Developing “Ground manners” refers to teaching your horse good behavior while you are working with him from the ground as opposed to under saddle. When grooming your young horse, he needs to learn to stand still. When you lead him, he needs to learn to walk beside you. There are a number of of things to teach your horse before you ever get on his back. Working with your horse on the ground can be more challenging than riding him. Ground manners and behaving well under the saddle go hand in hand. If he does not respect you on the ground, he won’t respect you on his back.
What is Great Horsemanship
True Horsemanship is a lifestyle and passion, not just a hobby. Only when it comes from within can you truly connect with your horse. Great horsemanship starts with a lot of patience and time. If you build a trusting relationship with your horse, he will be a willing and eager to please partner when you finally get to ride him. Too many people who pride themselves to be experts and trainers have ruined horses by not taking the time to teach the very basics. Their main goal is to get the horse ready as quick as possible. Not the way to go. Our kids don’t learn in one day, week or month, neither do our horses. I like to note here: “Even old horses can learn new tricks”. If you have a difficult horse on your hand, go back to the basics. Be patient and retrain your horse from the ground up and he may just surprise you.
Your horse needs to accept you as the leader. As such you need to respect him as well. At times he will, especially if young, try to challenge you for the position. Make sure he knows that you are in charge at all times. Teach with a loving heart and clear and calm mind. Never resort to physical punishment of any sorts when he does not cooperate. We all have good and bad days. We all feel sick or weak some days. If you learn to recognize his ups and downs, you can make a sound decision to seize the work and retry another day.
General Tips for Interacting with your Horse
- Use your voice – Horses are very sensitive to your tone of voice. Don’t raise your voice or scream at your horse. Lower your tone of voice and speak in a sharper tone when you are displeased with his performance. Use a more relaxed and higher tone of voice if you want to praise him. I have taught my horses to follow voice commands. While it is not exactly known if they can distinguish words spoken, they for sure respond to tone of voice.
- Don’t ever hit a horse in the face – You may accidentally damage eyes and other delicate parts of his face. He will become head shy, which will be very hard to fix. One of my horses, a rescue from a Circus, got hit in the eye intentionally or accidentally, we will never know. We suspect is was a whip used in training or as punishment. It caused great damage to the eye, and since it was left untreated, he went blind. When I bought him, the injury was 2 years old. I had him checked by an equine opthamologist to possibly repair and give him back some sight. It was not fixable. So you see, not can it cause injury and great pain, it can be costly to fix if fixable. Give him a tap on the shoulder or behind if you really need to get his attention, never hit.
- Reward Good Behavior and Ignore and Correct Bad Behavior – don’t let him get into your space, push or knock you over, drag you around or nudge you with his nose for treats. When he is properly trained and rewarded for good behavior he will know what you expect. You will have a well behaved horse.
- Don’t lose your temper – Stay calm and keep your horse calm. When you get frantic, frustrated, angry or fearful, so will your horse. Horses are very sensitive, especially to fear and anger, and can detect your emotional state very well. They see you as the leader and will follow your lead. Particularly when training a young horse is it important to stay calm. He has to learn to trust you and if you are fearful he will be too. When you are confident your horse will be confident.
- Don’t be afraid of you horse – He can sense when you are afraid. He may not know that you are afraid of him and follow your lead of being scared. I think what we know about dogs is true for horses as well. When a dog senses fear they attack. When horse senses fear it runs or might attack. If you are afraid of your horse consult with an expert (check for credentials) on how to fix behavioral problems. It may be a great learning experience for you as well and you can find out how to interact with your horse, even when he is being difficult.
- Don’t neglect your horse – horses are very social herd animals. Too often they are locked away until someone comes to ride them. Spending time with your horse other than riding creates an even stronger bond between horse and rider. I see many people who show up for an hour here and there to ride, but they don’t spend any other time with their horse. It breaks the spirit, particularly if he is locked away in a stall all day, separated from other horses. It takes a mental as well as physical toll on your horse. They are designed to graze and move about for hours a day, which is considered low level exercise. Immobility can have terrible health implications down the road, such as colic, inflammation of the joints, etc. Many stressed horse develop bad habits such as cribbing, headshaking and weaving. Keep them in the most natural setting you can with plenty of turnout each day.
- Work with him on trailer loading early on – Chances are that one day he will have to get into a trailer. If he is taught properly, he can learn to walk in by himself. Horses are scared and sceptic by nature and the close space and moving motion of being trailered can be stressful. Take your time, let him check it out and inch your way closer. If you take your time and don’t pressure him to get in, he will form a positive connection. Eventually he will walk right in. Again, if you lay the groundwork by teaching “Proper Ground Manners” , your horse will go through fire for you. My young horse is living proof. I bought him at 1 1/2 years of age and almost 18 months later and a lot of groundwork, he blindly trusts me to go anywhere anytime. It is extremely rewarding to see your patience pay off.
Get started the right way. It will be so much more enjoyable down the road if you have a well behaved and safe horse. Educate yourself. Every barn has those that seem to know it all and try to tell you how to do things. Unless you educate yourself you will not be able to tell the true experts from the “Know It All’s” and “Know Nothing’s”. Trust your instinct, follow your heart, have patience and enjoy the amazing journey with your horse.