Learning how to read your horse and teach him a few simple groundwork exercises can make all the difference on those days where you have only a few minutes to prepare for a ride.
Four groundwork exercises for success
Before I ride, there are several short groundwork exercises that I run through on a daily basis, either in their entirety or in some variation:
• Lowering the head
• Backing up
• A few circles of “lunging”
Each of these groundwork exercises has the benefit of not only gaining your horse’s attention but also improving your work under saddle.
Lowering the Head
When you go to catch and halter your horse, ask him to lower his head. Take into account how soft or stiff his response is to your request and either continue to work on it out in the field, or take note of it so you can work on it later in the cross tie area or arena. The act of lowering your horse’s head can have a calming effect; a horse that is staring hard at something with their head high in the air is both pumping adrenaline and not listening to me. Lowering the head snaps them out of that train of thought (if only momentarily).
The backup is an easy exercise to do before you even set foot in the arena. You can back your horse through the gate, into the cross tie area or into his stall, again taking note of how soft and responsive he is.
There are many different yields but the three main ones are yielding the shoulders (turn on the haunches on the ground), yielding the hindquarters (turn on the forehand on the ground) and sideways (sidepassing on the ground). These can be done either on my way into the barn or in the arena. As above, watch how responsive your horse is to your cues.
There are different variations and names for the last groundwork exercise. You could call it “lunging” as that’s what most people are familiar with, but it’s really barely that. It just consists of a few circles in each direction with several transitions, a yield of the hindquarters/shoulders, and a backup. Do not lunge your horses to wear them out in endless circles; lunge them to evaluate their soundness, temperament and gain their attention. With this exercise, start off in one direction and do several upwards and downwards transitions. Take note of your horse’s movement and whether or not he seems a bit stiff or sore. Also note whether the transitions are prompt and relaxed or sluggish or explosive, and whether your horse is moving rhythmically or seems rushed. Then ask him to stop and turn and face you, yielding his hindquarters in the process, back him up a few steps, and send him off in the opposite direction by yielding his shoulders away from me. This last combination of exercises is particularly telling in how attentive your horse is. The exercises do not take long to do and are extremely useful. It will take a bit of time to teach a horse how to do them properly, but after that their benefits and uses are great. As long as they are done a few times a week, a horse should not forget them. Since they can be done at any time and anywhere, there’s really no excuse for not having the time to do them.
Don’t let it become routine
Be careful not to get into a redundant routine with these groundwork exercises. As your horse gets better at the exercises and realizes what they mean, and you learn to read him better and know which exercises he may benefit from on which days, you can begin to pick just two or three to do. If your horse is very spooky and high headed, chances are he will be a bit resistant about lowering his head and that will need some work. If he keeps trying to jump into your lap, he will benefit greatly from not only lowering his head and backing up but also the yielding exercises. If he is really convinced that he needs to be in your space, to be safe you may need to move him out onto a lunge circle and get his attention while he is a good 15 feet away from you, using plenty of transitions and distanced yielding work. The use of these exercises will help you at shows and clinics, on the trail, and more.
Also, as he gets better at each of the groundwork exercises, you will have a horse that is easier to handle. The exercises will carry over to your riding by improving his response to pressure when being asked to halt, back up, leg yield and do other maneuvers. Overall, your increased ability to control and maneuver your horse, both on the ground and under saddle, will lead to greater attentiveness. It will also build your horse’s confidence in you so that he does not have to look elsewhere for support, and become distracted.