Groundwork and Games For Horses

by Matt

Is your horse on a lay-up? Are YOU on a lay-up? Stall rest, whether it’s for you or your horse, doesn’t have to be boring, or a waste of training time. Bone up on your horse’s ground manners, or learn some new games and skills that will increase your bond once saddle-time is back. Try some of these groundwork and games lessons the next time riding is off-limits!

Groundwork: Manners. So many horses lack basic manners, and it gets even worse when a fit horse is suddenly taken out of work. Many times, we’re so focused on our horse’s performance in the arena, we neglect to fix the seemingly minor problems that make basic barn chores a headache. Every horse requires reminders, and the most basic lessons in manners that every horse should have is leading. What could be more simple and necessary to a happy barn life than a horse who walks politely beside you, stops when you stop, and turns when you turn?

Practice leading at the walk, trot, halt, backing, and turning from both sides of the horse, requiring that he stay at your shoulder. Horses very quickly learn to screech to a halt when you plant your feet, making this a fun and rewarding exercise.

Groundwork: Pressure Points. Physical aids come in handy both in-hand and under-saddle, but we often only think of our riding aids when we’re actually riding. Certain pressure points that we activate with legs and seat can actually be taught and refined from the ground. Leg yields, for example, come from the seat and leg, but you can teach your horse, while in-hand, to move to the side in response to pressure at the girth area. This translates directly to your under-saddle work. You can also make it easier for your horse to back up on command with pressure on the chest — translating this under saddle by adding a neck yoke and pulling back as you give the direction with seat and hands to back up. Eventually, you can drop the yoke, but you’ve made the lesson easier for you horse with this groundwork.

You’ll find some great groundwork exercises at

Clicker Training & Liberty Work. Animal trainers of a variety of species train their animals at liberty, but equestrians have traditionally worked in close physical space with their horses. Can you train a horse, like a dolphin or a dog, to take commands from a distance and perform tasks or tricks without hands-on direction? Clicker trainers say yes, training horses at liberty using positive reinforcement. Basically, the clicker sound announces the good behavior, followed up with a treat reward. Eventually, the clicker sound replaces the treat.

Riders who embrace clicker training while they or their horse are on downtime from riding often report back a greater closeness and understanding with their horse. It can be used for simple tricks, like bowing, to liberty work like jumping fences. You can find some background and instructions on clicker training at

Time out of the saddle sounds dull, but it can be a really good time for both you and your horse. You never know what rewards you’ll reap from some time spent on the ground, working on everything from good manners to liberty training.

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