Ground Manners – An Overview

Horse training success is all in the work from the ground. A good, long-term relationship between you and your horse is built from the ground up, literally. Ground manners is about teaching your horse how to behave around humans and that you are his protector and friend. The two go hand in hand by building leadership respect and trust. The time dedicated to building a proper foundation by establishing control on the ground is well worth the effort involved.

Why would you want to bother with ground manners? Well, safety issues are a good start. An untrained or poorly trained horse with bad habits such as biting, kicking, rearing and charging (among others) is dangerous. A horse can kill a person with these behaviors. The horse can injure himself, for example, by rearing and banging his head on a low ceiling. Horses do knock themselves out, cut their heads on a nail or sharp corner and require stitches. Just think of the vet bills. And the panic you’d feel in this situation. Or think of the litigation if your horse kicked someone, injuring them so they were unable to work. These things do happen. Teaching a horse good ground manners is teaching a horse that these are unacceptable and unnecessary reactions.

The horse that won’t stand still is a danger. One day you’ll be caught in the wrong spot, he’ll get a fright and someone will be hurt. The horse that keeps leaning into you and treading on your (soon to be broken) foot is not fun. The horse that tries to kick when you pick out his feet is going to injure you one day. Good ground manners is about teaching a horse to respect your personal space.

The nervous or disobedient horse is also a danger. The jumpy horse that shies and knocks you over is a liability. The horse that loses his mind and tries to run every time he sees a plastic bag is more than a nuisance. Ground manners is about showing your horse that scary things aren’t so scary and to have confidence in you. To trust that you, as leader and protector, will always keep him safe.

Good manners on the ground makes the transition to riding much smoother and much much simpler. You will have learned to read your horse’s feelings or mood. He is not your servant. He is your partner. He will have learned unquestioned obedience. As a result, your riding sessions will be more fun.

Taking the time to lay firm foundations will also mean that you will be training a horse that is willing to please, that is EASIER TO TRAIN IN THE LONG RUN, that is a joy to work with and not an obstinate animal that is always acting out. When you choose to own a horse, you’re making a commitment for many years, so you want to be sure you’re going to have a well-behaved and easy to handle horse-friend.

The Basics Of Ground Manners For Your Horse

Teaching good ground manners right from the beginning will result in a horse that is a joy to own, while keeping yourself as safe as possible. Enforcing ground manners will teach your horse to:

  • Look to you as leader for what to do whenever he is unsure of a situation (less likely to bolt, shy or be disobedient in new situations)
  • Not crowd your personal space (no kicking, biting, charging, leaning, treading on your feet etc)
  • Respond appropriately to whatever you are asking him to do
  • Have calm confidence in the outside world because you will protect him
  • Stand still patiently
  • Tie calmly
  • Allow you to pick up his feet for cleaning
  • Allow you to groom him
  • Calmly accept being bridled, haltered and led
  • Accept being saddled without moving
  • Refrain from nipping, kicking, charging or rearing to get his way

All this BEFORE you get on his back. It is actually a good idea to spend some time with a new horse on getting these basics right before you start riding. Despite how eager you will probably be to hop on and go, spend a few weeks or even months working on ground manners. It pays off in the end. If you’re having trouble with riding your horse, it may also be a wise investment of time to stop riding for a while and get these basics back on track.

So how do you instill those good ground manners in your horse? By understanding how a horse’s mind works. There are 6 basic principles you need to learn that apply to all horse situations.

1. Repetition

It is not widely known that a horse can take around 60 iterations of a lesson to ‘get it’. That’s right. It may take you repeating the exact same lesson 60 times before your horse understands what you are trying to teach. To put this in perspective, if you see your horse once a week and teach the same lesson once each time, then it may take over a year for your horse to learn it. Of course you may try the lesson more than once a session and you may see your horse more than once a week, but it takes TIME and PATIENCE to train a horse effectively.

The good news is that you can be successful in training your horse to have good behavior in any situation. This applies to all horses, whether they are young, old, previously poorly trained or have been in neglectful and abusive situations. You can teach your horse to lead, tone down aggressive behaviors towards people and other horses, teach a nervous horse to be calm, and get rid of bad habits horses learn such as rearing, biting, and kicking. All of this can be attained. But please remember that horse training takes as long as it takes. 60 repetitions is an average.

2. Be a leader to your horse

Horses are herd animals and are mentally wired to look up to the leader of the herd. In a herd, which is the natural situation for a horse, there is a pecking order (order of dominance). The stallion and lead mare are the leaders. Every other horse below them in the pecking order will look to these two to find out how to react in a given situation. If the leaders are calm, the others are calm, if the leaders are running for their lives, the rest of the herd is right behind them. It is also the leaders job to keep an eye out for danger. Or in other words, the leaders signal to the rest of the herd what is dangerous and what is safe. The rest of the herd has 100% faith in their leaders. They follow blindly. They do not think rationally or for themselves. This horse behavior makes a horse very easy to train.

To use this horse behavior to your advantage when you’re training your horse, the leader of his herd needs to be you. You MUST show, through your tone of voice, your body language, your confidence, that you are a leader. For example, you cannot expect a horse to walk calmly past a barking dog if you are frightened yourself. If there are situations around your horse that scare you, you need to be inventive and work out how to avoid the situation where your horse can see you as weak. If your horse often charges you, avoid the trigger situation until you have established dominance in other situations. Get outside help if you need it. A horse generally weighs as much as 10 times more than a human, so you cannot expect to out muscle your horse when it behaves inappropriately. It is crucial that you become the leader to your horse so he follows you, rather than dragging you around.

3. Consistency

Being a leader also means having a zero tolerance policy towards your horse invading your personal space or disobeying your requests. In the herd, the pecking order is often challenged. Stay vigilant as the pecking order is never set in stone. If you get slack, the horse will start to dominate you. Be firm, consistent and persistent in applying your rules. You’re either training or de-training your horse every moment you’re with him. Mind the small stuff. It really does matter. Your horse will test you in small ways to see how serious you are. If you don’t hold your ground over your space or do accept a tardy response to a request, you’re effectively eroding the respect he has for you. ‘That’s ok, I don’t really mean stop when I say so’. This is then a green flag for your horse to try on bigger and bigger misbehaviors. For example, don’t let your horse kiss you. Not just for reasons of hygiene! No, letting any horse nibble or kiss you is sending him down the slippery slope of developing a biting habit. After all, a bite is just a firm nibble isn’t it? And a biting problem is not one you want to be dealing with. Painful for you, and difficult to get rid of. In this case, no kisses, no nibbles, no bites. Ever. Be firm, consistent and persistent in applying your ground rules. Absolute CONSISTENCY is the key to fast training.

4. Trust

One of the biggest reasons horses lack good ground manners is the fact they don’t trust as well as respect the people who are handling them. Trust and respect go hand in hand and once you have attained that, the rest of your training is so much easier. As leader (where you earn respect), part of your job is to keep your horse SAFE (where you earn trust). That’s safe from his perspective, not yours. You might think he’s perfectly safe in a trailer, but if he’s never been in one you’ll need to show him that you’ll go into one and that other horses agree it’s safe too. Your job is to prove to your horse that no matter what goes on around him, he will not be harmed. Angry bullying won’t work. Losing your temper won’t work. Banging his teeth with the bit, slapping him unexpectedly on the rump, making loud, sudden noises and unexpected gestures don’t help either. Let your horse know where you are and what you’re up to as much as possible. Be calm, be considerate, be affectionate, be patient. This path leads to earning your horse’s trust, an essential for a long and happy relationship.

5. Be fun

No one, even a horse, enjoys all work and no play. Remember to make your lessons enjoyable. Your aim is to encourage your horse to look forward to hanging out with you. What your horse likes will be individual, but most horses have a place on their body they like having scratched or rubbed. This can be a reward for obedience. Many horses enjoy the mental stimulation of a lesson if it’s not repeated endlessly in one go. More than half an hour on any one lesson at once is too much. 10 or 15 minutes is enough. And horses like variety in their ‘work’. So sometimes go out for a trail ride, sometimes do some jumping, sometimes work in the ring. Mix it up and keep it interesting. A bored horse is a cranky horse, and anyone in a bad mood is likely to misbehave.

6. Comfort

The horse likes a life of comfort. That means, a life free from irritants as well as pain. You can use his dislike of being irritated to your training advantage. Basically, you are looking for non-painful but annoying things you can do to encourage your horse to do as you ask. The key is to remove the irritant immediately when the horse does what you are asking. Stopping the annoying thing you were doing is his reward for doing as you asked. This is the most effective and yet gentle way to teach your horse to do what you ask

One example of irritant training is a technique called pressure and release. An example of pressure and release:

If you wanted your horse to turn its head to the left, you would put your hand in the halter strap and gently pull to the left just slightly. As soon as the horse begins to turn his head left, let go of the halter, releasing the pressure, and praise your horse quietly. If your horse were to pull to the right instead, you would continue to apply gentle pressure to the left until your horse complied, then release and praise again. Through patient, consistent repetition, your horse will learn what you are asking. This is the pressure and release training method in a nutshell, and can be applied throughout your horse’s training.

So these are the 6 basics of teaching ground manners. Repetition; Be a leader; Consistency; Trust; Be fun; and Comfort. Apply these whenever you are around your horse and you will be well on the way to many happy times.

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We have consolidated Colorado Horse Council (CHC), Colorado Horse Development Authority (CHDA) and the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo (RMHE) into one site making it much easier for you to find the information that you are looking for. Each department has it's own section and organized with it's own content. We hope this new platform makes your experience on our site much more enjoyable!

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~ Bill Scebbi, Executive Director