Besides keeping it physically healthy, one of the most important things you can do with your horse in it’s life with you is groundwork. We find that groundwork is a very underrated activity done with horses and the effects of a lack of quality groundwork can be seen both on the ground and in the saddle.
Groundwork teaches the horse how and where to move when you are directing it. The movement can be anything, from just leading, to backing, going through a gate, into a stall and of course loading into a trailer. It’s almost a guarantee that if you have trouble loading your horse into a trailer, it likely means you don’t have your groundwork just right yet. Groundwork can also teach you all kinds of things about your horse for what it is afraid of, good with or if it is attentive to you or not. This all applies in figuring out how you are able to work with it and together as these communication skills should translate into the saddle.
We feel that good horsemanship starts with groundwork. There are a lot of people that have a lot of trouble just leading their horses around, having them stand, stop, go around them (in both directions) and if you can’t get that done on the ground, you’ll likely have trouble getting it done in the saddle. My first question to that anyways is, why would you not want to have your horse do exactly as you ask when you’re on the ground? It’s the one spot the horse can actually hurt you (by accident or not) and the one place you’d think you should have the most control. Without groundwork being solid, rehabilitation becomes exponentially more difficult. Rehabilitation of horses isn’t always just about the body, it can be about the mind and without the ability to move the feet where we want to move them, it’s hard to get anything productive done.
The one thing we always try to encourage people to do is get their horses used to things. We regularly get a flag up in front of horses to both desensitize and drive them. Amusingly, most horses think the flag is really going to get them and this can be a great way to drive and direct them while desensitizing. For example, our case study Luke, over the course of a few days of working with him, became far better and can tolerate and manage it touching him all over. While at the same time we can use it to drive him forward or back.
Flags and ropes are a start, but you should be able to use anything to drive a horse around. We use crinkly bags of treats to move a horse before, as it’s scary too. Plastic bags.. A hose, water spraying etc, all normal things and all achieved by doing groundwork. That groundwork doesn’t start with the scary stuff, you start it calmly and have the horse understand the direction you are asking for. Then when the really scary stuff comes, like plastic bags and tarps, then the horse will follow direction a bit more naturally and willingly because you’ve taught it. The direction becomes the fallback for the horse and instead of just running off in a random direction, the horse can recognize that there is an out in the direction you are indicating.
The downside of “just riding” is exactly that, you never get the horse ready to move when you’re on the ground with it. I had a few experiences where I’ve been doing some groundwork and swinging a rope around 100 feet from another horse and that horse can’t manage it. There are definitely times when horses have been treated badly by their previous or current owners, but you should be able to swing a rope around any horse and not have it just tear off like it was about to be killed. That’s what happened and it was VERY DANGEROUS. Good groundwork prepares your horse to not do that. Remember, you’re not only protecting your horse from hurting itself, but your more important priority is to protect all those around your horse. A bolting and terrified horse cares nothing for anybody and will easily trample, knock over and through anybody in it’s way. In this case, a swinging rope about 100 feet away.
Groundwork starts with a halter and lead rope. That’s all you need. Once you can get the horse to move around based on not pulling but in fact driving it with the lead rope, then you get a few more refined movements, like good circles around you, direction changes to do the opposite direction and backing. This involves swinging the rope around or slapping it against your leg. If that doesn’t get the job done then you might tap the horse on the rear to get it going, but don’t whip the horse. Making the horse afraid will just get them checking out on you. You won’t get anything done in their brain until they are calm. Check out this video on backing a horse through groundwork.
Once you have that good, break out a flag. Wave it around, drive the horse forward and around you with it like you did with the lead rope. Likely you’ll have a horse that careens around you if you’re waving it around enough, in that case bump the nose to you with the lead rope to get the hind quarters out of gear to stop the horse. Start again. Do this all as if your goal was to take all day to do it. I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating, real horsemanship starts with being patient and calm, get frustrated, irritated or angry and both of you will be done.
Once the flag is good, get something else. A tarp, plastic bags, a long rope, a cardboard box, whatever might get your horse bothered and worried and continue the same basic direction and movements around you. Leading the horse is as simple as taking your hand out of the neutral position of by your side and holding it up in the direction around you that you want the horse to go. The rest should just take care of itself with the horse. If you have that done, riding is going to be a snap as you’ll be able to now direct the horse anywhere you want and get the hind out of gear if you need to because the horse will already understand what you want, all with a very soft feel to it. This can be seen quite well in these two videos working with a sprinkler and also in a creek.
Groundwork. No skimping. While it takes time, it helps you bond with your horse and your horse to you. You will absolutely get a much better understanding of your horse and your horse of you. Stay calm and encouraging. Be patient, stop when you make it to a good place with the horse and hopefully the next time you get going with it, you’ll start where you left off and then move on to further detailed groundwork. If we walk into a rehabilitation situation and the horse doesn’t have basic or intermediate groundwork in place then we request that it either gets done by the owner or ourselves so that everybody stays safe and becomes stronger for it.