A horse which has little or no manners when being handled on the ground can be problematic and present challenges. Depending on what bad ground manners a horse may have, these can be resolved through continuous and consistent training.
Groundwork for horses: Teaching a horse ground manners
Ground manners refer to the way your horse knows, understands and respects the correct way to interact with you and other people. To teach a horse good ground manners, it is important to start as early as possible. This keeps you as safe as possible and also ensures that the relationship you and your horse have is a fruitful one.
A horse with good ground manners does not kick, bite or charge. They will respond appropriately to what they are asked to do and will stand quietly when tied up and when being tacked up. It is important to get these basics right before thinking about riding a horse.
Teaching a horse ground manners requires a lot of repetition, consistency, and the trainer or rider taking the leadership role in the relationship.
Ground training horses for beginners
Ground training horses involves exercises with your horse where you are on foot and work with your horse using a halter and lead rein. For beginners, the best place to start is with 5 of the most basic exercises:
- Standing Still
Teaching your horse to stand still is a great and easy way to establish your leadership role between you and your horse. It is natural for horses to assume this leadership role if you don’t do it first. The best way to teach your horse anything is through consistent repetition.
If your horse is used to getting away with smaller bad habits, these can worsen over time or turn into bigger obedience challenges. These ‘small’ bad habits include walking away as soon as you turn your back or yanking the lead when they want to walk in a different direction.
To teach your horse to stand still, stand face to face with your horse while they have a halter on. Stand far enough away from your horse so that you are standing with the end of lead rein in your hand.
If your horse starts to move or walk away from you, shake the lead rein gently left and right, which will intuitively tell your horse to back up. Once your horse is back into its original position, give them a chance to stand still. If they move, repeat the same steps.
- Lead rein exercises
There are two ways to practice walking on a lead rein. Find an open area that will allow you to walk in a straight line with enough space to turn. Start with walking in front of your horse. This establishes yourself as the leader in the relationship with your horse. It also gives your horse an indication of your personal space.
Once your horse gets comfortable following your lead, try walking in a partnership position. This is to the left-hand side of your horse. Note that whenever leading or directing your horse, the left-hand side is the correct side always to be on. Make sure to walk in line with your horse’s shoulder. You can practice walking and trotting in this partnership position.
After practicing these lead rein exercises, your horse will become accustomed to taking direction from you while being on a halter. Being in sync on the ground paves the way for better teamwork when you are on their back.
- Contact Exercises
These are exercises that get your horse used to being handled and touched. When it comes to building on your horsemanship skills, you can use touch as one of the ways to build trust with your horse. There are two main ways you can do this, which is either by grooming or by stroking. When your horse is comfortable being handled in this way, they learn to respect their relationship with their handler or rider.
Grooming is not only great for your horse’s health and appearance; it is a great way for you and your horse to bond. When grooming your horse, you have the chance to work closely with your horse, allowing them to get used to being handled. When grooming them, make sure to brush all over their body, including areas you know they may find sensitive.
While using stroking as a way to build on your horse’s groundwork, you have the opportunity to address any areas of their body they feel uncomfortable with. Start by using both your hands and run them down your horse’s neck and back. Once they are at ease, move onto your horse’s underbelly and legs. Finally, touch your horse’s face and ears. A horse that allows its ears to be touched is a clear sign of one who is comfortable being handled.
- Responding to pressure
When wanting to train a horse on groundwork, you will want to focus on things that will not only improve their behavior when being handled but also when they are being ridden. A horse with good ground manners understands pressure from the reins or lead rein and how it should react.
A horse who is unforgettable with this kind of pressure will resist when being led from the ground and will put its head in the air when its rider makes any kind of contact with the reins. This is not fun for the horse or the rider.
Using a lead rein and halter, stand on the left-hand side of your horse and pull the lead rein to your horse’s wither. This forces your horse to stretch its neck and get used to responding to pressure. Your horse may pull on the rein or resist at first. As soon as they relax, with their head and neck stretched towards their wither, release the lead rein. Repeat on the other side.
- Circle walking (lunging)
As it is most commonly called, Circle walking or lunging refers to when a horse moves in a circle around you. This can be in the walk, trot, or canter. Getting your horse to walk in this way allows you to practice getting your horse to respond to you in different gaits when you are not in the saddle.
To work on this part of your horse’s groundwork, you can use a halter and long lead rein or make use of a lounging that is round and does not require you to use any tack. Start by encouraging your horse to start walking past you and a small circle. As they do this, release your lead rein so that they can make the circle around you a bit bigger.
Once you are comfortable with your horse’s walk around you, ask them to trot. You can do this using a voice command but may also need the assistance of a lunging whip. Note that you should never use a lunging whip to make contact with your horse but only encourage them forward.
Once you become comfortable with your horse moving around you in a circle, you will now have a technique to use when faced with bad behavior. This exercise forces your horse to focus on you and calm down before being ridden.
What is the proper way to walk a horse?
- Walking with and leading a horse is one of the first things you may do as you get used to handling and riding horses. This is a good starting point as it orientates a person to the correct ways and sides to lead a horse from. The equestrian rule of thumb is that you should always lead a horse from its left-hand side.
- When walking a horse, start on their left-hand side and hold their lead rein in your right hand about two inches from where it connects to the halter. Grab the rest of the lead rein with your left-hand rein. Where you hold the remainder of the lead rein depends on its length. Always ensure that it is never dragging on the ground or is wrapped around your hand.
- Once in the right position, use a command such as ‘come’ or ‘walk’ and begin to walk forward. For a horse who has had groundwork training, this will be second nature, and they will walk forward. If a horse doesn’t understand this command, you can use a long dressage whip to touch them on the top of their croup gently.
- Once your horse is walking next to you, you can stop when by slowing down your pace and using whatever word you use to mean stop, such as ‘whoa.’ You can pull slowly on the lead rope if your horse doesn’t respond to your voice commands initially. Whether walking forwards or slowing down, make sure to stay at your horse’s shoulder and don’t get left behind.
- Make sure not to use the lead rein to drag the horse or forward or to stop. The harder you pull, the more resistant a horse may become. A horse with decent ground manners in place should walk and trot with you using voice commands only.
How do you teach a horse to respect you?
These are my top 5 tips to improve your relationship with your horse and get them to respect you:
- Don’t confuse body language: It’s important to understand the difference between love and respect. While you obviously love your horse and want to be kind to them, make sure this doesn’t mean you let them get away with anything they want to do. To develop a mutually respectful relationship, you need to get your horse used to being asked to do things by you. Don’t let them continuously dictate how they stand or behave when with you.
- Be a leader: one of the first steps in getting your horse to respect you is to take the role of leadership in your relationship with your horse. This means that your horse should move when you tell them to move and obey any commands from you.
The best way to get your leadership into practice is to ask many things of your horse while you are interacting. Ask them to move from side to side while in their stall, practice walking with your horse on a lead rein getting them to speed up and slow down and get your horse used to respond to you.
- Avoid physically reprimanding your horse: using physical force to reprimand a horse will certainly not lead to your horse respecting you. If your horse is dangerous or out of control, only use physical force when necessary. Horses respond to gentler techniques, and sticking to using these will help build trust between you and your horse.
- Include training in your daily routine: Your horse won’t change overnight. They need constant and consistent reinforcement of the behavior you are trying to teach them. You can incorporate the building of respect into your daily training routine. When tacking your horse up, get them to yield and move over a few times each way. If you lead your horse on foot and walk in front of you or drag behind you, use the opportunity to correct this behavior.
- Teach your horse to respond to pressure: when you assert pressure on your horse to do something, and they respond accordingly, you have asserted your dominance. As you and your horse get used to working together, you will need less pressure to get them to do what you are asking.
You can practice this each time you are with your horse by asking them to move up, lift their feet or move backward or forwards. You can do this by first stroking them in the area you would like a response from and then gently applying pressure with your hand. Continue to do this until your horse responds and reinforce this practice a few times.
How do you gain a horse’s trust?
Here are my top 7 ways to gain your horse’s trust:
- Take them on walks — this can be on food or in the saddle. Walks are a relaxing way for you and your horse to spend time together and bond. Your horse can be themselves without the pressure of training and get used to being in your company.
- Prioritize quality time — spend time with your horse in a context that does not include working or training. Whether it’s in the field, stall, or just doing a 10 to 15-minute walk, this time is invaluable in building trust. Make sure to have non-riding days when you enjoy spending time together.
- Focus on anxieties and build on confidence — if your horse has certain situations or things that scare them or give them anxiety make sure to take the time to comfort them through these. From walking in water, being around dogs or plastic bags, you may be surprised by how many things your horse may be scared off. Make sure to use a controlled environment to expose them to these things and comfort them through this.
- Use relaxation techniques — knowing and understanding how to relax your horse is an important part of building trust. Make sure not to rush this part. Use your hand to rub or scratch their nose and face gently.
Allow them to sniff you and get comfortable in your presence. Do not make use of patting to relax your horse, as this is not a natural interaction for a horse. In the wild, horses are comforted by stroking and rubbing each other.
- Train them (slowly) — it may seem like common sense to state that horses need to be trained in stages and rewarded as they respond correctly. Make sure you don’t rush any of the training you do with your horse, which can lead to frustration and be counterproductive in building trust.
When training your horse, start with small and easy to accomplish tasks and slowly progress to more difficult challenges. As your horse focuses on you and gets rewarded for their progress, their trust built-in learning new things will be established.
- Focus inwards — as a rider and handler, you have your own fears, insecurities, or bad habits developed over time. As you build on your relationship with your horse, it is important to recognize these fears and understand how they play out in how you interact with your horse.
Horses are extremely receptive and intelligent animals and can certainly sense fear. If you display this fear while attempting to build on trust with your horse, it may get in the way. Make sure to address any of the anxieties you may have before working on building trust.
- Go for lessons with your horse — while there is a lot of training and trust-building you can do yourself without a trainer or coach’s input, a third party view on your progress can be extremely beneficial. Building trust is proving to be challenging; a trainer can help you identify what may be causing this and what a solution might be.
Training will also assist with the consistent and continuous improvement of your progress as a rider, which will build on your horsemanship skills and ability to build a trusting relationship with a horse. All the progress you make will build on both your and your horse’s confidence.
How to lunge a horse?
Lunging is a great groundwork exercise to teach your horse and use in many instances, from wanting to expel some of your horse’s excited energy to keep up their fitness levels.
Lunging involves leading your horse in a circle around you on a long lead rein. If you would like to start to use this groundwork technique, here is how to go about it:
- Find the right space: when getting used to lunging, start with a closed ring, which is about 46–49 ft in size. This will give them enough freedom to walk, trot and canter and not be big enough for them to escape.
- Place a lunge cavesson or halter on your horse: a lunge cavesson looks similar to a bridle and is used to control your horse without creating any discomfort. If you don’t have one of these, using a halter is just fine. Connect a lunging rein to the ride of the cavesson on the halter that will be nearest to you (depending on which direction you start with)
- Start lunging: gather the end of the lunging rein in your hand and slowly let it out to encourage your horse to walk to the edge of the ring. Stand in the middle of the rein and, using a long lunging whip, encourage your horse to walk around the ring. You can also make use of voice aids to encourage your horse.
- Change paces: let your horse walk around the ring 4 or 5 times and then move them up into the trot. To do this, using a clicking sound with your mouth and a slight motion of the lunging whip to encourage them to move forward. Once you have walked and trotted your horse in one direction, switch sides and repeat.
- Things to remember:
- Lunging should take place in the walk or trot. Cantering while lunging should only be used for experienced horses.
- Make use of a mixture of aids to control your horse from creating pressure using a lunging whip to voice aids. Never use your whip actually to whip your horse, only to encourage them forward.
- Go slowly — lunging takes a while for a horse to learn and become comfortable, and it may take time for your horse to improve.
- Enjoying lunging as an opportunity to learn and bond with your horse.