Training ~ Ground Tying ("Printer Friendly" version of this page)
There's probably been many times when you've gone to mount up, or need to go back to the trailer or tack room but don't have a place to tie your horse. Wouldn't it be great if you could just drop the lead rope or reins on the ground and have your horse stand quietly while you go about what you were doing? We know a lot of people who go hunting on horseback. Sometimes in the wilderness you'll get off the horse and shoot right next to the horse while he's ground tied. If this was you and your horse, could you trust that your horse would be in the same place you left him? Ground tying is a useful skill to have. A horse that has the patience to stand still is worth their weight in gold. What if you had the ability to leave your horse at liberty with no lead or reins on, go get the saddle and tack and still have your horse standing in the place you left him? A horse that can ground tie reliably will give you this ability!
Obviously, you want to set yourself up to succeed - don't start by trying to ground tie your horse in a pasture with a lot of lush grass. This is too big a temptation for even a well trained horse to endure. Also, if you know that there are flies, gnats, mosquitos, etc. - spray your horse with fly spray to avoid any bug distractions.
A horse that can highline (tie from above) or hobble has a head start in learning to ground tie. Ground tying is all about patience. You want the horse to stand quietly as if he were tied to a hitching post. If you have a horse that won't stand quietly when tied to a post or even just standing still next to you, you may need to start with tying from above to get this concept worked out before you progress to ground tying. You may also want to consider training the horse to hobble. This is not absolutely necessary, but some horses have an easier time with this concept than tying from above.
First of all, don't start with a bit in the horse's mouth (you don't want him to injure his mouth) or an expensive set of leather reins, mecate, etc. You need a couple of tools to make this job easy - a rope halter and 12 foot lead rope really help. We use our old beat up equipment to teach with because the leads get dragged on the ground and abused pretty well. It's relatively simple task to teach. Find a round pen or enclosed arena to practice in. Put the rope halter and lead rope on the horse. You really need to use a 10-12 foot long lead rope for this because you want the lead to be long enough that the horse can (and will) step on it if he walks off.
Learning to Tie
Start in an enclosed area like an arena or round pen. Put the rope halter and lead rope on the horse and step away from the horse and see if he'll stand there. What happens will tell you a lot about what you need to do next; Can he already stand still? Does he wander off? Does he take off in a hurry? If your horse will stand quietly your job is to reward the heck out of him. If he wanders off, quietly take him back to the exact place you placed him and set him up square. If he hurriedly takes off, you may need to let him find that stepping on the lead will stop him and then go get him and quietly take him back to the exact place you left him and set him up square. Remember to reward the horse for doing the right thing.
We start every horse the same way - we want the horse to learn about ground tying on their own. Think about what ground tying means - standing quietly in the same place without moving. Set the horse up for success, place the horse in a square stance. Drop the lead rope on the ground directly below the halter so that it hangs straight down. Practice taking a step or two away from the horse. You want to work up to the point where you can leave the horse in an enclosed area (arena/round pen) for 2-3 minutes at a time without him moving gradually working up to about 5-7 minutes. Practice walking around the horse, outside the arena/round pen while increasing the time intervals that you are away from the horse. You must not let the horse get away with movement of any kind. If the horse moves at all correct him. If he walks away, quietly take him back to the exact place you left him and set him up squarely.
Next practice going out of sight from the horse. Once you get out of sight, there is a bigger temptation for the horse to move off. You still need to correct this as soon as possible.
A horse that moves off a lot will benefit from the "old lead rope trick"! Eventually, the horse will step on the lead rope and this will stop him. I like to set this up right from the start so that the horse gets the opportunity to meet the lead rope! A lot of times the horse will start to walk off and I'll give him some energy to get out of my space. In the next few minutes the horse will step on the rope and wonder "how did he get me from way over there?" This is some of the best reinforcement that you could ask for and the horse did it on his own! This will quickly send a message to the horse that when the lead is on the ground they need to stand there. Your responsibility is to reward the horse for standing quietly when he steps on the lead and comes to a stop. It may take quite a while for the horse to actually step on the rope and stop -- some horses learn to tip their nose out and avoid stepping on the lead.
One of the best ways to practice this is while you are riding, tacking up, etc. Before or after riding; set up the horse relatively square in the center of the arena or round pen Dismount, drop the reins under his head, and leave him to stand quietly. Try to stay relatively close at first so that you can get to him quickly if there is a problem. Gradually work father away from him for longer periods of time. We like to find other chores to do around the barn while the horse is training himself; stall cleaning, moving hay, etc, while keeping a close eye out for any movement or problems. Remember to correct the horse if he moves -- if he walks away, quietly take him back to the exact place you left him and set him up square.
It takes a lot of time to teach a horse to ground tie effectively. Use every opportunity that you can to reinforce and strengthen this concept in your horse's mind. Ask him to ground tie when opening gates, tacking up, or while tacking up another horse. If at any time he starts to move, quietly take him back to the exact place you left him and set him up square. Every different setting and set of circumstances that you can expose your horse to strengthens this concept in the horse's mind.
When you feel that you and the horse have a good relationship and can reliably ground tie in an enclosed area, go to an open area and practice. We have a five-acre fenced pasture that works well for this. The same concepts apply as in the arena/round pen although the horse should not be allowed to eat grass.
Practice ground tying two horses together in the same area. This can be extremely difficult because they tend to want to visit each other. Add some distractions to your ground tying exercises; bicycles, balloons, flags, fireworks, lound noises, training stick, etc. Work out these issues in a controlled environment rather than on the trail. The ultimate goal is to have the horse ground tie free - without a halter or lead rope. This can be done with patience and practice.
There is some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Horses can cause serious injury. Be sensible and dont attempt anything that is outside your comfort level. This information is intended to illustrate how we apply our training techniques, you are responsible for using this information wisely. If you dont feel comfortable with your abilities or an exercise, dont do it! Seek advice or assistance from a professional horse trainer. Stay on the "high side of trouble".
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Updated Sept. 2012