Groundwork… haven’t felt the benefits yet? Maybe because it is the “boring bit” of training horses?! But if you realised that you were training your horse (or your horse was training you!) every time we interacted with them, perhaps we would all pay a little more attention to our daily handling of our horses! By viewing groundwork as everything from leading your horse in from the field, picking out his hooves and changing his rugs to exercising in hand through lunging and longlining, I guarantee that not only will your horse not challenge you on the ground, but you will also feel the difference in your ridden work.
Without realising it, we can let horses perform a subtle “takeover” if we are not focused on what we are doing, which can lead to your horse either lacking respect (bargey, stubborn) or lacking trust (flighty, anxious). Those slight hesitations when we ask our horse to go forward can turn into planting or refusing to load. Those sideways spooks that make you jump out of your horse’s way can lead to them running over the top of you or taking off with you skiing behind. Those ears back and a turn of the hindquarters at feed time can end up with a full blown kick one day. I know the most easy and generous of ponies slowly turn into little monsters for their young handlers if they are not reminded of the basics of trust and respect every now and again!
On Tuesday, I did a demonstration for Centre 10’s advanced coaches and worked with Wonderland, a lovely young mare that was proving to be spooky on the ground and when ridden. Her owner, Alice, is a very accomplished horsewoman, but when Wonderland spooked on the ground, Alice was moving out of her way. Those small steps were unnoticed by Alice, but were huge for Wonderland, who felt like she had to keep herself safe (and therefore let her flight instinct take over) rather than looking to Alice for confidence and leadership. This quick video clip shows part of a demo where I was teaching Wonderland to stay in an imaginary “box” beside me. I was encouraging her to investigate spooky objects, but staying out of my space in the process. This idea was extended when Alice rode her later in the demo. I asked her to focus on certain points of the arena and ride with positivity and straightness towards them, avoiding spooky areas until she took Wonderland to investigate them on her terms.
Another very common example of a horse taking over on the ground is when they are described as having separation anxiety. This can mean that you find it hard to tie your horse on the yard, leave them on the horsebox, or tack them up at an event without them creating a scene or jumping all over you! When a horse is in this state, they are only focusing on where their mate has gone, rather than you. However, you can take back control by teaching your horse my tying up exercise. This exercise is absolutely key to having a settled horse and will enable you to “park” your horse wherever they are tied up and whatever is going on around them. They learn to focus on you and stand where you want them to. Yes, it may take a lot of patience and repetition to get them to this point, but surely it is worth it when you have the choice of getting on a plunging, nervous wreck at an event, or a calm unflustered horse?!
So for all you groundwork sceptics out there, please do take some time out to notice how you and your horse are interacting on the ground and who honestly is in charge!