Working with your horse on the ground is a fantastic way to set solid foundations for riding and build trust and confidence in your relationship, regardless of the horse’s age and experience. Groundwork doesn’t have to involve lunging a horse. Watching how your horse moves their feet helps identify any stiffness on one side and how they look when they move. Crucially, working together in this way helps fine-tune the bond between you and your horse.
“Part of creating a responsive horse is the method of pressure and release,” says classical dressage trainer Diane Thurman-Baker. “If all the horses are at a water trough, they move out of the way when the alpha horse goes over. To have got to that point, the alpha horse will have nipped them on the flank first.”
Holding a schooling whip during a groundwork session enables you to recreate that pressure and release situation. Gently lay the lunge whip on your horse’s neck to stop them moving, and remove it when you want them to start moving. Use a voice command, or a click, at the same time so your horse associates the physical aid with a voice aid. Aim for them to start working forward from behind, swinging through their back to create engagement and lightness.
Seven things you’ll learn from groundwork
- It builds mutual confidence between horse and owner, and you will be more confident when facing new challenges, like encountering unusual objects out hacking.
- You’ll start to understand your horse’s body language, and be able to read what they are thinking.
- It’s quality time together without pressure — perfect for bonding.
- Groundwork adds variety to your training. Variety is key to keeping boredom at bay.
- If your horse can’t be ridden for any reason, groundwork is a great way of engaging their brain and keeping them interested.
- All horses are capable of doing it, with plenty of encouragement.
- Your horse moves around in the stable a lot better. They’ll be way more aware of where you are on the ground if you work on your groundwork regularly — and less likely to step on your toes!
Four tips for getting results from groundwork
1 Watch your body language
Your horse needs to be confident in you before they start, so keep calm and remain patient, but be assertive — and always stand by your horse’s head so they can see you.
2 Practice and patience
Groundwork is a prime opportunity to bond with your horse, so don’t turn it into a fight by losing patience if they struggle to do what you’re asking. Some horses — like humans — are less nimble than others. Just take your time and reward the horse by taking the pressure off and praising them when they nail it.
3 Work in the middle
If your horse struggles with knowing where to place themselves, try to do all your groundwork exercises in the middle of your arena so they have plenty of space to move. Don’t risk them backing into your fence posts.
4 Go whipless
If you have a horse who is extremely nervous of a whip use your hand instead to apply and take away light pressure. This is a good alternative to the whip technique.
Confidence and familiarity work wonders for a nervy horse, which is why putting the time in to bond on the ground is so worthwhile. It means your horse will fully trust you whatever the situation. Perform the following groundwork exercises from Diane for five minutes on each rein, three times a week.
Exercise 1: A simple start
- Start by gently laying the whip on your horse, teaching them to stand still when it’s on and to move as required when it’s taken off.
- For more energy in their movement, the whip is lightly tapped on the horse’s side or quarters. Twinned with a vocal command, or a click, the horse soon learns what’s required of them. Be clear in your commands and actions so they understand.
- Stand next to your horse so you are just in front of their eye and they can see what you’re doing. Gently stroke the whip over their body, talking soothingly as you do so. Then:
- Start with the whip on your horse’s withers. As you take it away, use your voice to ask them to walk forwards. To encourage them to do this, give a slight pull on the rein or flick with the whip on their side where your leg would be if you were riding.
- As they walk forwards, you take a step backwards. Walk at the horse’s pace, neither pulling them nor restricting their pace.
- As you gently place the whip back on your horse’s wither, asking them to stand still, use hand and voice commands to stop them.
- Do this on both reins, until your horse understands that a whip placed on their withers is the signal to stop. It normally takes three or four attempts, maybe longer, especially with a nervous horse. Remember horses learn through repetition, so repeating the exercise is key.
Exercise 2: Connect using poles
Adding poles to your groundwork helps your horse lift their legs up and become more aware of distances between poles. It also creates the perfect opportunity for them to learn to be submissive. To start, simply get your horse to follow you around the arena on a loose rein and then over the poles. There should be four or five poles in the middle of your arena around 4ft apart. Then:
- Starting in the middle of the arena, walk in front of your horse, slightly to one side so that you can see them.
- When your horse tries to pass you or stops, change direction.
- Repeat this three or four times before swapping sides and approaching the poles in the opposite direction.
- This exercise is simple, but effective for bonding. Your horse will need to trust you to take the lead and be submissive enough to follow you over the poles without rushing forward and breaking their stride.
Exercise 3: Work up to a shoulder-in
The next groundwork step is shoulder-in. Horses who haven’t managed to build that stability in their movement will often kick in towards corners of the arena when ridden. During this exercise, you want your horse’s inside hind leg to step under. In this position, you lead and drive the horse at the same time.
- Stand on the left side of your horse, with the whip on their neck to keep them still. Then remove it.
- Click, or use your voice, to ask your horse to move forwards a step or two with you, then indicate you want them to move sideways to their right by lightly tapping the whip against their left side.
- Aim for your horse to walk in a forward and sideways movement, in which the body bends laterally from neck to tail.
- Ask for a few steps of shoulder-in, then place the whip on their neck to stop them.
- Repeat this on the other rein.
This exercise gives your horse the opportunity to learn how to use and strengthen their back muscles. Shoulder-in is beneficial to horses because it stretches both sides of the body and, by stretching and suppling their topline, it gradually makes it physically easier for them to do what you are asking of them.
Remember, don’t expect too much of your horse too soon. Start by asking for just one or a few steps and rewarding them for each one, building up to ask for more steps so that they cover more of the arena.
Meet the expert: Diane Thuman-Baker has over 30 years of working and training horses using classical training methods. She has competed to Grand Prix level in British Dressage and her daughters, Samantha and Joanna, compete internationally.