11 May 5 Best Groundwork Exercises for Your Horse
Groundwork Exercises For Horses
Groundwork is an essential tool every equestrian should utilize. It is the gateway to strengthening your relationship with your horse as well as establishing yourself as the authority figure.
So what are the best groundwork exercises for your horse? The best groundwork exercises are:
- Train your horse to stand still
- Train your horse to lead properly
- Train your horse to flex and soften to pressure
- Train your horse to go on a circle
- Train your horse to move the front-end and hind-end.
While there are a plethora of groundwork exercises and methods to research and choose from, these five basic exercises will affect your horse both in and out of the saddle.
It’s said in the horse world that if you can’t do it on the ground, then you’re going to have trouble doing it in the saddle. Groundwork is a great way to introduce new tasks to horses. It eliminates the stress of a rider on their back and allows them to simply focus on what you’re asking them to do. If you’re more of a visual learner, I have an online course about groundwork that walks you step-by-step through these exercises and how to apply it to working with your horse. Click here to visit the course page!
Before You Get Started
Before you get started with groundwork, you’ll need:
- A rope halter
- A lunge whip
- A nice level area to work your horse
A rope halter is recommended for groundwork because a rope halter allows for the pressure applied to the lead to be felt more clearly by the horse. A lunge whip is used as a tool to get your horse to move. It should never be used to hit the horse, rather you can point it, wave it, or crack it.
Make sure you work your horse on a nice level area. This will ensure no twisted ankles between both you and your horse. Round pens are a great place to work your horse because the closed-off space offers less distraction for your horse.
Exercise 1: Train Your Horse to Stand Still
The purpose of this exercise is to establish your authority in the relationship with your horse. If your horse doesn’t see you as the leader, then they will try to claim the alpha spot. This can manifest itself in many subtle ways that even an experienced horse person can overlook.
This may look like your horse pulling their head down to get a bite of grass, dragging you with them. It could be that your horse starts to walk off when you turn your back for a moment or they don’t walk beside you as they should when you lead them. In all of these instances, your horse is not respecting you or your role as the authority.
Horses learn things one way, and that way is repetition. If your horse is constantly getting away with these subtle little things, they could eventually turn into a very bad habit later on. It’s important to nip it in the bud as soon as you notice these things happening.
This groundwork exercise is an easy way to correct one of these little problems. To first understand what you’ll be trying to correct, simply take your horse on the lead and stand. You may notice that your horse takes a sly step forward or backward every now and then even though you aren’t asking them to. You’re just asking them to stand.
There is a quick fix for this that will teach your horse to stand still and focus on you. Stand face-to-face with your horse. Stand far enough away so that you’re holding the end of the lead in your hand.
All you’re going to do is when your horse tries to step out of the standstill, shake the lead rope side to side. This signals for your horse to back up. If your horse won’t back up right away, increase the pressure of your shake until they step back. As soon as they step back, release the pressure so they know that they did the right thing.
It may take a while for your horse to grasp the concept of standing still, but once again, horses learn by repetition so the more consistent you are with correcting your horse, then the faster the horse will catch on.
Once your horse can stand still for a longer amount of time, start asking them to step toward you a certain number of steps by applying pressure on the rope. When they’ve stepped forward the certain amount of steps, ask them to stop by a slight side-to-side with the rope and holding your other hand up in a “stop” command. If they don’t stop, apply more pressure and make them back up to where they should be.
Once you get this part of the exercise down, you can start adding voice commands. At some point, you should be able to leave your horse in the middle of the ring at a standstill while you’re at the ring’s fence. When you call your horse, they should walk towards you and when you say whoa and hold up your hands, they should stop.
Exercise 2: Train Your Horse to Lead Properly
The purpose of this exercise is to make your horse focus on you and pay attention to your body language. It’s easy for a horse’s attention to wander, and you can usually tell by the horse tugging on the lead trying to look at something or the horse trying to hurry past you, basically dragging you in the process. Even a lazy horse that you have to pull behind you isn’t really paying attention; rather, they’re more focused on not working hard to try and keep up with you.
The proper position for a horse to be when you are leading them is to have their nose parallel to your arm, neither ahead of it nor behind it. A great way to see if your horse is in the proper lead position is to take your lunge crop and hold it horizontal right in front of you. Make sure the crop is laying across your arm, stretching out to where your horse would walk.
If you’re leading your horse and they are constantly bumping their nose or running past this line that you created with the whip, then they are being too pushy and trying to walk ahead. Your goal is to always have your horse right behind this line.
If your horse knows how to properly lead, they’ll stay beside you without pulling on the lead or without you having to drag them. If you pick up your pace, they should do whatever they need to in order to stay in the position parallel to your arm. When you come to a stop, they should halt instantly beside you without stepping past the line.
To do this exercise, you are going to lead your horse around on a circle. You should have two hands on the lead rope, one closer to the throat latch than the other. In your other hand, also hold the lunge whip. The whip should stick out behind you, parallel to the body of the horse.
The whip is only used for lazy horses who won’t keep up or for horses that don’t want to move forward right away when asked. You’re not going to smack them with it; rather, if they’re being stubborn, then you’ll hit the ground beside them asking them to speed up.
Depending on whether you have a lazy horse or an energetic horse may determine how this exercise goes. If you have an energetic horse that likes to pull on the lead, then every time they get past the point of your arm, stop and shake the lead rope side to side.
This will ask them to back up. If they don’t back up right away, increase the pressure until they do what you ask. Once they get to the point where they can lead correctly at the point of your arm, make sure to praise them.
If you’re dealing with a lazy horse, doing a lot of speed variations will get them to pay attention. When you speed up your pace, they should too. If they don’t, then use the whip on the ground beside them to ask them to go forward. When you slow your pace, they should slow too.
The variations will keep them focused on what you’re asking. As soon as you can do the speed transitions while maintaining a slack in the lead rope rather than having to apply pressure, then your horse deserves praise.
Not only will this exercise get your horse focused on you, but it will also establish respect for your personal space. Before, if a horse were to pull past you, then they didn’t respect your space or the line drawn at your arm. When they learn to stay at that line, then they respect that you’re the leader and that anything ahead is considered your space.
Likewise, this exercise also teaches your horse to respond to your body language. When you slow down, they should slow down. When you speed up, they should speed up. All of this will be expanded later on in this article.
If you’re a more visual learner, check out my video where I teach my husband some of these exercises!
Exercise 3: Train Your Horse to Flex and Soften to Pressure
The purpose of this exercise is to teach your horse how to respond to pressure. This exercise can be used for a number of things, all with the horse’s well-being in mind.
Have you ever rode a horse that would stick its neck up straight in the air whenever you gave it any cues? When the pressure was applied to the reins, did the horse fight the pressure by tossing its head? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then the horse you riding was never taught how to properly respond to pressure from the reins or the bit.
If a horse is never taught to respond to the pressure of the reins or the bit, then the horse will not only be a pain to ride but will also fail to carry themselves correctly. If a horse is braced against the contact of the reins, then their neck will be inverted or sticking up in the air, and their back will be hollow. They have the potential to drag their feet and get heavy with their front-end.
If a horse has been trained to give to the contact of the reins, then the horse will feel soft and floaty, their neck arched into the contact and their back will round. They will be easy to steer and maneuver.
The first step to teaching your horse to accept contact of the reins is to teach them to flex and soften via halter. Flexing and softening are two separate things, but they do hand and hand. Flexing is the ability of your horse to turn their neck from side to side. In order to do this, they have to flex the muscles in their neck.
You may notice that some horses have difficulty flexing their neck enough to touch just behind their shoulder. This is can because their neck muscles are either stiff or just not strong enough to do it. However, the more you work the muscles, the more they’ll loosen and become stronger.
Softening refers to your horse giving you the pressure if you were to either put a hand on top of their poll and push down or simply slightly tugging their head down with the lead rope. If the horse doesn’t like any pressure on their head, then they’ll brace against it, even throwing their head up in the air.
If the horse were to respect the pressure, then they would instantly lower its head towards the ground. By teaching your horse to soften, they will learn to stretch and round their neck into the contact that the reins would offer.
Teaching your horse to respond to pressure on their head could even help them in a potentially dangerous situation. If the horse were to get its head stuck under something like a fence, instead of freaking out, they would know to keep their head down due to the pressure the fence would be applying.
First, we’ll teach the horse to flex. It’s important to do this exercise on either side of your horse to ensure that their muscles are balanced. Stand next to your horse facing their side. Take your lead rope in your hand closest to your horses face. Bring the lead rope up to just behind the withers.
By doing this, you are asking your horse to tip their nose to the side. If the horse resists the pressure, simply hold the rope in place at the horse’s withers until you feel the horse give to the pressure or turn their nose in that direction. As soon as they do that, release the pressure and reward your horse.
The goal is to be able to ask the horse to tip its nose and bend its neck enough to touch its shoulder. It’s important that every time the horse gives to the pressure that you release and reward them. They’ll soon learn that following the pressure is a good thing.
When you first start this exercise, your horse may take a few steps trying to get their balance. If they do this, just move with the horse, still holding the lead rope to the withers and asking them to give with their nose.
To teach your horse to soften, simply put a hand at their poll and one on the lead under their chin. Start lightly tugging down on the rope and lightly pushing down on top of their head. At first, your horse will instantly brace against this, possibly even throwing their head up and running backward. If this is the case, then just start with applying pressure via the lead rope and not with your hand on top of their head.
Once again, apply the pressure. If the horse braces against it, simply keep holding the pressure until they drop their head. As soon as they do that, release the pressure and reward them. Soon, you should be able to ask your horse to drop their head to the ground simply by applying a light tug to the rope.
These exercises put together will teach your horse how to go on the contact when being ridden. Sooner or later, your horse will be able to flex their neck, responding to the smallest of pressure. Even just slightly picking up on the cheek piece of the halter will cause their neck muscles to flex and round.
Once your horse can soften on the ground, try it in the saddle. You’ll be able to apply steady pressure to both reins and the horse’s nose will drop to the ground. As soon as that happens, you can release the pressure.
You’ll find that your horse actually likes to round their neck and stretch down because it makes it easier for them to carry you on their back. This is because when they stretch their neck down, they have to round their back instead of carrying it hollowed out.
Exercise 4: Train Your Horse to Go on the Circle
The purpose of this exercise is to learn how to move your horse’s feet and to control their motions around you. Training your horse to go on a circle around you is also known as lungeing. You can either do this with a halter and lead rope/lunge rope or even in a round pen without any rope attaching to your horse.
This exercise can be used for a number of things: working your horse in order to get their extra energy out, having your horse move out to see if they are lame, loosening up a stiff horse, and correcting bad behavior. It allows you to work your horse without ever getting in the saddle.
The main point this article will focus on is how you can put your horse on a circle in order to correct bad behavior. Imagine your horse is starting to act up; they are offering to buck or take off. Instead of trying to ride through the problem and potentially get hurt, you can get off and lunge your horse.
In this instance, you should lunge your horse until they show signs that they don’t want to act up anymore. It’s said that the hardest gait for a horse is the trot. If your horse is being bad, put them into a working trot, and don’t let them stop until you ask them to.
In the wild, if a horse is doing something that the alpha horse doesn’t like, the alpha will make the other horse move its feet. This is essentially what you are doing with this exercise; you’re re-establishing your authority with your horse as well as making it clear to them that you don’t like what they’re doing.
This can be used for even more subtle signs of your horse disrespecting your authority. Sending your horse trotting on a circle around you when they dive for a mouthful of grass is a great way to teach them that they shouldn’t try to graze when you’re leading them. If this is a problem that your horse struggles with, we have an article that expands on this some more. Click here to read the article.
Horses don’t like to do more work than they have to. This exercise will get the point across that bad behavior means more work. You’ll notice how fast your horse shapes up when you introduce this into your routine.
Start by having your lead rope gathered in one hand and your lunge whip in the other. At a standstill, ask your horse to continue past you. You may have to take a step towards their hind-end and use the whip to urge them forward. Just remember that you should never hit your horse with the whip, as this can make them skittish and untrusting.
As your horse travels out into the circle, let out some rope from your hand. Never offer enough rope that it drags on the ground, as the horse can get caught up in it and panic.
To properly lunge a horse, you must be aware of your position. In order to properly drive your horse forward on the circle, always keep your body even with the middle of the horse’s barrel. Keep your lunge whip point down and out in the direction of the horse’s rump.
At first, your horse may be confused and try to come towards you or stop. It’s important that you keep them moving forward on the circle, not allowing them to stop. If you allow your horse to do this, they may pick up a bad habit of it later on.
Once you and your horse are comfortable working on the circle, you can start asking your horse to transition between gaits. Vocal commands are always recommended to do this; however, your horse may not pick them up right away.
In order to ask your horse to go from a walk to a trot, say the gait you want: “trot!” If they don’t respond right away, use the whip to urge them forward. As soon as they respond correctly, lower the whip.
Likewise, in order to slow your horse down, say “whoa!” If they don’t respond, you can tug the rope. Once they slow down, release the pressure.
Once you know how to put your horse on a circle around you, you now have a tool that can fix most bad behavior you come across with your horse. You’ll be able to get them to focus back on you; looking to you for guidance and direction.
Sooner or later, you’ll be able to have your horse transition effortlessly between transitions. Since horses can only concentrate for a few seconds at a time, having them change transitions while on the lunge will keep them focused and entertained, drawing their attention from their distraction and putting it back on you.
Exercise 5: Train Your Horse to Move Their Hind-End & Front-End
The purpose of this exercise is to teach your horse to respect your personal space. Horses are big creatures, and it can be potentially dangerous if your horse doesn’t respect your personal bubble.
A horse that disregards your space will crowd you, run their shoulder into you, step on your feet, and have no regard for where their body is in relation to yours. By teaching your horse to move their hind-end and front-end away from pressure, you are instructing your horse to have respect for you and to realize where their body is positioned.
Not only will this exercise reassure your authority in the relationship, but it will also teach your horse how to do a turn on the haunches, and a turn on the forehand. Turn on the haunches is when your horse will pivot their body around the haunches. What this means is the hind-legs will stay planted while the horse moves its front legs one in front of the other, circling around the haunches.
Likewise, turn on the forehand is when the horse’s front legs stay planted while its hind-legs cross one over the over, circling around the front legs.
Both of these exercises are considered to be more advanced when it comes to riding. In order for the horse to do these exercises, they must be using their bodies correctly. Having your horse move off of their hind-end and front-end makes your horse think about how to use its body properly.
The goal is to be able to cue your horse to move their body over by applying pressure to either the hind-end area or the shoulder area. The response that you want from your horse is for them to 1) step away from you or the pressure, and 2) cross whichever leg they’re stepping away with over the other leg.
First, start with moving the hind-end. Remember back in the exercise where you taught your horse to flex? You applied pressure by taking up the lead rope to behind the horse’s shoulder. You may have noticed that when you did this, your horse swung their hind-end the opposite way trying to bring their neck around.
Moving the hind-end is the same concept. Start by standing at your horse’s head, facing towards their hind end. Take up the slack in the lead rope by lifting your hand up towards the withers and walk assertively towards the horse’s hind-end. The horse should respond to the pressure by swinging their hind-end the opposite way, stepping one leg in front of the other.
If the horse refuses to budge, you can use the end of the lead in your other hand or the lunge whip to get them to step over. Remember, don’t hit the horse with the whip; instead, either point it at their hip or wave it by the hind-leg closest to you.
As soon as the horse steps it’s hind leg away from you, release the pressure and praise them.
To move the front-end, stand a few feet in front of your horse, facing each other. You’ll have the lead rope in one hand and the lunge whip in the other. If you want your horse to move their front-end to the left, hold the rope in the left hand, and if you want the horse to move their front-end to the right, hold the lead rope in the right hand.
Since you are standing in front of your horse, it would be wrong of them to step forward into your personal space. Your goal is to have them move their shoulders over, crossing their front legs in front of one another so that when they stop, you should now be facing their side. If they do happen to walk into your personal space, ask them to back up.
To do this, whichever hand has the rope, point in the direction that you want them to move their shoulders over to. This will give them a signal as to which way to go. Then, wave your lunge whip towards the opposite shoulder, the one that needs to step away first. As soon as the horse steps away from the pressure by crossing their front leg over the other, release the pressure and praise them.
In the beginning, the horse may step away but might not cross their front legs over. If this is the case, move assertively towards the side your the horse you want to step away as you wave the lead rope. This will encourage the horse further to step away out of your bubble.
Your horse will now have a new-found respect for your personal space and you’ll easily be able to move their body over if need be. Teaching your horse to move their hind-end and front-end on the ground will greatly impact your ride in the saddle.
In the saddle, you should now have control of both your horse’s front-end and back-end. To ask them to move each end over is the same concept as the one used on the ground.
To move the hind-end, bring the one rein to your hip on the side that you want them to move away from. Put your lower leg behind the birth and give a squeeze. You should feel your horse swing their hind-end over.
To move the front-end under saddle, lay the rein on your horse’s neck on the side you want them to move away from. Open the opposite rein so the horse has something to move into. Apply pressure with your lower leg at the point of the girth. You should feel the front-end pivot around the hind-end.
When practiced enough, you can put these two movements together to teach your horse to side pass or leg yield. Training your horse to move their hind-end and front-end is the first step in teaching your horse lateral movements.
If the info in this article has been helpful for you, be sure to check out my Gain & Maintain Your Horse’s Respect course here.
If you’re more of a visual learner, I walk through all of these exercises in this Youtube video:
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do I Know If My Horse is Paying Attention to Me?
There are a few ways to tell if your horse is paying attention to you. If your horse is looking at you with their ears pointed in your direction, then they are focusing on you. If their responses to your cues are quick, then they are paying attention to what you are asking them to do.
If your horse isn’t paying attention to you, then they’ll be looking away from you, their eyes and ears towards their focus. They may start to forget about your personal space by becoming distracted by something else. If they are whinnying for their buddies, then they aren’t paying attention to you.
If you’d like to know more about how to get your horse’s attention, click here.
If you’re more of a visual learner and want a walkthrough of some of these exercises, here’s a video of me teaching groundwork to my husband!
How Do I Train A Green Broke Horse?
Training a horse requires to things; consistency and persistence. You must be consistent in correcting bad behavior as well as what you’re asking of the horse. A green horse needs consistent work or it will have trouble retaining any information.
You must have persistence when training a horse. You must be patient enough with your horse to allow them the time to understand something. Horses can be very stubborn creatures, and they’ll test you to see if you have what it takes to work with them. Your patience, assertiveness, and sheer will should outlast your horse’s stubbornness, fear, or frustration.
With these two qualities, you will become a great leader to your equine. One thing to remember is that horse training requires groundwork. Groundwork holds the foundation for gaining your horse’s respect and introducing new ideas to them.
If you are interested in training a horse, review the five groundwork exercises above to see where to start.
P.S. Save this article to your “Horse Training” Pinterest Board!
I’m a lifelong horse trainer and horseback rider who’s passionate about teaching others about the things I’ve learned. I grew up competing in numerous English horseback riding disciplines and am now a certified equine massage therapist. I currently own three horses.