Riding is easily our favorite part of being around horses. There's no greater thrill than sitting confidently in a saddle as you and your horse fly over the land. It takes skill, stamina, and teamwork to be a good rider, but not all of your horse's training happens with you in the saddle—at least it shouldn't. No matter what kind of horse you have or what kind of riding you practice, groundwork for horses is always important. Too many people say they don't do groundwork because it's unnecessary or even boring. But both those statements are untrue.
Ask any trusted horse trainer, and they'll tell you that groundwork is an essential part of every training program. Here's why.
Improve Your Bond With Your Horse
Groundwork is a surefire way to improve the bond that you share with your horse. Performing groundwork means that you and your horse can work through and overcome challenges together. It also forces you to slow down and refine your signals for improved communication with your horse.
Since your horse doesn't speak your language, they rely on their eyes to tell them important information about you. They watch people closely looking for clues about their moods and behaviors. When you're perched in the saddle, your horse knows you're there, but they can't see you. There's an unavoidable disconnect that makes it difficult to communicate clearly. Groundwork is your horse's opportunity to get to know you better. It's the only real way to form a solid friendship.
Learn to Read Your Horse’s Body Language
Groundwork for horses isn't only about your horse reading you, it also allows you to read your horse. When you're in the saddle, your mind goes in a hundred different directions. You're thinking about your feet, legs, hips, arms, and head while also being aware of the scenery around you. You're thinking about your horse, but you aren't necessarily watching their body language. You might not see when they flare their nostrils or flick their tail.
When you do groundwork, you will quickly learn to read the nuances of your horse’s body language. Groundwork involves learning to control the movement and motion of your horse’s body. The more you practice, the better you'll be at understanding your horse's behaviors and personality. Your perspective from the ground will provide valuable insight into your horse's thoughts and feelings.
Earn Your Horse’s Respect
When you're training an animal that could easily overpower you, respect is paramount. You won't get anywhere with your training if your horse doesn't understand that you are their leader. You want to be friends, but you also want your horse to listen to your commands and know what line to never cross. This process starts on the ground as you teach your horse to respond to your cues.
You know your horse respects you when he never invades your personal space. He takes care to not step on your feet, walk ahead of you, or push you over. Your horse knows that it doesn't matter if you're in the saddle or standing on the ground—you are always the one who calls the shots. As you teach your horse to respect your rules through groundwork, you'll see those same lessons carry over to your riding.
Reduce Fear and Prioritize Safety
As prey animals, there are a lot of things horses are afraid of. Umbrellas, plastic bags, puddles—it's hard to predict what will spook a spooky horse. When you're riding, the appearance of one of these terrifying objects could prove to be disastrous. Your horse could bolt in panic or buck and throw you off. There is always risk, and helping your horse overcome those fears isn't easy.
One of the best ways to help control your horse's fear is to work on desensitization through groundwork. You never want to be in the saddle the first time your horse sees something potentially scary. But if you introduce different objects from the ground, you can gauge your horse's response and help them learn that those seemingly scary things are in fact harmless. Getting your horse used to different stimuli during groundwork could literally save both your lives.
Establish Better Control Over Your Horse’s Movement
As you do groundwork with your horse, you will establish better control over your horse’s movement. Practicing groundwork is about training your horse to move in specific ways when you tell them to. You teach them to recognize cues and move accordingly.
Once you master these skills on the ground, your improved control will also benefit your riding. Your horse will have a better understanding of your expectations and be used to following your lead. You'll also feel more confident in the saddle with a clear understanding of how your horse moves and responds.
Improve the Trust Between You and Your Horse
Groundwork for horses can be a powerful way to develop and improve the trust that you and your horse share. As you do groundwork, you can observe your horse’s reactions to a variety of stimuli in different situations. At the same time, your horse learns that while you ask him to move his body in different ways, you apply and remove pressure kindly without ever actually threatening his safety.
This type of back-and-forth interaction will be the foundation of your relationship. Your horse will learn to predict your movements and interpret your moods. It's your opportunity to prove to them that you will never hurt them or put them in danger. At the same time, you learn to trust your horse's movements and behaviors.
Horse Courses by Elaine Heney
- Listening to the Horse - The Documentary by Elaine Heney & Grey Pony Films
- Shoulder In & Out Training for better balance, bend & topline development with your horse
- Over 110+ Polework Exercises & Challenges to Download
- Dancing at Liberty & Creating Connection with Your Horse (11 lessons) - Grey Pony Films
Groundwork is a powerful tool with many benefits for both you and your horse. If you’re not already doing groundwork with your horse, you might want to start.
Want to learn more about horse behavior? Check out this article on unusual horse behaviors and what they mean.