As with most horse training, the key to a successful experience is to make the animal feel confident in the actions that you want taken. Knowing how to teach your horse to lay down requires plenty of preparation and training, but there must also be an equal amount of trust between you and the horse.
To create that trust, it is important to focus on the positive reinforcements that you offer. This helps the horse to feel like they are in control and in a safe environment. With enough patience, any horse of any temperament will be able to lie down on command and have fun doing it.
#1. Reward similar behaviors that are already present with the horse.
If your horse is lying down when you approach and stays in that position, then reward the horse for doing so. This can be particularly effective if you have horse that doesn’t like to roll a lot. If standing, then rub the horse in a favorite spot and then walk around a bit. When you feel a connection, attempt to have the horse mimic your behaviors. Horses are often curious about body language.
#2. Copy the noises your horse makes when rolling.
If there isn’t enough curiosity in your body language for the horse, then you can enhance the process by copying the sounds your horse makes while rolling on the ground. You can also mimic some of the standard horse behaviors that are displayed before they roll or lie down, like scratching at the dirt or walking in small circles. If the horse looks interested, then they are ready to learn. If not, then now might not be the right time to start training.
#3. Vocally praise any new behavior seen immediately.
If your horse understood what you were wanting done and then attempted to do it, then reward him immediately with vocal praise. Treats are also a great reward if the horse will allow you to approach. Even the noise of having treats coming their way can prepare the horse to want to lie down because it wants an apple, a carrot, or some other favorite.
#4. Also praise horses that seem to be thinking about lying down.
Sometimes a horse will think about lying down, but then decide it isn’t in their best interest. You might see the horse walking in circles, looking at the ground, and even begin to start bending the legs. Keep showering praise on the horse to encourage the behavior. If the horse doesn’t respond in 10-15 minutes, then try again at another time.
#5. Never pressure the horse to do something you don’t want it to do.
The “standard” method of getting a horse to lie down is to essentially break the horse. You pick up a leg and then force the horse to stand there until it gets tired of the process and wants to lie down. Breaking the spirit of a horse changes the relationship that you have with it.
There will be days when your horse feels like doing nothing. That doesn’t mean the horse didn’t understand your question or request. Respect for a horse must include the ability for the horse to say “No” sometimes if an action is optional.
#6. Find the perfect spot.
Some horses just don’t like to lie down in the grass. Others won’t lie down in the ring. Some horses will plop themselves down anywhere, roll around in whatever stinky stuff is there, and the nuzzle up to you like they got the best-ever present in the world for you.
Expecting a horse to lie down in sticky mud or rocky gravel is an unreasonable expectation. Some horses are particularly picky when it comes to the surface of the ground, especially those who are hot-blooded or have a heavier body. Lying down on some surfaces may even be painful for the horse, which will discourage this behavior.
If you’re having trouble finding the perfect spot, then you can use a halter and lead rope to start looking for it. You’ll sense a change in the animal’s body language when it finds a spot that is liked. Then you can encourage the horse to lie down by staying close to them, but not in a way that pressures the horse. Think of it as spending time with a friend instead of ordering a co-worker to complete a task.
#7. Lying flat on the ground should be a secondary effort.
Getting a horse to lie down on the ground comfortably is the first hurdle to tackle. Once the horse becomes comfortable with that action, then you can begin teaching the ability to lie flat. Using the reward method for this process is quite effective. When the horse is lying down, use a favorite treat to coax the horse to stretch out for it. To reach the treat, they must be able to lie down flat for it.
It's generally not advised to touch the horse for this part of the teaching process. Allow the horse to become comfortable with the body movements they’ll need to lie flat. If there is resistance to a full stretch, then reward with a treat if you achieve a partial stretch. Some horses need to practice the movements of lying flat bit by bit instead of doing it all at once.
#8. Associate the actions with a verbal or body language command.
Once you’ve achieved the lying down action, you’re ready to have the horse associate a specific command to that action. Some horses respond better with verbal cues, while others may respond better with a visual cue. Always reward the horse whenever the action is taken.
It is also important to remember that a horse which feels unsafe is not going to lie down. Even if they do lie down, they might get up in an instant if something spooks them. Any insecurity will prevent the horse from being in a vulnerable position. Make sure you’re paying attention to your surroundings and stay out of the way of a horse that might be scrambling to get back to its feet right away.
Knowing how to teach your horse to lay down can be forced upon the animal, but it doesn’t have to be. You need to be in charge, but leadership comes from mutual respect. The horse depends upon you and must trust your leadership in order to be taught something new. It may take several weeks or even months for this process to successfully work, especially if you have a stubborn horse, but the effort will be well worth your time investment.
Once you get to know a horse, you get to know yourself a bit better as well. Then together you can both find joy in the ability of the horse to lie down.