Whenever I hear people recommend using a “patience pole” for horses I cringe. The patience pole is a tool used by impatient people in an effort to create submission and obedience. The horse is tied to a solid pole and left there for an extended time, often pulling back and struggling to free themselves until they give up. Touted as a sure-fire method for teaching a horse to stand quietly, this method can create physical injury and a state of learned helplessness. Pulling back against the halter can damage the poll and delicate cranial bones as well as creating misalignments throughout the entire body. The horse may be submissive, but it does nothing to create a willing or educated partner. If a person tied an unruly child to a pole and left them to struggle we would consider it inhumane and possibly criminal behavior, so why do so many people feel it is okay to do this to a horse?
In my own practice I choose not to tie a horse and leave them alone if they are distressed. Instead I want to be a source of comfort, helping the horse feel a sense of safety. As a trainer I want my horse to look to me for leadership when they feel uncertain. I want to help the horse relax and return to a state where learning and engagement is possible. Sometimes this means allowing the horse to move until they don’t feel the need to move anymore. When the horse is anxious this is when they need us the most! We can help by simply being a calm and grounded presence for them. Relaxation and tension release techniques also help the horse become calm and connected. We can gently teach the horse to yield to pressure, creating a soft and inviting space that is comfortable and safe. There is no way a pole can do this for a horse. There is no compassion or responsiveness in a pole. The pole offers no comfort or safety, the most it can do is create a condition of forced submission, but that is not something I want for my horses.
I do want to be able to tie my horses, but I feel like this should be done with thoughtfulness and awareness. My guidelines for tying the horse are as follows:
1. A horse that is scared or anxious is not in a state of mind to be tied, they need to first calm down with the help of their human partner before being left on their own. If a horse is in flight mode, tying them will likely cause them to pull back and struggle to get away.
2. The horse must have a clear understanding of releasing pressure on the halter by moving forward into the pressure. If the horse learns to release the pressure by pulling back harder and the halter, rope, or snap breaks then this reinforces the behavior of pulling back. Carefully teaching the horse to move forward into pressure is absolutely essential BEFORE tying them.
3. I never tie a horse that is not in close proximity. I have heard of people tying their horses to a patience pole and leaving the property, returning hours later. If I tie a horse I rarely have them out of eyesight and never out of earshot. I am still connected with them with my attention, even if I am leaving them “parked” for a moment while I do something else.
Heart Centered Horsemanship is guided by a sense of compassion, love, and kindness towards horses. I am always striving to do what is best for the horse, even if it requires more time and patience from me. I am rewarded with transformative changes and horses that are willing, connected, safe, and happy. I feel like that is what most people really want in their relationships with their beloved animals. When you make the best choices for the well being of your horse, the trust and friendship that you gain will be worth the extra time invested. A little patience can go a very long way, and a pole can't do the job for you.