Groundwork for horses: what it is and why it’s useful

  • What is groundwork?

    Groundwork can include any sort of training you might undertake with your horse from the ground rather than under saddle. It includes in-hand work, lungeing and long-reining, as well as techniques like liberty training and horse agility. Almost all young horse trainers will use groundwork as part of their process of starting young horses under saddle, even if they don’t refer to it as such.

    There are a wide range of horse training systems that use groundwork as a primary part of their system. Some of the best well-known include those developed by Warwick Schiller (Attuned Horsemanship), Tristan Tucker (TRT) and Pat and Linda Parelli (Parelli Natural Horsemanship), but there are many others.

    What horses can benefit from groundwork?

    Groundwork is beneficial in a variety of situations. It’s often the first introduction a young horse has to training and learning to negotiate the human world as it can be introduced before they are mature enough for ridden work. When starting a horse, groundwork is also a great opportunity to teach the young horse basic cues and it provides a good base to start ridden work from.

    It’s also a useful tool in older horses, whether they’re returning from injury and need to work through a rehabilitation programme, or just to add variety to their training. Groundwork can also be useful when the rider is injured – in some cases they are able to work their horse from the ground and keep up with their horse’s training and fitness plan if they can’t do so in the saddle.

    What are the benefits of groundwork?

    Groundwork is a useful way of establishing communication and connection with horses of any age. Working with the horse from the ground gives the rider/trainer the chance to visually assess the horse’s natural movement patterns (how they prefer to move their body) without the influence of the rider on board. This can provide useful information that can then be used to help formulate work in-hand, and under saddle, to improve a horse’s way of going.

    The horse and handler can establish trust through groundwork and set useful boundaries around personal space, which can make the horse safer to be around. It can also be used as part of a training or rehabilitation programme to improve physical attributes, such as strength, coordination, flexibility and proprioception.

    Specific exercises such as lateral work can be worked on from the ground and some riders and trainers use groundwork when teaching new movements, such as turn on the forehand or leg yielding. Piaffe is also often introduced to the horse from the ground, allow the horse to build the necessary strength for the movement without the weight on a rider on board.

    Groundwork exercises for horses

    1. Teaching your horse to lead

    Teaching your horse how to lead politely typically begins with teaching your horse to respond well to pressure. Begin by applying light pressure on any part of his body then, as soon as he yields, remove the pressure.

    Teaching the horse to stop and back up is as important as teaching them the walk forward cue. Many trainers begin by asking the horse  to drop their head while standing still by placing light pressure on the nose, releasing it as soon as he drops his head slightly.

    Once you’ve trained this cue, add a little pressure in the direction of his chest until he offers to back up, then release. Once he’s responding quickly and consistently to your pressure cues, you can start walking.

    Decide where you want your horse to be in relation to you, then take a few steps with your horse following or alongside, then stop. If he doesn’t follow, apply a little pressure on the rope until he does, or if he comes too close behind you or tries walking past you, ask him to step back several steps, then stand quietly for a minute.

    In order for this to work you need to be consistent, calming correcting your horse every time he gets it wrong and reinforcing the idea that he should match your pace.

    2. Polework exercises from the ground

    You can replicate any ridden polework exercises on the ground, either by leading or long-reining. Some simple poles can also be done on the lunge. This maze setup (pictured below) is a good way to use just six poles for a range of exercises – all of which will help with strength, flexibility and proprioception.

    Following the green route is a good place to start as it’s a simple pole exercise your horse is likely to have seen before – and if not, it’s a good step up from walking over a single pole on the ground. The red route will encourage your horse to think about where he’s putting his feet as the poles aren’t in a typical parallel formation. The purple route encourages your horse to bend and step under the body behind in order to avoid hitting the poles.

    Always build up slowly when introducing polework – even walking poles can be strenuous and although your horse may not seem to be tired, their muscles will feel the strain.

    You might also like:

    Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find how you can enjoy the magazine delivered to your door every week, plus options to upgrade your subscription to access our online service that brings you breaking news and reports as well as other benefits.

    You may like...