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My grandson and I recently visited a friend who specializes in ground training young horses. It was a treat to watch him work with his horses and see how much he could teach them without getting on their backs. After watching him, we realized we should focus more on groundwork exercises with our horses.
Ground training is when you teach your horse while you are on the ground, not riding. For example, the basic groundwork exercises teach your horse to lead, stand still, work on a lung line, and respond to pressure and release.
Many horse owners spend most of their time in the saddle teaching their horse how to behave and move correctly; however, your animal may never develop to its full potential without proper groundwork.
This guide covers:
- Why is groundwork necessary for horses?
- How do you start groundwork with a horse?
- Groundwork exercises to do with your horse – How do you teach a horse to lunge?
- How often should you do groundwork with your horse?
The importance of groundwork for your horses.
Groundwork benefits both you and your horse and forces people of all skill levels (including beginners) to slow down and refine their communication signals and is the foundation for your horse’s success.
Working your horse from the ground involves using hand cues, body movement, and “pressure and release” to communicate with your horse. These techniques teach horses many vital lessons such as: to lead, yield, stand still, and respond.
It is your duty as your horse’s trainer always to leave the horse a better horse. And that is exactly what groundwork does for your mount. Here are some more benefits of ground training for your horse:
1. Improves its confidence.
Your horse will become a confident, well-rounded animal with consistent training and groundwork. In addition, a relationship of mutual respect will develop between you two as your horse learns to trust in you through regular training sessions.
2. Your horse becomes safer to be around.
Safety is essential for you, your horse, and the people on the ground. With step-by-step ground training, you can ensure that your horse riding lessons progress smoothly.
You can later move to more challenging stuff without scaring or overwhelming your mount. Groundwork helps set things up for success so your horse can take the lessons in its stride.
3. Groundwork forms habits that last a lifetime.
Never think for once that ground training is inconsequential. Instead, be patient as you will soon reap the rewards. Good ground training will segue seamlessly into mounted training and develop habits that will last a lifetime.
4. It is a valuable tool for physical development and conditioning.
Consistent ground training can develop flexibility, balance, and muscular coordination. When performed correctly, it is a graceful system that you and your horse can use when you work together on the ground. In a sense, it can become part gymnastics and part dance! It is the foundation of a beautiful, loving relationship.
How to Start Ground Work with Your Horse?
Here are the basics of starting ground training:
1. Get your horse accustomed to being around people, pets, and other horses.
When interacting with horses, they should always feel comfortable around you and never threatened by your movements or behavior. With any horse that you work with, it is important to develop trust.
One way to build a good relationship is how you act around the horse. You should move around them deliberately and with confidence. Slow your pace, move with purpose, and stay calm. Once they’re comfortable around you (and vice versa), try introducing others; this will broaden their experience!
2. Mind your body language around your horse
Horses rely on their senses to get an idea of what’s happening around them. So the tone and body language you use when training should be upbeat, positive, non-threatening, or intimidating. They learn more when they’re not scared. In the words of Dagobert D. Runes – ‘You cannot train a horse with shouts and expect it to obey a whisper.
3. Let your horse guide you.
Every horse’s personality and temperament are different. Therefore, it is essential to tailor ground training to each horse. In fact, you should let your horse ‘tell you’ what lesson it needs next.
4. Know the ages and stages of training
A general thumb rule for horse age-wise training is as follows:
- In-hand work – suitable for all horses
- Suckling – in hand only
- Weanling – in hand with supervision
- Yearlings– all exercises except lope
- 2 and 3-yr old – all exercises
5. Know when to reward
Reward your horse even when it tries to do the right thing – even if it does not get it right. For example, if your horse even lowers its head for the slightest poll pressure, reward it even if it does not fully drop it.
In addition to treats, you can also scratch it on the withers, shoulders, rub its forehead, reduce pressure, and praise it in a soothing voice.
6. Some more guidelines
- Give your horse some time turned out before each lesson.
- Establish a connection with your horse by grooming or rubbing it.
- Start with exercises your horse already knows.
- Introduce new lessons when your horse is tuned in to you mentally.
- Allow plenty of rest breaks.
- End the training on a good note – something your horse does well.
- Finish your workout with a cool-down period.
3 Basic Ground Work Exercises to Do With Your Horse
1. Yield (flex or soften) with pressure and release
The methods of pressure and release are the keys to horse training. Horses follow because they learn that pressure is released when they move in response to a tight rope.
For example, they stand still because stepping back from their handler creates pressure, and standing still releases tension. Pressure and release exercises are also used to make a horse yield its body away from pressure when asked.
Your horse should be able to move forward and backward and its shoulders and hindquarters sideways in both directions. It should also lower its head when asked.
To teach your horse to yield, apply pressure until the horse makes a correct response and then immediately release the tension, and praise your horse when it does this and give it a reward.
2. Teach your horse to stand still
An important aspect of training a horse is to teach them how to stand still. Most horses will try to wander and move around; often, this leads to them getting spooked and injured.
So it is imperative that they are trained for safety reasons and because it can be difficult for people when their horse moves around while they are trying to groom or saddle up. You should teach a horse to stand still when tied, when on a lead rope, and ground tied.
You can teach a horse to ground tie with a little time and patience. Ground tying is an essential skill horses need because it means they don’t need someone there all the time holding them so they won’t run away! Once your horse learns to yield under pressure, teaching them to stand still and ground tie will come easily.
Using hobbles as a training tool for ground tying works well and is harmless. If you want to learn more about using hobbles, I wrote an article about hobbles you should read: Why Use Hobbles and How to Put Them on Your Horse.
Once horses master standing still, they are calmer, more focused, and learn quicker. Plus, they are easier to groom and mount. I can’t emphasize enough the benefits of training a horse to stand still; it’s essential for you and your horse’s safety.
3. Teach your horse to lunge
Lunging is an important step for preparing your horse for riding, as it teaches them how to behave and aids in building strength. It also improves balance and coordination.
Interesting fact: The word “lunge” comes from the German “laufen,” meaning to run or go fast, or from the French word “allonge,” which means to lengthen, make long. I think either fits.
Lunging gets your horse to move out in a circle, whether on a lunge line typically in a round pen. When lunging, a person encourages or guides a horse in the direction they want it to go while the horse is attached to a long lead rope called a lunge line.
It helps your horse work around you and also is a great way to burn energy. You can even use lunging as a tool to sharpen communication with your horse. Lunging is frequently used with young horses not trained for riding and older horses to keep them fit.
The first time you lunge your horse, it’s best not to use anything other than your hand because if they get startled by something else early on then, they’ll associate lunging with being scared of things around them- not good! If you’re using a whip or crop, don’t do any more than tap them lightly.
Here are the steps to get your horse to lunge on a lead rope:
- Use light pressure on the lead rope and tap the whip gently on the ground behind the horse. This will get your horse to move forward
- Even if your horse takes one step forward, stop and reward it by decreasing the pressure.
- If your horse does not respond, increase the pressure. (In a slightly more aggressive way- you may slap the ground with the whip). Most horses react to this. If yours doesn’t respond, then tap it lightly on the rump. It can be a gentle pressure, but it has to be continuous. This will eventually get any horse to step forward.
- Always start with light pressure, and move to medium pressure. Use tapping on the rump as a last resort. Most horses will respond to medium pressure. The key is to reward your horse instantly even if it moves one step forward – that way it will understand it is doing the right thing. You can reward by easing the pressure on the lead rope.
- To change the gait, you can also lead the horse in the forward direction with the arm holding the lead rope.
- Eventually, you need to rely less on the lung whip. So make your horse understand subtle cues such as pointing.
- To make your horse stop, you can use the ‘pressure ahead’ on its lunge line. You can do this by placing your whip on the lead and applying gentle pressure. Your horse will know that it has to stop. Reward your horse instantly by reducing pressure.
Once your horse learns to lunge, it can be useful for many things; if I have a horse that’s not moving right, I can lunge it in different directions and tell which limb is bothering it. Lunging is also a useful method to warm up a cold horse before riding.
How often should you do groundwork with your horse?
Each horse is different, so you must observe your horse and watch how it progresses with training. However, it’s important to know how often you should train your horse based on age and fitness level, so you don’t overdo it.
For most of our horses, we work with them six days a week but at different levels. I believe most horses learn better through repetition and regular handling, but this doesn’t mean they need strenuous work during each training period.
For example, we may work a horse in a round pen for three days, spend two days working on halter skills while grooming it every day. The quantity of time isn’t important as its quality.
If you have limited time to work, your horse try to schedule your training days consecutively if possible. For example, let’s say that because of your schedule, you can train your horse only on Monday after it has had Saturday and Sunday off. This is like starting from scratch for some horses, and they won’t listen to you at first.
Assume now that you again get time to train your horse next Wednesday. You might have your horse’s attention, but you probably won’t make much progress as you’d repeat Monday’s lesson on Wednesday. Now, if you give it some more days off, the same thing may happen.
Result: you won’t make much progress even though you’ve spent three days in a week training your horse. That is why experts recommend training your horse thrice a week in succession.
A better plan: Sart on Friday- Work your horse and introduce new things, get it to pay attention during this session. Then, work the horse again on Saturday; it will have a good mental attitude and pay more attention to you than it did on Friday. By the end of Saturday’s lesson, you can improve upon Friday’s lesson.
Follow-up your training on Sunday; when you start, you can make even more improvement than you did on the previous day. This way, even if you give your horse a vacation from Monday to Thursday, you’d still have made progress.
Groundwork training has many benefits. First, it strengthens your bond with your horse and gets it to listen to you. Second, it also makes your horse confident and instills good habits in it for life.
Some of the basic groundwork exercises include teaching your horse to lunge, stand still, and yield. These skills are essential for advanced techniques and make saddle training much easier.
The key to groundwork training is consistency. Regularly working with your horse will give it a chance to understand you better. In the beginning, horses go through confusion, but that will pass, and your horse will work out things quickly. Remember, though, that it will never progress unless you are clear, consistent, and confident too.
Successive lessons are usually more effective than lessons on alternate days.
We hope this brief guide helps you get an insight into groundwork training.
At what age do you start training a foal?
You can start training a foal once it has been weaned. Most foals wean between 4-6 months old and are ready for a beginner’s course in horsemanship! During their training, you can introduce low-intensity groundwork exercises.