7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 1, start and stop

In hand work (also known as ‘hand work’) is a fantastically useful technique to allow you to work your horse without being on his back.

Reasons to use hand work might be:

  1. you are unable to ride, for whatever reason (physical issues – you or your horse, saddle issues, or Covid 19 restrictions!)
  2. you have a young horse, and his fitness limits the amount of time you ride him each week.
  3. you want to increase your horse’s strength, especially his hind quarters
  4. you want to improve your horse’s understanding of reactions to your aids
  5. you want to develop a closer, trusting relationship with your horse
  6. you want to do something different some days, rather than drill the same ridden work

The end result of this work is to teach your horse to piaffe in hand, but as in riding, where not every combination will make it to Grand Prix, it is the journey – education and relationship benefits – that should be your goal.

The starting point sounds – and is – very simple: teach your horse to start and stop.

Doing this correctly, however, takes far more understanding than you might at first appreciate.


  • A bridle – do not attempt this in a headcollar or cavesson (unless your horse is very respectful of half halts on the cavesson – this will be covered in later posts)
  • Gloves
  • Sturdy footwear – not trainers. You may get trodden on.
  • A long whip – a hand work whip should be around 5′ / 155cm long, and with a small tassel on the end. If you do not have access to one, an old lunge whip, preferably without the lash, can be used. Only use a schooling whip if it is VERY long – you don’t want to be in reach of the hind legs, and remember, your horse can kick forward and sideways, as well as backward. We don’t plan on irritating him into kicking, but some sensitive horses will do so anyway.

Understand body language

A large part of successful in hand training depends on your body language.

  • HAVE PATIENCE – this close-up work will either build or destroy trust, depending on how you approach it. A horse needs time to learn, and a frightened horse (if you rush things) will not learn – he might do what you ask out of fear, but it will never become a trusting response.
  • you need to learn to walk backwards with confidence and balance
  • stand up tall, with an open chest to indicate confidence and control
  • you must stand close to your horse, beside and just behind his head, or very near.
  • to invite him forward, you should step slightly back away from him, with a slight forward indication on the reins
  • to stop him, you will stop moving forward and allow his head to pass you slightly, so you will be alongside his neck, just in front of his shoulder. Keep facing the tail, and make small half halts (vibrations) on the reins

Holding the reins

Hold the reins like this, separated by a finger or two, and with the heel of your hand closer to the bit. This is an appropriate length of rein for this basic work.

Using the whip

  • the whip is only there to be used as an aid, never as a punishment.
  • to ask your horse to move forward, keep the whip level with the ground, and touch your horse lightly on the flank
  • when you ask him to stop, DROP the whip down so it points towards the ground

Start and Stop

These are the basics of all hand work – think about how you teach this to a foal or young horse when leading. You need your horse to move when you ask, and stop when you ask, otherwise you have no relationship, and any handling can become dangerous, so this is lesson #1.

Walk on:

  1. start with your horse alongside a fence – this makes the controls easier as your horse cannot swing his bottom away from you
  2. position yourself as described above, standing beside his head, facing his tail. You need to be quite close, hence the necessity for decent footwear
  3. raise the whip until it is horizontal with the ground, and pointed towards the rear of his flank
  4. take half a step backward, or incline your body in that direction, to invite him to step towards you
  5. at the same time, touch him gently on the flank with the whip
  6. use a voice command if necessary (say ‘walk on’), although this will quickly become unnecessary as he starts to pick up on your inviting body language
  7. allow him to walk forward a few steps, keep walking backward yourself, and keep the whip horizontal. There is no need to touch him again unless he tries to stop


  1. drop the point of the whip until it is touching the ground
  2. stop walking, and/or incline your body slightly forward towards his rear end
  3. use small half halts (repeated vibrations) on the reins
  4. use a voice command (whoa, stop, halt, trill) at first, until he understands
  5. he may walk slightly past you, just make sure you are no further back than around the mid-point of his neck when he halts
  6. if he doesn’t stop immediately, keep repeating the aids until he does


Once he has stopped, make much of him. Stroke his neck, pat him, and get him to make eye contact with you. This last will help with confidence and trust. Take time – do not move again until he is totally calm and relaxed.




Thank you to Kirsty and Beam for this little demonstration.

Kirsty was learning this work for the first time, and should have dropped the point of the whip down before asking for halt.

I would advise not stroking the horse with the whip in your hand unless they are confident about it, like Beam.

Coming next: step #2 – Turn on the Forehand

If you have any questions or observations, please use the post comments.

Author: Deborah Jay

Deborah Jay writes fantasy and urban fantasy featuring complex, quirky characters and multi-layered plots – just what she likes to read. Living mostly on the UK South coast, she has already invested in her ultimate retirement plan – a farmhouse in the majestic, mystery-filled Scottish Highlands where she retreats to write when she can find the time. She has a dream of a day job, riding, training and judging competition dressage horses and riders, and also writes books and magazine features on the subject under the name Debby Lush. Her taste for the good things in life is kept in check by the expense of keeping too many horses, and her complete inability to cook. A lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, she started writing her first novel aged eight, and has never stopped. Her debut novel, epic fantasy THE PRINCE’S MAN, first in a trilogy and winner of a UK Arts Board award, is available from most ebook retailers, and her Urban Fantasy (first in a series), DESPRITE MEASURES, a tale of a Scottish water sprite trying to live as a human, is currently available on Amazon. Find out more about Deborah at www.deborahjay.wordpress.com or follow Deborah on twitter https://twitter.com/DeborahJay2 and facebook https://www.facebook.com/DeborahJay

5 thoughts on “7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 1, start and stop”

  1. Hi Debby, I’ve just been able to see Ollie after 7 weeks and am inevitably very stiff after not riding. I wondered if it would be helpful to do these exercises from the ground to help re-establish relationship with him whilst getting me fit? Cx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Caroline, I think a lot of others are going to be in the same boat as you! Ground work is always a good option, even when combined with ridden work, for solidifying that bond between you while also addressing responses and strength – that’s why all the horses in the Spanish Riding School do hand work as well as ridden. So yes, go for it, maybe alongside some lunging for aerobic fitness for both of you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: