Building From The Ground Up-Safe Ground Handling Of Horses

Safety is first and foremost and should always be considered when working with horses. To safely work with your horse, you first need to understand several key points of equine behavior. Horses are equipped with survival traits that shape their responses from stimuli and their environment. Animals react to new situations by either fearing it, and fleeing, or by ignoring it, and later exploring if they feel there is nothing to fear. Falling under the category of prey, horses would rather flee, meaning they have a very quick response time to situations.

Have you ever heard someone describe their horse as spooky?

That spookiness is commonly referred to as bad behavior, when in fact it’s just your horse’s instinct. Now that you understand some of the “why” behind your horse’s behavior, let’s begin with more of the basics.

Approaching The Horse

Move confidently and slowly when approaching a horse; walk, never run. Approach the horse from the front, toward their shoulder. Speak to the horse when approaching and extend your hand. When approaching from the rear, place your hand on their hip, and keep a hand on the horse, rubbing or patting until you reach the head area. If the horse begins to move away, stop, wait until the horse stops, then attempt to approach again. You should always pay attention to the head, ears, neck, and body position because these are good indicators of what your horse is thinking and feeling.


When attempting to lead your horse there are a few key points to always remember. Always use a lead rope, do not hold onto the halter, and never wrap the lead rope around your hand. Stand to the left side or the near side of the horse’s throat latch area. Hold the lead about six inches from the halter. When leading, extend your right elbow toward the horse and keep your knuckles on top of the lead. Horses should not pull or push you when leading but walk quietly and obediently beside you. If the horse makes contact with you, it should hit your elbow first and move away from you. Never stand, lead, or back up from directly in front of the horse.


The 4 key items to remember are level, length, location, and knot. Use a halter and lead, never tie a horse by the bridle and reins. Never attach a lead rope to the bit to tie. Tie a horse at wither height or higher, some may refer to it as “eye high.” The lead length should be about an arm’s length, approximately 18-24 inches. The lead should be tied short enough, so the horse does not become entangled, or get a foot over the lead. When looking for an appropriate place to tie, look for something solid: a wall with a tie ring or a sturdy post. Do not tie to fence board, rail, or any other moveable object. Always tie a horse at the correct level, a safe and sturdy location, and by using a quick release or safety knot.

Cross-ties may be another option for securing your horse. A safe cross-tie area has a solid barrier behind the horse. A solid barrier will prevent the horse from fighting the cross-ties and panicking. Rubber matting or other non-slip footing will help to eliminate the horse from slipping. Eye bolts for cross-ties should be attached to something structurally sound, like a beam or stud. Bolts should attach to the wall or post at a distance higher than the withers of your tallest horse. This will help ensure the horse doesn’t pull the ties out of the wall. When determining proper length keep in mind the cross-tie snaps should barely touch each other in the middle. This length will prevent the horse from getting tangled or turned around. You may even want quick-release snaps on each end of the ties, or a combination of quick-release snaps at the halter end If the horse is new to cross-ties, and they tend to pull on them, you can use short lengths of breakable twine between the cross-tie and the wall. The twine acts as a safe breakaway if the horse would panic and begin to pull. Keeping the lead rope attached to the halter will allow you to correct their behavior as needed. Watch the head area, it should be as still as the body if the horse moves excessively, tug the lead, and guide them back to the center.


Grooming is an important part of your horse’s health. Grooming removes dirt, dandruff, and other debris. Routine grooming helps keep skin healthy. Brushes and combs you may use in your daily grooming could be a rubber curry, stiff and soft brushes, and a mane and tail comb. A towel may be helpful to finish grooming your horse. When moving from side to side, remember to never go under your horse’s neck, and keep your free hand on them while grooming. Why is it unsafe to go under their neck? It is unsafe because a horse can’t see directly below its head. As with leading and backing your horse, you want to avoid standing directly in front or behind the horse while grooming.

Picking Up And Cleaning Hooves

Horses should stand willingly to have their feet cleaned, trimmed, and/or shod. Before you ask your horse to pick a foot up, make sure your horse is standing somewhat square and balanced on all four feet. Be sure to stand close when picking up the feet, and let the horse know what you plan to do. Never reach and quickly grab the foot. When cleaning the front and hind feet, you should stand facing the rear of the horse. Ask the horse to pick up the foot by applying pressure to the leg: if necessary, lean into the horse’s shoulder to shift their weight. Clean the hoof from the heel toward the toe, starting on either side of the frog, picking away from you.

Remember, even though your horse is older and seasoned, they still think of themselves as prey. The unexpected can always happen!

Basic safety procedures and practices are essential in providing a safe and enjoyable experience for both you and your horse. Safe ground handling is important no matter what breed, type, or age of horse you work with.

Courtesy of Penn State Extension