As a beginner, there are few basic groundwork exercises that you should consistently work on until you have mastered them with your horse. These basic exercises will give you a foundation of on the ground skills that will set the stage of respect and understanding between you and your horse.
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Bonding with a New Horse
These exercises are also great for any equestrian, even experienced horse owners, to practice with any new horse entering the barn. In working on these groundwork steps, you will learn how to get in tune with your horse and how to communicate with both pressure and body language.
Your horse will also learn what you expect and how you cue for basic maneuvers. While going through each maneuver, you will be able to learn what your horse doesn’t know.
A horse and owner form a ‘bond’ when they can anticipate one another’s actions. To an outside observer, the pair may appear to work seamlessly together. Seemingly to anticipate one another’s actions before they happen.
This bond between horse and owner isn’t something that is formed overnight or magically attained. It is something that must be worked for.
The foundation of any horse/human relationship has to be built on trust and understanding. These basic exercises can help you set that foundation with your horse. These are merely a set of starting blocks on which your entire relationship can be built upon.
Let’s cover the basic groundwork exercises that every equestrian should teach their horse. We’ll also look at ways we can refine or make each behavior better or more challenging.
After having halter trained over 100 wild mustangs, I firmly believe that having or developing a scoring system for common horse behaviors will help you and your horse set goals and grow. How basic or detailed of a scoring system you use is completely up to you.
For most basic behaviors I like to start with a 5 point scale. 5 means the horse is as light and perfect with the behavior as possible, and 0 means the horse can’t do the behavior at all.
I’ll use a chart to track training progress for each horse. You can get a blank sample using the form at the bottom. If I haven’t assessed a horse I use a “-“ which, for me, means unknown.
When reading through the scoring system I use below, keep in mind that this is meant to be a starting point to show you how this could be utilized in a training system. It is by no means perfect.
I am always adjusting and changing things to fit my program. Don’t be afraid to make your own definitions and scoring system.
Walk Forward / Leading
Walking forward, or leading, is a behavior that many horse owners may skip over as a checklist point. In fact, I would guess that most horse owners just assume a horse either leads or it doesn’t lead and that is the end of that.
I believe this is the starting point of where your horsemanship goals fall. If you are of the mindset that leading is an A/B type of behavior, something a horse either knows or doesn’t know, then you probably aren’t yet in a mindset to truly improve your horsemanship.
Leading forward for a horse has so many different elements to it. Truthfully not as many as some of the other behaviors we’ll look at but it is certainly one that can be a base for improvement.
Cueing the Horse to Lead Forward
This cue may change from handler to handler and situation to situation.
When teaching a horse to lead, I always start in front of the horse using a side to side pull on the lead rope. This helps teach the horse to give to pressure on the lead rope.
For the end result, I want the horse to follow me on my right side with his head staying even with my shoulder at all times.
The process of getting a horse from the stage where it has learned to give to pressure all the way to knowing how to stay in proper position while leading can take a bit of work.
Once a horse has learned to lead I will stand on the left side of the horse positioning my shoulder with their jowl (where their face meets their neck).
From that position, I’ll just start walking forward and expect my trained horse to follow. I’ll also expect him to rate his speed with mine. If I go faster, he should go faster. If I stop, he should stop.
Let’s look at a basic scale of how we might “score” a horse’s ability to walk forward or lead.
Scoring the Horse on Leading
- 0 – The horse doesn’t lead
- 1 – The horse will lead forward but may get sticky and stops frequently. The horse will bolt or attempt to bolt and runoff, oftentimes ignoring the pull of the lead rope and getting loose from the handler.
- 2 – The horse is sometimes slow to start but generally follows the handler without trouble. The horse hesitates over obstacles and slows down when entering new places. The horse may sometimes bolt or attempt to run off but is typically able to be held.
- 3 – The horse follows easily and willingly with no trouble. The horse is generally good in most places. The horse may spook from time to time but rarely bolts. In either case, they easily and quickly respond to a pull on the lead rope.
- 4 – Horse follows handler very lightly on a loose lead line. Maintains an even pace matching the handler at all times. It does not hesitate or resist even when environmental distractions are present.
- 5 – Horse follows handler in proper position at liberty. Maintains an even pace matching the handler at all times. It does not hesitate or resist even when environmental distractions are present.
Note: Realistically, there are many sub-steps in between 4 and 5. Most decently trained horses will be a 2 or 3.
Mixing Things Up
Once your horse can lead, try introducing obstacles to lead over or under. These will teach your horse to multi-task by following you and watching where he puts his feet.
Trot with Handler
Once a horse can lead forward at a walk, the next behavior I like to check on any horse is their ability to trot in hand. Interestingly, this is difficult for many horses. They either don’t know how to trot with the handler or, they get very excited and want to rush past you.
Teaching your horse to trot by your side without passing you or lagging behind can be a great relationship builder.
Cueing the Horse to Trot Beside You on a Leadline
There are various ways you could cue a horse to trot alongside you. You could use an audible cue like a cluck to ask your horse to trot or you could cue the behavior through body language only. The latter is my preference as I want my horse to be in tune with my body language.
I also tend to not be a very vocal handler. If you are the type of person that likes to talk to your horse a lot, starting off with a vocal command may be more comfortable for you.
Scoring the Horse on How Well He Trots Beside You on a Leadline
For this, the scoring may go as follows:
- 0 – No matter what you try, the horse will not trot while being led.
- 1 – After significant pulling, dragging on the line, the horse may trot a small number of steps but soon returns to walking.
- 2 – The horse is very slow to start trotting. Usually requiring moderate pressure on the lead rope to encourage him forward. Once he starts trotting, he mostly keeps up with you. Alternately, once the horse starts trotting he becomes excited and crowds into you or passes you with little regard for maintaining an appropriate position.
- 3 – The horse starts trotting fairly quickly upon command (verbal or body language) and very little to no pressure is required on the lead line. He does not try to break gait and stays pretty consistently in a good position.
- 4 – The horse starts trotting immediately upon command with no pressure required on the lead line. He does not try to break gait and stays in a good position.
- 5 – The horse can perform as in #4 but at liberty.
Mixing Things Up
To mix things up you can practice transitions from the walk to the trot and back to the walk again.
Once he can do those in a straight line, work on transitions in circles, figure eights and so on.
The first two things we looked at for beginner groundwork exercises both involved going forward. Well, of course, if we ask the horse to go forward, we need to be able to get him to stop.
Doing so shouldn’t be a feat of strength, nor should it involve us having to dig our heels into the ground and hang on tight hoping the horse will feel the pull of the lead line and yield at some point.
Cueing the Horse to Stop on the Ground
There are three main ways you can ask a horse to stop from the ground. These are:
- Body Language. You stop, the horse mirrors you and stop. The horse picks up on your body language and lack of forward movement and mirrors that.
- Pull on the Lead Rope. The horse should yield lightly to a lead rope and that includes stopping.
- Verbal Command. The word “whoa”, or any other word, can be used to verbally signal the horse to stop.
Scoring the Horses Stop on the Ground
Scoring a horse’s stop is going to very closely mirror scoring a horses ability to lead. This isn’t an accident.
Both leading and stopping require a horse to understand how to give to pressure. If Let’s look at a way you could score your horse’s stop:
- 0 – Horse doesn’t stop. Usually, a horse that doesn’t lead also doesn’t stop.
- 1 – Horse stops but may need excessive pressure. Frequently bolts and runs through the lead rope causing the handler to let go.
- 2 – Horse is sometimes slow to stop but does stop. May bolt or spook occasionally but usually will yield and come back to a firm pull on the lead line.
- 3 – Horse generally stops easily and willingly when asked.
- 4 – Horse watches handler for body cues and almost always stops without any pressure on the line at all. Horse anticipates the handler stopping and stops with the handler.
- 5 – Horse can stop with no pressure, or at liberty, at both a walk and a trot. The horse is in tune with the handler’s body language and stops without a verbal command in most cases.
Mixing Things Up
If you do teach your horse a verbal stop command, like whoa, one neat trick or advanced maneuver you could teach your horse is for the two of you to be walking or trotting along and you call out for your horse to whoa. YOU keep walking but your horse stays put as asked.
I’ve trained a couple of horses to do this and it is a really neat parlor trick but I do believe it also REALLY helps a horse understand that whoa is a complete and utter stop.
It’s also a great illustration of how you can make a good behavior “better”. I can’t think of any purpose this has in a real-life situation other than being neat to demonstrate.
Backup is the next logical item on our checklist. It is amazing to me how many domestic riding horses can lead, load into a trailer and tie but don’t understand how to backup.
When I used to buy horses from the local auction, very few understood how to backup. I think that it must be a behavior that is rarely needed in day to day handling and so many horse owners must just skip it.
We’re not going to do that though. The backup is an important piece of groundwork every horse and owner should practice at home on a regular basis. I dare say that it should even be practiced daily.
It is amazing how much better a horse who backs up lightly on the ground will respond to a backup command under saddle. Let’s look at how I cue a horse to back up on the ground.
Cueing for the Backup:
There are five main ways I cue a horse for a backup.
- Press on the bridge of the nose. Release pressure when the horse backs up.
- Press on the chest. Release pressure when the horse backs up.
- Apply backward pressure to the leadline, stop when the horse has backed up.
- Body language. Teach my horse to mirror me. If I back up when leading, he backs up to stay in the proper position.
- Rope wiggle, finger wiggle, marching. You have no doubt seen these with trainers like Parelli and Clinton Anderson.
Scoring the Backup:
- 0 – Horse does not back up when asked. Instead, he pushes forward or turns. The horse does not yield his face or nose at all.
- 1 – Horse does not back up when asked but does yield his nose toward his chest. Feet remain planted and don’t move in any direction.
- 2 – Horse will take one or two steps backward in response to very firm pressure on the bridge of his nose. Horse ignores chest signals.
- 3. The horse will backup at least five steps in response to pressure on the bridge of his nose. The horse is starting to understand how to back up in response to chest pressure. Backup is typically crooked and the horse may veer quite a bit to the left or the right.
- 4 – Horse is backing up very lightly to pressure on the bridge of his nose as well as on his chest. He is starting to stay straight when asked but can also be maneuvered around some turns.
- 5 – Horse is backing up in response to very light pressure on the bridge of his noses or chest. He can be easily navigated around turns or cones while backing up using very little, imperceptible changes in the pressure on his nose
Mixing Things Up
One of my favorite ways to help a horse understand how backing is awesome is to teach them to back into their stall. I had a mare who would, without hesitation, turn around and back herself into her stall.
This behavior can be a hard one to teach because it involves a lot of scary things for a horse. In my case, I had pipe stalls so the mare had to back through a gate and over a pipe laying on the ground (welded to form the gate frame).
Backing through such a narrow space can be disconcerting but, with time, any horse can learn to do it with ease. I believe it also helps to build confidence in the horse and the handler.
The first couple of times she backed through her gate she hit one side or another with her hip and spooked herself and jumped forward. We’d stay calm, start again and she’d be “done” as soon as she was in her stall.
Pretty soon she started straightening herself out if she was crooked or touched the pipe. She got less goosey when she did hit it and started learning how to position herself as soon as she was asked.
Turn on the Forehand
Turn on the forehand is one I always teach before the turn on the hindquarters as I find it is easier for horses to understand. This behavior is great because it teaches your horse to move its hindquarters away from you.
This is a maneuver that is useful for asking your horse to step over at the tie rail, for example.
Cueing the Horse for a Turn on the Forehand
To cue for this behavior I typically place my fingers on the horse’s side, the same place the back cinch for a western saddle would fall.
My goal is for the horse to respond with the lightest pressure possible. Initially, when the horse is learning this behavior, you may have to apply strong pressure to this area.
For some horses, you may even need to “help” them find the right answer by bringing the lead rope toward you so that their hindquarters moves away.
Eventually, your cues should get lighter and lighter until all you need to do is suggest that the horse moves his hindquarters over.
Scoring the Turn on the Forehand
- 0 – Horse doesn’t move away in response to finger pressure on the side. The horse may turn into you, try to bite or even move forward in confusion.
- 1 – Horse yields in response to pressure on the lead line but not pressure on his side.
- 2 – Horse is starting to yield in response to pressure on his side. Firm pressure must be applied and maintained. He may only yield a few steps at a time but he is yielding.
- 3 – Horse yields to medium pressure and will keep moving as long as you are applying pressure. His front feet may shift around a bit when asking for a full circle.
- 4 – Horse is really starting to get light in moving around. Very minimal pressure is required and the horse is moving in a full circle with very little movement of his front feet.
- 5 – The horse yields his hindquarters with very light, almost imperceptible request from the handler. His front feet stay in place, only turning in the same spot when rotating in a full circle.
Mixing Things Up
See if your horse can go in a complete circle. Does he yield lightly going both ways? Once he does, my favorite thing to do is teach a horse to pick me up from the fence.
To do this, I’ll stand on a mounting block or pipe corral and position his head near me. Then I’ll ask him to bring his hindquarters toward me. This results in his body is in line with the fence.
This is the most convenient method of mounting. Every personal riding horse I own learns this trick. It is especially great if you ride bareback and need an easy way to get back on.
It is also great for taller horses which can be hard to mount from the ground!
Turn on the Hindquarters
The turn on the hindquarters is, I think, the most difficult behavior in this list of groundwork exercises for beginners.
It is still a beginner exercise but placed here because it is easiest to learn/teach once your horse understands all of the other exercises.
Cueing a Horse for a Turn on the Hindquarters
To cue this behavior, I like to place pressure with my fingers where the cinch normally goes.
Alternately, for a saddled horse, I might apply pressure with my fingertips just behind the cinch.
Once again, the idea is to use as little pressure as possible. For a horse that is resisting moving in response to finger pressure behind the cinch, I may additionally apply pressure to the neck just behind the jowl.
Once your horse starts to get really light, you should be able to cue him without touching him at all.
Scoring the Turn on the Hindquarters
- 0 – Horse doesn’t move away in response to finger pressure on the cinch area. The horse may try to bite or even move forward or even backward in confusion.
- 1 – Horse yields in response to pressure on both his cinch area and his neck but not pressure on his cinch area alone.
- 2 – Horse is starting to yield in response to pressure on his cinch area. Firm pressure must be applied and maintained. He may only yield a few steps at a time but he is yielding. Hindquarters may be moving as well but the horse is making an effort to move his forehand.
- 3 – Horse yields to medium pressure and will keep moving as long as you are applying pressure. His back feet may shift around a bit when asking for a full circle but his forehand is moving more than his hindquarters.
- 4 – Horse is really starting to get light in moving around. Very minimal pressure is required and the horse is moving in a full circle with very little movement of his hind feet.
- 5 – The horse yields his forequarters with a very light, almost imperceptible request from the handler. His hind feet stay in place, only turning in the same spot when rotating in a full circle.
Mixing Things Up
The turn on the hindquarters is a common task in showmanship. Horses are expected to respond lightly and immediately to a handler’s request to turn.
Check out this awesome showmanship performance at the 2017 AQHYA World Show. It is a great example of what all of the basic maneuvers above might look like when combined.
When to Start Teaching These Behaviors
The best time to have started teaching these basic groundwork exercises to your horse was yesterday. These exercises are great because they are suitable for ANY age horse, young or old.
I don’t personally do much with foals under 1 month old but, at that time, I’d start with all of these basics very slowly.
These are also good behaviors to evaluate you and your horse’s relationship even if you have had him for years. It can be an eye-opener.
I know that I personally would always forget to teach my mustangs to back up on command. That makes for a tricky situation when you are teaching them to load into a trailer and realize they don’t know how to back up.
Once I started using a checklist though, it became easier to remember.
Horse Groundwork Checklist
The reason for a scoring system is so that you can keep of your horse’s progress. You could use numbers, letters, whatever you like. The idea is to know where you are and know where you could go, how you and your horse could do better.
I’ve created a horse groundwork checklist for you and your horse to match the exercises in this post. For more groundwork exercises you can try with your horse, check out my list of 26 Groundwork Exercises for you and your horse.
Use the form below to get the FREE printable horse training log. The .pdf form is fillable and has a spot for you to fill in your behavior and record a score. Each page can record data for up to ten training sessions.
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