TRAINING from the Ground Up


Canadian Horse Journal - September 2014

When my Anglo-Arab mare Fari was a feisty three-year-old, she developed a frustrating habit of being balky and refusing to go forward. Firmer pressure from aids resulted in her rearing or backing up. Many frustrating rides resulted in having to lead her home. And that led to a re-think and a return to foundation training starting with ground work.

Working from the ground is a sensible way to get started with training so long as basic safety guidelines are followed. Ground work will help start a young horse, improve one that has developed bad traits, assist an older horse returning to work after sickness, injury or lameness, or assess one that has been recently purchased and whose behaviour is still relatively unknown.

Ground driving, interchangeably called long-lining, will teach him to yield to rein pressure in various gaits, halt, and back up obediently. It is an ideal low stress way to build on the animals strength, flexibility, and coordination without the interference of a rider's weight. And it will allow the trainer to critically view the animal's way of going and to assess subtle signs of soreness on either the left or the right rein.

"The best value of long-lining for young horses is how quickly they develop boldness and problem solving skills," says trainer Judy Newbert. "In a few short weeks they go from being led everywhere (quite dependent) to going forward into the unknown by themselves. Their leader is now behind them which is a very large step for a young horse. You can quickly see the new maturity and boldness as the young horse goes out on his own and his confidence in handling problems goes up very quickly with a number of good experiences. This is essential if the horse is going to function effectively outside an arena. He has to be able to handle situations out in the real world."

Judy Newbert is a rider (and a side saddle equestrian), driver, trainer, instructor, and judge in Calgary, Alberta. She is also a harness designer and maker, and she is skilled at training horses in ground driving.

The method essentially consists of steering the horse from behind or slightly to one side. The driver urges the horse on and adjusts her position with respect to the horse to keep contact with the horse's mouth and to provide guidance as to direction and intent.

"The position slightly to one side of the horse gives the driver the advantage if the horse suddenly tries to run because you can circle him when you may not be able to stop him using muscle power alone from directly behind him," said Newbert. "The position slightly to one side also reassures the horse if he is not wearing blinkers and moves you out of the area where you may be kicked. Whether the horse wears blinkers or not is mainly determined by whether or not I am rehabilitating a driving horse or starting a youngster. All the youngsters start out in an open bridle and those for driving do eventually get long lined in blinkers but they all start open. If I am working a driving horse that has developed problems I usually keep the blinkers on since the problem we are solving has occurred with the blinkers on."

One of the greatest benefits for both the horse and the rider/driver is that problems can be solved that are otherwise difficult to solve from the saddle or the carriage seat, such as a horse suddenly running backward, rearing, or spinning to avoid something.

"These horses can be difficult to ride through situations like these and virtually impossible to drive through these situations without upsetting the cart or carriage," she said.

Higher level dressage work in long-lines is impressive, and requires fitness and stamina. This dressage demonstration by one of Germany's Cede Stallions at a recent Spruce Meadows Masters thrilled the audience.

A major benefit of ground driving for both horse and rider is that problems can be solved more easily and safely than when under saddle or harnessed to a carriage.

Ground driving allows young horses to quickly develop problem solving skills, maturity, and boldness.

"Because of the risk of upsetting the vehicle, some drivers cannot solve these problems without resorting to long lines. By removing the horse from being ridden or driven (and putting him on) long lines, you modify the situation enough that you may be able to solve a problem. Horses that have taken up balking or rearing because they have been asked to pull carriages that are too heavy will benefit most from a step back and start over approach. The greatest benefit to the youngster is (the confidence) to go forward without a leader, and to handle situations they have not been exposed to before. Each successful encounter builds confidence and results in a forward and bold horse. Calm, straight, and forward are all qualities we want to develop in (both) the young horse and often the older horse that has developed problems in those three characteristics."

The essential equipment are long lines, a surcingle, riding saddle or driving saddle (something to guide the lines through), a cavesson, halter, or bridle with a snaffle bit (for the long lines to attach to), and a whip (to reinforce your voice aids). 

Ground driving should be started in a secured arena or possibly a round pen on an even footing devoid of any obstacles.

Essential safety equipment for the handler includes a helmet, well-fitting, non-slip shoes or boots, and gloves. 

The handler should be fit and alert and ready to move quickly and safely to counter an unplanned movement by the horse. 

A whip is an essential tool to be used as guidance not punishment, and should only be carried once the horse is used to it. If the horse has not been exposed to a whip or, worse, is fearful of it, then time must be taken to build the horses confidence around whip use. An assistant with a lead shank should be nearby if needed.

Ideally, the end game is to work with the horse without a leader, but in the early stages a helper is necessary for a short period of time. 

Depending on preference, the long lines can be joined at the driver's end, or not. If they are joined it is easier to pick up a dropped rein, but there is a risk of a hand or leg becoming entangled. If they are not joined, it is harder to pick up a rein if dropped, but the risk of entanglement is lessened. If the reins are joined, Newbert cautions that it should be done with a light piece of string that will break in the event an accident happens and the driver is dragged.

When using either a Western or English saddle, the stirrups should hang naturally but be secured with a piece of soft rope or strapping under the horse's ribcage so that they do not swing outward. 

The long lines are used as reins when ground driving. Their length varies from 8 metres (26 feet) to 11 metres (36 feet) depending on the task at hand, the horse's size, nature and needs, and the handler's capability and goals.

The important thing is that a handler must be at a sufficient distance from the rear of the horse to avoid being kicked. The line should be folded, not coiled, and the handler must not have too much line in hand or it may become tangled or dropped. A line on the ground can coil around a foot, causing a handler to be dragged if the horse runs. It takes time to learn how to hold the lines safely, while holding the whip at the same time.

The lines are threaded from behind and through the stirrup, and brought forward to attach to the bit ring. The remainder of the line extends directly behind the horse. If a surcingle is used, the lines pass through the rings at the midway point between the withers and the undercarriage.

"If using a harness saddle, the reins should be run through the tugs loops (where the shafts would ordinarily go)," said Newbert. "I normally do not use the upper terrets on the surcingle of the driving saddle because you lose control of the horse's hindquarters. I would not long line a bad

[The driver is positioned slightly to one side of the horse, which makes the horse easier to circle if he tries to run, and moves the driver out of kicking range. Being able to see the driver is also reassuring to the horse. The driver is positioned slightly to one side of the horse, which makes the horse easier to circle if he tries to run, and moves the driver out of kicking range. Being able to see the driver is also reassuring to the horse]

rearer with a saddle because the saddle may be causing the problem and I want to go back to absolutely 'first principles."'

Typically the horses that Newbert long lines have come through lungeing, then double lungeing (lungeing with two lines on the circle), then long-lining. Without these steps, it will be necessary to accustom the horse to the feel of the lines along his sides and the requirement that he lead ahead of the driver. The horse of course needs to be familiar with the girth and the saddle if that is the chosen equipment, and he must be willingly obedient to voice commands.

"With Fari, I found she adapted very quickly, not only to the voice but my body language and positioning as well. If I took one step toward the back or the side she would move forward with her inside ear pricked sideways to listen to commands. I began with no more than 10 minutes on each side when lungeing. I ground drive about 30 minutes per session to start, increasing to an hour as the horse becomes more accustomed to the work and we venture further afield - often out of the arena or ring," said Newbert. "High level dressage work on long lines requires fitness that may take many sessions to achieve. Canter work particularly is quite intensive and higher level work - piaffe, passage, or pirouettes, should be done for short periods only, with the horse rewarded for good work or even a good try by stopping work and putting him away. Also, any horse that goes through water or some other hazard he is scared of for the first time is immediately stopped, rewarded, and put away. The danger of overtraining is very real, especially with advanced moves or when solving serious problems. One good accomplishment or one good try is reason to reward and put the horse away."

Newbert said that the best use of long reins is in a situation where the horse is dangerous to the rider or driver. For example, a dangerous situation is when a horse will not cross water and, when pressed to go forward, either rears or spins, endangering the rider or the stability of the cart.

"Horses that rear have not properly understood the command to move forward and this must be addressed before they are ridden or driven again. They are the most dangerous to try to reform and the most likely to reoffend. The use of long lines for these horses - especially if it is continued until the horse is over the habit - can be effective for these problems. (But) if the long-lining is terminated too soon, it is likely the horse will reoffend."

The most difficult problem Newbert had on long reins was a Grand Prix dressage horse that had started swinging his haunches badly during flying changes. The rider and several other trainers attempted to correct him but things deteriorated into using the spur to stop him. Because of this, he was no longer doing the changes as he anticipated the spur on the opposite side from the requested change, and was becoming progressively more panicky. She put the horse on long lines and worked with him doing the changes off a voice aid and a change of direction only. Gradually she could get him doing controlled changes but still with the swing. She then used the long lines to help control his hindquarters and his balance.

"The long lines helped keep his haunches straight by putting pressure on his face. I had to go back to the lungeing cavesson for steering when he deviated too much and he figured out how to avoid that pressure on his face. Gradually he went back to flying changes both calmly and correctly without the swinging. The longest part of the "fix" was convincing him that his rider was not going to misuse the spur during the changes. For over three months, his rider rode flying changes only on the long lines without using the legs at all. We were gradually able to reintroduce the legs and finally the spur. (But) use of the spur at all during the changes often caused him to revert and he was never really completely reliable in the flying changes again."

She was more successful schooling a horse that would not cross water and would rear or kick to avoid doing so. Removing the cart and introducing the horse properly to water solved the problem with much less risk to the driver and equipment.

"These re-training situations have been most successful and the horses were reliable in going through all sorts of water and most even learned to like it," she said. "Retraining the driver is also required in these situations because the driver often tenses when approaching the water and the horse gets tense because the driver is tense."

When used correctly, ground driving can help a horse move forward safely and effectively in its training to become a reliable and safe mount or horse in harness.

For more information, visit Judy Newbert's website at