Teaching a horse to lay down is an extremely difficult trick that will require patience, practice, and a horse with the right temperament.
If you have a calm, trusting horse who’s already comfortable laying down in your presence, teaching your horse to lay down on command can be an impressive, fun, and even a useful horse trick. In this article, we’ll talk about steps to teaching your horse to lay down on command.
Why teach a horse to lay down on cue?
In the past, this trick was often taught using negative or aggressive training techniques, and often used as a display of dominance by the human handler. For some of these handlers, demonstrating that they had enough dominance to render their horse prone on the ground (often, followed by standing on top of the prone horse) has been a theatrical performance of dominance- however, there are plenty of good reasons to teach horse to lay down on cue.
Some reasons that you might want to teach this trick to your horse:
- For fun! (Building a repertoire of tricks can genuinely be away for horses and humans to bond and have fun together)
- For teambuilding! (Intentionally training your horse with gentle methods to lay down on command is a way to deliberately help your horse learn to trust you more and more – which will translate to better communication when you are in the saddle)
- For accessibility! (Not all writers can mount from the ground or even from a mounting block, and many trainers have had success teaching a horse to tolerate being mounted while laying on the ground, and then lifting their writer gently as they stand)
To teach your horse to lay down, First, lay the “groundwork”
Before trying to teach your horse to lay down, first work on building trust between you and your horse. If your horse jumps to their feet every time you enter the barn or pasture while they are lying down, this is a cue that you may need to work on the fundamentals of trust before teaching your horse to lay down.
Groundwork is an excellent way to build trust with your horse. By studying horsemanship principles and working with your horse, unmounted and mounted, in a round pen or pasture, you can develop more trust that will help you in the process of training your horse to lay down on command.Reminder: You’ll need patience. Horses are hardwired for fight or flight. When you ask your horse to lay down in your presence you’re asking them for an incredible amount of trust, so have patience and try not to get frustrated during the training process.
Both of my methods for teaching a horse to lie down on command rely on clicker training. Just like my article on teaching your horse to pose for photographs, this method uses positive reinforcement (shown by research to be highly effective with horses) and a clicker to “mark” desired behaviors so they can be repeated more easily.
Before marking the behavior with a clicker, though, you’ll need to introduce the horse to clicker training. An introduction with easy tricks can help teach them that the sound of a click means that a reward is coming. Often (with all kinds of animals ranging from puppies to zoo animals) the basics of clicker training are taught with this simple trick: touching a target.
Horses are naturally curious, so when they touch the target, hear a click, and get a reward, they quickly learn to follow that target- touching it, and getting a reward. Laying this basic foundation for clicker training is a great way to build trust, have fun during the horse show off-season, or even keep a horse entertained during stall rest.
How not to train a horse to lie down:
Some older methods for teaching a horse to lay down on command involve using ropes to force a horse down, or working a horse into submissive exhaustion.
Like most horse trainers today, I believe these methods actually destroy trust between a horse and handler rather than build it. For a positive experience that can be repeated on command in the future, you’ll want to make the training experience fun, not scary or painful.
Two methods for teaching a horse to lay down on command
(Slower) Method 1 for teaching a horse to lie down on command:
In this first method for teaching a horse to lay down on command, you’ll simply keep the clicker handy when you are with your horse and find those “teachable” moments when the behavior you wish to train (in this case laying down) occurs naturally.
For example, if I wanted to teach my horse to lay down on command, and I know that my horse always drops to the ground for a roll after they’ve been untacked after a ride, I have a good clue of how I might be able to mark the desired behavior.
If my horse has been introduced to clicker training through the target training introduction above, I might simply stay nearby and pay close attention to my horse after untacking. As soon as their knees buckle and they drop the ground, I’d use the clicker to mark the desired behavior and provide a reward to my horse.CAUTION horses are unpredictable when laying down and standing up. Don’t stand too close or get in the way- especially if your horse is not used to laying down in your presence. Instead, use the clicker and your voice to mark the behavior, associated with the command word (i.e. “Good lay down!”) and provide a treat – if you choose – once you and the horse are clear.
Some horses will learn within 1 to 2 sessions how to repeat the behavior and get the treat- making it easy to chain it together with a command word- but other horses will need more time. Have patience and if this method doesn’t begin to produce results, try the more deliberate method below.
Faster. Method 2 for teaching a horse to lay down on command
If your horse has been acquainted with clicker training through target training or learning to square up on command, you may have luck rapidly teaching your horse to lay down by training and then chaining small behaviors that lead up to a horse laying down.
If you have ever watched a horse lay down in their stall or at rest in a pasture, you know that they natural pattern for laying down tends to be the following:
- nose to the ground
- knees buckle
- whole body lowered to the ground
Knowing this natural progression, you can begin clicker training the complete behavior step-by-step: first marking and rewarding your horse for putting their head down to the ground, then withholding a reward or click until there’s some lowering of the upper body or knees, then, gradually, requiring more lowering.
Because the horse laying down is a rather dramatic physical act and hard to do “halfway,” training this horse trick may require a lot of patience and many short training sessions.CAUTION As with the former training method, you should be careful to stay clear of your horse as they are laying down, standing up, or negotiating between the two positions! Being too close or in the wrong space can be very dangerous.
Enjoy having a horse who will lay down on command
This elite trick is sure to impress anyone you demonstrate it for. If you have the ability to train this trick and a horse trusting enough to lie down for you, this can be a truly stunning horse trick. While it may not be for every trainer or every horse, you can get started with the basics of horse clicker training and work your way to this advanced trick.