July Blog - Groundwork

Finally got around to writing my July blog after a busy few weeks. I have found my focus spinning in lots of directions from training for and passing my LGVC+E (Artic) license, preparing for carriage driving shows with my partner Roy, coaching riders, online meetings with fabulous coaches and getting my own horse out to a show or two!

I want to write about something which came up in a conversation I had with a client recently – groundwork. I was asked if do groundwork, or if it was not my thing. The question was relating to whether I offered it as a service really as opposed to doing it in general, but it made me think. I do indeed. I don’t think I could start to resolve any training issue or teach a horse something new without groundwork.

Groundwork, regarding horses could mean different things to many people. As with all things equestrian, there are often variations of opinions and new methods sometimes clash with older style teaching, but I would say, on the whole sensible handling of horses using common sense should remain a constant theme. I tend to relate back to my own values when looking at any methods used in training horses to do anything. I am happy to try new things so long as the horse has time to understand the question asked. I do not like to see horses confused and scared. If I see that reaction, I will go back one step to explain better. My aim is to educate a horse to do more or less what I need him/her to do in my environment. I am a showjumper, so that is what I focus on – the skills and attributes needed to succeed and be manageable in a showjumping world. I also want horses to be well rounded individuals but depending on my time constraints, they may not be so familiar with other surroundings like XC for example. My horse sees carriages regularly and is not bothered by them because she lives with driving horses. I don’t have any intention of driving her, so she won’t be required to wear harness or go in the shafts for example. We do flatwork (believe it or not! :)) up to an appropriate level for the skills needed in showjumping. There are almost all elements of a top-level dressage test needed as you go through to more technical jumping courses excluding the half pass, piaffe and passage. Half pass could still be used as a tool to relax and soften the horse to lateral aids though. I have heard it said many times that showjumpers don’t do flatwork, and I cannot speak for everyone, but all of the showjumpers I know and respect do. You could not jump off competitively at even 1.10m level without that. So where does groundwork fit in? Right at the beginning and all the way through! I believe it is an important part of communicating well.

I was fortunate enough to learn from some great horse people back in my teens and twenties. Even before then I learned what not to do. I witnessed some horrible things which I knew were not how I wanted to behave around horses. I observed how most horses’ behaviours were the result of how we treated them or their perceptions of how we treated them. By that I mean, they simply didn’t understand something. If they feel under threat, they are programmed to get away as quickly as possible and by any means necessary. It made sense to me to learn how to communicate what I want to the horse, so it was safer for everyone. There’s no better way, in my opinion, than from the ground first.

Learning to long rein properly and get a feel for a horse on the ground is a vital step towards breaking safely and educating the horse in wearing tack, steering, going, and stopping, and desensitising to the feel of your leg on his/her side. When I was learning those skills, I saw so much more of the horse’s natural expressions. I paid attention to the ears, eyes, nostrils, body language and positioning, the tail, and the way the horse moved. Everything was evidence of what could happen next and if the horse was relaxed, listening, confused, or frustrated and possibly angry! I broke horses for many years and there were very few who ever reacted much to a rider because we didn’t get on until they were ready for it.

Sometimes long lining is not used much after the breaking process is done because they are ridden away. It is such a valuable thing to do though, so I use it and lunging with two reins as a way to see and feel more what is going on with the horse and what they are thinking.

I think of groundwork as much more than long lining, that is just one example. When I think of groundwork, I consider everything we do from the ground as a part of that. Literally everything from putting a rug on in the stable to a walk/canter transition on the lunge.

  •  I might not always insist, but my horse does know to stand still whilst I throw her rug on.
  •  Picking out all 4 feet from one side – to save time!
  •  Moving over when I’m mucking out
  • Backing up when I put the hay/feed in
  •  Turning on the forehand when opening/closing a gate
  •  Leading to the field
  •  Loading on the lorry etc. etc.

I know my horse well, but I find that even those I have never met before respond in a similar way to gestures of the hand or my body position. I learned that long before the popular trends of whoever is promoting what method at this time. I don’t want to undermine any of those, and it’s great that people are getting so much information. I could learn a lot from them, I am sure, I am just talking about the simple underlying rules of equine behaviour- that is not new.

So even if you do not know how to lunge with two reins or your horse does not lay down on a tarpaulin, you are doing groundwork every day. Every interaction we have with our horses is either training them or untraining them. Think about that when you ride next time. Can you do something on the ground which would help you in the saddle? We lead from the left – chances are we turn to the left when we walk through a gate or into the stable. We load onto a horsebox and turn left. How well does your horse move laterally from your right leg aid? Does he/she step across with the right hind as easily?  It’s great if you follow a groundwork training plan, but even a small daily variation can help improve communication.