Safe and smart groundwork can help build the foundation for a confident, well-behaved horse
Groundwork just isn’t my thing. I’ve grown up loving horses, but I’ve loved being on them, not necessarily standing in front of them. Like many people, I’ve had this idea that horses are supposed to be ridden. So why spend all this time on the ground with them?
Yet if I take a look back, I see that I was spending a lot of time on the ground with my horses. Grooming, washing, and braiding them. Moving their hindquarters over so I could shovel poop around them. Feeding them hay, grain, and endless carrots. Leading them over the bridge in my backyard because Dad wouldn’t let me ride over it. Hugging them tight for a good cry over some boy. And most of all, playing hide and seek with them, again and again and again, around the paddock trees.
I admit, this is where the real relationships grew. This is where the connections were made that continued up in the saddle later.
While we might love to ride, it’s critical to remember that our horses are also attentive, sensitive learners on the ground. Equitation scientists, veterinarians, and trainers agree: Here lies the foundation for strong relationships, safe habits, and good learning. Let’s look at how and why groundwork works, when done skillfully and responsibly, with the horse’s nature and welfare in mind.
Communicating and Connecting
Horses are creatures with exceptional vision. Their large, broadly placed eyes and innate ability to pick up discrete signals are fundamental to their relationships and communication, says Robin Foster, PhD, Cert. AAB, IAABC, a certified horse behavior consultant and research professor at the University of Puget Sound and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington.
“They want to see us, to make eye contact with us,” she says. “We can’t get that sitting behind their heads up on their backs where they can rarely focus on us.”
In fact, anytime we’re with our horses, they’re watching us. Whether we mean to or not, we’re communicating with them, and they’re reading our movements, says Lesley Hawson, BSc, BVSc, DVM, PhD (Equitation Science), an animal biomechanical medicine practitioner and lecturer at Charles Sturt University, in Australia.
With good communication on the ground, we can “connect” with the horse—have a sort of body-language dialogue in which we understand each other.
“Everything that makes you an understandable being comes from the ground,” says science-based horse trainer Andy Booth, an Australian living near Bordeaux, France. “The relationship people seek isn’t likely to be found on the horse’s back, but on the ground. Certainly the relationships I have with my horses come almost entirely from groundwork.”
“Ground Manners” and “Respect”
Historically, people have considered groundwork a good place to teach horses “manners” and “respect.” Modern science, however, tells us horses lack the ethical considerations that we humans have and can’t really have manners or show us respect.
They can, however, learn to respect rules. “I want to see a horse that understands safety limits, that doesn’t push us or knock us over or step on our feet or walk ahead of us,” Foster says. “He doesn’t feel any moral obligation to do this, so it’s not manners in the classic sense. But through good training he’ll learn to avoid unwanted pressures by following the ground rules we establish and reinforce.”
Booth agrees. “Knowing that a horse can’t be disrespectful, what we’re really expecting on the ground is confidence and control,” he says. The confidence, he adds, is mutual: We need to feel confident about being in close proximity with an animal that has the capacity to be dangerous, and the horse needs to feel confident about being near us.
The Foundation of All Training
Humane, science-based training is founded on educating our horses, not “breaking” them. By educating them on the ground, we’re instilling good learning-theory basics that can improve performance and safety under saddle. We’re also teaching the horse that he can learn.
“Good groundwork stimulates the horse’s brain to increase its problem-solving abilities,” Hawson says. “This is the ‘learning-how-to-learn’ response.”
Booth says groundwork is foundation training at its best for the untrained horse. When done correctly, horses learn simple cues that build upon one another to be more complex. And it teaches them that paying attention to us and listening to our cues can lead to less confusion and conflict.
Once you’ve established good groundwork, you can always return to these fundamental building blocks—whether to go back to the basics when more complex movements start going wrong or to calm an overexcited horse. “The essential groundwork exercises offer a good way to lower a horse’s arousal (alertness) level,” leading to increased performance and safety, Hawson says.
People who’ve truly mastered groundwork can start with horses as young as a year old, Booth says. These youngsters can learn to lead, stop, pick up their feet, load on a trailer, and get touched or sprayed all over. But unskilled trainers would do better to pass on this task, as our mistakes can cause lifelong confusion.
“We can easily ruin a horse with training errors when they’re babies,” he warns. “It’s a critical learning period for them, and if they learn something we don’t want them to (such as conflict behavior that frees them from being touched) during this period, it’s a lot harder to get rid of later.”
Less Fear, More Safety
The ground is the place to teach horses to accept things they might find scary. Waving flags, flapping coats, crackling tarps, swinging or dragging ropes and straps, flying balloons, opening umbrellas, cracking whips—that whole category of terrifying things that cause your horse to become airborne. If you can habituate your horses to these stimuli on the ground, you could literally be saving your own neck, and maybe your horse’s, too.
“Groundwork definitely has the benefit of making horses safer for both horse and human,” Hawson says.
Foster agrees. “Getting them used to all these scary objects before we’re on their backs makes good safety sense,” she says.
Still, being on the ground doesn’t make the danger go away. A frightened horse can run over a human or kick out in defense. So don’t skip the protective gear—sturdy boots and a helmet—just because you’re not sitting 5 feet off the ground.
“Yes, the helmet is itchy and hot and sometimes gives me a headache,” says Hawson. “But I have invested a lot in this brain, and I aim to keep it functioning as long as I can.”
From Soil to Saddle
“With well-thought-out cue systems, groundwork provides the stepping stones to the ridden or driven responses,” Hawson says.
Groundwork also serves as an indicator of a horse’s readiness for riding. His reactions to our presence, our cues, and surprising objects and sounds hint as to how he’s likely to act under saddle. “If I didn’t have control of a horse’s feet (where they move) on the ground, I wouldn’t get on his back,” Booth says.
It’s also the right place to fix many of our riding errors, adds Hawson. We make a lot of mistakes—such as not releasing pressure with accurate timing, for example, which can “detrain” a response. “You can expect a 10% to 15% deterioration somewhere in your training from one session to the next, perhaps due to a previous training session that detrained a fundamental,” she says. “This can happen in higher-level ridden training because the cues start to be made so close together.”
If a cue gets lost or dampened—whether it be to turn, move forward, stop, or hold still—it can be dangerous for the rider. And the saddle isn’t the fixing place for that, Hawson says: “Safety first, my friends! Retrain a delayed response on the ground before mounting.”
The “Three-C” Warmup
Want to just slap the saddle on for a quick ride? Hold your horses, because that might not be a great idea. Would you ever board an airplane without the assurance that someone has checked to see that it’s working properly? “No, you wouldn’t,” says Booth. “And you shouldn’t for a horseback ride, either. Exercises on the ground are there for that.”
Pre-riding groundwork—aka the “preflight check”—reveals critical information about a horse’s level of responsiveness and whether today’s a good day to ride him. “You might just need to do some repetitions to re-establish the cue-response-reinforcement chain before getting on,” Hawson says.
Foster’s preflight checks start the moment she gets her horse out of the barn or paddock. “I check how he leads, how he reacts when I groom him,” she says. “I want to see how alert he is, how sensitive, how responsive, as these are all important clues about how he’s feeling that particular day.”
For Booth, groundwork lets him verify what he calls The Three C’s: control, confidence, and connection. “Do I have control of the horse’s feet?” he asks. “Does he have confidence in me so I can have confidence in him? Do we have a mental connection today—are we communicating effectively with each other?”
If there’s a problem with one of the C’s, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t ride, he says. It just means you needs to go back to some fundamental groundwork exercises to get the horse where he needs to be.
This 10- to 15-minute pre-ride session also helps riders check for soundness. They can watch how the horse moves, noticing if he’s assymmetrical or is showing any signs of discomfort.
As a warmup, groundwork also allows the horse to stretch and get his muscles working, “since his back can warm up better without you on it,” Booth says. And groundwork will move the saddle into place, letting you readjust the girth correctly before mounting.
While longeing can be a good groundwork exercise, our sources say it often isn’t. “It’s hard to apply consistent and accurate cues to the horse from the end of a longe line,” Hawson says, noting that inconsistencies or delays in cueing can easily detrain the responses you’ve taught.
Booth also has reservations about longeing. “If it’s just to move them around in mindless circles, then that’s more torture than anything else,” he says. “You have to exercise their mind. Speed them up, slow them down. Longe them, but work with the mind at the same time. Don’t just chase them around.”
Training the Human
You can’t train a horse in groundwork until you have been trained in it yourself. And that, our sources say, comes in two steps.
First is recognizing that groundwork is an important part of equitation. “Lots of people don’t want to do groundwork or learn how to do it,” Booth says. “They bought the horse for the pleasure of riding it, not to work it on the ground. But it’s like heaven: Everybody wants to go there, but nobody wants to die.”
Still, groundwork doesn’t have to seem like a death sentence, he says. “There’s nothing like the connection and satisfaction you can get from great groundwork. I work my horse about 50% of the time on the ground. And I find it every bit as rewarding as riding.”
Once we accept that we should be doing groundwork, then we have to actually learn to do it. There’s a real art and technique to it, and it’s not something to try without guidance.
“Getting good at groundwork is as difficult as getting good at riding,” says Booth.
So what can you do? Find a groundwork clinic, Booth says. Or take an online class if you can find one. Otherwise, try reading a book on the subject.
“I highly recommend Academic Horse Training by Andrew and Manuela McLean,” Hawson says. “Through both research and practice, they’ve defined easy-to-follow cue and reinforcement systems that translate beautifully to the cues you will use under saddle. You can take it out in the yard with you and read it while you work.”
Their student, Jody Hartstone, has developed some of these concepts into groundwork exercise videos available on YouTube, she adds.
To find reputable trainers with equitation-science-based techniques, “the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Karen Pryor Academy both include horse divisions, and people can locate certified trainers on their websites,” says Foster. “It’s not perfect or comprehensive, but it is a start.”
A list of international equitation science trainers is also available on McLean’s esi-education.com.
Horses are brilliant creatures that have much to offer besides their backs. But they’re also potentially dangerous animals that could injure us—or worse. So more trainers and scientists are recognizing groundwork—using more welfare-friendly methods—as a critical part of equitation, our sources say. Groundwork can improve the horse-human relationship, lead to safer sessions in the saddle, and serve as a fun tool for better control, confidence, and connection with the animals we love.