Sequences of movements are initiated abnormally in neurological disorders involving basal ganglia dysfunction, such as Parkinson's disease or Tourette's syndrome. The substantia nigra pars reticulata (SNpr) is one of the two primary output structures of the basal ganglia. However, little is known about how substantia nigra mediates the initiation of normal movement sequences. We studied its role in coding initiation of a sequentially stereotyped but natural movement sequence by recording neuronal activity in SNpr during behavioural performance of ‘syntactic grooming chains’. These are rule-governed sequences of up to 25 grooming movements emitted in four predictable (syntactic) phases, which occur spontaneously during grooming behaviour by rats and other rodents. Our results show that neuronal activation in central SNpr codes the onset of this entire rule-governed sequential pattern of grooming actions, not elemental grooming movements. We conclude that the context of sequential pattern may be more important than the elemental motor parameters in determining SNpr neuronal activation.