by Mitzi Summers
Recently it seems that more people schooling their own horses are becoming aware of the importance of including ground work not just with their young horses, but at differing times in the schooling of all horses. Correct groundwork fulfills many positives in the chronological order of training your horse. Among these:

  • Establishing a rapport with your horses. You are down on their level. You are able to notice many differences in their body posture, expression, energy and understanding of what you are asking them to accomplish. I specialize in reschooling horses. Sometimes my client has acquired a horse who has been abused, rushed in his training, trained inconsistently or has never learned the basics. There is no substitute for thoughtful groundwork if you are working with such horses.

I have had so many horses who when I first meet them regard me with suspicion, nervous energy, or fear. Starting out with basic massaging and leading techniques can enable them to start to lower their defenses and begin the pattern of trust which is necessary in training.

  • Groundwork is necessary for the education of the student or owner/ rider. I have spent many months apprenticing and attending clinics with horsemen who are masters at working horses from the ground. They have been trainers in all disciplines and differing methods.
  • All of my students who learn ground driving, longeing and in-hand work have benefited in their knowledge and understanding of horses — the way a horse looks when he moves his body correctly, and they have gained confidence in working with horses.
  • To improve the suppleness and strength of a horse gymnastically so that when he is ridden there is less chance of stressing muscles, ligaments and tendons. Even though gentling and riding the horse in three hours was a useful experience I would never do that again. An untrained horse has to have intelligent groundwork to strengthen his back and enable him to load his haunches before he should carry weight on his back.
  • In groundwork weaknesses in a horse — unevenness of gaits, uneven loading of weight, and a lack of ability to become supple longitudinally and laterally — are more easily noticed. The study of the biomechanics of helping a horse cope with being ridden is an ongoing study. Many times horses supposedly lame or uneven have shown themselves to be sound with educated groundwork.

I first make certain with any new horse that there is nothing structural going on to cause pain. There are excellent horse veterinarians to make use of — plus chiropractors and massage practitioners. A basic course of massage or T.E.A.M. (Feldenkrais techniques) is well worth the money.

  • When longeing your horse, encourage and develop the correct tempo and gait for medium walk, working trot and canter. He will “stabilize” at these gaits, and then when you are riding, they will already be part of his “vocabulary”.

Working with your horse correctly from the ground takes many, many months to be competent and years to perfect. It is a fascinating skill, and I find it increasing in importance in the United States. In Europe it seemed to be a bit more accepted, probably because an established and accepted method of fairly classical training has been evident there for a longer period of time. I was lucky enough to work with horsemen who had attended the Spanish Riding School as well as the Cadre noir Saumur, the French school. These sessions were invaluable as my teachers were very precise and only accepted absolutely correct groundwork. Many of these horses were high level, so they had graduated to using bits (at times double bridles) and side reins. These were used, however, only when the horse had reached a level of training that enabled him to be in self-carriage. The auxiliary aids were not forcing him into a frame or causing him physical discomfort.
One thing that becomes evident is that, especially when acquiring the skills of working on the ground with your horse, you often find yourself working harder than the horses! Just to learn the basic skills of how to hold the whip, when to use it (always as an aid, NEVER as a punishment), and the timing of the aids takes much work. It is also important to realize what exercise a particular horse needs and when. I have often been working with maybe 10 horses a day from the ground, especially when I was learning, and each horse was on its own particular program. It was my job to know when and where to teach each exercise.
So many things can be taught to a green, unridden horse from the ground so that when you do ride him for the first time it is almost anticlimactic. He will understand turning, stopping, and lateral work. He has already done walk, trot and canter and has a bit of self-carriage. The main thing in the first few weeks will just to allow him to get used to carrying weight and to cope with his rider’s (at times) lack of straightness and balance. The horse will be well on his way to straightness as he has accomplished that from groundwork. It is almost as if he had already been ridden for several months.
Various methods of groundwork
I have a broad definition of groundwork. It can be anything from “playing” with a horse at liberty — having him accept you and follow you around willingly and stand quietly without restraint — to tacking up and bandaging or teaching him to piaffe between pillars. That is one of the reasons why it should continue to become an accepted method of working and preparing horses. I may start out with just teaching a horse to lead correctly, and then teaching him that the lightest tap on the top of his haunches means to go forward. I will teach the horse the turn on the forehand and haunches and the leg yield, both close in hand and also from long lining or driving.
Hands-on is an important skill to acquire, and horse grows to love it and it helps very much in forming a bond. I often can detect a soreness or stiffness in their body just by lightly going over them before they are ridden. Teaching them to elongate and lift their back and neck and stretch down long and low also prepares them for riding. Longeing, double longeing, long lining or driving and close work in hand can all be included in your ground work. My horses will learn to leg yield, shoulder-in and travers from the ground before they are asked under saddle. All of this also helps prepare the horse for the work that will be required with a rider plus a ground person, such as piaffe.
There are many books out there about longeing but choose wisely. If you are looking at the internet check the credentials of the people but better yet watch the horse. See if it is making sense to him.
Have fun!