From the way some present it, you’d think good horse training ground work requires a deep knowledge of trick training, horse whispering (a misnomer for sure), professional stature or hundreds of hours in planned activity.
Nope. All you really need is common sense mixed with a bit of horse sense. That’s something that can be applied by novices and, sadly, isn’t always by those calling themselves professionals.
Effective ground work – particularly when you’re focused on young horse training – requires mindfulness. If you’re not paying attention to how you’re interacting with your horse at all times, you’ll miss what he’s trying to tell you. Plus, he’ll get confused when you suddenly change your language.
Simply put, ground work is every you do with your horse when you’re not riding him.
- Leading to the pasture
- Preparing for vet visit demands
- Holding for the vet
- Preparing for the first blacksmith visit
- Handling during blacksmith sessions (you have taught him to pick up his feet already, right?)
- Quiet time you spend together in the barn or pasture
- Introductions to tack, long lines, lunging, an area specified for training work and the trailer
- Any time you spend together learning from each other when you’re not in the saddle
Sure you can get into fancy stuff to keep your horse (or more often you) entertained, but the lasting lessons will come from the daily, more mundane tasks.
Here’s the thing about ground work – it all counts. Most fail to recognize this.
Do you blame your horse for being disrespectful after you taught him to bolt from you at the gate because you’ve been in a hurry the last few dozen times so release the halter halfway through?
Do you get annoyed when you decide you want him to walk his shoulder to yours after you spent the last month leading three horses at a time or chatting with your friends not noting where your horse is while you trek to pastures together?
Do you rush through grooming with a “buck up” attitude when she tries to tell you something’s uncomfortable?
Do you make time together stressful, frightening or painful then wonder why your horse doesn’t gallop to you when you call?
It’s not so much about what you do, but much more about what you don’t do.
Smart strategies for successful ground work training
First, don’t think you need to be a seasoned equine professional to be good at ground work. Just use your head. What’s important is that you notice things, are consistent and work to ensure your horse understands what you want.
This doesn’t require a “teach them respect” tactic (this is particularly counter-productive with Alphas – you must earn this). Nor is it effective to take a “let’s all be friends” approach. Like kids, horses won’t understand what you want unless you’re clear about it. Sometimes this entails setting some boundaries. Other times, there’s a need to listen.
If you pay attention, you’ll be able to pick up a whole lot from your horse to help you get where you want to go (no horse whispering certification necessary).
Using ground work to address horse issues and personalities
I’ve found it easiest to get the best read on a horse’s personality by watching him with a herd. Don’t assume the bully is an Alpha. More frequently, this is a scared horse pretending bravado. Instead, watch which horses they buddy up with. See how the herd responds to them (your Alphas are generally followed and not feared – that bully at the water trough or round bale is usually avoided, not revered).
Sometimes there’s history that needs to be worked through. A horse’s past is going to affect how she responds to you in the present. Know this and adjust your approach appropriately.
Are you dealing with an Alpha (be sure) that’s intimidated or bossed a former owner? This requires a stand your ground approach (NOT aggressive or inciting) where you calmly ride through the tantrum as you continue to ask for cooperation. So, let’s say you’re dealing with a bolter at the gate. Secure the horse (if this means putting a chain over the nose so she doesn’t burn your hands as she rips the lead rope through them, do this – just know how to use it right first) so you have enough control to get through the gate and shut it behind you. DON’T pull on the lead. Let her pull against it if she wishes. Slacken your hold as you can. Turn her to face you and the gate. Wait to release her until she stands quietly.
Do you suspect (or know) your horse has been abused or neglected? Trust issues are going to surface here, requiring a very different approach. This horse will initially assume you’re not going to keep him safe and comfortable. Short, easy, patient lessons are best here. Can you find a favorite place to scratch? Go there any time he gets brave. Did he let you brush his belly (for a few seconds) without jumping away for a change? Spend a few minutes rubbing his “oh, that feels so good” spot. Having trouble leading? Work on short distances, quit early and give lavish praise. Make your requests of him short and your time helping him feel comfortable long.
Getting to know your horse
Perhaps the biggest value of ground work – particularly with young horse training or work with horses that have issues borne from prior history – is, done right, it helps you get to know your horse.
If something isn’t working, try a different approach. Yes, with certain horses, you need to finish the lesson, but that doesn’t mean you must insist she work off the cues you choose.
Watching how your horse reacts to the little things you do daily will teach you a lot about him too.
Everything you do is teaching him. Don’t forget that and you’ll learn to master ground work training in ways you never imagined. The added bonus is, with a bigger focus on what happens on the ground vs. in the saddle (hopefully those aren’t happening at the same time), you’ll be able to create an incredible bond with your horse. That mutual understanding will morph so it seems all you have to do is think a thought and your horse responds with your wishes.
Have fun with this. Then, your horse will too.