Groundwork: foundation of horse training

Foundation Groundwork
Fundamentals consist of three exercises which are designed to get to know each other, to establish leadership and security rules.
Foundation groundwork is the basis on which is built all the rest of the saddle work and fine tuning.

This groundwork section is divided in two parts: groundwork fundamentals and foundation groundwork.

Groundwork Fundamentals

You can practice these exercises in different orders. This one (desensitizing > backing up > lungeing) is the basis I use three times out of four. Yet, sometimes, you will have to adapt to the horse and change the order:

  • start with backing up if the horse is dominant and tends to crowd you all the time
  • start with lungeing if the horse does not pay attention to you and your cues or is stiff for instance
  • focus on desensitizing only when you begin working with a spooky horse
  • etc.
Keep in mind that every horse has its own character. All these exercises can be applied to all horses, yet the dosage of each exercise and their order should change and be adapted to each horse.
Tip: I always make sure these exercises are performed lightly and gently.
These are the first exercises I practice with a horse, so it will remember for a long time that first experience: great or a wreck!


Desensitize to the hand, to the lead rope, to the flag, etc.
Touch, throw the rope, tap the flag and carry it over until the horse stands still and relaxed.

Backing Up
Establish leadership by pushing the horse away: backing it up out of your way. A light wiggle should be enough, although a pushy horse will need a few bumps as second deal to understand the cue.

Lunge the horse in large circles. The purpose is to control both speed and gaits from the ground. Point the direction to the horse and remain neutral as long as the horse keeps the expected gait.

Foundation Groundwork

Once you have mastered the fundamentals, you can move on with more Foundation Groundwork. My understanding of “mastered” does not imply that you have to be perfect with these first three exercises, but you need to have had results with your horse so it respects you, leave your personal space, remains calm when you are by its side, etc.

Tip: I always do my best to make my sessions interesting!
For this, I work at least two to four exercises at the same time!
As previously, the order of presentation is my personal favorite but might not be your horse’s. Regularly, you will have to switch from one exercise to the other to correct a problem, to improve a quality or simply to keep your horse interested.
Full Circle
Point a direction to the horse that should walk around in circles, hind and fore legs moving independently.

The body should be bent and the nose tipped in. Do not pull the horse.

Half Circle
Move forward on a straight line, and change direction every half circle by pointing with your hand.

Yield the hindquarters first, then move the forequarters through.

Refined Backing Up
Place your hand on the slobber strap or the rein (thumb down).
Jiggle lightly your hand to back the horse up.

Tip the head outside to back in circles.

These exercises are designed to confirm your leadership and to establish the “bubble pressure”. That bubble is the zone within which the horse always have to yield to the human.

Point the direction to the horse. It should walk smoothly through the fence and you, then cross the hindquarters to stop and face you.

It should never get behind you.

Ask your horse to come to the fence so you can mount up.

Raise the lead rope first, then bump gently if necessary to bring it in position along the fence.

Rope Leading
At this stage, the horse should follow all your moves.

There should always be slack in the rope, as you are not supposed to drag it.

Now that you are doing well on the ground, it is time to mount up and enjoy a bit of riding. Keep in mind that you can (and probably should) blend groundwork to saddle exercises at the beginning.