Ground-Tied And Respectful

Step 3 to ground tying

Improve your horsemanship, and develop a kind, trustworthy relationship with your trail horse with top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight. How to ground-tie your horse.

Whether you’re on your horse’s back or dismounted to clear a path, check a hoof, grab lunch, or help a trail buddy, it’s important that your horse knows he must follow your directions. If you ask him to stand still, he should stay put without continuous prompting. To accomplish this goal, teach your horse to ground-tie (stand still, even when you walk away).

In the first of her exclusive natural-horsemanship series, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight helps you understand what it takes to be your horse’s leader from the ground. By teaching your horse to stand still, you’ll help him focus on you and establish yourself as his leader, fulfilling his natural instinct to follow a dominant personality in a herd. You’ll teach your horse that you’re the trusted leader in your herd of two.

Before mounting up for a long adventure, make sure your horse listens to you when you’re on the ground, says Goodnight. At no point should he make his own decisions about what to watch or where to go. You’re in charge of his every step; or, in the case of ground-tying, his every stance.

Ground-tying is a wonderful skill for any horse to have, notes Goodnight. Not only is it convenient when you need to step away from your horse to perform a task, but it’s a sure sign that your horse is obedient, focused on you, and trusts your authority and leadership. This kind of rewarding relationship with your horse can only be achieved by investing time in ground-work exercises at home.

Exercise Prep
Natural-horsemanship lesson: Teach your horse to stand still on command.

Why you need it on the trail: This skill comes in handy any time you need to hop off to remove fallen branches, open a tedious gate, arrange your saddlebags, help a friend, or simply stop to rest. Teaching ground-tying also boosts your confidence in your horse and his confidence that you’re in charge, no matter what spooky or interesting conditions surround him.

What you’ll do: You’ll ask your horse to stand still, vigilantly correcting him by shaking a soft training lead toward his halter any time he starts to take a step. You’ll gradually progress to laying down the rope and walking a short distance away. Finally, you’ll test his ground-tying skills by working with him in his usual tack.

What you’ll need: A rope halter; a 12- or 15-foot training lead with a knot (rather than metal) attachment; your usual bridle with split or loop reins, and your saddle. Caution: Never allow loop reins to hang down where your horse can step through them; place them over his head in a way that removes them from stepping range.

Step #1. Teach Him to Stand Still.
Outfit your horse in the rope halter and lead. The long lead will allow you to move farther from your horse as you progress in training – so that gradually your horse is less reliant on your physical presence, but will continue to stand still.

Ask your horse to stand squarely on an even surface. When he stands squarely without leaning or cocking a foot, he’ll be less likely to take a step to maintain his balance. (Any whisper of a step he takes will earn a correction from you.)

Loosely hold the training lead, and stand well in front and slightly to the side of your horse; point your toes toward his shoulder. (Don’t stand directly in front of your horse, where you’d be in his path if he moved forward quickly.)

Note: Always face your horse when you want him to stand still; he’ll learn that’s a cue. When you want him to move, you’ll face the direction in which you wish to go.

Step one to ground tying

Give your horse a verbal “whoa” cue, then watch vigilantly for any movement. The instant he starts to pick up a hoof or moves his nose beyond the width of his shoulders (Photo 1A), issue a correction.

Correction technique: Flick your wrist up and down to send a wave through the lead toward your horse. (Be careful not to jerk the lead toward you, which would cue him to move.) This wave movement causes the halter-to-lead knot to bump your horse in the chin, letting him know what he was doing at the time was wrong (Photo 1B). The knot is enough of a correction; a metal attachment can hurt your horse and make him fearful of future corrections.

Important: When your horse moves, correct him immediately. He must receive a correction within three seconds of his infraction to understand your meaning; the sooner within the three-second time frame the correction occurs, the more likely he is to understand.

Continue working with your horse in this manner until he’ll stand still several minutes without a correction. Work up to 10 to 15 minutes. Practice this stage daily until your horse stands still without correction, keeping his attention focused on you, his herd leader.

Gradually stand farther and farther away from your horse, until you reach the end of the long lead. When he stands still at the end of the lead, move from side to side, one step at a time, so that he learns to stand still even when you’re moving.

Practice the standstill in locations around your barn, gradually getting farther away from his comfort zone. Find times to practice when you’re sure your horse doesn’t want to stand still, such as when the other horses are going back to the barn or leaving the arena.

Step #2. Lay Down the Lead.
Once your horse respects your leadership, it’s time to test his stick-to-itiveness. Ask him to stand squarely. Lay down the lead, and hold onto the very end. Verbally tell your horse to “whoa.” Note: Make sure the lead hangs straight down from your horse’s head, so the weight doesn’t pull his halter to the side, cueing him to move.

Step 2 to ground tying

If your horse turns his head too far (Photo 2) or threatens to take a step, send a large wave through the lead to correct him. (You’ll need to exaggerate your movement to send the correction through the longer lead length.) If your correction is meaningful, he should back up a step and look concerned about getting in trouble. If he doesn’t, you haven’t used enough pressure in your correction to motivate him to change his behavior.

Practice with the lead in this position until you can step from side to side around your horse (as far as you can go without dropping the lead) without him moving, and you’re correcting him only rarely.

Step #3. Walk Away.
Now it’s time to test your horse a bit more. Position the lead so it hangs down from your horse’s halter, and lay the excess on the ground. Slowly walk a few steps away from him, and stop.

Step 3 to ground tying

If your horse moves, issue a stern verbal correction (“whoa!”), and move immediately to the lead to correct him. (Your verbal cue will keep his attention on his infraction until you have time to pick up the lead.) Lead your horse back to his original location. Repeat this exercise until he stands still when you walk a few steps away.

Once your horse continues to stand still when you walk a few steps away from your in-front stance, walk farther away. Gradually increase your distance until you can walk all the way around him – and walk away from him in any direction.

Note: At first, it’ll be easier for your horse if you continue to face him as you move around and away from him, but eventually, he should stand regardless of your body position (Photo 3).

Increase the time your horse will stand ground-tied by practicing this exercise when you groom him, tack him up, or even bathe him. Test him frequently; look for opportunities to ground-tie him, even if only for a minute.

Step #4. Tack Up.
When your horse consistently stands still on command, you can walk around him and away from him, and you rarely have to issue a correction, it’s time to try this exercise in your regular tack.

Step 4 to ground tying

Outfit your horse in his usual bridle and reins. (If you use split reins, allow them to hang down, mimicking the weight and feel of the rope, but keep loop reins securely over his head to avoid entanglement.) Ask your horse to stand squarely, say “whoa,” and step away (Photo 4A).

If your horse starts to move, say “whoa” sternly, and move immediately toward him to correct his position. To correct him, don’t use the wave technique you used with the lead. Instead, gently pick up the reins, and use them to cue your horse to back up to his starting position. Then reissue the “whoa” command.

Important: Never use the reins for punishment, whether on the ground or in the saddle. Use bit pressure only for communication. If you use the reins for punishment, it may cause your horse to fear bit pressure and consequently lose trust in you as his leader.

When your horse is ready, it’s time for the ultimate test. Walk all the way around him while he stands in place, then walk away and out of his sight (Photo 4B). He should trust that you, his herd leader, have placed him in position and will stand still until he receives further orders. You’ll trust your horse to stay put, and he’ll trust that you’re in charge, firm, and worthy of being the herd leader.

Stand Statue Still Logo

Stand Statue Still
Lots of people “do” ground work but like with any type of training, it can be done well or not. Groundwork done poorly is training the horse the wrong thing and I have seen many cases where horses have been damaged in the process of “groundwork.” To be an effective trainer, you have to know what you are doing and why you are doing it, what is the desired response and how to get it, and most importantly, you must have the ability to reward (release) the horse with perfect timing (the optimum timing is within one-half second of the desired response of the horse).

If your horse is not adequately trained and you expect the veterinarian, farrier or anyone else to work on your horse or pick up his to feet, then you also have to accept someone else’s fast training instead of your own work with your horse. Don’t wait for someone else to train your horse in a hurry. It’s your job to train the horse.
You need to train your horses to stand still on your request. This can be accomplished in about five minutes with the fussiest of horses if the handler is consistent and has good timing and is adequately outfitted with gear. To teach the stand-still skill, I prefer to use a rope halter with a training lead attached with a knot (and not a harsh buckle). A trained, obedient and subordinate horse will willingly and calmly stand ground tied, with or without a halter and lead.
As you do ground work teaching the horse to stand, work from a looser and looser lead, getting farther and farther away from the horse like he is ground tied. When he is standing reliably (because you have consistently corrected his mistakes or the slightest look away from you—where his attention should be), start lifting his feet and messing with them while he is ground tied. You horse will learn to stand quietly and relaxed while his feet are being handled and manipulated. Be sure to pet and praise the horse for his efforts and make sure that he learns that when he does the right thing, life can be quite good and quite easy.
Once you’ve taught your horse to be mannerly and obedient, you need to get him accustomed to what the farrier or veterinarian will require him to do: hold the foot up high and long, place it between your legs and pound and scrape the foot. As you work with young horses to teach them about foot handling, it is critical that you only put the foot down when the horse is standing still and relaxed. If you release the foot while the horse is fidgeting or fighting, you have trained the horse to fidget and fight. When you let go of the foot, make sure you let it down gently, slowly giving back control to the horse, never dropping his foot out from under him. It is best to place the foot in a specific location when you set it down, but never try to force the foot down.
This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my video, Lead Line Leadership. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills at my Training Library:
–Julie Goodnight

Horse Standing Still While Tied And In The Saddle Logo

Common Complaints
My horse fusses and fidgets when tied or when I ask him to stand still

Julie Goodnight helps you calm your fidgety horse—helping him to be the rock-solid, trustworthy, still-standing horse you deserve. You’ll tie your horse and trust that he’ll be patient as you groom and tack—just as Goodnight and husband Rich demand of their favorite mounts.

Does your horse paw relentlessly when tied, like he’s digging a hole to China? If asked to stand and wait–under saddle or in-hand–does your horse fidget and fuss, causing you to constantly correct him? Are you playing a game of cat and mouse, where he fusses and you try to fix him, in a constant game of tit for tat?

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 train your horse to stand quietly and patiently anytime you ask. With the right training, your horse will stand still like a statue.

The Reason
Horses that fuss and fidget, refusing to stand still have either never been taught to stand or have been “anti-trained” by a handler. Let’s look at three different origins for this obnoxious and destructive behavior. Then I’ll suggest three different solutions for its cure.

While one cause comes from the horse’s lack of good experience, the remaining two causes are human induced. Any horse’s behavior is a sum total of his instinct and what he has learned (or not learned) from his experience. A fussy fidgety horse must learn to be patient and must also have some structured rules of behavior–dictated by you, his leader.

First, it’s possible your horse hasn’t learned patience at the hitching post. If this is the case, the cure is fairly simple. He’ll need to spend hours on end standing at the patience post–until he learns to wait quietly.

I prefer to teach my horses to stand quietly when they’re young (yearlings or two year olds). The older a horse gets without learning to stand quietly when tied, the more hours he’ll need to spend at the post. He’ll be tied minimally for a couple hours every day for a couple of weeks and will only be put away when he’s standing quietly. For older or spoiled horses, the standing-still lesson may take all day—even for days on end. I tie young horses while I am working with older horses. That way, I can supervise the youngsters while making sure they have other horses in sight. They’ll have company and lots to look at while standing.

When you’re teaching your horse to stand tied, make sure you have a safe and comfortable place for him to stand. Your locale should be shaded, have good footing, be bug-free, and the post should be safe and unbreakable. Make sure your horse is never left unattended. Overhead ties work well for horses that are learning. Please don’t use crossties for lesson time–the horse will think of them as a gymnastic apparatus and may easily get tangled and twist the multiple ropes. Make sure your horse is securely tied with equipment that will not break. I prefer to use a rope halter so that my horse will never learn to lean or pull on the halter—the pressure and knots will stop him from pulling back and apply pressure, asking him to move toward the tie post. If your horse is a digger, put heavy rubber mats down to prevent him from digging a hole. Eventually your horse will learn that his fussy antics serve no purpose, so he may as well be patient.

The second cause of fussiness originates with the human responsible for his training. It’s quite easy to anti-train a horse. In just one or two instances you can teach a horse to do the opposite of what you want. If you’re not consistent and aware of your cues and timing, you may inadvertently give your horse a reward–releasing him when he’s doing the wrong thing and not releasing/rewarding when he’s doing the right thing.

Every time you release your horse from being tied while he is fussy, allow him to move on his own accord, let him lean or step into you (or the farrier and the vet), or give him attention while he’s pawing, you are training your horse not to stand still at the patience post. With good timing and meaningful pressure and release, your horse can be taught to stand like a statue in one session–although he’ll need plenty of practice to make it a habit.

You’ll have to invest some time when teaching your horse that you control his feet (and the rest of his body) and that you want his feet to be still when appropriate. You’ll teach him while you’re on the ground and he’s outfitted in a rope and long training lead (I prefer 12-15 feet of heavy marine rope, without a metal buckle at the chin–available at

In an open area, ask your horse to stand still by turning and facing him, saying “whoa” firmly and snapping the lead if he doesn’t respond to your body and voice cues. It’s important to face him–standing 6 feet or more away from him–with your toes pointed toward his shoulders and your feet firmly planted. This position is his cue not to move. As long as he obeys, keep the rope slack. Anytime he makes an unauthorized movement of any foot, pop the rope, so that the chin knot bumps him in the chin and causes him to back up. You must use just the right amount of pressure to make sure he’s motivated to change his behavior without causing him to move too much or seem startled.

With consistent and timely corrections, your horse will learn to stand perfectly still on a slack lead, knowing that you control his feet. With just a little more work, you can train him to ground tie, which is a very handy trick for your horse to know. These techniques and many others are explained in detail on my DVD called Lead Line Leadership.

Finally, let’s consider the horse that doesn’t stand still under saddle. Again, this is human-induced behavior–based either on a failure to enforce rules or failure to release the horse when you should. From day one in a horse’s under-saddle training, he should be taught to stand perfectly still when mounted and to only walk off when given a cue. Every time your horse walks off without a cue, you are training him to be disobedient. Your horse should stand still while you’re mounting and even when another horse walks off in front of him.

Every time you have allowed him to move on his own accord, you’ve reinforced that he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Never allow him to walk off right after mounting; always make him stand patiently and await your cue. Be aware of your horse and what he’s doing; he should only take orders from you, not the horses around you. Allowing him to get away with an unauthorized movement because you were getting ready to ask him to do it anyway is a lame excuse.

I often see riders teach their horses to fidget when asked to stand under-saddle—they think they’re holding the reins tight to control and stop the horse, but the opposite lesson takes place. Believe it or not, horses learn that we’ll pick up and engage the reins before asking them to do anything (stop, go, turn). When horses feel that the reins are slack, they know you’re not asking anything of them.

When you’re riding your horse, you may be teaching him to fidget when you think you’re holding the reins tight to control and stop him. If you’re used to riding a fidgety horse, you may hold the reins tight all the time, eager to correct your horse when he moves on his own. As a result, the reins are never released when your horse does stand (rewarding him for his behavior), so he’s confused and thinks you’re asking for movement. The horse becomes impatient, looking for a release by doing something else (moving).

When you ask the horse to stand, cue him to stop with your voice, seat and reins, and then release the reins to total slack, laying your hands down on his neck to reward him once he’s stopped. If he moves, pick up the reins quickly and harshly, enforcing the stop. Instantly release when he stops, even if only for a second. Make the release dramatic and meaningful by laying your hands down on his neck and giving him lots of slack.

So which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are you fixing the fidgety horse, or is he fidgety because of you? Most seasoned horsemen know that nine times out of ten, horse problems are human induced. If your horse needs education and experience, or if you need to change your ways, the problem is fixable with time and consistency.