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In-hand work part 1. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

April 14, 2019

Winter time with its cold temperatures, snow, icy footing, and short daylight hours can make it difficult to work with your horse. Don’t feel guilty. There is nothing wrong with letting your horse have break. It may be beneficial for him physically and mentally to have a break from his regular workout (as long as he still gets some turnout).

However, if you are looking for things to do with your horse that keep you warm as well, there are lots of groundwork exercises you can do.

In this blog post, we are looking at the basics of in-hand work.


In-hand leading with the flexing hand position.Notice how the mare is almost leaning forward with a downhill appearance. This form of leading is great to help flex the horse down if it is high headed, but once the horse is relaxed you may switch to the second hand position. This mare is already relaxed and low. See next two photos.



In this photo the handler is using the whip and a lifting hand to ask the mare to lift up and shift her weight back.


In this photo you can see how the mare’s withers have come up and she is walking in a more natural topline for her. We would want her to walk in a more uphill balance for dressage.

There are two ways to lead the horse in-hand. The first way is our preferred way for working with young horses, problem horses, or horses that have a tendency to be high headed and need more boundaries. Start out by walking next to your horse’s shoulder, with the hand closest to the horse underneath his neck. Hold the rope like a rein, with your wrist turned so the thumb is level. The basic hand position is under the horse’s neck directly in line with the middle of the body in order to keep the horse’s neck straight and the head low without pulling. How to achieve this low relaxed position is further in the article. The second way to lead is to hold the rope from underneath with a slightly lifted feeling. The hand will be rotated so the thumb is turned up. This hand position works well for horses that are further along or that have a tendency to shift their weight forward onto the forehand. As you push forward with the whip you can lift the hand and ask the horse to lift through the withers. This sits his weight back to the hind end (the power end), where we will need them to be for any sport. With either method your belly button (core) should be facing straight ahead, in alignment with the centre of the horse’s chest. Imagine a railroad track, with you walking on the one track and the horse’s middle of the chest following the other track. The two tracks are always aligned (parallel or congruent). Hold the tail end of the rope in folds in your opposite hand. Do not hold it in loops for safety reasons.

You may choose to carry a dressage whip that can be used to encourage the horse forward.

Pick up contact on the lead rope, then ask the horse to take the first step before joining in. This will maintain the contact without you inadvertently pulling on the rope. It is important to work the horse from back to front by “pushing” the horse from the hind end into your receiving, never pulling hand.

Use the lead rope and the arm closest to your horse as a boundary so the horse doesn’t come into your space. Never pull on the rope or send pushing energy into the horse’s head or neck with your belly button, shoulders, hips or hands.

Maintain good contact and keep the horse straight or slightly bent around you.

Ensure that the horse is level headed and does not invert (high-headed with hollow back).


Hand position used to lift and shift the weight back to the hind end.

Flexing for stretching

If your horse’s head is high, you can ask him to lower it by gently flexing the lead rope. Roll your wrist in a “flat” figure eight movement so the thumb of the right hand points up when the hand slightly moves to the right and down when the hand moves to the left. This is done with correct diagonal timing with the horse’s front feet.

This is a great tool to stretch the horse’s topline and getting him to relax and feel good while being led.

If your horse is already low-headed, you do not need the flexing motion.


Flexing with the movement of the horse. The handler is flexing right as the mare steps with her right front. As she steps left the handler would then flex left. This is used to calm a horse and bring it down to a level topline.


Flexing down hand position to help the horse relax.

Timing of turns

Always initiate a turn when the horse is on the outside diagonal so that the horse is balanced and level headed during the turn. Diagonal timing in groundwork refers to the horse being on the correct outside diagonal front leg of whatever bend it is in so that he is balanced to do whatever turn the horse is asked to do.

For example, when turning left, ask the horse to turn when he is standing on his right outside front leg.

While turning right (leader on left side of horse), it is important to step ahead of the horse’s shoulder and around his head and neck (not into it). Before asking for a right turn, make sure the horse is in a right bend. Never bend a horse directly from left to right; always walk a few steps straight in-between.


Turning the horse balanced on the outside front leg.

Timing of use of the whip

The timing of the use of the whip is also based on the correct outside diagonal and is used for a “push” into the horse’s hips, shoulders or girth. The whip should only tap the horse as his barrel swings away from you.


Halting the horse should be done in three and a half steps.

Inhale and grow tall, then exhale, slow your movement, and if needed, half-halt with your back and core, before coming to a halt.

If the horse doesn’t stop, stay aligned with your horse (remember the train tracks!) and ask him for a turn on the forehand until he is willing to halt. We will talk about turns on the forehand in the next article.

Never force the horse to halt or stand still and also never pull on the lead rope.

If the horse tries to come in on top of you with his head, put up a block at the corner of his mouth, either with your hand holding the whip or with the knob of the whip.

In the next blog post, we will discuss turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches as well as introducing a horse to obstacles.

Pictures by Lisa Wieben. Handler: Jacklyn Hegberg with May, 12-year-old Warmblood mare.

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles that appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis. The articles are a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz.

Lisa Wieben is a versatile and exceptional riding coach, balancing her skills as a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Equine Canada Western Competition Coach, and Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer. Currently specializing in Western and English Dressage, she trains youth, adult amateurs, and professionals as well as coaching a local 4H group at her facility near Bowden/Olds, AB. Through dressage and foundational training she helps riders of all disciplines create stronger partnerships with their horses. Also, as a Hanna Somatic Instructor and Practitioner in Training, Lisa works with riders, in class or privately, learning movement exercises that target specific muscle issues in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and overuse. Her approach, using Dressage, Centered Riding, Irwin Insights principles, and Somatics, all come together to develop a balanced rider and a balanced horse.

Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, mentorship programs, intensive horsemanship courses, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, as well as working student programs at Falling Star Ranch Academy of Foundational Horsemanship in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language, biomechanics, as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage.

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