Ground work.

Welcome to Part 2 of the Unharnessed Potential project, an education and awareness campaign to promote the re-training and re-homing of Standardbreds that retire from racing. 

In this article series, Alistair McLean from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre is documenting the re-training process of ‘Ideal Guy’ (a.k.a Andy), a five-year-old Standardbred pacer that is making the journey from track-to-hack. 

Last month, Alistair discussed important aspects of settling a new horse into a property and establishing the new routines. This month, we begin the re-training.

All horses that arrive at the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre for any type of training are tested on their in-hand responses. The responses that we train in-hand lay the foundations for the under-saddle responses. 

It is very important for our own safety and the horse’s welfare that we train these responses clearly and ethically, making sure that our rules and aids under-saddle mimic those in-hand. Confused horses can be dangerous and this confusion typically derives from a lack of consistency in their training.

If we spend time training quality in-hand responses, we give ourselves a higher chance for success when establishing these responses under-saddle. Not only will we avoid the undesired behaviours that may come about in training, we will have aids in which we can suppress these behaviours.

How horses learn 

Before I begin to go through the basic responses to train in-hand, we must first look at the most relevant learning processes that we will use to teach Andy and the shaping scale that we use to get him there.

Classical conditioning 

Classical conditioning is a learning process whereby a previously unrelated cue/event becomes associated with a cue/event which occurs just after. (E.g. We can teach a horse a voice cue, such as ‘walk on’, by adding the voice cue immediately before our leg aid. The horse will soon pre-empt the leg pressure and walk on from our voice cue. )


Habituation is the process whereby the horse becomes accustomed to something they would normally want to move away or escape from, and ceases to react. For example, the pressure of the girth or other equipment.

Negative reinforcement (pressure-release)

Negative reinforcement is the most commonly used learning process in horse training. Negative reinforcement is also known as ‘pressure-release’ and refers to the removal of pressure when the horse gives the correct response. For example, softening or releasing the rein pressure when the horse has stopped.

The pressure motivates the horse to react and the release of pressure trains the response. It is important to note that the word ‘negative’ does not imply it is ‘bad’, it is merely the mathematical term for ‘subtraction’ or ‘removal’ (of pressure). Some people prefer to call it ‘removal reinforcement’.

Positive reinforcement 

Positive reinforcement makes a response more likely by adding something pleasant immediately after the desired response. For example, a scratch at the base of the wither or a food reward directly after a good halt transition will make the halt more likely.

The importance of timing 

It is the timing of signals and rewards within these learning processes that is most important. Incorrect timing is the most common cause of problem behaviours.

The Shaping Scale 

In conjunction with the correct application of these learning processes, we must also accept the fact that horses do not know what we expect of them. Therefore, it is vital that we use a ‘shaping scale’ with specific, clear targets for the horse to achieve.

We need to clearly communicate what we want and understand how to train it. If we make confusing signals, the horse’s probability to carry out an incorrect response dramatically increases, allowing behavioural issues to surface.

For example, using legs and hands simultaneously implies to the horse to ‘Go’ and ‘Stop’ at the same time. As it is impossible for the horse to make sense of such opposing signals, this may encourage the horse to trial a different response, such as rear or head toss. 

All of this can be avoided by training clear responses and using one aid at a time.

The Shaping Scale helps us stage our training to achieve small goals and progress until the responses are perfect. We begin at the bottom of the scale with ‘Basic Attempt’ and progress right through to ‘Proof’ with each response. 

At the AEBC, we do all the ground work or training in-hand in a simple snaffle bridle with a correctly-fitted cavesson noseband – one that is loose enough to allow for two fingers to be easily inserted between the noseband and the horse’s face at the nasal plane (see PDF).

Nosebands should never be tightened. We prefer to see the horse’s attempts to open his mouth as a tell-tale sign that their responses to our rein signals need further training and improvement. The mouth opening will cease when the horse is responding to light rein aids.

Ground Work: The basic responses in-hand 

Because Andy is going to be with us at the AEBC for a full six months, we worked on the basic in-hand responses without progressing to under-saddle work until we felt that all of his basic responses were at ‘Contact’ level in the Shaping Scale.

This can vary from horse to horse, but the typical time taken to achieve this is approximately one week. As Andy’s training develops, he will eventually progress to ‘Proof’ level in all responses.


Safety is the number one priority for horse and rider/handler, which is why, when we work with re-trainers, we tend to focus on the ‘Stop’ response before any other response.

The ‘Stop’ response is crucial when re-training, as it is the simplest way to get a horse under stimulus control, which makes him or her safe to handle. By stimulus control we mean that the horse responds consistently to the light version of the aid.

Although Andy is generally calm by nature, he can still make mistakes and, after all, it is only by us correcting the horse when he makes mistakes that the horse learns. 

When a horse’s flight response engages, they almost always run forwards. The flight response is magnified when the horse increases the distance and speed from the object or aid. This makes the ‘Stop’ response fundamental in our training as it is the only way we can slow a horse’s legs and, as a result, diminish the expression of the flight response. If we can control a horse’s legs (the tempo, stride length and line), we can manage the horse’s flight response.

We teach ‘Step-back’ before teaching ‘down a gait’ because the biomechanical reaction (how the horse uses his body) when he steps backwards is the same as when he slows down, so teaching ‘Step-back’ trains slow/down gait at the same time.

Neck shortening is something we want to avoid as it causes confusion within the ‘Stop’ response.

In Andy’s particular case, his reaction to the ‘Step-back’ rein aid was to shorten his neck before stepping back with his legs. Rather than put more pressure on the bit, I tapped his front leading leg (on the front of the cannon bone) with a whip the moment before he began to shorten his neck to encourage him to ‘step-back’ his legs. I repeated this until he would back from a light aid with no neck shortening. When Andy stepped backwards, the pressure was immediately released to show him he was correct.

Pressure with both reins on the bit must always mean slow/shorten the legs. Anything else, such as neck-shortening and roundness, adds confusion to the response. ‘Roundness’ should not be viewed as a response, but rather as a shaped quality of the ‘Turn’ response. It will develop at a later stage as a result of flexion, mostly through improving turns as the horse progresses through the Shaping Scale.

This table (see PDF) shows the ways in which to apply the aids for the ‘Stop’ response. It also shows the contrast between slower and shorter strides; however it is not that important to train this difference in-hand at this stage, but if you can it will make it easier under-saddle. 

Using positive reinforcement in combination with negative reinforcement speeds up the learning process. Whilst negative reinforcement, if applied consistently, produces a secure horse, positive reinforcement can help build rapport with your horse. A scratch at the base of the whithers is a great way to reward horses both in-hand and under-saddle as it is quick and easy to apply, and the horse finds it relaxing.

The timing of positive reinforcement is very important when trying to reward the correct behaviour. The reward cannot be any more than two seconds after the desired behaviour; otherwise the horse won’t be able to associate it to the behaviour and you risk rewarding the wrong thing (an alternative is to use a marker, such as a clicker, but the reward must still follow as closely as possible to the ‘click’).

A classic example of incorrect positive reinforcement is when people give their horse a treat at the end of a good training session to say “well done, you have done a good job”. The horse cannot possibly associate this reward with their behaviour, so it would have been far more effective to reward the horse immediately after every correct response. I think it’s very important with horses like Andy, who have been harnessed when worked, to learn about touch in these early stages before I begin to make the transition to bareback training, so I use plenty of whither scratches as my rewards in addition to the release of pressure.

The ‘Stop’ responses are all trained using both reins in the same motion as we would under-saddle, so even though we may have spent a little longer doing the ground work, it will save a lot of time and will be a lot safer in the long-term.


Once your horse has learnt the ‘Stop’ responses, it is time to teach ‘Park’. Teaching ‘Park’ is one of the best tools for a re-trainer. It is both good training and convenient to be able to walk around your horse without him moving or following you. Allowing the horse to follow you can become quite confusing as there are too many variables to this as an aid, so we teach the horse to stand still until asked otherwise.

Many people don’t see the point in training ‘Park’ as they like that their horse follows them. It is a nice feeling (it makes us feel like they want to be with us!). However, it breaks most of the other rules we have set up in our training. We are far better off teaching them to walk on by a lead aid.

Another great reason to train ‘Park’ is that horses can become very tense when tied up if they are used to following their trainer, but are suddenly held back. The same goes for horses in floats when they are locked up and can no longer follow. Pawing their feet is a sign that they need or want to move, and the reason they need to move could be the fact that they don’t know they are supposed to stand still. If we train these horses to ‘Park’ until signalled to move, they are clear on what is expected of them.

Training ‘Park’ is very simple. The rule is he must not move unless told otherwise. If he goes to take a step forward, then he should be stepped back immediately, using either a rein aid or a whip-tap on the leg that stepped forward. 

Using a long dressage whip is helpful, so that you can correct his mistake from a further distance without having to step forward – we want to avoid our legs being the signal to ‘step-back’ so, where possible, lean toward him and tap his leg to correct him, rather than step towards him. Repeat this until he can stand still until given an aid to move. Any forwards or sideways movement can be stepped back, so correct him and test ‘Park’ again.


To lead and ride a horse forwards is at the heart of every equestrian discipline. A correct ‘Go’ response produces a confident horse. The typical aid in-hand is forwards pressure on the reins or lead rein.

All horses beyond the very early stages of training easily understand that lead rein pressure means step forwards, however, the quality of the response may need improving. To improve the response we can train a whip-tap on the rib cage (where the rider’s leg would lie) as a signal to ‘Go’ forward in-hand.

When it comes to our horse’s reaction to the whip-tap (or the leg aids under-saddle), it is important to never confuse lightness with the horse being scared.

The ‘Go’ aid from the lead rein is simple, however, the ‘Go’ aid from the whip allows for a greater chance of making training mistakes.

Before you train the whip as a light aid, you should be able to rub the whip over the horse’s ribcage and rest it against any part of his body without getting a response. Contact of the whip then becomes ‘neutral’ and it is only the tap that elicits a response.

I suggest training your horse’s ‘Go’ response from the whip-tap by positioning the horse against a wall. This will minimise the possibility of him moving sideways, away from the whip, and increases the chance of him producing a forward response. As with all negative reinforcement, when using a whip, timing the release (when you stop tapping and rest the whip on the horse’s body) is crucial. It is also important to start with a light, uniform tap, so as not to startle your horse, and allow him the opportunity to respond to the light aid.

Whip-shy horses 

Many Standardbreds are whip-shy, including Andy, so although they have a quick reaction to the whip, it is not always a correct reaction. If your horse is whip-shy, like Andy, then follow these steps to overshadow their fear (a desensitisation technique) before training ‘Go’ from the whip. Overshadowing is a technique whereby one stimulus competes with another in producing a response. The response that wins (or produces the correct behaviour) will overshadow the incorrect behaviour.

  1. Stand your horse in a safe area beside a wall and ensure your ‘Go’ and ‘Stop’ responses from the lead rein are light and obedient.
  2. Move your whip slowly towards the horse until you notice his first point of tension.
  3. Begin stepping your horse backward a step, then forward a step, then backward a step and so on. You will notice that his responses become heavy as his focus is on the whip. At this point you should hold the whip where the tension begins, and increase the pressure of the ‘Stop’/’Go’ aids that he becomes heavy to until he responds. Repeat this until you have your horse responding obediently to your light rein aids. By doing this you are overshadowing his response (fear) to the whip.
  4. Keep bringing the whip closer in stages, making sure that your horse is still responding to the light aids at every stage. You should, by the end of this, be able to rub the whip over his body. 

When you can do this, you can start to re-train his responses from the whip. Make sure you only tap him lightly as they can now tolerate the whip, but could still be sensitive. The key now to produce soft transitions from the whip is to do high repetitions with a lot of positive reinforcement. Each time you release the whip-tap pressure (stop tapping), place the whip back on his side, so that he continues to understand that the whip resting means nothing.

The ribcage is the spot we use in-hand for ‘Go’ as it makes it easier for the horse to associate that pressure in this area means ‘Go’ when under-saddle. It is dangerous to sit on a horse, and just kick and wait for your horse to trial something. Most will trial the wrong response before the right one, so a far better way is to squeeze lightly with your legs, and if he does not make this association as the pressure increases, we can add a light tap with the whip, which he already knows from our ground work. Via classical conditioning, he will quickly learn the squeeze with the legs means ‘Go’.

The table below (see PDF) details the aids for the ‘Go’ response. Remember, at this stage it is not necessary to train the difference between faster and longer in-hand as this can be just as easily done under-saddle. However, if you feel you can, it will give you extra control.


Horses generally learn ‘Turn’ purely by the handler applying forward lead-rein pressure slightly to the side, but some horses do not ‘Turn’ easily from the lead-rein and may require training to ‘Turn’ using the whip tap on the shoulder.

The shoulder is also a very easy place to tap under saddle for when it’s time to train or improve the ‘Turn’ response.

I suspect that Andy, like most Standardbreds, only had a limited degree of ‘Turn’ practice due to the constriction of the harness and gig shafts, and may have often practiced neck-bending without turning with his legs.

Being able to elicit the ‘Turn’ with a whip-tap on the shoulder will make it easier to teach him to open his inside shoulder (abduct his front legs) through the ‘Turn’, instead of swinging his hindquarters or bending his neck. Turning of the hindquarters should never happen as a result of a rein aid. This always leads to major issues later on in training. The reins control the font legs and the rider’s legs (or whip in-hand) control the hind legs.

Equally important is not allowing them to bend their neck before turning their legs – lateral flexion is a shaped quality of the turn response, which will come later, as he progresses through the Shaping Scale under-saddle. At AEBC, we never train neck bending because adding another response to a single trained aid means that he now has two possible responses to offer the same aid and this will only confuse the horse.

Training your horse to ‘Yield’ his hindquarters is useful in many aspects of training. Horses who move away from the mounting block can really benefit from this, but this is not the real reason I will be focusing on ‘Yield’ so much with Andy. Andy’s pacing habit was very consolidated, so we decided to attempt to teach him to trot from a new approach – yielding. Yielding is not possible in a gait like the pace, however, it is very possible in trot as it requires the legs to move as a diagonal pair. We will be looking at how we are teaching Andy to trot instead of pace in later articles. 

Now that Andy has learnt and consolidated all the basic responses in-hand, I am ready to begin his ridden work.

The fact that I have taught Andy all of this means that the next phase of training will be less stressful, as he already understands a lot of the aids in a way that is easy to transfer to training under-saddle. The only thing he needs to do is habituate to the saddle pressure and the rider on his back, which will be done very gradually – minimising stress and danger.

We may have spent a long time on this initial stage of training in-hand, but it is time well spent that will make this next stage much quicker than any other method of re-training, whilst also producing a safer, happier and more reliable horse.

Don’t miss the next part of the series where we will show you the backing process and initial stages of Andy working under-saddle.

Click here to read Part 1: Settling in.

To find out more about the project click here.

The Unharnessed Potential Project is possible thanks to the following sponsors – Australian Equine Behaviour Centre | Greg Grant Saddlery | NRG Team | Harness Racing Australia | Southern Cross Horse Transport | Advanced Equine Dentistry | The Barefoot Blacksmith | Raising the Standards | Kilmore Equine Clinic | Manuka Haylage | Horses and People Magazine | Strong Step Hoof Care | Kompeet to Win