Building solid foundations = good groundwork

Where it started

For a lot of us ‘horsey people’, our love affair with these gorgeous animals began with an ineffable desire to ride or be around them. This quickly turned into the unadulterated obsession to ride a horse, followed by subsequently endeavouring into whichever discipline or path most appealed to us – and that’s kind of where it ended. For me it was always the thrill; that absolute freedom that comes from sitting atop a horse’s back while we gallop or canter down a beach or along a greenbelt. For others it’s the excitement of the show arena, cross-country, jumping or practicing the art of dressage.

Where it went

For me, and some others, that journey went further.. I became really interested in how horses think and what makes them do the things they do. I learned a lot about them through working on the ground with them.

For some people, as they progress, the art of riding takes a back-seat to actually learning and playing on the ground with their horse. Once they learn about and start practicing various ground-work techniques, it can become more interesting and rewarding than the actual riding which was the initial draw for them in the first place.

People often only discover this when riding isn’t an option. For instance, the rider or horse could be injured. There could be various reasons that produce a set of circumstances where riding is no longer feasible – but when ground-work becomes the only alternative, riders are almost universally surprised at how much fun it can be!

What is groundwork?

The word ‘groundwork’ is synonymous with foundations in many diverse practices from business to ballroom dancing. Ground-work with horses is training, learning, and playing with your horse done on the ground that goes beyond running her around in circles on a lunge. This groundwork also builds the foundation of a solid relationship with your horse, while also gaining a real understanding of your equine partner. So good ground-work with your horse = good groundwork for your relationship. There are many ground-work methods used in compassionate training, including the ideas of people such as Pat Parelli. Such methods are too numerous to go into detail about here but, suffice to say, all the techniques I use have their merits.

The how and why

Woman and horse engaging in ground-work outside So, what is it that makes this activity such fun? Well, ground-work is very effective for interacting with your horse on both a physical and mental level. It’s fun for the horse, so it should naturally be fun for you too.

Mentally, it’s a great way to show your horse that you are a trustworthy, reliable, and consistent partner (as discussed in this previous post). Often, it is also a safer way to address whatever ‘issues’ your horse may have developed for any variety of reasons.

There are many aspects of groundwork that make this a physically beneficial activity too; a good example would be training a young horse or a horse that struggles with balance. This is especially true of horses who struggle with anxiety at faster gaits. When going into a canter for instance, they will feel like they’re losing their balance, resulting in them becoming stressed out and anxious.

For me, the best way to deal with both anxiety and balance issues, is taking the rider out of the equation and working with the horse on his own to get his body and co-ordination working properly first. Teaching them to figure out their balance on the ground is a lot easier and kinder to them without the added stress of a human body on their back.

Many people are coming to realize the huge benefits of ground-work and have made it a part of their weekly regime with their horses. I know of people who have stopped riding altogether and prefer to solely spend time on the ground with their horse.

You will find that when you start working on the ground with your horse there are many more things you can explore and learn about your horse than you can in the saddle alone. Ground-work is almost guaranteed to deepen and strengthen the relationship between the two of you, as long as you remain patient, consistent and respectful towards your horse as you learn and practice the techniques.

A first-hand account

One of our regulars, Niki, provided us with this insight into her introduction to groundwork:

I always thought of horses as majestic, awe-inspiring and mostly friendly animals that were pretty much there to bribe with apples, ride on and rub down. Before coming to lease my first horse a few months ago, I had some experience riding with my best friend as a child, and then would ride on and off whenever I got the chance as I got older. I’m still a real novice in terms of ability and technique, but my understanding of these animals has deepened immeasurably since encountering The Whole Horse philosophy.

Until I started working with Tamsin, I had never really made mental room for the fact that horses are fascinating, quirky animals with behaviours and dynamics, stemming from them being both herd and prey animals. These are things many riders never even consider. This is not to say that horses don’t have personalities – I have yet to meet one that doesn’t!

A while back, I started out as a pretty green rider on, shall we say, a ‘sportscar’ of a horse. Needless to say, he wasn’t too impressed with my amateur technique, and I was pretty nervous about getting things right and not falling off while checking my diagonal. The more anxious I got, the more wound up he got, until I was at a point I was scared to ride. He’s a rescue saddler, and I don’t know what scars lie in his past, but when I first started riding him, he spooked pretty easily because he picked up on my ever-mounting anxiety (the fact that I actually suffer from chronic anxiety didn’t help at all). I wasn’t able to be the leader he needed, and I didn’t quite know how to change that.

I was too nervous to ride him on my own and I asked Tamsin to show me how to do some groundwork with him as she and his mom would be away for a while and I didn’t want to leave him all on his own (because this  boy deserves nothing but spoiling – yes, he is and always will be my first horse love). We started out with basic things, getting him to move his feet, followed by desensitising. We added direction and speed changes into the mix, and while everyone was away, I visited him 3 times a week and we did little 30-minute sessions together for a couple of weeks.

Ground-work between Niki and PhilI can honestly say that everything changed after that. We actually developed a proper relationship, and I came to know this quirky, dorky, affectionate nature and was forever smitten. I won’t say my fear vanished, but I will say that doing ground-work made all the difference in the world to both my anxiety and his. I stopped being afraid and actually started making progress.

For various reasons, I now lease another horse, whose nature and personality I have also come to love. It’s a new lease at this point, but I have decided that I won’t be fully comfortable or committed to her until we’ve done groundwork together, which I have now started. I’ve been reading up on the 7 Pat Parelli games  and we’ve started playing the games. Each time we do, I gain a new closeness and respect for her, and I hope, her for me. I never dreamed that one day, a horse would follow me around a paddock because I had taken the time to interact and play with her as another horse might (Parelli’s methodology), but that’s how it’s turned out. There is no feeling quite like walking slowly away from a horse and a second later, feeling a big muzzle resting on your shoulder – I get goose bumps just thinking about it.

I can’t say what horses will come and go in my future, but what I will say is that I would never like to regularly ride a horse that I haven’t done groundwork with – it’s the ultimate playdate. How can we trust each other if we’re not friends? How can I lead if I haven’t asked politely for respect? I may be new to this, but my opinion so far is that these two things have been easier to accomplish on the ground first and then in the saddle.


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