Groundwork exercises for horses are a great way to bring your horse back into work after their winter vacation. From lunging to ground driving to working your horse through an obstacle course, groundwork builds your horse’s fitness, confidence, and relationship with you. To get you started on your journey to using groundwork to get your horse fit for the 2024 competition season, we’ve put together six exercises for you and your horse to tackle together.
Before we dive in, you’ll need certain supplies to get started.
We also suggest purchasing a book to guide you through the basics of groundwork if you don’t have much experience using this particular skill set.
#1 Ground Driving
Unlike lunging, ground driving is when you have two long reins connected to either side of your horse’s halter or bit that run through a surcingle and back behind the horse, where you hold them. These reins act exactly as they would if you were in the saddle instead of walking behind the horse. Also carefully hold a horse training whip or aid in your hand to encourage the horse to move forward when asked. Learn more about ground driving here.
There are many benefits to this groundwork exercise for horses. Because they have to rely on your verbal cues and rein ads, it will increase their responsiveness to cues other than your seat and legs. Because the horse is in front of you in a “leadership” position (in physical space only, you’re still in charge!), the horse will build their confidence, particularly when it comes to exploring new environments or obstacles.
Ground driving also ensures your horse has excellent posture for backing up and strengthens the horse’s topline, when done correctly. By improving the horse’s confidence, fitness, and responsiveness, it’s a great way to get your horse back to work after a long winter off.
Poles may seem deceptively easy– after all, how hard is it for the horse to lift up their hooves over a pole that’s barely 4 inches tall? In reality, adding poles into your ground work routine is harder for the horse than it looks. Working your horse over poles at all three gaits builds fitness in their core and thoracic sling, while also improving their proprioception.
Once your horse is easily able to work over poles, you can increase the difficulty of this groundwork exercise for horses by using Rail Razers or similar to raise the poles slightly. For a super advanced version of this exercise, you can make the poles uneven, with one side on the ground and the other side raised slightly. This will not only further increase their proprioception, but it will also help to even out any muscular imbalances in the horse, as long as the high end of the pole is on their weak side.
#3 Backing Up
Backing up is another groundwork exercise for horses to build fitness, and it doesn’t even require you to leave the barn. If the weather outside is nasty or the footing is too muddy, you can back your horse up the barn aisle. This exercise puts more weight on the horse’s hindquarters and improves their strength and fitness in the hind end. Keep in mind that this is hard work, like weightlifting is for us. If your horse is really out of shape, ask for only a little at a time and watch for signs of tiredness.
When backing your horse, keep their head even with or slightly below the withers. Aim for straightness and a consistent rhythm with each hoof stepping back evenly. If your horse struggles to stay straight, you can back them up between two poles.
#4 Carrot Stretches
Carrot stretches are a great excuse to give your horse all those treats they’ve been asking for. Using a carrot or other treat, ask your horse to keep their body still but turn their head towards their tail, then ask them to lower their head to the floor, to their knees, and to their chest. Repeat this groundwork exercise for horses on both sides. Learn more carrot stretches here.
These stretches are like yoga for horses. It encourages your horse to move through the entire range of motion in their body and joints. This increases their resilience and flexibility. It can even help improve their balance and core strength. Plus, this exercise allows you to ditch the horse training whip and pick up a bag of treats instead.
#5 Lunge on an Incline
Have you ever had to run up a hill? Running on an incline is hard work, but it will improve your fitness in a short time frame. The same is true for our horses. Lunging a horse on an incline is a groundwork exercise for horses that helps them with their balance, cardiovascular fitness, and overall strength. However, start slow and only do this exercise for short periods of time. Start off with a small incline and ensure the footing is perfect, as footing that’s uneven or too slippery could cause your horse to stumble. Use the horse training whip as little as possible during this exercise, as you don’t want to rush your horse.
#6 Build an Obstacle Course
Have you ever created an obstacle course for your horse? This can involve using pool noodles, poles, flags, and possibly even balls. Obstacle courses are great groundwork exercises for horses as they work your horse’s brain and help create a trusting relationship. Create a course that can be completed from the ground. Start by walking next to your horse and staying calm, no matter what your horse does. Allow them to explore the obstacles and indulge their curiosity. Once your horse is very confident, you can try ground driving them through the obstacle course with a trainer’s help.
Getting ready for the competition season isn’t just about fitness. If you have a spooky horse, an obstacle course can build your horse’s confidence when they’re faced with new situations and objects. This includes going to a strange environment, like a horse show, or getting by the flowers by the judges without spooking.