A Good Grounding

Part 1: Introduction

It all starts here. Ground work helps to create a calm, respectful horse, sensitive to your cues and an eager, willing partner. Through diligent work at the exercises discussed in this series you will establish yourself as a leader, becoming the Boss Horse in your herd of two.

Very little of what follows is original to me. These are basic natural horsemanship techniques I've taken to heart from a lifetime of studying some of the best trainers, clinicians, and horsemen in the world. I have learned something from every one of them. One of the wonderful things about the world of horses is that you never stop learning and finding better ways to communicate.

Some Basics Before You Begin

Tools of the Trade: Effective ground work requires just a few inexpensive tools, including

  • A high-quality rope halter (review this article to learn how to select, fit, and tie it)
  • A 12- to 14-foot lead rope
  • A training stick or whip. I like a 4-foot training stick with a length of heavy cord which can be easily detached. The stick acts as an extension of your arm, allowing you to touch your horse, cue him, or rub him from a safe distance. You can find these online or in many tack and feed stores.

Having an arena or a round pen to work in is a great advantage, but it is not absolutely necessary. You can work in a paddock or pasture if necessary, or in any flat area that is large enough and free of hazards and obstacles. The footing should provide good traction and be free of rocks. Bear in mind that grass can be quite slippery, especially when wet, and a horse can easily slip and fall on it.

Not One Horse, But Two: Like people, horses have two distinct sides to their brains. Unlike people, the right and left sides of a horse's brain don't communicate well with each other, so when working with your horse you are, in effect, working with two different horses. You should therefore always train both sides of your horse: what you do on one side you then repeat on the other. You will find that all horses have a preferred side (a side that is easier to work with, less reactive, calmer) and a side that is harder to work with (more reactive). Most horses will also prefer to keep you on one side and will resist your attempts to get into their other eye. You will need to spend more time on your horse's difficult side in order to balance him.

Body Language: Horses are experts at reading our body language, and with a sensitive horse your body language may be the only pressure you will need to apply in order to get him to move or to stand and relax. The difference between active and passive body language is important. With a sensitizing exercise, you want the horse to move when you wave a stick, swing a rope or otherwise move energetically around him, and you will always use active body language when performing sensitizing exercises. On the other hand, in desensitizing exercises you want the horse to stand calmly while you swing the stick and string, smacking the ground beside him repeatedly. In this instance, you must use passive body language.

  • Active body language starts with facing your horse squarely: both of your eyes should be focused on the part of the horse's body which you want to move. Lean slightly forward from the hips and concentrate, projecting your energy at the horse. There should be energy in your body.
  • To convey passive body language, relax your whole body. Turn your belly button slightly away from your horse so that you are not facing him squarely. Cock your hip, and relax your mind.

Pressure—As Gentle As Possible, As Firm As Necessary: At all times we are looking to cue our horses using the least pressure necessary. If you want your horse to respond to half an ounce of pressure on the rein or lead line, then always begin by cueing him with that amount of pressure. If you get no response you can then increase the pressure by increments until you do, but always give him the chance to give to the softest of cues first.

Timing—If You Have To Think, You're Too Late: Horses learn not from pressure, but from the release of pressure, so your timing is critical. Whatever behavior your horse is exhibiting when you release pressure is the behavior he will learn. If your aim is to teach your horse to drop his head when you pull gently down on the halter, you must release all pressure the moment his head drops the slightest bit. If you are saying to yourself "Wait, I think he just dropped his head" and then you release, chances are his head will already be coming up again and your release will teach him to raise his head instead of lowering it. Sometimes I find myself releasing when I think the horse is thinking about moving. It is far better to give the occasional release a bit too early than to consistently release late. Timing is everything.

Goals and Starting Points: When introducing a new exercise to your horse, keep your goal in mind while remembering that it will take time and patience to achieve that goal. Your goal may be to have him yield his hindquarters, stepping them around his forequarters in a soft, calm, complete circle. You need to keep that goal in mind so that you will be able to recognize progress, but you also need to find your starting point. Your starting point may be as simple as getting him to take one step, crossing his near hind foot in front of his far hind foot. Just one step—that is your starting point.

Reward the Slightest Effort: When first introducing an exercise to your horse, it will almost certainly not be pretty. This is new ground for him. You are asking him a question when you apply pressure, and he is looking for the answer. He will probably try several wrong answers before stumbling on the right one. Keep your goal in mind, but look for the slightest try. At first it may just be one step, or the head dropping a quarter of an inch, so release on that. Once you have that first try you can build slowly toward your goal, but that first quarter inch is the hardest to achieve, so be ready for it. Always, always, reward the slightest try.

Keep Your Feet Still: When asking your horse to move out and around you it is important for the horse to move around you, not vice versa. This is a game that the two of you are playing, and the one who moves his feet first loses. Try not to move your feet at all. If he backs away from you, however, it is perfectly acceptable for you to move toward him to keep up the pressure; in the game of horsemanship this does not lose you any points.