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:

Work Ethic: How Your Determination (And Your Horse’s Consistent Work) Leads To Dreams Fulfilled

A strong work ethic ensures an individual’s success—for both horses and humans. Whether you are bussing dishes or doing brain surgery, a good work ethic will make a difference in the rewards you reap and how far you will go in your career. For horses, it is no different.

Horses do better when they are gainfully employed and regularly worked—useful, fit, skilled and purposeful; healthy and gratified, they would even show up for work on their day off if you asked. Like humans, when horses are instilled with a strong work ethic from an early age, they strive to work hard and reap the rewards of a purposeful career and their individual talent is developed to its fullest potential.

I’ve never known anyone that was inherently lazy to be successful with horses—it’s a lot of hard work! If you have horses at home or have been in charge of a stable full of four-legged friends, you know that working with horses is a dusk to dawn, seven day a week job. Holidays don’t matter; horses still have to be fed.

The Human Drive

I’ve known the importance of a strong work ethic since I first started my career–over 30 years ago. The importance is magnified when you work for yourself. Working with horses is the only job I know of where you normally work six days a week–but you only get a day off if you pay someone to cover for you.

I first started into business as a young, independent trainer, starting with an initial capital investment of zero. I opened my doors with a dozen or so horses in my barn. Some were boarded, some in for full training, but they all had big mouths to feed. It was during that time that I worked the hardest—but also learned so much.

I was going through a ton of hay per week but I couldn’t afford to buy in bulk or get it delivered. So every Saturday I would coax a friend to come with me to help stack 30 bales precariously on my over-loaded truck, drive it back to the barn and unload it. I went through a lot of friends.

It was a year before I could afford to start buying hay by the semi-load and from that point forward, I vowed to always get my hay delivered and stacked, no matter how much more it cost– a promise to myself that I have kept. The horse business entails a lot of hard work, dedication and persistence but the rewards are great.

I am one of four siblings and all of us are blessed with strong work ethics. I’ve long known that a huge part of my success being self-employed, has to do with my work ethic and I’ve often wondered what is it about our upbringing or genetics that has led us all to this trait?  We were raised on a horse farm where we knew that lives depended on the chores we were assigned to do. We were taught from an early age that there was time for play, but that taking care of the animals came first.

Within the chores we had to do, we knew there were consequences for not doing the job correctly. If a gate was left open, horses were in danger of getting loose (and they did). If a gate that should have been open was closed, a horse may not have access to water (thankfully no one died).

We saw our own parents have dreams and business goals that they regularly tended and saw through to fruition. There’s no one parenting strategy I can point out, but I know a combination of teaching showed me that there was a benefit to my hard work. My parents taught us that we should love what we do and enjoy life to its fullest every day and that if we wanted something, no matter how far-fetched, it was within our power to make it happen, even though it may take a while. And that fairness and a sense of objectivity are very important in all matters.

As parents, we think about these things—how do you help a child learn a good work ethic in today’s culture of instant gratification and risk-averse attitudes? I believe teaching young humans about horses is one step we can take to keep the term “strong work ethic” in the vernacular. I am a huge fan of the “Time to Ride” initiative, designed to help introduce horses to the younger generations. Not only is it critical for the growth of our industry, but it is important to our youth because of the life skills that working with horses brings.

Horses and Work Ethic

While we as humans need to be dedicated to our horses and have a strong work ethic for our riding and horse goals to flourish, it’s also important to think of the horse’s work ethic. While horses definitely need turnout time to “just be horses,” I have found that most horses do better when they have regular and purposeful work.

In my long and varied career training horses, I have found that it is best to teach a work ethic when a horse is young, just like teaching a toddler to pick up his toys. A mature horse that has never been worked is a challenge to train– like training a 30 year old man, who had never had a job, cooked a meal or picked up his dirty clothes off the floor in his life to be a good husband. Sure, it’s possible, but brace yourself because you may be in for some resistance.

Learning a good work ethic starts with learning good manners and how to follow the rules—that you will be rewarded for compliance and that noncompliance will not be tolerated. This is kindergarten for horses. Well before a horse is started under-saddle, he should learn to respect authority, be careful not to infringe on his handler’s space and to look for the cues that tell him what he should do. As a yearling and 2 year old, he’ll also learn to stand and wait patiently while tied, knowing full-well that he could be there all day, so best make yourself comfortable. Patience and stick-to-it-ness is a virtue.

As the young horse progresses toward being ridden, at some point he must learn the cold, hard facts about working for a living—that sometimes he has to work when he doesn’t feel like it, to do what he’s told and to meet certain expectations that his job requires. But that he will always be rewarded for his efforts.

This is easily taught to the horse while doing ground work and the horse learns to go where you direct him without argument, at the speed you dictate, until you tell him to stop. I can teach this on the lead line in one session by setting rules and boundaries for the horse—you cannot get in front of me, you cannot crowd me with your shoulder, and you cannot drag behind me like an anchor. That there are rules I expect to be followed, ramifications if you don’t and comfort when you do. That it is your responsibility to know and follow the rules and I won’t remind you or count to three. Oddly enough, horses learn these things quickly and they take great comfort in knowing the rules.

When we advance to the round pen or circling on a long line, I’ll teach the horse that I expect a ‘yes mam’ response when I ask him to step out and that he should keep going until I ask him to stop. This is a critical stage in training a work ethic, both on the ground and in the saddle—a horse must learn that once I tell him to do something (like trot at this speed), he must continue on his own (without prodding, pleading or pedaling) until I give him the signal to stop. I run across horses every day in my clinics that have never learned this lesson (or actually been taught the opposite) and stop or take off whenever they want.

By nature, horses are an incredibly impulsive species. Take the flight response, for example—clearly a react-first, think-later behavior. Imagine if horses could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted while you were riding them. Lazy horses would go nowhere and do nothing. Energetic horses would go faster and faster. Nervous horses would spin and bolt whenever their fancy struck them. A cranky horse might kick or bite you just for getting in his way or break in two bucking at the slightest provocation.


Horses and Humans

No matter what their default behavior type, all horses can learn to work and it is critical to their success—be it a world champion or the best trail horse ever. Learning a good work ethic and that there are rules to follow, ramifications if we don’t and certain expectations of our behavior, is a critical stage of training in horses and humans both—best taught at an early age! It’s also about learning the great satisfaction and reward that comes with working hard and a job well done. Even if I have to stack a ton of hay again someday, I know I’d be satisfied when I was finished at the tightness of the stack and the good workout I got!

Hierarchy At Feeding Time Logo

Hierarchy at Feeding Time

Here’s a question from a reader:
I have a question about hierarchy. I still treat my oldest horse (17) like he is alpha because I love him the most. I also have a 12 year old that is very submissive and backs down to all other horses. I just got third, a 7 year old and when they are out, he is obviously the boss. Should I be recognizing the shift and changing feeding patterns etc… or do I determine the herd hierarchy when I am with them and let them do their own thing in the pasture? I probably know the answer, I just have a soft spot for my old guy.

My thoughts: There’s no sense in fighting the natural order but the dominant horse doesn’t get to dictate what you do. If I am feeding a group, I let the horses decide who eats first but ALL have to follow their manners and respect my authority. If I am feeding individually, I just put them in pens/stalls according to who is first in line and feed in the most efficient manner. No one gets to fuss about it if he doesn’t get fed first.

My Horse Drags Me, Circles Me And Bumps Into Me When Leading Logo

Are you dragged, stepped on and rammed each time you lead your horse? Is your horse anxious and eager to get wherever you’re going? Does he circle you, causing you to constantly pull back to “put him in his place?” Have you resorted to a stud chain strung across your horse’s nose in order to gain control and to guarantee you’ll have “brakes?”

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to make your horse a willing walking partner. You’re in the lead; you’re in charge.

The Reason
Simply put, some horses have never been taught manners. Worse, some humans have never learned an effective method to manage horses from the ground. If you use the push-pull-and drag method of horse leading, it’s time for change. Your horse’s behavior shows that he’s not respectful. If you keep up your ultra-allowing ways, you may risk physical harm—your horse must know his place in the herd and not think he can challenge you, his natural leader.

No child ever learned table manners on his own. Children need direction and a chance to learn. In the same way, your horse needs you to set boundaries, enforce rules and to act like the herd leader. A horse desperately wants to be accepted into the herd—he needs the herd for his survival. In a natural herd environment, the dominant horse will “teach” the other horses the manners of the group. The leader will be consistent and strong when he corrects the other horses. Once you can demonstrate to the horse that you’ll be a fair and effective leader, he’ll gladly follow you anywhere in a direction and speed dictated by you. But first, he has to learn to follow the rules you establish.

The Solution
You must know “proper manners” before you teach them to your horse. Horses are excellent at following rules when they are clearly defined and consistently enforced. When it comes to handling horses, from the ground or the saddle, I have a few crucial rules.

  • Rule #1, don’t move your feet unless I tell you too.
  • Rule #2, keep your nose in front of your chest at all times
  • Rule #3, when I ask you to, move your feet in the exact direction I say and the exact speed I dictate.
  • Rule #4, keep doing whatever it’s I asked you to do until I tell you to stop.

If a horse breaks a rule—whether on purpose or accidentally—he’ll meet with an immediate and judicious correction. For instance, when I lead a horse, I expect him to walk in a very specific place; slightly beside me and slightly behind me, following the rules above. When he’s in that place, I make sure he’s comfortable; at any time he’s not in that place, I put pressure on him that makes him uncomfortable. The horse finds the safe and comfortable place and will pay close attention to you so that he always knows where he should be.

If I speed up, he speeds up; if I slow down to a snail’s pace, he matches me step for step, always remaining in his designated space to my side and behind my lead hand. To make it easy for my horse, I keep my lead hand up and out in front of me; pointing in the direction we are headed. My hand stays in a consistent place, giving hand signals to my horse as we move from point to point; it’s an easy landmark for the horse to follow.

If my horse doesn’t stay right with me, I’ll make sure to correct him with quick timing and the appropriate pressure. With immediate and consistent corrections, a horse will learn within a few minutes that he’s not allowed to get in front of me. I pretend that on the end of the fingers on my lead hand, is a solid brick wall. At any time that my horse’s nose comes in contact with the “brick wall,” I immediately turn around aggressively, shank him hard, stomp my feet and hiss and spit at him. The horse pedals backwards quickly. If you’re consistent in your corrections, only getting after him when he crosses a very specific line, he’ll quickly learn to stay within his boundaries.

Timing and pressure are everything when it comes to training horses. Whether you’re rewarding a horse (by a release of pressure or by praise) or correcting a horse, it must happen within three seconds of the behavior you wish to influence. This quick timing is crucial if your horse is to make an association between his behavior and your actions. The sooner the reward or correction occurs, the more likely the horse is to make the right association. Think three seconds is quick? The optimal time frame is actually one half of one second.

In addition to your quick timing, you must also know how much pressure to use during your correction. When I make a correction because the horse touched the “brick wall” with his nose, I need to make the horse uncomfortable and bothered so he thinks, “what do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” Depending on the horse, the amount of pressure will vary. The pressure could be just a growl and cross-eyed look or turning around, stomping your feet, swinging the rope and generally having a “hissy fit.” You’ll quickly learn how much you need to do to get the desired uncomfortable reaction from your horse. You’ll know he’s uncomfortable when he tosses his head, runs backwards and looks noticeably uncomfortable. Whatever pressure is required to get that reaction from your horse, use just that amount—no more or no less pressure. You’re simply stating your rules, not causing undue stress.

Remember, a horse seeks comfort and security above all else. By being an effective leader to your horse, having solid rules that are consistently and fairly enforced, he’ll quickly learn that when he’s following the rules he’s comfortable; when he breaks a rule, he’ll be uncomfortable, thus making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. He’ll have control over his comfort–by simply being Mr. Manners he’ll feel comfortable. When he knows his manners and follows the rules regularly, he’ll be secure in your leadership, wanting only to please you and be a part of your herd.

To learn how to teach your horse other important ground From the Ground Up, especially Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership. These and other training tools are available on DVD or streaming at