Opinion On Training Techniques:
Leaving a Horse to Stand Tied
By Karen Nelson
July 2009
Leaving a horse tied for long periods is a surprisingly common training technique in North America, particularly among
western trainers. When I have talked to trainers that do this and asked why, I get a get one of three reasons: 1) it
teaches the horse patience, 2) it teaches the horse to think, or 3) The horse needs to be able to stand tied for long
periods at shows or on trail rides, so it may as well learn now.

First off, patience is a human concept. Evolution would have little reason to teach a grazing animal patience. It sees
food, it eats it. If it is thirsty, it goes to get a drink. A horse can understand to not push a dominant horse away from the
water, and so will understand to wait until the dominant horse has finished drinking, but this is not patience, this is the
avoidance of possible repercussions if it annoys the other horse. The horse that waits for all the others to finish eating,
drinking, or passing by, would be much more likely to starve, dehydrate, or become prey.

As trainers we can only shape the horse within the parameters of behaviours it is capable of, and as there would be no
evolutionary reason for a horse to have the concept of patience, it makes sense that the concept of patience is not a
behaviour we can train no matter how hard we try. Keep in mind that being able to wait or stand quietly, and being
patient are not the same thing.

The idea that it teaches a horse to think baffles me completely. Just what is the horse supposed to be thinking about?
Horses are neither reflective to any great degree nor are they able to plan ahead, (thank goodness!). They think in the
present and react to the current stimulus. Asking a horse to stand for a moment after teaching it something new MAY
give it some time to reflect on the previous activity and to understand exactly what it is being given a rest from, but in
horses the window of reflection is very short (seconds, not minutes). Thinking of myself, if I am left standing with little to
do, I usually start day dreaming or blank out completely. I am definitely not learning.

A more reasonable deduction for what leaving a horse tied teaches, is that the horse learns that resistance is futile and
painful. As much as it pulls and paws the horse is stuck there. Some horses will resist very little, and will appear content
to stand napping. These horses are likely not damaged by this training technique, however nor are they likely helped by
it. Other horses though will pull, fuss and fidget until such a time as they realize they cannot get away, at which point
they tend to stand still for longer and longer periods without fighting the rope, with shorter moments of fussiness
between quiet periods.

So why is this a bad thing? The horse is learning to stand and give in right? Well yes, but aside from the potential
damage to the horse's poll and spine from pulling back, there is also some worrisome psychology behind this technique.
As already discussed, the horse isn’t standing because it learned to be patient, as that is not a skill available to the
horse to learn, rather it is standing because it has been put into a state of “Learned Helplessness”. This is a technical
term describing the mental state that both animals and humans go into when put under physical or emotional stress that
they feel they cannot escape.

In humans, being placed in a state of Learned Helplessness can lead to serious depression and/or aggression and
other health issues such as ulcers, sleep deprivation, social issues, and weight problems. It would be difficult to do a
similar study of the effects of Learned Helplessness in horses, however it is reasonable to conclude that similar side
effects would be the result of training techniques that put the horse in this state. The negative effects of training
techniques that trigger a state of Learned Helplessness are long term in humans.

Horses trained this way are also much more likely to submit quickly to painful training techniques down the line, which
may be another reason it is a popular technique: the horse has learned to tune out painful or stressful stimulus and to
"shut down" mentally, making them more compliant and "robotic". Trail string horse with rough dude riders and open
saddle sores, that still keep plugging along with seemly no complaints are a prime example of Learned Helplessness in
action.

Another consequence of tying a horse before training is that the horse is unable to eat or drink, and may be left
exposed to the elements; a dehydrated horse tends to be weaker and more compliant. Hopefully we can agree that this
is an inhumane reason to leave a horse tied for a long period of time, and not conducive to proper training, but this is
used to make a difficult horse easier to bully into submission.

Additionally, horses are social creatures, so leaving a horse tied on its own causes it stress to the point that it will
welcome ANY interaction, so by leaving the horse tied alone, the person that unties it will be perceived as a welcome
interaction, possibly even regardless of what that person then does with the horse. Sort of a “any attention is better than
no attention” kind of thing.

So what do you do if you need to be able to tie your horse for long periods? Regular work with the horse should be
enough to make it feel safe being tied, as it will get used to be tied for increasingly long times without the need to
become anxious. A horse that is trained to give to pressure before being tied up is also less likely to pull back and
damage its spine/nerves. At a show or trail ride, it is best to tie a green horse near a friend and ensure it has access to
feed so that it is less likely to get anxious. Tying a horse in an unsafe or stressful location, particularly leaving it alone in
such a situation, should be considered inhumane and should be avoided. It is hard to legitimize leaving a nervous horse
tied alone and unattended at a horse show. The horse should not have to suffer unduly for our pursuit of ribbons or
pleasure.
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When selecting a trainer, it is important to be aware of the training techniques they will be using, and to be comfortable
with what is going to be done to your horse. Not only should you be comfortable with the end product, but you should
also consider the means taken to achieve then end to ensure that the training methods used aren't going to cause
future issues; even ones that may seem unrelated.