The next time you’re thinking of lunging a horse, consider doing a groundwork session instead. Generally, groundwork for horses can be done anywhere, and that is certainly true of this exercise from an equine behaviourist — try it in an indoor school, outdoor arena or a fenced off field. Tack up your horse as usual but don’t mount. Take the reins over your horse’s head and lead them into your chosen work space, using the reins like a pair of lead-ropes. The reason for this is to give the horse maximum freedom and so that they don’t feel held down or controlled.
All you do now is start walking randomly around your space. At the beginning, your horse will be a little tense and nervous as they won’t know what to expect. They will need some direction and control, so the reins should be held quite short.
Groundwork for horses: be the leader
To guide your horse, simply do what you want them to do, showing the way and leading by example. To walk on, start walking. You may need to use your voice and gently indicate with the reins that you’d like the horse to start going forward. In a state of complete relaxation, horses prefer to follow a leader, so put yourself in front.
If your horse does try to surge past you, hold them back politely but firmly using the reins. Keep the pressure on the bit to a minimum. The last thing you want is a fight. If your horse is pulling quite hard, give regular tugs on the reins, rather than a hard, prolonged pull. These can be quite sharp but should diminish as the horse understands what’s wanted. When you want to make a turn, simply turn and walk that way yourself. At this point, the hold on the reins should still be quite short.
Keep changing the rein
The essence of this groundwork exercise is to keep on changing direction. Put in lots of circles, large and small, change the rein across both the centre line and diagonals, and in both directions. Add in any other figures you can think of. The purpose of all this is to bring your horse’s focus of attention on to you. If the track stays the same (either round the outside of your working space or a never-ending circle), your horse will get bored and their mind will wander. This is when they start resisting or playing up.
I think of this groundwork exercise as scribbling. Like a small child with a pen who can’t draw yet, you simply wander around in a random way. Don’t do more than half a side (long or short) without making a change of some sort. The horse mustn’t be given the time or space to think about anything else.
Relaxing your hands
You should find that, after a while, your hand starts sliding down the reins almost by itself. What’s happening is that you and your horse are starting to feel comfortable with each other. Your horse is beginning to understand this game and finding it easy. There’s nothing for them to worry about. You, on the other hand, are thinking about the next move and where you’re going, and are no longer worrying about your horse. This is the best way for you to be with, and work with, your horse.
How long it takes for you to get to this state depends entirely on your horse and their level of nervousness or anxiety. You may come to it within a few minutes, or it may take longer, but sliding your hand down the rein is part of the goal. However long it takes, stay with it until you feel that your horse is starting to relax and follow you about.
Asking for halt
You should be neither pulling your horse along, nor holding them back. They’re simply there, behind you. When the horse seems to have got the idea and is settled enough, come to a standstill and show by example that you want him to halt. Use a voice command, too, to reinforce the idea. I use the word ‘stand’, but you can use any word you like – just keep it consistent.
Horses don’t find it easy to stop for no apparent reason, it goes against their basic instinct, which tells them to keep moving for most of the time. If they do walk on past you, give a light, downward tug on the reins. This should make the message clear.
Once the horse has stopped, start walking again and continue for a while. By now, your hand on the reins should be much lower down and the arm nearly in a normal, walking position. When this happens, your horse is approaching submission. They’re going where you go and doing what you want.
Groundwork for horses: true submission
When the moment seems right, ask for halt again. The goal is for your horse to read the signal when it comes, and stop behind you. This is true submission. And so you go on, walking around randomly and putting in the occasional halt. The ultimate goal is to give your horse a more or less free rein and have them following you like a sheep.
Remember as you go on that the key words are casual, calm and collected. Don’t worry about your horse – do what you have to do in a calm, casual manner. Don’t even look at them, but use feeling to tell you what the horse is doing behind you.
Think of it as going for a walk with your horse. It’s a slightly strange walk, as you make your patterns on the ground and keep changing direction, but a stroll with your horse nonetheless.
How to handle spooking
If your horse has a spook or gets startled, simply change direction in a quiet, casual way. Make it look as if that’s what you intended to do anyway. Don’t do anything else but continue walking in your relaxed way and let the horse do what they have to do.
If there’s a part of the arena or field that seems to make the horse jumpy, avoid it in the short-term. As they settle down and relax, work your way gradually towards it. At the first sign of nervousness, change direction and take the horse away from it. You should find that the horse loses their fear of that corner within 10 to 15 minutes and will allow themselves lf to be led into it from then on quite happily. This is because they have learned to trust you; they trust you to take them away from a dangerous (scary) situation should it arise.
Groundwork for horses: don’t overdo it
How long you do this exercise for depends entirely on your horse and their level of anxiety, agitation or excitement. Most come to submission within 10 to 15 minutes. Others may take longer, but 30 minutes should be plenty. If after half an hour you haven’t achieved relaxation and submission, end the session and start again another day. Your horse should have the idea by then, so the second time should achieve the desired end result. Little and often is key, and horses learn through repetition so it is good to repeat an exercise over several days.