For many people, their riding and groundwork are almost two separate disciplines. Most people associate groundwork with natural horsemanship, which brings to mind images of rope halters and specialty whips. While those can be useful tools for certain people, classical dressage also has its own method of groundwork: the work in-hand.
While most people associate the work in-hand with airs above the ground and piaffe training, it starts much earlier than that. It even starts with foals! However, if your horse is an adult, it’s still not too late.
There are many benefits to the work in-hand. First, your horse learns to pay attention to you on the ground and to trust you. With clear communication on the ground, the horse always knows what you expect of him or her. Your handling of the horse becomes safer, as the horse is aware of your space and stays by your side, not ahead of you nor behind you. Your horse also becomes more maneuverable around tricky situations. By trusting you, the horse will also become less reactive. It is very intimate work that can develop a deeper, more compassionate relationship with your horse.
The second benefit is that you learn a lot about your horse’s body and how to fix the problems you find under saddle. Your horse will show you exactly how crooked it is when you attempt a straight line. By knowing how your horse moves, you can better improve its way of going. You can especially influence the walk by working in-hand. If your horse is a little lazy in the walk, you can encourage more forward energy. If he or she is a little rushed or tense, you can work on helping him or her become more relaxed. You can especially work on straightness and helping the horse find its balance. All of this through the simple beginning exercises of the work in-hand!
The third benefit is that you give the horse another “discipline” to practice. Cross-training is always important in riding, but if you follow classical principles, you’ll find that classical riding encompasses so much that you can cross-train without adding an entirely separate discipline. If you have struggled to add variety to your program, work in-hand is a great way to do so.
While special tools aren’t really needed in the beginning, they become useful later. Cavessons are especially helpful later on and can be used in many ways. Check out our previous post on the cavesson for more information on choosing and adjusting one: https://tempusrenatus.org/2020/10/05/selecting-and-fitting-the-cavesson/. I usually use a short (2m) line with a buckle end instead of a snap, but you can also use a regular flat longe line. Gloves and protective footwear are of course vitally important for safety.
A good in-hand whip also helps to make communication clearer. While you may not see these at local tack stores, they can be ordered online or through your tack store fairly easily. I’ve even found a perfectly useable in-hand whip at Tractor Supply! My favorite whips are Fleck and Doebert brand, which I’ve ordered online or through my tack store. To begin with, you want a whip that is relatively stiff to make your aids clear. You can begin with a halter and longe whip (with the lash held up so it doesn’t trail) while you wait on your cavesson and in-hand whip to arrive.
There is a bit of argument over side-reins. I personally like to have them for extra guidance for the horse, especially with mouthy youngsters and stallions. However, when adjusted too short, they can cause more problems than solutions. If you are on the fence whether you feel comfortable with side-reins or not, don’t use them. You can do a lot without them, and some people train their horses all the way to airs above the ground without them.
Once you have the basics established with your horse, there are two general “schools” of the work in-hand. One is the Viennese school, which uses the cavesson, in-hand whip, and side reins. This is very useful for developing the piaffe and airs above the ground, as you have a great deal of maneuverability around the horse. However, it is much more difficult to work on lateral movements. With side-reins, the horse also has less freedom in the neck unless you clip them on and off repeatedly, no matter how well they are adjusted. The other is the Iberian school, which uses just the regular bridle and reins and a dressage whip. This has the advantage of more freedom in the neck and freedom to work on lateral movements. However, you are a lot less maneuverable around the horse and have to stop to change positions.
There will be a video series on the work in-hand coming shortly, going from the beginnings all the way to the more advanced work. They will cover a step-by-step process from the beginning to the work in the separate techniques of work in-hand.
While it seems like groundwork and classical dressage are separate disciplines, there is actually an entire process in classical training dedicated to groundwork. It is a time-proven method for establishing good work on the ground that helps the work under saddle. It can benefit the horse in so many ways as well as be fun for horse and rider. If you’re looking for something special to do with your horse, give the work in-hand a try!