Ground Work: Part 1
July 3, 2020
The single most important thing for riders to do with their horses and the one thing that is not done the most.
The very first thing my wife and I learned when we got our first horse was how critically important ground work is. Its more about developing a trust relationship with your horse than it is about exercise or training. So much is learned while doing ground work for new horse people than at any other time. It is also something that should be done regularly to continually strengthen the bond between horse and rider. Everything and I do mean everything done on the ground translates to time in the saddle.
There’s something I’ve got to say about the word training and how it relates to horsemanship. As a human you have to understand that horses already know how to be horses. We as humans often approach horsemanship at the beginning as though these animals know nothing which simply isn’t true. By the time they reach 2 years old they’ve forgotten more about how to be a horse than we’ll know in a life time. So, the word training applies mostly to the human rather than the horse. The human must learn how the horse thinks and communicates. Therefore we must learn how to speak their language, operate in their culture so that we can develop a proper relationship and line of communication with them. It is our desire to be with them that brings human and horse together, so the onus is on us to learn and be trained.
I’ve been around the barn when I’ll overhear someone complaining about how their horse behaves for them. Eventually, I’ll ask them, “how much ground work and what kind do you do with your horse?” I see them riding a lot, but I never see any basic ground work being done. This is something Jody preached to us constantly when we were brand new horse people. No matter how long you’ve been with your horse you never get done doing ground work. Often the answer I get when I ask that question is, “well, they just won’t listen to me!” And of course, my response to that is, “no kidding?” My next question is, “how are you asking them?”
Remember, you’ve got to put in the time and develop a trust relationship so that when you ask your horse to do something they’re more apt to try and do what you’re asking. Its critical that you recognize them trying. If you miss the try then you’ve missed an opportunity. The human got it wrong, not the horse. The very moment you realize and accept this truth is the moment your relationship with your horse and how you train with your horse begins to dramatically change. Notice I said train with your horse and not train the horse because you’re both in training. The human more so than the horse.
My Wife and I got Belle as a yearling in April of 2014 and she would turn 2 that July. She was too small to ride and besides… we had no idea how to ride. So, the first year we had her all we did was ground work. That time we spent with her has paid off in spades over and over and over again. We have an incredible relationship with her. She still acts up now and then… she still gets in a mood now and then… but as we worked on the ground with her we began to learn how things work with horses and how they think.
One of the biggest things I learned about horses is this: in the field among the horses in that herd, they don’t care who is in charge as long as someone is in charge. And that someone must be trustworthy. If they’re deemed not trustworthy they’ll never lead the herd. Believe it or not that leadership changes regularly; sometimes daily! At the time we didn’t realize that by spending all that time working with we were creating a bond with her. When we finally realized this we determined that no matter what we’d always return to our roots on a regular basis.
Without having melt downs, or pitching a fit, or getting angry with the horse when she wouldn’t do what we were asking her to do we worked from the premise that we weren’t asking in a manner that the horse understood. Which, in turn caused us to learn how the horse thinks and understands things. As we got better at this we started having more and more successes and fewer failures training with her. Thing is, while we were training her she was training us! Its a two way street as any real relationship is. Remember, horses are herd animals and as such are always looking for a leader. That is the beginning of Wisdom when it comes to being a good horseman.
If you take the time to learn how to communicate with your horse you’ll end up having conversations rather than arguments. If you educate yourself first you’ll find working with your horse on the ground becomes some of the most precious and rewarding times you’ll have with your horse.~Mark Weaver
If you're willing to learn there are many teachers. Not all of them are human!