Do you do Groundwork???
I ask this question often, and am surprised at how often the answer is no. I find this incredible, that people that regularly ride their horses, care for them, and even travel with them will tell me they don’t do groundwork!
It occurred to me that in reality, everybody that has horses does groundwork, they just might not recognize it. Groundwork is in every interaction, it is in the way we communicate with our horses on a daily basis. Groundwork is leading, feeding, grooming, picking up hooves, and every other thing we do to provide for our horses' care. Becoming more mindful of how we are communicating with our horses in each of these small tasks can have a profound effect on every aspect of our relationships with our horses.
Groundwork begins with setting clear and consistent boundaries and respecting the boundaries of the horse. Step one is to ensure that the horse will stay out of your space when asked and will allow you into their space without trying to move away or move you away. Before ever asking the horse to do anything this needs to be established. This can be done through communication through body language. Does the horse respect your body language when you ask them to stop? What does the horse’s body language say about their feelings about being approached and touched? Using body language we can ask the horse to move away, invite them in, and give them cues. Body language is how we initiate our relationship with the horse.
As human beings we generally communicate with each other verbally and/or visually through body language. Communicating with horses also involves a third language, one that we may not have much experience with. When riding in particular we depend almost entirely on communication through touch. Horses are very sensitive creatures and can feel the smallest pressure. They can learn to follow our movements without resisting, enabling us to move them as an extension of our own bodies. Developing a relationship in which the horse yields willingly and easily to touch is essential to creating a positive experience for both horse and rider. This relationship begins on the ground, whether we are aware of it or not.
The ability to communicate with the horse through touch requires that the horse yield to pressure rather than resisting it. Pressure and release is a very simple concept, yet often people are not mindful of the dynamic they are creating with the horse. They fail to use pressure and release correctly, so the horse may learn to brace or resist pressure rather than softening to it. Sometimes people become very skilled at using pressure and release correctly when they are “doing groundwork” in the arena, yet let their horses push and pull on them when they are not in an actual training session. Consistency in how we interact with the horses in everyday situations is an important and often overlooked aspect of good horsemanship.
So often the smallest change in how we think about something or what intention we have in our actions makes a huge difference in the outcome we create. Recently I was teaching a new student some basic groundwork techniques and her distracted and reactive horse quickly became softer, more relaxed, and more connected. When the session was over and she started to leave the arena she tightened up on the lead line and he started pulling ahead of her. They immediately went right back into their old pattern! I reminded her to use the techniques she had learned to keep him attentive, to release pressure, and to lead him in the way we had practiced. He immediately transformed into the soft, connected horse we had seen in our lesson. While this seems like a fairly simple concept it can be a challenge to stay mindful and avoid old, dysfunctional habits. The good news is that through improved awareness and mindfulness from the human any horse can show dramatic improvement. As usual, it is more about people training than horse training!