Ground Manners are one of the most highly under-rated aspects of horse training. It wouldn’t seem like it- most people seem to acknowledge their value- but they don’t quite realize how truly important they are. Ground manners go to the core of your horse’s general manner, and your relationship with them. People tend to underestimate how crucial boundaries are when it comes to horses. Sometimes, we treat horses like cocker spaniels who are just so cute. We want to cuddle them. Or perhaps we want to rush through tacking up and let them walk all over us. Either way, these problems compound.
Today, for the next article of our Equine Safety Series, we will talk about ground manners. We will try to explain why they are so important, and how you can help yourself, and your horse, live your best life.
A Ground Manners Tale
I used to be a person that, for the most part, blew off ground manners. Not that I let my horses bite or kick or do anything terrible. But I’d let them drag me a bit on the lead rope. I’d let them mess around as we got started on the lunge line. I’d let them get in my space, thinking they were being sweet. They’d step on my toes sometimes. I’d let them dance around on the crossties, or move around me as I held them by hand, hurriedly throwing on the tack. And I was fine! I was still aware of my surroundings, I was still a competent horsewoman, I still followed basic safety rules, and I never got terribly hurt.
Then, I met someone who really had, what seemed to me, like strict rules on the ground. She didn’t let the horses walk in front of her, at all. They always had to keep their shoulder behind hers. They always had to respect her space. And she didn’t allow hand-feeding at all! This seemed crazy to me at the time! I’d always hand-fed horses- I never had any major problems!
A Shift in Thinking
Over a long period of time (several years), I realized that the horses who were exposed to stricter boundaries were a whole lot easier to deal with. Their handler had to follow rules, the horse had to follow rules, and as a result, there was a mutual respect. Shared expectations. Plus, due to this consistency in interaction, the horses were generally calmer, especially in strange circumstances, because they trusted their handler. There was no more being drug around by horses anymore. Horses were not trying to head-butt people. There was no more worrying about being nibbled or my shirt being grabbed. Life just got easier!
My takeaway from all of this was that ground manners, and just taking the time to consistently set and reinforce boundaries, is completely worth it. When I moved to another part of the country a few years after this, I went to a very high-end barn. The horses were lovely, expensive, well-trained animals. They stood well on the crossties. But they were downright dangerous coming in and out of turnout. I realized that I hadn’t had to deal with that in a long time. So at that point, if I wasn’t already convinced, I was sure that ground manners were key.
Setting the Rules
As you go about improving your routine with ground manners, it is absolutely helpful to be consistent with all the horses. This is because ground manners don’t just apply to the horses- they apply to the people, too. It’s a skill, and it takes practice. That said, some horses need you to be more absolute than others. There are a few horses out there that may be allowed a few extra liberties, because they are so wonderful to ride. Or perhaps there is an old retired horse that is wonderful and cuddly and therefore spoiled, and it’s ok. That’s all up to you and your trainer. One thing I know for sure is that a one-size-fits-all approach to horses is a fallacy as well as an oversimplification.
There is a wealth of information on ground manners out there, and you can really go in-depth on it. For our purposes here, we will stick to a few basic foundational principles:
-Avoid hand feeding. This is one of the hardest things to learn. We just love to feed the horses! However, when you stop, you will notice that they are a lot less pushy and demanding. Especially in less structured environments, this is key. Remember that hand-feeding (and treats) is more for our own personal delight than theirs. They are plenty happy to eat from their bucket.
-Do not let them walk you, you walk them. They need to keep their shoulder behind yours, at all times. They should watch you, and stop when you stop without you having to pull.
-Properly (and safely) cross-tie the horses, have them held, or tie them up, rather than letting them walk around as you work on them.
-Generally make sure they respect your space, and be careful that a little nuzzle doesn’t turn into a head butt.
The main need for correction pertains to when horses try to walk on/ ahead of you. Correction should always be calm, steady, and unemotional. You may have to do it 1000 times, and that’s fine. Just like with riding, getting emotional only adds unneeded drama. Usually, you don’t need a chain (though there are exceptions).
The second they start walking ahead, stop. Don’t turn your body, just stop. Take the end of your lead rope and swat their chest to let them know to stay behind you. Then walk again. Repeat until they get it- it will be faster than you think. But assume you will need to do it 100 times a day for a couple of weeks, just so you don’t get frustrated.
Some horses are harder about this than others. However, those are usually the ones that need it the most. So take your time, set this up, and make your environment safer for you, your horse, and everyone around you.
If you are looking for a horse with good ground manners, reach out to Alicia Wilkinson!