech, and being a certified equine sports massage therapist, I’ve done a lot of handling other people’s horses on the ground. These experiences have taught me that there are a number of things that horses absolutely must know — regardless of the horse’s age (almost — I’ll give young foals a pass), breed, or whatever other reasons people like to come up with for their horses not to know something.
So, here is a list of nine things every horse needs to know (these are not in order of importance):
1. How to Load on a Trailer
This is so so so important. In fact, we have a list on JUST THIS from last year. But to sum up, at some point, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to haul Flicka somewhere. Especially given the ever-growing shortage of equine veterinarians. During an emergency, there is no guarantee a vet can always get to you. Or you may have a more complicated issue that requires hauling to a specialty hospital. Or there may be a natural disaster. Whatever the case may be, your horse needs to be able to get its butt on a trailer without loads of drama and/or sedation.
2. Take Oral Medication/Dewormer
At some point, every horse will need to have a syringe of some sort stuck in its mouth. Read that again. Read that again. EVERY. HORSE. I manage a small boarding barn. At the VERY least, I deworm twice a year based on the results of Fecal Egg Counts. I have also NEVER MET a horse that didn’t, at some point, need to be given medication. If you’re very lucky, the horse will eat the meds in its food. Most won’t. Therefore, you need to be able to put a dose syringe or deworming syringe in your horse’s without the horse trying to head-butt you, rear, strike, or otherwise maim or kill one of you.
3. Stand Tied
No matter your thoughts on hard-tying a horse, it’s a skill they all need to have. You don’t have to cross tie and you don’t have to high line, but you do need to have a horse that knows to stand tied without setting back, breaking halters, and potentially injuring itself and others. Even if you prefer not to do that to your horse, you don’t know when you’ll be in a situation where you have to tie your horse due to a downed fence, broken down trailer, or whatever.
4. Be Touched/Groomed Everywhere
You should be able to touch your horse everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. If you can’t reach under your horse’s belly and feel along the length of the abdomen, how do you expect a vet to do so if there’s a problem? If you can’t touch your horse’s stifle or lift its back leg, how is a farrier or vet supposed to examine the horse or trim it? This goes for every part of your horse’s body. At some point, your horse will injure itself. Or need its temperature taken (we don’t do it orally). Make sure your horse doesn’t then also injure the people trying to help it.
5. Stand for the Farrier
This is an extension of number four. Horses need to get their feet done. Like, regularly. This isn’t just a cosmetic thing. It is a critical part of bio-mechanical functionality and integral to your horse’s soundness and health. If your horse tries to kill the farrier, he or she probably won’t be returning to do your horse again. Don’t put your farrier, yourself, or your horse in that position.
6. Stand for the Vet
Every horse will need vaccinations. Most horses will need a blood draw. Your horse needs to not try to kill the people administering those vaccinations or drawing that blood. This is about as straightforward as it gets, but I have seen so many horses for which this was a major issue. As a vet tech, sometimes my boss and I had to get really creative on how to get the job done without getting injured. Don’t put your vet in this situation. If they get hurt, they can’t help you (again, see number four).
7. Respect Personal Space
Don’t let your horse become a cow. Make sure it stays out of the handler’s bubble no matter where you are. The horse should know where its feet are and where YOUR feet are. You are allowed to invade your horse’s space; your horse is not allowed to invade yours. It’s not cute when Spirit steps into your space nips at you. It’s Spirit encroaching on your space and seeing what he can get away with. This will escalate. If your horse thinks it can push you around, it will push you and others around when you’re trying to do necessary things that your horse may not like all that well.
8. Lead One a Loose Line
This is another one that has an entire article dedicated to it. Your horse should be able to be led on a loose lead without being micromanaged. It should stop when you stop. It should NOT circle the handler or try to run past or through the handler when being led. It should also maintain its bubble (see number seven). These are things that, again, keep it safe for people to be around and to handle in an emergency. If I have to get a horse somewhere now, I don’t want to have to think about which horse is able to be handled by whom.
9. Respect Gates
When being turned out or led in, your horse SHOULD NOT rush the gate. I’ve been shocked by fences because boarder horses couldn’t manage this (that changed quickly). I’ve known people who got broken bones because horses couldn’t mange this. I’ve known people who’ve ended up being life-flighted away from their own barns because horses couldn’t manage this. This is non-starter for me. Horses need to wait on me, stay out of my bubble (again, see number seven), and respect the speed at which I let them in or turn them out.
As I round out this list, let me be clear. A horse can come to you not knowing some of these things. Many horses that desperately need our care have gaps in their educations. BUT, it is your job to make sure that they learn these things as quickly as possible, for your safety, the horse’s safety, the safety of anyone else handling the horse, and for the sake of the horse’s future.
For as frustrating as the internet can be sometimes, it’s can also be a wonderful, wonderful thing. There are myriad how-tos out there than can help you if your horse is having difficulty mastering any of these skills. And if you’re not equipped to teach your horse these skills, hire someone who is. After all, having a horse that is a good citizen will make it so that your horse is welcome at most barns and that your farriers and vets will keep coming back.