Horse Training

The ultimate guide to groundwork: build a strong relationship with your horse

Groundwork exercises for horses are an essential aspect of horse training that every equestrian should utilise.

Groundwork involves working with a horse on the ground to establish trust, respect, and communication between horse and handler – and I mean both ways.

It’s a great way to strengthen the relationship with your horse, establish yourself as the lead figure, and introduce new tasks to your horse.

The best groundwork exercises for your horse include training your horse to:

  • stand still,
  • move the fore- and hindquarters,
  • lead properly,
  • flex and soften to pressure,
  • go on a circle.

These five basic exercises will affect your horse both in and out of the saddle.

These exercises are effective in developing a horse’s balance, flexibility, and responsiveness.

They also help the horse to develop good ground manners, which are essential for her safety and the safety of those around her.

Groundwork is the basis for everything else and if you can’t do something on the ground, then you’re going to have trouble doing it in the saddle.

Doing groundwork eliminates the stress of a rider on the horse’s back.

It allows your horse to simply focus on what is being asked of her.

Before getting started with groundwork, you will need a few tools, including a halter, long lead rope, and a level area to work in.

If you want to, you can use a long dressage whip or a lunge whip – but a whip is a tool to show your horse what you want.

A whip is never used to hit a horse.

You can point with it, wave it, and maybe crack it, but only if a strong cue like that is absolutely necessary. Cracking a whip just because it’s cool doesn’t teach your horse anything.

The idea of a whip is that it functions like an extension of your arm, allowing you to reach a point that you otherwise can’t without compromising your own balance and position.

You can think of a whip kind of like a laser pointer, it’s a tool to help you clarify what you want from your horse, but the tone with which it is applied is conversational, you don’t want to shout at your horse.

A level area to work in, such as an arena or a round pen, will prevent twisted ankles for both you and your horse.

A round pen is a wonderful tool because the smaller space provides the mind a smaller area of focus, both for you and your horse.

The round pen eliminates unnecessary distractions, but if you don’t have a round pen, don’t worry!

Groundwork is best done in many shapes and many places.

Ideally, any chance you’re not on your horse’s back, is an opportunity to do some form of groundwork, whether you’re in the stable, walking to the paddock, or in the arena.

Ground work exercise #1 – Standing still

The purpose of the standing still exercise is to establish the handler’s authority in the relationship with the horse.

Being able to stand still is a basic skill for your horse that will make a lot of other tasks go a lot smoother, such as cross-tying and mounting.

If the horse doesn’t look to the handler as a reliable leader, they will feel a need to step up and fill that spot.

This can manifest itself in many ways, subtle and obvious, and some of which that can be very easy to miss even for an experienced rider.

If your horse yanks her head down to get a bit of grass, walks off when you turn your back for a moment, or pushes into your space uninvited, you’ve got an unruly horse that is not respecting your authority as the one deciding what the current activity should be.

Horses learn through repetition.

And if your horse is constantly getting away with these tiny infractions, she’s going to take that as a sign that you aren’t particular about your rules, and start pushing boundaries to see how far she can go.

This can turn into some really bad habits later on.

Therefore, it’s essential to nip them in the bud as soon as they come up.

In many ways, animals are much like toddlers. And like toddlers, they’re often underestimated.

Animals and toddlers both thrive on consistent behaviour of the person in charge, and when they know exactly what’s expected of them – because then they know how to deliver!

Once they learn, “Okay, this is how I’m expected to behave in a given situation,” they’ll be eager to do it.

A lot of people make the assumption that the young child or animal, can’t perform at the level they wish them to – because they’re less intelligent, because they don’t understand the words your use, because they’re too young to understand, because all sorts of reasons – but that’s usually not true.

Humans and horses both are social animals, and horses are finely tuned instruments that quickly learn to interpret non-verbal communication.

And often when I start working with an “unruly” horse, it’s the owner or handler that has taught the horse to be as they are, because the human lacks in their communication skills.

So long as you go in with an attitude of making the desired behaviour easy to do, and the undesired behaviour cumbersome (note: I’m intentionally avoiding using the expression “making the right thing easy, and the wrong thing hard” because, while catchy, those specific words trigger emotions in us as people, and we want to avoid being in a heightened emotional state when training horses), you’ll quickly find you can extrapolate from those basics and teach your horse almost anything.

This groundwork exercise is an easy way to correct one of these little problems.

To start, take your horse on the lead and stand. Just stand.

You may notice your horse taking a sly step forward or backward every now and then, even though you don’t ask her to.

You need to stand in front of your horse and stand far enough away so that you’re holding closer to the end of the lead rope in your hand, give it some slack.

Imagine a bubble around you, that’s your personal space, and don’t let your horse come into your bubble uninvited.

When your horse tries to move off, put her back in the spot where you asked her to stand in the first place.

You can do so by shaking the lead rope to signal she should step back.

If she doesn’t respond to your cue, increase the pressure of the shake, raise the hand holding the lead rope, and take a step towards her to guide her into place.

As soon as she steps back into place, release the pressure, allowing her to stand in that spot.

Make sure that you don’t look your horse in the eye and don’t get frustrated.

A good solution for this is to look at her feet and smile (bring out the smiling if you’re feeling like you’re getting frustrated).

If you’ve got a more nervous, high-energy horse that has ants in her pants and refuses to stand still at all, you can up the energy to match your horse’s.

When she goes to move off from the spot you’ve asked her to stand in, move with her. It’s like saying to her, “Okay, if you wanna move, let’s move!”

So instead of correcting her back into the same spot to stand still, keep her feet moving.

If your horse feels like she wants to move – most likely has learned that some cue, such as touching the girth to do it up, means go – lean into that movement with her.

Let her know that she is free to move but that you’re going to dictate the way in which that movement happens, meaning that you’ll move her around in a little circle, which is eventually going to get very, very boring and your horse is going to want to stop.

The thing you’ll want to be on the lookout for are the signs that she’s ready to stop faffing.

This includes things like:

  • Crossing her hind leg over: the hind leg towards you crossing in front of the far leg to efficiently shift her quarters away from you, this is a sign that the body is relaxed and the horse is disengaging from any tension and giving you a soft bend.
  • Giving you two eyes, instead of one: you want your horse’s focus to be 100% on you and not worrying about something else in your environment. Two eyes on you means your horse is giving you that undivided attention.
  • Ears on you: your horse’s ears are an indication of where her mind is, and where her mind is, that’s where her feet will eventually follow. That’s why you need to be good at reading the ears and making sure that your horse is keeping her attention on you, even when the ears aren’t pricked right at you (because she can relax next to you and have her ears relax to the side and still be paying attention to you).
  • Moving with you: this means stopping when you stop and moving when you move (or ask your horse to move). When you’re leading your horse at a walk your horse needs to take cues from you about when to move, at what speed to move and when to stop. This includes standing where you designate her feet to stand and not moving around without being invited to.

You’ll also want to be on the lookout for sigs of releasing, such as sighing (even a small sigh is a sign of beginning to settle), farting, lowering her head, as well as doing a lick-and-chew.

Do note how big of a lick-and-chew your horse exhibits.

If the tongue doesn’t come all the way out of the mouth, she’s relaxing but not as relaxed as she can be.

Because horses tend to carry a lot of tension in their mouth, licking and chewing is a way for them to disperse tension and return their mind and body to a rest-and-digest state.

Once you’ve got the tongue coming out really far, almost like a panting dog, you’ll know that true relaxation has been reached.

After a few repetitions of this, she’ll want to do nothing but stand in place because she’ll know that if she moves off again, it’ll just mean more work for her.

And your horse is inherently energy conserving. If she can chill instead of work, she’ll choose chill every time.

Your horse will learn this relaxation through repetition, so ask for standing still at every opportunity.

Once your horse understands the basic idea, you can begin to add vocal commands if that’s something you wish to add.

Groundwork exercise #2 – Moving the fore- and hindquarters

Training your horse to move her hind quarters is an essential exercise that teaches her to respect your personal space while improving her body’s flexibility and coordination.

When horses disregard your space, they can crowd you, run their shoulder into you, or even step on your feet.

Therefore, it’s necessary to teach your horse to move her body, instructing her to have respect for you and your personal space, as well as be aware of where her body is positioned in relation to yours.

Don’t confuse not respecting your personal space for ignorance.

So many times I’ve heard someone say that you have to train horses to yield to pressure because otherwise they just won’t know what’s in their immediate surroundings, like your horse is some kind of inattentive block with no spatial awareness!

The opposite is true.

Being a prey animal and perceiving the world around her with all the senses, your horse are more spatially aware than most humans.

Are there exceptions? Yes, when horses are stuck in learned helplessness they can genuinely be so inward looking that they aren’t aware of their surroundings, but this is genuinely rare (in most cases, even a wary horse that has learned to be helpless are hyper-aware of their surroundings, it’s just their response to it that has been dampened).

Typically, horses are aware of most things in their environment (immediate environment and a bit further off), and can land threat bites and kicks with piercing accuracy – if a horse doesn’t want to make contact, they will not make contact, no matter how much it looks like a “close call”.

To see how aware your horse is of her immediate surroundings, all you have to do is observe her. Watch her in the field with other horses.

Soon, you’ll notice that, horses are quite particular in managing their personal space. They let others in or keep them out, guide them to how, where and when they want to engage physically.

A horse lower in the hierarchy doesn’t enter the personal space of a horse that’s higher in the hierarchy without invitation.

And horses don’t routinely run over the foals in the herd because they’re blind to their surroundings.

In fact, horses are more aware of their surroundings than humans, because (ideally) they’ll spend most of their time being a part of a group that eats, sleeps, plays, procreates, and runs (and runs away) together.

It’s only with our very human isolation – every activity and person having their own room in a home – that we become less accustomed to being tuned into the environment and beings around us.

People from cultures or social classes, where physical proximity is normal because you’re living in a smaller space with more people in it, people tend to be a lot better at reading the mood in a room without needing explicit, verbal communication.

How to move your horse’s back and front legs.

When you're selling your horse showcase everything he knows to prospective buyers

Imagine a bubble around yourself that’s about as large as if you reach your hands out. That’s your personal space, and that’s the bubble your horse needs to work around.

To move the hindquarters, face your horse’s hind end, and remember to use the communication points. Look at the point to move the hindquarters and move into that point with assertive steps. If you need to, escalate the pressure to get your horse to move around you in a circle.

When you walk into that point, you’ll want your horse to swing their hindquarters away from you, stepping one leg in front of the other. This is called disengaging the hindquarters, and it’s important because by doing that, your horse is relinquishing control over her back legs to you.

Why is this a big ask from your horse? Because her hindquarters are her escape from anything. So long as she’s stepping her hind feet next to each other, rather than crossing them over, she’s still tense and still guarding her own safety instead of handing over that responsibility to you.

Best image I could find to illustrate the inside leg crossing in front of the outside leg (disengaging the hindquarters).

You’ll also want your horse bend in a soft C-shape around you as you go, without running into you or encroaching on your space. This will happen when she chooses to disengage her hindquarters and becomes soft in her whole body.

When training, remember to release the pressure and stop asking for your horse to move her hindquarters the minute she gives you what you want. Once she understands what you’re asking of, you can increase the number of steps you ask of her before releasing the pressure, and so gradually increasing the task for her.

How to move a horse’s front legs.

To move the forequarters, stand facing your horse and hold your lead rope in one hand and flag, lunging whip or whatever you’re using (if your horse is sensitive, you won’t need anything) in the other.

With the hand holding the lead rope, point in the direction you want your horse’s front feet to move. If that isn’t enough, raise your hand with the flag/whip just slightly off the ground, pointing towards the opposite shoulder. Increase pressure if needed.

Your horse should step away from the pressure by crossing the front legs, one over the other, just as with the hindquarters.

When your horse steps away, release the pressure and praise her.

In the beginning, your horse may not cross her front legs over. If this happens, move assertively towards the horse’s side you want them to step away from as you wave the lead rope. This will encourage the horse further to step away from you.

Remember to escalate the pressure in stages and release the pressure as soon as your horse gives you the desired behaviour.

Training your horse to move her hind-end and front-end on the ground will have a positive impact on your ride in the saddle. In the saddle, you should now have control of both your horse’s front-end and back-end.

Through these exercises, your horse will learn how to do a turn on the haunches and a turn on the forehand, both of which are considered more advanced in riding. When practised enough, you can put these two moves together to get your horse to pivot around her centre of gravity, improving your ride’s efficiency and enhancing your communication with your horse.

Groundwork exercise #3 – Leading

Leading a horse may seem like a simple task, but you’d be surprised at how many horse owners don’t train their horse to lead properly. The point of teaching your horse how to lead with quality, is to establish a connection between you and your horse, making your horse focus on the your body language. This exercise also teaches the horse to respect the your personal space and respond to your non-verbal commands.

The basic exercise that will get you started with correct leading, is to simply walk and stop. This is good to do in an arena with good footing, you can also do it in a field, if you’re doing it on hard surfaces that can be slipper, go slowly and carefully. Prefer a good surface with traction.

Lead your horse with a long lead rope (not holding it under the chin). Walk around until you decide to stop. And when you stop, turn around and look at your horse’s feet. Did he keep walking after you stopped? Did he take steps forward rather than stop at the moment you did?

The goal here is to get your horse to synchronise to you: when your feet stop, his feet stop. If his feet don’t stop when yours do, turn around and back him up 2-4 steps, and let him stand in peace, without pressure, when he yields the space to you.

Then you simply repeat this over and over, until your horse feels like an extension of you, stopping when you stop and moving when you move. This is the basis for respecting your space and existing in the world with humans.

Groundwork exercise #4 – Responding to pressure

Knowing how to respond to pressure is one of the basic skills you need to teach your horse. She already knows how to move away from pressure as it’s her natural inclination is to move away from pressure. It’s how horses communicate with each other. You’ll have to train your horse to respond to pulling pressure, which is unnatural, and you can’t expect your horse to do it without training.

To properly halter train your horse, she’ll need to understand pulling pressure. If your horse isn’t yet halter trained and you don’t know how to do it, get a reputable trainer to help you achieve that.

The two things you’ll want to teach your horse is flexing and softening. Flexing refers to your horse turning her head from side to side, and softening means learning how to give to pulling pressure on the head.

How to teach your horse to flex laterally.

Stand next to your haltered horse and pick up the slack in the lead rope. You only need to pick up the slack in the rope, not pull hard at all, and wait for your horse’s nose to just move a fraction. When her nose moves a fraction towards you, putting even the smallest slack back into the rope, release the rope.

The important thing is to just maintain that pressure until your horse tips her nose towards you. If you release the pressure while she’s looking away or (worse) moving her head away, not towards, you’re teaching her the opposite.

Every time she tips her nose to you, release the pressure. Give her a few seconds’ break when she does the behaviour you asked for. Then ask for it again. Eventually, when you take the lead rope and pick up the slack, she’ll turn her head all the way. Repeat on the other side until she turns her head as far as it’ll go.

And this translates into riding. When you pick up the rein, your horse will turn her head all the way to her own shoulder. This is the foundation for the one-rein stop.

How to teach your horse to soften.

You teach this by lowering your horse’s head on command. Take a hold of her leap rope and pull down with light, persistent pressure. At first, she might resist and pull her head up. When this happens, don’t pull harder, simply move with her head and keep the light pressure consistent. Do this until her head lowers just a fraction.

Reward her with a few moments of rest, not asking anything of her, and do it again. If she tries to lower her head all the way down to start sniffing the ground or grazing, give her a tug on the lead rope until her head comes back up. You want her head to be relaxed, her neck straight or below the line of her back.

Why do we lower the head?

When your horse is tense, nervous or agitated, she throws her head up. Partly to protect the vulnerable face, and partly because she tries to focus on what’s scaring or making her nervous. Lowering the head, is a way to trigger the rest-and-digest state in your horse.

Also keep an eye on your horse’s expression. Since this is a relaxation trigger for your horse, keep an eye on her expression. When her eyes soften, her nostrils relax, her ears stop swivelling, you might even get a lick-and-chew, a far or a big sigh.

If you have a history with your horse of a lot of disagreements, your horse might be reluctant to do this with you at first because of that negative association. Be gentle but persistent, and eventually your horse will want to relax with you and feel good together.

Teaching your horse flexing and softening, teaches your horse how to go on the contact when being ridden. Your horse will soon be able to flex her neck and respond to the smallest pressure. Once your horse can soften on the ground, try it in the saddle. You’ll be able to apply steady pressure to both reins, and the horse’s nose will drop to the ground. Your horse will enjoy rounding her neck and stretching down because it makes it easier for her to carry you on her back.

Groundwork exercise #5 – Going on a circle

The purpose of this exercise is to teach you ad your horse to work in unison. You learn to control your horse’s motion around you and train your horse to respect your space. Teaching your horse to go on a circle is the basis for lunging.

If your horse is testing boundaries or feeling restless, getting your horse to go on the circle you can get her to focus on something else other than her restlessness, helping her relax and become easier to handle. It’ll also loosen her up if she’s stiff. Asking her to bend and be soft, stretches her body and makes her focus on loosening up.

The technique for going on the circle, isn’t complicated, but requires a bit of patience and practice. Start by gathering the lead rope in one hand and the whip or flag in the other (if you’re using one). Use your rope-holding hand to show your horse which way to move.

Urge your horse forward by taking a step towards her hindquarters using the communication point. Once the horse starts moving, let out some rope, making sure not to offer enough rope that it drags on the ground.

To properly lunge your horse, you must be aware of your position. Keep your body even with the middle of the horse’s barrel. At first, your horse may be confused and try to come towards you or stop. It’s important that you keep them moving forward on the circle and not allow them to stop. Increase the pressure towards the communication point until your horse steps forward, then release the pressure and point your whip or flag to the ground.

Remember that you’ve got your personal space bubble that your horse needs to respect. You want your horse to walk around you, not into you because that increases the risk of you getting barrelled over.

The reason why groundwork exercises are important, is because this is where you lay the foundation for everything else. If you’ve got a horse that’s responsive on the ground, when asking her to do the basics, that’s going to translate into riding and driving and whatever else you will to do with your horse. Doing these exercises regularly and often, ideally you’ll practise some things daily, you’ll turn your horse into a soft, responsive and cooperative horse that’s a joy to work with.

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