101 Ground Training Exercises for Every Horse & Handler


By Cherry Hill

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Ground training is the key to a safe and pleasurable riding experience. Designed for easy reference while working with your horse, this guide can be hung on a post. Riders of all disciplines and skill levels will benefit from these exercises that reinforce good habits and help develop a strong bond between horse and rider.



One of the first things a horse must become accustomed to is people approaching him, moving around him, and being nearby in various positions. With any horse, but particularly one that you are just beginning to work with, it is important to move and behave in a manner that makes him feel comfortable. This means moving slowly, quietly, and with purpose. Once a horse accepts that you are trustworthy, you can begin adding variations in position and movement that will broaden his confidence and experience.

Since horses don’t communicate verbally the way we do, they rely on a highly developed combination of sensory inputs to read what is happening around them. Their senses of smell, hearing, and touch give them much information about what is going on. Horses are more capable of reading your mood and intent than you may realize. That’s why it’s so important to be in a positive, nonthreatening frame of mind when you approach and work with your horse. No matter how perfectly you have mastered your skills and aids, if you are angry, impatient, irritated, or just plain ill-tempered, your horse will probably sense it and might react with anxiety, apprehension, or fear.

Assuming you are the positive leader a horse needs and that you can reliably read the signals he is giving you, the next thing you need to be aware of is your own body language. What you do, how you do it, and when you do it will have a great effect on your horse’s reactions.

A horse wants a leader more than a friend.

First Things First

This chapter covers the nuts and bolts of ground training, so be sure to read it before you begin, and refer to it frequently as you progress through the exercises. The exercises are grouped by categories but are not necessarily listed in the order you will use them. Every horse’s temperament and experiences are different, so you’ll need to tailor the order of your program to each horse you work with. A horse will tell you what lesson he needs next. When in doubt about where to start with a particular horse, begin at what appears to be square one for that horse and use it as a chance to observe and evaluate him.

For example, your horse might already be halter trained, in which case you have already mastered Exercise 1: Approaching to Catch. If not, you can start there. If so, you can move to Exercise 2: Haltering. But if you have determined that haltering would be too restrictive for a particular horse until he learns to yield, you might want to work on the Free Longe exercises in Part 3: Learning to Yield before you halter him.

If you are already riding your horse, you can use the early exercises as a test to see how thorough his basic training is, and you can use the more advanced exercises (longeing, ground driving, obstacles) to work on trouble spots that pop up when riding or to add variety and depth to your partnership.

I’ve suggested an appropriate setting for each exercise, such as a hitch rail for Exercise 44: Person in Blind Spots, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily start there. It is your end goal. Before you ever walk up to a horse from the rear while he is tied, you should have already addressed his concern about a person being in one of his blind spots when he is at liberty, in hand, held by an assistant, or on a guide line or longe line.

Here’s an example of customizing the order of your work. Exercise 10: Turn on the Forehand (page 46) is an important yielding exercise that might be priority one with a very green or pushy horse. Accomplishing this exercise early on could make subsequent lessons go more smoothly.

It is a well-known horsemanship rule that you don’t normally walk up to a horse from the rear, but it is a fact that you will need to do that from time to time, whether it is to release the butt bar in a trailer, take a horse’s temperature, or braid his tail. So the more comfortable you can make a horse with you being in his blind spots, the safer you both will be.


A reward is something the horse perceives as pleasant. A horse should be rewarded when he has attempted to do the right thing, even if he doesn’t have it quite right at first. Reward each instance of trying that leads to the behavior you are aiming to establish. For example, rather than expecting a full lowering of the head in response to poll pressure, at first reward any slight lowering of the head by releasing the pressure on the poll.


In-hand work is suitable for any age horse. Certain exercises are suitable for a horse of any age, while others are best used after a horse is 2 years old or older.

Suckling In hand only

Weanling In hand, can begin tying with supervision

Yearling In hand, tying, free longe except for lope

2-year-old All exercises except for lope

3-year-old and older All exercises

You must reward promptly, within a second or two, so your horse understands what he’s done right. Learn to recognize subtle expression, body stance, and movement. Among forms of reward are:

Release of pressure

Rest break

Walk on a loose rein

Scratch on the withers

Rub on the forehead

Soothing voice

Escalation of Pressure

Use as much pressure as it takes to get the message across but as little as is needed to get the job done. Your goal is subtle cueing. Your tools include the following:

Body language

Voice command

Finger and hand pressure

Halter signals

Whip signals

Use of rope

Use of whip


Although food rewards are usually automatically perceived by horses as pleasant, and some people use them successfully, in general I don’t use treats in training. Treats can cause some horses to be pushy and to focus more on the treat than on the training. A horse’s acute sense of smell tells him when you have treats in your pocket, and that can be a distraction.

I advocate the use of treats for turning out. When turning a horse out, if you throw a few treats on the ground before turning him loose, he learns to put his head down instead of running off when unhaltered.

Careful Repetition Is the Key

How many times should you repeat an exercise? If once or twice is good, would 20 or 30 times be better? When you’re sacking out a horse, repetition is your friend because with it you can erase a horse’s fearful reflexes. (See Part 4: Sacking Out, page 112.) But with some exercises, such as backing and turning, repetition can cause boredom and dullness and might invite a horse to anticipate your signals. He might back up when you even start to get into a certain position, or he might stop and turn on the longe line when you just reach up to scratch your nose.

Nothing is sadder than a bored, tuned-out horse, so keep things interesting — for both of you! Certain exercises, such as circles, transitions, and standing still, are the mainstay of training. But other maneuvers should be saved for when the horse is thoroughly warmed up and prepared. At that point, ask a few times, get a few good responses, and move on to something else.

Latent Learning

Sometimes it might seem like the horse just isn’t getting a lesson, yet the very next time you work him, he knows it perfectly. This is called “latent learning,” akin to us putting a problem on the back burner and working it out overnight as we sleep.

Training-Session Guidelines

Be sure the horse has had adequate turnout before the lesson.

Use a warm-up, such as rubbing or grooming, to establish a connection.

Start with a review of something the horse already knows well.

When the horse is mentally and physically tuned in to you, introduce the new lesson.

During the lesson, allow time for rest breaks and review periods.

End on a good note, with something the horse does well and enjoys.

Finish with a cool-down before you put the horse away.

Using Pre-cues to Signal Your Horse

Throughout training, you will use pre-cues, which let the horse know that something more substantial is coming. A pre-cue can be a voice command, a lift of the rope or rein, or a shift in your body weight. A precue is given just a second before the cue to allow the horse to gather himself mentally and physically. Think of the pre-cue as setting the horse up to do the right thing well.

Use results, not a watch or a calendar, to tell you when it is time to move on to the next phase of an exercise or to another exercise.

As with all training, pre-cues become subtler and eventually blend into the cue, response, and yield. When you ask a horse to lope or canter, if you just lunge at him suddenly, he is likely to skitter off in a rush and his gait will be disunited (on one lead with his front legs and the other lead with his hind legs). But if you prepare him with a gentle line signal to gather him, or an “okay” before you use your main aids for the canter/lope, it can help him to strike off in balance.

The Importance of the Horse’s Body Language

Your horse is constantly providing valuable information through his body language. He shows what kind of mood he is in, how he is feeling physically, if he is focused on you, if he understands what you are asking, and much more. The more savvy you are in reading a horse’s body language, the better you will be able to interact with your horse in a productive manner and the smoother the training sessions will be.

Signs of Acceptance and Relaxation

The signs that a horse is relaxed and confident, that he is accepting your cues, thinking about them, and understanding what you want, can be very subtle. They include the following:

Level head, lowered neck, relaxed neck muscles

Soft eye

Watching but not glaring

Eye could be partially closed

Standing still unless being asked to do something

Resting a hind leg

Relaxed ears

Soft lips and nostrils


Licking lips

Chewing movements

Starting off in regular, measured steps when asked to move

Among signs of relaxation during movement are:

Head and neck held low and reaching

Rhythmic breathing

Back slightly arched and swinging

Tail held off anus and swaying rhythmically

Even-tempo movement

Contented snorting or blowing through nose

Calm, inwardly focused eye

Signs of Anxiety

Anxious movement is often heralded by a subtle shift in expression, body language, or breathing.

The following behaviors indicate that a horse is uncomfortable, afraid, or confused.

Trying to escape — moving feet away from you or a thing

Leaning away or swerving away

Reaching toward you aggressively with head and teeth

Turning hindquarters toward you

Raising or lowering head excessively

Flattening ears

Shaking head

Switching tail

Clamping tail







Pulling away

Holding breath

Wild eyes

Snorting sharply



Biting at tack


Backing away


All you have to do is remove the S at the beginning of each word and you will know which one is the wicked tail movement!

When a horse swishes his tail, it is a gentle, side-to-side swaying motion that a balanced, relaxed horse might exhibit when being ridden at the trot. Also, when a horse is resting in the shade, he will gently swish his tail at flies as he dozes.

Contrast that to a thin-skinned horse pestered by hundreds of gnats. That tail will wring sharply, switching up and down, and that horse’s ears will likely be back. So, when a horse is being trained and there are no flies around but you see a switching tail, you know you have an irritated horse, liable to let go with both hinds without much provocation. Beware of the switching tail.

The Importance of Your Body Language

Your body language is made up of your posture, position, and movement. Body language can indicate confidence, strength, and specific expectations or it can show uncertainty, fear, or inattentiveness. Your body movements alone can suddenly stop a horse, block him from further movement, “open a door” for him to go through, make him gradually slow down and stop, tell him to hurry up, or invite him to goof around.

Since horses are basically followers, they are willing to accept guidance from you as long as you make your intentions clear and move with sure steps, smooth movements, and confidence.

When you approach a horse, before you do anything, he has already read your mood, expectations, state of health, and time schedule. All of this shows up in your overall stance and demeanor. If you march up to a horse briskly with a time constraint first and foremost in your mind, he might very likely turn and move away from you. If instead you mosey up to him like you have all day and just want to say hi, he will likely stay put or come up and greet you. Your mental attitude has a great effect on your performance and how a horse reads you. The more calm, confident, and positive you are, the better the training sessions will go.

If you act as if you are going to capture, kill, and eat a horse, he probably will think of you as a predator. So no rushing at, chasing, or cornering (and no biting!). That just makes a horse fearful.

Acting like a dominant horse, however, is perfectly fine — for example, to pressure a horse, to demand personal space, to require manners at feeding. Fortunately, we don’t have to resort to striking, biting, or kicking to settle our pecking order. With a little bit of ingenuity and a few items of tack, we can communicate in nonviolent, effective ways. Training starts with body language, and body language starts with your bearing.


Your bearing, your overall manner and conduct, is a blend of your attitude and your physical carriage. Your demeanor is what makes you brighten up a room when you walk in or causes people to turn away from you. So it is with horses.

You carry a certain amount and type of light with you wherever you go, and when you approach a horse, that light can be repelling or attracting. Your bearing is the air about you, your outlook, your manner. With it, you might fool some people on occasion, but you never fool a horse.

Your Posture Begins the Conversation

Your posture alone has the ability to drive, restrain, or invite a horse.

A driving posture is one that repels the horse. At first you might think you don’t ever want to be repelling, but in fact at times you must be! This is how you establish your personal space and leadership with a horse and ask him to move forward. A driving posture is full and large, with square shoulders, standing tall and approaching face on. A driving posture is meant to be threatening.

A restraining posture is similar to driving posture — full, erect, energetic, and decisive. The position of the driving and the restraining posture makes the difference.

An attracting, inviting, or calming posture, in contrast, is lowered, perhaps with rounded shoulders and head nodded forward and body presented to the horse at an angle or even sideways. An inviting posture is nonthreatening. It is meant to be reassuring.

Using Your Position to Direct Your Horse

Your position refers to where you are in relation to the horse. In the simplest terms, the midpoint of the horse’s rib cage is a neutral zone. When you are behind the neutral zone, you are in a driving position, which is suitable for creating forward movement. When you are ahead of the neutral zone, you are in a restraining position, suitable for slowing down or stopping a horse. When you are at the midpoint position, you are in the neutral zone, neither driving nor restraining but suitable for sideways movement.

The Importance of Your Movement

Your movement consists of the direction of your steps, the length of your steps, the speed and intensity of your steps, and all of your arm movements. Horses are acutely aware of the most subtle movements, so everything you do sends a message to your horse whether or not that is your intention. Developing a high degree of body awareness and knowing how horses read movements will help you communicate effectively with your horse.

It’s critical to use your feet effectively. During most exercises, one of your feet is a driving foot and the other is a restraining foot. The driving foot is the foot nearer to the horse’s hindquarters. When a horse is circling to the left, the driving foot is your right foot. The restraining foot is near the horse’s forehand, so when a horse is circling left, the restraining foot is your left foot. Either foot or both feet in combination can be used to drive the horse sideways or out onto a larger circle.


To move a horse forward, stand tall and erect and step toward the horse’s hindquarters with your driving foot. Sometimes this step must be quite exaggerated, like the lunge step in fencing. A large assertive step like this will get the horse’s attention and scoot him forward. But the size of your movement should always be tailored to the level of training and temperament of the horse and the desired reaction. Do as much as it takes to get the message across but as little as you need to get the job done. As a horse progresses, your steps will become subtler because the horse has learned what you want by way of the larger steps. Routine training steps will be of the same size and intensity as your normal walking steps.


The restraining foot is used to help you slow down or stop a horse. When you want to do this, you usually take a step toward the horse’s neck or shoulder with your restraining foot. Remember, when a horse is circling left, the restraining foot is your left foot. The step can be a lunge or it can be a normal step, depending on the stage of the horse’s training.

When a horse is running away on a circle, you may have to scoot sideways yourself so you can get in front of his head before you step toward him to slow him down or stop him. Otherwise, your step toward him will be interpreted as a driving force, encouraging him to race faster. In extreme circumstances, when a horse is really blasting around a pen, you’ll need to do a 180-degree turn and head him off. This can result in a horse turning hard to change directions, but sometimes that is what is needed to slow him down.


Just as important as the driving and restraining steps is the withdrawal, or the yielding or inviting step. At times you’ll need to adeptly and safely step backward while assuming a more inviting posture. Backing up takes pressure off a horse and also invites him toward you. In some exercises and in some training pens, a horse will feel crowded; in order to get the response you want from the horse, you might have to give him a bit more room by backing away. Because you will often be backing up while working with a guide line or longe line, be sure to pay attention to where things are on the ground that could trip you up.

Sometimes when working a horse on the guide line or longe line or when ground driving, you will have to walk sideways while facing the horse, often in a concentric circle or a parallel line. Your position should always be such that you can drive or restrain the horse with a shift in your body.

Using Your Arms Effectively

Your arms and any extension of them, such as a whip or a line, can be driving, restraining, leading, or yielding. See page 15 for illustration of arm signals using a whip.

A driving arm is a raised arm when you are standing in a driving position. Movement of the arm will increase the driving force. If the arm has a whip as an extension, the whip and the movement of its lash add to the driving force. Once a horse is moving forward at the desired pace, the driving aid should be diminished or removed.

A restraining arm is a raised arm when you are standing in a restraining position. Movement of the arm or hand can sometimes help to get the horse’s attention to slow down or stop. If a whip has been transferred to the restraining hand, the whip can provide a farther-reaching visual barrier and enhance the restraining signal. If a line is held in the restraining hand, the line can be used with a tremor, wave, pull, or jerk.

A leading arm is an inviting arm. It is the action of an arm or line that draws the horse forward. Usually a leading arm action is a forward movement of the arm and line in front of the horse’s head to invite him forward. You will use this action in sending and longeing.

A yielding arm rests at your side when you are standing in any zone. It is a passive arm that is asking the horse neither to move faster nor to slow down but rather to continue as is until another signal is given. A whip in a yielding arm should be held level, pointed downward, or resting on the ground.


All ground-training exercises need to be performed from the off side (right side) of the horse as well as from the customary near side (left side). At first, you might be surprised at how inept you feel working on a horse’s off side. Start working from the off side right from the earliest exercises so that when you get to the more advanced ground training, your aids will be smooth no matter which side you are operating from. This will help prevent both you and the horse from becoming one sided.

Holding a Line Correctly

A line allows you to send messages to a horse to control the gait, speed, and form of his movement. There are basically two ways to hold a line.

When a horse is tracking left, you can hold the line in your left hand to guide, and the balance of the line in your right hand along with the whip. If the horse is working full out on the line, there isn’t much to hold in the right hand, but when the horse is working close, there might be as much as 15 feet (4.5 m) of excess rope or longe line. Holding the extra line in a coil is dangerous; instead, it should be gathered in a figure-eight shape so it can be meted out but won’t trap your hand in loops if the horse bolts.

Another method is to hold the entire line safely in the left hand and the whip in the right. This takes some practice but once you master this method, you may find it preferable.

The Difference between a Feel Hold and a Power Hold

You can hold the line that goes to the horse in one of two ways — for feel or for control. For the feeling hold, the line coming from the horse is held between the thumb and index finger and the balance of the line exits at the bottom of the hand near the little finger. This fingertip grip allows for sensitive communication but not a very secure hold. If a horse pulled, you’d have little chance of holding on to the line.


On Sale
May 8, 2012
Page Count
256 pages

Cherry Hill

Cherry Hill

About the Author

Cherry Hill is an internationally known instructor and horse trainer and has written numerous books, including 101 Arena Exercises for Horse & Rider, Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage, How to Think Like a Horse, What Every Horse Should Know, and Horse Care for Kids. Visit her at http://www.horsekeeping.com, where you can find information on her books, DVDs, and horsekeeping knowledge.

Jessica Jahiel is an internationally renowned lecturer, clinician, and award-winning author who answers equine-related questions in her online newsletter, Horse-Sense. She also responds to questions about horse behavior, riding matters, and anything else readers want to discuss in Horse & Rider, Equus, and Dressage Today, as well as in her best-selling books The Horse Behavior Problem Solver and The Rider’s Problem Solver. Jahiel lives in Illinois.

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