Groundwork Exercises To Improve Your Relationship With Your Horse

Groundwork Exercises To Improve Your Relationship With Your Horse

Groundwork can be beneficial to both you and your horse. Here are a few ways that you can practice anytime.

generic sorrel horse with rope halter in field (Credit: Sarah Zeman)

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Groundwork is one of the strongest relationship builders between horse and rider that often goes forgotten or put on the back burner, as we are eager to get on our horses' backs to practice the pattern, dressage test, jump round, etc. While there are some exercises that we argue “less is more,” there are a few that can never get old and are a good go-to. 

Spending the time on groundwork can be beneficial to both you and your horse. Here are a few ways that you can practice groundwork with your horse anytime: 

Grooming Is a Form of Groundwork

Think about the last time you groomed your horse. Were you rushing through to get your horse clean so that you could continue tacking up and get on to ride? Were you present and in the moment? Or, was your mind elsewhere, thinking about work and/or social stresses? 

Grooming is one of the most important, yet forgotten, elements of groundwork as it is done often and part of your tacking up routine. And, while it is done often, many people do not take the time to make grooming a groundwork exercise. So, grooming can be a form of groundwork, but only when the person is in the moment and the intent is to connect and communicate with your horse.  

Use this time to go through your brushes. Which brush does he/she seem to like? Is the hard brush too hard? Where does he like to be curried? Does he hesitate or flip his head when you try to brush his face? 

Trust Building Exercises

Another great way to bond with your horse is through trust building exercises. For example, you may want to practice trailer loading. 

Whether your horse is a champion at loading into the horse trailer, you practicing together is a way to gain your horse’s trust. Here are some tips: 

If your horse doesn’t load easily:

  • Spend the time now to make your horse comfortable loading. 
  • Stay relaxed and calm. 
  • Use a bucket of grain if you need something to convince him to get onto the trailer. 
  • Once he loads and is on the trailer, reward him with scratches. 
  • Unload and try again until it becomes easy and his hesitation is minimal. 
  • Know when to stop and try again the next day, if you did not get the full result you were looking to achieve. 

Note: Make sure this is a positive experience for him with plenty of pets and rewards. 

If your horse already loads easily: 

  • Can you get your horse to load halfway into the trailer and stop? 
  • What about just one leg in the trailer or on the ramp? 
  • If you have a ramp, will your horse load backwards? 

Other exercises to try: 

  • Standing at the mounting block.
  • Walking over ground poles - halt halfway over the pole. 
  • Walking on a tarp or a shower curtain.
  • Get your horse to put a foot on a tire.

For more help, download our free e-book, Horse Trailer Loading Tips.

Leading Exercises

Another common way to build a relationship with your horse is through the way that you lead your horse. 

The Lead Position

The lead position is when you are walking in front of your horse so that you are always about 3 feet in front of him. Your horse should be aware of where you are in relation to him so that the same distance is always between you and him. For example, if you were to stop quickly, your horse would also stop, keeping that 3 feet between the two of you. He would not keep walking and enter into your space. This exercise shows your horse that you own your space and you take the lead – choosing the direction and pace that you are both moving. 

The Partner Position 

The partner position is where you are shoulder to shoulder (your right shoulder with his left shoulder) with your horse. In this exercise, your horse should be aware of your pace and direction, where you shouldn’t need to put any pressure on the lead rope. Your horse should be reading your body language and movements to determine if you want him to turn left or right, to stop, to speed up/slow down, etc. 

Pressure & Movement: Getting Your Horse to Move on the Ground

Using light pressure in specific areas on your horse to get him to move or bend are groundwork exercises that help build your bond with your horse. Here are a few movements to practice: 

Use light pressure … 

  • On your horse’s leg to pick up each foot, hold for 7 seconds, and place back on the ground. 
  • Behind your horse’s ears to move the head downward. 
  • On the side of your horse’s head to move his muzzle towards his flank. 
  • On the chest to take a step back. 
  • On the left shoulder to take a step to the right & one the right shoulder to take a step to the left. 
  • On the right hindquarters to take a side step to the left & on the left hindquarters to take a side step to the right. 
  • Under the belly to lift the back upward.
  • On the corners of the mouth to open your horse’s mouth. 

These groundwork exercises can be done anytime and as often as you need. Sometimes switching things up and having a groundwork day, instead of a day in the saddle, is just what the doctor ordered. While they may seem simple, these back to basics approaches are the foundation of the skills required while on your horse’s back. 

From the Ground Up: Justin Boots

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