Horses regularly trained with ground work are more relaxed when ridden

Natalie and HarrisonA recent study of dressage horses in Germany that looked at rein length and tension revealed a surprising finding: horses who were regularly trained in ground work/in-hand  work had lower heart rates during ridden work than all of the other participating horses. This wasn’t what the researchers were investigating, but it was clear in the results. From this, the researchers concluded that, “Perhaps horses trained in ground work had more trust in their rider.”

So why would it be true that horses who regularly learn via ground work/in-hand work are more relaxed? There are a few possibilities.

1) Horses trained regularly with ground work are more relaxed because their trainers are more relaxed. It’s possible that humans who take the time to teach their horses from the ground are less goal oriented and more concerned with the process. They may be more relaxed in general and foster this same relaxation in their horses. As you are, so is your horse.

2) Horses trained regularly with ground work have trainers who are more educated about a horse’s balance.Dragon in-hand Their horses learn to move in correct balance which allows them to be healthy and sound in their bodies and, therefore, more relaxed. Physical balance is emotional balance.

3) Horses trained regularly with ground work understand the trainer’s criteria better. They have mastered the response to an aid before the rider mounts and know the “right answer” already once under saddle. They don’t experience any conflict when the rider asks for a behavior  because the neural pathway has already been installed. They are more relaxed about being ridden because it rarely has caused confusion for them.

Natalie and Aesop in the snowWhen I got my first horse  I had the idea that ground work was important but I had no idea why or what it was I should specifically be doing. I muddled my way through some of John Lyon’s Ground Control Manual but I didn’t really understand how to use it to benefit me or my horse. I’ve learned so much since then!  Now I know there are so many things you can teach your horse from the ground. You can teach him motor patterns like walk, trot, canter and whoa. You can teach him the verbal cues for those motor patterns. You can teach him the physical aid you will be using from the saddle to elicit those motor patterns while you are on the ground. You can teach him how to move in balance so he is better prepared to carry you. You can teach him how to give at the jaw. You can teach him how to bend correctly. You can and should teach the beginning of lateral work from the ground. And finally,  you can teach him more advanced work like shoulder-in, haunches-in, haunches out, school-halt, piaffe and levade.

For us highly visual humans I think that ground work is often a better way to begin exercises because we are much better at seeing our horse doing the right thing than feeling it from the saddle. Often, my feel in the saddle is enhanced by the fact that I have watched my horse perform an exercise over and over in our in-hand work. It feels how it looks. In-hand work is also a good way to teach our horses because our own bodies are often more in balance when we are walking beside our horses. With the ground under our feet we are able to be more relaxed if something goes wrong and less likely to be so busy wrapped up in our own balance that we give our horses conflicting or confusing aids. It’s a good place to figure things out. I am a huge fan of in-hand work.

I’m glad to learn research revealed ground work is good for horses. Horses with a low heart rate are relaxed and relaxed horses perform better and live longer.  In this day and age of people starting horses under saddle in under an hour and increasing monetary rewards for  the “young horse dressage program“, everything seems to be done in a hurry. The entire horse culture seems to privilege “getting up there and riding your horse”. But as one of my favorite writers and accomplished horsewoman, Teresa Tsimmu Martino writes, “In today’s horse culture there are clinics that brag about starting a colt in a day, as if the quickness of it was the miracle. But old horse people know it takes years to create art. Horses as great masterpieces are not created in a day. An artist does not need to rush.” We need more scientific studies like this one to encourage us to slow down and take our time with our horses.

So why were the horses in the study more relaxed? Likely it was a combination of all three factors – a relaxed trainer, better overall balance and clear understanding of criteria. These are things that matter to your horse, and yes, will allow him to trust you when you ride. Take some time to slow down and work from the ground, learn a bit more about equine balance and teach new things in-hand before asking for them under saddle. You can take your riding to a whole new level and help  your horse become more healthy and relaxed in the process.



Do you enjoy reading Spellbound? Head on over to my Patreon page to support me in producing ongoing content AND learn about more comprehensive educational materials I have in the works. You will find extra content, my other blog and patron-only rewards there!

48 thoughts on “Horses regularly trained with ground work are more relaxed when ridden

    • Thanks, Karen! I was really excited to hear this research. Very satisfying to know the ground work has such a direct effect to under saddle work. Yes – you are right – I will look into my widgets to see if I can add that button to each blog post. If you copy the blog address when you are clicked directly on the article you should be able to share on Facebook that way too. Thanks so much for reading:)

  1. What a great study! I love it! I will admit sometimes I just want to ride…but I know that things are usually a lot more smooth for both of us if I don’t skimp on the ground work. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Lainattu blogi-kirjoitus maastatyöskentelystä | Passion for riding

  3. Pingback: Your Riding Success is My Riding Success | Thistle Ridge Equestrian Services

  4. If they cant understand what you are asking of them on the ground there is no hope under saddle. My horse learns everything from the ground then transferred to saddle 🙂 groundwork is the foundation of Lighttouch Horsemanships training 🙂

  5. Pingback: Last in her Class (…but beyond comparison.) - The Delightful Horse

  6. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog
    and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing
    your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you
    write again soon!

  7. I wonder if horses who learn through groundwork first have learned how to balance before they are weight bearing during the movement so don’t need to put as much effort into a movement and have greater relaxation not only in the movement because of this but in their mind because of the clarity around what is being asked of them.

  8. WOW Jen!! Your story could be my story right down to John Lyons being my first hero. Love him! I have always felt a need to help horses in some way and I do believe helping people understand this important work from the ground is EXTREMELY important for the horses and I am glad to be a part of trying to get the word out!

    Another Karen C

  9. Pingback: Ground School Benefits | Hillside Stables

  10. Pingback: Arbete från marken positivt för hästen | Brillianthorses

  11. It’s all about developing trust between the horse and human. If you have that, you eliminate fear which is what keeps your horse from being your perfect partner. Both human and horse’s fear issues disappear more easily with groundwork, or ground “play” as I like to call it. It’s the Bond, James, the Bond! 😉 May the horse be with you!

    • Funny, Mariette! I haven’t heard that Bond reference, before, but I love it! I do 3/4 ground work/games, and 1/4 under saddle, light riding (recommended by Nevzorov or Hempfling. Look at Klaus Hempfling’s site (if you have not already) — he’s a fascinating horseman. It’s not all about training — I simply ‘play’ on the ground with my horses about three times a week at cavalletti, some games, or just walking them over obstacles and doing some strengthening exercises.
      Now that they know the difference between saddle days and play days, you can be sure they love and excel at the games and play and their sense of humor really shows through in different ways. There are some peppermint, apple and ginger rewards (small but they love them). It’s wonderful feeling working alongside them and being able to observe their responses to different exercises. It’s actually more fun than riding, but I enjoy riding for a short period about twice or three times a week (no longer than 30 minutes). May the horse be with you, too! (If you can still read this — the post may be too late).

  12. Great article, I do most of the work with my horse on the ground, he knows how to long line, lunge and free lunge. I’ve ordered one of the books you recommended so i can learn to do more with him and improve his skills and balance. I also want to help him be more relaxed when we go out and it’s good to read that ground work can help do this.

  13. I really enjoyed reading this. I had Richard Maxwell out to help with my mare and he always says your ground works lead to your ridden work , so very true . Your are in control of four feet . His book Unlock Your Horses Talent in 20 minutes a day is interesting reading and I find myself referring to it a lot.

  14. May I suggest that the reason the horses were more secure, calm, and confident is because they have the benefit of greater relationship with their riders?. Far greater commitment is required to teach, bond, and communicate with your horse through ground work than simply mounting and adding cues. All three reasons given in your article play a role – but the commonality is relationship and time spent learning to know each other as unique personalities and individuals. The trainer learns the horse’s strong points, weaknesses, and habits just as the horse learns to interpret voice commands and body language without the annoyance of rein pressure or spur tracks. Ground work done properly builds a horse’s faith in the leadership of the trainer. Many benefits blossom from faith.

    • Certainly accurate, Lynn. We are working our Thoroughbred and Tennessee Walker on the ground about four times a week now and they work perfectly together and enjoy the in-hand work. They have become quieter, calmer and more respectful through this work and we change the plan each time. There is a respectful understanding regarding the groundwork exercises, of course, but also more of a sense of play and relaxation at the same time. It builds a powerful bond!

  15. I saw John Lyons give a demo a few years ago about doing ground work with obstacles to help prepare horses for the trail. The horses were at liberty at one end of the arena, waiting for his signal, and they were practically quivering with eagerness. When he gave the cue and they came running, all perked ears and happy faces, jumping logs and crossing tarps and weaving around cones but with their eyes totally focused on him, Lyons grinned hugely and just laughed for joy. When they reached him, he shared a herd-love moment with them as if the audience wasn’t even there.

    I love it when the clinicians allow their delight and love to show right there along with their horsemanship. I’ve seen Chris Cox and Pat Parelli both do the same — this sudden “switch” to “omg i love horsies so much especially mine these are mine aren’t they wonderful YAY!” that they’d never say aloud because they have to pretend to be grown-up cowboys all the time. 😉

  16. Great post! I always do a lot of ground work with horses, more than I ride them. It always results in confident, relaxed and willing horses, and it also always results in other humans not understanding why I’m not riding and why I am “not doing anything”. Needless to say; knowledge about ground work and how important it is in the education of the horse needs to be spread. My experience is unfortunately that a lot of people see riding as the only way of training and teaching your horse.

    Overall I agree with what you have written in your post, but I would like to comment on this particular part:

    “It’s possible that humans who take the time to teach their horses from the ground are less goal oriented and more concerned with the process.”

    I can of course only speak for myself; but I am very goal oriented (at least from my own definition of the words); I would even say that is the reason I do so much ground work. The process is however of great concern to me, our training is meant to be pleasant, fun, awarding as well as helping the horse finding balance, body awareness, gaining strength and so on. I think it is the concern about the process that is actually helping people reach their goals. How could one reach a goal without knowing the way here? 🙂

    The reason I’m writing this is because I often hear that I, because I spend so much time on ground work, don’t have goals or ambitions. An unfortunate misconception I think; because with ground work I am reaching my goals faster than ever before (and most importantly; while my horse stays happy).

  17. Pingback: Bodybalance för hästar | Care of Ewards

  18. liccau: I think when people say “goal oriented” they mean to say “wanna reach the next level as soon as possible, no matter if the horse’s tail won’t stop swishing”.

    Loved this blogpost.
    My guess on the reasons for this discovery is that horses have more chance to bond with a person who’s on ground with him than with a person who’s on his back, and the fact they can develop no only balance but also strenght without added weight.

    On the learning how to work in hand, without anyone to teach me in person, I’ve come to Marijke de Jong’s “Straightnes Training” online.

  19. Thank you for this article! If anyone is interested in testing their groundwork skills, we’ve developed a series of tests at North American Western Dressage that really find your strengths and weaknesses. I’m not going to post a link here out of respect for the owners of this website (not trying to advertise, just share ideas and resources)

  20. I’m so happy to have found your blog! And by coincidence I just got back from the barn where I was doing ground work with my ex-race mare. Please keep on writing and I’ll keep on reading!

    • Steven,

      Take is slow and gently. There’s no need to rush or to work on someone else’s schedule.
      Follow your heart, too, when working with your horse. My Off-Track-Thoroughbred likes quiet voices, gentle work, short sessions and lots of rubs, massages and gentle in-hand walks.
      We also have a little Tennessee Walker gentleman (older) with whom he loves to work and walk.
      In=hand, respectful, gentle work, at a quiet pace is the key for many horses.
      And keep yourself fit (I dance, do stretching exercises and breathing exercises — all very important).

      Wishing you a wonderful life with your horse(s) and many golden days ahead.

      Nuala Galbari

  21. Very informative and enjoyable article — thank you. I also enjoyed reading the comments by your readers. Our three horses all love groundwork, and just walks in-hand on trails and to visit other horses. The German dressage study confirms that the bond between horse and owner/rider is much stronger when plenty of groundwork is consistently done. The handler is more relaxed, talks to the horse, and it’s also fun, you can do cavalletti, light games, as well as hand-walking (ideally with one or two other handlers/horses, in a quiet area, around the edge of a field, in the arena, or around a trail. We walk our horses, in-hand around the pasture trail, so they can always see other horses grazing, or in a large arena, but make it interesting by setting up some cavalletti and very low crossrails — in short, an obstacle course, so they don’t become bored. I have an OTTB gelding who is a good gentleman, with a sensible head. He gets bored in the arena doing flatwork, but once you put obstacles in front of him (very low, interesting) he will perk up and work over them happily at walk or trot. The handler also gets plenty of exercise! Mix it up, do different things. One day I may ride him for just 20 minutes; the next, I don’t ride, but take him for a hand-walk (I make him walk around a pasture that is basically square; he is allowed to graze at each corner for a few minutes, then we walk on. On other days, we hand-walk around the farm, or use a different arena. Boredom can be a problem, so you want to mix it up. Short arena session/short trail ride or hack.
    Or short arena session and hand-walk, etc. Set up different little courses, don’t always do the same thing, the same jumps, the same work. If riders just do the same W/T/C daily, the horses will become bored and even uncooperative. Like us, their brains need some stimulation. Keep all the sessions as calm as possible, make sure your tack fits properly, he’s healthy, and give him lots of praise for a job well done, even hand-walking calmly. If you are on the ground, or there are one or two others on the ground, when you are in the saddle, the horse will be calmer and happier; he will feel safer with his human herd.

    Be his guardian, his leader, his friend.

    • If you go to the homepage, there is a little button which says “follow” by e-mail. If you press it, it will sign you up to follow the blog. 🙂 Thank you for reading! 🙂

  22. Pingback: Hevosen tasapainosta | mwhevospalvelut

  23. My Andalusian learns much better when I start from the ground and work up to it under saddle. Having been broken badly and then ridden badly for 10 years before he came to me 2 years ago and at the grand age of 16 he’s having to learn it all from scratch, but he’s so smart thankfully he’s been pretty easy to train. Your article was a fantastic read as it reiterated to me that time and patience can pay off and agree that rushing a horse doesn’t necessarily get you the results in the long term, if they are a short term success.

Leave a Reply to andrew Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s