Training horses can be quite a challenge, especially if they are intelligent. Horses are flight animals by nature so when it comes to riding them, it can be pretty daunting as you never know when fear may take the reins. Over the past couple of years, Carrie and I have spent a lot of time working on the ground, and now we are happily riding, as though she’s been the perfect horse all along.
Years ago, I’d read a lot of different books from those experienced in ‘natural horsemanship. One of the books by Pat Parelli mentioned that most of the training is done on the ground, not in the saddle but it took my own experience to be able to translate that. These are the five things that I’ve taken away from groundwork.
1. Learning your horse’s behaviour
Riding poses a much greater risk than being on the ground so when training in the saddle, I was a lot more nervous than when I was on the ground. Working with Carrie on the ground gave me the opportunity to understand her better and eventually anticipate her reactions (without fear being in the mix). When we then moved to ridden work, I wasn’t worried about a little spook or how she’s holding her head as I understood her movements better.
2. Building your horse's trust in you
Carrie will do almost anything I ask when I’m on the ground. Being able to see me, gave her a chance to communicate with me clearly and vice versa. I was able to show her what I wanted and if necessary, guide her. That’s not something you can do easily in the saddle as they don’t know what all the commands/aids mean. On the ground, you can use body language to communicate, in a way that a horse can clearly understand.
As time goes on, they learn to trust you. Carrie knows that I won’t do anything to hurt her. We are both happy when we accomplish our daily goal, but we got to that scenario by working together.
3. Becoming creative
So many equine exercises are ridden ones. There are the basic groundwork exercises but quickly, Carrie and I got bored of those. She’s clever so I needed to find ways of building up her fitness in a fun way.
Being limited to groundwork inspired by creativity as a trainer. Every day, I would try to find something different to do or to at least change things up a little so that Carrie would enjoy our sessions.
Groundwork offers a lot of potential for mental stimulation as well as fitness since there isn’t the risk of falling off. You can include props and try to focus on unconventional aids. The only real downside is that it’s a lot of exercise for you as well as the horse.
4. Building skill
One of my favourite things about groundwork is giving the opportunity for Carrie to figure things out for herself, without any interference from me. I could observe her, and she could gain her confidence with whatever challenge I presented her with. For example, learning to canter on a circle, with a couple of poles is unthinkable for us ridden, but she’s managed to figure it out quite quickly by herself on the lunge. Basically, groundwork allows us to build a very strong foundation so that when we move to ridden work, she is confident in her ability. We did a lot of pole work on the ground, so when we moved to ridden pole work, she was completely unfazed (something I didn’t expect).
5. Building strength
I’ve written a whole post on this before but groundwork was crucial for us to get Carrie to a point where she felt strong enough to carry a rider. It was the healthiest way for her to gain muscle and we didn’t have to worry about the consequences of a rider. Within a few weeks, she was more than happy to have me on board.
The power of groundwork shouldn’t be underestimated as it allows us to truly bond with our horse. The only downside is that it can be hard to find different, fun session ideas.