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The importance of ground manners

By Rhiannon Cecil

Spending time with your horse on the ground shouldn’t be a chore for you or anyone else who has to work with him. A horse can be faultless under saddle, but if his manners on the ground aren’t up to par, it affects your overall experience. How many times have you heard the phrase, “He’s absolutely fantastic, once I’m on…” Having the basics in place that allow you to work with your horse on the ground, before mounting, are essential to having a good all round experience when you ride. Here are some of the reasons you should ensure your horse has at least passable ground manners:

  1. Safety first

It goes without saying that horses are bigger and stronger than we are, with a hefty slice of independent thought! A horse who has realised he doesn’t have to listen to you when you’re on the ground is going to put you, and others, at risk. For safety reasons, you want your horse to be used to a slew of different situations while he is in hand, as you need to have control when you’re working with him.

  1. Manners matter

Regardless of how old your horse is, manners on the ground are as important as manners under saddle. No one wants to work with a horse who performs every time the farrier comes, or tows his leader to the paddock.  Even in the unlikely event that you’re the only one who handles your horse, taking the time to teach him basic manners will make life so much less stressful for him (and everyone else) involved.

  1. Build a foundation

Working with a horse on the ground is a much overlooked facet of overall horsemanship. Groundwork lays the foundation for all work under saddle, and taking the time to work with your horse without actually riding him helps build trust and respect in a way that simply can’t be replicated when you’re riding. Your horse will be much happier when he gets the chance to work with you and decode your facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. Think of groundwork as a first date; a chance for you both to feel each other out and get to know each other better.

Some simple things you can do to improve your horse’s ground manners

  1. Teach him to stand still

Teaching a horse any skill requires one main ingredient: constant repetition. Stand your horse up with a halter on and if it’s safe to do so, stand directly in front of him. Slowly back away as far as you can. If he steps forward, gently shake the leadrope left and right, which will encourage him to stop or even step back. When he is standing still again, reward him.

  1. Make sure he’s comfortable being touched

This is actually easy to achieve with a little bit of time and patience. Start by stroking your horse’s back and neck, and when he shows no discomfort, you can move to more sensitive areas like his stomach, underbelly and legs. Just keep stroking him with your hands until he’s completely comfortable. Then you can replace your bare hands with grooming brushes and start from the beginning again. Keep repeating this exercise long after your horse has grown accustomed to it. It’s also good for spotting any injuries or lumps and bumps!

  1. Walking quietly on a lead

Start in a circle and always make sure you are leading from the horse’s left hand side. If you’re uncertain or your horse has been unpredictable in the past, consider starting in the lunge ring. Make sure he walks next to you, not in front of you and not behind you. When you’re both walking quietly together, you can start halting and then walking on again. If he pulls you or tries to keep walking, raise your right hand. This is a signal for him to respect your personal space.

  1. Work with his feet

Vets, grooms and farriers all need to be able to work safely with a horse’s feet. For some horses, this is a real challenge, especially if they are in fight or flight mode. The key here is to take things gently and slowly. Again, start with just touching his legs and hooves with your hands. Always start with his front legs and only move to the back end when you’re sure he’s comfortable. Start picking up his front feet and putting them down, until he gets that bored expression on his face. When he’s okay with the front feet, you can tackle his back legs. Always stand to the side of him when you’re working with his hind end. Repeat the same process as you did with his front legs until he’s comfortable and relaxed. Then, if you can, as a few other people to repeat this process. This way a few new faces like a vet or farrier won’t come as such a surprise.

  1. Being caught

There is nothing quite like chasing an unwilling horse around the paddock, and it’s even more mortifying when half the stableyard has to jump in and help you. You may be able to see the funny side, but in truth, running away in the paddock can be dangerous for horse and handler alike. Without allowing yourself to be trampled all over, try and employ some positive reinforcement here. Reward your horse with a carrot when he comes to you.

NOTE: If running away is a new behaviour, think about what your horse could be associating with being caught. Perhaps he’s anticipating hard work? If you think your horse could be getting sour, make sure to incorporate some fun into your weekly routine, or if you are worried your horse might be in pain, speak to your vet.


Ground manners aren’t just important. They’re vital, not just for you but for everyone who has to handle your horse. Spending a bit of time teaching him how to behave (and how not to behave) on the ground isn’t just an act of kindness to everyone concerned, it’s a way of strengthening the bond you have with your horse and the respect you share. You really learn a lot about each other when you switch things up, and if you just devote ten minutes a day to groundwork, you’ll soon reap the rewards in the saddle as well.