Ground Work – Why?
You want to ride your horse. Maybe you want to go on the trails, run barrels, jump a cross country course, or just ride around in your home round pen. Obviously all of these goals are you riding the horse–so why fuss with all the ground work? Why not just jump on, let the horse buck it out, and wait for them to submit so you can enjoy your rides without all the work. Why not just hire someone to cowboy them so you don’t have to be the one getting bucked until they figure it out?
Well, aside from the aggressiveness of a “buck it out” technique, there is so much to be gained by ground-working your horse. Some of the instant benefits are:
- A Greater Understanding Of Each Other
Those are really just the tip of the iceberg, but we couldn’t imagine a training relationship that didn’t begin on the ground.
With groundwork exercises, the horse learns to respond to aids, which mimic an extension of your arm. This prepares the horse for longeing, work in hand and riding. You don’t need fancy equipment; a halter and rope, baseball cap, flag, or other items can be the basics of your ground work tool box.
So how do you get started? Here’s some step by steps that we like.
- Leading – Why is leading important? It’s the first step in showing your horse that YOU are the leader. It’s more than just getting your horse to walk from point A to point B. Everytime you lead your horse you are having a conversation about where YOU are in the herd. Tip: You need to be the “Boss Mare”. You walk in front of the horse, slightly to the side, so you can keep an eye on your horse. The horse follows you based on respect and trust. When the horse tries to pass there are a few options that are appropriate. You can signal with a whoa and stop, you can immediately change directions, you can issue a correction with a quick pull on the rope. If the horse stops you can change directions or use the end of the rope to swish your horse and drive them forward. If the horse gets in your personal space, we recommend using the rope to create space between you and your horse. Make sure your energy level reflects the situation. If your horse is on top of you then that is an urgent situation, and your energy can’t be passive. Horses in the field are very direct in their communication with each other…they bite and kick each other to communicate and make angry faces. Remember, if you want to be the boss mare, your horse has to know you are serious.
2. Stop – When you are riding, do you want your horse to run away with you, or do you want him/her to respect the request to stop? The foundation of that request begins on the ground. You may need to motion to stop at first, and you may need to work a smaller and smaller circle until your horse stops, but your end goal here is for your horse to realize that when the pressure is off completely that it means the time for happy feet has ended. Stand 2 to 3 meters from your horse; about 6 feet away, face your horse with your energy low or turn your back to your horse. Let them face you and be at a the halt. Tip: Start using the word whoa when you teach stop with your energy cues–it will become a verbal cue you can use in the saddle. Horse’s aren’t born with a dictionary–we have to teach them our words.
3. Back Up – Have you ever had a horse step on your foot? Have you ever had one get themselves into a tricky situation that they needed to back out of? Have you ever taken a horse off a trailer? If you answered yes to any of these, then you understand the need for teaching the Back Up command in ground work. This is a pressure cue. With your rope in your hand, hooked tot he halter, you will push towards the horse’s chest, bringing the nose down. As soon as you get the slightest movement, release the pressure. Practice this getting more and more subtle each time. Your end goal is to be able to just jiggle the rope and have your horse respond with two or three steps back. This is a task learned through repetition and reward–and the reward is as simple as letting go of pressure when you get the desired results.
4. Stretching Down – When we talk about balance and coordination, being able to flex is very important. The most basic stretch is a downward one. The horse leans forward, a little more exaggerated than when they graze and stretch. Here’s a fun fact about this stretch, which is the foundation for the look Western Pleasure riders are watching for–the horse cannot create adrenaline in its body when stretched forward and down. It is physiologically blocked. The more advanced way to teach this is to put slight pressure behind the ears. As soon as the horse drops their head you release. Be careful with this–too much force with this method can lead to head-shyness, and you don’t want to create a problem. The easy way is a treat lure. This is a form of “carrot stretch”, so use a favorite bon bon and have your horse lean on down for a nibblet.
5. Carrot Stretches – It’s a non technical term, but it’s what we love to call deep flexion stretches. For senior horses, this one is so important for building straightness. The technical term for this is actually Stelling, but that’s Dutch in background, and doesn’t mean a lot to us in normal conversation. This stretch is the bending of the head to the left or right in relation to the spine. The lower jaw of the horse should move underneath the extensions of the atlas vertebra, the first vertebra in the neck of the horse. Stand at your horse’s shoulder, and put tension on the rope, downward and towards the flank. You can encourage with a treat for that release…not all horse’s stretch well, and flexibility takes time to develop so be patient and work through this movement frequently. It is HIGHLY important to work both sides. Your horse is going to be more limber on one side or the other to begin with, so ignoring a side is totally counter-productive.
6. Stepping Under – This is our last step BEFORE longeing. As we referenced above, your horse has a good side and a bad side. Your horse prefers using one hind leg to push, and the other hind leg to carry. When the horse takes a proper bending to both sides, it will also start using its inside hind leg as the carrying hind leg. In this way, both hind legs develop similar carrying capacity. This is how the horse learns to step under his point of weight, which is important for supporting the rider. You need to build that strength– especially if the human rider is not 100% balanced. If you’ve done all of this, your horse should be able to walk forward-down and move left to right. They are simply bio-mechanics, but the key to spinal health, longevity and further training–and a successful riding relationship. This isn’t a 7 year commitment to pre-riding training. These exercises can be done from birth, or in the case of an older a horse a week or two of ground work will take you miles down the road. Period workouts with groundwork after that are just as beneficial to your horse as stretching is for you. Tip:This movement is like side-passing in a circle
You’ve successfully mastered steps 1-6, so now the next movement is longeing. This is the cardio after the warmup. Move your horse out, longewhip up, arms up, and remember that your tools are just an extension of your arm, and your purpose through longeing is communication. High energy, and driving builds speed. Lower energy and relaxation relaxes speed and brings the whoa. Talk to your horse. Use words or sounds, “Walk-On” “Trot” “Canter” “Whoa” Smooches–however you will talk on horseback, talk on the ground. You have your horse’s undivided attention, and they are listening.
We hope this is helpful to building a groundwork foundation, and a successful relationship.