7 easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 7 Half Steps

And so we come to the final part in this series, introducing the basics of in hand work.

Half steps are the beginning of the more advanced work, leading to the ultimate goal: the development of piaffe in hand.

Why do we want to teach half steps/piaffe in hand?

  • Piaffe is the ultimate demand on a horse’s ability to carry weight on his hind legs (ignoring high school work such as levade, which is beyond the scope of the everyday horse and rider). It is possible to teach piaffe to any horse if you take sufficient time to build his strength and confidence.
  • Half steps are the starting point, asking for short but active hindleg steps which teach your horse to
  • close the hind leg forward, underneath himself
  • bend the hind leg joints more actively
  • lower the croup (weight carriage)
  • Doing this in hand as opposed to under saddle is far easier on the horse’s joints and muscular strength, as he is carrying only his own body weight, and not that of a rider as well.
  • As such, it can be used to not only strengthen him, but also to teach him what he may be doing under saddle at a later date.
  • Half steps and piaffe can be done in hand with a much younger, or less strong, horse than should be attempted under saddle.
Continue reading “7 easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 7 Half Steps”

7 easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 6, how to square a halt

Now you have become accustomed to moving your horse around in hand, it’s time to add a little precision. For the serious in hand trainer, this is where things start to move towards that final goal: piaffe in hand.

We aren’t going that far in this series, but all these techniques will give you the basics preparatory to taking that ultimate step, if that is your goal.

Reasons to teach squaring the halt

  1. The first step here is to teach the horse to lift each leg individually to the light touch of the whip – this will enable you first to square up the halt, and later to activate each leg in turn to produce half steps (Part 7 of this series), and eventually, piaffe.
  2. This work helps form the habit of halting square, helping to keep even loading (weight bearing) on both hind legs at halt, and also necessary for a good mark in ridden dressage.
  3. Once under saddle, you can use the same technique to halt square, and to influence each leg individually to move forward with more activity – useful in all gaits as well as eventually in half steps, and then piaffe under saddle. This can be done at first with an unmounted helper with the ground work whip while you are in the saddle, and then transferring (with your ground help) the whip aid to your leg aids.
  4. If a horse has a ‘lazy’ hind leg – one that he always leaves trailing because of a reluctance to weight bear on that limb – you can use this technique to correct this poor, and possibly damaging habit, and strengthen that leg until he is comfortable with keeping weight on it.


You do not need to be aiming to teach your horse piaffe to benefit from this work!

Continue reading “7 easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 6, how to square a halt”

7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 5 Shoulder In

If you’ve achieved a measure of control of both ends of your horse while practicing leg yield in hand, you should find shoulder in fairly simple, as it is a logical progression for your horse.

Reasons to teach shoulder in

  1. Where leg yield is largely about crossing the legs to stretch and mobilise the lower back, shoulder in is more about getting your horse to carry weight on his inside hind leg
  2. One of the main benefits to shoulder in, is that you are only asking your horse to bear weight on one leg at a time
  3. Because of the position your horse is going to be in when shoulder in is correctly achieved, his inside hind leg will be directly beneath his body weight. Provided you don’t let him rush, this will result in him bending the hind leg joints more acutely and lowering his croup as a result
  4. Shoulder in is primarily a strengthening exercise
  5. Further implications are that once you also achieve this movement under saddle (which is easier for him to understand ridden once you have introduced it in hand) it also becomes one of your major straightening tools
Continue reading “7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 5 Shoulder In”

7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 4 Leg Yield

If you have been working on the previous steps, you should now be quite comfortable with starting, stopping, and moving your horse sideways and backwards, which means you’ve achieved a fair level of control. Most of these early steps involve little movement, but now it’s time to start testing your abilities on the move.

Whilst ‘leg’ yield isn’t quite the right term, as there is no leg aid involved in ground work, the movement we are asking the horse to perform is identical, so I shall continue to use the descriptor.

Reasons to teach Leg Yield

  • provided you achieve correct crossing of the legs, this is a great way to supple and mobilise your horse’s lower back
  • done slowly and correctly, crossing also achieves engagement of the core muscles, helping to develop strength
  • it will help you to gain greater control of both ends of your horse at the same time
  • also prepares your horse to learn this movement under saddle

What do you want to see in a good leg yield?

  • You want your horse to step forward and sideways at the same time
  • His shoulder should always be slightly in the lead
  • The legs should pass and cross over at every step, with the inside hind moving in front of the outside hind
  • The entire thing should be steady and controlled
  • Unlike the ridden competition version, if there is some neck bend, don’t worry, this is a suppling exercise and provided the legs are crossing, the job is being done!
  • Finish with a clear halt and praise.
Continue reading “7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 4 Leg Yield”

7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 3 Rein Back

If you’ve successfully followed Parts 1 & 2, you can now start, stop, and turn your horse in hand, in response to a clear set of aids in conjunction with your body language.

Your next step is to ask him to step backwards in clear, controlled steps.

As ever, ensure you have the correct equipment: sturdy boots (really important for this close-up work), gloves, and a bridle. You may also want to wear a safety helmet.

Reasons to teach Rein Back

One of the main benefits of in hand work is that you are teaching your horse how to use his body without having to contend with lifting or balancing a rider’s weight on his back. This is particularly beneficial for horses with

  • a weak or stiff back
  • weak core muscles
  • damaged back muscles, often caused by incorrect posture when ridden, or saddle issues
  • kissing spines and rehab from kissing spine treatments/surgery
  • young horses who have not yet had a chance to develop the strength in their core muscles necessary to carrying a rider

Done correctly, rein back in hand

  • is suppling to the horse’s back
  • teaches him how to lift and round his back without the pressure of a rider’s weight on his back
  • teaches him to engage his hindlegs further under his body, resulting in a lowered croup
  • engages and strengthens his core muscles
  • helps strengthen his entire postural muscle system, especially the weight carrying capacity of his haunches
  • reinforces obedience, although it must never be used as a puishment
  • prepares him to learn this important movement under saddle, and
  • with a ground handler in addition to a rider, takes out the confusion and stress that may occur when he is first introduced to ridden rein back aids

What, precisely, are you looking for in a good rein back?

Continue reading “7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 3 Rein Back”

7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 2 Turn on the Forehand

Once you have your start and stop controls established, (see Part 1 here), you can then start with sideways controls.

The first movement to teach is turn on the forehand, much as this would be the first sideways step taught under saddle.

Reasons to teach turn on the forehand are:

  • your horse will gain a greater understanding of the response you want from his hind leg when you touch it with the whip (to lift and move forward)
  • you  can start to gain the ability to influence his front end and hind end to do different things at the same time. Eventually this translates into the ability to both straighten him, and perform engaging lateral work
  • you can address stiffness in joints in the hind leg
  • you can address stiffness in his lower back
  • you can teach him to engage his core muscles and work on strengthening them
  • preparing a young or uneducated horse to learn this movement under saddle. A ground handler can apply the aids already learned, while the rider also applies the appropriate leg aid – a simple way to teach him to move sideways from the leg without stress or confusion

The equipment and basic techniques are the same as for start and stop, but now you will ask the front end to (almost) stop while asking the hind quarters to move.

ALWAYS REMEMBER: PATIENCE IS ESSENTIAL – rushing, or allowing anything to be rushed, will negate the learning experience.

What are the ingredients of turn on the forehand?

Continue reading “7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 2 Turn on the Forehand”

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. Continue reading “7 Easy steps to starting in hand work – Part 1, start and stop”