Ground Driving

By Jody and Susan Cunningham
First published by the National Foundation Quarter Horse Journal; reprinted by permission of the authors

Learn more about Jody and Susan Cunningham's horsemanship at
First of all I feel the need to define the term Ground Driving. This is the art of controlling the horse’s motion, speed and direction from the ground. This is where the lessons learned at liberty in the round-pen - dominance, respect, and trust - are put to practical application. My common sense tells me that if I cannot control my horse’s motion, speed and direction from both the right and left sides, he is not ready to mount. Many people I know skip this cornerstone of the foundation only to pay for it later. This is when they find out that they are an unwelcome passenger on an unguided missile. Set yourself up for success by preparing both your horse and yourself from the ground.

The NFQHA’s In Hand Trail is by far the most practical class for yearlings and two-year-old horses I have ever seen. Every move, every skill developed here will in turn prepare the young horse to some day be ridden. It is clear to me that a horse rides only as good as he leads or drives. Again I stress, if you have no control from the ground the situation will only get worse when you get on his back. If you cannot send him over a bridge, tarp, jump or any other obstacle from the ground chances are you will not be successful mounted. The horses that excel in this class are really being prepared to ride and have an excellent foundation when someone finally steps on them. I feel sure that anyone handling these young horses would agree that they start under saddle very easily because of the preparation they have had. At this point it seems logical to me that you can expect some success when you step up on his back. The alternative is at best frustrating and at worst very dangerous for both man and horse. Remember, put yourself in the path of success by being prepared! The life in a horse’s feet is a gift from above and learning to control it is the true essence of horsemanship. For now let’s call this life "motion". Without it humans would not be so enchanted by horses.  The rest of the article will deal with three simple things: causing motion, directing it and stopping it. Subsequent articles will deal with refining motion to a high degree. For right now lets Keep It Simple!

Being able to send your horse to, through, or over a specific point or obstacle is the key.  Think in terms of open and closed doors. The average horse wants to move anyway, just show him an open door. Remember that he has no concept of right or wrong as you define it. He is only going to do what comes natural to him. So make what you want comfortable and what’s not wanted uncomfortable.

In this case, I want him to move around me in a circle to the left; I will create an open door in that direction. I hope it is clear by the photos that I am using a rope halter and 14-foot lead. If you are unskilled at handling lots of rope, you may prefer a 12-foot lead. Clear direction is being given by my left or lead hand, the hand I am directing with. Then I will take my right or driving hand and swing the tail of  the lead in an overhand motion aimed at the opposite side, thereby closing the door to the right. One thing I want to make perfectly clear, when you get ready to send your horse off do not walk around him to gain better position to drive him from. Instead always drive him out of your personal space using the tail of the lead. Cause him to walk around you thereby reinforcing the mental dominance you earned in the round-pen and keeping him respectful of your personal space. Here’s the deal: you eat meat, he eats grass. The horse needs to yield his space to you in order to keep you safe. Never let him back you up. The tail of your lead is both sword and shield. It is used as an accelerator to initiate motion and as a shield to protect your personal space. Always step forward using the tail to keep the horse out of your way. Horses communicate through body language and it is the odd horse that will not take the open door when offered.

If, by this time, he has not moved, I will use one of my only two voice cues; I will cluck to him to aid in moving his feet. Cause motion first, then try to direct it. Keep in mind it is almost impossible to steer an object that is motionless. Get his feet moving first, then direct them. As he begins to move, let him. Stay behind the drive-line which is from his withers to his heart-girth. Behind the drive line, you are in a driving position; if you are in front of it, you are blocking forward motion. This is a common problem for people having trouble sending their horse. OK, we have him moving off to the left, feed him some rope and let him go. At this point, unsure or frightened folks will often drag on the lead. Any horse that leads reasonably well will take this as an invite to stop. Avoid stomping on the gas and the brake at the same time. This only serves to confuse your horse. Keep your intentions clear through body language. If you become flustered and frustrated, just slow down, relax and breath. Speed has nothing to do with this exercise. Speed comes naturally through repetition. Pushing too hard, too fast, is the root cause of resistance. Remember the difference between an instinctual reaction and a thoughtful response. Again, body language is the key. Step forward to his hip, keeping your shoulders parallel to your horse's body. Keep moving. He will begin to synchronize his movement with you, his herd leader. The same thing happens with a mare and foal or within the herd. You move slow, he moves slow. You quicken your pace, he follows suit. You quit moving your feet, his also stop. Now you are dancing with him and nothing could be more natural. 

Now, I will change direction 180 degrees. I will do this by disengaging his hindquarters and accomplishing several things at once. (The photos show from right to left but the result is the same, so bear with me.) I have my horse softly moving around me in a circle. In preparation for disengaging the hindquarters, I will make full contact with his head by taking the slack out of the line, all the while keeping him in motion. Then using the tail of my lead directed at his hip in an overhand swing, I bend forward steeply from the waist and mock charge his near hip, keeping hold of his head, causing him to pivot on the forehand and move the hindquarters away from me. This is a sign of respect. Out in the pasture a subordinate horse would never show his weapons (his hindquarters) to the dominant animal or herd leader.

By now I should have him facing me squarely. I will keep facing my horse and cause him to take a step or two backwards by putting a wave in the lead by moving my lead hand from side to side and stepping directly forward. At this point, I am looking for any little try. The smallest positive change will cause the pressure to go away. Remember horses learn on the release of pressure, not the application of it. Now is the time to rest for a while, let him think over what just happened. You will likely see him drop his head, begin to lick his lips and blink his eyes.  If not, you are pushing too hard. Slow down and relax. What I do not want to see is that thousand-yard stare and rigid posture of a highly defensive and scared prey type animal that is being stalked by a predator.

We started to the left and now that I have caused him to cease his forward motion and shift the hips away from me and take a step or two backwards, it is time to go to the right. Now my right hand becomes the lead hand. I will make contact and give him some obvious direction to the right, making my intentions clear and showing him an open door. My driving hand is now my left hand. I swing the tail of my lead in an overhand motion directed at his near hip and closing the door to my left. I will cluck to him if I need to. As he begins to move, quit swinging the rope and clucking. Get off of the gas as soon as he responds. Mindlessly swinging the tail of the lead and clucking will only serve to dull him to these aids. Use them only when you need them, then stop. Timing the release of pressure is one of the main keys to having a soft responsive horse.

I view stopping and standing still as a privilege, a reward, and that is how I want my horse to see it. Stopping and standing still is the comfortable thing to do. The natural thing for a predator to do is to grab and hold. Far too often I see people try to physically drag their horse to a stop and then try to hold him there. Folks, if there is one sure thing I have learned in the last 35 years, it is this, when the life bubbles up in a horse's feet and he feels the need to go somewhere, you cannot stop it. You cannot smother it. You cannot contain it. Our only choice as the predator in this predator/prey relationship is to redirect this energy until the horse decides that stopping and standing still is the easy or comfortable thing to do.

Now we are coming to the end of our workout, my horse is driving smoothly and softly in both directions and I can disengage his hindquarters and back him off of me a step or two. This is when I will soften my body and turn my shoulder to the horse in a non-assertive gesture that invites him into my personal space. If I have done my round-pen work right, he will then be happy to come to me to be rested, relaxed and rubbed. Again making me, the herd leader, the safe comfortable place to be.

That just about covers it for now. We sincerely hope that this information will be of some help to you and yours.

Stay A’ Horseback,

Jody and Susan