These exercises are aimed at improving your communication with your horse and keeping him soft and responsive while you’re not riding. You can start in the stable and move outside when you feel the need for more space; you just need a safe enclosed area with good footing. These exercises can also be utilised for horses still in work as a warm-up, or for days when you can’t ride. You can spend as much or as little time as you like on these exercises, this is one of those situations when quality over quantity will get you the best result.

These ten exercises are progressive, and I recommend starting at the beginning and achieving a change before moving on to the next. There is a logical order to the steps and you may find that if you get stuck on one exercise that going back a step or two, or even to the beginning, will help you advance. They are also scalable, do as much as you can, always reward the try with a release, be particular but not picky, and always end on a good note. While these exercises don’t appear to be physically demanding, be aware that you may be asking your horse to move in an unfamiliar way. You may run up against a physical limitation or mental brace, so if needed, back off a little and reward every try - no matter how small. Remember to let your horse soak after a change, he may lick and chew, also remember to stroke him and let him know he did well.


Equipment needed:

Horsemanship/western style halter and 12ft treeline leadrope

Stable and small enclosed space with a good surface, e.g. your yard


1. Standing flexions - Lateral

Begin on the nearside. Stand facing your horse’s shoulder with the leadrope in your right hand. With your left hand gently grasp your horse’s nose. With feel, ask for your horses head to come around. Only bring his head as far as he is comfortable, don’t pull, just guide and wait for him to relax in that position. You are aiming for a nice relaxed response; for him to be able to bend his head around without losing longitudinal flexion and with his eye focused into the bend.

Change sides, change hands and repeat. You may find him stiffer on the off-side which is common in riding horses. Aim to get him as soft on each side.

Remember these exercises are progressive, just get what you can and build on it. The aim is to build suppleness in the poll and a soft horse. Do not bring his head so far that his nose tilts; you should be able to draw an imaginary line straight down from between his ears, down his nose all the way to the ground. Aim to get him soft and relaxed as he brings his head around and don’t hold him there for too long, just enough to get a moment of relaxation, and then let go. Repeat to build supple and soft flexion. If he starts to move his feet, just go with him, use your other hand to stroke him if you can and as soon as he stops release and begin again, he just needs to separate standing flexions from the one rein stop.

Once you can do this holding the nose, try with just the leadrope in your hand above the withers, as if you were sat in the saddle. See if you can get the same response, this will translate into you riding.


Standing Flexion with Your Horse - Horse in stable - woman with blue shirt leading horse



2. Standing Flexions - Longitudinal

Stand beside your horse’s head, facing down his body. With your left hand grasp the leadrope under his chin, make a fist with your thumb on the bottom and put the excess rope in your right hand.

Gently apply a little downward pressure, enough for the horse to feel but don’t try and pull his head down. Start very gradually; you don’t want to worry him. How does he respond? If he starts to drop his head even a millimetre, release. If he doesn’t follow the feel you’re offering, just wait; maintain the contact until he offers something in the right direction. If several minutes pass without a response, gently move your hand from side to side while maintaining the same pressure. Do not increase the pressure to try and get a response sooner, you may upset him and cause him to pull back. This exercise will require a lot of patience and waiting on your horse. You are aiming for him to follow a gentle feel on the leadrope and follow it down towards the ground. Make sure you stand to one side and not in front or allow your head to come above his, in case he lifts his head suddenly.


Standing Longitudinal Flexion with Your Horse - Jane Hedge - horse in stable


3. Moving the hind over

While holding his nose gently in the lateral bend position, use your other hand to apply some pressure to his ribs, about where you would normally apply your leg. I prefer to use the heel of my hand. You can hold and wait, or just bump gently. Release as soon as he offers a try in the direction you want. As with all things, build on the try until you get him to fully step over and yield his hind quarters. Repeat on both sides. The aim is get him to move over softly from just a gentle pressure.

 Moving the Hinds - Horsemanship - horse in stable - woman with jeans and blue shirt holding the rope haltergroundwork-exercises-do-small-space

4. Moving the Front Quarters

Once he has moved over the hind, you change hands on his nose and gently push his nose across in front of you, until he has to move a front foot to continue responding to the pressure. He may get stuck trying to sort out which foot to move first, just wait and give him time to sort it out. As with all these exercises, it’s about taking the time to let them work out what you’re asking by building on the try. Release his nose as soon as he reaches the front foot and begins to move the front quarters away from you.

 Moving the Front - Horsemanship Training


5. Nose hinds/fronts

Once you can do both of these movements, try combining them into one smooth set of exercises, first the hinds then the fronts. As you finish the front movement, don’t let go of his nose, just go straight to moving his hind the other way. This will really help him get supple.



6. Changing Eyes with The Rope Around The Hindquarters

Starting on the nearside, ask for your longitudinal flexion (see step 2 for how to ask for this), then pass the leadrope down the far side of your horses’ neck, down his body and let it come around his hindquarters, above the hocks. At this point, he will be seeing you in his left (nearside) eye. Gently begin applying pressure on the rope. This will encourage him to bend his head away from you; he might pause at this point as he can’t see you. Don’t increase the pressure, just hold and wait on him to figure it out. Eventually, he will follow the feel on the rope and his hind quarters will move over towards you, and he should keep turning until he sees you in his right eye, and then faces up. If he stops before facing up, he may just need more room and some encouragement, so take a step or two back to draw him and make sure you reward him with a rub.

If he pauses or rushes through the blind spot, just be patient and give him time to figure this out. Changing eyes is a huge part of the horse’s development and getting him to make that connection from one eye, through his blind spot to the other eye, will help with many handling and ridden issues. Patience at this stage will pay double later. Once you feel he understands the idea from the nearside, change sides to the off-side. A truly soft horse is a mentally balanced horse.

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7. Backing from the ground

Stand beside your horse’s head, facing down his body. With your left hand, grasp the leadrope under his chin, make a fist with your thumb on the bottom, and put the excess rope in your right hand. Apply a little pressure towards his tail end. His nose may tuck in, but he should move his feet back a step or two, or even just rock his weight back a bit. Reward any movement of his weight or feet in the direction you want by releasing the pressure. If you get no response, maintain pressure but also push your hand from side to side under his chin, so that the noseband rubs back and forth over his nose, release at the first sign he is thinking in the direction you want him to go, even if it’s just a shift in weight.

Build on that try until you can get your horse backing, even just a step or two, at first you will be releasing for each step. As he gets more comfortable with the movement and less pressure is needed to move his feet, you can start to increase what you ask, build up the number of steps you are asking for and always release when he is soft. Once your horse is backing a few steps, begin building a good rhythm. Ideally a horse should back in a two beat diagonal movement, similar to the trot. So, for example, the near fore and off hind should move together, followed by the off fore and near hind. Again, the release in pressure is how you signal to the horse that he is on the right track.

Aim to back in a straight line with a nice even rhythm. Don’t worry too much about head position until he is backing nicely in rhythm with little to no pressure on the halter. His weight should be back over his hocks and his back feet should be coming under himself. At that point, he should hopefully be confident enough to drop his head in longitudinal flexion and offer a nice round shape. Head position is a result of a balanced horse and cannot be forced, so wait until he has his balance worked out before asking for head position or you will cause a brace.

When you can back your horse from the near side, move to the off side, swap hands and teach him the same again. Some of you may well have your horses already backing under saddle, and if so, use this exercise to iron out any issues you might be having. For example, if he backs in a hollow shape, it could be down to a lack of rhythm in his feet. Use this exercise to work through those issues, and help your horse to be his best self.

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8. Ten steps

To progress to this exercise you need to be able to back your horse at least 10 steps with a consistent rhythm. Stand beside your horse’s head, facing forwards. With your nearest hand grasp the leadrope under his chin, make a fist with your thumb on the bottom and put the excess rope in your other hand. Walking forwards, lead your horse for ten steps, halt and then back him for ten steps. Then walk him forward for nine steps and back him for 9 steps, repeat for eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two and one step.

Your horse must walk forward and back in a straight line, if he can’t, start again. This step may well show up any issues you missed in his backing earlier, so just go back to Step 7 and see what can be improved. Perhaps it’s his rhythm, is he really engaged and moving his feet lightly? Once he can do this softly without you pulling and pushing on his head, see if you can get in step with each other, so that he starts to move off of the shift in your step, before you have to apply pressure to his head. Also, see if you can go from forwards to backwards without coming to a complete stop, letting that last foot hang in the air before changing direction.

When you get down to one step see if you can progress to shifting his weight from his front end to his back end. How softly does he respond to your feel? Repeat this exercise from the off-side for completeness, and a balanced horse.



9. Hinds/fronts while standing on a mark

Now that you can move your horse’s feet in different ways and softly in a small space, see how well you can do it off the lead rope and without moving your feet. Make a mark on the ground in whatever way you can safely. If you’re on sand, just mark a circle with a line in the sand. If you’re on concrete, stand on something like a piece of paper, make sure it’s not something that can trip you up. Now try doing the moving hinds/fronts exercise without leaving your marker. At first, you’ll need a large space for your feet, but as you refine the movement and your horse gets more supple and soft, you’ll need to move less.


10. Sending through a doorway

How well can you send your horse out in front of you on a circle? Is it to the end of your rope? Extend the hinds/fronts exercise to sending your horse into places you can’t follow him, for example, into his stable. If this is too tricky to start with, try standing in one place and see how far out on a circle you can send him without having to walk with him. Try using markers, like a couple of cones or buckets to send him between. Pay attention to letting out enough leadrope that you don’t inadvertently block him. Once you can stay on your mark then try sending him through a doorway. This is a great way to build trust in your horse and get him moving freely forward for you, without you having to be beside him. On the ground, this will help with situations, such as loading onto a horsebox. In your ridden work, it can help with things like trail obstacles.