Creative Groundwork for Your Horse

Incorporate creative obstacles into your groundwork to advance your horse's training, using these tips from master clinician Clinton Anderson.

Looking for a training approach that’s pure fun? Try longeing over obstacles. Build on my longeing for respect skills to keep your horse happily engaged as you further his training.

Longeing over obstacles enables you to:

  • Fine-tune your horse’s responsiveness. You’ll sharpen his willingness and obedience, plus develop his athleticism, as well.
  • Avoid boredom. Ground work, though essential, can get repetitive. Bright young horses, especially, can become bored and resentful. These techniques give a purpose to your ground work (your horse is actually doing things rather than just moving around). This keeps training sessions interesting for you both, and sharpens your horse’s cognitive abilities.
  • Test your leadership skills. The challenge of obstacles will point out any weaknesses in your longeing for respect skills.
  • Improve your horse’s trail-readiness. Many of the obstacles your horse will master are the same or similar to what he’ll encounter out on the trail.
  • Strengthen the bond between the two of you. As your horse conquers new challenges, he’ll learn he can always depend on you to “steer him right” and keep him safe.

Best of all, the positive gains you’ll be making through creative groundwork will make your horse more trusting, willing and obedient under saddle, as well.

And don’t think this sort of work is only for jumpers or trail horses. The filly we used in this photo shoot from summer 2004 is Sparkles Likea Whiz, a Topsail Whiz/Shining Spark-bred reining prospect I sold later in the year for $32,000 at the National Reining Horse Association 2004 Breeders Showcase Sale. Yes, she’s bred to be a champion, but it sure didn’t hurt that she had the responsiveness and mental alertness that this kind of training develops.

I’m going to show you how to develop these qualities in your own horse by sending him over and through a variety of obstacles, including cavalletti, logs, ditches and a small dirt mound. You can create these obstacles, or devise others (using water? brush? bridges?) depending on the materials and landscape features you have available. Be creative with it–and have fun.

To Get the Most from this Lesson

  • Prepare the course in advance. Use the natural features of your surroundings (small hills, ditches, logs) and/or create obstacles for your horse to negotiate. Make sure the obstacles are horse-safe (e.g. no sharp edges or protruding nails, etc.) and the footing surrounding them is good.
  • Outfit your horse in a rope halter with a lead or a longe line that’s at least 23 feet long. I prefer my own halters, which have extra knots on the noseband for improved responsiveness, but any of the stiffer rope halters will do. You’ll also need a training stick with lash or a longe whip.
  • Prepare your pupil. Before you attempt any obstacles, warm up with my “longeing for respect” to get your horse settled and focused on you.
  • Be even-handed. Wherever possible, longe in both directions over or through an obstacle.
  • Stay safety-conscious. Position yourself always away from your horse’s hindquarters to avoid the possibility of a kick.
| Photos by Darrell Dodds

1. After you’ve warmed up with some basic “longeing for respect,” start with the obstacle you think your horse will find the most inviting. If the obstacle is one to be jumped, like this ditch, then put your horse on a longe circle at a trot a comfortable distance away from the obstacle. Then gradually move his longe circle over so that the arc of the circle leads directly to the obstacle. If your horse wants to stop and inspect things, as mine is here, allow him to do so. Then send him around again…

2. …and encourage him to jump by lifting the line and gently moving the stick or whip. If he’s reluctant to do so, use an approach-and-retreat sequence. In other words, move the longe circle away from the ditch for a few revolutions, then bring it gradually closer (without actually asking him to jump it), then draw it back again. Continue in this manner until your horse becomes matter-of-fact about the ditch, then align the circle’s path with the ditch again and ask him to jump. Be patient, reassuring and persistent.

3. For many horses, trotting over cavalletti is the easiest way to start obstacle training. Begin with poles on the ground, set about three or four feet apart; later elevate the poles slightly with blocks or bricks, as I have here. Use the same approach-and-retreat system as before, allowing your horse to stop and sniff if he chooses. If you continue to send him forward with encouragement and energy, he’ll eventually trot right over the poles, as my filly is here.

4. After the cavalletti, try a small upright jump, like this two-foot log obstacle with a long wing. (In general, jumps that look solid and stable will be the most inviting.) Gradually bring the longe circle closer to the wing, until eventually your horse is trotting over the end of it. Then move in a few inches with each revolution, until your horse is jumping the horizontal log of the obstacle, as my filly is here. As your horse becomes more experienced jumping, you can add even more challenging obstacles, such
as a large log.

5. Use the same method to encourage your horse over a small hill or mound of dirt…

6. …or into a shallow trench. For obstacles such as these, you can ask your horse to approach the first time at either a walk or a trot.

Team Horse & Rider’s Clinton Anderson regularly travels around the country, presenting horsemanship clinics and headlining at horse expos.

This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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