Ground-Work Exercises Logo


Ground-Work Exercises

Hone your horse’s manners and your leadership skills over the winter for a better ride in the spring with these tips from top trainer/clinician

For more on how to ground-tie with guidelines from Julie Goodnight, go to


Unless you’re in the Sunbelt, winter means less trail-riding time and more turnout for your horse. Until the ground thaws, you’ll need to keep him focused on you with targeted ground-work exercises.

The more you work with your horse over the winter, the more he’ll be focused on you when it’s time for more saddle time in the spring.

Plus, you’ll keep up your own horsemanship skills and learn to be aware of how your body position and sequencing of cues help your horse to learn quickly and easily. You’ll then be able to teach your horse most anything for great trail rides.

Here, top trainer/clinician Goodnight will first explain how the herd mentality your horse can develop in winter turnout can present training challenges.

Then Goodnight will give you three ground-work exercises to work on throughout the winter to keep your horse looking to you as his herd leader: (1) Practice body awareness; (2) teach the standstill; and (3) teach leading manners.

Goodnight will also provide a rope-halter-tying tip that kids can practice inside this winter.


The Herd Mentality

When your horse is turned out for the winter, he may quickly revert to a herd mentality. In that mode, he’ll follow the herd’s cues, rather than keep tuned in to your leadership.

“You may undermine instead of boosting your leadership if, in the winter, your horse is turned out with his buddies and you only see him at feeding time, or when you step in to rub on him and bring him treats,” says Goodnight.

“It’s not that you’re never going to hug on your horse or love on him, but respect has to come first. Think about how you’re interacting with him every time you’re near him.”

How long does it take a horse to be turned out and become part of the big herd instead of part of your horse-and-human herd of two?

Goodnight says that as horses approach middle age, they may become more herd-bound, but individual horses react differently with more or less time away from work.

To be safe, perform ground work all year long to help keep your horse looking to you for leadership. He’ll continue to be (or will become) a respectful partner who looks for your leadership and permission.


Before You Begin

You can do ground work in a small space — in your barnyard or even inside the barn. You need only a small, fairly level area with good footing.

Outfit your horse in a rope halter and a long training lead with a rope-to-rope connection at the halter. A rope halter better translates your cues than a flat nylon halter does.

Over the winter, do these exercises as often as possible. Once per day is ideal, but once per week or even once per month is much better than not working with your horse at all.


Exercise 1: Practice Body Awareness

This body-awareness exercise helps your horse tune in to your body/sign language, and begin to have more deference for your leadership — and your personal space.

A horse’s spatial awareness is acute — he has a greater appreciation for body/sign language than humans do. It’s your job to mind your position and body language and make sure that you’re aware of your posture and consistent cues.

Step 1. Define your personal space. Every time you’re near your horse, stretch your arms out around you in all directions. That’s your space — space your horse shouldn’t enter without permission.

Free yourself of the need to be in your horse’s space all the time. That’s satisfying for you, but not helpful for your relationship with him. If you enter your horse’s space all the time — kissing and hugging — your horse won’t have a clear idea about your personal boundaries.

While you sometimes want to love on your horse, start with a clear boundary. Only allow that closeness after you have set up a clear expectation of his space and yours.

Step 2. Practice your body language. Practice submissive and more aggressive postures in front of a mirror.

If your shoulders are rounded, your toes are pointed away, and your eyes are diverted, you’ll appear unthreatening to your horse.

If your shoulders are up, your chest is puffed, your chin is high, and you look straight at your horse, he’ll take that as an aggressive or admonishing posture.

Match your body language to the situation; always be aware of when and how you’re moving.

Adopt less threatening body language if you want to give your horse a break and not be reactive to your every move (or help him know you’re not an aggressor when you’re trying to catch him).

Appear active and confident when you get ready to move with your horse.


Exercise 2: Teach the Standstill

When you get back in the saddle this spring, you’ll want to know that your horse will stand still. This is an important trail skill.

You’ll want your horse to stand still for mounting, and in case you need to hop off to help another rider. The standstill also is the basis for learning to ground-tie.

Learning to stand still also reminds your horse to focus on you and get in the habit of reacting to your cues, rather than looking for something else to focus on — and possibly spook at.

Your horse needs to look at you and think before making a move. Teach this mind-set on the ground, and this lesson will carry over to your under-saddle time in the spring.

Add the command “whoa,” and you’ll teach your horse to stop and focus on you no matter where you are.

When you’re on the trail, this command will solidify your horse’s ability to focus on you. If he does spook when you’re riding, he’ll know that “whoa” means “stop now.” You’ll program in a command that may keep him from running off. Instead, he’ll focus on you.

Note: If your horse has been confined, start with another exercise that allows him move around. If he’s turned out all day, this is a great place to start.

Step 1. Place your horse. Ask your horse to stand still like a statue and not move a hoof without your permission. Place him where you’d like him to stand, then turn, and face him. Avoid standing too close. You don’t want to hold him still; you want him to know that he must listen and choose to stand still.

Step 2. Move away. Stand about six feet away, and point your toes toward his left shoulder. Make sure you’re not standing directly in front of him, but just off to the left side of his body.

Step 3. Correct him. If your horse moves a hoof or turns his head so that his nose passes his shoulders, issue an immediate correction by sending a wave through the lead rope so that it puts pressure on the rope halter. Use the amount of pressure needed to get his attention. Some horses need only a small movement of the rope to remind him to listen; others need more pressure.

Your horse will quickly learn that every time he moves a foot without your authorization, he’ll get in trouble. He should learn this lesson quickly, in the very first session, if your timing and corrections are effective.

Step 4. Heighten the challenge. When your horse obeys, heighten the challenge. Step farther and farther away. Eventually, lay the middle of the rope on the ground while you hold the end. Even if you only ask him to stand for 30 seconds, you’ll strengthen your relationship as your horse looks to you to know what to do and how to act.

Step 5. Teach the ground-tie. When your horse is listening well, lay down the rope, and teach him to stand still with the rope on the ground. Work up to 10 to 15 minutes of practice a day, and you’ll have a horse who can successfully ground-tie before spring.

Step 6. Increase the challenge further. Ask your horse to stand still when he’s antsy, such as before it’s time for turnout or when other horses are moving into the barn to eat. He needs to listen to you no matter what the horse herd is doing around him. When he knows the lesson, it won’t matter how much energy he has — he’ll stand still when asked.


Exercise 3: Teach Leading Manners

Leading manners are paramount on the trail. You might find yourself riding in an uncontrollable environment and need to dismount. You might need to dismount, and lead your horse across difficult terrain. You might need to pony your horse.

If your horse will obediently follow you when you lead him, you’ll likely both stay safe on the trail, even a narrow one carved into a sheer cliff.

With this exercise, sequence your cues, so that you always do the same thing in the same order, step-by-step: Look up, lean your shoulders forward; move your feet; pull on the lead, if necessary.

When you sequence your aids, your horse will quickly learn and respond. You’ll carry the leadership role that you’ll develop practicing this exercise into your spring riding.

Here’s how to apply this sequencing to teaching your horse how to maintain a respectful position as you lead him.

Step 1. Gain his focus. You’ll first need to teach your horse to focus on your movements and maintain a position on your side, regardless of your speed and direction. He’ll need to learn to stay in the correct position and within the acceptable boundaries. He shouldn’t move into your space or ahead of you. To gain his focus, move deliberately, and be consistent with your body language.

Step 2. Walk on. To initiate the walk, lean your shoulders forward; this tells your horse you’re about to move. Then move your feet, and say “Walk on!” or cluck to him. Give him these cues before you pull on the lead.

Step 3. Apply lead-rope pressure. If your horse doesn’t walk when you give him the above cues, reinforce them with lead-rope pressure. Lean your body weight into the rope if necessary.

Step 4. Release lead-rope pressure. As soon as your horse takes one step forward, release the lead-rope pressure, and continue walking. Hold the lead loosely so that he learns to follow your body language without expecting a pull. You want to teach him to move with you, not depend on constant lead-rope pressure.

Step 5. Correct him, if necessary. As you walk your horse, don’t let his nose move past your lead hand, and definitely don’t let his shoulder move past yours. If he crosses the boundary, snap back hard on the lead rope, turn around and face him, stomp your feet, flap your arms and back him up while admonishing him with your voice.

Use the amount of pressure that causes your horse to think: What did I do wrong? What can I do so that doesn’t happen again?

Some horses may only need you to turn and look at him sternly; other horses may need more pressure. If your horse falls into the latter category, stop, turn, and back him up a few steps with authority.

If you use enough pressure and good timing, your horse will very quickly learn the precise place he should be. Soon, he’ll learn that the moment you lean forward, he better be ready to move.

Tip: If you find yourself constantly pulling or initiating a correction multiple times, check to make sure your corrections are consistent. Slightly escalate the pressure, and add a verbal admonishment.

Step 6. Don’t hold him back. Don’t pull back on the lead rope to hold your horse back. If you pull on the lead all the time, he’ll forever rely on that pressure to tell him where to be. Instead, give him the responsibility to keep himself in the proper place, using the correction outlined in Step 4.

Step 7. Regulate his speed. If your horse lags behind your walking pace, change your body language. When you move your shoulders forward then move your feet, your horse should step with you. If you have to also pull on the lead rope, bring your arms in close to your body and lean forward hard on the rope.

If you lean forward quickly as a correction, not as a constant pull, you’ll teach your horse to pay attention to the body language that came first instead of waiting for the pull.

Tip: Avoid turning and swatting your horse with the end of the lead rope to propel him forward. This action can confuse him, because you’re actually turning around and changing your direction. Simply continue the correction outlined in Step 4.

Step 8. Change direction. At the walk, ask for a change of direction. To turn, simply walk toward the direction you want to go. Be sure to move your horse away from you and out of your space; don’t pull him toward you.

If your horse doesn’t move, pick up your hands, stomp your feet and defend your space by waving your hands just behind your horse’s eye without touching him.

Step 9. Ask for the trot. To pick up the trot, lean your shoulders forward, then start trotting while saying “Trot!” If he starts to trot, praise him. Then go back down to the walk, and ask for the trot again. Just trot straight lines; don’t trot around turns.

Step 10. Change it up. Escalate the challenge by changing speeds, turning, then turning at different speeds and degrees. Soon, you’ll be able to walk in all directions with little to no pressure on the lead rope and only with your body language.

Step 11. Use just a neck rope. If your horse leads well with the halter and lead rope, try working with him in a safe, enclosed area with just a neck rope. With this gear, you can test your horse’s obedience while maintaining a way to correct him, if needed. [BUG]


For more training tips from Julie Goodnight, and to access her free online library, go to


For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from





How to Tie a Rope Halter fasten/put on? Does this sound like you are going to make a rope halter from scratch?

Rope halters are great training tools, but unlike nylon and leather halters, you need to tie them onto your horse’s head. This can be a challenge for anyone.

Julie Goodnight says she often sees rope halters tied with an incorrect knot. She also sees halters with the tail aimed toward the horse’s eye instead of his rear end.

Practice tying a rope halter correctly, so when you catch your horse, you can secure him quickly and get the knot undone easily. A correctly adjusted and tied halter will also translate your lead-rope cues more precisely to your horse than a sloppy halter will

Practice haltering a stuffed horse, or have a friend hold the halter as if it were on your horse’s head.

Here’s how to tie the halter knot:

> Adjust the halter so that the throat knot is all the way up to the horse’s throat.

> Bring the length that comes down from the crownpiece (the part that lies behind your horse’s ears) down through the halter’s loop on the left-hand side of his face.

> Tie this length around the bottom part of the loop, making a figure-eight.

> Make sure the excess length is pointed toward your horse’s tail.

> Watch Goodnight tie a rope halter on this video:

Horse Tip Daily #34 – Julie Goodnight On Trailer Safety

Horse Tip Daily #34 – Julie Goodnight on Trailer Safety


No Biting Allowed Logo

In the Horse Master episode, “Raising Her Right,” I worked with Elaine Shabazian, a longtime horsewoman and Friesian breeder with a farm on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Elaine was recovering from knee surgery and wanted to make sure she was doing all she physically could to prepare her young Friesian filly for an upcoming breed inspection. It was great to see such a nice young horse and to share some young-horse handling techniques with Elaine and the audience. So often, I see horse owners who want their young horses to be cuddly and snuggly—then they don’t know what to do with a mature horse that still insists on being petted and moving into your personal space. Handling a foal right is a great responsibility that Elaine was prepared to take on. Read on to learn more about handling young horses—especially what to do when young horses become “lippy” and need to mouth everything, including you. Then watch the “Raising Her Right” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight February 5 and March 16, 2009 on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now:

There’s a progressive set of behaviors in horses in which lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) leads to biting. These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries to see if he can gain dominance over you. It sounds like your colt is still in the nipping stage and you need to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak. It has been my experience that people bring these behaviors on themselves by allowing horses to be in their space and by nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time. Another common action that leads to nipping/biting is when you hand feed treats to horses. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you’ll be the dominant leader and one of you’ll be the subordinate follower. It sounds like you haven’t quite got this settled between you and your horse yet. If you were dominant in his mind, he would not dare move into your space or put his lips or teeth on you.

Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the resources of the herd (food and water) and by controlling the space of the subordinate members (running them off, pushing them around). If you allow your horse to move into your space at all, it confuses the dominant-subordinate relationship. Horses are much more aware of spatial issues than humans are. When we get horses in training here at my barn, whether youngsters or older horses, one of the first rules of behavior they will learn is to never move into our space with any part of their body, including the nose. Most people constantly allow their horses to move into their space especially with its nose. In fact, it is often encouraged by feeding treats or by playing with the horse’s nose. All of these actions confuse the horse and make him think he is dominant.

For your colt, you need to establish a more respectful distance between you and him. Don’t stand close to his face or pet him on the face and don’t allow him to move his nose toward you at all while you’re working around him. Every time he moves his nose toward you, correct it by poking a finger in his cheek or just pointing at his nose until he puts it back in its proper place, in front of his chest. If you establish this basic rule (your nose must stay in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn this important ground manner quickly. Also, any time any other part of his body moves toward you, vigorously back him out of your space. This will help him to learn a respectful distance and to be respectful of your space as the dominant herd member.

When the colt reaches out to nip or bite, you should instantly poke him with a pointed finger or smack him in the muzzle with the back of your hand. This correction must come instantly without any pause at all on your part. The optimal time for a correction is one-half second after the behavior, in order for a strong association between the behavior and the correction to be made by the horse. There is a three second window of opportunity within which to reward or correct a horse, but, the sooner in that three seconds, the correction or reward occurs, the more meaningful it is to the horse, and the optimal time is one half second. Your colt already knows that he is doing something wrong, that’s why he is backing up after he nips. If you feel you cannot poke him in a timely fashion, go ahead and jerk on the lead rope and back him up vigorously for a far stretch and yell or growl at him like you’re angry. John Lyons has an interesting theory about correcting horses that bite. He says that you should pick up whatever is handy and act like you’re going to kill the horse with it, but only for three seconds. Of course, he would never actually advocate beating the horse with something, but by the time you have picked it up, swung it over your head and lunged at the horse, at least three seconds has gone by so you would never actually have time to hit the horse. This puts the “fear of god” into the horse and makes him very leery of putting his mouth on you again (don’t ever try something like this with a tied horse because it will lead to a pull-back problem).

If you’re leery of poking the horse in the cheek, then you can give him a pinch on his neck, to simulate the alpha horse biting him. Take your thumb and index finger and give him a hard squeeze at the base of his neck muscle. Wrap your fingers around several inches of the big strapping muscle that defines the bottom line of his neck and then give a quick sharp squeeze. This will give him quite a shock and simulates biting. It gives him a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. One more time, I want to reinforce the fact that as likely as not, the human is the one that has made the horse nippy by crowding his space, playing with his mouth, feeding treats and allowing the horse to push him around. So make sure that you correct your behavior too, if necessary, so as not to encourage the horse to be disrespectful.
–Julie Goodnight

Horse Turns Toward Gate And Stops Working Logo

Common Complaints

My horse heads for the gate and stops while we’re working.

Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to teach your horse ignore the gate and work steadily.

If your horse thinks turning toward the gate is his cue to slow down, ride with a purpose and direct him straight past the opening.

Does your horse slow down as you pass the gate and speed up when you turn toward home? Does he break gait again and again in the same place in the arena? When leaving the barn, do his legs suddenly become leaden and you feel like you’re dragging a ship’s anchor?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and disobedient behavior then give you steps to take to teach your horse to work steadily around the arena and leave the barn at the same pace he returns. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that acts like a champ and respects your authority.

The Reason
Gate gravity is actually herd gravity; it’s a horse’s nature to be herd-bound—staying safe by remaining close to his fellow horses. The instinct is strong. Whether this problem occurs while you’re riding in the arena, trail riding or working on the ground, your horse is being disobedient and making unauthorized decisions. Your horse needs to see you as his trustable leader and know that he’s safe in a herd of two with you.

What horses seek beyond all else in life are two simple things: safety and comfort. When you ask your horse to leave the safety and comfort of the herd to go out and work, you’re asking a lot of him. He may feel alone and vulnerable.

Horses are also instinctively lazy, preferring to conserve their energy for flight, should it be necessary. Your horse doesn’t really want to lope circles and leap obstacles in the arena. He’s looking for any relief available and thinks he may get a break if he heads to the gate. He’s always thinking about going back to the herd; if he can get away with slowing down or stopping for a moment or two, he may think he’s made progress and that you’re allowing him to head for home.

Horses also challenge for hierarchy within the herd. When your horse challenges you—by stopping at the gate—he’s testing to see who’s really in charge. Within the herd, each horse is either dominant over or subordinate to every other individual. One horse is at the top (the “alpha”) and one is at the bottom (the “omega”), with all the other individuals fitting somewhere in between. Subordinate horses respect and admire the leader of their herd and will willingly go with them anywhere; the alpha can herd and direct subordinates and the latter will go at any direction or speed dictated by the boss.

If your horse respects your authority as the leader in your herd of two, he’ll go in a direction and speed that you indicate—without making any unauthorized decisions such as slowing down or speeding up. You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re taking the helm and accepting the captain’s seat and that he’ll either toe the line or be swabbing decks.

Whether your horse just slightly slows down at the gate or gives you a constant battle leaving the barn, there are some simple steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, you have to realize that your horse’s “problem” stems from your lack of authority. It’s time to take charge.
Examine other areas within your relationship with your horse. Is he responsive to you on the ground? Does he respect your space? Does he focus on you, looking to you for directives and guidance? Is he peaceful and docile in your presence, knowing you’re in charge? Or is he looking at the herd and whinnying? When you ride, is his head down and his nose pointed in the direction you have asked for? Or is his head up and is he changing his path and speed impulsively?

If you’re nodding your head, you and your horse are good candidates for a systematic series of groundwork exercises. You’ll have to teach him to accept your authority on the ground first then carry your newly found authority to mounted work. My groundwork DVD called Lead Line Leadership will take you through this process with step-by-step explanations. The Complete Groundwork Package includes two DVDs and all the equipment you need for groundwork.

After spending some quality time with your horse from the ground, you’ll also have to address your authority with your horse from his back. You must act like the captain and your horse must accept his position as first mate. As captain, you dictate both the direction and speed of the ship and your first mate carries out your orders. The captain makes all of the decisions and any insubordinate behavior from the crew is met with strict consequence.

Your authority in the saddle starts when you put your foot in the stirrup to mount and ends when you hop off.

Professionals teach horses that they should keep doing what they’re told until they’re told differently. If you allow small infractions, such as making the unauthorized decision to slow down at the gate or veer from the dictated path, you’re eroding your authority. Once your horse realizes that you don’t have complete control, he’ll push the limits and the erosion continues until the dam gives way.

As soon as you mount, begin by not letting your horse walk off without a cue (see last month’s issue about standing for mounting), then take him directly to the rail and deep up into the corners. Immediately correct the smallest infraction of direction or speed until your horse gives it up and just does what he’s told to do. Depending on your assertiveness, this process may take one time around the pen or a few weeks.

Make sure your corrections are adequate to motivate your horse to change his ways. If he stops at the gate or breaks gait at any time, there must be ramifications and the punishment must involve enough pressure to motivate your horse to change. If the ramifications are insignificant to your horse, he’ll happily endure it if it means he gets to rest for a moment.

In this case your corrections might range from more leg pressure to a bump with the spur or a spank with a crop or the tail of your reins. If he breaks gait with me at the helm, I’ll make sure he not only gets a spanking, but that he has to work harder. I only allow him to stop or slow down when he’s working willingly forward, without me having to push him.

Each horse is different in the amount of pressure it takes to motivate him to change, but you’ll know if it’s enough by his reaction to the correction. If he blows it off with an expression meaning “so what?” then you didn’t use enough pressure. If his head comes up and he jumps to attention with a look on his face like, “what do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” then you’re making an impact. I don’t want you to cause your horse undue pain. However, you’ll need to use enough of a correction to let your horse know you’re in charge. If your horse doesn’t see you as a leader, you may be in much more danger later on.

There’s an old saying in horse training that says it always gets worse before it gets better. That means that if your horse has been getting away with things for a while, he’s not going to immediately give it up the first time you lay down the law with him. If he has been stomping on your authority for a while, he’ll challenge your first attempts to correct him by threatening you with a kick or buck. Make sure you have the ability to ride through his resistance or engage the help of a more qualified hand to help you. Never let his antics get to you emotionally—if he learns he can control your emotions, he’ll keep pushing your buttons. Instead, be calm, firm and persistent in your request for obedience.

Once you learn to be the 100% authority figure that your horse needs, he’ll gladly do what you ask. To reach this point, you’ll need leadership and consistency.

With repetition, good timing and lots of enforcement on your part, your horse will soon be steady, responsive and obedient.


For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit