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Groundwork exercises: The 5 basics


Groundwork with horses consists of exercises that you do with your horse while you stay on the ground and lead the horse on a (rope) halter, cavesson or neckrope and a long lead rope.
Groundwork is a very important part of the training of horses in the Horsefulness Training system. Many groundwork exercises exist and they can be divided into five main groups.

1. Lead exercises

The name says it all: these exercises covers leading. You lead the horse from point A to point B on a halter and a rope.

There are several basic lead exercises

   1. Leading from the lead position

leading your horse from the leadpositionYou walk in front of the horse and you clearly define your space. This way, the horse learns to respect your intimate and personal space. You also work on your leadership skills, because in all lead exercises, you determine your path and speed. However, in certain situations/cases, you can (deliberately!) choose to define your space less clearly or to go along with your horse in terms of direction or speed.

   2. Leading from the partner position

leading your horse from the partnerpositionYou walk near the shoulder of the horse. The horse learns to stay next to you, both while walking and trotting, while walking backwards, halting and waiting, the turns to the left and right. In this position, you lead and drive the horse at the same time, which you practice both on the left side of the horse and on the right. In most cases, you only do this exercise if you have established leading in the first position well. Indeed, you should be able to put your horse back from your intimate space from the partner position at all times.

More advanced lead exercises include lead exercises from the third position and leading with the neck ring.

2. Touch exercises

We touch the horse in these exercises. We do this so that the horse learns to accept, trust and ultimately enjoy our touches.

There are two basic touch exercises.

   1. Stroking

groundwork with horsesHere, you stroke the horse over the entire body with both hands. Attention is also given to the sensitive parts of the body such as the groin, stomach, sheath, nipples, ears, mouth, eyes, and tail as well as under the tail.  You can also stroke the horse with a whip, a stick, a bag or a cloth. The horse will then trust these objects and learn to deal with sounds around and on his/her body, like a rustling plastic bag.


horse groomingHere, you scratch and rub the places that the horse clearly enjoys. This is often around the withers and mane. Many horses also enjoy the places around the tail, on the shoulders and on the loins. Grooming aims to show you friendship for the horse. You can sometimes use it as a reward too.

Other bodywork are all types of massage (relaxation massage, shiatsu, TTouch …). If you want to massage your horse, you will first need to know whether the horse already lets himself/herself be stroked, and whether he/she is calm and relaxed during stroking.

3. Yielding to physical aids (direct pressure)

We teach the horse to go along with soft physical pressure. By doing this we give direction to the horse.  Again, you can distinguish several basic exercises.

•    Head down: the horse yields to slight downward pressure behind the ears by lowering the head
•    Nose to flank: the horse yields to slight pressure on the side of the head by moving the nose to the flank
•    Backwards on the nose: the horse yields to slight pressure on the nose by giving and taking a step backwards
•    Forwards: the horse yields to slight forward pressure behind the ears by taking a step forward
•    Backwards on the chest: the horse yields to slight pressure on the chest by taking a step back
•    Forequarters yield: the horse yields to slight pressure on the shoulder by taking a step to the side with the forehand
•    Hindquarters yield: the horse yields to slight pressure on the side of the hindquarters by taking a step to the side with the hind leg
•    Bending: the horse yields to the slight pressure on the girth area by bending his/her body (the muscles tighten on the side where you apply pressure)
•  Follow the rope: the horse yields to the slight pressure on the halter by bringing the nose to the flank and then following the rope that surrounds his body.

In addition to these 9 basic yielding exercises there are also other exercises you can practise:

-lifting the back in response to upward pressure under the belly of the horse
-stepping forward when applying slight pressure to or next to the tail
-lifting leg when applying slight pressure to the leg
-mouth open when you apply slight pressure to the corners of the mouth

groundwork-yielding to pressure 1

In the beginning, you just ask for one step. You gradually increase this to several steps (such as a whole turn around the forehand when yielding to pressure at the thigh). In other exercises, you start with 1 second and gradually increase this to half a minute or longer (such as head down).

More about yielding to physical aids/direct pressure

4. Yielding to driving aids (indirect pressure)

Here, we ask the horse to yield, but we do not touch the horse. We use our energy and driving aids in such a way that the horse understands which direction we ask the horse to go. These exercises are often intertwined in the other basic exercises such as Leading and Circle Work.

You can ask a horse to yield for driving aids

1.    forward, backward, left and right
2.    with the forequarters, with the hindquarters or both simultaneously

Basic exercises in which your horse yields to driving aids include when you invite the horse to

    get out of your personal space
•    take a step backwards
•    go forward from the partnerposition
•    halt
•    turn to the left and to the right from the second position (from a halt or in movement)
•    to leave on a circle (you ask the forehand to leave to the right or to the left when you stand in front of the horse)
•    to disengage the hindquarters (yielding the hindquarters to the left or right, whether or not from movement)

A more advanced exercise is to ask the horse to do a shoulder-out or sideways.

5. Circle Work

You ask the horse to move around you in a circle. Through body language, you teach the horse to start the circle, slow down, speed up, halt, change direction… you are becoming attuned to one another more and more.

groundwork with horses-cirkle-workYou can use Circle Work to prepare your horse for lunging (getting attuned to each other’s body language while circling), to have your horse overcome obstacles without you walking in front of him/her (for instance, you circle the horse on a canvas, beams, water …) , to calm the nervous horse (by not forcing the horse to stand still, it will be calmer more quickly), to show the horse exhibiting dominant behavior that you position yourself higher in rank in that moment, to move sideways (which is gymnasticising the horse),…

The goal of Groundwork

You do Groundwork with horses for various reasons.

  1. To strengthen and keep stable the bond with your horse acquired through Liberty Training.
  2. To learn how to give good guidance and show leadership, in situations that are more difficult.
  3. To work on dominance issues
  4. To let your horse cope with the human world such as the daily contact and care, hoof trimming, vet treatments, trailer loading…
  5. By doing groundwork you help your horse overcome certain fears.
  6. To prepare your horse for Gymnastic Groundwork (work in hand and lunging) and riding. A horse that has done a lot of Groundwork will learn much quicker during riding, and he/she will cooperate better as well.
  7. To give him physical and mental challenges.  So to keep your horse fit and balanced on the physical, mental, emotional level & spiritual level.
  8. For variety and fun!

Therefore, basic Groundwork is the foundation for many other things. It makes life in a human world so much easier for the horse. Moreover, Groundwork also ensures that dealing with horses can happen safely.

Did you and your horse get a taste for it?

groundwork with neckropeIf so, you can choose to make Groundwork increasingly challenging. This is not only great fun, but it also makes sure that your horse stays in good shape (or gets there). Because he/she continues to learn new things and is challenged regularly, your horse physically, mentally and emotionally stays fit and strong!
Groundwork is thus ideal for both young and older horses. The same is true for horses that are not ridden (anymore), because this way, you can still keep them safe and sound.

Please feel free to leave a reply or share this article, I’m eager to hear from you!


Have you read my free ebook “An Introduction to Horsefulness Groundwork”?

get your copy here

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    Comment Section

    31 thoughts on “Groundwork exercises: The 5 basics

    By Wandi Willis on 30 August 2014

    I have a Belgian Draft Horse 17 hh that I rescued from slaughter, she was in a kill pen.I have no background on her, she is 18 years old maybe. When I first got her she was very willing to please but since I put 500lbs on her that she needed, she has gotten very stubborn, and when I try to ride her she is all brakes, doesn’t want to walk on.She just won’t give in to me.. Any ideas ?

    By Karine Vandenborre on 8 September 2014

    Hello Wandi, the best thing you can do is start from 0. That is: working in Liberty to gain trust and respect and to develop a strong connection. From there on you start with groundwork. If the basic groundwork exercises are going fine, you can work her in hand and on the longe to teach her the riding aids on the ground. Make sure she has no physical issues, so it’s best, before you ride her that you ask a vet to examine her.

    By Travis on 4 April 2018

    And that she was in a kill pen she was probably mal-nurished and did not have the energy to fight back so when you had her gain it gave her the energy to do what she wants to do but I agree with Karine 100%.

    By Kristin Bickford on 17 September 2018

    i have a 16 yr old gelding 17.5 hh very stubborn he bites bucks he doesn’t like the bit-less bridal but he requires that to be rode i would love ideas i prefer for you to personally email me so we could communicate

    By Karine-vandenBorre on 29 January 2019

    Hello Kristin, first of all I want you to know that there is a solution for your problems. Even if your horse is already 16years old. If your horse bites you and you tell me it feels like he is being stubborn, then my first thought is that you need to work on the communication and connection with your horse. Have a look at my free webinar, so you know what I’m talking about, you will find a lot of useful tips in there:
    So start with that.
    Afterwards it’s advisable to do groundwork training. that will also improve your ridden work.
    If you have more questions, don’t hesitate to mail me at

    By emily on 11 August 2019

    try and lunge her before riding her to get that attitude out

    By Julia Watkins on 3 September 2014

    Pretty awesome. I just rescued a draft and am going to work with her using these tools! Thanks!

    By Karine Vandenborre on 8 September 2014

    Hello Julia, good luck with your horse! I would give you the advice to start with Liberty Training (The 8 connection-exercises) to build a strong relationship first.

    By Linda Mansfield on 16 September 2014

    make sure her grain contains NO molasses as it can make them quite hyper, take away all the sugar you can. My friend has her horse on raspberry leaf which has a calming effect, very cheap in the herbal stores

    By Amy on 16 September 2017

    how much raspberry leaf would you give a horse that weighs 1200 pounds and is it a pill or actual leaf?

    By Alicia McClure on 23 October 2014

    Hello! I’m in love with your training methods! I do all these training techniques with my 3 year old filly. She is very smart and I really don’t want her to get bored. How can I make it more challenging for her? Thank you so much

    By Karine Vandenborre on 27 October 2014

    Hello Alicia, happy to hear you’re so enthousiastic!
    I’ll be posting some more advanced groundwork exercises in the future. In the mean time use your imagination and make it fun for the both of you.
    ps: Don’t forget to keep working in liberty too.

    By Karine Vandenborre on 8 January 2015

    To make it more challenging you have to make the basics more difficult.For example: in stead of just leading, you now lead her through challenging obstacles. Another example: in stead of only 3 steps sideways, you now ask 15 steps. And you can also make a sequence: you start with leading, then you ask her on a circle, change of direction, then sideways, halt, turn in, leading, circling again, change of direction, … You can make a thousands of new sequences.
    Doing your exercises outside, on the field, on the road, is also very good.
    Just making long walks outside most horses really love!
    Teaching your horse double long lining.
    There are really al lot of thing you can do to make it more fun or challenging for her. Try to find out what she really likes and then mix that with other things.

    By Alyssa on 9 February 2015

    Hi! I have a 16-year-old Morgan-Arabian gelding that I rescued from slaughter. He was a stallion at the time and the sweetest one at that. Then he got gelded and things when down hill with training. Our bond went out the window and I have been working on groundwork with him but I feel that every step forward leaves us with 10 steps back. Any tips?

    By Karine Vandenborre on 24 February 2015

    My most important tip is ” start with liberty training”! Liberty training according to the Horsefulness philosophy has proven already so much times that it is so good develope or re-build the bond with any horse! So focus on the 8 connection exercises, especially the first 6 and stop the rest of the training for a while. This can really help you and your horse! You should also see if you can help him with homeopathy or bachflowers, because some stallions that were castrated feel depressed afterwards. There character can change (more apathic, depressed, some are even traumatised by it). Homeopathy or bachflowers can help them overcome this.

    By Yvonne Maples on 11 September 2015

    Have you had her teeth checked? I would go back to zero only to the point where I spent a lot of time running my bare hands over ever part of her body. Touch is communication. Then I would begin again taking my time with saddling, longing mounting and moving. Does her saddle fit well? Sometimes when horses grow or have a weight gain their perfectly fine fitting saddle doesn’t fit well anymore. Teeth, saddle/bit, training. I usually follow that line to pinpoint where the problem is.

    By Tarryn on 12 January 2016

    Hi. I have a general question about over coming fear of working with the horse. i have no problem with working with a horse front the front end. but as soon as it comes to the hind legs, tail area i feel like a “spider sense” is set off when they move the slightest. I guess I am scared that they will kick or trample me lol. I know that this is a big problem with me and not the horse as they tend to pick on our body language very quick. any advise to over come this will be great!! I have a 1.3 yrs old filly (busy growing) and a TB Gelding that is about 7yr that i am currently riding.

    By janet on 2 March 2016

    I will be trying your ground work Exercise on my stubborn TB who has become very cheeky lately and I’m really looking forward to trying

    By Mrs L M Owen on 21 March 2016

    Hi, my new pony has started to nap really bad, and will rears and fly bucks on the road, this is starting to scare me, has there is no warning, one minute walking nicely then he just says no, plants his feet and rears, he is a 13.2 welsh section c, unfortunately I have to go on the road as soon as I leave my field, which is on a steep slope, so no flat area to work on

    By Suzanne on 10 April 2017

    I NEED HELP. Friends of mine are terrified of their gelding. I started doing groundwork with him almost 2 years ago. He has really changed ALOT…except for one thing. He used to bolt when being led and drag his owner foreign her to let go of the lead rope. From time to time while doing ground work he will be doing great and then suddenly he will bolt and I cannot hold him. Sometimes I catch it just as he is about to leave and I catch him. I get the impression he is either he’s thinking I had enough time to leave, or he is laughing at me…or both. My huge concern is if I even had to lead him when out on a trail ride and he just decides to bolt on me. He is really soft and good under saddle and does all other exercises. thanks

    By Karine-vandenBorre on 10 January 2018

    solving this is a big challenge… there are so many things that can trigger this and once the horse “knows” how to do it, they will often repeat it when they get triggered. What you say about “catching” him before he leaves, is very important, because they can be very, very, very fast at this… So you always have to be very cautious! I think it is important you find out the reason why he does this: is it fear? Is it because you use wrong bodylanguage? Is it because he doesn’t like what you are asking and he knows he can get away like that and what is it then he doesn’t like and how can you change that? Observe him very good, let other people observe too while you are training him, videotape it, … All you can do to get some more information. But the most important thing: when he wants to run off, don’t let him and reward reward reward when he changes his mind

    By Amy on 16 September 2017

    I have a mare that has separation anxiety or is very buddy sour. If she cant see the other horses she will pace if not tied, and paw the ground if tied. I took her to a trainer a couple years ago and she got sent home after two weeks because she literally tried to dig out of a stall. How can I get her to stop this behavior? Thank you for your advice.

    By Lynda on 4 November 2017

    Do the 8 liberty steps so the horse forms a trust with you and will not be upset when away from its friends, because you are now a friend.

    By Karine-vandenBorre on 10 January 2018

    it’s important a horse can form meaningful relationships with each other, because they are group animals and social animals, so they need that in order to be happy. So it is normal that a horse doesn’t like to be left alone in a box or paddock/field. They can become stressed if they are left alone. but, you can help your horse to overcome her fear or worries when she gets separated from her equine friends. First you have to establish a good relationship and strong connection with your horse, like Lynda says. If that is the case it is already possible that her separation anxiety is much better or is even not there when you are with her. but often that is not enough. Then you have to “train” your horse to overcome her separation anxiety. I’ve done it with a lot of horses, also students of mine did this with their horses, and it is possible. You have to do it gradually, taking small steps, and using the connection you have with your horse to help your horse. You are the one who brings the calmness.

    By Meghan Fuller on 4 June 2019

    My American quarter horse will do that same thing when her horse bsf the Tennessee walker goes out for barrel practice

    By katrna on 27 February 2019

    hi i have a 13 yo mare had her for over a year know she is very sensitive with desensitising as i can spray fly repelent on her before saddle but when i did once saddle was on she started bucking she doesnt canter on lunge or saddle she gets forward into the trot and goes like a pacer when walking she tries to break into trot all time so i kept her to the walk i will be sending her to trainer this year as wanting safe mount she doesnt like stands near her she is very quiet on ground no kick bite not pushy has nice slow relaxed walk she was sitting in a paddock for fair few years before young girl purchased and rode her 6 times and changed with work boyfriend and uni and the i purchased her so i would say she was still green i dont like the bucking buisness she is very people sensitive wont go to strangers

    By katrna on 27 February 2019

    hi i have a 13 yo mare had her for over a year know she is very sensitive with desensitising as i can spray fly repelent on her before saddle but when i did once saddle was on she started bucking she doesnt canter on lunge or saddle she gets forward into the trot and goes like a pacer when walking she tries to break into trot all time so i kept her to the walk i will be sending her to trainer this year as wanting safe mount she doesnt like stands near her she is very quiet on ground no kick bite not pushy has nice slow relaxed walk she was sitting in a paddock for fair few years before young girl purchased and rode her 6 times and changed with work boyfriend and uni and the i purchased her so i would say she was still green i dont like the bucking buisness she is very people sensitive wont go to strangers oh years before sitting in paddock she was brocken in brought back in for a few weeks before sold to young girl

    By Kate on 30 March 2019

    I am definitely going to try the techniques you describe. I have a 14hh cob who was abandoned after a horse fair as a yearling. Very fearful, mange mites (which we still battle with now) lice, malnourished you name it! Was easy to back and hacks out ok but a strange mix of nervy and bolshy. Affectionate on the ground and likes to be around people but sooo many issues- needle shy (and I mean seriously dangerous) almost impossible to clip his legs, bolts when you try to lunge him, naps and bucks when being schooled with other horses but ok on his own with me (has bolted with other riders but never with me). He is a tricky boy but have to keep reminding myself how far he has come!

    By Gordon on 16 June 2019

    Hoping to get this stallion named lariat just beginning to train a one yr old mare how soon should I wait before using a lead rope

    By Eileen Sully on 30 June 2019

    What a load of crap

    By Clara Ludvigsen on 29 January 2020

    Groundwork is an important part of your horse’s training, and the lessons he learns through groundwork can transfer to his work under saddle. Make sure to do these five great groundwork exercises with your horse to enhance his training.

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