Working your groundwork

In my view there are three main reasons for doing groundwork 1.  To desensitize a horse safely; 2.  To exercise a horse; or 3.  To prepare a horse to be ridden.

If I am trying to desensitize a horse from the ground it is usually to objects that the horse might be led over, such as bridges or tarps.  It might also entail an introduction to flapping or noisy objects that the horse may overreact to.

I may have an injury that prevents me from exercising my horse in the saddle and might use a round pen or a lunge line to ensure that the horse is getting some activity.  Or I might want to get a new horse ready to be ridden.

Whatever I am doing with my horse from the ground I try to attend to one basic rule – the horse needs a place to go.  I am always mindful of leaving an escape route for the horse I am working with and I ensure that I am not standing in the escape route. If that horse is going to spook and run, I don’t want it to run through me and I don’t want it getting caught up on a piece of machinery or a gate hook.

Groundwork can be a great tool to advance your skills as well as your horse’s.  But groundwork, when done improperly can be a problem for both horse and trainer.  I remember a few years ago watching a friend helping another friend to lunge a horse.  It seems that they had a problem getting the horse to go to the right – it would lunge just fine to the left, but neither trainer could get it to move out to right.

I had watched for a few minutes before heading out for a ride on my own horse.  I returned about an hour later to see them still trying to get the horse to lunge in the other direction.  I asked if I could help and within two minutes the horse was lunging equally well in both directions.  Not because I have any great skills but simply because I set the situation up in a way the horse could understand.

I have watched many more people since having similar problems, the horse just won’t move, or it will go one way and not the other, the horse runs to fast or it’s too slow.  In each case the trainer seems to think it’s the horse that has the problem.  Recently I helped a friend lunge a horse to where it nice and soft and respectfully.  When I handed the horse back it wouldn’t go, she had more equipment than I had used (I don’t use lunge whips) – the problem was her body position and foot placement and what that was telling the horse.  She would walk up in front of the horse, blocking him from being forward, and on starting the lunge she would step backwards inviting the horse into her space.

The thing is, as Tom Dorrance would say, “the horse is always right” – which of course means the human is the one that needs to adjust to the horse.  But when the human doesn’t know much about how horses react and think they tend to anthropomorphize the horse and the way it thinks.  Horses think, there’s no doubt about that, but they think very different thoughts to humans.  It is up to us to expand our knowledge, by opening our minds to ideas we hadn’t previously considered, after all we entered his world he didn’t enter ours.

People think devious thoughts, we plot and scheme, we think ahead to what we are going to do after this activity is over.  Horses don’t, they just think about where they are at right now, “can I eat that?” and “will I survive this encounter without being hurt?” are two primary thoughts for horses.  They will only fight when they are cornered otherwise they will run from danger.  It’s the human that approaches horses, whip in hand, to pick a fight.

As I pointed out earlier, one of the main problems encountered with groundwork is placement of the feet and positioning of the body.  If you withdraw your feet away from the horse you relieve pressure, this “can” signal the horse to believe that it is higher in the herd than you.  After all, when you throw a flake of hay out for two horses the lower ordered one will step away and the top horse will use its feet to indicate its territory (the hay).

I recently watched a woman trying to yield the hind on her horse, it was kind of funny as she truly believed the horse’s hind was moving away from her.  She walked to the horse’s hind and it circled out sure enough, but the horse’s front was also following her hind – together they were walking in a circle.  It was hard to tell who was yielding to who.  When you ask for your horse to yield its hind you should be simply standing still.

I saw another person trying to slow her horse down by walking briskly behind it on the lunge while making a noise that was supposed to mean slow down.  The problem is that she was driving the horse with her body language while expecting it to slow down, eventually, in spite of the contradictory signals the horse might get it, they are that smart.  And yet another woman trying to get her horse to move faster by walking ahead of its shoulder.  When you get ahead of the horse it is inclined to slow down or stop, when you get behind it’s inclined to move out.  Just understanding these basics then applying them to our own approach can make a significant difference in responses.

The more I get to know about horses the more I get to know about people.  Horses are almost always willing to learn, humans not so much.  Humans want things to be their way when they want their way and they’ll go to great lengths to get their way.  Humans are generally disinclined to learn from animals that they consider  to be stupid, stubborn, sensitive, flighty, etc.

When using groundwork for desensitizing be especially mindful not to be in the horse’s flight path – if the horse gets worried and wants to run, don’t be in its way.  Remember too it is a process of introducing the horse to the stimuli not just flooding it until it gives up.  For example, if you are using a tarp you might start by placing yourself between the horse and the tarp and asking the horse to follow you as you shake the tarp.

After a while as the horse relaxes turn around and repeat the action placing the tarp between you and the horse.  As the horse tolerates that with relaxation you might stop abruptly allowing the horse to take one or two steps forward, towards you and the tarp.  If he remains soft and relaxed, you can hold the tarp out using approach and retreat tactics to get him accustomed to closer contact.

Lunging for exercise basically means getting those feet moving and goes right back to the basics of positioning yourself so that you are applying pressure to the rear of the horse, certainly behind the shoulder.  A whip is rarely, if ever, required although with some overly desensitized horses if may be used lightly for encouragement, preferably not on the horse.

Preparing a horse to be ridden is, in my view, the most fun of all the groundwork practices.  Everything we do from the ground needs to have a similar meaning when we get on them.  I like to think of there being three cue spots on the side of my horses, front, center and rear (of the cinch).  The front, ahead of the cinch, is used to signal moving the shoulder across, the center is used for a side-pass (or forward with both legs) and the rear to yield the hind.

I prefer to use a heavyweight lunge rope (or long lead rope) and double it up, using it as if it were a leg, to bump the horse in the cue areas.   I follow up with my body to enforce the cue.  Once the horse is understanding I will work on making the cue as light as possible and still expect, and work towards, getting lighter.  I have found that if the horse will move off a light bump on the flanks from the ground then he most likely will be ready to accept my leg in a like manner from the saddle.

Similarly the lead rope can be used to simulate the lateral movement you will expect from a set of reins while riding.  If these cues are working well from the ground, they will improve quickly from the saddle.  Working your groundwork will require rethinking a lot of what you are doing from simple foot placement and movement to setting the horse up for success.

Of course, there’s a lot more to groundwork, and when done properly it looks and in fact is quite simple, but without going beneath the notion that “the horse needs to get going” and getting to “what can I do to help the horse understand what I am asking?” progress may be quite slow.

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