The 7 Principles of Ground Training

Bill is a regular contributor to the Barrel Racers National 4D newspaper. Below is the response to a recent question.

Dear Bill the trainer,

Can you outline the steps for good ground training? In what order, and at what level of accomplishment do you move to the next exercise? I don't want to bore my colt with the same thing over and over, but I don't want to move to another area before he is ready. Help!?


I think this is another really good question that will influence the overall success that you have with your horse for their entire life. There is a saying that you only have one chance to make a first impression, and it fits this situation perfectly.

I would go through my seven principles with the colt. When the colt seems to have an understanding of what I am asking, I would move on. They do not have to be perfect with every move and request, but I would hope to see them trying and getting the idea of what is being asked. Usually, I will work on one or two things at a time and when the horse is comfortable and somewhat proficient with the task, move on. Each day that I come out I will do a quick review and make sure that our previous work is still there, and then start the new lesson for the day. I think that horses learn in the following way.

1. From the release of pressure - If we can read the horse well and take the pressure away when they are trying, or even thinking about trying, they will try harder to find the release from the pressure, and we will build that try into them.

2. I believe that the horse learns in replications of three - The first time they will probably stumble into the answer and not really know what they did, but will be curious why the pressure went away. The second time they will be looking for what made the pressure go away, and hopefully we will be there for them to help them find the answer with our quick release. The third time, they are pretty sure what the answer is, and will quickly and softly go to the answer. At this point I would move on to something else. If we continue with a request too long, the horse will think that he has not found the correct response and will try something else. It may take a long time for him to come back to what we want because in his mind, he tried it and it did not make the pressure go away. After each successful try that the horse makes, I would be very quiet and let him just stand for about one and half minutes to process what has happened. You may have heard this called dwell time.

3. The horse is a pattern learner - He (not unlike the human) needs time to get things grooved into his memory for it to stick. With each thing that I try to teach them, I will repeat it every day for about a week and then every other day for another week. At this point it is in his memory permanently.

Ok, now for a few specifics. I would start like I have outlined below and use your imagination to keep this fresh for the horse and to fit into your program.

1. I can never get my horse too gentle.

I like to use a flag and desensitize my horse to the flag while the horse is standing still, and then when he is moving in a circle around me. Once I have him moving, I am going to keep a slow steady rhythm going. Get a metronome going in your head and continue until the horse can walk around you quietly, and there is no change in his speed or expression. I will also toss the end of my lead rope up onto his back expecting and waiting for the same response. This principle is a great place to use your imagination to help your horse to be able to accept many things. Keep in mind that we are trying to make him braver, not terrify him.

2. I can never get too good of control of the hindquarters.

Shorten your lead rope and walk a half circle around the horse toward the hindquarters. I would lift the lead toward the withers and focus on the stifle. The response that we want to see is that the inside hind crosses over and in front of the outside hind. This is critical in my opinion. It is your brakes when you do ride your horse, and to me denotes a willingness to give up flight. After this is reliable from the standstill, try it from the walk and then the trot. When I am watching a horse, I am looking for quality of movement and execution of the exercises. With this one I want to see the horse moving quietly and softly. If they are rushing or hopping through it, stick with them until it becomes nice and soft.

3. I can never get my gait transitions too good.

I would work on my up and down transitions on line, first on the 12' lead, then on a longer lead, say 20-25 feet. I want the horse to learn to respond to a small amount of pressure and to be willing to go up and down in speed immediately. Don't grind on this too long. When it is nice, go on to something else. You can come back to it later in your workout or tomorrow. When the horse willingly accepts this, you know that he is relaxed and confident.

4. I can never get my rein too soft.

I like to make a halter out of a lariat or use a longer longe line and let the horse get all the way out from me. I will then bring them in about one foot to two feet at a time until they are about eight feet from me, then let them go back out. I am looking for them to maintain their gait and to keep a float in the lead line. Think of this as your rein when you are riding and get it really nice and soft. If they are pulling on me, I will bump the lead rope to get the slack back in the rope. It is up to the horse how much bump I use. As soon as they are soft, I become quiet.

5. I can never get my horse to change eyes too well.

This is a tough one to explain, but really important. I will have my horse going in a circle to the left with my left hand on the piece of the lead closest to the horse’s head. With me so far? Ok, now I will switch hands and have the lead in my right hand while I take his hindquarters (see #2). After he has given his hindquarters, I will push his forequarters across with my left hand putting pressure on his right eye. While I am doing this I am walking forward toward the horse the whole time. This is a very revealing exercise and will tell you a lot about your rein and the overall gentleness of your horse. It takes a little bit of time to learn, but is well worth the effort.

6. I can never get my horse to back too good.

I like to put my hand on the chin knot of my rope halter with my thumb down, and put enough pressure to get the horse to back one front foot at a time with a small release between each step. The cadence is similar to milking a cow. If the horse refuses or is sticky, I will rattle his cage with quite a bit of energy side to side. By doing this, the horse cannot evade the pressure by putting his chin on his chest. I want this very soft, and for the back up to evolve into a straight two beat back up.

7. I can never get my lateral movements too good.

On the circle at the walk, I will check the horses forward movement with a small shake of the rope as I put pressure with my eyes and energy on his mid section. If I do this as I walk forward, I should get just a step or two of two tracking (or leg yielding, depending on the type of saddle that you ride!) At first, any attempt on your horse’s part should be rewarded by taking the pressure off. Soon he will have the idea and you can ask for more steps and then you can be very particular about his hindquarters keeping up the forequarters. This is awkward at first, but again, well worth the effort.

I could go on for days on this subject. It is a good one. If you can get through these exercises you will be well on your way to having a really nice, quiet, and well educated colt.


Angie Reitmeier & Bill Basham
1068 Fiddlers Ridge Loop
Potlatch, ID 83855
(208) 874-3026

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