Teaching Stay and Come to a Horse

I’m fortunate, this snowy winter, to be boarding at a farm that has an indoor. After riding we take a pitchfork and scoop up any manure that our horses have left. This maintains the good footing in the ring, and is the polite thing to do.

It can be awkward to lead your horse over to the offending piles, use the pitchfork, and then walk it over to the manure bucket. I thought it’d be much easier to teach Tonka to stand while I did the task without the tangle of reins or the worry that he’d jostle me and that I’d drop the manure. So I taught Tonka to stay. Just like a dog. Why not?



As with all training, first I thought through exactly what the end behavior would be. In this case, I wanted my horse to stand calmly while I walked away and walked back. He had to stand while I was as far away as the other end of the ring. I would be walking behind, in front and to his side – and each of these positions would need to be trained – animals don’t generalize – for example, you might think that you trained your dog to “stay” but actually you only trained her to stay while you were five feet away and in front of her, while in your kitchen. Move to the hallway, and she no longer knows what stay means!

I thought through what the cue would be. I wanted to have the option of using either a verbal stay or a tactile signal. That physical cue would be two taps to his forehead – distinct and different than any other touches that I might do. In the future, I’ll extend this training to outside of the ring. How useful it will to be, while on the trail, to be able to get off, say stay, and do something like move a branch off of the path. How useful, somewhere noisy or chaotic, to be able to tap his forehead and have him stand still.

I taught the stay with the clicker and treats (mostly carrot coins and apple slices, but sometimes homemade cookies or peppermints.) At first, I walk one step away, and click and feed before he can move. Two steps. Click and feed. A step to the side. Click and feed. The click tells him exactly what he is doing right – all four feet on the ground, weight square over them. Calm. The treat makes the behavior rewarding and worth doing again. The click ends the behavior. If he moves after it, no problem. He still gets the treat. I build duration. I step away, count to three, he remains standing, I click and treat. If he moves, no matter, there’s no click. We try again. There’s nothing to punish, no reason to scare him back into position with a threatening rope or a harsh word. The training is quiet. The horse is relaxed.

It takes time.

But now when I say stay, or tap Tonka on his forehead, I can walk away.

far away


If a horse is in a stay, then why not teach the come? Once again I had to think through the behavior and the cue. I want Tonka to walk calmly towards me. I want him to start when I say come (I also have a hand signal – I like the option of one or the other.) I started from only a step away. He moves towards me, click and treat. Then two steps, and then more.

Here he is, responding to come.





Good boy, Tonka!

cute face



I am now taking clients for training. Email me if interested.

Phoebe’s Perspective

While the rest of us are grousing and hmmmphing and stomping our booted feet, there is one animal here at Little Pond Farm who is embracing this extreme winter. Why, she’s kicking up her heels in glee. Her attitude shows the rest of us how it can be done. For a moment, let’s see the snowy landscape from Phoebe’s perspective.

She is, literally, three feet higher than usual. It’s a new view. New views are good.

coop in snow



The snow is delicious. It’s good to have something novel to taste.

rabbit play



Tunnels are dug. It’s good to be industrious.

snow tunnel



It’s especially good to be the Queen of the Mountain.

Phoebe up high



More snow is predicted for Sunday night. Phoebe can’t wait to see how high she can get.

rabbit in snow

Your Hen’s Hearing

When you look at a hen’s head, what do you notice? The eyes? The comb? That beak with the permanent downward disapproving  scowl?

rhode island red


What we see impacts how we perceive the lives of our animals. We think that dolphins are happy because they look like they’re smiling – but their mouths are as fixed as hens’ beaks.

How we think that the animal relates to the world is done from our own prism of self-centeredness. A dog’s primary way of knowing what is going on is via smell. Because we don’t have that sense, we often misinterpret our pet’s behavior because we don’t take into account his complex world of odors.

Back to the hen’s face – what we fail to notice are her ears.

Cuckoo Marans


That flap of red skin, to the left of the wattle is Veronica’s ear. This is Agatha’s ear.

chicken ear


Chickens have excellent hearing. It’s about in our own range, but they are far speedier in processing the direction that sound comes from.

At twelve days into development, the chick inside of the egg is hearing. Some birds recognize their mother’s vocalizations before they hatch. Chickens recognize individuals, both in the flock, and in other species. I’ve no doubt that my hens know the difference between Lily’s barks and Scooter’s. They know my voice. Sounds matter. Lawn mowers. Hawk screams. The rattle of the grain bin. Think about that as you care for your flock. Yes, they’re confined, but their world extends farther than the fence that surrounds them.

There’s some anecdotal evidence that music makes them more productive. Or at least calmer. I think that it depends on the farmer as to which music they prefer! I don’t play music for my hens, but I am aware of how sounds affect them. I try not to slam doors, or shout. I do talk to the Girls. They hear me, of course. They don’t understand the words, but the tone matters.

Straw for the Path

This past weekend, Steve and I took a much-needed break. We went to a favorite inn in Vermont, and shopped at the King Arthur Flour Store, at three indie bookstores, and at two horse tack shops. I came away with excellent chocolate, a fascinating book (I love nonfiction about science that I know nothing about, written in an engaging and witty way), and a new muck tub (some women like handbags, some of us like barn tools!) I also got a bale of straw.




The weather on Sunday was a welcome change from the bitter cold and snow that we’ve been having. It was 38° F! So warm that I saw people shoveling in tee-shirts. But, the forecast was for the arctic blast to arrive in full force that night. Puddles on the ground would become sheet ice. As I expected, the path from my backdoor to the coops looked like this when we returned home on Sunday night. Smooth, hard and dangerous. Too bad I don’t do the winter olympic sport of luge.

path at night



I can’t put down sand or ice melt because it would ruin the lawn underneath. The straw, though, provides traction and can be raked up in the spring. Straw is made up of the tough stems of wheat. The animals don’t eat it, and it is not absorbent, but it will mix in and freeze with the snow melt and provide a safe path for the next few weeks. I think that it looks rather cheerful.

straw for path