Groundwork, it can be the bane of some people’s and their horse’s existence. Is there any other activity that is more cryptic and demanding than groundwork that you can do with a horse? Perhaps play a game of checkers with them.. but seriously, groundwork is hard and takes a lot of practice for both horse and rider. Good groundwork can lead to so many positive things for both you and your horse and likely solve problems you may not even know are in your future. Like biting, kicking, bucking and other undesirable behaviors when all you’re trying to do is lead them through a creek or something. The message that you are teaching your horse by moving it’s feet where and when you want, translates directly into the saddle and due to that more refined relationship, the poor behaviors decrease or disappear altogether. Quality and consistency are key so it makes it a challenge, but it’s well worth it.
To continue our series of articles on groundwork, we’re going to talk about doing the one thing you can do after you have your horse following you and reliably backing for you. Circles. But what does that mean? Obviously leading a horse is a given as you have to be able to do it to get them to go with you. Backing them too is a given because there are many times you need them away from you or something they are about to step on. Circles though, that’s a different story and while it does have a combination of leading and backing it incorporates other techniques and movements, so let’s talk about it a bit and then I’ll show a few examples.
If you followed along with the sprinkler training article and creek training article, you’ll see that the majority of the time I have the horse just going around me. As obvious as it may seem, these are what I call circles. There are three major movements we are looking for with circles and at least two minor movements for each major movement we are asking for. That might sound weird or confusing, so let’s take a look at that.
The Three Major Movements of Circles
When we do groundwork circles with horses we are looking for three specific movements out of them. This may seem overly simple, but here they are:
1. Movement to the left
2. Movement to the right
3. The turn/transition from one direction to the other
Now, the movement we ask for can be just about anything, walk, trot or canter. No matter the speed though we are always looking for quality steps and movement from the horse as they are going around. The best obviously is to start with the walk as it’s easiest to manage. As circles get smoother and both horse and handler get better at them, you may find that the slow trot is easier to do circles with.
Before we go to far here, let’s talk briefly about tools and aids to get groundwork done. Skip this paragraph of course if you don’t need it. When doing groundwork, we have a halter, a lead rope connected to that halter and sometimes a stick with a flag or a bag or something on it. These are all the tools required for doing groundwork. As I talk about how to go about moving a horse, I may say something like “swing the tail end of the lead rope” or “wave the flag at the girth area” or something. These techniques to move the horse are what are called “negative pressure” methods. The idea being that you are making the horse concerned if they don’t move. While negative and positive training methods are outside of the scope of this conversation, the only concept I’d like to convey here is that we will be using these aids in such a fashion. Ideally though, these aids (lead rope or flag) are simply to be thought of as an extension of your arm. Keep in mind that not all horses are keen to move forward with pressure and it’s safer to be a few feet away rather than trying to move your horse with your hand where you can get kicked very easily.
The first thing that we ask the horse to do is to move off in one direction or the other. This is accomplished by simply holding the lead rope out in the direction you want the horse to go. If that doesn’t get the job done then you’d step in towards the shoulder while simultaneously either swinging the tail end of the lead rope or a flag. In theory, this should tell your horse to move off one way. This is where we’ll bring up our first key point:
The horse must move off with a step away first before going forward, never towards you
Side story: I once was working with an owner of a horse that had just a young one that didn’t really like to be told to go anywhere. This person’s first instinct was to try to push the horse’s rear with one hand while holding the lead rope with the other in a fashion that I am explaining here. I quickly encouraged this person to please use the end of the lead rope or a flag to get such movement done as before in this horse’s training he had done what is called a “cow kick”, where they kick out sideways. Needless to say that if you are within a human’s arm’s reach, you are very much within a horse’s cow kick’s reach.Always be thinking safety.
Anyways, back to the steps for circles. We left off with the idea that we are going to put pressure on the shoulder area from the side or front to get the horse to either step back and away to go around, or just to the side away from you and then forward. This is imperative to get right as there are so many people that allow their horses to invade their personal space. Groundwork is the solution to that problem when done correctly and consistently, but this is what will allow your horse to understand that you too have a personal bubble that needs to be protected.
Timing is everything with groundwork. It is crucial and it needs to be very consistent. Both the timing of pressure and the timing of release. Without good timing and amazing consistency, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll just confuse your horse and both of you will be irritated with each other. So with that in mind, as we approach the horse from the shoulder to move off, we would keep in mind that the pressure needs to remain until we get what we want. In this case, the horse needs to move out and around, so we’re looking for that shift in weight to the outside. That may be all you get at first, if it’s a struggle to get that, then stop. Pet the horse and reset for another few rounds of that. It won’t be long before you can carry that further to forward motion and it’ll all mean something to the horse. As you’ll see in the clips below, the first horse doesn’t move off in good timing for the first try, but the second is much better.
The next step is for the horse to start walking around you at the end of the lead rope. Your arm should be out in an inviting manner, not pulling, and if you bring it in and towards their back end then they should square up and stop. The only time you do pull is if they are getting their nose out. Meaning that they always need to be sort of curled around you with their body. If at any time they are straight, or worse, getting their nose towards the outside of the circle, then you’d slightly bump their nose back in. Some horses will think that means stop, but encouraging them forward at the same time should get them clued in to what is being asked for.
Another quick tip: Watch the inside ear. The inside ear should be on you the whole time, it generally means you have their attention. It’s subtle but if you have that then they are essentially looking for the next direction you might ask for.
That’s a lot to absorb in reading format and might be hard to imagine if you’ve not done groundwork before. As such, understanding what this looks like through words may be difficult though, so here are a few clips talking about it:
So, as you can see, with some practice it’s very possible to get any horse to listen to what you want so that you can get what you want. All of this can lead to moving up to the mounting block, a fence, into water and of course getting into a trailer. All of this groundwork translates into the saddle because you are doing it at the end of a lead rope, unlike free lunging or long line lunging. Both of those exercises have their own purposes, but lead line groundwork has the definite purpose of getting a horse better close up on the ground and in the saddle. If you’re having trouble with biting, kicking, bucking and general resistance to direction you believe you are giving, then groundwork is a great place to start. Groundwork is the foundation of your relationship with your horse as he’ll understand what you want when you want it and you too will feel safer and more comfortable. These two items are great building blocks for your relationship with your horse.