This article is the beginning of the series of articles talking about groundwork and how it affects your partnership with your horse. As an introduction we’ll talk about the what, why and how of groundwork and the implications of not doing it versus the benefits of doing it. There are also varied amounts of dedication to groundwork where you might be going through the motions without truly having an effect. This of course applies to anything in life, but we all know how it feels to really put yourself into something and come out it not only successful but also emotionally and mentally happy and satisfied. That’s the point of these articles, to hopefully assist or give some insight into both you and your horse getting to that point.
To start off it might be a good idea to just define what groundwork is, relevant to these articles of course. I think there are a lot of different ideas out there of what groundwork is, can be, should be and with that the amount that should be done and why. Obviously these articles will be covering a particular style. It’s somewhat like martial arts, while there may be many different cultures and different styles of fighting and defending, the goal is the same. To fight and defend. Groundwork is like that too in that everybody that is doing it is doing it to get themselves and/or their horse better at something.
So let’s define groundwork as it’s done around here.
The first way to define this is to always have the goal of leaving both you and your horse in a better place than where it was before you started. The goal can be something as “simple” as standing beside you without any trouble, or to be doing figure eights in front of you as you walk around the arena. There are many levels of work with the horse that can be done from the ground, but absolutely without a doubt the horse should never be left off in a worse place. If it happens then the next time will be that much more difficult. Here’s an article talking about getting a horse content with something that initially bothered it. To the benefit of both horse and rider.
The second item would that each activity and action should translate in to the saddle. There is very little you might do with your horse that you can’t do in the saddle. That’s the point really, the goal is to get the horse better at doing what you want in the saddle, and vice versa, when in the saddle the actions should also translate to the ground.
Keeping the above two items in mind will set you and your horse up for success as each activity should get you both closer to a better partnership through trust and methodical practice to do the things you want to do. Here is a great video of groundwork in a river that takes the basics to the next level. Let’s take a look at an example of that.
Say you want to get your horse to move it’s hindquarters from the left to the right one step. This is a common maneuver for a horse as they regularly move their butt out of the way for people and other horses. The goal here would be to just get it done from the ground. If a horse has no idea what you are asking for then it might get a bit bothered when you ask for it. Being bothered or afraid isn’t conducive to healthy learning and instead the horse will naturally fall into a more of a flight mode action. That kind of action tends to be a bit more jumpy and alert, rather than just doing something simple as moving it’s back feet around it’s front feet.
Imagine if you were with a friend and walking through the mall and each time your friend asked you to enter a store you bolted in there and stood in the entrance wondering what to do next. Instead of just simply walking alongside your friend, you moved out of sync with them and stood in wonder as to what to do next. This is neither peaceful nor a partnership.
So if you were to ask a horse to move it’s hindquarters and you had a halter on and the lead rope in your hand, you might be on the left side of the horse and pull it’s nose towards you. This may or may not get a result. With no result you might start making noise, clapping your hands or moving around a bunch then you may get something to happen. If that doesn’t work then maybe you’d pull on the lead rope some more and push the horse and then finally it moves away from you. While the end result was movement, the way you got there likely was either trouble for the horse, or just you. Not peaceful or a partnership.
You may see in some horsemanship clinics or at some events with trainer challenges or something that a trainer will just look at the horses butt and it moves away. That takes time, but is simply just perseverance to get to a point of peace and partnership. The horse has to be tuned into you to understand something as subtle as a head movement. It has to feel you important enough to pay attention to long enough and consistently respond to anything, let alone small movements.
No problem so far though as you got what you wanted out of the horse. This is not where you quit though. First rule is that if either you or your horse is troubled at the end then the lesson likely won’t be learnt or will not stick. Keep at it. Do as little as you can and as much as you have to. Each time should take less. This is where the patience part of groundwork comes in and recognition of both where you and your horse are at. In time you will just as easily point your finger at your horse’s butt and it’ll move one way or the other. When you get really refined you’ll be able to get your horse to rock from side to side, take one step, two steps, three steps or even just continue around and around until you ask them to stop.
Groundwork techniques are best shown in video. As the weather improves and days get longer it will become easier to get more examples out and they will all be linked here. This concludes this basic article talking about why we do groundwork and the basic goals we have when doing it. Your partnership with your horse and your horse’s partnership with you is the most important thing. All groundwork should translate to the saddle in one form or another, whether it’s direct or indirect and essentially you should be able to direct your horse when and where you want without any trouble at all to yourself or your horse. If you get that done you will then much more consistently have better and better rides that the both of you will enjoy.