Basic Work on the Ground
Basic Work on the Ground

Gregorio Billikopf
A Passion for Dressage

Basic work on the ground consists of grooming, leading, and lunging the horse—who might have had little exposure to man, or worse, incorrect training or habits. Horse handling involves risk of head injury, which can be lessened by use of a protective helmet, even in groundwork. Care should be taken in selecting a brimless helmet for this purpose. One that neither interferes with one's peripheral vision nor impedes one's swift and coordinated movements.

Grooming the Green Horse

Most horses will not present any difficulties in grooming. Initial brushing should go with the grain of the hair pattern. After the horse is well accustomed to this, some riders feel their horses enjoy grooming against the hair pattern. A rider should always look at the horse’s head and tail for signs of irritation when grooming. The rider should move carefully around a nervous horse. Most horses love to be groomed.

As a safety precaution, the rider should always keep at least one eye on the horse’s head while hoof picking and grooming the horse, and generally scan the whole horse on a regular basis. This will allow the rider to read the horse’s temperament and avoid being bitten, kicked, or being taken by surprise.

Picking up a green horse’s hoofs for cleaning can sometimes present a first challenge. Helping the horse shift weight to the opposite foreleg will usually be sufficient to do the trick. This can be accomplished by simply pushing on the horse’s shoulder on the same side of the foreleg that is to be lifted. If further shifting is needed—as sometimes horses will lean back against your shoulder nudge—the horse can be further unbalanced by having an assistant turn the horse’s head to the other side. At first, the horse’s leg should not be lifted for long periods of time. Picking a back leg is easier for the horse to do. Eventually, many horses will pick up each foot in turn as the rider approaches, or lightly touches the horse at the shoulder or rump.

Lunging the Green Horse

The goal in lunging the green horse is very simple: to make him go around on each direction at the walk, trot and canter without side reins. While more will be said about lunging principles a little later, the most important considerations for the moment, in order not to fatigue the horse, are 1) keep the circles large (with a diameter of no less than 12 to 15 meters), 2) change directions frequently, and 3) allow the horse plenty of rest so he is not overly stressed.

Equipment and assistance needed include (1) a lunging line, (2) a lunging cavesson or halter, (3) a lunging whip, and (4) two assistants.


The first step is to lead the horse with the lunging line acting as a normal lead rope, or with a lead rope. (I like having the horse bridled, with the lead rope going in through the whole of the ring on the snaffle closest to the side being held by the trainer, and hooking on the ring away from the trainer. When using a cavesson, there are special rings that are used, instead.) The trainer should stay between the horse’s eye and shoulder in order not to get in front or behind the forces that act on the horse. It also helps to use a fence on one side of the horse to help "support" and keep him straight (figure 2-1).

Figure 2-1. When leading a horse, the rider stays between the horse’s eye and shoulder

Getting in front of the eyes often encourages a horse to pull back or slow down. Getting behind the shoulder tends to encourage a horse to move forward or even take off. The rider has less leverage to stop the horse. The position of the rider between the eyes and shoulder can also be thought in terms of a convex, wet and slippery bar of soap. It can slip forward or backward depending on where it is held unless it is held just at the right spot (figure 2-2).

Figure 2-2. The position of the rider between the horse’s eye and shoulder reflects a fine balance of forces

If the horse "stalls," and loses forward momentum, then one assistant can be standing by ready to use the whip. The assistant should be walking behind at about a 35 degree angle. The trainer and the assistant should work out a silent language to communicate when the whip should be used. One that works well for me is to lift the elbow of the hand that is not holding the horse. When the trainer lifts the elbow the assistant lightly swishes the whip. This needs to be done at the requisite distance for the given horse, depending on the nervousness of the horse. A very nervous horse might need the assistant to just move a little closer without swishing the whip at all, or not holding a whip at all. A less sensitive horse might need the whip to make a louder swishing noise or crack. The whip should not touch the horse (figure 2-3).

Figure 2-3. The position of assistant to the trainer teaching a horse to move forward (side and top views)

The rider should keep an eye on the horse’s body language. If the horse gets nervous, the assistant can increase the angle moving away from the horse, or can reduce the amount of movement or noise made by the whip. If the horse lacks impulsion, then there may be a need for more whip action, or closing of the angle, or both.

When a horse does not respond at all after being urged to move forward with the whip, the rider needs to be careful. It may simply represent the calm before the storm, with pressure building up until the horse strikes out full of unchanneled energy (figure 2-4). To avoid this unhappy event, any time the horse does not move forward at the second or third attempt, the rider should stop the exercise and work on picking up the horse’s legs or something different. We want to avoid dirt skiing behind the horse, or ending up with rope burned hands. Wearing heavy gloves is an important safety precaution against rope burn, and as an additional bonus, will give the trainer more grip and confidence that he can hold a horse back. When a horse takes off, the trainer can hold him back, up to a point. Once the horse gathers enough speed, or enough distance from the rider, little can stop him.

Figure 2-4: A horse with a sudden burst of unchanneled energy

This exercise need only be done at the walk and at the trot at this point. If the horse canters, the trainer should not punish the horse, but rather should pretend that that is what he wanted all along. This exercise should be completed going on both directions (with the rider holding the horse on the near side and far side). A few minutes of success each day are better than much progress in one day and resistance the next. When the horse can trot on both directions (held on the near and off sides) for three to five minutes quietly and evenly, the rider can move on to the next step. The same will be true for each of the steps that follow.


In this next step a third person, the second assistant, is added. The second assistant stands in the center of a circle, and holds the lunging line, preventing the horse from moving away on a straight line (figure 2-5). It is up to the first assistant to provide enough impulsion to keep the horse moving out rather than falling into the circle, as dictated by the trainer who holds the horse as before, with a lead line (so that there are two lines attached to the horse). At first the work should be done at the walk, and then at the trot. Again, if the horse canters, allow the horse to come back to the trot smoothly, without making much of it. It is important to start all over at the walk, because the horse might find the long line stretched out something different and strange. If the previous work has been done with love and care there should be no fear.

Figure 2-5: While the assistant in the center acts as a simple pivot spot, the trainer walks and trots along with the horse, with impulsion added by the assistant holding the whip.


Step three is perhaps the transition point that requires the most tact. The lead rope is removed and the trainer, who was holding the lead rope before, will hold the lunging line along with the assistant in the center. The trainer will move toward and away from the horse as needed, in an effort to help the horse stay out away from the center. The assistant with the whip will continue to provide impulsion and help the horse move forward freely. The trainer will sometimes have a firm hold of the rope, at other times he will hardly hold it (fig. 2-6).

Figure 2-6: The lead line is removed, and the trainer will hold the lunging line (as will the assistant in the center). The trainer will move toward or away from the horse as needed.

At some point, the trainer will not hold the lead line at all for moments. These moments will get longer with time. The trainer just moves along with the horse, moving closer and farther away from the horse, as before (figure 2-7). The assistant with the whip continues to provide impulsion as required by the trainer. When the horse is successful, the trainer will move to the center and switch with one of his assistants.

Figure 2-7: The trainer lets go of the lunging line from time to time, increasing those times little by little. Soon, the trainer takes the center and switches with his assistant.


The lead person is soon no longer needed. The assistant can move closer and closer to the trainer in the center until he is no longer needed. The assistant with the whip remains, and begins to move closer and closer to the trainer, as he achieves the needed impulsion (figure 2-8).

Figure 2-8: The trainer now works alone with the assistance with the whip


Finally, the last transition requires that the center person hold the whip alone and the long line alone. In effect, even though the trainer is alone, he plays both roles and moves in toward the horse when needed (figure 2-9).

Figure 2-9: The trainer now holds both the lunging line and the whip, playing all three roles of center pivot, producer of impulsion, and helping the horse stay out on the circle.

Lunging Principles

While lunging the horse, the rider encourages the horse to move forward. Longer steps with more engagement should be attained rather than frequent, shorter steps. The hindquarter should look very elastic and cadenced. Special attention should be focused on the hock. The hock will move forward but at the moment of suspension will advance forward—because the horse is advancing—without movement within itself. It will appear as if the hock is floating. A floating hock is a good sign of correct movement. A correct circle will also increase the period of suspension at the trot and canter. It is the inside hindquarter that engages further and that is why it is so important to lunge the horse to both directions and to work the horse to both directions in general.

Some horses naturally move better than others. Dressage training can help almost all horses to improve. Some horses are so athletic, balanced and have such good conformation, however, that a less gifted horse will after years of training never be able to approach them. The selection of the right horse is important.

The size of the circle must be large enough that too much strain is not placed on the horse. Small circles put more strain on the horse’s muscles and tendons, and if the hindquarter cannot engage sufficiently, the hindquarters will not follow the forequarters in the arc and fall out (fig. 2-10). Over the period of years the size of the circle will be reduced, thus putting an increased demand on the horse gradually.

Figure 2-10: If the circle is too small for the horse’s level of training, either the hindquarters will fall out destroying the purpose of the circle, or the horse will be strained and injured.

When there is not enough impulsion present, natural inertia acts on the horse to make him fall into the circle (we might call these the centripetal forces of inertia (figure 2-11, point A). When there is enough impulsion, and it is properly controlled and directed, it can act as the centrifugal force of movement, maintaining the horse with a desire to take the tangent out of the circle and bending the horse properly (figure 2-11, point B). In correct lunging the horse bends according to the circumference of the circle. The inside hindquarter travels on a tangent toward the outside of the circle (figure 2-11, point C).

Figure 2-11: Without enough impulsion, the horse will move into the circle (A). With the right amount of impulsion, the horse will bend properly (B) with the inside hindquarter moving further under the horse toward C.

When the horse can quietly move forward at the walk and trot, the trainer can now add side reins (figure 2-12). The purpose of the side reins is to help the horse position his head so the center of gravity is shifted backward, thus further facilitating the engaging of the inside hindquarter along with the help of the circle. But first, the horse needs to learn to reach forward and down on the bit, stretching out his neck.

Figure 2-12: The side reins will help the horse transfer his center of gravity backward, and with the help of the circle, increasing the engagement of the inside hindquarter.

Side reins are connected to the saddle or lunging surcingle at the level of the knee at one side, and at the bit at the other side (figure 2-13). Keepers are used to make sure the side reins do not move up and down the saddle straps when saddles are used. These side reins should be loose at first. It is always more of a danger to have side reins that are too short than too long. Little by little these are shortened, as the horse learns to move with balance.

Figure 2-13: The side reins are hooked on the bit on the one side, and on the straps of the saddle, on the other. The side reins should be long at first.

Correct training will help the horse stretch, arc, and lower his neck at the trot (fig. 2-14).

Figure 2-14: When the side reins are properly placed, and the right length, they help the horse learn to stretch and lower the neck.

The horse should not have the face behind the vertical (fig. 2-15). If the horse does so, he should be pushed forward with more impulsion and check to make sure the side reins are not too short. At the walk the horse should work with longer side reins to avoid having the face behind the vertical.

Figure 2-15: A horse that gets behind the vertical needs to be pushed forward

To control a horse’s cadence the rider will learn how much whip or forward impulses or how much lunge line or holding impulses to use. The horse’s temperament will play a key factor in how much pushing aids to use. For a horse that is not nervous, and if the rider is skilled, gently touching the horse with the end of the whip once in a while can be useful. This should never be given to a horse in punishment, but should be a light aid to help the horse feel what will later be the leg. The lunge line can be used as holding or collecting aid by rotating it against the direction of the horse’s movement (fig. 2-16).

Figure 2-16: The lunge line can be used as holding or collecting aid

Lunging on Varied Terrain

Lunging on a steep incline, if not overdone, will help the horse attain balance and strength and eventually help the horse for combined training. Lunging in varied terrain will also help the horse in his upward and downward transitions as well as changes in cadence and ability to maintain the same tempo. The rider should first find an incline that is not very steep at first. The steepness can greatly increase up to or exceeding a 65 degree grade (fig. 2-17).

Figure 2-17: Lunging on varied terrain can help the horse increase his balance and improve performance


Some horses are more gifted than others for dressage. Basic work on the ground consists of grooming, leading, and lunging the horse. A trainer can tell much about a horse’s state of mind by looking at him. For his safety, the trainer should not wear a hat while grooming the horse, as the hat can obscure important information transmitted by the horse. When leading the horse, the trainer should stay between the horse’s eye and shoulder.

In lunging, 1) keep the circles large, 2) change directions frequently, and 3) allow the horse plenty of rest so he is not overly stressed. While lunging the horse, the rider encourages the horse to move forward. Once the side reins are connected, correct training will help the horse stretch, arc, and lower his neck at the trot, and bend correctly. The circle helps the inside hindquarter engage properly thus becoming elastic and cadenced.

© 1999-2010 Gregorio Billikopf

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A Passion for Dressage
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19 May 2010