This is a simple exercise to teach and quickly shows results. The goal is to ask the horse to stand square each and every time you are working with them – whether it be at the wash rack, mounting block, leading, lunging or riding.
What I personally have noticed is that once you start teaching this exercise you start finding that your horse chooses to stand square almost all the time (above Dante is standing at his food bucket eating when I snapped this cell phone pic).
Of course, he will still relax legs and shift weight, but overall, this exercise does improve how a horse uses his body in his everyday activities, whether when being used by you in riding, in hand or liberty work – or when he is off doing his own thing.
Don’t horses know how to stand already? Well of course they do! but just like people they have a stronger side which, when added with a rider, puts the horse into further imbalance. They can get sloppy and lazy with their hind end or maybe they have physical reasons like an injury or weakness that prevents them naturally standing square.
Think of it like a chicken-egg scenario – is your horse crooked because he stands unevenly? or is he standing unevenly because he is crooked?
Benefits of standing square: the horse’s weight is evenly distributed over the ground like a table with four legs. This simple exercise is about correcting sloppy posture and you’ll find your horse being balanced and stronger.
As always, lessons are easier for a horse if this is taught first from the ground and then from the saddle. Equipment needed is a halter (or cavesson), leadrope, clicker, approved treats, and a dressage whip (you can also use a short driving whip or a Linda Tellington-Jones TTEAM wand).
Negative Reinforcement – Pressure method – Traditional
Your horse has stopped without being square: To get him square, use the tassel or the very end of the whip that is firm and do a gentle tap-tap-tap on the leg that needs to be moved. NOTE! This is about the pressure of a finger tap on a child’s hand – DO NOT INCREASE PRESSURE or FORCE. *TTEAM
Think of this more as a tickle. If your horse can feel the weight of a fly there is no reason to be slapping or whacking your horse with a whip! Give him time to understand what you want…
If the horse ignores the tickle, you can encourage him to shift his weight back by putting your hand on his halter, tipping the nose to the side he needs to move back, and bringing the nose down and towards the knees. *BD
NOTE! Only use as much bend down and back as the horse needs to respond to your request. Most people use too much and want it to happen too quickly. Once your horse responds with moving that leg back IMMEDIATELY RELEASE.
If using Clicker Training – at this point you would click and treat. Clicker training will accelerate the learning and retention of this lesson. *CT
What you will notice – After a few sessions (maybe even one) your horse will understand that a tickle with the whip tassel means to move that leg. You can make your request lighter and lighter. The same goes for your horse’s nose being lowered – often just a touch on the halter or under the chin and the horse will correct his weight and legs.
Having a whip cue to teach the leg to lift is helpful because eventually it can be translated to asking for the leg for farrier work, or High School exercises like the Piaff.
Positive Reinforcement method – different roads to Rome
A much slower method is using strictly positive reinforcement. All of these incorporate Clicker Training – a click to mark desired behavior followed by a reward (i.e. treat, scratch, relief from work).
1.) You can wait until he stands square and reward that behavior (called “capturing”). However, if your horse routinely does not stand square it will take a much longer period for him to figure out what you are rewarding him for. This is the slowest method for teaching this lesson but can pay big dividends emotionally. *CT
2.) Use a rubber mat as the place for the horse to come to stand for reward. Once he knows to stand on the mat wait until he stands square with the front before rewarding – this is moving from one learned behavior and shaping it to another.
Because your horse knows that standing on the mat gets rewarded, when that behavior doesn’t get rewarded he will try moving around about, trying to figure out what you want. So look to “capture” the desired square behavior. *CT
Teaching a horse to stand on a mat can translate to trailer loading, standing in cross ties, standing for the farrier and standing at the mounting block. It’s a very useful exercise for many practical, everyday human-horse interactions.
3.) Teach your horse to target using his leg. Like Touching Target, this time instead of the nose you are asking for the leg to touch the target. Move the target close to the leg and wait for the horse to naturally move. When he does and accidentally bumps the target, reward with a Click-Treat.
It’s the reverse of you using the tapping whip – instead of you touching the horse, the horse has to reach to touch you. The only reason I didn’t use this exercise for Dante was because when he saw the target he kept moving around to touch it with his nose instead 😉
The benefit of this exercise is that it can later be shaped into other exercises like Shoulder In, Renvers, Travers, Spanish Walk and lifting a hoof for a handshake or farrier work. *CT
Hindlegs and Forelegs:
Generally, when I cue to move the leg, I expect the hindlegs to go BACK into place. With the forelegs, I bring them FORWARD into place. I usually focus on the hindlegs first, however you might find that he squares the front more easily especially if you are doing Positive Reinforcement training only.
TIPS FOR ALL METHODS
- Keep sessions short; if your horse isn’t “getting it” move him forward at a walk, get him moving freely and after a few minutes of walking ask again for a square halt.
- Don’t keep moving your horse back and forth to the point he gets aggravated. You might want to start with just one leg – or only the hindlegs – when they are correct, reward and move the horse forward.
- Working too long on standing can just make your horse more confused and possibly frustrated. You’ve probably seen this with someone spending a long time in getting their horse to line up to the mounting block to the point the horse becomes more agitated then calm.
- When asking your horse to stand square – make sure you are standing square too! You should have both legs bearing equal weight, and soles to the ground. Horses’ mimic far more then you are aware and this is good reinforcement for you too!
This exercise uses a combination of horse training techniques – I’ve given you a shorthand to where I’ve added what horse trainer’s technique, to give you an idea of how you can also blend complimentary ideas in your own training program:
Bill Dorrance (BD)
Linda Tellington-Jones (TTEAM)
Klaus Hempfling (KFH)
Clicker Training (CT)