Problems and Symptoms... Getting a Horse to Stand Still

by Ellen Ofstad Warren

Horses are cooperative by nature; if a horse has a behavior problem, there is a reason.

Photo by Madeleine Forsgren

If your horse suddenly went lame, would you call the veterinarian and say, "My horse is lame; how can I cure it?" If you did that you wouldn't get an answer; you would only get a lot of questions. Lameness is a symptom that tells us that something is wrong. One needs a lot more information to figure out what is causing the lameness. The cure for the lameness would be completely different for a horse that has an injured ligament than it would be for a horse with a stone jammed in its hoof, so it's easy to see why a vet can't answer this question without a lot more information.

Sometimes the cause of a symptom is very apparent but other times one has to use a method of elimination to be able to determine what is wrong. At times the cause of the problem can seem like it's totally unrelated! I had seen a horse that was lame for a year and it didn't get better until the teeth where fixed! However, when one has figured out what the problem really is, the cure, if there is one, is usually easy to find.

Behavior problems are the same way. Many of the problems that people have with their horses aren't really the actual problem at all; they are just the symptom that is letting us know that there IS a problem here, and that something needs to be done.

Since not standing still is really not the problem but a symptom that tells us there is a problem, one has to find different solutions that depend on what the problem really is.

Photo by Madeleine Forsgren

Take for example the horse that won't stand still. All horses stand still sometimes, so the problem isn't that the horse can't stand still, it's that it won't stand still under certain circumstances. So the first thing one has to determine is under what circumstances this problem occurs.

If, for instance, a horse will not stand still when the farrier comes, but normally has no problem getting his hooves picked out, then one can assume that the problem is related to the farrier or to the tools that the farrier uses. A horse that will not stand still while being saddled might have a saddle that is causing pain, or perhaps the one saddling the horse is tightening the girth too fast or too hard.

Horses are cooperative by nature so when someone has a problem with getting the horse to stand still the horse has a reason. Only when you know the reason for a problem can you hope to find the solution for it. Very often a "training problem" isn't in fact a training issue at all, usually the horse is trying to tell us that it is in pain or that it's scared. So the first thing one should look for if a horse is "misbehaving" is if there is a physical reason for it to act that way. If the horse is trying to tell you that it is hurting it would be very unfair to correct the horse for it. When we think about it, misbehavior is really the only way that the horse can tell us that something is bothering it, so what we call "bad behavior" can in most cases be looked upon as the horse communicating to us.

The problem isn't that the horse can't stand still, it's that it won't stand still under certain circumstances.

Photo by Madeleine Forsgren

The solution to a problem is sometimes easy to find and sometimes difficult to find; it depends on the situation. One needs to use a process of elimination to find the cause of it - not that different from what a vet would do if your horse got lame.

A very common problem is a horse that will not stand still for mounting. The cause of the problem can be a number of different things. As always, the first thing to look for is a physical cause, like the horse having a sore back or a badly fitting saddle. Pain, if that is the cause, doesn't necessarily have to be in the back. The horse understands that mounting means riding, so if the horse is associating riding with something painful it's not so strange that it won't readily accept the rider getting on its back.

One also has to consider the bigger picture. Very often a horse has many different problems that all have the same cause - for instance a horse that is hard to catch, is grumpy when you saddle him up, and won't stand still for mounting. All of those things could be related to one single problem like a saddle that doesn't fit! Or it could be that the rider is too rough-handed during riding. Some horses spend way too much time inside the stable, and if a horse is cooped up for 23 hours a day and then taken out to get ridden it's understandable that it has a hard time standing still when it's finally taken outside.

The cause of a problem can seem totally unrelated; once the cause is identified, the solution is easier to find.

Sometimes the horse has been trained unknowingly to not stand still during mounting. If the rider always tells the horse to go forward as soon as he or she gets up in the saddle, the horse can learn to associate just the foot of the rider in the stirrup as a signal to go. Some riders kick the horse in the side as they mount, thereby actually giving the horse a signal to go. The best way to eliminate these causes is to take great care when getting up in the saddle, preferably using a mounting block, and to stand still for a few moments before moving off.

Whenever you encounter a "training problem" with your horse you should ask yourself what could be causing it. Don't assume that the horse is just "being difficult", but listen to what the horse is trying to tell you. It's not only the right thing to do for the horse; it's the only way to really be able to solve a problem. There aren't many problem horses, but there are a lot of horses with problems, and as riders it's up to us to find a way to help our horses when they are trying to tell us what is bothering them.




About the author:

Ellen Ofstad Warren is from Fredrikstad, Norway. For over 15 years she has worked as a trainer and instructor in Norway, the Middle East and in the USA. Ellen has actively studied horse behavior and psychology, and a variety of training methods. She uses communication to work with horses rather than force and mechanical devices and achieves amazing results in a surprisingly short time. Ellen gives clinics and lessons on the Prairie Creek Ranch in central Texas, USA and she also produced a video, Motivate Your Horse, Natural and Positive Training. For more information about Ellen, her training, her clinics, and her video, visit , email or contact:

If you encounter a "training problem" with your horse, ask yourself what could be causing it. Don't assume that the horse is just being difficult; listen to what the horse is trying to tell you.

Photo by Madeleine Forsgren

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All photos were taken at Stenbro Ranch in Eskilstuna, Sweden during "Kids' Natural Horsemanship Camp". Stenbro Ranch holds many clinics, all about natural horsemanship, and regularly presents Ellen Warren and others including Curt Pate and Craig Stevens from the United States. Owners Madeleine Forsgren and Yngve Forsgren are true enthusiasts of giving horses a better deal and are among the pioneers who brought natural horsemanship to Sweden.