Importance Of Groundwork For Horses
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The Importance Of Getting Your Butt Out Of The Saddle And Doing Groundwork With Your Horse

Groundwork is not some bonding mumbo-jumbo — it is the foundation of training a horse to be a decent citizen.

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Kayli Chadwick

From a non-equestrian's point of view, equestrianism is all about the physical act of riding the horse. But this isn't exactly true.

There is a significant portion of equestrian sport that is spent in the saddle. However, equestrians spend a ton of time on the ground with their horses as well. You could even say that being on the ground is the largest portion of being a rider.

We groom our horses, feed and water them, walk them to and from their pastures and stalls, lunge them, trailer them to and from trail rides, clinics, and shows, clean their living areas, etc. This isn't exactly a full list of all ground activities required to take care of horses, but these actions take hours upon hours of time.

A lot of our deepest connections with our horses happen on the ground. It is where our horses are able to see the full range of human body language, and it is the same for us when visualizing equine body language. We see what makes them curious, what makes them tick, what makes them happy. We are better able to see their expressions and what reactions they have to different things.

These aspects that we learn about our horses on the ground translates to how we work with them under saddle.

Working with horses on the ground directly effects how strong of a relationship you have with a horse. It is why when there is trouble under saddle, trainers will often restart with groundwork. When something is unclear under saddle, there most likely is something that needs to be addressed with the horse's ground manners.

Of course, this is not necessarily true with every problem that arises with horses when being ridden.

There are a number of reasons why a horse may "misbehave" under saddle, but when medical reasons and ill-fitting equipment is ruled out misbehavior and confidence issues that occur under saddle also happen on the ground. They need to be addressed on the ground before moving on to advanced steps under saddle.

Photo Credit: Kayli Chadwick

Misbehavior and confidence problems can be addressed on the ground as a stepping stone, similar to how we work with youngsters that are old enough to begin adjusting to having a saddle on before the actual act of riding them.

From the time they are young foals to leggy three-year-olds, we spend years getting them used to humans by grooming them, feeding them, introducing new horses to them and just generally being in their presence. A horse's youngest years are vital for learning and, not all, but a majority of insecurities adult horses have are rooted to problems that arose and was not addressed in their groundwork training in their younger years — before they were ever ridden.

If a horse is not confident in himself or hasn't learned to understand boundaries on the ground, they will not be confident or a decent citizen under saddle.

Horses are creatures with exceptional vision and have a unique ability to pick up even the smallest of signals. They are incredibly sensitive to body language, and can be easily offended depending on how sensitive each individual horse is — but they also have a desire to understand us.

"They want to see us, to make eye contact with us. We can't get that sitting behind their heads up on their backs where they can rarely focus on us." Robin Foster, PhD, Cert. AAB, IAABC, a certified horse behavior consultant.

However, when modern science says horses have a desire to understand us, that doesn't necessarily mean they hold a desire to respect humans for the sake of morals.

Horses do not have the moral capacity to respect manners in a classic sense, but they do have a desire to understand and learn boundaries from humans just like they instinctively desire to do so with other horses. In other words, they want a pecking order.

This is where safety comes in. Whether the root of the problem is confidence or a lack of understanding that they can't walk ahead of their handler or knock them over, good groundwork helps establish boundaries with an animal that can potentially be incredibly dangerous.

Using my own horse as an example, I established boundaries with him from the moment I owned him as a late two-year-old. At that time he was, and still is, incredibly sensitive about body language. He is a very kind and quiet horse, but I still needed to let him know in a sense, what is and is not OK when I am around him.

As a result, he is very aware of what I need from him to the extent that if I gently place a hand on his shoulder and a hand on his hip, he will calmly sidestep away from me. The groundwork skills my horse and I have built together isn't always so formal, because it doesn't necessarily have to be.

The confidence you help your horse build doesn't equal rigorous training 100% of the time — because honestly where is the fun in that?

Boomer and I will have "spa days" where all we do for hours upon hours is hang out with each other. I'll take my time grooming him, scratch all of his itchy spots, turn on fun music on the stable's radio, turn him loose to pasture while I read a book on the fence, give him a bath so he smells like the gorgeous flower that he is and just relax.

And as odd as this may seem, this is groundwork. I don't do spa days all the time with him, but I do these days to establish that it is OK to relax given he is generally a very sensitive and timid horse.

I do these things specifically for him, I would not necessarily do the same action items with every horse I work with.

We have these days along with our more "formal" groundwork exercises that are mainly for building confidence for him, and it has worked for both of us. As far as I can tell, the results have shown.

Boomer is still timid, but more confident on the ground and under saddle than he was as a youngster, and has won numerous championships under the unique groundwork and under saddle training program I have built for him. I have no doubts that the results of his trust in me and our shows would be very different if I didn't have these "spa days" as well as the more formal confidence building groundwork.

As it does with many of the horses I see under training with trainers, who begin with ground work training to see where a horse's level is at, even if the horse is seasoned under saddle. Science confirms it and the results show when we compete that groundwork is a foundation for building all horses. It builds up youngsters and rebuilds adult horses that lack confidence and are confused about boundaries.

It is a form of training every equestrian can and should use for all horses, no matter the discipline.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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