One of the most important aspects of safety when it comes to horse riding is ensuring you don’t have a wandering horse on your hands. After a ride, out on a trail , in the event of an emergency, when you dismount you need to make sure your horse stays right there. But we’re not always afforded the luxury of a post to hitch to.
That’s where ground tying comes into play as not only a convenience but, sometimes, a necessity. And ground tying’s benefits extend to more arenas, such as ease of mounting, grooming, even competition scenarios.
What is ground tying?
Ground tying is when your horse is trained to stand stock-still on command, without being actively tied to anything. A horse that truly knows how to ground tie can be trusted to stand still until released or moved by the rider.
It is a skill that takes some practice and training to master, but it’s very learnable one!
Origins of Ground Tying
It is widely accepted that ground tying began with American ranching, where there are plains and open spaces and a ranch hand would need his horse to stay in one place while doing work – without there being trees or anything to tie their horses to. (source)
If a cowboy had to dismount to tend to a calf, fix some property – anything – he needed to know his horse would not run off. Thus, the concept of ground tying was born.
Teaching Your Horse to Ground Tie
Patience is going to be an important factor when you start ground tie training, because, like with riding, you have to start with a safe and sound basic foundation.
Following an alpha or a leader is instinct for horses, so you are training against their natural inclinations and years of evolution and instincts. It can be done, though!
Keep in mind that ground tying makes a great precursor to teaching a horse to actually tie. They learn to understand to stay where they are left.
In fact, it is often one of the first skills I would teach my newly gentled BLM mustangs during their groundwork training.
Horses that naturally struggle with standing still while tied most likely simply have not been trained to do so. Just because a horse is halter trained does not mean they are trained to stand tied.
Being in cross ties or being attached to a post can be a confusing situation for a horses, especially as they are flight animals. Feeling stuck may activate their fear instincts, or they may be claustrophobic, or may even have had a prior bad experience.
Then, the all-important first step is teaching them to stand still when tied to something. Spend some time getting your horse used to being very still while tied.
Don’t keep them on too a short, tight lead, either – giving them some slack so they do not feel as trapped, but not enough that they are not secure.
You should also tie them to something that can breakaway of the spook, such as a branch or properly installed cross ties or, if a hitching post, always around the horizontal beam and not a vertical post.
If your horse freaks and pulls back, you don’t want them hurting themselves more.
While tied, keep a close eye on them and be quick to correct an error. For example, if they start moving a leg to walk, instantly ask them to move it back to their original standing position.
Just like the rest of training, if a horse is asked something enough times and in a clear manner, they will learn that simply standing still from the outset is easier than be constantly coached and repositioned.
Removing the Need to Tie Your Horse
Next step is to remove what your horse is physically tied to – and replace it with you! You should be facing your horse while holding onto the lead. You then begin to step away from the horse.
If the horse moves, ask them to return to where they were. As first steps, you don’t want to walk away directly from their head in the beginning, as this is a signal to your horse to follow you as you walk away. (source)
Start instead by petting your horse down their back and then walk away from the rear end. This allows you a “clean exit” and your horse is less likely to be drawn to and follow you.
If your horse does try to follow along after you, though, it is best to be prepared and reposition and correct them quickly.
The faster you are, and the quicker you are at anticipating a move by your horse, the faster they will, in turn, learn.
With practice, you should be able to catch their movement within one single step and correct them back into position right then, with a simple one step back.
Just like with being tied to a post, your horse will soon figure out that it is easier if they stand still as you back away, holding the end of the lead.
Removing the Lead Rope
After you have mastered getting your horse to stay still while you are holding onto its lead, it is then time to drop the lead and keep it still standing in one place. This should be done gradually and in phases, too.
First, drop the lead slowly. If you are working with a bridle rather than a halter and lead rope, ensure your reins are secured on the saddle and there is not enough room for them to fall forward or your horse to step through, injuring themselves.
You should also increase the distance you walk away in gradual increases. First, walk only a few feet away. If your horse stays, you can then move on to greater distances.
If your horse starts to follow you, correct them, and reinforce standing still. You may need to pick up the lead again. Tell your horse “whoa” or “ho” as they begin to move, signaling that they should halt.
The lead should stay lying on the ground, too. The weight of the rope on the ground is a strong signal that it’s time to stay still and standing.
Remember, too, that positive reinforcement is key. If your horse stays standing as asked, you should praise them and reward that desired behavior.
Pats on the neck, reassurances of “good boy/girl” are excellent. If they have a successful session, feel free to slip them a peppermint of sugar cube as praise and a thank you.
Know Your Horses Limits
Leaving a horse untied and essentially loose does, of course, come with its own risks. You should know your horses limits and fears and be attuned to any signs they may be bolting or uncomfortable.
Lip licking, weight shifting, ears pricking – all are signs you should know how to read in your horse. It’s important to be honest with yourself if your horse is not quite ready.
Horses should be relaxed in order to stay standing without fear alone. Some horses may naturally be more at ease, while others are more high strung or even mischievous.
Your horse should also already understand how to yield to pressure. They should be desensitized to things like ropes and touches but mistakes can happen.
Even the most seasoned ground tying horse can bolt and so it’s important to have your horse in a bridle or halter designed to be breakaway or easily yield to pressure.
If your horse steps on its lead as its fleeing, you want the halter to snap off, rather than cause more harm and damage by leading to a fall or causing a head injury.
Ground tying is a useful skill for your horse to have, but it is also a wonderful bonding experience. Not only is it useful for you to be able to step away from your horse when needed without fear, but it shows for a fact that your horse listens to you and respects you – they see you as a leader and, more importantly, they trust that you are not asking of them anything that puts them in danger. It is a rewarding relationship to foster and reinforce.