A key to understanding horse behaviour is to realize how much horses learn by associating one thing with another. This is called classical conditioning. They associate a certain environment with the place something significant happened or typically happens.
Could your horse be linking the cross-ties area with a negative experience? Perhaps he’s sensitive and dislikes vigorous grooming. Maybe he’s had a negative clipping or girth cranking experience. Separation from his pasture buddies is another potential trigger for dancing around in the ties.
On the other hand, could this be the spot where your horse receives his pre- and post-ride treats? Horses paw when they anticipate something. Due to unfortunate timing, if riders dispense the treat in the wrong moment, their horses think the reward was achieved through their pawing behaviour.
After eliminating all these factors, it’s time to start retraining in the ties.
1. Stand in the box. Using the floor mat as the boundaries of my invisible box, I establish, through repetition, the box as the “sweet spot.” My tapping (but non-threatening) dressage whip reinforces the boundaries. My horse steps back and I tap behind. He looks away and I tap the far side of his neck. Steps forward? I tap the chest.
2. Give to pressure. If your horse doesn’t reliably yield to pressure on his head, don’t put him in cross-ties. Pressure behind the ears and on the front and sides of the nose will come to signify the boundaries of the box instead of the whip.
It’s sobering how many seasoned show horses are missing the simple concept of giving to pressure, particularly coming forward to pressure behind the poll.
Here’s a test: apply just enough mildly irritating downward halter pressure that horse wants to do something about it. Does he answer by elevating his head, or resisting in any way? The only correct answer is to melt into the pressure and drop his head.
Once he is standing quietly in the box and yielding to halter pressure, your horse is fit to be tied!