Everything we want to do with our horses starts on the ground.
Everything our horses need to know to live a balanced horse life along side us is can be taught from the ground.
Riding is a privilege that we need to earn. Earned with trust and self carriage.
You don’t need to ride your horse in order to have a fulfilled relationship and offer a good life for your horse.
But of course your horse wants to experience life to its fullest, too. So standing around in a paddock isn’t gonna make it in the long run.
What can you do with a horse you either can’t or won’t ride?
Here are some ideas for you. Make sure that the exercises you want to try fit to the age and health of your horse.
Lets explore the term ‘groundwork’ a little because it is very broad and can be interpreted very differently depending on the discipline and goal one has.
Groundwork - to work from/on the ground with a horse essentially starts whenever you make contact with a horse through sight. That even means, when you and your horse see each other while you are approaching the paddock. Then, the connection starts.
How you handle your horse on a daily basis is also ‘groundwork’ as it teaches and influences how you two interact. This can be: how well the horse lets himself get caught, how he behaves on the lead, while opening or closing a gate, standing still for grooming, feeding time behind a fence and so on.
In classical terms, groundwork starts when the horse and trainer is set up in an arena or enclosed space like a round pen. Some people always use ropes like in lunging or long reins for their groundwork, some people prefer classic horsemanship in liberty and join up. You see, there are already lots of different ways to ‘do groundwork’.
This almost always has the purpose to train the horse physically, or in horsemanship to ensure a connection and make the horse compliant (often without questioning the quality and freedom of this connection).
Both seem to have a very serious attitude regarding to the word ‘work’ from the ground.
So groundwork can be teaching daily taks and manners but also training the physical body or establishing a relationship. And lastly, at least for me, it can also mean just enjoying time together as in going for a walk or hike, hanging or playing around in the arena or field, getting used to being groomed or examined for farriers or vets, getting to know a trailer and so on. This can therefore include a lot of tack or things into the groundwork as well and it is influenced by your accommodation and surrounding.
Lets start with first things first, the daily tasks and manners.
One important groundwork lesson is always 'learning to lead’, for both the horse and the human. That means that the horse learns to follow you and stay with you at an appropriate distance, that he knows when and where to stop or to yield to keep the distance and to pick up your energy and speed. It also means that the human learns to be in his body, to properly lead a horse, to be aware of ones emotion and energy and to use them in the right way. To give the right signals and communicate when to stop, yield or pick up pace.
This can be done at liberty or on a halter and a lead rope, in an arena or in the field. That all depends on your preferences, your horse and your circumstances.
This is usually the first thing to teach a horse and can be done pretty early, so its perfect for young horses. It is also a good point to fall back to with traumatized horses (or humans) that need to start over and reassure the handling manners.
While leading, the horse and the human learn to communicate with each other through body language and energy which lays the foundation for any further groundwork. Walking together also forms a connection and a bond. When you can lead your horse calm and secure, you can go and broaden that comfort zone to finally be able to go on hikes together, which adds a lot of benefit to your and your horses body & mind.
Leading is a great exercise for beginning humans, too!
If you want to use a halter for your groundwork it is a nice idea to teach your horse self haltering. This gives the horse a lot of autonomy when it comes to participating and it creates a positive and engaging set up to start a session (like leading).
It is also perfect for young horses that get halterd for the first time and for traumatized or halter/bridle sour horses.
With self haltering you present the halter in front of the horses head and reward him when puts his head into the halter himself. This is taught step by step with first presenting the halter and just touching it, taking a step forward or lowering the head. You build this up until the point where the horse puts his nose into the halter so you can actually close it. (Side note: the autonomy also comes from accepting a no, when a horse doesn’t want to halter)
Standing still isn’t that easy for a horse as some might think. And this is never about “getting through it” or even waiting for “throwing a tantrum”. Horses are flight animals and domestication didn’t change that fact. So even if a horse never spooked or experienced something dangerous, he still rather likes to move his feet and head to stay ahead of dangerous situations. Standing still with not being able to scan the sorroundings or even leaving the herd behind is a dangerous situation. Standing still comes from trust and knowledge for the horse that the area is safe, the human is safe and trust in his self that he can handle the situation. This has to be taught step by step and with a lot of patience - and never going above threshold. There is no quick fix in standing still and you should not expect a young or inexperienced/unhandled horse to stand still for a longer period of time or at placed he doesn’t know. It is better to no put a horse in such a situation in the first place than trying to make him stand still for the sake of it.
However, standing still can be easily taught through targeting. This can be a hoof or nose target that the horse learns to touch and which is then extended in time and places. You can also add a cue which comes in very handy for mounting.
Standing still on cue creates security and autonomy
Lunging or circling
Lunging or circling is an option to train the horses body from the ground, but it should always be an active activity for both human and horse instead of a passive running circles. You can do this at liberty or with a halter or cavesson on a long rope (what you prefer). I do not recommend lunging with a bit or even side reins or any kind of ‘aiding tack’ as it interferes with the natural movement and biomechanics of the horse.
Usually horses need to get used to the human being suddenly behind the shoulder line and sending them ‘away’ when they just learned leading. Getting used to lunging and circling asks for a lot of patience, too. It is easier to start out at different leading positions and be active with your horse in energy and movement. You can trot and canter with him alongside first, making circles and then make the transition on sending him doing this on his own.
A great way to make that easier to understand circling is a ‘reversed round pen’ where you create a circle with some kind of ‘fence’. You stay inside the fenced circle while the horse stays outside. He then cannot come into your space and learns to bend around the circle, being able to find his own movements.
Working in hand
Working in hand comes from the academic and classic dressage, teaching the horse shoulder in, laterals, Spanish walk and so on. It is a great way to improve the movement of the horse and strengthen his core. Its supposed to allow very fine communication and it is very high in focus. Its a great way to create variety in training for body & mind. You don’t have to have academic goals in order to train in hand. There are great easy and light ways to teach a horse the basics for overall strength and healthy movements that can later be used in riding as well.
Laterals and Spanish walk can also be very engaging, motivating and fun for a horse.
This can be easily taught with a target or by imitating the human.
Target & Clicker training
Target and clicker training are not only one trick or method, you can use them literally for everything you want to teach your horse from daily handling to high performance dressage.
Or just fun tricks and showing off.
If you get into clicker training and positive reward there are really no limits to your creativity.
You can teach your horse to target cones, mats, pool noodles, to step on wooden blocks, ramps, trailers, seesaws, to go over poles, jumps, bags, plastic canvas, plastic bottles, to pick up and retrieve stuff, to have a recall, even to trace a scent and find hidden things.
You can make pacours from your imaginations, same as we do agility with dogs. You can invent games for balance, coordination, muscle building, finer communication and trust and ease in any kind of situation.
Everything you do on the ground with your horse in a positive and rewarding way will pay back double once you start riding.
It also ensures a safe handling and makes “bomb proof” horses - as far as this is possible.
Going for walks
The best part of “not riding” for me is going on walks and hikes. With a horse that can enjoy the surroundings without being constantly stressed or in fear is really adding to his overall health and mental wellbeing. Horses are supposed to walk around - not standing in a stable. And luckily humans, too! If you can’t or won’t ride your horse, go and be together in nature, walk and explore the place you life and embrace that you have each other.
To be able to walk with my horse as I do with my dog, free and secure is, for me, just the greatest thing in life and what I strive for.
I recommend groundwork to everyone and every horse, no matter the size, age and discipline.
It is also a nice way to stay busy and to offer your horse mental enrichment when hes in recovery or chronically ill. Because you can fill in the term “groundwork” exactly to your horses needs and possibilities.
There are many more ways and things you can do on the ground than only what you’ve read here. It all depends on your personal preferences as well. Just keep in mind that, as in every training or discipline, theres never this ‘one thing’ that needs to be done ‘this certain way’. A horse and human relationship is so individual that you always need to make it fit to you two.
So use these examples or any other example you find as a reference and idea and then go and explore.
Do you have any other fun ideas or examples? Don't hesitate and write them into the comments for others to read, too!