Why We Do Groundwork with Our Horses | Basic Steps and Preparation Tips

While horse-riding is a popular pastime, many do not understand the importance of ground work when working with horses. Ground work is any kind of work or engagement with the horse when you are on the ground, rather than on their backs. Not only do these kinds of activities help build a strong relationship between horse and rider, but they are also vital in order to help create a good foundation for a horse that is well-behaved, confident and easy to work with.

While riding horses is enjoyable, it is also important to remember that horses need help with handling a rider on their back and may need support on the ground. Ground work shows a sensitive side to horses and gives them the time and space they need to work on their technique and prepare for a rider. But don’t just take our word for it – horse trainers, animal scientists and vets all agree that ground work provides a solid foundation for learning and can lead to better relationships between the horse and rider, and better technique over time. Let’s take a closer look at the many benefits of putting in the maximum effort to ground work, and how it can support the wellbeing of these beautiful animals.

To Build Connections

One of the main benefits of groundwork is that it helps build a positive relationship between the rider and the horse. Horse experts explain that this is partly due to a horse’s vision. Horses have good vision, however, due to the location of their eye and how far apart they are, they are not able to pick up many signals from a rider sitting on their back that can help build a relationship. Therefore, putting in the groundwork first can ensure that horses can see the rider and make eye contact with them, establishing a stronger and more trusting bond. The horse can begin to understand your movements, body language and vocal cues that will then benefit the rider when on the horse’s back. This is the reason that many famous trainers spend weeks completing ground work with horses before even considering riding them, as this develops a strong relationship that is the perfect foundation for training to occur.

To Develop An Understanding of the Rules

Before getting on a horse’s back, it is important that they understand the ground rules and have respect for their rider, as this helps facilitate good training and riding. The respect part of this comes from the relationship building that we previously mentioned. On top of this, however, horses can also learn basic rules and are able to retain this information. These basic rules can include safety issues, such as teaching the horse not to push the rider or step on their toes. It can also be around what to do if a car drives past or how to handle obstacles. This is important as it gives the rider confidence that they can move around the horse and ride it without worrying about basic rules.

To Build A Foundation For Other Learning

By following a humane, animal friendly groundwork program that treats the horse well and shows them that you care, it is a great foundation for other learning that occurs when the rider is on the horses back. This could be training for some kind of competition or just improving their general riding technique.

Groundwork has been found to help stimulate the horse’s brain, helping it learn and improve its ability to solve problems. The ideal situation is that groundwork begins with a horse that is totally untrained, as this means that good routines can be set easily from the start. Horses that have been trained differently, however, can also be retained using ground work, but this may take slightly longer. Groundwork can begin with horses from around a year old, however, most start a full routine at the age of 3. At a younger age, however, some basic training can begin with skills such as stopping, leading and picking up their feet being developed. If you are unsure of how to teach this, it is vital that you ask a trainer or expert for their input, however, as mistakes at such an early stage can impact later technique and development and be hard to undo.

To Increase Confidence

Every single horse will be scared at some point in their lives, whether this is from loud noises or obstacles that they do not expect that may jump out at them, such as other animals or cars. Rather than waiting until you are riding a horse to work on this fear, it is important to start doing this as part of your groundwork training. A horse needs to learn to accept that it may find things frightening and understand how it can handle this fear and overcome it.

There are a number of different sounds and objects that can startle a horse, that include balloons, umbrellas opening, flags, other animals, people or vehicles driving close to where it is riding. One of the horse’s natural responses to these frights is to jump or lift up its front legs, which can be dangerous for the person riding it at the time. Groundwork, therefore, makes riding the horse safer, as they are less likely to react so abruptly.

It is important to note, however, that although this reduces the chances of the horse getting a big fright, it does not stop it entirely. Therefore, it is still important to wear protective clothing to help cushion the impact, such as a helmet and good quality riding boots.

To Prepare It For Riding

If you are working with a horse that is not used to being ridden, it is important to ensure that your groundwork routine helps properly prepare them for this. Ground work can help the horse prepare by allowing it to work on following verbal or physical cues and getting used to objects that are out of the ordinary, such as obstacles or noises. This will allow the horse to feel more confident with a rider on its back.

Many horse experts suggest that in order to control a horse properly, you must be able to first control its feet and movements on the ground.

If you are beginning to use the horse for riding, ground work is also the place where you can correct a lot of the errors that you have identified with its technique. For example, if you notice that the horse is releasing pressure at the wrong time, and therefore does not have the correct walking technique, this can be fixed with training on the ground. It is vital that these mistakes are fixed, not only for the health of the horse as it could lead to injury, but also for the safety and security of the rider. 

To Warm Up The Horse

Groundwork is a great way to warm up the horse before taking it riding, no matter what age they are. Like humans, horses should warm up properly before exerting themselves in order to be fully prepared and avoid injuries when exercising.

Warm up ground work does not need to take a long time and can be completed in around 15 minutes. Use it to help prepare the horse, but also to check that it does not have any current injuries or lameness. This is important as jumping straight on to a horse that may be injured can lead to further damage.

Make sure that the horse appears awake and alert and is responding well to you before even starting the groundwork. If they do not, then this may mean that they are not feeling their best and should not be ridden. When looking for injuries, look for the ‘3 C’s’, which stand for control, confidence and connection. It is important to check whether the horse is responding to your movements, is connecting well with the ground and appears confident and ready to ride. If you find an issue with any of these, it is important to perform further checks or work on groundwork for longer until you are happy with the horse’s condition and attitude. If you are still noticing that something is not right, such as the horse appearing asymmetrical or if they look like they are in pain, then at this stage, it is important to allow them to rest and contact a vet who can examine them properly.   

Groundwork in Old or Injured Horses

If you own some horses that have reached old age or have experienced many injuries, you won’t be able to use them in competition or even ride them. Groundwork, however, could not be more important for horses in this situation. This is because the steps and exercises can help keep a horse healthy by stimulating their bodies and working on their mental capacity too. Additionally, this will ensure that your horse also feels supported and connected to you, despite you not being able to ride it any longer.

Groundwork ensures that both the bones and muscles of the horse are kept active but not worked too hard. It ensures that horses stay in a routine and have a purpose, which has a positive impact on their attitude and behaviour. For ill or old horses, it is recommended that you complete this groundwork around three times per week in a small field or paddock, allowing you to spend time with the horse and make it understand that it has not been forgotten.

What Are The Basic Steps In A Groundwork Program?

An effective and thorough ground work program should be detailed and constantly evaluated to ensure that it is getting the best from the horse. Each groundwork program will be different, but there are some key features that every program should cover.  These should include movement, including practising lowering the head, isolating either the front or back legs, moving sideways, lifting or holding up a foot, moving forwards and backwards and allowing it to manoeuvre over, under or around objects. Additionally, tasks that require concentration and patience should also be built-in to a groundwork program. These should include the desensitisation of intimidating objects, standing still, control without physical contact and training the animal to focus on the human rather than the environment.

Once a horse reaches three years old, the same exercises should be used for any age of horse. If a horse is more experienced, you may wish to increase the repetition of these exercises to provide more challenge. A very experienced horse will not need to complete these ground work exercises as often as younger horses, unless they are new to this type of training.

It is important to note, however, that horses who received poor or no training at a younger age will need more training than other horses to help undo any negative habits that they have developed.

In Conclusion

There are many ways to ride a horse, and they are a joy to own however, it is important to recognise that they can be dangerous due to their size. A horse that is untrained or underprepared could injure a person badly. Therefore, putting in the groundwork is important in order to ensure that the horse is prepared and treated with the respect that it deserves. It can lead to a better connection between the horse and owner, improve safety and increase both the horse and rider’s confidence. So, implement it into your training routine today.

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