Basic ground work for horses


Basic ground work for horses

Someone one explained to us, that all horses respond to pressure and the subsequent release of that pressure. Here is why! Horses fall into the “prey” category of animals.  Meaning that when the live in the wild they are the ones being hunted for dinner.

If you think about it for a moment, this explains a lot of your horse’s response to stimuli. So instead of fighting your horse, struggling to get them to do something for you, why not use this information to help you?

The reason we do ground work is to have a pleasant riding experience once we finally climb on the back of our new horse.  You can set these up any way you like. You will be installing the new response buttons you wish to have at your disposal, each time you ride your horse or handle them on the ground. You will be setting up “asks,” that you want your horse to respond to, everything from “step out of your way horse” to “moving into a Da Vinci pose.”   Your “asks” doesn’t have to be look exactly like ours. Make them anything that works for you, but be consistent!  You are teaching your horse to listen to your requests.

Two forms of Ground Work…

Sensitizing and Desensitizing.

To sensitize your horse, you begin by applying pressure that you want your horse to move away from or soften to.  Like I said you will end up with a long list of “ask” you want your horse to respond to.  An example of one would be asking your horse to move its hind end out of your way so you can get to their feed bucket.

To sensitize them you would begin by applying “pressure” such as pressing your hand on the hind quarter. Making sure that the applied pressure is with intention.  You don’t want it to feel the same as a stroke or caress. Place your hand with meaning.  The moment your horse responds (i.e. moving its hind quarter) release the applied pressure as a reward for compliance. Then try it again.  Alternatively, you could tap the hind quarter repeatedly or even snap your fingers while resting you hand on their hip to make your ask.  (Choose something you would automatically do if you needed to do it in a hurry.)

When you first start you will ask for a small sign of compliance, like simply moving one step out of your way.  Gradually, the more you work with your horse you will increase the “ask” to an advanced request; like maybe doing a whole turn around your hand when you apply pressure to the hind quarter. You see what I am getting at here.


7 areas of sensitized ground work to practice:

There are a number of reasons why you would want your horse to do each one of the following.  Giving you space, easy bridling, maneuvering them into place, pick out their feet, or simply so they stop standing on your foot.

Make your “ask,” simple to understand.  Then work on it until they get it right.  Remember horses are like children. You will need to repeat yourself often. Also reward (by releasing the pressure when they show you they have hear you and they try to give you the result you are after) any compliance to the “ask”.


Items you would want to work on while sensitizing your horse.

  • Stepping back: you can practice using slight pressure on the horse’s chest to request that it takes a step backwards.  Another alternative could be, snapping your fingers, while rest your snapping hand on their chest area.
  • Stepping forward: you may choose to apply slight pressure to just above the tail as your request that your horse is to step forward. Also cupping your hands under your horse’s cheek bones and backing up could be set up as a request to step forward or towards you.
  • Lifting the hoof: applying slight pressure to the leg you wish to pick up or tapping you fingers at the hock could be a request to lift the desired leg.
  • Lowering the head: use slight downward pressure behind the ears or clicking your finger below the muzzle could be established as the “ask” for your horse to lower its head.
  • Crossing hind and front quarters: applying direct pressure on the hind quarter could be established as a request to move its hind end. In addition, putting direct pressure on the front quarter or shoulder and waving your opposite hand in front of your horse’s eye could be used as a request to move the front quarters.   Eventually, with more practice this can lead up to side passing or crossing its feet to step to the side.
  • Opening the mouth: touching or stroking the corners of the mouth can be used as a request to open its mouth when pressure is applied.
  • Bending: A horse should be taught to bend or curl into the slight pressure applied at the girth area. Alternatively slight pressure on the side of the head can be a request that the nose move toward its flank.

Remember whatever you decide will be the “ask” tool from your horse, you must be consistent. Don’t decide to snap your fingers on the front of their chest on Monday and then asking a completely different way on Tuesday.  Be consistent!

Desensitizing your horse

The idea is to teach your horse to relax when faced with new stimuli. For example, you would want your horse to learn to stand calmly when you are swinging a rope over its ears, and not to spook when throwing a saddle pad over its back, also ignore tarps, plastic bags or other “frightening” things.  You are helping them practice to not jump immediately into “Flight” mode. You want them to think it through before reacting.

When desensitizing, you apply pressure and keep it “on” until your horse shows signs of acceptance. Such as, the horse stops moving its feet, relaxes and lowers its head, chews or licks its lips, takes a big breath, or softens its eyes. Then you remove the pressure for a moment as a reward, before resuming the next application of pressure. This apply and release approach helps build your horses confidence. (i.e. I survived the first time, so I should survive the second time.)  If you can do all of these while on the ground you should have less struggle when you are finally in the saddle.

The benefits of Ground Work

  • Improves communication
  • Teaches you to read your horses body language
  • Builds a bond of trust
  • Makes you the leader.
  • Installs the tools you need to help correct resistant when in the saddle
  • Challenges your horse to think
  • Work off pent up energy


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