Winter is upon us and cold wet weather can make riding less appealing. However you can still put these chilly winter days to good use by reviewing your groundwork. Groundwork sets the stage for work under saddle and allows you to introduce new concepts to your horse in a safe environment. I have listed some basic groundwork exercises you can practice with your horse that will support your under-saddle work. It’s important to introduce variety into your work and avoid dwelling on exercises your horse has mastered. It’s equally important to break difficult exercises smaller steps that your horse can more easily handle.
1. Leading Willingly Without Pressure on the Lead Rope.
If you find yourself having to drag on the rope to get your horse to move, step back until you are behind his shoulder and drive him forward with the end of the lead rope. Then ask him to follow you once he is moving. Even well-trained horses can get lazy. If a horse is dull on the lead rope he’s likely to be dull under saddle. Proper leading keeps your horse light and responsive.
2. Longing in a Circle Around You.
Teaching your horse to walk, trot, and canter a 20 meter circle is time well spent. You may not always have access to a round pen and longing is an excellent way to help your horse get focused and work off a little extra energy before being ridden. Never allow your horse to plunge wildly around on the end of the longe line, but a few gentle crow hops can help your horse work out any kinks in his system. During longing ensure that your horse keeps his attention on you and his nose tipped toward you, and that he maintains the correct bend on the circle.
3. Rolling the Hind End (Turn on the Forehand).
Once your horse is moving forward freely on the longe line or lead rope you can tighten the circle and ask your horse to disengage his hindquarters by stepping across and under his body with the inside hind leg. This movement is like stepping on the clutch in a standard transmission vehicle. It prepares the horse for a new speed or direction. This maneuver is particularly valuable in disciplines where speed and turning are required.
4. Bringing the Front End Around (Turn on the Haunches).
After your horse has rolled his hind end by stepping up under his body with his inside hind leg, he should be positioned to bring his front end around to complete the change of direction. As your horse’s head crosses the line in front of your body, extend your leading hand in the new direction and step up to what was the horse’s outside shoulder. This drives rather than pulls the horse in the new direction. It takes practice to develop the correct timing for these moves and, in the beginning, it is fine for the horse to bend his body as he moves into the new direction. As his skills improve he will be able to execute a more correct turn on the forehand or turn on the haunches with straightness through the neck and ribcage.
5. Backing With a Soft Feel or Collection.
To back your horse, face the opposite direction of your horse and grasp the lead rope where it connects to the halter with your thumb turned down. Apply steady gentle backward pressure on the rope until your horse drops his nose toward his chest. Immediately release the pressure on the rope when your horse makes the slightest effort in that direction. If your horse raises or lowers his head while you have pressure on the rope, acknowledge his efforts to search for the place of softness but don’t lighten your pressure on the rope until he tips his nose toward his chest. If your horse backs without softening, stop him and begin the exercise again. Once your horse gives his nose consistently, hold your contact on the rope until he thinks about shifting his weight back. Doing this exercise on the ground improves your timing so that you release your pressure the instant your horse makes the correct action. Your horse will respond to your timing with a great attitude—good timing means your horse will never be confused and is always rewarded for his efforts.
6. Backing in Circles.
Once your horse is backing freely in a straight line and moving his diagonal pairs of legs in rhythm, you can introduce the more complex exercise of backing in circles. Begin by backing in a straight line. As your horse’s outside front leg leaves the ground, move the hand holding the lead rope to the outside to direct the front leg to step out as well as back. Don’t be surprised if your horse loses all rhythm at this point and gets stuck. He will have to make the appropriate adjustments in the movement of his hind legs to accommodate this change in direction. If both of you get stuck, try developing a deeper understanding of this exercise by getting down on your hands and knees and mimicking what you’re asking your horse to do. This will give you a better idea of physical coordination required to complete this exercise.
Now that your horse is leading and backing with softness and lightness, ask him to do some simple transitions in hand. Start by walking beside him with your body even with his head. Break into a jog and ask your horse to keep pace with you. If he fails to do so, drop back behind his shoulder and drive him forward into a jog, then return to your position by his head. Slow to a walk again and ask your horse to stay with you. As your horse catches on to the rules of this “game,” increase the difficulty by going from a trot to a halt, or from a trot to a soft back, and then return to a trot again. Keep your horse fresh by introducing new variations. To change direction, turn your horse away from you by driving his shoulder rather than pulling him toward you with the lead rope.
These basic exercises empower you and your horse to refine skills, and are perfect to keep your training program on track when the weather refuses to cooperate. My thanks to Buck Brannamon—many of these exercises are adapted from and based on those described in his “Groundwork” book. Please refer to his book for excellent pictures of many of these exercises.