Establish Good Ground Manners

Ground manners are key to a horse that’s safe and pleasant to work with. Extra responsiveness from the saddle is an added bonus.

Let’s start by defining what I mean by good ground manners. The No. 1 thing is that your horse respects your space and learns to react to your body language. That comes from establishing that you are the leader and your horse is the follower. 

After correcting Habanero CWS when he stepped into my space and he moved away (see photo above right), I went right back to a loose lead rope so he makes the choice to stay in his own space and stand quietly. © Kim F. Miller

If your horse respects your space, he’s not going to knock into you, rub on you, nip you, etc. Way too often, horse owners ascribe human emotions to these behaviors and consider them fun, playful signs of affection from their horses. 

Although there may be affection involved, a horse that does any of those behaviors actually considers himself the boss and the leader, or at least an equal, to his human. With that hierarchy in the relationship, the stage is set for physical danger to the handler and for confusing messages between horse and human.

There’s nothing wrong with me loving on my horse, so long as I do that by stepping into his space. It’s not good for the horse to come into mine. If I let him do that, I give up my role as the leader.

Once a horse starts to treat you as an equal or a follower, it’s a slippery slope. One day he nips at you, and you think he’s playing. Then he rubs you, and you think he’s still playing. Then he comes up and knocks you in the chest or head. Where does it end? One day, you’re going to get hurt, and then it’s not OK. 

Or at home you let him “play” on you, but on a show day in your clean white breeches, it’s suddenly not OK for him to rub on you and you get mad. Is the horse supposed to figure out that one day it’s perfectly fine to do and the next day it isn’t? As Confucius said, “That’s very confusing!”

Many people think they’re being “nice” to their horses by letting them invade their space. The nicest thing you can do for your horse is to be consistently black and white in your communication with him and have clear intent.

For information on how I think horses should be rewarded for good manners, see below.

What is a Reward?

Australian horseman Ian Francis was a big influence on me when I started. He emphasized that you are the boss and the horse is not. From there, I had my own experiences and learned a lot from how horses naturally act when they are with other horses on their own. 

If we want the best from our horses, we need to parallel that with our own best effort to learn to communicate effectively with them. Everything else we want them to do is unnatural, so learning what they do naturally is a big help in getting the best from them.

Training ground manners doesn’t happen overnight and there is no such thing as a perfect horse. This is true even when well-established ground manners are a lifelong work in progress. In a herd, horses are always testing the pecking order. They’ll test their leader every day to see if he or she is worthy of their respect. It’s the same with their human leaders. They will test you every day: It’s not personal.

Another thing to learn from herd behavior is that food is not a reward in the horse’s world. That’s more to make the human feel good. The release of pressure is the reward for acceptable behavior in the horse’s natural world, and it remains so in effective ground manners training. I have a problem with hand-feeding treats because they encourage nipping and can lead to situations where a horse can get mad if he doesn’t get a treat. 

Expecting treats is a bad habit that can be “managed” but not cured. Even when you establish the release of pressure as a reward, the treat is always in their minds. If you’re starting a horse from scratch, skip the treats.

Also, treats overemphasize the role of rewards in training. The ultimate goal is that your horse does something because he thinks it’s a good idea, not because he’s going to get a reward.

Claim Your Space

Ideally, ground manners training begins shortly after birth. But given that most people don’t have the luxury of starting with a newborn, we’ll focus these tips on what I see much more frequently: horses that consider themselves the leader and need to be re-educated. 

Getting the horse out of my space is the first step. When a new horse comes to me, I may spend a whole lesson on this. After that, I typically deal with it when I’m working with the horse—from when I’m catching the horse and leading him to the cross-ties or if I’m standing still somewhere. With a stallion I once worked with, for example, every time I went into his pen to catch him, I would make him take a couple of steps back away from me. It was asserting that he would submit to me and respect me. 

If I’m consistent, he’ll learn the boundaries. 

A horse will read your body language long before he will ever listen to your voice. Make coming into your space really uncomfortable for him so that he doesn’t want to be there. Standing far enough away from your horse that you can’t touch him, lean your body in toward him and cluck. Always start by asking nicely. As with riding, the lightest you ask the first time is the lightest he’ll ever respond to. Ramp it up from there as needed until he knows to back off. For instance, raise your arms up in the air, toward his eyes. That’s a huge dose of body language that says, “Get out of my space.” 

If he doesn’t back off, shake the lead rope in his direction or tap him on the chest with a whip. And I mean “rhythmically tapping” and not “hitting.” The only time I would do what I call hitting is if a horse bites or kicks me. Those are two behaviors that they simply don’t need to do and that are totally unacceptable.

When your horse moves out of your space, the reward is to stop all of that “pressure” and make sure there’s no tension on the lead rope. Getting away from the pressure and, essentially, being left alone, is what the horse understands as his greatest reward.

From there, give your horse the choice to invade your space again. You want it to be his choice, and he needs to figure out that it’s a good idea to stay out of your space. When he stands in his space, it’s fine for me to step into that and give him a hug or a rub. But don’t slap him on the neck and think you are praising him. Horses flinch when a fly lands on them, so you’re not praising them when you hit them hard enough with an open palm to make a sound. In nature, they rub on each other. 

Be very consistent in maintaining your own space as you work with your horse every day.

The Right Lead

Step Forward: The goal is for horses to follow you. You stop, they stop. You turn right, they turn right, and so on. Easy trailer loading, by the way, is usually an added benefit of training your horse to lead properly. I believe that the majority of trailer loading problems are really leading problems.

To start, stand abreast of your horse’s head, facing in the direction you want to go. Give a cluck to tell the horse something is going to happen and he should pay attention. Ideally, he will walk forward, but that’s not often the reality. 

If he doesn’t walk forward from the cluck, take hold of the lead rope about one foot below the halter and with no slack in it, and give the rope a forward bump. If that doesn’t prompt a walk, make a more forceful bump—but never a pull. Pulling never works if the horse doesn’t want to come forward. Whenever you make it a battle of strength, you’ll lose.

Control the Feet: If he doesn’t respond by moving forward, the next level of pressure uses the idea that whoever controls the horse’s feet controls the horse. This is another training tool taken from herd behavior.

Position yourself so you can move his legs, either by moving his hip over or bringing his nose toward you. Do either to the extent that it requires him to move his feet. When that happens, give another forward bump on the lead rope. 

“The Hustle:” If that doesn’t work, it’s time for what I call “the hustle.” You can think of it as mini-longeing. Rhythmically flick or twirl the whip or the other end of the lead rope at his hindquarters and get him to move around you with his neck bent toward you. You need to be in a position to make something happen and keep at it until he submits to you. Pretty soon, he’ll tire of having to move his hips or pull his head around. At that point, he’ll finally give up and decide he might as well walk.

Walk With You: Once you’ve got him walking forward, the next step is getting him to walk with you, not dragging behind you or trying to run out in front. 

If he’s going too slow, I’ll flick the whip behind me, at his hindquarters. If that doesn’t do it, I’ll hustle him again with the mini-longeing in both directions. A horse may prefer to give minimal effort, so when you make the hustling more work than walking beside you, he’ll eventually do the latter. 

Not Too Fast

If the horse is walking too fast and out ahead of you, the hustle doesn’t work because the horse already has too much energy. Here, as you face forward, you want to stop and make him back up and change direction. Changing his focus that way takes the forward out of him.

  • Ask Him to Stop: I train my horses to stop by stopping myself and, if needed, stamping my foot. To get to that point, first stop your own feet and say “Woo.” (Or, whatever vocal cue you decide on. More on voice commands later.) If they don’t stop, then bump the lead rope backward. You may need to bump it more than once until you get what you want. 
  • Ask Him to Back: To get the backward steps, start by clucking as you step backward yourself. If that doesn’t do it, tap him on the chest with your hand or the end of the lead rope, add a more aggressive vocal cue and bump the halter more aggressively. 

    A choice for enforcing the back-up cue is to face the horse head on and walk into him while clucking. That’s body language that conveys I’m mad at him and he better get out of my way. 

An alternative to getting the halt and back-up is to walk into his head and neck, moving him into a turn on the haunches. That breaks his desire to drive forward. I describe it as walking through the horse rather than walking around him. It’s another opportunity to move your horse’s feet. Here you can cluck first and put your hand up to say, “I’m the boss, and I’m telling you to move your front end and head.” Remember, whoever moves his or her feet first loses, or, in this case, is the follower, not the leader.

Turning

These same principles apply to turning your horse. 

Turning right: Assuming that you are leading your horse from his left side and turning him to the right, you’ll need to “walk through” his neck again. 

First, raise your arms up toward his eye. Next bump the lead rope back once to stop the forward motion and/or add a vocal cue as needed to remind him to move out of your space as you move toward him. Additionally, you might need to add a second lead-rope bump, this time in the direction you want to go, but do not turn this into a pulling match.

Turning left: Make your turn. If he resists following you, return to the progression used to get him moving forward from the standstill. First the cluck. Second, the forward lead-rope bump. Finally, if needed, the hustle to get his back feet moving. 

Once you’ve gotten your horse to do what you ask, it’s important to assume the best the next time you ask. Assume that there will be no problem, ask with your lightest cues and give the horse a chance to make a mistake. If that happens, then you have another chance to correct it. That is the path to making the horse think that what you want is his idea and it’s a good one! 

Voice Commands and Body Language

I mentioned earlier that horses will respond to your body language before they respond to your voice, but voice cues are an important training tool if used correctly. 

If you’re just yelling at the horse, you are probably also jumping up and down in your body language. That just adds anxiety to the situation. You should use your voice only when you can back it up with action if needed. If your horse is pawing in the cross-ties 20 feet away from you and you yell at him to stop, he might stop long enough to look at you. But he will just resume pawing again, so there was no sense in telling him to stop pawing in the first place. That’s teaching him to ignore you because you cannot physically back up your command.

If you regularly use a voice aid when you can back it up with a physical correction, then you can create a conditioned response that will eventually work from a distance. Just as with your other aids, a voice cue needs to be assertive. You have to mean it, not be hoping or praying. 

When I use “woo,” it’s a serious word. The horse needs to think that if he takes one more step, he’s going to fall off the end of the earth. I create that with my tone of voice and the body language that tone naturally creates. If my voice is going up an octave when I say “woo,” that’s a suggestion. If my tone of my voice goes down, that’s a command. When your tone goes down, your body language assumes a crouch position, which is an assertive position. 

The same concept applies from the saddle. Too many clucks can just become noise. One or two quick clucks are more assertive than many repeated clucks because that creates more assertive body language. Conversely, a light kiss is my cue for the horse to lightly step into the canter. If I cluck my horse into the canter, he’ll run into it rather than step into it really lightly.

Common Mistakes

Common mistakes in these basic ground manners exercises include conflicting cues, giving up ground to the horse by stepping backward and being tentative in making demands of the horse.

People tend to hit their horse to move forward and pull on the lead rope at the same time, which is contradictory. (Funny how this happens from the saddle, too!) Be careful to allow horses to do what you ask of them. 

Nine of 10 people step backward when trying to establish their own space, instead of moving the horse away from them to create it. When you are communicating with your horse, you either mean it or you don’t. It actually doesn’t take much to get a positive response if you mean it. Once horses believe that you are worthy of their respect, they become very comfortable and they are more than happy to listen to you.

Don’t give up too soon. Sometimes the process is easy and sometimes it can be a bit ugly. The effort and persistence are definitely worth it in the form of a submissive, responsive, relaxed horse that is safer to work.  

About Craig Stanley

Bred by Craig Stanley and his wife Brenda Linman, DVM, Habanero CWS is by Idocus STB Crown and out of Stanley’s mare, Caliente DG Elite. Habanero won the 2016 Markel/USEF 4-Year-Old National Championship, was third in the 5-Year-Old National Championship and won the 6-Year-Old Championship. Stanley, a member of the U.S. Dressage Federation’s Sport Horse Development Program committee, is working Habanero toward Intermediaire II. 

Thanks to DG Bar Ranch in Hanford, California, where these photos were taken.

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