Recent comments on a Meredith Manor Facebook page got me thinking about the importance of groundwork with our horses. One alumnus asked for suggestions about a herd bound horse. Working the horse in the same pasture as his buddies was her only riding option. The horse worked willingly when riding toward the other horses but stubbornly resisted when turning away from them. Another wondered how to help a filly too scared to leave her side when she tried to work the baby horse from the ground in an arena. These are tough problems but the answer to both is thoughtful, consistent groundwork that establishes the handler as leader of the herd in the horse’s mind.
In our training classes, we teach students to ‘heed’ rather than merely ‘lead’ their horses. The idea is to be totally focused on your horse from the moment you open the stall door and greet him, to the moment you put him away. You cannot ask the horse to give you his full attention if you do not give him your full attention first. That means putting aside your usual mind chatter, shutting off your cell phone, and limiting conversations with friends until your horse is put away.
Teaching a horse to heed is a step-by-step process. We start baby horses at liberty, and then apply the same principles to moving them on a lead line. With some horses, you might start on the lead line. Either way, the sequence of mental and physical pressures you use is the same. First, you pay attention to the speed and direction the horse offers and MATCH it. Then you use your body language to SHOW the horse a change that’s just a step away from that. You SHOW him the change you want until he consistently matches you. Now you have reached the point where you can ASK the horse and expect the response you want. When the horse consistently understands what you want and offers it, only then is it fair to TELL the horse what you want and reinforce it with your aids if he refuses.
When the horse matches your requests for basic changes in speed and direction on a lead line, you can add elements that increase the mental and physical difficulty and the subtleties of the communication between you. For example, before I ever get on a young horse, I use groundwork to start showing him how to move away from the pressure of my leg. From my heeding position at the horse’s shoulder, I put the hand with the lead behind my back and use my other hand (or the butt end of my whip if the horse is large) and apply pressure where the leg will be. Initially, a horse will move into pressure. He needs to learn to move away from it. Since release from pressure is the greatest reward, I repeat the pressure until the horse moves away from it, even a tiny bit, and immediately release it. By the time I get in the saddle, the horse understands a little bit about communication from the rider’s leg and we have a good start. Again, I follow the training sequence of show, ask, and tell.
Let’s see how this might apply to our Facebook questions. The girl with the herd bound horse might work her horse from the ground on a lead rope until the horse willingly responds on both sides to pressures to start, stop, adjust speed at the walk or trot, circle, turn on the forehand or hindquarters, and leg yield. Once she establishes her leadership on the ground, she can use this new connection in her under saddle work. For example, she might try working in a circle around the herd at a distance the horse is comfortable with. Then she might leg yield to increase the distance rather than riding directly toward or away from the other horses. Incrementally asking the horse to do another thing just one step away from what he is already comfortable with will reinforce her leadership role without pushing the horse so far out of his comfort zone that he reverts to his former stubborn resistance.
The scared young horse considers her trainer ‘the herd’ and she does not want to leave this safety zone. When the trainer establishes her leadership through careful, consistent groundwork on a lead rope, she can gradually ask the filly to expand the distance at which they perform their little pax de deux. As the filly’s trust and confidence grows, their connection should make the introduction to under saddle work easy both mentally and physically.
Groundwork is not just for green horses or resistant horses, however. It can be a great way to introduce new movements such as turns on the haunches or forehand, leg yield or side pass. If an older horse tends to be stiff, exercises on the ground can help supple him before mounting. If you do not have access to an indoor arena, you can create a groundwork exercise program for your horse that can be done in the barn aisle when weather or footing keeps you inside. Groundwork when you cannot ride keeps your horse’s muscles and mind conditioned until you can.
Groundwork can even be done with the horse standing still. Static exercises can help horses work their muscles like crunches and weight lifting can help riders work theirs out of the saddle. Ask your horse to contract his back muscles and lift his belly by pressing your hands or fingers along the midline of his belly. Depending on the horse you may need to wiggle your fingers, tickle, or move your hands forward or back a bit. You can also use your fingers along the rump area down the hind leg to round the horse’s lower back area, you can do one side at a time (be careful not to stand directly behind the horse). Use carrot or apple treats to ask your horse to stretch straight down in front of himself, between his front legs, and along his sides toward the point of his hip and lower down toward his stifle. Experiment to test your horse’s flexibility and work to increase his range of motion. Nerves at the ends of muscles send ‘stop’ messages to the brain to avoid overstretching injuries. Instead of working for duration, hold a stretch for 3 or 4 seconds then release and repeat. With each stretch you should be able to go deeper and see an improvement. A program of static and moving groundwork can be a great way start rehabilitating a horse coming off an injury.
Some riders consider groundwork inferior to saddle time. I encourage them to change their perspective. Think of groundwork as a ‘reset’ button that helps you and your horse become better partners when training issues arise. Horses that have bonded with you definitely work better for you under saddle. My horses love scratches and body work because it feels good and they often scratch me back. Ground work helps with the nervous or scared horse. The routine is very relaxing to them. Think of groundwork as a rehab tool for muscles and mind when injuries sideline your horse. When weather or time pressures keep you from riding, even a short time spent doing groundwork reinforces the mental connection with your horse. Good groundwork will pay dividends whenever you get back in the saddle.
© 2013 Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre. Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett has earned numerous United States Dressage Federation horse awards including Bronze and Silver Medals on horses she has trained. She competes her horses at Training through FEI levels. As a Certified Riding Instructor she brings over 20 years of experience to her position as Head of the Dressage Department at Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre (www.meredithmanor.edu)