Horse Care Tips

Safety *Out* of the Saddle: Best Practices on the Ground

woman leading horse down road
Written by Susanna Wright

Laying the Groundwork for Horse Safety

Learning to safely handle horses in a variety of situations on the ground helps build a foundation for safety in the saddle. We’ll cover some safety basics across  a variety of situations. While similar principles apply to each of these scenarios, nuanced variations should be taken into consideration.

To better understand how to stay safe around horses, it’s helpful to understand equine physiology and psychology.

Many equine behavior principles will play a role in understanding each of the situations discussed in this article. If you haven’t already, review our article on equine psychology, Learn the Lingo of Equine Psychology.

Horses are flight animals and will generally opt to run away, rather than fight, if spooked. They use their sight and hearing to alert them to danger, so you want to do your best to let them know of your presence and communicate that you are not a threat.

Always avoid making loud noises and sudden, quick movements.

horse and hand

Source: Canva

How to Safely Approach a Horse

As a reminder, horses have eyes on the sides of their head, giving them both monocular vision (on either side) and binocular vision (in front). This leaves them with two blind spots: one directly in front of their face, and the other directly behind them.

It is best to approach a horse from the side, ideally near the shoulder.

Avoid approaching a horse straight on and never walk directly behind a horse.

Depending on the surroundings, how you approach a horse can vary.

In the stall:

The stall is generally a safe place for the horse. Because it is a smaller, more confined space, it will be much easier to catch your horse in a stall rather than a paddock or field.

Generally, the noise of the stall door opening will be enough to get your horse’s attention, but ensure your horse sees you before entering and approaching.

If your horse is facing away from the door, use your voice to get their attention. Never sneak up on a horse that may be sleeping! Remember, horses can sleep standing up as well as laying down.

Catching in the pasture:

Sometimes it can be difficult to catch a horse that is loose in a pasture or paddock, especially if your horse is turned out in a group.

Some horses are easy to catch—you can walk right up to them! In this case, you should walk up to the horse’s left shoulder, approaching from the side. Put the lead rope around the horse’s neck to restrain them while you put the halter on.

If a horse is difficult to catch in the pasture, it may be beneficial to use a treat or grain as an extra incentive.

Want your horse to come when called from the pasture? Check out this step-by-step clicker training guide.

Fastening a halter and lead rope:

There are two main types of halters; halters that buckle and rope halters. Both have similar structures.

anatomy of a horse halter infographic horserookie

Practice with whichever type of halter you will be using in advance in a controlled space, such as a stall. Get used to the motions so you can quickly halter your horse in any scenario.

It is easiest to undo the throatlatch (untied for a rope halter; unclipped for a buckle halter) before you attempt to halter your horse.

The lead rope should already be clipped to the attachment point. Slide the halter up the horse’s nose and pull the crown strap over the ears.

Be gentle around the horse’s ears!

Some horses are sensitive to having their ears touched. Fasten the throatlatch and visually check that everything looks like it is in the correct place before leading your horse away.

halter fitting

Correct halter (left) fit vs. too large (right). Photo source: Canva

How to Safely Lead a Horse

Many horse-related things are done on the left side. Halters and bridles have their buckles on the left. You will generally mount from the left. You should also lead your horse on the left side.

When leading a horse, you want to be between their head and their shoulder, preferably right at their throatlatch.

You should be approximately an arm’s length away. This puts you in the correct place to maneuver your horse safely.

If you are too close, you could be struck by their head/neck or front hooves. If you are too far away, you will not be able to effectively control your horse.

Hold the lead rope with your right hand, about six inches away from the lead rope’s buckle. Your left hand will hold the slack.

Never coil the lead rope around your hand or any part of your body! If something goes wrong, you need to be able to let go quickly.

Tips for Leading Your Horse

  • To walk forward, look ahead, cluck or say “walk” and give a little tug forward on the lead rope if needed. Try not to look at your horse. Instead, look where you are going.
  • To turn, you will generally want to go right so you are pushing the horse away from you. Turning left, or pulling towards you, puts the horse’s hooves in a position where they could step on your feet.
  • To stop, gently pull back on the rope and say “whoa.” If the horse does not respond, use a firmer, repetitive tug.
  • To back, turn so you are facing your horse, say “back,” move towards them, and push your right hand towards the horse (so that you are pulling back on the halter). This may take some practice, but it is important to be able to control your horse on the ground in any direction.
  • Any time you are interacting with your horse, you are training them. This includes groundwork.
girl leading gray pony

Source: Canva

Be sure that if you ask your horse to do something, s/he does it.

If you ask and do not follow through, you are teaching your horse that they do not have to listen to you.

Remember, you are the leader in this relationship. Your horse should respond to your cues and respect your personal space. Do not let your horse crowd you—move them away.

While you should not stare at your horse, it is OK to look at them out of the corner of your eye.

You need to be aware of their body language—do they look like they may spook? Pay attention and always think one step ahead.

If your horse does spook, think through how you might handle it. Some horses can be corrected with a soothing “easy” and perhaps a few circles.

Some horses may have a strong “flight” instinct and bolt. In this case, you may need to just let go.

While a loose horse is a problem, it is not as big of a problem as a loose horse and an injured handler.

Gloves can be helpful to protect your hands—rope burn is not fun!

Want a deep dive on safe horse handling? Check out How to Ride and Handle Horses, an online course from Alexandra Mannerings.

Tying a Horse Safely

Haltering and leading your horse safely is only the first step. You need to know how to safely tie a horse for many purposes, including grooming and trailering.

  • A good rule is “tie at the eye.” This means you should tie your horse at eye level. Higher might not be easy or feasible, and lower means the horse may be able to get their leg over the rope—not a safe scenario.
  • Always secure your horse with something that can quickly release.

  • If tying with a lead rope, use a quick-release knot. This type of knot will release with a pull under pressure.
  • If using cross ties, attach the clip end to the halter and the quick-release end to the wall. If the horse spooks, you do not have to get that close to release them, and you’ll have a length of strap to grab when you try to catch them.
  • Don’t tie a horse near temptations, like food or other horses.
  • Only tie your horse to a secure, immovable object. For example, it is safer to tie to a fence post than a fence rail.
  • Tie a horse with approximately an arm’s length of rope. This gives them enough room to move a little, but not enough to get into trouble.
horses tied to trailer

Source: Canva

Grooming Safety

While the main purpose of grooming is to clean your horse, it serves many other purposes as well, such as bonding time and as a health check. While you curry/brush, inspect your horse from head to tail on that particular day.

woman grooming horse

Source: Canva

Do you notice any new cuts, scrapes, or swelling? Does your horse seem relaxed, or edgy?

Never stand directly in front of or behind your horse.

You will need to go around them to get to the other side—give them space in the front, and either pass close enough to touch the horse (close enough so that a kick would not do much harm) or approximately a horse length behind to avoid the “kick zone.”

Don’t duck under their neck and/or lead rope, and never ever go underneath your horse.

To pick out hooves, stand with your shoulder against the horse’s shoulder. This is adequate spacing to avoid getting toes stepped on, but also close enough that you can effectively use the hoof pick.

Brushing the tail may be necessary to remove burrs, debris, or if you are grooming for a horse show or other type of event. It is generally not advised to brush the horse’s tail daily, as it can cause hair loss. Never cut a horse’s tail without permission.

If you do need to brush your horse’s tail, stand to the side so you are not directly in the “line of fire.”

As you work around your horse, be aware of potentially sensitive areas. Sometimes the girth, belly, or ears can be especially sensitive. Start with soft, gentle pressure.

If your horse shows signs of discomfort such as ears pinned back, squeals, raising a hind foot as though to kick, stop what you are doing and move away.

Picking out a horse hoof

Source: Canva

Turnout Safety

To safely turn out a horse, you should first be confident with your leading skills and haltering technique. Some horses may get excited about turnout time—be prepared and aware!

Best practices for this activity include:

  • Lead your horse into the enclosure.
  • Turn them around to face the gate (or stall door) and close it. Once the gate is secure, proceed to either remove the halter and lead rope or just the lead rope.
  • This will depend on your barn’s preferences. While it is easier to catch a horse with a halter already on, turnout with a halter can be more dangerous as the halter could get stuck on something.
  • Keep calm and ensure your horse is listening to you and respecting your personal space.
  • When you release the horse, step away to safety quickly. Do not encourage your horse to run away from you—this can be dangerous, as some horses will buck or kick out as they move away from you.
  • If your horse decides to turn and run before you are ready, let go.
  • Hopefully, the gate is already closed—if not, that should be your first priority! It is not worth getting dragged if your horse is in an enclosed space. Once the gate is secured, you will need to catch your horse to remove the lead rope.

It is not safe for a horse to be turned out dragging a lead rope.

Lunging Safety

Lunging provides a great chance to warm up your horse, observe their behavior on that day before you get in the saddle, and learn to communicate through body language.

If you have the opportunity to use a round pen, it can be nice to free lunge. This means lunging without a lunge line. Your horse will respond to your body language to move forward, stop, and turn around. The same general principles apply if you are using a lunge line.

Think of an imaginary line that runs perpendicular to the ground, along your horse’s girth area.

If you angle your shoulders squarely at that line, or the middle of your horse, you are signaling “Keep doing what you are doing.” If your horse is trotting, s/he should continue trotting.

horse rookie longing infographic

  • Angling your shoulders/body towards the back half of the horse tells them to go faster. If your horse is walking and you want them to trot, square your shoulders and focus on their tail. Cluck or say “trot.”
  • If you angle your shoulders/body in front of the horse, that should signal them to slow down and even turn around.
  • A lunge line offers a bit more control, as you have some contact with the horse and can control the size of the circle.
  • Be aware of your surroundings when lunging. This includes other horse and human traffic.

Want to add more ground work to your daily routine? Check out the Foundation Ground Exercises online course from Tanja Kraus.

Feeding Safety

Feeding can be an exciting time of the day. Some horses can act more aggressively or become pushy during feeding time.

horse eating out of blue feed pan

Source: Canva

  • It is best to feed horses alone rather than in a group.
  • Don’t take food into a group of horses. Feed from the fence line. Create one extra feed pile than there are horses (three horses = four hay piles)—this way, the horse at the bottom of the pecking order always has somewhere to go.
  • If possible, place feed before introducing the horse into the space. If you are feeding after a ride or turnout time in the pasture, have the feed ready to go in the stall before putting the horse away.
  • Never feed someone else’s horse (treats or otherwise) without permission.

Parting Thoughts

Learning about safety on the ground lays an important foundation for safe time spent in the saddle. It’s all connected!

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About the author


Hey there, fellow horse lover and outdoor enthusiast! Horses have been my rock since day one. From my early days in 4-H to the college equestrian team, these majestic creatures have always been my passion. Riding Quarter Horses has been my gig for over two decades, snagging a few wins at the esteemed Quarter Horse Congress along the way.

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