Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price
Smart groundwork and safe training can build the foundation for a well-behaved, confident horse
Groundwork is not my thing. Although I grew up with horses, I have always loved riding them and not standing in front of them. As many others, I have always believed that horses should be ridden. Why spend so much time riding them?
But if I look back, I can see that I spent a lot of my time riding with my horses. Grooming, washing and braiding horses. Moving their hindquarters so that I could shovel poop all around them. I fed them hay, grain, carrots, and many other foods. I led them across the backyard bridge because Dad wouldn’t allow me to ride over it. Hugging them tightly for a good cry about a boy. Playing hide and seek around the paddock tree with them is the best part.
This is where I can honestly say that the true relationships developed. These were the connections that grew into lasting friendships.
Although we may love riding, it is important to remember that horses can also be attentive and sensitive learners on the ground. Equtation scientists, veterinarians, trainers and trainers all agree that this is the foundation for safe relationships, good learning, and strong interpersonal relationships. Let’s examine how and why groundwork works when it is done responsibly and with consideration for the horse’s welfare and nature.
Communicating and Connecting
Horses have exceptional vision. Robin Foster, PhD. Cert., believes that horses’ relationships and communication are aided by their large, well-placed eyes and natural ability to pick up subtle signals. AAB, IAABC is a certified horse behavior consultant, research professor at University of Puget Sound, and affiliate professor at University of Washington.
She says, “They want us to see them, to make eye contact.” “We cannot get them to look at us when they are sat behind their heads.”
They are watching us whenever we’re with them. We communicate with our horses, whether we intend to or not. They can read our movements and interpret what we say, says Lesley Hawson (BSc, BVSc), DVM, PhD, Equitation Science), an Australian animal biomechanical medicine practitioner who is also a lecturer at Charles Sturt University.
Good communication on the ground can help us “connect” to the horse – have a kind of body-language dialog in which we get to know each other.
Andy Booth, a science-based horse trainer, says that “everything that makes you understandable comes from the ground.” Booth is an Australian who lives near Bordeaux, France. “The horse’s back is not likely to give you the relationship you seek, but the ground. My relationships with horses are almost all based on groundwork.
“Ground Manners” and “Respect”
Groundwork has been regarded as a place where horses can learn “manliness” and “respect.” However, modern science shows that horses don’t have the same ethical considerations as humans and are unable to show respect or have manners.
However, they can learn to follow rules. Foster states, “I want to see horses that are able to understand safety limits and don’t push us or knock our heads over or step on us or walk ahead of them.” Foster says that he doesn’t feel any moral obligation. It’s not good manners in the traditional sense. He will learn to avoid any unwanted pressures through good training.
Booth is in agreement. Booth agrees. He adds that the confidence is mutual. We must feel comfortable being in close proximity to an animal with the potential to be dangerous and the horse should feel secure being around us.
Good groundwork helps horses to improve their problem-solving skills. This is the ‘learning-how-to-learn’ response.Dr. Lesley Hawson
The Foundation of All Training
Science-based, humane training is based on “breaking” horses and not “educating” them. We educate them on the ground to instill good learning-theory fundamentals that can improve their performance and safety under saddle. We also teach the horse how to learn.
Hawson states that good groundwork stimulates horses’ brains to improve their problem-solving abilities. “This is the ‘learning-how-to-learn’ response.”
Booth states that groundwork is foundation training at it’s best for untrained horses. Horses learn simple cues and build on each other to become more complicated when done properly. It teaches horses to pay attention to us and to listen to our cues, which can help reduce conflict and confusion.
After you have established good groundwork you can always go back to these basic building blocks. This is whether you want to calm an anxious horse or go back to basics when complex movements are going wrong. Hawson states that the essential groundwork exercises are a great way to reduce a horse’s alertness (arousal) and increase performance.
Booth states that people who have mastered groundwork can begin with horses as young a year old. These children can learn to walk, stop, lead, pick up their feet and load on a trailer. They also get touched or spray all over. Unskilled trainers will do better to take on the task as our mistakes could cause long-lasting confusion.
He warns that “we can easily ruin horses with training mistakes when they are babies.” It’s a crucial learning period for horses, and if they learn something that we don’t want (such as conflict behavior or a freehand approach to being touched), it’s much harder to remove later.
Less fear, more safety
Ground is the best place to teach horses how to accept scary things. Flapping flags, crackling of tarps and flapping of coats are all ways to get your horse airborne. You can save your neck and your horse’s neck by getting your horses used to these stimuli.
Hawson states that “Groundwork certainly has the benefit of making horses more safe for both horse- and human-related injuries,” Hawson said.
Foster is in agreement. Foster agrees.
However, just because you are on the ground does not mean that the danger is gone. A scared horse could run over someone or kick out to defend themselves. Don’t forget to wear your protective gear, such as sturdy boots and a helmet.
Hawson says that the helmet can sometimes cause headaches and itchy skin. “But I have put a lot into this brain, so I want to keep it working as long as possible.”
It is impossible to cover all aspects of a great groundwork program in one article. We can however share the most important concepts from our sources. A good groundwork program should be focused on the following:
- Separate the front and back legs
- It is important to focus on the individual and not the environment
- Reduce the head
- Desensitization/habituation (getting used to scary objects);
- Removing pressure
- Step forward and back up
- Longeing (with frequent movements in direction and gait)
- Sending the horse out, over and around and under everything;
- Standing still;
- Moving sideways
- Control without physical contact;
- Holding a foot high.
Horses of any age can do the same exercises (as long as they are at least 3 years old), but the horse’s level of experience will determine which exercises work best. He might need to be trained more often if he hasn’t done it before. Horses with more experience might only need occasional reminders or maintenance training. To reverse the negative reactions they have learned, horses that were badly trained will require more training than those who aren’t.
—Christa Leste-Lasserre, MA
From Soil To Saddle
Hawson states that “with well-thought out cue systems, groundwork provides stepping stones to the driven or ridden responses.”
Horses’ readiness to ride can also be determined by their groundwork. His reactions to us, our cues and unexpected objects and sounds can give clues as to his likely behavior under saddle. Booth states, “If I couldn’t control a horse’s feet (wherever they move) on ground, I wouldn’t get on his back.”
Hawson adds that it’s the best place to correct many of our riding mistakes. There are many mistakes we make, such as not releasing pressure in the right timing. This can “detrain” our response. She says that you can expect 10% to 15% deterioration in your training sessions from one session to another, possibly due to previous training sessions that detrained a fundamental. This can occur in higher-level ridden training, as the cues are made closer together.
It can be dangerous for riders if a cue is lost or dampened, whether it’s to turn, move forward or stop. Hawson states that the saddle is not the place to fix this. “Safety first my friends!” Before you mount, practice a delayed response on ground.
The HTML0-C Warmup
Do you want to take a quick ride and just put the saddle on? This might not be a good idea. Do you think you would ever take off from an airport without knowing that the plane is working correctly? Booth says, “No. You wouldn’t.” You shouldn’t do that for horseback riding. For that, exercises on the ground can be helpful.”
The “preflight check”, also known as the pre-riding groundwork, provides critical information about a horse’s responsiveness and whether it’s a good time to ride him. “You might just need to do some repetitions to re-establish the cue-response-reinforcement chain before getting on,” Hawson says.
Foster begins her preflight checks as soon as she takes her horse from the paddock or barn. She says, “I inspect how he leads and how he reacts to me grooming him.” “I want him to be alert, sensitive, and responsive. These are all key indicators of how he feels that day.
Booth believes groundwork allows him to verify the Three C’s of control, confidence and connection. Booth asks, “Do I have control over the horse’s feet?” “Does he trust me enough to have faith in me?” Are we communicating well with one another? Do we have a mental connection?
I would not get on a horse’s back if he was walking on the ground.Andy Booth, Trainer
He says that if one of the C’s is not working, it doesn’t mean that you can’t ride. You will need to do some groundwork to get your horse to where he needs.
Pre-ride sessions last between 10 and 15 minutes. This helps riders to check for their horse’s soundness. Watching the horse’s movements can help them spot any discomfort or asymmetries.
Groundwork is also a good warm-up. “His back can heat up better without your help,” Booth says. Groundwork can also move the saddle in place and allow you to adjust the girth before mounting.
Although longeing is a great groundwork exercise, it can also be very distracting. Our sources tell us that this is often the case. Hawson states that it is difficult to give consistent and precise cues to horses from the end of a longeline. He also points out that delays or inconsistencies in cueing could easily cause the horse to lose interest in the lessons.
Booth has reservations about longing. Booth says, “If it’s only to move them around mindlessly circles, then that’s more torturous than anything else.” You have to stimulate their minds. You can speed them up or slow them down. You should be patient with them. But, you must also keep your mind open to all possibilities. Do not chase them.
Groundwork, and the Retired Horse
Horses that are older or more injured may not be able to ride anymore. However, this doesn’t mean they cannot have jobs. Groundwork can be a stimulating and beneficial activity for horses’ minds and bodies, as well as strengthening your relationship with them.
Andy Booth, a science-based horse trainer from Australia, says, “I still work mine in the ground.” He lives near Bordeaux, France. “You can’t stop horses from working over night; they will be frightened. They need to be active. You need to keep them engaged. Groundwork is a wonderful thing to do.
Groundwork is a great way to keep their bones and muscles strong, as well as keep them connected to their loved ones. It also allows us to regularly check how they are doing mentally and physically.
Booth says that she works with the animals in the paddock three times per week because they have been trained to work in liberty. I miss them but they don’t require a longe (line). We just share a moment that reminds us that retirement isn’t the end. It’s just another step in our lives.
—Christa Leste-Lasserre, MA
Training for the Human
Groundwork is not something you can train horses in unless you are trained in it. Our sources tell us that there are two steps to this.
The first is to recognize that groundwork is an essential part of equitation. Booth states that “lots of people don’t want to do or learn how it is done.” Booth says that the horse was bought by the owner for the joy of riding and not to be used on the ground. It’s like heaven. Everyone wants to go there but no one wants to die.
He says that groundwork does not have to be a death sentence. Great groundwork can bring you a lot of joy and connection. About half of my time is spent on the ground with my horse. It’s just as rewarding as riding.
Once we realize that groundwork is necessary, we must learn how to do it. It’s not easy to master this art and technique without proper guidance.
Booth says that “Getting good at groundwork can be as hard as getting good riding.”
What can you do to help? Booth suggests that you find a groundwork clinic. If you are unable to find one, an online class is an option. You can also read a book about the subject.
Hawson states, “I highly recommend Academic Horse Training By Andrew and Manuela McLean.” “They’ve created easy-to-follow reinforcement and cue systems through research that can be used to reinforce the cues under saddle. It can be taken out to the yard and used as a reading aid while you are working.
Jody Hartstone, their student, has turned some of these ideas into groundwork exercises videos that can be found on YouTube.
To find reputable trainers with equitation-science-based techniques, “the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Karen Pryor Academy both include horse divisions, and people can locate certified trainers on their websites,” says Foster. It’s not complete or exhaustive, but it is a good start.
McLean’s website esieducation.com also contains a list of international trainers in equitation science.
Horses are intelligent and have a lot to offer other than their backs. Horses can also be dangerous and could cause injury to us or worse. Our sources tell us that more scientists and trainers are recognising groundwork as a crucial part of equitation. They use more welfare-friendly methods. Groundwork can enhance the horse-human relationship and lead to safer sessions on the saddle. It also serves as a fun tool that allows for better control, confidence and connection with the animals we love.