By Jenny Rolfe:

The art of working the horse in-hand, has been practiced for centuries within the Classical Riding Schools. These well established exercises are extremely valuable to enhance obedience and suppleness, with minimal confrontation. Work between the pillars is one of the original Classical methods of training. When this work is developed by a highly experienced trainer, the movements of the Classical High School can eventually be taught.

In working the horse, in-hand, we replace the pillars, which would restrict the horse in his forward movement. We become move-able pillars and through our encouragement we can help him understand the movements we require.

We will have a close contact with the horse from the ground, without allowing him to invade our personal space. He must be encouraged to work, always towards us, in close proximity but always respectful and aware of our leadership and direction.

The horse will have the opportunity to gain confidence in his training from the close contact with the handler. He will learn to work with energy and with a greater understanding of the whip and voice aids. The touch of the whip will eventually be replaced by the seat and leg aids of the rider.

This work is the perfect opportunity to teach lateral movements which can be understood by the horse to enhance his natural self- carriage, without carrying the weight of a rider. We will be teaching the horse to learn to carry his weight more equally on both reins, before being asked for more collection. His hind limbs and haunches will gradually gain in strength and suppleness which will become the building blocks for developing more collection.  The quarters will gradually take more of the body weight of the horse and absorb more of the movement and balance.


  1.     To teach the young horse submission and to develop further understanding of our voice and body language.
  2.    To familiarize the horse with the whip so it may be used without fear.
  3.    To increase mobility of the shoulders and hind limbs and croup.    
  4.    To prepare the horse physically and mentally to receive a rider.
  5.    As a tool of training beneficial for all future work, at all levels of training.
  6.    To develop engagement of hind limbs, build collection and later in the training prepare the horse for movements of High School.


To commence work in hand, the horse should be tacked up as for work on the lunge. The side reins should be fitted, equal in length, allowing the horse his natural carriage of head and neck. As with lungeing, we do not want to cause the horse to feel restricted but allow the top line of the neck to arch with the lower muscles relaxed. The head of the horse should be aligned just in front of the vertical. The horse will probably find the work easier on the left rein, so it is good to begin in this direction.

A few minutes of lungeing, prior to the work in hand, will prove beneficial so the horse has some time to warm up and use any excess exuberance.

. At first, just short sessions of work in hand, will be sufficient, aiming to finish on a good note, when the horse has responded well and understood his lesson.

We are looking for energetic ‘bounce’ in the strides, so the horse must learn to move in ‘lightness’ and ‘self-carriage’. The horse should work forwards with energy, on the instruction of the handler. Equally, it is important for him to come back to halt with the whip placed quietly against his neck or croup.

The whip is used to reinforce communication with the horse and certainly not as a form of punishment. It may tell him to ‘work forwards’, ‘more energy’ or ‘whoa’ but never used in frustration or anger.  The whip is just an extension of a positive, reinforcing connection with the horse.  Once the horse is responding through fear and anxiety, the art of horsemanship has been abandoned.


The whip may be used to communicate in three different ways, whilst working the horse in-hand.

  • To encourage forward movement. A light touch or tap will say, ‘walk over’ or ‘walk on’.
  • To ask for halt.  The whip can be placed gently against the neck/shoulder, or anywhere on the body. This action together with a gentle voice command  will be the signal for halt. The stick should remain lying gently against the horse until he responds and once he has come to a halt, the pressure of the stick should be taken off, away from his body. This command will be taken over by the riders legs in the ridden work. The rider will place his legs well on the girth to halt, then relax the pressure and take them back, immediately the horse responds
  • To create energy in movement. In more advanced work the whip may be used with quick, light ‘electric’ touches to produce more activity for such movements as piaffe and passage.


Position yourself with the horse, on the long side of the school, prepare to walk on the left rein (anti-clockwise).  Calmly stand facing the horse with the line from the cavesson in the left hand and the whip in the other. The horse is then encouraged to walk  towards  you, so be prepared to take a step backwards, if necessary, to allow the horse enough room to  move in your direction. Stand in front of the horse, with a relaxed body posture. With your voice and small vibrations with the rope, encourage the horse to take a few steps forward. Walk backwards, very slowly and after a few strides, stand upright and use the voice calmly and place the whip gently on the neck to halt. When the horse responds, praise him with your voice and a gentle stroke of his neck. It is important that the horse should always works towards his handler, to promote a forward thinking horse when working in- hand. Repeat this exercise, encouraging the horse to walk forwards and come back to halt.

When the halt is established it is important to take the whip quietly away and lower it gently. Always, for the horse, the quiet instruction and aids will become his reward for obedience. The horse should remain calmly in halt until given further new instructions. These new ways of training may cause the horse some tension, so it is important to use communication with voice, body language and breathing to help the horse to relax.


The introduction of these exercises on the small circle will both help to improve control of the shoulders and activity of the hind limbs.

Prepare to circle left and position yourselves in front of the horse and turned slightly to face him from the right hand side.

You will need to be in a position to look into his right eye and with eye contact and body position, be prepared to block his forward path.  It is preferred to have a helper, at first, until the horse is familiar with the exercises. The extra handler can encourage the hind legs to mobilize around on the circle. The head of the horse should not become tilted but remain in the vertical position. The flexion of the neck will be away from the direction of the movement, as in leg-yielding.

To circle anti-clockwise, hold the horse with the left hand, with the head and neck of the horse on the left. Holding the whip in the right hand, encourage the horse, with  voice, body language and whip, to commence walking a  circle around you. He should be using his inside limbs laterally to cross in front of the outside limbs. The front legs should cross over as if performing a turn on the forehand. After a few strides ask for a halt, then repeat the exercise for just a few strides.

We should be prepared to move a step or two backwards, as the horse circles around us. He must have sufficient space to mobilize his shoulders, to step forwards then across. If he is given too little room for movement, he may take a backward step which is totally incorrect.                                         

When this exercise is carried out correctly the horse will demonstrate greater elasticity of movement and his strides will promote more elevation and self carriage. These movements should be carried out with steady precision  to maximize the potential for true cadence.

The small circle exercise should be executed near the long side of the school. Whilst on the circle, as you reach the outside track again, the horse can be taken up the long-side in shoulder-in, again using the same principles.

This is intense for the horse, so  work only for a few minutes initially.

Reward every effort made by the horse and keep the pace steady and calm at all times as tight muscles will restrict mobility and may cause damage if the horse becomes very tense. This type of work can also be used with no tack, as I have seen the greatest results by incorporating loose work at all levels of training. The horse soon learns to perform these movements with no tack, from both body language and breathing techniques. This type of work, at liberty, will enhance the communication skills between both horse and rider. This is developing the art of communication, a friendship building trust and harmony, to be taken through to the ridden work.


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