Most horse behavior problems in the saddle stem from issues on the ground, which can be solved from the ground. A common example is a horse running into you or over you while you are leading him, especially when he is scared. That same horse will also run off with you on his back when something spooks him.
There are several advantages of groundwork. First, you have more leverage on the ground. The lead rope and your body weight can be used to your advantage. Second, groundwork allows you to teach your horse the basics: stopping, giving to pressure, backing, and moving front and hind quarters, before you get in the saddle. Your basics should be well established before you get on. Groundwork also lets you know where your horse is mentally before you get in the saddle. Resolve issues before getting on. Finally, do you want a soft horse? Teaching your horse to be mentally and physically soft is easier from the ground then from the saddle!
Why do groundwork? First, you have to handle your horse from the ground so make it an efficient use of your time. Second, groundwork insures that you and your horse are on the same page. It provides you with important information for the day. Is your horse acting spooky, feeling stiff or sore?
Groundwork uses two tools: a well fitting halter (preferably rope) and a twelve-foot lead rope.
The goal of groundwork is getting your horse to do what you ask by simply suggesting it, creating softness. At first your horse may not think this is a good idea. If he does not take the suggestion you will influence him by increasing amounts of pressure until he does what you have requested. Appropriate pressure may be bumping the lead rope or swinging the tail of the lead rope. Use as little pressure as necessary to get the desired result. Use a slight suggestion first, then increase pressure as necessary to get the desired response. Remember the goal is to get the result with the slightest suggestion.
One of the first groundwork exercises to work on is leading. Webster’s Dictionary defines leading as: 1. Coming first, 2. Providing direction or guidance. So…if you are leading the horse it should be following behind and following your guidance. The horse’s front shoulders should not pass the handler’s shoulders. Horses use body language to communicate. If the horse passes you, he is taking the lead. The horse passing you may not be a big deal but it is the horse asking permission to take over. A small correction now will prevent a much larger problem correction later. Teach your horse that if he passes you, you will pick up the lead rope and request that he places himself behind you. This is a respect issue. If he respects you, he won’t bump into you or run you over if something startles him.
Second, work on moving the hindquarters. Think of the hindquarters as the motor of your horse. Having control of the hindquarters is vital. To insure that you have control, drive your horse in a circle around you, tip his nose slightly towards you and step towards his hip. The horse should move his inside hind leg (hind leg closest to you) over and in front of his outside hind leg as his hindquarters move away from you. He should take as many or as few of these steps as you request. As you stop asking for the hindquarters he should continue a step or two until he is facing you. Next, move the frontquarters (shoulders) by tipping his nose in the opposite direction of the previous circle and step directly to his front shoulders. He should move his front shoulders over as far as you request as you begin to work on the other side. It is important to do these exercises well on both sides.
Finally, ask your horse to back up. As your horse is facing you, put a little energy down the rope by jiggling the rope. Slowly increase the energy until the horse takes a step back. Immediately stop when your horse moves back. Release of pressure communicates to your horse that he has done the right thing. Timing is essential.
Now that your horse can complete these exercises and is paying attention to you, you should be able to do less and get more from your horse. Your horse will see you as a true leader and will be happy to follow and respect you.
You have learned to recognize and correct problems on the ground before they turn into disasters in the saddle.
For more information or a private lesson contact Kelli 402-427-5515.