Every rider has heard trainers preach about groundwork for horses. You may have ever heard phrases like “if your horse doesn’t respect you on the ground, he’s not going to respect you in the saddle.” I know I sure have?
But what really is the importance of groundwork? What does it do and how can you do it? The truth is that these preaching trainers are right. Groundwork and proper ground manners are an essential part of being a successful horseman or horsewoman.
In this article, I’ll be discussing both the basic and more advanced groundwork exercises that you can do with your horse. Groundwork can be extremely fun and very rewarding! It can help strengthen your horse’s understanding of body language and basic physical cues.
Proper manners and boundaries are essential in order to have a safe horse. Groundwork can help develop these skills in both a horse’s understand and a rider’s understanding of how horses process body language.
Groundwork For Horses Basics
Before you jump into the “fun” groundwork exercises, it’s important that you and your horse have the basics down. In my opinion, there are two absolutely essential skills your horse must possess as the basis for all groundwork: focus and the knowledge to move away from pressure.
If your horse is loose in an arena or “in-hand” (either has a halter with a lead or a bridle on) when you begin your groundwork his focus should be on you. If you are giving him verbal or physical commands, he should be perceptive of them. If your horse isn’t focused, you can’t accomplish anything.
Your horse also needs to understand the basic concept of moving away from pressure. Most horses have this understanding inherently, but some horses need to be introduced to it. There are many in-hand exercises that can help with this.
Groundwork For Horses: Moving Away from Pressure
A few that I like to do with my horse to reinforce boundaries are backing up in-hand and moving the haunches in-hand. When your horse is standing at your side, he should be standing still. When you want him to move his haunches (i.e.- his hand end), you should simply have to move towards his hind end or touch it lightly.
Depending on where your horse is in his training, this may have to begin with you pushing your bodyweight against his hindquarters, and rewarding him when he moves over. Some people even have to start with a light tap of a dressage whip.
My horse is to the point where when I square up my shoulders with his haunches and step toward him, he knows to rotate his haunches away from me. But, this has been a years-long process, and he knows all of my tricks now!
A similar methodology can be applied to asking your horse to back up. Initially, you’ll probably have to push your horse’s chest a little bit to ask him to move away from your pressure.
Again, my horse knows that when I square up my shoulders 180 degrees from his head and extend my arm across his chest, that he is supposed to back up; no pressure required. But, this takes time!
Groundwork For Horses: Verbal Commands
Groundwork is primarily based on body language and physical cues, but it can be supplemented with verbal cues and commands as well! The obvious ones are clucking for your horse to move and saying “Woah” or “ho” for your horse to slow or stop.
Doing these things with your horse when he is loose in a ring can help to establish how well he is paying attention to you. With practice, horses can learn many extra kinds of verbal cues. Some people to train their horses to stop (or come) to a whistle.
This is something that can be established through groundwork and praise. There is any number of verbal cues you can teach your horse with positive reinforcement; it’s up to you what tricks you want your horse to know!
If your horse understands the basics of groundwork, you can also incorporate groundwork exercises with jumps! These could be in-hand exercises or “free” exercises. There are many different kinds of jumping exercises you can do.
These range from just setting up an X-rail in your arena to asking your horse to jump over a ditch or down a bank. Many people introduce their horses to jumping this way. Or, in the case of cross country riders, many introduce their horses to new jumps this way.
Through groundwork, a horse is making the decision to jump themselves, instead of a rider on their backs demanding that they do it. They are discovering for themselves that the obstacle isn’t scary.
Groundwork For Horses: Obstacles (bridges, stairs, etc.)
It’s also possible to do groundwork exercises with obstacles other than jumps! You can teach your horse to walk across a wooden bridge or up and down a few small steps.
You can weave in and out of cones or poles with your horse. You could set up a barrel pattern and walk around that together. Or, you can build an obstacle course and incorporate all of these!
The options are really endless, and it’ll be up to the resources you have available at your barn. Groundwork can be as simple as walking and halting together down a straight line, and as complex as a full obstacle course.
Once your horse understands the basic concepts of moving away from pressure and reading your body language, anything is possible!
Groundwork is so important when you are training your horse! It helps not only establish boundaries and respect, but it also helps build a relationship between you and your horse. Once you have this respect and this relationship, your time in the saddle will be much better.
And, groundwork can be fun! You and your horse will both learn new things and discover what you enjoy doing together. I hope this article helped give you some ideas for groundwork exercises. If so, please share this article, and share with us your experiences with groundwork!