If you’re looking for ways to improve your horse’s performance under saddle, you may want to take horseback riding lessons or add some new arena exercises to your routine. But not all training has to be done from the saddle. In fact, one of the best ways to improve your horse’s performance – and your own performance as a rider – is through groundwork.
Most trainers spend at least a few months focusing on groundwork before they break a young horse, but groundwork is beneficial for mature horses, too. Groundwork not only builds a foundation, but also maintains a foundation of fitness and confidence. It can help you build a better relationship with your companion, too.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at the benefits of groundwork and also recommend some simple groundwork exercises that riders of all abilities can integrate into their routines.
The Benefits of Groundwork
When riders start adding groundwork to their routines, they are often surprised by how quickly they notice the following benefits.
Stronger Relationship With Your Horse
When you work with a new horse from the ground, you get a chance to look them in the eye and better observe their body language. You’ll become more aware of how they are feeling and how they respond when you give various cues.
For instance, you will be able to see when their ears turn so they can listen to you more closely. You’ll notice when they raise their head to get a better look at something off in the distance. Through groundwork, you and your horse will learn to better understand one another, which will deepen your relationship and connection.
Reinforcement of “The Basics”
Whether you ride English or Western, a solid grasp of “the basics” will make the relationship between you and your horse better and thus, make riding all the more enjoyable. The basics include moving away from pressure, giving to bit pressure, standing still when asked, and moving forward when asked. Groundwork gives you the opportunity to practice these basics, which will make your horse more responsive to aids under saddle.
Better Ground Manners
Sometimes a horse will have respect for a rider, but their ground manners – or respect for a handler on the ground – will be lacking. Groundwork helps your horse develop better ground manners. You can incorporate exercises that teach your horse to stand more patiently, stay out of your personal space, and allow you to touch and groom them without kicking or striking.
Improved Strength and Flexibility
Horseback riding does require the horse to be both strong and flexible. You can do exercises from the ground that help improve your horse’s fitness so they are better able to handle ridden work. For instance, carrot stretches can help a horse become more laterally flexible so they are better able to bend when you circle in the ring. Stepping over raised poles can help build their core muscles so they are better able to carry themselves with a round, raised back.
If your horse has had a few months off from riding, starting with a few weeks of groundwork is a good way to get them fit before you start ridden work again. This approach can decrease their risk of soreness and injuries, as well. which is very important for your companion.
One of the best things about groundwork is that there is a seemingly endless number of exercises you can do. If you and your horse are struggling with a certain issue, you can find groundwork exercises to address that specific problem. Here, we’re going to share a very versatile groundwork exercises that have multiple benefits for most horses and riders, regardless of skill level.
Stepping Over Raised Poles
Set up a series of raised poles – three to five is enough. Space them about 3 feet apart, or a little closer together if you have a pony or small horse. Walk your horse over the poles. You can long-line them or lunge them over the poles if you prefer. This one simple exercise will help strengthen your horse’s core, teach them to lift their feet, and help them maintain a more even stride at the walk.
Moving Off Side Pressure
Horses should always move away from pressure. But sometimes, this response can get a little dull when not enforced. A simple groundwork exercise can help.
Hold your horse’s leadline gently, and stand next to their barrel. Use your hand to apply pressure to the barrel in the area where your leg would rest if you were mounted. If your horse doesn’t move sideways, increase the pressure until they do. Release the pressure as soon as they take one step to the side. Then, repeat the exercise, using lighter pressure. Keep repeating the exercise, each time using less and less pressure. This will get your horse more responsive to your leg under saddle, and it will lighten them to your aids, overall.
Walking up and down hills is an excellent fitness-building exercise for horses. It helps build the muscles in their topline and core, and it helps tone the tendons and ligaments in the legs to prevent injuries. Start by just leading or long-lining your horse up and down a hill a few times per session. Gradually increase the number of times you walk up and down the hill.
You can incorporate more training exercises into your hillwork if you wish. For instance, at the top of each hill, you can ask your horse to whoa, and then back them three steps.
Ground tying is a useful skill for horses to have, especially if you plan on trail riding. And teaching your horse to ground tie is also a great way to build a stronger relationship and deeper trust.
Always teach your horse to ground tie in an enclosed ring or paddock. Start by simply dropping the leadline. Tell your horse whoa. If they stand for a few seconds without moving, reward them with praise and a pat. Next time, take a few steps away from them as the lead rope rests on the ground. If they stand, return to them and reward them. Over the course of a few weeks, practice walking further and further from your horse with them “tied” to the ground. Eventually, you’ll be able to leave the arena, and they won’t move a foot.
This type of exercise can make your horse less reactive and more trusting of you when they encounter something new and scary. You can do it with anything, really. Bring a blue tarp into the ring, and slowly bring your horse closer and closer to it. Reward them when they stand quietly in its presence. Eventually, you can try draping it over them, again speaking to them softly and rewarding them for standing. Try this with flags, balloons, umbrellas, and even plastic bags.
Horseback riding is only one way to engage with and relate to your horse. Groundwork can help you form a more solid relationship and general fitness so you can better enjoy riding together. And above all, remember that consistency and patience are key when doing these exercises with your horse.
If you’re looking for more training help – both for horseback riding and groundwork – check out the videos from Easy Horse Fix.