Horse Training In-Hand: A Modern Guide to Working from the Ground

Horse Training In-Hand: A Modern Guide to Working from the Ground

by Ellen Schuthof-Lesmeister

ISBN: 9781570764097

Publisher Trafalgar Square Books

Published in Calendars/Animals

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One



On the pages that follow, please find some of the terms I use throughout this book. Many of these words may be familiar, and indeed, you may understand them to mean something slightly different than how I describe them here. However, for clarity's sake, this is how I choose to define them for the purposes of training horses in-hand and the lessons to come later.

Balance Total ability of a horse to be equally supple and strong on both sides of his body, so that he can be straight. There is no balance without straightness (see Straight/ness).

Bend/ing Ability of a horse to flex his body from poll to tail in either direction in a correct manner; provides stretching and suppling exercise.

Changing rein Changing direction. When you are on the "right rein," you are traveling to the right-for example, making a circle to the right. When you "change rein," you change direction, making a circle to the left, and you are now on the "left rein."

Collection When a horse is so gymnasticized, strong, and supple that he can literally raise his back, and flex and lower his hindquarters, and sustain this posture as required during work in-hand or under saddle, he is said to be collected. Also referred to as "self-carriage." In true collection, the forehand of the horse appears as if it is rising, but in actuality, his hindquarters are lowered. There is no true collection without straightness (see Straight/ness).

Driving hand/arm In work in-hand, this is the hand that holds the whip, or performs the action of the "leg aid," for example pressing against the horse's body to ask him to yield.

Exercise A specific lesson, such as shoulder-in, renvers, travers, yield to the "leg," or half-pass, that requires the horse to physically master certain gymnastic requirements and also mentally understand what is being asked of him.

Flexion Can be used in reference to the limbs, as when a joint angle becomes smaller (as in flexion of the haunches), or in reference to the longitudinal flexion at the poll (the chin moves away from or toward the underside of the neck), lateral flexion of the neck and poll (movement of the head from left to right), as well as the spine as a whole (flexibility allows bend).

Forehand The horse's head, neck, and shoulders. Most of a horse's weight is naturally carried on his forehand. The common phrase "on the forehand" refers to the way horses move when they are young, early in their training, or improperly trained.

Forward and down A horse should be worked "forward and down" (also known as "long and low") as part of a correct training program. This posture relaxes his back and enables the back muscles to move freely.

Gymnastics A training program comprised of bending, stretching, suppling, and strengthening exercises.

"Inside/outside" the bend or circle The "inside" or "outside" is not always determined by which side of the horse is closest to the rail, and which is closest to the center of the ring. Often, when I refer to the "inside" or "outside," I'm referring to the horse's bend: the direction of the bend determines which part of his body is "inside" the movement or "outside" the movement. For instance, when the horse is bending to the left, his left side is "inside" and his right "outside," regardless of where you are positioned in the arena. The muscles in the horse's body inside the bend are shortened, and the muscles on the outside are stretched.

Inside track The path adjacent to the track, toward the inside of the arena (see also Track, and further explanation on p. 80).

Lateral movement Going forward and sideways simultaneously. Work in-hand uses lateral movements to supple and strengthen the horse.

Leading hand/arm In work in-hand, this is the hand that guides the horse. You hold the lead line, longe line, or rein in this hand, and sometimes "point" in the direction you want to go. For example, when you longe the horse to the left, your left hand is the leading hand.

Long side In an arena of traditional rectangular proportions, this refers to the longer side of the rectangle.

Movement In this book, when I use the term movement, I am referring to the motion related to a horse traveling in one direction or another. The in-hand exercises I use work with the horse's movement to train and gymnasticize specific parts of his body.

Point of weight The horse's center of balance where he "carries" both his own weight and that of the rider is a point located behind the withers. A horse needs to be supple and strong enough to bring his hind legs underneath himself and toward that point in order to support this weight correctly. This is the goal of attaining self-carriage.

Relaxation The absence of stress and tightness in a horse's body, which is optimal for free, correct movement. However, this kind of relaxation is not without a certain amount of "positive tension" that keeps tone in the muscles.

Short side In an arena of traditional rectangular proportions, this refers to the shorter side of the rectangle.

Straight/ness The ability of a horse to move straight ahead on lines and bend along the arc of curves with rhythmic, balanced gaits and his hind feet stepping into the tracks of the front, and without favoring one side over the other. Keep in mind that, like humans, horses are naturally "right-" or "left-handed," and because of this, keeping a horse straight is a continual process that spans his lifetime.

Strength/en One of the goals of work in-hand is a strong horse, and the exercises to come aim to strengthen his muscles in his back, legs, and hindquarters.

Supple/ness Flexibility that results from bending and stretching exercises.

Track This term has multiple definitions. It is used to describe the path closest to the rail, wall, or arena fence. It also refers to lateral movements and the number of directions the horse is moving in: single-track (forward) or two-track (forward and sideways). In addition, it describes the number of legs you can see if you stand directly in front of the horse as he is moving toward you (i.e., the horse is moving on two tracks, three tracks, or four).


The term work in-hand simply means that the handler trains the horse from the ground as opposed to riding him. In its broadest meaning, it refers to the entire training spectrum, from teaching a foal to lead all the way up to perfecting airs above the ground in the haute ecole.

This book describes five types of in-hand groundwork, which, when taught consecutively, act as building blocks. You will begin with basic longeing and double-longeing, progress through long-lining and short-reining, and finally achieve the "crown jewel" of work in-hand: long- reining (see more information about each of these beginning on p. 14). Keep in mind that different horses may respond better to one type of in-hand work than others. For instance, a horse that works well in short reins may not be as responsive in long reins. You will need to be observant and adjust your lessons accordingly.

In-hand work is an ideal training methodology to use when:

Starting a green or young horse

Restarting a horse that needs remedial training

Working a horse that needs therapeutic physical exercise and cannot be ridden

Keeping an older horse that shouldn't be ridden often-or at all-strong and fit

Keeping a horse trained and conditioned even when a trainer can't ride, perhaps due to injury

Demonstrating lateral exercises from the ground to a student in the saddle, so that the student can feel the horse's movement without being distracted by trying to give the correct aids (photos 1.1 A-D)

Giving variation to the training program of the horse (and trainer)

Warming up a saddled horse before riding

The ultimate goal of this groundwork is to help the horse attain lightness and self-carriage, where he is balanced on both sides of his body, moves straight in both directions on lines and curves, and is strong and supple. When he can sustain the optimal degree of collection, he will be able to support not only his own weight but carry yours correctly and efficiently, helping him stay sound over his lifetime and be an overall joy to ride.

- Benefits for the Horse and Handler

Mastering work in-hand contributes significantly to the horse's athleticism and the handler's expertise as a trainer.

Benefits for the Horse

In-hand exercises prepare a horse both physically and mentally to perform movements as requested in a timely and correct manner.

Physically, in-hand work improves the athleticism of any horse, any age, because it is gymnastic. For example, work on the longe line in easy, large circles strengthens and conditions the horse, providing a foundation of fitness and balance and thus enabling him to benefit from the more challenging short-rein and long-rein exercises. Carefully controlled lateral exercises (such as Yield to the "Leg," see p. 96) encourage the horse to stretch and bend on both sides of his body. The accumulated work of slow, progressive stretching and bending exercises give the horse flexibility and suppleness, and ultimately result in his ability to become truly straight for short periods. Plus, when you stretch his muscles slowly and over time as in my in-hand lessons, the horse is more physically comfortable during the exercises, creating positive experiences that lead to him welcoming such work in the future.

Mentally, a horse benefits from work in-hand because he understands he should be obedient to the handler's aids, which are essentially the same as those given from the saddle. When mounted, the horse will be familiar with the aids a rider employs. In addition, the horse learns to focus on progressively more challenging work.

Benefits for the Handler

Anyone can learn how to use in-hand work because the physical skills involved on the handler's part are basic. You must walk, sometimes jog beside the horse, and use simple physical coordination. This gives you an opportunity to improve your own physical condition and coordination while at the same time training your horse.

In this book, each new lesson builds on the one you have taught previously and prepares you for the one you will teach next, creating a smooth learning curve. In no time, you'll be progressing alongside your horse from the elementary to the advanced.


A horse's ability to carry himself well depends mainly on his lateral suppleness as well as the suppleness and strength of his back. Both of these are consciously addressed in all five types of work in-hand I describe. However, before you learn to use the lessons that improve lateral suppleness and back strength, it is important to understand the common problems specific to these areas.

- Lateral Suppleness

Every horse has a "stiff" side and a more "supple" side (we might say he is "right-" or "left-handed"). Typically, his stiff side is his left side. Horsemen's myths reason that the foal grows in his mother's womb curled to the left, or even that a horse's stiff side is the side where his mane naturally lays flat. Research in human genetics indicates that right-handedness and left-handedness is inherited, so it may be this way with horses, too. In addition, we may encourage stiffness on the left because we traditionally handle horses from that side.

Myths aside, when a horse obviously favors bending his neck and body in one direction-whether due to birth position, compensation for an injury, or having been trained or ridden incorrectly-he has actually contracted the muscles on this "bendable" side. It becomes stiff and tight, while at the same time, the other side of the horse is stretched and supple because it ends up doing most of the work. For instance, when your horse "favors" the left, and you ask him to bend right, the contracted muscles on his left side will have a difficult time complying. And if the horse is uncomfortable enough, he may evade bending to the right. When people say, "My horse won't take his right lead," in truth he probably can't take his right lead and keep the compensatory balance that he has developed over time. (See more about stiff and supple sides on p. 36.)

Note: A handler may find that he is more strongly left- or right-oriented than he realized (unless he is a dancer!), and discover that like the horse, he feels more awkward when working on one side of his body than the other. Learning work in-hand is an excellent opportunity for the one-sided handler to fine-tune his coordination.

-Suppleness and Strength of the Back

A horse at liberty naturally moves mostly on his forehand, unless he wishes, for example, to show off-any horse may demonstrate collection when prancing up to another horse to exchange greetings. A stallion will magnificently collect himself to impress a mare. However, these beautiful, natural moments of "self-carriage" are fleeting and do not require sustained strength.

It is a different matter for a horse in training. In order for a horse to carry himself, great amounts of strength and suppleness along the topline and torso are required.

In his book Tug of War: Classical Versus "Modern" Dressage (Trafalgar Square Books, 2007), author and veterinarian Dr. Gerd Heuschmann explains that a young horse (although this applies to any undeveloped or poorly trained horse) being ridden forward and downward correctly can carry himself and his rider for a short period using the nuchal ligament in his neck to raise his back and allow it to "swing." The notion of a "swinging" back is one that many of us are familiar with-we want our horse to exhibit a springy motion with each thrust off his hind legs transmitted through his topline by trunk muscles that actively contract and release, neither remaining rigid nor slack. However, Dr. Heuschmann goes on to say that after 15 to 20 minutes, the horse's neck mechanism tires, and he lifts his head and neck to relax those muscles. This causes his back to drop, and tense up under the burden of carrying his own weight and that of his rider.

When the back is tense, other muscle systems also tense. Under these conditions of tension, discomfort, and perhaps even spasm, the "swinging" sensation is lost and the rhythm of all the gaits suffers. Plus, the horse whose back is unprotected by a strong and supple musculature will almost certainly suffer spinal damage, because the spine takes all the weight of the rider's body and tack without support from the rest of his body.

The point is, a horse that does not have strong stomach muscles cannot contract them to raise his back, keep it supple, and eventually collect himself with a rider (photo 1.2). Short periods of work forward and downward may allow the back to raise temporarily, as described above, but until a horse is properly physically prepared, it is impossible to attain any semblance of collection. Here's where work in-hand can be of infinite value: Dr. Heuschmann states unequivocally that preparing a young horse as a riding horse requires one-and-a-half to two years of "solid, unspectacular gymnastic work"-over time, the significant suppling and strengthening achievable with work in-hand collects the horse from the ground providing an ideal foundation for safe, correct mounted work. A truly collected horse-one that has a strong, supple back and supportive stomach-is a pleasure to ride.


One must consider both the horse's physical state and mental disposition when determining whether he is capable of the groundwork exercises described in this book. Obviously, in the case of young horses, maturity is an issue. Do not attempt to longe a horse under two years old, and do not begin lateral work in-hand with a horse under three. I believe that work in-hand is an excellent place to start a young horse. However, the bending involved in longeing in circles, and the sideways movement required in lateral exercises, are severe on growing joints. I also feel that the amount of focus required for much of the work in-hand is really too much for the mind of a horse younger than three years.

One school of thought believes work in-hand should not be attempted before the horse can be ridden correctly in the same exercises. For some horses that might be true-for instance, a more excitable type of horse, and some stallions, can often be handled more easily from the saddle than on the ground. (A few of these horses will probably never be good candidates for work in-hand.) However, I believe the majority of horses can begin initial training on the longe line at two years old (only on large circles to prevent straining the joints and ligaments), and progress slowly and according to the individual's physical and mental development from there. Older horses in need of remedial training or extra conditioning work can begin work in-hand at any time. As always, the horse's health and soundness should be of primary concern when beginning and carrying out any training program.

In addition, anatomical issues require consideration when you begin work in-hand (or in fact any kind of horse training). Among the most important of these are (1) your horse's physical conformation and how that will affect his natural ability to collect himself, and (2) your horse's head and mouth conformation and how that will affect his ability to flex his poll and the bit(s) that are appropriate for him as together you progress through the work in-hand exercises.

- Conformation, Collection, and Flexion

The horse's conformation has a critical effect on his ability to collect himself. Collection always starts from behind-the flexing and lowering of the hindquarters that takes place makes it appear as if the forehand is "rising" as the horse bears more weight behind, counteracting the fact that horses naturally move on their forehand most of the time (see also p. 40).

Certain conformation exaggerates the natural tendency to move on the forehand. For instance, my stallion Picaro has a very heavy neck and a steep shoulder, so he naturally moves on his forehand and takes short steps. It is a challenge for him to bring his hindquarters under and shift his weight from front to back-he likes to stay on his forehand since it is easier for him.


Excerpted from "Horse Training In-Hand: A Modern Guide to Working from the Ground" by Ellen Schuthof-Lesmeister. Copyright © 0 by Ellen Schuthof-Lesmeister. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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