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Groundwork basics for horses

Dernière mise à jour : 8 janv. 2021

Many situations often lead horses owners to try their hand at groundwork . Whether it is in the context of a youngster's training, a horse unfit for riding or in convalescence, an unsuitable environment or the simple desire to vary activities, many are those who try to whisper to the ear of their horses.


It is a enriching activity for both the rider and their horse because it is one of the main foundations of communication and mutual respect.

As a rider the point of view of the horse at work is usually seen from the saddle, but one of the big advantages of groundwork is that it gives us a different angle of observation. One can thus appreciate the horse's locomotion without distortion caused by the weight of a rider, their aids or the discomfort of the equipment. It is then possible in this way to detect any deficits in musculature or balance that might handicap the animal while at work, which may even prevent them from performing certain figures comfortably.

On the other hand, it creates another relationship with the animal. The horse is able to see us, observe our movements and our behavior which makes them much more attentive. We can also exchange more easily by being on foot as we can use the same language. It is a great way to introduce new tasks to horses. For horseriding basics and your relationship with your horse it is important to know and apply 5 groundwork fundamentals that will affect your horse both in and out of the saddle: immobility, moving forward, backing up, isolating the hips and isolating the shoulders.

It is said that if you control your horse's feet, you also control their attention.

Location and conditions

For a good session it is essential, as with any activity, to find the right place. It is important to define a closed space, especially at the beginning, in order to guarantee the safety of the horse and the rider. It is also preferable not to work on the horse's living space in order to obtain better concentration and understanding. Likewise, it is better to choose a place with soft and comfortable ground but not too deep. Make sure the area is level to avoid any twisted ankles from you or your horse.

Ideally it is best to keep groundwork sessions relatively short and regular. About 30 minutes is sufficient, quality takes precedence over quantity.

"Ask often, be satisfied with little, reward a lot."
(Baron Faverot de Kerbrech)

A little communication to start

The horse is a social animal that lives in a herd. All interactions between individuals are organised around a hierarchy present on all levels of their daily life. Horses will naturally place themselves according to this principle with humans. When they want to push other horses away, they will generally place themselves at the others hip level and accompany this gesture with prone ears. If they want to stop another they will stand in front of their shoulders. When a dominant walks towards another, they walk straight ahead while a dominated will walk cautiously and pay attention to the other's reaction. If dominateds are not welcome they will back down or change direction. It is interesting to note that if the dominated retreats it is enough for the dominant to not chase or show any signs of aggression. It is following these natural behaviours that provide the basics of groundwork organisation.


- Stand still

- Patience and safety at the mount

- Establish authority

Equip your horse with a headcollar and a lead rope in an enclosed area, ideally in a lunging ring or a small riding arena.

Ask your horse to stop and praise them for doing so. The horse should be attentive and calm, reward when they show the desired attitude and encourage them to stay still. Facing your horse while maintaining the lanyard without tension, give a vocal or gestural command (or both) and take a step away, wait a second, then come back and reward. If your horse begins to move, do not scold : return to your horse, ask for a stop and only then resume your exercise. Praise often and use your voice to encourage them. Little by little, move further away and wait longer. It is important that your horse understands the exercise, to achieve this each step must be done gradually and with patience. Progressively, you will be able to make the exercise more complex by asking for a longer stop, by moving further away, by moving around your horse and by performing the exercise in various places, even on grass!

Moving forward

- Attention to body language

- Control of direction and pace

- Respect for space

Equip your horse with a headcollar and a lead rope and stand sideways to the left shoulder or in front of your horse as you prefer.

Start walking. If your horse does not follow you, exert a slight pressure on the lead rope which you will immediately release as soon as you obtain a forward movement. Remember to look in the direction you are going, do not ask the horse to follow you while looking behind, the instructions will then become contradictory. Remember to encourage your horse with your voice and reward often.

Then practice the stops: When you walk, stop. As on the saddle, remember to prepare your transitions mentally before making them. Your attitude alone is enough to alert your horse of an upcoming change of exercise. If your horse has passed your shoulder line or passed you (depending on your initial positioning), turn around and push them out of your space. Your horse will learn to focus on you to match your attitude: you walk, they walk, you stop, they stop. When your horse understands the exercise and follows you confidently, you can gradually remove the lead rope. You can modulate the speed at the three gaits, stop, change direction, and pass different obstacles by leading your horse at shoulder height without a lead and without any physical contact.

Moving backward

- Respect for space

- Control and coordination

There are two ways to to move backward: backing up using touch on their chest and backing it up using visual pressure

Back up by touch

We use a progressive method called "hair, skin, muscle, bone". You can also use a voice command. Start by slightly brushing your horse on the chest with your fingertips, if they do not react, give a slightly stronger touch so that you can feel your horse's skin. If they still don't respond, press a little harder: your fingers should feel like you're touching the muscle, and if they still doesn't respond, push harder until you get a result. For the first step, settle for a simple weight shifting to the rear and immediately stop your demand. Take a few strides moving forward, then ask for a stop and back again. Little by little, you can complicate the exercise, from simply shifting the weight backwards you will then ask for a draft stride, then a full stride, then several strides. It is essential to stop all stimuli when the horse gives the correct answer and to reward strongly. Once again, look for the smoothness of the stimulus, when the horse understands the exercise the pressure can ease until it becomes a very light touch. If they give the wrong answer, maintain the stimulus.

Back up by virtual pressure

When moving backward by contact is fully achieved, you can ask the same thing by virtual pressure ( by respecting the space initially established, your horse will shift to maintain this distance. It is therefore a visual pressure.). To do this, move your hand towards their chest and add the vocal command. Accompany the horse's movement, for each step back taken a step forward so as to always maintain the same space or bubble between you and your horse. It is important to put in place a code which will be consistent each time you ask your horse to back up. If the horse does not respond, wave the lead slightly while acting out the order, increase the wave until a result is obtained. A simple backward weight shift is seen as a positive response which should be immediately rewarded and encouraged. Again, stop the stimulus at the exact instant you get a result.

Lateral shoulder movement

- Attention to body language

- Soften the forehand

- Control of forelegs and hindquarters

- Respect for space

Equip your horse with a headcollar and a lead rope and stand slightly forward of the left or right shoulder.

Place one of your hands on the horse's cheek and the other on the shoulder, and exert controlled pressure in the desired direction. Visualize a circle with the horse's hindquarters as the center. The horse should shift both shoulders following this circle using their forelegs without moving forward. Give praise as soon as you obtain the right movement, a few steps are enough to start.

When the movement is correctly performed by contact, it can be achieved by virtual pressure, that is to say by pushing the horse with your body without touch. By respecting your personal space your horse will follow your lateral movement and shift their shoulders, which should also be true doing a backwards movement. To achieve this move away from your horse, walk backwards on the circle while pulling their head towards you. Remember to encourage with your voice and praise. The exercise is successful when your horse places the front foot closest to you in front of the other foot, as seen in the photo above.

What to do if:

Your horse is moving forward: correct them by asking two backward steps. Your horse may be moving forward because you are moving forward too. Check your body position, it is important to always face your horse's neck/shoulder. Young horses often have more difficulty balancing on the hindquarters. By alternating this exercise with the backward movements, your horse will learn to master their balance and lighten their shoulders.

Your horse backs up: do not interrupt your first request. Backing up is more difficult for the horse than moving their shoulders. Be more persistent than your horse while maintaining calm and patience. Make sure your horse's nose is pointed away from you and that you aren't accidentally pulling their head back.

Lateral hips movement

- Slow down when moving forward

- Attention to body language

- Soften the hindquarters

- Control of forelegs and hindquarters

- Respect for space

Start with the “hair, skin, muscle, bone” method seen above. Face the horse's right or left hip, visualise a circle with its fore-hand as the center, and ask for the movement. The horse must shift both hips by following this circle with their hindquarters without leaving this imaginary circle. Stop the stimulus as soon as your horse responds and praise immediately. Little by little, your touch can get incrementally more gentle. If the horse comes out of the circle or falls in the forward movement, start over and keep calm, they have not understood the exercise and it is important to take the time to explain it again.

When the movement is properly performed by contact, we can move onto virtual pressure. You can try moving the hips by stepping back to invite your horse to move towards you. Remember to encourage and praise a lot. For the exercise, your horse should move the hind leg closest to you crossing in front of the other hind leg.

What to do if:

Your horse goes forward : keep your horse's head towards you with a slight neck flexion. This position encourages them to find the right solution for the exercise.

Your horse does not cross their feet: Synchronize the pressure you apply with their inner leg by giving a little pulse at the exact moment your horse lifts their inner foot. This will help them take bigger steps.

Complicated things will get easier if you refine your communication.

A little bit further

When the basic principles are acquired, groundwork exercises are unlimited and what you achieve will only depend on your imagination and the goals you have for your horse and for yourself. Here are some additional exercises to get you started.


- Choose the direction and pace

- Attention of the body language

- Control from a distance

To summon horses, get their attention and walk away.

The recall is the horse coming back to you when you use a precise gesture code. Place yourself in front of them and set the chosen code. For exemple open your arms and tilt your chest slightly backwards while stepping back, the horse must come towards you face to face. If your horse does not react, use your voice (tongue click, whistle…) once and keep pressure on the head collar rope to encourage them to come towards you. Release everything and reward as soon as your horse gives the correct answer. Treats can be a big help!

Head mobilization

- Control of the horse's head

- Flex and soften to pressure

- Soften the neckline

- Respond to the bit

For a lateral flexion of the neck, stand next to your horse's shoulder, and bring the tip of their nose towards you directing directly through the muzzle or with a light tension on the lead rope

(We strongly recommand to avoid holding the headcollar, if your horse moves suddenly or has difficulty cooperating your fingers are very likely to get stuck and you can injure yourself.). At first, be satisfied with a simple intention on the part of your horse and, gradually, increase your demand in order to obtain a larger movement. You can either simply change side to get an opposite lateral flexion, or you can pass the lead rope over the withers. If the horse resists, keep applying pressure until you feel they release tension and follow flexion in that direction. As soon as they do that, release the pressure and reward your horse.

When the lateral flexion is fully acquired, you will be able to tackle the vertical flexion (that is, to make the horse lower its head). By pulling the lead down slightly, encourage your horse to lower the head and neck and praise when they cooperate. Again, gradually increase your demand, until you can bring their head all the way down with a light stimuli. You can also use another technique which is to simply put your hand between the ears of your horse. This method is more delicate, do not press on your animal's head! The weight of your hand alone is sufficient. If this technique does not seem suitable, use the previous one with the lead rope.

You can then combine these exercises, asking not only to flex while standing but also while walking.

"Stick to me"

- Attention of your body language

- Control all four legs

- Speed, focus, precision

The principle is simple, the horse must follow you shoulder to shoulder in any direction and at any pace (walk, trot, canter, stop, back).

Stand parrallel to your horse's neck (shoulder to shoulder), left or right side depending on which hand you are on. Lead rope in the hand closest to the horse and stick or flag in the hand furthest from the horse if needed. Straight posture, energetic and determined, mentally you are sure of yourself and focused. As for the fundamentals exercises seen previously, your posture and gestures will allow you to communicate with your horse so a determined, energic and focused behaviour is highly recommended. As soon as your horse gives a correct answer, strongly reward and stop all stimuli. Be satisfied with little!

1st step: Walk

As for the fundamentals above, bring your horse forward shoulder to shoulder at the same speed. The walk must be acquired before moving on to the following steps.

2nd step: Stop and backward

Your horse must stop at the same time as you. To do this, walk forward (previous step) then mentally prepare your stop and stop. If your horse continues, wave the lead or use the stop vocal command until they respond. If necessary, use the stick or your hand as a barrier in front of their chest. Bring your horse back to your level, shoulder to shoulder, if needed before continuing. Repeat the exercise until the voice command or your gesture is enough to obtain a full stop. Reward strongly when they stop at the same time as you and give them a few minutes break to relax between exercises.

Your horse must move backward at the same time as you. When stopped, you have to first visualize stepping back, straighten up and then back up, breaking down your steps. If the horse is not following you, wave the lead rope. If they are still not following you, increase the curl of the lead rope. As soon as they take a step back, reward strongly. Another way to move your horse backward is to use the touch respecting the order "hair, skin, muscle, bone".

3rd step: Turn

Turn inside the circle: First visualize your future move and look where you want to go. While walking, turn your whole body in the direction you want to go and keep moving. Your horse must move towards you. Strongly reward as soon as you get a smooth and dynamic curve.

Turn outside the circle: Again, visualize your next move and look where you want to go. Turn your body in the direction you want to go but slow down so as to let your horse bypass you. Your horse might find this exercise slightly more difficult, in which case direct the tip of their nose with your hand. If your horse goes too fast and passes you, wave the rope. If they don't move forward or shift enough, stimulate their hindquarters waving the stick back.

4th step: Trot & canter

When all the previous steps are well mastered and you are sure that your horse has fully understood all the codes, you can vary the gaits. The technique is the same as for the forward movement but you can mimic the gait while trotting to encourage your horse to follow you. If your horse does not respond, you can aim the stick towards the rear and use the voice command. When galloping, it is very important that your horse does not pass you, so do not hesitate to place the stick in front of the end of their muzzle to slow down. Your horse must maintain the pace that you impose.


- Discovery

- Building mutual trust

- Presentation of various and varied objects

Start by presenting the objects of everyday life like work material as well as equipment for grooming an care, then add the various objects found in a stable, riding arenas, and in the world (cars, strollers, etc.). Each time, make sure to maintain your horse calm. Never (EVER) force your horse to move forward, wait for a calm behaviour at a distance before moving closer to the object. Also be careful not to sensitize your horse by wanting to desensitize.

The eight

- Soften the horse laterally

- Straightness

- Engagement of the hind legs

- Balance

Work on the figure eight should only be done after a good warm-up in both hands and in three gaits.

The figure eight is an alternation of circles and changes of curvature that allow you to work on the horse's lateral flexibility, the hind legs engagement, balance, and reactivity while varying groundwork exercises. Ideally, materialize the figure 8 using three or four poles on the ground positioned parallel, one in the center of the 8 (or two so the horse walk between) and one at each end with a spacing of about 8 to 25 meters for each circle depending on the horse's level and the gait used in the exercise. Begin by performing this exercise at a walk to familiarize your horse and yourself with this movement before doing it at a trot or canter. It is possible to vary the size of the circles and the gait only when the horse is stable and naturally curved with each hand. To keep your horse's attention and good, constructive work, practice this exercise for a relatively short period of time, alternating with periods of relaxation in a walk.

"When you take off the headcollar, the only thing left is the truth."
Andy Booth

If your horse is well connected to you, groundwork will only be formality. Below are some references, links on which I supported my article, and other lovely groundwork videos on which you can take example or for the pleasure of the eyes.

Good luck!

10 exercices pour devenir complices, Aurélie Seguin


Horseman science, Andy Booth

La Cense method

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