Groundwork is one of those terms you hear a lot in conversations among horse people. But what does it mean exactly? I think it’s fair to say that judging from the wide variety of what you see people doing with their horses on the ground, it means different things to different people. I see people running their horse around and around on a lunge line and call it groundwork. If the horse is not tuned into the human this can be a rather ugly exercise, counter bent, bucking and generally ignoring the person. Just because you are working with a horse on the ground does not make it effective groundwork. To be effective your horse should be tuned into you and displaying relaxed body language such as head low, soft eye and relaxed in the body.
There is not a cookbook recipe for what constitutes effective groundwork. What I do with one horse will vary from day to day as it depends on the horse and his attitude. I always have an overarching theme or goal but that is flexible as I try to work with the horse from where he is mentally rather than from where I think he should be. I check in with him/her to try to determine what they need. As with any interaction with a horse, I try to leave them feeling better at the end than when we started.
Many horse owners tell me how they hate doing groundwork, that they just want to get on and ride. Some of those folks also readily admit they don’t know what to do or how to do it. Some tell me they don’t see the point in it.
Obviously I am a proponent of groundwork with your horse, every time before the ride. The caveat here is that as with everything, you have to do it correctly in order to reap maximum benefit. This happens to be one of the main areas covered in my horsemanship clinics.
Some specifics about my intent with groundwork. When I work with a horse that is new to me, I start small and reward big. I might ask them forward around me and then stop all pressure when they try. I might ask them to move away from pressure and when they offer even the smallest attempt, I let off. We build from there. As they begin to understand what I am asking, I define their success into a smaller range of efforts on their part, eventually settling in on the exact response I am after.
This begins the process of teaching the horse that when I ask for something in a certain way, I am offering them an opportunity to respond in a certain way. This is the start of the relationship building and communication. When a horse is offered clarity, they will hunt the right answer every time. It’s my job to present what I am asking in such a way so as to make the horse successful in finding the right response.
More than anything, this engages their mind and helps align their thought with mine. This also has the added benefit of warming them up, stretching and mentally preparing them to accept the rider. This all translates to the saddle, I’ll explain more later.
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