Horse groundwork is often an overlooked area in a rider’s toolkit, but it’s actually a great way to improve your horse’s way of going when under saddle, whilst improving their manners in hand at the same time. On top of this, groundwork can help to strengthen your bond and show your horse that you’re a leader that can be trusted, building their confidence.
Working on the ground with your horse can also be a fantastic way to introduce new tasks as they’ll be able to focus on what you’re asking them, without the addition of having a rider on their back. Plus, it’s great for mental stimulation and light exercise when the ground’s too hard for exercise in the winter or the weather’s too warm in the summer. It also adds variation to routine, which helps to keep their brain in gear and them enjoying their life.
Our top 4 horse groundwork exercises
These simple groundwork exercises for horses are ideal for beginners getting to grips with groundwork or for intermediate riders looking to improve the way their horse behaves and moves when under saddle and on the ground.
1. Back up
This is one of the most basic horse groundwork exercises, but you’ll be surprised by how many horses have a struggle to back up, both on the ground and under saddle. Teaching your horse to back up can come in handy for several uses as there may be times you’ll need to back your horse out of a trailer or stable or when you’ve landed in a bit of a tricky spot such as reaching a dead-end whilst hacking.
How to teach back up
To teach your horse to back up, you’ll want to stand on the left-hand side of them alongside the middle of their neck and turn to face their tail. Hold your horse where the clip of your lead rope meets the headcollar and gently push the rope straight back into your horse’s chest. Whilst doing this, slowly move your hand left to right to encourage their feet to move. Once they move back, even if it’s just a tiny bit, release the pressure, reward them, then walk forward and repeat. Once they’re doing this well, you can try and up the difficulty by giving them more rope and asking them to back away from you and you can also try teaching a verbal cue. The latter is particularly helpful when translating back up to a skill under saddle as well.
2. Stand still/stop
Teaching your horse a good stand still or stop is one of the most valuable groundwork exercises you can utilise. It’s great for when you’re trying to mount at the mounting block, adjusting jumps in the arena or when you’re lunging and you need your horse to come to a stop.
How to teach stand still/stop
Stand looking at your horse, far away enough so that you’re holding the end of the lead rope in your hand. When your horse inevitably tries to walk towards you, shake the lead rope from side to side to tell your horse to back up. If they don’t back up straight away, increase the pressure of the shake until they step away. The moment they step back, release the pressure. Once your horse stands still for a good amount of time, try asking them to walk towards you for a set number of steps, then ask them to stop by slightly moving the rope side to side and hold your other hand up in a stop signal. If they don’t stop, apply that pressure again to ask them to back up. Once they’ve got this consistently, try adding a verbal cue alongside your hand signal.
For fidgety horses, it can take a while to learn a good stand still but be patient! It’s all about repetition and consistency.
3. Move over
Move over is a great horse groundwork exercise which is simply where you ask them to move their hindquarters away from you, using just a gentle physical cue to their side. Teaching this can help to enforce good manners and make them easier to handle in general as horses are very large animals so it’s essential that you can get them to move over easily.
How to teach move over
Begin by standing at your horse’s middle and press your fingertips to the spot just before their flank to ask them to move over. Once your horse understands that this pressure means move over, add a cue word like “over” or use a physical cue such as pointing to their side.
4.Flex and softening to pressure
This horse groundwork exercise is particularly useful for those that tend to fight the pressure of the bit or reins when ridden. To teach your horse how to properly respond to pressure, they’ll need to learn to flex and soften which will, in turn, improve their way of going and assist with acceptance of the bit.
How to teach flex
The first step to teaching your horse how to accept pressure is to teach them to flex. Firstly, stand next to your horse and face their side. Take the lead rope into your hand that’s closest to your horse’s face and bring the rope up to just behind their withers, this asks them to tip their nose to the side. If your horse resists, hold the rope in place at the withers until they give in to the pressure or turn their nose in the right direction, then as soon as they do, release and reward! The eventual goal with flex is to get them to tip their nose and bend their neck so it touches their shoulder.
How to teach soften
Place your hand on their poll and the other under your horse’s chin holding the lead rope. Then, lightly tug down on the rope and gently push down on the top of their head. At this point, your horse may try and fight this pressure by throwing their head up or going backwards. If they do this, start even more basic by just using the pressure of the lead rope, without your hand on top of their poll and apply pressure. If they try and fight it this time, keep holding the pressure on the rope until they drop their head, then once they do this, release and reward. Soon you should be able to ask them to drop their head by just tugging the lead rope.
If you’ve never tried horse groundwork exercises before, it’s a good idea to start slow and gradually build-up to the more complicated manoeuvres. At first, focus on exercises that will help to improve manners and trust and once you both get the hang of it, you can even try your hand at a few tricks!
Those are our top four horse groundwork exercises that every rider should utilise and every horse can benefit from. Looking for more horse care advice? Check out our article on how to bring a horse back into work next.