Understanding Ground Work
When I was younger, I worked mainly as a colt starter. I did not charge enough money, which forced me to take on more horses for training than I really had time to work with. I rushed through ground work, reasoning that my clients paid me for the time I spent on their horse’s back, not on my feet. Doing ground work seemed like a copout, like a lazy way of doing my job. Writing down a ground work session in my training log barely counted. I spent just enough ground time with a green horse to get bucked off less often than I otherwise might have.
Now that I’m older and wiser, I’ve changed my mind about ground work - not just because I don’t bounce as well as I used to, but also because I meet lots of horses, even experienced riding horses, with bad ground manners: horses who drag behind or charge ahead while leading, horses who don’t lead at all, horses who have never learned how to stand tied. Pushy horses, hard to catch horses, head-shy horses. Horses without clear boundaries. Horses who won’t load, horses who won’t give their feet. These horses are not pleasant to be around, or, at worst, unsafe to be around. I should know. I have a dental implant from getting head-slammed by such a horse. The behavioral issues these horses exhibit on the ground tend to show up in their under-saddle work, too. Of course they do - why wouldn’t they? I now think ground work is time well spent, but I still disagree with some of the ideas about ground work I keep hearing:
“Once you can do something with your horse on the ground, you can get on and do it under saddle, no problem!”
Not exactly, or: only to a point. Teaching your horse to follow direction and yield from pressure from the ground before you do it from the saddle is, of course, a good idea. Teaching your horse to respond to voice commands and body language is never wrong. Introducing a new movement like the rein back from the ground makes sense. Horses do connect these dots. Ground work is good preparation for under-saddle work, or a good alternative to under-saddle work if your horse is not rideable. But if your goal is riding your horse, there’s no way around spending time on the horse’s back once it’s safe to do so. From the saddle, you still need to teach your horse to respond to your weight and seat and legs. You still need to teach your horse the language of your back. You still need to learn the language of his back. Ground work can prepare a green horse for carrying a rider. Ground work can contribute to making your horse a better riding horse, but no amount of ground work will replace good riding. Carrying a rider changes the horse’s balance, which means the horse needs to re-learn any movement he already knows without a rider. Ground work can support this process, but it’s not a substitute.
“ Doing lots of ground work will make me a better rider.”
Yes and no. Doing ground work will improve your relationship with your horse. Ground work can teach you about listening to a horse’s body language. Ground work can help you figure out your horse’s personality and training issues. But just doing lots of ground work won’t make you a great rider. Only lots of riding will do that. Don’t get me wrong, You can build a beautiful relationship with your horse without ever being an accomplished rider. But to be a good rider takes flexibiliy, coordination, sensitivity, core strength, the feedback of a good instructor or two - and, above all else, lots and lots of practice in the saddle, every day, for years, for decades. Sorry.
“I barely have enough time to ride! I can’t fit in any extra time for ground work!”
I know this one well because I hear myself thinking it all the time. The truth is, you are doing ground work before and after every ride: catching, haltering, leading, grooming, medicating, holding your horse for the farrier, etc, etc. Every time you handle your horse, you are doing ground work. You are teaching him something you want him to do, or something you don’t want him to do. It’s up to you to reinforce good habits.
“Trainer X has the best ground work method! I’ve gone to his clinic/watched his videos. I bought his online course/special halter/whip/whatever gimmicky thingy. He’s brilliant! Everyone should do it this way! It’s the only correct way.”
You don’t have to follow a particular trainer. You don’t have to use a specific method. You don’t have to use a specific halter or other piece of equipment. It may be helpful to follow someone’s program if you are inexperienced, but it’s not necessary. The best approach for you depends on your goals, the tools you’re comfortable using, and your equestrian background. The important thing is that you are
clear about the things you do and don’t want your horse to learn
able to read the horse’s body language and expression
calm in everything you do. This goes for your movements, your voice, and your emotions.
consistent in your work.
The horsewomen and horsemen I respect the most, the ones whose horses have excellent ground manners, don’t seem to have much in common. Some of them wear jeans, others breeches. Some use rope halters, others swear by lungeing cavessons. Some use flags, some use whips or clickers. But I’ve learned that these differences are superficial. Deep down, they are very similar. All of them move slowly, all of them are fair to the horse, and all of them radiate a calm, unshakeable confidence.