March 8, 2017

Retraining a Racehorse: Ground training basics

In the first in the series on ‘Ground Training’, Fred and Rowena Cook (of Equine Management and Training) start from the very beginning to introduce the idea of working on the ground as well as the equipment you will need.

‘Ground Training’ encompasses absolutely everything that a horse can be taught without a rider on its back; it can be kept very simple with just teaching a horse his basic ground manners or be more advanced with the horse mastering the more challenging moves of piaffe and passage. For this part of the series, we are keeping things simple and looking at teaching good ground manners and addressing lunge work.

Whilst not an absolute necessity as part of your retraining programme, we do recommend that time is spent on ground work prior to commencing ridden work. Our approach to retraining a racehorse is akin to training a young horse, in that ground work builds up and supples the right muscles to prepare the horse for ridden work, encourages him to seek and take a contact, develops consistency and builds confidence especially with a horse that has been more used to working with others than alone and of course, helps develop a horse mentally too.

Of course, the horse out of training is perfectly au fait with being ridden but he has to learn a new set of instructions and carry himself and his rider in a completely different way; there will be times along that transitional journey when he reverts into what we call default mode – i.e. go into his comfort zone of displaying typical racehorse traits such as hollowing and shortening the stride; and whilst he will be well-used to be tied up, standing for the farrier and so on, when placed in a new environment with strange people and horses around him, he may at times forget how to behave politely.

During the early days of owning your ex-racehorse when you are helping him settle into his new environment and routine, this is where the foundations begin to be laid for your long-term relationship. As well as spending extra time on grooming sessions, there is no harm in taking time out to check and reinforce good ground manners. Ground manners exercises are often those associated with and incorporated into the “natural horsemanship” training programmes of such people as Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, Klaus Ferdinand Hempling and Mark Rashid – but you do not have to be an advocate of anyone in particular in order to have some fun on the ground with your horse before you start ground training proper.

Good ground manners

The teaching of how to behave is an important aspect of being able to handle a horse as safely as is realistically possible when dealing with a live animal with a mind of its own. However, as we all know too well, some horses do become rather unruly – usually through no fault of their own – so a little time spent reinforcing basic good manners so that you have a horse that will be lead instead of leading you, will not barge his way past you when you open the stable door, will stand when you ask him, will move over in the stable and so on is time well-spent.

Whilst generally a misbehaving horse is viewed as a naughty or un-cooperative creature, actually the horse that has the tendency to be a bit unruly on the ground is generally a horse that does not trust those around him. So the process of teaching or reinforcing ground manners is actually of more benefit that you make initially think in that:

  • it helps a horse to overcome some of its natural instincts so helps with nervousness, spooking and lack of confidence,
  • promotes cooperation,
  • teaches the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not,
  • it opens the lines of communication between you,
  • helps develop your working relationship building trust and confidence so that your horse actually wants to be with you,
  • enables the horse to learn about moving his body in ways he will not have been used to.



An attentive horse awaiting instruction. Always keep the line soft.

Horses seek guidance and leadership so if you are indecisive or give out conflicting signals, your horse will respond negatively. How many times do we see the horse that plays up for his owner but butter-wouldn’t-melt with someone-else? This is purely because he does not trust his owner to be his leader, the one to protect him and keep him safe. So if you are struggling to maintain control and attain the correct responses, it is likely you are at fault due to lack of feel, poor timing and a lack of confidence; seek advice to see where the break-down in communication is occurring.

For basic ground manners training, all you need is a headcollar and lunge line or 12 foot rope lead – a standard lead rope is too short. For practising exercises other than those associated with every day handling such as leading, it is recommended that a horse wears protective boots/bandages particularly if he has shoes on. Whilst we elect not to wear gloves and a hard hat when working horses from the ground, recommended safety guidelines are that you should do so when undertaking any training procedures.

Horses instinctively move into pressure so they have to be taught to yield to pressure. However if that pressure comes from a sharper object, the horse will respond positively by moving away from it; this is why training halters work. Being made of thin rope, they cover a smaller bearing surface to exert a “sharper” pressure than a standard headcollar. Fitted correctly, pressure is applied to sensitive areas of the head the poll, cheek & bridge of the nose (aided by the knots) stimulating the instinct to move away from a sharper pressure. The very moment the horse responds in the correct way, the pressure is released.

NOTE: If you choose to use a training halter please ensure you are familiar with its usage and the techniques required; if not you should seek guidance/instruction before using on your horse.


Fred and Rowena Cook

The next part of this series will go into teaching backing up and how to move the hindquarters.

Thoroughbred Training Consultants – Equine Management and Training
Inc Rehoming Racehorses – A Life After Racing
RoR Approved Racehorse Retrainers
Retraining Consultants to Greatwood Charity
UK Agents: Ardall Equine & Rider Safety System
Authors: “Re-Educating Racehorses – A Life After Racing”

To find your own ex-racehorse, please visit Source an Ex-Racehorse

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