If I only had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “My horse is pushy on the ground, but is perfect under saddle,” or “My horse has never done that before!” If a horse exhibits poor manners on the ground, it’s only a matter of time before the rider will have difficulties under saddle.

In my first article (March/April 2013), we looked at the foundation for everything I do: CCKL=TOR (a Confident, Consistent and Kind Leader will earn the horse’s Trust, Obedience and Respect). As in this case, and all other interactions with your horse, these principles hold true, and must be adhered to in order to form a strong partnership. A horse may tolerate inconsistent treatment for a time, but, eventually, the safety pin on the grenade comes out, and the horse reacts “out of character.”

This can be averted, though, if the necessary time – however long that is – is taken to develop communication and create understanding. And if you learn to read the signs that an explosion is coming.

Thinking Time Tip Correct (don’t punish) your horse when he demonstrates undesirable behaviour. Build his confidence and you will automatically build confidence in yourself and confidence in your horse.


Horses have an amazing ability to learn and adapt that has helped them survive for millions of years. If you understand how they learn, you will be able to help your horse respond to your requests, not simply react in a way governed by the flight or fight instinct.

Ironically, horses seek the same things we do, even though they are prey animals and we are predators – safety and comfort. So, in reality, we share a common goal as well as fears and insecurities. The difference is that we can reason, and horses cannot. A horse will do what he thinks is right at the time. That’s why you must realize that every time you handle your horse you are training him, for good or bad.

Pressure and Release

One way horses learn is through the release of pressure when they give the correct response. You must be able to recognize when the horse “tries” by giving the slightest correct response, and then immediately release the pressure.

One of the causes of pushiness on the ground comes from normal foal behaviour. As a foal, a young horse actually moves into pressure, sticking close to the dam, leaning into her, even head-butting her for milk. The herd will even tolerate a foal pushing in on dominant horses. But, as the foal reaches yearling stage, the herd teaches acceptable behaviour by moving him out and making sure he understands dominant, passive and threatening body language.

When the young horse moves away, the older horses stop chasing him, ‘releasing’ the pressure. Nowadays, many (if not all) horses are weaned prior to yearling stage, robbing them of the chance to learn proper behaviour from the herd. When people work with young horses, or older horses that have never been taught proper behaviour, they often see this sort of behaviour as just naughty, not realizing the horse actually needs guidance.

Horses lack acute vision and have almost no depth perception. So, when a horse sees something new, he will study it through a series of advances and retreats. If the new object doesn’t move or startle him, the horse gets a “release” and learns to accept the object. If he runs from it, he will stop and look at it from a distance that also gives him a release of pressure.

Thinking Time Tip Strive for softness in all you do, from groundwork to riding. Even a tightly held lead rope can feel like a trap to a horse and he may choose to flee or fight.

Visual Learning

Horses watch other horses, as well as mirror our actions and emotions. Pull on the reins, and they pull back. If you’re nervous or scared, so is the horse. They also watch us. If I squat down to touch a tarp and then walk or stomp on it, before I know it, the horse I am working with is sniffing it and walking or pawing it too. Not only does the horse learn the tarp is okay in this manner, but you are proving you’re a good leader.


Conditioning is a technique that reinforces learning, for good or bad! For instance, take the horse that won’t stand for mounting. As the rider steps on the stirrup, unbalancing the horse a little, the horse walks off. The rider will often “condition” the horse to walk off at mounting by letting the horse continue to do so, rather than working at it until the horse stands still. If it happens a few times, the horse is “conditioned” to repeat the pattern and the longer it goes on, the more deeply rooted the habit becomes and the harder it is to break. Under saddle, a “conditioned” response might develop if the rider always asks for a canter at the same spot on the trail or in the arena, causing the horse to anticipate the request.


Following are two helpful exercises to improve your horse’s manners on the ground and in the saddle. Keep in mind, as you work with your horse, that if you try to force a dominant horse to do something, you will always have a fight on your hands. If you get frustrated or forceful, the horse may do what he is being told out of fear, not because of trust or understanding. On the other hand, if you are passive or hesitant, the horse will know and, if he has a strong personality, may get pushy. Try force on a horse with a gentle disposition, who is a bit shy perhaps, and you will destroy his or her confidence, not only in you, but in him or herself. What happens then? Well, through the eyes of the horse, he cannot correct your undesirable behaviour, so he becomes a time bomb with a girth and a saddle, waiting to explode.

Groundwork Exercises For Pushy Behaviour 

Groundwork is about teaching your horse to respect your space, and your ability to move his feet. In this article, I will share an exercise that I like to use regularly with my horses before riding. It’s a great gymnastic exercise for the horse, and a test of coordination for the human. I also use this exercise to assess a horse for purchase, or simply to see how he moves and how athletic he is, regardless of whether he has been started under saddle. It is great to help the horse start to develop lightness on the forehand and rocking on the haunches, which is good for later turnarounds and rollbacks under saddle.

I prefer to start, train and retrain horses in an area the horse doesn’t feel trapped, but has good freedom of movement, good footing and safe fencing. My goal is always to have the horse stay and work with me because he chooses to do so and understands the work – not because he has no other choice. I also use tendon boots (leg wraps) to protect the vulnerable tendons in the horse’s leg and to prevent a splint or cut injury by a young horse or perhaps less athletic horse knocking his legs together.

I begin by asking the horse to circle to the right. I do this by standing next to him, at a 45-degree angle, with a 12′ lead rope in my right hand. I twirl the rope in a small circle with my left hand, toward his shoulder, to create the energy to encourage him to move off. Once the horse is moving comfortably in this direction – i.e. there is some slack in the rope and the horse’s nose is bent slightly into the centre – I prepare to change direction.

To change direction to the left, I ask the horse to yield his hindquarters by holding the rope loosely in my hand and walking confidently toward and “through” his hindquarters. I keep my eyes up, but I watch for his hind feet to cross over. As I do this, I switch the lead to my left hand, and twirl the rope at his right shoulder. I will touch the horse with the rope if I have to – for instance, if he is on a circle and he moves his hindquarters into my space. I do this by twirling the rope so that it makes light contact on his hindquarters, not slapping him with it.

I wrap up the exercise by asking the horse to side pass. To do so, from the left circle, I lift my left hand to prevent the continuation of the circle forward, and drive a little at the girth with my right hand, using the rope softly to gently encourage the horse to step across. When you first do this exercise, it may be easier to have the horse circle calmly towards the fence and do the side pass on the fence to prevent the horse from walking forward and continuing the circle.

Under Saddle Exercise

At a recent lesson, a client told me she wanted to work on collection. For the next 15 minutes, I waited while she tried to mount. While this was an extreme case, I often see horses move off before the rider swings a leg over.

This rider error can set the horse up for further pushy behaviour during the ride. When I mount, I face forward so that I can see where my horse’s attention is. I ask the horse for lateral flexion so I can easily disengage the horse’s hindquarters should he spook or move off.

I will hold this position for a moment before mounting fully. Once I lift my leg over, I will sit smoothly in the saddle without jarring the horse’s back. Then I will wait and perhaps adjust my reins or my feet in the stirrups before asking the horse to move off. If he moves off before I ask, I will repeat this exercise until he stands relaxed.

Take Home Message

There is no such thing as a “bombproof” horse. Any horse has the potential to become a “grenade” if you don’t pay attention to his emotional state.