You may not think of it this way, but even the act of leading your horse around the ring is considered groundwork. There are many levels to it, from lungeing and long-reining to in-hand upper-level dressage work such as piaffe or passage, to liberty and agility work.

But no matter what you call it or how you do it, groundwork plays a pivotal role in establishing a strong foundation for both the horse and the handler. This practice involves working with a horse from the ground using a variety of exercises to build trust, establish communication, and develop a solid partnership. While riding is a crucial aspect of equestrian pursuits, groundwork serves as the fundamental building block that sets the stage for a positive and cooperative relationship between horse and rider.

We’ve turned to Canadian dressage rider and trainer Nicole Stella, who trained with the late Jon Costin and most recently with American Catherine Haddad Staller. During a stint in Germany, while working as a rider and groom for Haddad Staller, Stella had the opportunity to learn from some of Europe’s top trainers including Johann Hinnemann, Anja Engelbart, and Morten Thomsen. In 2020 she returned to Canada where she now operates Nicole Stella Dressage in Campbellville, Ontario.

Stella takes us through what, how, and why of groundwork and gives us two starter exercises for you to try with your horse or pony.

HORSE CANADA: What is groundwork and what are its benefits?

NICOLE STELLA: Groundwork allows us to slowly introduce the concept of work to a horse of any age. With the right tools you can teach them from the ground how to tune in to their rider/handler. This could be starting a young one, or restarting from an injury, or even as a refresher for a more advanced horse.

Groundwork allows you to apply positive pressure in an environment that is safe for both horse and rider. Teaching a young horse to yield from your hand placed against its side is much safer and easier to understand than sitting on them with your heel dug into their side. It allows them to learn about your personal space; when you lead them to and from a paddock, are they basically walking on your heels or are they aware of your “bubble” and therefore walking obediently beside you?

It can help them learn how to focus on you and solely you when you get into stressful situations, such as a horse show, where you can incorporate little cues, allowing you to de-escalate them in the warm-up ring.

Why and when do you incorporate groundwork when you’re training your dressage horses?

The why for me is as simple as this: we strive for connection and contact throughout our horses’ riding careers, and hopping on an uneducated horse with a bit in his mouth isn’t my favourite activity. I use my groundwork in their two-year-old year to teach them about personal space. Leading them forward, halting, reversing. It almost becomes a game; they should eventually wait on your every move.

Once you introduce tack and lunging, they then need to understand what the bit means in their mouth. Basic pony club teaches “left rein turns left” and vice versa. In dressage, we look for a round topline and even pressure stepping into the bit, and essentially our hands. A three-year-old has an easier time understanding that on the ground than having a rider sit there and kick him forward, because we are teaching them to respond positively to the pressure we apply from our reins without the interference of a rider.

Lastly, groundwork will change the game for your in-hand work. Piaffe begins from the halt, the lift of one hind leg, then the next, which eventually turns into the ever desired “bounce.”

As for when I use groundwork, I apply it in many situations from a freshly-started horse to an upper-level one. There is never a wrong time to incorporate it. Once, when I was injured, rather than sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I worked with them from the ground. I had horses that didn’t want to move forward under saddle, but on the lunge line I taught them how to move forward willingly without chasing them, mainly because a knee brace and crutches will keep you in one spot! I had them yielding from pressure from two fingers, so that when I got back on, the tip of my spur was all I needed – no forced pressure. I had them walking around the arena (when I was ready to do so) in a nice connection, halting square by just a cluck of my tongue.


A woman holding two horses.

Nicole Stella and two of her ‘students’. (ATHVK photo courtesy Nicole Stella)

Nicole’s Starter Groundwork Exercises

Exercise #1

1. For a young horse, or restarting a horse, walk them into the arena in a rope halter with a lead, and carry a whip/stick.
2. Stand beside your horse with your horse’s nose parallel to your shoulder.
3. Walk forward, keeping your horse approximately whip-length away from you at all times.
4. Halt, ensuring their nose remains at your shoulder and whip-length away; don’t let them lean their shoulder into your “bubble.”
5. Think about walking towards the mirrors in the arena (or any line in front of you), horse on the right. As your horse halts beside you, turn to face your horse’s head or shoulder, keeping the space between you. As you walk towards your horse, they should back up or sideways, yielding from your body language. Your whip/stick can assist you in teaching them to rein back.
6. In any groundwork, we look for the horse to chew or lick their lips, demonstrating relaxation and submission. This work should be rewarded with a pat and verbal praise and a walk in a circle “to do nothing.” Let them know they did well! I always say if I can make my high-strung Dutch horse look like a Quarter Horse in a rope halter, I must be doing something right!

Exercise #2

Once you get the first exercise mastered, you can yield your horse on a circle by applying pressure to where your leg would sit to emulate a leg yield. You are looking for the horse to turn its heads towards you, but yield their inside hind leg IN FRONT OF the outside hind leg. This is an excellent exercise for older horses that are stuck in their hips, making lateral work a chore. This is also a hidden gem because you can utilize this exercise in stressful situations to regain their focus. A stressed horse usually will object you touching their sides, so you can turn them into a circle, yield their hind legs away and watch them breathe out and start to chew. This can be a life saver in a busy warm-up ring!