Tied to Nothing

To get your horse to stand ground tied, you'll build on basic cues to achieve a patient yet focused state of mind.

You get off your horse, drop the reins, and turn toward the judge with a confident, “Look! My horse can ground tie!” expression, only to hear a burst of laughter as Ol’ Reliable trots merrily away, reins dangling, and a happy gleam in his eye.

You now have two options. You can slam your hat on the ground, stomp on it, and take off after your horse to even louder roars of laughter, or you can quietly catch him, go home, and get to work teaching this thing right.

On the surface, ground tying is an odd idea since a ground-tied horse is not actually tied to anything at all. Yet a horse will stand rooted to one spot, ignoring distractions, when you drop the lead rope or reins and walk off-if you’ve done your homework. You should even be able to move out of your horse’s sight while he stands attentively, awaiting his next cue, for whatever period is necessary.

And We Do This Because…
Have you ever had to dismount and do a job that requires both hands in a place where there is no safe or convenient spot to tie your horse? Viewing the south end of a northbound horse when you are many miles from anything resembling food, water, and shelter is not a pleasant experience. So your horse needs to learn to stand politely and wait for you. On or off the ranch, this is a mark of a truly well-trained horse.

Set Up For Success

  • Before you teach your horse to stand still, you should teach him to move.
  • Practice groundwork fundamentals until your horse responds to your cues to start, stop, and move in all directions.
  • Your ground-tying lessons will be most effective in a round pen or other enclosed area.
  • It may help to begin these exercises after your horse is a little tired from doing other work.
  • Remember, ground tying may help you win blue ribbons in trail and versatility classes, but it will also come in handy in real life.

A demonstration of a horse’s ground tying skills is generally required in trail and ranch horse versatility classes. Such events can produce real belly-laugh moments for spectators. They, of course, aren’t the ones chasing the horse. But the blue ribbons generally go to the riders whose horses actually do stand unattended, ignoring the cheers of the crowd.

Even if you don’t compete, it is unquestionably handy to have a horse who stands quietly in the barn aisle without having to be tied as you tack up and then dash back into the tack room for a dropped skid boot.

There are, however, more serious reasons to train a horse to ground tie. First is safety. A horse who ground ties well has learned patience. He knows how to stand and wait. He’s also a horse who is much less likely to panic or pull back when tied to a post or trailer. The ability to ground tie also increases a horse’s value, and he’ll be attractive to potential new owners in the event you can’t offer him a home for life.

An equally important reason to teach ground tying is that it prepares you for the necessary but difficult “next steps” in training. It will take you far beyond the small circle where you expect your horse to stand, to a greater sense of trust and cooperation in everything you do.

Stop, Turn & Wait
Training a horse to ground tie is not complicated. You are going to teach him to stand still, watch you, and wait until you walk up to him and tell him it’s okay to move. Although you never want to work your horse beyond his limits, it may be helpful to begin your ground-tying lessons at the end of another session in which your horse has worked fairly hard. That way, he’ll be ready and happy to stand still.

The pictures for this article were taken in a round pen, but you do not actually need one to teach this. Some kind of enclosed area, however, is a definite plus for the initial steps. You can work the horse with or without tack. If you do decide to work with the horse in a bridle, it’s absolutely essential that he’s learned to give instantly to rein pressure and that you use a mild, smooth-mouthed snaffle bit. Using split reins and/or tying the reins up so your horse won’t step on or through them is a good precaution. You want to do everything in your power to prevent injury. A halter, or no headgear at all, is perhaps a safer choice.

Remember, even if you are working your horse in a round pen, your goal is to teach him to stand still, not to have him run around the pen. The only time you will actually be moving your horse will be in the very beginning. You’ll move him a little bit simply to establish control and to position him where he needs to be.

If your horse is not used to standing on command, the first thing you’ll do is stop him. Let him track halfway around the pen, then ask him to halt, using your body to discourage forward movement. Turn him the other way, then stop him a quarter of the way around. Then, reverse him again at the end of a single panel. As soon as your horse stops and stands still, back away from him. Let him know that it’s okay for him to just stand there and wait.

The next step is to pick a direction you want the horse to turn and face you-left or right, it doesn’t matter. You’ll want to teach both directions anyway. Let’s say your horse’s head is over the fence. Ask him to start walking to the left. That will bring his head inside the fence. Once he takes two or three steps to the left, he will be parallel to the fence, facing to the left. As soon as he does that, back away from him and let him stand.

Now walk in front of the horse, positioning yourself next to the panel. If he starts moving away from you to the right (turning toward the fence), immediately bring him parallel to the fence, facing left again. Let him know that it’s okay to stand still, facing to the left. In effect, you’re developing the building blocks for two things: getting him to stand and wait and having him initiate an inside, rather than an outside, turn.

Kiss to him or gently slap your lead rope, lariat, or halter against your leg so he looks at you with both eyes. If he looks away, do it again. He has to learn to focus on you. Once he will look at you for 10 to 20 seconds, start moving to your right a few steps at a time, getting yourself closer to the center of the round pen. Your horse should keep both eyes on you, but you don’t want him to follow you. You may need to encourage him to wait where he is by stepping back toward him.

Pretty soon, you will be standing 10 or 15 feet away, positioned toward his hindquarters so he has to bend his neck around to look at you. Every time he takes his head back forward, kiss to him. What you’re saying is, “No, don’t turn away. Look back at me.” Eventually, he will turn and face you. It’s easier than craning his neck around. That’s just what you want.

Do this on both sides, so that no matter where you walk in the pen, your horse will turn and face you. When he’s standing still, walk up to him, touch him, praise him, and then walk away.

Distance Control
Whether you have started in a round pen or somewhere else, you now have control of the horse without having to physically restrain him. The next step is to teach him to stand and wait for your instructions.

At this point, it helps to have a visual marker for your own benefit. This can be a cone, a rock, a plastic plate, or a clod of dirt. Position your horse so the marker is between his front legs. Step away from him a few feet, watching him. If he walks toward you, ask him to back up. Don’t scold him. Back him up like you’re on top of him, with his head in a nice position, backing nice and soft. If he starts to go right, ask him to go left. If he starts to go left, ask him to go right. In any case, quietly put him right back with that spot between his front legs.

Then leave him alone.

If he comes off the spot, you’re just going to practice what you’ve already taught him: “Go left when I ask you to go left. Go right when I ask you to go right. Back up. Come forward.” Don’t be in a hurry to get back to the spot and don’t rush the exercises. Practice quietly for another five minutes on turns, backing, and coming forward until your horse begins to think, “I’d really like to stand still now.” Then, work him back to the magic spot. The only time you’ll leave him alone and stop asking him to move is when he’s directly on the spot.

Put a loop in the lead rope, back away and let him stand there. You can even take a chair and sit down as you both wait. If he starts to move, practice his turns for a few minutes and then move him back. Gradually move the chair farther and farther away.

Pretty soon, he’ll wait for you. You can disconnect the lead rope or leave the reins over his head. Walk around the pen. Do different things. Go outside the pen. If he starts to move, put him back where he was.

Practice this in many different places. You can attach a lead rope, a longe line, or a lariat to the halter or bridle as a middle step so you can walk around the horse in an open area yet still have control of him if he starts to move. Go out by the barn or into the front yard and have him stand there. As he gets better and better, you can have him stand in deep grass or put a bucket of grain three or four feet in front of him. If he starts to move, take him back as if to say, “No. I want you to stand there.”

Teaching ground tying is fun, and in a very short period of time you can have your horse doing it really well. But you need to know that this is a skill you build with your horse. Horses being horses, there will be times when you think he is ready for a greater challenge or test, but he will leave his spot. You may feel like a fool-especially if other people are watching. Your friends may tease you because your horse walked (or ran) away, but if you are consistent in your lessons, eventually your horse will make you proud by staying put when you ask him to.

When you’re willing to completely release your horse, you’ll have gotten to the “next step” as a trainer. That’s truly when you’ll have control. You have to be willing to “let go” and look like a fool to get to a place where you’ll look like a hero. Keep working with your horse, and someday the very people who laughed at you because your horse trotted off will come up to you when your horse is standing perfectly, waiting like an attentive statue, and say, “How did you do that?!”

And you’ll say, “I took the time, and I was willing to look like a fool.”

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