Ground Work Basics for All Horses

Posted in: Horse Training, Ranch Life

One of the things we’ve learned since we began handling horses the “way” we do at the ranch, is that how your horse operates with you on his back can be predicted fairly accurately and even dictated through thoughtful and observant ground work.

Any time we get horses in to ride, whether they are older horses that “need miles” or colts to start, we always take them back to basics. Below are a few of the basics we like to have working for us:

1. Teach them to follow a feel. Basically this means that the weight of the slack in the lead rope means something to the horse. We teach them to pay attention to what that rope does, and to learn to move their feet or body before that slack comes out. To accomplish this we lead the horse the direction we’d like them to go, and use the tail of our rope and our body position to drive him there before the slack comes out. I’d like to keep a u- shape to my lead rope — so that there’s some slack between the halter and my hand.


The mare is going around to her right here, keeping slack in the lead rope, following a feel.


Working on following the feel — you can see the right front foot is going towards Zach, and there’s slack in the lead rope.


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Following a feel to the left.

2. Stand quietly, while they flex their head from side to side.  At first, because of all the other work we’ve done with them, he’ll want to move his hind feet. Again, I want to keep a u-shape to my lead rope, but at first you may not have one.  Hang in there, and wait for the feet to stop. When they do, release and start again.


Here, he is helping her flex just her head.


Flexing on the left side.

3. Get them good about being rubbed with a flag. I plan to be flagging other colts from the back of this colt/horse as soon as he is ready, so he’s got to be comfortable with being touched all over with the flag and the sound it makes. There’s no energy in a flag like there is in our hands so on a slippery colt it might be easier to rub them with the flag than with our hands.  When first beginning with the flag I like to lead the horse while I shake or wave the flag in front of me. That way he feels like he’s getting to chase it, and that I’m keeping him from any danger he may feel.


On a colt, with not much handling, the closer you are to them when you rub them, the safer you are, and the safer they’ll feel.



Be close and rub your colt in the moments you give them to think about how good they’re doing.


Some of the more advanced maneuvers we ask the horse to complete are listed below:

1. Disengage the hind feet.  Once we get him following a feel, we will work on getting more particular about which foot we’re moving. For example — as  the horse is circling us as to the  left — we turn with him, moving towards him. When the inside hind foot (left foot) leaves the ground we change the feel in the lead rope in order to direct that foot forward and underneath the horse. When the horse is reaching under, about to his midline, and forward, even with where your back cinch would be, we’d release with our lead as the hindquarters move away from us. Sounds simple, enough but often, a horse may only half-way move his hind feet. If he’s simply stepping his left hind over to where his right hind was, he’s phoning it in and there’s a brace in his body.  I want that brace gone before I get on him.  While some folks may be handy enough to help an already rideable horse from their back, if you don’t know where the hind feet are, doing it on the ground is an excellent way to help the horse get soft and supple through his body before you get on.

2. Move their shoulders with this same feel. The next progression in this exercise, once the horse has moved his hips away from you, is to offer a feel on the lead as what was the inside front (circling to our left -left front and vice versa) leaves the ground, directing it as the first step in a circle around us in the opposite direction. We will switch hands on the lead, offer a feel in the new direction, and we may need to take a step forward and towards the shoulder that was outside the previous circle (in our example the right shoulder), to give him enough room to feel like he can step through. In some cases the tail of your lead rope can be used to touch him on his shoulder to help him follow the feel.

3. Walk a circle on two planes.  I like to have my horses walk their hind feet around their front feet, while walking in a circle on the end of the lead rope. Think about two different planes — one being the track that their front feet follow, and one, being larger, the one the hind feet follow.

While working on all of the above, we try to keep a few things in mind:

Reward the slightest try.  Horses operate by feel — they’re masters at reading body language of humans and equines.  They’ll always take the path of least resistance.  So reward them as they search for the correct answer.

Do as little as possible but as much as necessary.  In the beginning you’ll do a little and wait for a result.  The horse can feel a fly land on him, so to think that we have to inflict a great deal of discomfort on them to convey our message is wrong.

Be Consistent.  Become a fixture in the world  of your horse. Endeavor to be the same (ideally optimistic and happy) in every situation; it can become habit-forming for you, and it will lead to more trust being put in you by your horse or student.

I hope you find these tips helpful.

Happy riding and happy trails.

Posted in: Horse Training, Ranch Life

About Jenn Zeller

Jenn Zeller is the creative mind and boss lady behind The South Dakota Cowgirl. She is an aspiring horsewoman, photographer, brilliant social media strategist and lover of all things western. After a brief career in the investment world to support her horse habit (and satisfy her...

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