Ground Manners

I’ve talked a ton about Addy and our journey together under saddle. It’s by no means linear improvement, but we’ve been working hard to click together and achieve our goals. She can be a little complicated at times but she throws her whole heart into it, and our training journey has been fun every single step of the way.

But training under saddle is only part of it. A horse that goes beautifully under saddle is useless if he’s unsafe to handle on the ground! Lot’s of you fellow bloggers out there have discussed groundwork, and I’m going to chime in here.

I’m not going to mention Addy in the rest of this post for one simple reason: she has absolutely perfect ground manners. Seriously, I’ve never met a horse who so completely epitomizes the phrase “no vices.” She even keeps her ears pricked up and gives kisses as I’m tightening the girth. Who does that?!

So she came pre-trained on groundwork. Lucky lucky me- she’s a total puppy dog on the ground and I would trust a 4-year-old with her without hesitation. Gentle giant.

You know who did not come pre-trained? My boy Star. Here’s our story:

My trainer at the time brought him to the barn for every client of his to try- he absolutely loved this horse and wanted him in his barn SO badly. I, however, did not go near him. I had my 20-year-old free-lease that I was doing the short stirrup on, and Star was a big medal horse. No need for that. He also tried to bite me while I was blanketing him one day, three girls fell off him in one week, and he needed a chain over his nose to go outside for turnout. I was terrified of him.

Flash forward a few months- I had won a Short Stirrup finals and realized it was time to move up. My parents had realized how serious I was about riding and agreed that we would look at horses to potentially buy so I could keep progressing.

Of course, the first horse I tried was the horse my trainer wanted all along: Star. My stomach dropped when he revealed that I’d be trying him that day. But once I was on we clicked PERFECTLY. I hopped on one other horse briefly, but hopped right back off. Star was my boy and I had to have him. Riding him just made sense to me.

So we took him home for a trial. He was a bit snotty, but we chalked that up to limited turnout and the stress of a new barn. He even got loose as my mom was signing the sale papers. He just went sailing right past her as his previous owner snickered and said, “he’s yours now.”

An auspicious start.

We did go on to do the mini-medals and win all over the place. On good days it felt like we were one creature. He was my best friend in the whole entire world, certainly more so than the teenagers I went to high school with. I also fell off him more times than I can count, but goshdarnit I learned how to sit deep in the saddle. That type of shenanigan hasn’t been able to unseat me since.

But like I said before: he did not come with nice ground manners. He did not lead well, he bit often, and was- as my Dad likes to say- a juvenile delinquent. He wasn’t gelded ’til he was 4, so he also had a studdish love for the ladies. Such a handsome flirt.

Pair up a 16.2 studdish beefcake of a horse with a 110 lb scrawny 13-year-old, and you’re going to run into trouble. At least, at first.

I made it my mission to make this horse LOVE me as much as I loved him, but I knew that for a horse respect needed to come first.

So we started with the biting. Those bruises were getting real old. So every single time he bit, he got bit. Right on his soft pink nose. With teeth. Hard. Call me a weirdo all you want, but he stopped biting within the week and the behavior never came back. He would nip at clothes when he wanted scratches, but would be so so so careful not to get skin.

Then we worked on leading. We kept the chain over his nose, and we spiraled. Every time he wanted to trot, we did the tiniest possible circle. Because he always wanted to trot, we always circled- our tracks were one long spiral. But he figured out that he was supposed to walk, and later would actually turn himself in a circle on occasion.

We tackled each one of his vices like that, and by the end of my time with him we had the sweetest moose who would give kisses on demand (best trick ever!). His ground manners finally matched his manners under saddle (though he never lost his mischievous streak).

If you’re wondering, we sold him when my schoolwork and nerves made showing too much of a commitment for me. He took another kid up to 2’6″-3′, and then another, and at last check is destroying the college circuit as a dressage horse at Dartmouth.

That’s my ground manners journey, and I’m just as proud of that as I am of moving up from 18″ to 2’6″ with him. It brought us so much closer than we would be if I hadn’t spent the time and effort to bring out his sweet side. But I certainly don’t mind that Addy shows no inclination to nip at me. Traveling that journey once is fine for now.

How were your horse’s ground manners when they came into your life? What “odd” techniques have you used to make a horse behave?

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13 thoughts on “Ground Manners

  1. Britt @ House on a Hill 03/23/2015 / 10:19 am

    Foster has always been a bit mouthy, but never really a nipper. Still, I pride myself on instilling good ground manners in every horse. I think just as you said, being a leader and not letting them get away with anything is important.

    Also- a friend of mine has the same remedy for biting horses as you.. seems odd but effective!

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    • hellomylivia 03/23/2015 / 10:23 am

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one! I’ve gotten a couple odd looks for that one (though mostly from non-horse people, the horse people tend to share even stranger techniques).

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  2. Courtney 03/23/2015 / 11:46 am

    Nice work on spending so much effort on making him behave on the ground. It’s a shame his previous owners didn’t spend the time needed.
    Bad ground manners drive me crazy! I do admit I don’t think I would be able to bite the horse back on the muzzle – I’d be terrified of getting so close to those teeth!

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    • hellomylivia 03/23/2015 / 12:03 pm

      It was definitely worth the time to get him to be a good “equine citizen,” and I was able to relax and have so much more fun with him once we established some boundaries. It was funny, Star didn’t expect me to bite him back so he was more confused than anything! He was never a “mean” biter, just an attention hog who didn’t respect personal space 😛

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  3. Nicole Sharpe 03/23/2015 / 3:52 pm

    Murray was pretty personality-suppressed when he first came to our barn, and had passable ground manners because of it. Really, it was just that he wasn’t doing anything (minus when you had to add a saddle, of course). Our BM was the one who started to have conversations with him, when he wouldn’t give to pressure or tried to be pushy during turnout. I’ve worked pretty hard with him on ground manners, but he’s smart, and it’s a very fine line I have to walk between over doing the discipline and rewarding him for making the right choices. He’s also inconsistent — some days perfect, and then the slow spiral into naughtiness. So it’s a constant battle, basically. But for the basics (leading, blanket on/off, etc.) he’s good enough that I trust basically anyone with him.

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    • hellomylivia 03/23/2015 / 8:58 pm

      You gotta love the smart horses- but sometimes they’re too smart for their own good! It’s definitely hard to balance boundaries while still encouraging them to have their own personality.

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  4. emma 03/23/2015 / 8:51 pm

    my mare was (and still kinda is) a rude head-butting space invader. she’s incredibly sensitive tho – so once you have her respect she’ll respond to the slightest pressure… but she’s also kinda always testing her limits haha, and just bc she’ll be more polite to me doesn’t mean other innocents are spared too…

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    • hellomylivia 03/23/2015 / 8:59 pm

      I think that might be a mare thing- once you’ve convinced them to listen, they listen well!

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  5. Karen M 03/23/2015 / 9:50 pm

    Eli’s ground manners were pretty atrocious when I first started riding him (and had NO CLUE I would buy him later). It’s been an interesting process, trying first to get him to be less aggressive, then less defensive, and now we are in the checking his ego stage because he is no longer as suspicious of people (for a variety of reasons and I’m not clear on all of his background so I don’t know why his behavior was the way it was). But I don’t want him to regress, either. I don’t literally bite him back if he nips, but we are at the point now where I use my fingernails to “nip” him on his muzzle when he gets mouthy. I think we will always have this conversation, and I will always have to warn people that he for real bites and kicks if you’re doing certain things around him, but he is much less of a monster than he used to be!

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    • hellomylivia 03/24/2015 / 7:28 am

      Progress is always good! And out in a herd, Eli would totally be getting that kind of constant feedback if he tried to needle the other horses. I love how you say it’s a conversation, because that’s exactly what it is!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Karen M 03/24/2015 / 10:11 am

        You know, it’s funny, he doesn’t treat other horses that way at all! He is totally willing to get along fine with other horses. It’s just people he tries to assert himself over (which makes me think the source of his horrible ground manners was people being overly aggressive with him at some point, so he just got aggressive back). But, yes, it is definitely an ongoing thing!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. CallyJumps 03/23/2015 / 11:39 pm

    I’m so thankful mine came with great ground manners, though I do believe that it’s something that needs to be reinforced. And something they have to be getting from everyone that handles them, not just one person. Mine will pin her ears when girthing up, but as long as she doesn’t do anything more than that, I’ll allow it, since it’s pretty much the only bad thing she does. (Other than mooch…)

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    • hellomylivia 03/24/2015 / 7:29 am

      Ahhh the mooching. So hard to get mad when they look so cute… But I agree completely that the reinforcement has to be consistent- one person rewarding bad behavior can just confuse the horse.

      Liked by 1 person

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