Basic Groundwork and Saddle work for the Herd Bound Horse


Clinician, Instructor, Trainer

By April Reeves: I get this question all the time so I thought I would address it here. Herd bound horses can become dangerous if the problem is not nipped in the bud right away. However, it’s one of those problems that many people are unable to deal with as it takes a certain level of skill.

This article is for those who are baffled and need a solution that they can accomplish. It is the longest one I have written to date, and covers some very extensive ground and riding exercises. It won’t be easy, and does require patience and dedication, but the techniques are easier to follow than some others and the results are good.

This is for the horse that is strongly bonded with a single buddy or herd, and those horses at the point of showing aggressive behavior and lack of respect for the handler/rider through rearing, kicking and biting.

This horse (for the purpose of this article) cannot be caught, groomed, led, tied or go on a trail ride anymore. Previously this horse was good in all categories and no problem for the owner.

The problem lies with the owner not having a leadership role with the horse, and thusly the horse has no confidence in the handler and prefers to stay with the safety of the herd. The handler must change the relationship from human to leader.

While I have attempted to set up a number of exercises that will get you started and accomplish good results, to write about this in depth would be a book, and further study may be needed to put the detail and finish on a horse. However, work on these exercises and do each one really well before moving on to the next. It is in this patient dedication that you achieve the results you want. Do not rush through training. The smaller the lesson, and the simpler you can make it, the faster your results. Less is more when training horses.

There are many advanced exercises in groundwork and saddle work that you can use once your horse is behaving better and you are ready to move on to advanced riding. Many great trainers have DVD packages on this. The ones I recommend are Clinton Anderson, Adiva Murphy and Julie Goodnight.

Groundwork is the foundation of all the other things we ask from our horses, including this. Good groundwork done previously would have prevented the horse from getting dangerous and challenging. It may not have prevented him from trying, but it would not have been able to escalate to this level.

For now, let’s start with these exercises.

It’s important to purchase and keep the following equipment. These tools can be used with any breed or discipline. A trainer is only as good as his/her tools:

Rope Halters
Traditional halters have a nice elegant look to them and are easy to put on a horse. Unfortunately, some horses tend to pull against them and drag their handlers around, as the wide bands of leather (or nylon) are almost comfortable for a horse.

Rope halters are generally made of soft round rope, all neatly tied into a halter that you tie up instead of buckling. Done up properly, they are easy to untie should the horse pull back in one, and there are no buckles to rust out or break. They come in another variety that has several knots in the nose, and a bit stiffer rope, for the really ‘bad boys’. They don’t need oiling to keep them soft, and can be washed.

Their function is to create pressure and ask a horse to pay attention and listen. They take the place of having to resort to nose chains, lip chains and other various ways to dress up a traditional halter to maintain control. They are very difficult to break should a horse get hung up in it, so never put a horse out with one on. They are NOT to be used when teaching a horse to tie for the first time, or to be used when trailering.

Rope halters work on the horse through pressure around the poll area and the nose. The thinner strand of rope is soft enough to not burn a horse, but small enough to allow more direct pressure points. When in use, it asks the horse to “pay attention and listen” without causing anxiety or abuse, as opposed to painful methods such as lip chains. Pressure teaches; pain builds resentment.

You may want to try one on your horse and see what you think. Rope halters are used by English and Western trainers, as many disciplines are finding the value in their simple design. (There is a good “halter tying” article on my blog under Natural Horsemanship – ”I ride English. Do I need a rope halter and how to tie it?”)

Lead Rope and Horseman’s Stick
You will need a soft rope no shorter than 12 feet.

The Horseman’s stick is valuable as it is durable and won’t bend like a traditional whip will, and it has a ‘tail’ end of rope that also aids in teaching.

The horse you lead is the horse you ride.
You are going to get your horse to be compliant in these areas:
1. Lead without pushing you or getting into your space
2. Stand quietly away from you without reacting to external stimuli
3. Keep both eyes on you attentively
4. No fear of being touched or handled anywhere
5. No vices such as biting, kicking, rearing or head bouncing

Standing Quietly
Here is an exercise you can start in the aisle way of a barn.

Stand the horse in an aisle and face him. Keep your lead loose, and tap the whip/stick rhythmically on the ground for a few seconds, on front of his chest.

If he backs up at all, stop and tell him he’s good in a quiet voice. Continue, and praise him for the smallest try.

If he does nothing, tap the whip in 3 stages, softly, asking him to back up, for about 6 taps, then tapping harder and close to his chest, with the intention that he had better back or else, and if this does nothing, it’s time to connect. Tap him with intention and firmness once on the chest between his legs. Mean it. Do it and when he startles and backs, keep the lead soft (no pulling what so ever) follow him and stand and look at him for about 5 seconds.

If he runs back and wonders what hit him, just let him back, staying soft with the lead line, no pulling, letting it out as he moves back, and stand very quietly. Let him blow on his own; it will teach him to to take responsibility.

Then repeat. Keep repeating until you only have to tap the ground and he responds.

Now take this lesson outside and test it. This exercise gets him to pay attention to you by keeping two eyes on you all the time in anticipation of your next ‘question’ to him.

I really like this exercise and it is the first I often do with horses who generally don’t have anything really ‘bad’ about them. When you do stand quietly, let the rope rest on the ground with you holding the end, as this is the prelude to ground tying.

I also like to start in a barn aisle as the horse has to face you and pay attention.

Leading Exercises
These exercises help with keeping horses out of your space, respecting your speed, keeping up and general obedience.

Leading against the fence
Take your horse out along the side of a fence and with rope in one hand and stick in the other, letting the ‘tail’ drag along behind you, ask him to move with you and stay at your hand, not in front of you or behind you (rope is in the hand by his head, stick is in the opposite hand) If he lags behind, flick the tail of the stick behind you as a lead mare would flick her tail at a lazy herd member. Move at a reasonable pace. If he gets in front of you, use the stick in front of him to ask him to stay back. Keep your hand up at his eye. This asks him to stay out of your space while you walk along. As you get better with this you can keep your hand lower. I like to hold my hand in a ‘leading gesture’ – just below their eye and in front of it, once the horse understands to keep their distance.

Always work both sides. Two eyes, two horses (don’t buy another horse, just work the two you already own – Adiva Murphy). Work one side first and get it down fairly well before moving to the other side. The fence line keeps your horse beside you. Do not use your hands to move the horse around; always use your stick. Horses move into pressure from your hands pushing them. If the horse gets into your space, bring your hand up to his eye and if he continues to move into you, ‘pulse’ your hand rhythmically near his eye without hitting him. If he does continue to move into your space, you will have to use your hand in rhythm and let him run into it. Horses seem to know the difference when they run into things and when a human hurts them. By allowing Spike to run into you, you set him up to learn to be responsible for his own actions.

It’s important to practice the ‘pulsing’ with your hand. It is a continuous, same speed of movement; don’t increase your hand speed if the horse gets pushy. Keep the same rhythm and speed in a moderate pulse.

The Squeeze
Another exercise is a ‘squeeze’. Ask him to walk in between two barrels. Keep them far apart for now, but gradually decrease the space until he has to squeeze between them. Do not pressure him to do this; go about it slowly until he is comfortable with the process of having both barrels hit his sides as he moves through. This gets the horse over the claustrophobic issues they encounter, and builds trust that you will not put them in harm’s way. There is always a way through.

You can also back him through the barrels also, using the first method above that you did in the aisle way, to tap the stick and ask him to move backwards through the barrels (again, another test for obedience and submission).

An advanced exercise with barrels is to lay them on their side, and split them for the horse to walk through. Slowly bring them together as the horse gets confidence, and eventually you can join them and jump them on the line. Go slow with this and don’t force the horse over the barrels until his confidence is there.

Sending Exercise
This is one of my favorite exercises and I use it extensively when horses begin to lose their brain. It’s called a sending exercise, and the point of it is to keep their feet moving and to tire them out a bit to encourage their thinking brain to kick in.

Its roots are similar to longeing but there are some subtle differences in how you apply the techniques.

To begin, stand still and ask him to move away from you to the left. Take your left hand and hold it out away from you to the left, guiding him, through the halter pressure, gently away from you. Most people pull on the halter towards them, tipping the horse in and guiding the horse in towards them. Be careful how your body movements speak to the horse. Move slow but deliberately, not letting him run into you. Keep using this technique until he gets it, and when he makes the effort to walk to the left, let the rope out, soften and stay quiet (do not move your feet). You will have to start this exercise on a smaller circle so that you are close enough for Spike to ‘feel’ the pressure to one side. Once he begins to understand, change directions often, asking him to go left and right about every 1 1⁄2 times around. This is called ‘moving the feet’ and the purpose of this exercise is to create leadership and get the thinking part of his brain engaged.

If he gets moving too fast, pull him in and redirect him the other way. Never let him move your feet. Never let him stop and hang out. Eventually he will understand that he needs to conserve his energy and begin with quiet demeanor. This is another one of those lessons that can take time. Just start with a quiet gesture to move out, let Spike respond by moving out where you suggest, feed him some line and stay quiet with your feet. If he is fairly calm, reward him by letting him stand and ‘soak’ once in a while. Never wind a horse. It will sour them and turn them apprehensive about training and learning. If he has had a rather energetic time trying this exercise, and he is breathing hard, let him stand and catch his breath before starting up again.

To get a horse to stay out at first, you need to become ‘large’. Bring your hands up higher and bring up your energy to match the challenge. Never let a horse move your feet. If they come in too close and crowd me, I hold the stick out, and let them run into it with their shoulder or ribcage. It they posture you with their hindquarter, use the stick to spank it away from you. This is the advantage of a Horseman’s stick; it is stronger and not as flexible, and when you tip it into the ribcage of a horse, they are going to move from it quickly, as they can’t bend it.

It’s valuable to practice how to lift and lead the rope. Have another person at the horse end holding the rope and keeping their eyes closed. Lift and lead and have the person move one step to where you are sending them. This will help you to gain ‘feel’ in what you are doing. If the person moves toward you, it’s a signal you are not moving the horse away either. Keep your hand out and to the side. Change places with the other person and see just how subtle the ‘feel’ is to a horse.

These are basic introductory exercises; if your horses is not ‘behaving too badly’, they should be done every day and before riding. I do these daily with a few of the more aggressive horses I ride as I always want to know that the horse on the ground is paying attention and using the thinking side of his brain. For my more sensitive horses, I still do groundwork, but it’s more in the style of flexing and bending than obedience.

You can learn bending and flexing groundwork also, as it will without question help your horse in his riding training.

Work on your horse for a week or two, 7 days a week, or until the horse has made a significant change in behavoir, then begin to introduce the saddle and bridle again. The day you are thinking of hopping aboard, make sure all the ‘bugs’ are out by going over your groundwork first, and when the horse appears quiet, responsive, listening to you and sighing and licking, you can begin to ride.

I always use the softest bit available, which is a French link snaffle. It has two breaks in the middle, and the middle looks like a dog bone. It does not have the ‘cracker jack’ effect that an ordinary snaffle has, and therefore does not create apprehension or anxiety when first starting out.

When you start, make sure he has a really good stop button. When you first mount, ask your horse to stand, by bringing his head gently to one side.

Reach down one rein and guide his head fairly close to your knee (you need to bring his head close enough to your knee, but far enough away to bring his head closer on his own without your help) until he gives.

The give will feel as if there is suddenly no weight on the rein. This often happens quickly so be watchful of it. When he gives, drop the rein immediately and let him bring his head back to center (it is important to drop the rein immediately as it is the release that teaches). If he walks off, bring his head around to the other side in the same fashion, and when he softens, let him go.

Make sure there is no pressure from the opposite rein. Only pressure from the one rein should be used. You may have to go back and forth, side to side for quite a few times at first. When he finally does get this, he will stand quietly while you fuss around up there, patting his hindquarters and gathering your reins.

If he ever walks off on his own, repeat until he stands, and until you use both legs to ask him to move. Horses need to stay exactly where you put them until asked to change. This is important as it means the rider must be consistent with the delivery of the aids and not be good one day and slack the other.

If your horse keeps moving in a small tight circle with you holding his head close to your knee, sit up straight and go for the ride until he stops. You can sit there longer than he can circle. Keep straight – don’t lean in. Continue the exercise no matter how long it takes. If he gets excited, just stay there with his head close to your knee and let him react. It will be very uncomfortable for him eventually and you will have made the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.

Another advantage of this exercise is that it takes away the power and drive from the hindquarters. We call this ‘disengaging the hindquarter’ (taking out the clutch). When a horse is straight, they can get into all kinds of trouble and become dangerous. Without the power, they lose that ability, and learn to shut down and focus. It moves a horse from instinct brain to thinking brain. Horses by nature will not use the thinking brain much; humans have to teach them to think first.

Once this lesson is working, begin to walk him around, keeping a fairly loose rein. Then do the same stop again at the walk. As you ask for the halt at the walk, draw your energy and weight down into your seat and stirrup. The horse will feel this and eventually pick up on it, but you need to incorporate that plus the one-rein stop at the same time, at the beginning.

Remember to always change sides so that the horse does not get sore on one side. This is also a valuable exercise for lateral work and suppleness. I do this at a stand still with every horse, every time I get on. And you should do it every time you ride, regardless of how advanced you get with your horse. You can never overdo this exercise, as it gets the horse flexible and ready to work at the movements you ask.

One-Rein Stop at the trot and canter
You can also do this exercise at the trot and canter, as you progress. It teaches the horse to shut down immediately, and it’s such a valuable exercise to teach if you have a horse that may be a bit volatile or explosive at odd moments. Once they learn to shut down easily, just the dropping of your hand to the rein will bring them back to thinking brain and stop them before they get too stupid (exercises below).

Once you are comfortable with the one-rein stop at the walk, move your horse up into a trot and use the one-rein stop to stop him. When he stops, sit quietly for a moment and then move him up into a trot again and repeat. Always change sides. Continue to do this until he stops quietly. Remember to sit straight, no leaning, and bring your energy and weight down through the seat and stirrups. Work at the trot for some time, and gain a steady rhythm with the horse before you move into the canter. If the horse is still excitable during the trot, move back to the walk. Always go back a step or two – never move forward if the horse is not getting the lesson. When horses are not quick to learn a new exercise it’s because the past ones have not been done well enough and long enough.

You can never do too much of this exercise. When asking the horse to stop during the trot and canter, do not pull his face with force. Ask him to follow a feel and gently but with confidence turn him in to stop. If you pull too quickly you run the risk of him falling. Safety is always first.

If the horse begins to anticipate the stop, go back to the walk and do one-rein stops. Then go back to the trot and canter.

Teaching rhythm, pace and responsibility for gaits
This next exercise will teach your horse to take responsibility for his gait. You should never have to constantly push a horse every few strides, nor should you have to try to correct a fast horse all the time. Horses should stay in the gait you ask until you ask otherwise, and this exercise will help. It’s also easy. You will do very little. There is no direct pulling on the face or aggressive motion on your part.

You will need an arena or a field where you can ride safely, and has no holes or rocks. Begin by asking the horse to trot, keeping him in a series of circles. Keep the circles fairly large, as you don’t want to put stress on the legs and muscles. Keep your reins loose and allow your horse to trot freely.

Let the horse trot as fast or as slow as he wants, and gently guide him to stay in the circle. Do not pull or try to change his trot speed. Just stay there and go for the ride, quietly, keeping your legs off the horse.

Do not try to change the speed of the gait you are in, or manage it in any way. Always remember what the single lesson is.

Your only job is to make sure he does not change his gait. If he slows down and almost breaks into a walk, bring him up again. Ask with your legs once, and if he does not move forward with speed, ask again using a crop and legs at the same time, and mean business. Let him jump forward, even canter for a few strides then bring him softly down into a trot again. Never pull a horse back once you have asked him aggressively to move forward. It is a conflicting message for him as you ask to go forward and then check him. This can make him very anxious and you can lose his trust.

Always in training, remember what the single lesson is. In this case, it is simply to move forward. As time goes by and he gets better at this, then you can refine it, but for now it’s one lesson at a time only. This is basic introductory movements, not advanced work.

If your horse is more likely to speed up into a canter, each time he does you are to use the one-rein stop to bring him back to a trot. The instant he moves back into a trot, release him and allow him to move forward first, then gently guide him back to the circle.

It’s important to remember to bring the horse back to a trot from the canter, not a walk or stop. Remember what the lesson is: trot, rhythm, cadence and obedience. You must stay in the trot at all times. The only exception is above, when you are doing the exercise to move forward with obedience, but even with this exercise you will still bring the horse back to a trot should he move forward at the canter at the beginning.

When you have this working well, move him into the canter, and keep it, staying in the circle. If he breaks into a trot, do what it takes to keep him in the canter. If he begins to balk, do not stop and try again, as this only teaches him to shut down when HE wants to.

Your legs and hands
Also during this exercise, do not ‘nag’ with your legs at all. The point is to get the horse to continue it’s gait on it’s own without your help. This teaches the horse rhythm and responsibility.

Your hands remain quiet and still with the exception of guiding the horse, by picking up one rein or the other, never both reins at the same time. You should not have to force the horse into any circles. If this happens, go back to the one-rein stop at the walk. This exercise will teach you to stop the direct rein habit of pulling back with both reins as your first instinct to stop or change gaits. You should learn independence of hand first, and that includes stopping horses with one rein. It is more effective and produces results faster.

Try to change the circle direction often. You should never overdo this or wind the horse. If he gets hot or winded, stop him and let him catch his breath. Once he is recovered, you may resume the circle. I never wind a horse as it can damage them permanently and sour them.

Why does this work?
Horses seek comfort by nature. Since he does not know how long he will have to trot, eventually he will realize that it may be best to slow down and conserve his energy. This is where the lesson is: when he decides this on his own without any help from you.

With some horses, this lesson can take an hour a day for many days, depending how deep the problems run. It is important that you do not give up after a day or so. This does work on even the most stubborn horses. Eventually they all come around. Remember to let the horse catch his breath often.

What’s amazing is that you just sat there and did very little. There are many ways to create a great foundation without all the pulling, frustration, aggravation and expensive training. All my students learn this before anything else. You cannot do anything without cadence, rhythm and calm first. This is the foundation to begin all other training exercises.

After about 20 times, you will notice a rhythm and steady cadence to your horse’s gaits, from the walk to the trot and canter. Do this exercise at the canter also, as many people avoid too much canter work. I personally spend a great deal of time in the canter, as it is part of my interval training schedule (breathing and endurance) and obedience in speed gaits. Never be afraid of the canter – you can’t improve on something if you don’t do it. However, if you have trouble staying in the saddle during the canter, it is well advised that you take some training to improve your seat and balance, as often horses canter quickly to avoid the pain and discomfort of the rider coming down hard on their backs too often during the canter.

Remember: the horse you lead is the horse you ride.

Groundwork and Riding combined
During your rides, should he ever lose his brain, get off and do the sending exercise until he comes back. I always ride with the rope halter and lead under the bridle, and I attach it to my English saddle by tying it to a short strap that I run from the metal attachment loops on the front of English saddles. On a western saddle I tie it to the horn in a mecate knot.

Get his brain on the ground and then get back on and continue your saddle work. It is not worth getting hurt riding, and there is no need to fight from the saddle. You can obtain the same results and respect quicker and with less fight if you take it on from the ground.

This is only a few of the foundation training exercises that can be done, but it will give you a good start and allow you to feel what it’s like before moving into further training. If you do this with consistency and regularly (daily) you will find that your horse begins to ‘join up’ with you and feel comfortable leaving the herd behind. It all starts on the ground first.


Hi April,

I asked this question about a buddy sour horse not too long ago, an old Standardbred gelding.

Well, I have completed the set of exercises you gave me to work on with him. I am amazed at the change we are experiencing. As you may recall, when I first got my other filly he would buck, rear, and run away from me to get back to her. Now he is still a little jumpy and sensitive when away from her but he hasn’t had any extreme episodes like before. YAY! :) Also many other areas have been improved.

I did the trot circle exercise and now he keeps up a steady trot for nearly as long as I want him to, and I only have to ask him once. What is kind of strange is that now he feels more comfortable cantering for me too.

Do you have any other relationship building exercises I can do with him? The ones you gave me so far have worked great!

I am so thankful that you are willing to share your expertise in this area, and I am glad that you are polite and that your remedies actually WORK!!

Thanks a whole bunch, Mattie.

3 responses to “Basic Groundwork and Saddle work for the Herd Bound Horse

  1. Very well written and informative article! Thanks for taking the time to put this out there.

  2. Pingback: New horse owner wonders if she should sell the horse « aprilreeveshorsetraining

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