And we’re back! It’s a new year, there’s a new baby, and here’s a new post for you! I’ve recently been inspired to share with you a wonderful list of equine groundwork lesson activities based on a recent post in the Riding Instructors’ Forum Facebook Group. I see this question asked a lot on Facebook and sent in to me, so I thought I’d condense all the responses and my previous related posts into one handy list. As you look for horsemanship skills to teach your students who cannot or choose not to ride, I hope list helps you out!
Side note: during sleepless night nursings in which I live vicariously through travel blogs, it seems every other travel post is titled something like “the ultimate…”, “the best…”, and “the top 5…”, so I’ve followed suite because I really do think this is a good list!
Side note II: this is a list of ideas, not a thorough explanation of how to do everything. While I wish I could provide such an explanation for everything, it would take forever and would never get posted. If you do not know how to do one of these, do not teach it without getting thorough instruction yourself to the point of proficiency.
Here we go!
The Ultimate List of Equine Groundwork Lesson Activities
Lunging / Longeing
Lunging is working or training a horse at the end of a long rope or line as the horse moves in a circle around you. You can work on going forward from your body, voice and whip, obeying voice commands, exercising the horse, reading the horse’s body language, and your own coordination. Focus on the training-of-the-horse aspect rather than the getting-out-of-energy.
Idea: when teaching your student to use the lunge whip, set up objects for them to am at and touch – such as flicking tin cans off fence posts or tennis balls off cones, or put a ball on the ground and they have to hit it 10 times in a row before it stops moving.
Long Lining, Double Lunge/Long
Long lining is typically lunging the horse in a circle with two lunge lines. The inner line comes directly to your hand, and the other line runs through a surcingle over the horse’s back to your hand – or some variation of this. This allows the person to have two “reins” and a more complex control similar to riding but from the ground. It also gives you the flexibility to ground drive or work in hand. You can progress to straight lines, changes of direction at all gaits, all the way to Grand Prix movements.
Ground Driving is similar to long lining but the person generally stand behind the horse and works with direct aids. This is a great way to improve your student’s hands and contact.
Dressage In Hand, Work In Hand
Dressage in hand is working on dressage training from the ground, from the basics up through advanced levels, to develop collection, engagement, balance, etc. without the rider’s weight and to train a horse before doing it under saddle. It can be done either with long lines or bridle reins or really whatever equipment you want, and the handler stands in different places depending on how they are training the horse. Here is a good introductory article, and some mentioned Patrick King‘s program and the School of Légèreté. It reinforces to your student what you work on in the saddle and helps maintain their riding skills.
Although this could refer to all the above work done on the ground, these days it trends toward meaning exercises done with the horse in a halter and lead rope or even at liberty (the horse is free, without a lead rope) that work on training and body control of the horse. Exercises include leading, giving to pressure, moving forward, moving the forehand and the haunches, transitions between gaits, sending over obstacles, ground tieing, backing, side passing, to name a few. Here is a good intro article. Common resources include the Parelli program or other “natural horsemanship” techniques.
An excellent resource for much of the above is Cherry Hill’s 101 Ground Training Exercises book (affiliate link), which has lots of ground work exercises, progressing to long lining and ground driving and then obstacles. You could seriously spend one lesson at a time on each of the 101 exercises and work through the whole book!
Another excellent resource is “Six Feet On The Ground,” the North American Western Dressage (NAWD)’s groundwork program that provides a progression of tests for training and competition. You can work through these groundwork patterns with your students.
Round penning is similar to lunging and liberty work in a circular pen. It is often used to start yearlings, get them seeing you as leader, teach the basics of moving forward and body control, and so on. It’s useful for everyone to learn to control their horse without anything attached to it and to develop a relationship with the horse. I LOVE round penning and think every student should experience it! When you have the student “join up” with the horse for the first time and get followed around, it’s magical. For more information see this good introductory article. I love Monty Roberts and his videos on YouTube and there was an excellent TV documentary a long time ago about his techniques. You should also check out Warwick Schiller’s YouTube videos as he incorporates a lot of round penning and clips from his clinics incorporating students. There are so many other great trainers that round pen these days I can’t list them all, but those are the two I’d start with.
Liberty work is when you let the horse be loose in a big arena or field and work with them there. It focuses on letting the horse bond with you on its own without any pressure, giving him the freedom to go if he needs to. This is a fun way to teach the horse “tricks” and games because he only participates if he wants to, and you can also work on the training basics all the way up through advanced movements. Many trainers incorporate clicker training into liberty work.
Clicker training is using a signal, like the sound of a clicker, to mark the desired behavior the moment the horse performs it. It is followed by a reward such as food or scratches or praise, so the horse learns to associate good things with the signal, which can then be phased out or given intermittently once the behavior is achieved, to the point that just using the signal tells the horse exactly when he does the desired thing.
Free jumping is sending a horse down a “chute” made between the arena wall and a line of raised poles, with several jumps that he learns to navigate on his own. It can be very fun to see your own horse learn to free jump, or your lesson horse who you didn’t know could do it! Here is a good intro article. You can also use this time to teach your student how to set up jumps.
Showmanship is a western event that tests the handler’s ability to show their horse on the ground through certain maneuvers, which usually are the walk, the walk-trot transition, the halt, backing up, setting up (standing square), and pivoting. Part of the goal is to do so with as little signals from the handler as possible, so this a great activity for your students to learn to communicate invisibly with their horses! Here is a good intro article with those basic moves explained. 4-H probably has some excellent resources as well.
In Hand Trail Obstacles, Halter Obstacles
In hand trail classes are associated with breed shows. It usually uses some of the same obstacles found in trail and agility classes like a gate, bridge, weaving cones, backing, mailbox, carrying objects, turning around in a square, sidepass, etc. It is judged on the horse’s performance, manners, attitude, and obedience.
Horse agility is when the handler and horse navigate an obstacle course on the ground, and it’s judged based on their relationship and communication. Any equine can participate (mini, draft, donkey, etc.). Levels include using halter and lead all the way to at liberty.
You can teach your student about developing an equine’s fitness on the ground using any of the above methods (long lining, in hand work, etc.) – so you are focusing on fitness, endurance, agility, flexibility, etc. versus training behavior responses (although it does overlap a lot). A great resource is Jec Ballou’s Equine Fitness book (affiliate link) which has a lot of wonderful stretches and exercises for developing a horse’s body, as well as discussing preparing a horse’s body for riding after they’ve not been worked a long time.
Desensitizing is teaching a horse not to be afraid of “scary” objects such as tarps, bags, balls, etc. If you are in a therapeutic riding program, your horses should already be desensitized to anything you use in lessons, and for safety I wouldn’t recommend teaching a student how to desensitize a horse to something new, but you can teach the student the process using something the horse already is desensitized to. This is a great way to teach listening to the horse and responding accordingly, patience, and step by step progression skills.
Introduce your student to the basic concepts of equine massage, or go all the way and help them get their massage certification (or do it with them!). This is a good intro article to equine massage, and here is another. If you don’t know anything about massage, I’d recommend working with a professional before diving in to teaching your students. Also check out my post “Equine Spa Currying Session” for simple massages you can incorporate into your grooming routine.
Similar is bodywork, the one that comes to mind first is the Tellington TTouch Method. This is her book, I haven’t read it, but it lists all the different touches and using them in training. The second one is The Masterson Method, which you can easily learn to do the basics from the DVD, online videos, finding a nearby practitioner, or find someone in your area who is in training to demonstrate to your student since they usually give massages for free to get their training hours.
Horse Care & Knowledge
Focus on a different aspect of horse care each lesson, such as:
- Show grooming and braiding
- Wrapping and bandaging legs
- Wound care
- Trailer loading
- Stall cleaning
- Feeding, Feeds and grains, Forage analysis, Pasture management
- Tack cleaning
- First Aid
- Injury rehabilitation
- Gaits, movement, balance
- Breeds, Colors, Markings – go out to pasture and identify these in the horses
- Conformation, Anatomy, Biomecheanics
- Body parts
- Tack parts
- Veterinary care
- Identify a horse’s age
- Poisonous plants
See this post for another list of horse care skills!
Some curriculum options for working through horse care and knowledge include:
- Pony Club Manuals
- “Ground School Curriculum” by EAAT Curriculums review post
- GallopNYC’s resource for Rainy Day Activities & Groundwork Lesson Plans post
Riding Knowledge & Theory
Teaching the rider about the theory behind riding might be enjoyable to do on the ground in a more classroom type setting, when the student is not distracted by the actual horse. Topics include:
- Rider biomechanics and using it to help the horse
- Posture and balance
- Natural vs. Artificial aids
- Riding psychology
- Dressage training tree
- And so many more, obviously
Watch other riding lessons with the student and discuss the rider, horse, etc.. You could have the student takes notes for the other lesson students on the instructor’s feedback.
You can have the student watch lessons for new riders and observe how the instructor develops the rider’s base of support, how each body part affects the other, and so on. Hopefully this makes the student more aware of their own body.
Have the Student Teach
Have your student give you a lesson! You really learn the information once you have to teach it. Perhaps incorporate this into 5 or 10 minutes of the lesson, focusing on a specific topic, such as grooming or picking hooves.
For children you might incorporate craft type activities to help teach them about horses or to do for fun. For example, making a stick horse then riding it through a pattern. For ideas, check out my blog post on horse camp ideas!
Posture & Body Mechanics On The Ground
Discuss correct posture and body mechanics for working with a horse on the ground. This will keep them from hurting themselves during groundwork, it will keep them fitter for when they go back to riding, and if the student is pregnant they will be aware of how to adapt to moving around their big belly. For example, bending at the hips instead of bending over at the back when picking hooves. Here is my blog post about posture while instructing lessons, which is all the same concepts I would teach the student. Here is another good article about posture, although related to pregnancy, really applies to everyone.
Is that “ultimate list” enough for you? I hope so! If you have anything to add, please leave a comment!
Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!