Horse Training From The Ground Up

Ground Training

"We are building a foundation that will last the horses (and persons) lifetime. This cannot be done in a short period of time if it is to be solid. Without a solid, correct foundation, all is lost in the long run. Take the time to go slow in the beginning, and the reward of a foundation that never falters through the years is invaluable."~~Laura Bell

Willis Lamm of KBR:

Ground schooling is one of the most misunderstood elements of horse handling. People often ask, "Why do I need to ground school my horse? I don't want to tire him out. I want to ride him."

Effective ground schooling is not only an effective, but a necessary tool that the competent horseman applies to keep his horse tuned up and operating properly.

The handler and the horse must be able to communicate with each other. This means that each animal must be able to read the other's intentions, directions and emotions. It's usually not enough for the rider or handler to dictate to the horse unless he's going to be satisfied with the most menial of results. Communication can best be developed on the ground where both the horse and handler can most effectively see and relate to each other.

Just about everything a horse is going to do under saddle involves yielding to pressure. Whether it's responding to leg pressure or rein contact, a responsive horse is moving in response to the rider's pressure. You want a light handling horse? Establish the proper response to pressure on the ground where you have the greatest control in the learning environment, then apply those principles in the saddle.

Before you get in the saddle you need to know how your horse is going to react under stress, and your horse needs to be able to handle stressful situations and still pay attention to your aids and cues. Ground schooling should include "pushing the envelope" in a controlled environment so that the horse will learn to look to the handler for direction in unusual, unsettling and/or fast moving situations. This is much better handled on the ground than atop the horse.

By Rhett Russell, Natural Horse Supply

As you know, our emphasis is on groundwork. Everyone has their own ideas about what that means and youíll get different opinions from just about anyone you ask on how to get started. Where do we start? Everyone wants to be riding their horse and weíll admit that can be a lot more fun than groundwork. We believe in approaching this as a process, varying what we actually work on with each individual horse, thereís no recipe book on this stuff Ė every horse is different. You have to be flexible and be willing to go back a step or two if things arenít working out right. You arenít wasting any time by not getting on the horse right away. Besides, whatís the hurry? Youíre making the future better for both you and the horse.

We have made so much progress with technology in the last 200 years, computerized coffee makers, space travel, this Internet thing, etc. But, I can say without a doubt that we donít train horses much better than we did 200 years ago. On the contrary, we probably do a poorer job than our ancestors, simply because we donít rely on the horse as a mode of transportation. Xenophon wrote the first known information on horse training over 2000 years ago. His work The Art of Horsemanship stands as sound as it was the day he wrote it in 322 BC.

[2.3] Still, care must be taken that the colt is gentle, tractable, and fond of man when he is sent to the horse-breaker. That sort of business is generally done at home through the groom, if he knows how to contrive that hunger and thirst and horseflies are associated by the colt with solitude, while eating and drinking and delivery from irritation come through man's agency. For in these circumstances a foal is bound not only to like men, but to hanker after them. [2.4] One should also handle those parts in which the horse likes most to be cherished, that is to say the hairiest parts and those where the horse has least power of helping himself, if anything worries him. [2.5] Let the groom be under orders also to lead him through crowds, and accustom him to all sorts of sights and all sorts of noises. If the colt shies at any of them, he must teach him, by quieting him and without impatience, that there is nothing to be afraid of. I think that the directions I have given on the subject of horse-breaking are sufficient for the private person.

We donít want to give the impression that Xenophon had everything figured out. His primary focus was to establish sound training principles for the war horse. But, he was on the right track. So many people want to make "pets" out of their horses and be their best friends. Horses can be companions but they arenít pets like a cat or dog. They are large animals that are likely to hurt you if youíre not careful. One of the biggest mistakes we see people doing is treating their horse like itís a dog Ė DONíT DO IT! Petting and scratching a horse are a good thing. Letting them use you as a scratching post is not. Know the difference, because this carries over to their relationship with you and how they see you in the herd pecking order.

Ok, on to some useful informationÖ

We start working with our horses when they are very young. Young horses donít have much of an attention span, 20-30 minutes of training is about all that they can handle at first. Older horses can handle more time, but they sometimes take longer to teach. Itís not that they are set in their ways and canít be taught, they can learn new things. They have been conditioned to respond to stimulus in a certain way, some good/some bad. Depending on how the initial training was established, thatís where your work comes in to play. If you know the history of the training on the horse, you can use this information to your advantage. If you ask just about any trainer, theyíll tell you the same thing "older horses with a lot of "baggage" (bad training), take a lot of time bring back. Donít put a time limit on your training. This stuff takes as long as it takes, be prepared to commit three hours to work on a shoulder yield. It may only take you 10 minutes, just be ready to put the time in.

We have a two year old that we have been working since he was six months old. We spent 18 months on groundwork with this horse before we ever threw a leg over. This may sound like a lot of time, but we only spent about 4 hours a month with this horse up until he was old enough to work. This was quality-training time with a goal and purpose; we knew what we were going to ask the horse to do and what we were expecting out of each training session. By putting the time in, bridling, saddling, leg yielding, walk/trot/canter/stop transitions (off your seat), and even lead changes are things that we work on before we get on. We wonít get on until they are solid.

The most important thing to remember is that groundwork isnít something you do with just a colt. This is a lifetime deal. Although itís most important to build the foundation with proper groundwork, you should be refining these things throughout your relationship with the horse Ė you can always make it just a little more responsive or work on softness. These are the things that we think are important to address as part of a good ground breaking program:

Ground manners

Ground Driving

Horse Games/tools
Lateral movement
Trailer Loading
Round Penning

All of these are important in order to have what we would consider a "ground broke" horse. This is a horse that respects you and your space, knows how to move his feet, will adjust to your body language and posture, understands reward, approach & retreat, has your trust, and has been exposed to many different situations. The two most important building blocks in this process are Yielding and Ground Manners.

We like to start by asking a horse to back up (yield) with a feel from the rope. Once we get this going well, we ask for the horse to come off pressure and yield forward towards us. This gets us a couple of things: the horse understands how to move off of a feel and how to move his feet, which are very important concepts.

We then move on to the shoulder yield, eye yield, and hindquarters yield. Of all of these, the eye yield is probably the most difficult. The horse is probably not going to believe that he really needs to move (yield) to you at first. You might have to get real active with your body and posture (get BIG!) in order to reinforce your status as the leader. This is where you need to take your wimp hat off and move your horse with authority. We donít mean that you beat your horse until he moves. Ask for the yield, if the horse will not comply, then you need to be prepared to go up a notch on the intensity scale. You want to do as little as possible, but as much as it takes.

One of the most important things to us is getting the horse out of the "adrenaline zone". When the horse carries itís head up high and erect heís into the nervous fear and anxiety mode where heís ready to flee, we will ask for the horse to yield at the poll and lower itís head. This is a good place for the horse to be, in the pasture this is the posture where they eat and groom Ė these are good things, use them to your advantage. We canít over emphasize the importance of this simple task. You can teach your horse to carry its posture in a relaxed mode rather than up high, ready to flee. We ask for this yield and reward the horse for staying in this posture.

We will not tolerate a horse that does not respect our space. We get this working right up front from the first time that we handle the horse. Every time we go to a horse show we see people getting pushed around or stepped on by their horses. This is not acceptable behavior; they either donít realize itís happening or donít know what to do about it. Ground manners are so important because they carry over to the horseís respect of you as the leader and your personal space. Donít let the horse take advantage of you and your status as the "lead mare", he would never consider pushing around or stepping on her.

When we have the yields working on the ground, we work on bending the horse. Again, this is something that you do for the lifetime of the horse. You canít bend them enough. A soft flexible horse is the ideal that you are working for.

At the same time, we are working on leading the horse and how to react to our posture. Ask the horse to move off of pressure from the lead rope. Release immediately when the horse gives and reward. Ask the horse to stop, you may have to get your body posture real big to emphasize the stop transition.

Rest is important too. We like to give the horse time to think about what happened while we were working. As a rule of thumb, we like to split the time about 50/50 between training and "thinking" during the groundbreaking process. When the horse has done what we ask, we will let him stand in a relaxed posture and think about what we just did while we are rewarding this behavior.

The ability to longe correctly is incredibly essential. Longeing is not about exercising your horse. Longeing is used to teach a horse direction, posture, how to yield, how to move their feet, and move off pressure. This is the basis for ground driving, round penning, and trailer loading Ė if you donít have this down then you arenít going to be as successful as if you had worked these things out.

We then move on to ground driving, the round pen, lateral movement, horse games/tools, and trailer loading. We like to mix this stuff up so that the horse doesnít get bored but is exposed to as many different situations as possible. We believe in getting all of these things solid on the ground before we would ever consider getting in the saddle. And, this is just common sense, don't get on a horse that isn't physically able to bear weight.

You donít have to do things in this order. Horse training is an art, not a science. This is what works successfully for us in our situation most of the time. You have to be flexible, find what works for you and experiment. If there were an outline or process that worked every time with every horse, someone would be selling it and you wouldnít be reading this. Donít avoid doing things because youíre afraid of making mistakes, both you and the horse can learn from mistakes. Recognize your abilities and donít do things that make you uncomfortable. Safety is the number one issue!
(c) 1999 Natural Horse Supply, Cloudburst Farm, and Rhett & Marilou Russell. Reposted with permission.

Additional Articles by Rhett Russell:

Expectations, Respect, Trust, Rewards

Feel, Softness, Focus and Time, Senses

Tools, Stick, String, Mecate Reins, Bits, Slobber Straps

Approach/Retreat, Visualization, Anticipation

Start your horse with the Parelli 7 Games. These are ground games that can be done by any age horse, from babies to aged horses.

These games teach the horse to stand quietly for introduction of new items, to move parts of his body at a touch or a suggestion, and to get used to moving between objects (confinement issues).

Parelli 7 Games

Obstacle Course work is very valuable in training horses. You will find a much more responsive horse who is more aware of the placement of each one of his feet.


Bridging any training method with operant conditioning, otherwise known as clicker training, has proven to be an easy communication method with a horse to let them know they have given the correct response.

Clicker Training

Familiarize yourself with the TTEAM philosophy and some of the TTouches which may come in handy in different circumstances.


The following are a series of photos of some groundwork done with an unstarted horse, aged 4 years, raised wild until a few months ago.

Groundwork #1

Groundwork #2

Some good stuff to know:

Ryder Draw

Stiff Backs

Sheath Cleaning

Foals--Imprinting, Training

Trailer Loading

Lifting Feet/Kicking

Posts from Horse Owners

What NOT To Do

Relationship Training

On Horsemanship by Bob Sagely

GaWaNi Pony Boy

Britching Sling

The following written by Andrew Mclean:

"Giving the horse something it likes during or just after desired behaviour is called a positive reinforcement. It is distinguished from reward by the exactness of its timing. 'Reward' is a sloppy term, for it does not imply any timing necessity (people reward their horses milliseconds or many minutes after the act!)

Delayed reward is not effective compared to positive reinforcement because of the difference in timing, as the horse simply cannot make the connection. The only useful outcome of delayed reward is in the effect of reinforcing your bonds with the horse - which, in itself, is perfectly desirable. But don't fall into the trap of thinking that the horse will learn from a delayed reward: titbits after a good workout strengthens bonds between you, but do not serve as a reward for the workout.

The best rewards for good work are those given during the work, precisely after the desired response. A loose rein and a good scratch within a second or two of the correct response are the most powerful rewards available to the rider, that is unless you can dismount within that time frame, as getting off the horse's back is also rewarding!

Most of the horse's training is accomplished through negative reinforcement, but do not confuse it with punishment; it has nothing to do with punishment or violence. Negative reinforcement is defined as removing something the horse doesn't like (eg your leg pressure) to produce the desired response (eg leg yield), the moment the horse complies.

Negative reinforcement occurs during the undesirable behaviour and not after it. It may be the tap-tap-tapping of the dressage whip which is used as the negative reinforcement, ceasing exactly the moment the incorrect response finishes and the correct response begins.

By contrast, punishment is the delivery of a painful stimulus after an act. The use of untimed punishment in horse training is in part a reflection of the retributive mind set of our cultural tradition, and is based on the unfair and false premise that the horse can connect cause and effect relationships of events separated by time and so when you make him suffer for his misdoings the connection will be made with the behaviour which preceded it. In fact, punishment is only effective if it occurs immediately after the incorrect response, and if it is used judiciously and once only. It should not be used for anything other than dangerous resistances."

Training MythUnderstandings by Ron Meredith

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