Groundwork, in the world of horses, means many different things to different people. It can and does include anything that you do on your horse while you are on the ground. Anything from teaching your horse to pick up his feet to leading and longing and so much more.
When I was a kid, groundwork meant practicing fitting and showing. It also meant hugo, supremo, extra boring. I was lucky enough to have a horse that was really really good at it through much of my 4-H career and that meant that I hardly ever practiced it. I'm sure that I'm not the only one that thinks that groundwork is boring as I hear 4-H kids bemoan fitting and showing practice quite a bit. The kid in me would still much rather hop in the saddle and get to riding than spend any more time than is necessary on groundwork. How I wish I had had a better understanding of what groundwork was really all about as a young 4-Her. There were so many things I could have helped my horse with had I only understood that it's not all just about standing pretty and doing perfect haunch turns. I absolutely cringe when I see a 4-H horse with a chain on his lead so the kid can control it. If your horse isn't responsive enough to respond to a feather light hand on the lead rope, why in the world would you hand that thing over to your kid?! I was once drug across an arena on the end of a chained lead rope by my little mare (this was obviously not the horse that was great at fitting and showing). I was completely powerless to do anything about it. How I would have loved to have some tools to teach my mare to behave and respond on the end of that lead rope.
It was when I started learning about natural horsemanship that I learned that groundwork is an extremely important part of teaching things to your horse. Most natural horsemanship programs have a strong foundation in groundwork. In the realm of natural horsemanship, no matter which practitioner you follow, groundwork is used to teach a horse how to think and move and be comfortable with any number of different stimuli. It can not only be used to get a young horse ready to accept rider and saddle but it can be used to teach an older horse how to flex and move body parts that are difficult to communicate in the saddle. Groundwork is where we introduce the hugely important concepts such as soft feel, giving to pressure, forward impulsion and standing still; all things that plenty of older, "finished" horses could use some help with too.
Everything you do on the ground should transfer into a usable skill under saddle (that is if riding your horse is your ultimate goal). Like any great horsemanship program, groundwork is just a piece of the puzzle and isn't meant to replace time spent aboard your horse, but to improve the time spent mounted. If you groundwork your horse "to death" it will eventually work against you. Keep it purposeful and useful and geared towards making your horse think and you won't end up with a horse doing tricks on the ground but instead, one that is ready and able to accept new challenges under saddle. Contrary to traditional thinking, groundwork is not to get the fresh off or work the bucks out. It is meant to get the horse checked in and thinking so your communication is in place before you ever step foot in the saddle.
So lets briefly talk about some of the basic elements of a good groundwork program and why they are important in both the young and the old horse.
1. Leading by or Sending This is an important exercise for developing feel in your horse. In this exercise you ask the horse to calmly walk off in a circle around you in the direction indicated by your leading hand. It's important to note the difference between this and traditional longing. While you can and do longe a horse using this exact principle, having the horse continue in a circle around you at a lope or a jog is not the main goal of this exercise. The goal is to establish direction, forward impulsion and lightness based strictly on a light feel on the lead rope. You do not pull your horse anywhere in this exercise nor should you drive your horse forward with a whip or flag. You may need to do that in the teaching phase to help your horse understand what is necessary but in the end what you are after is for your horse to calmly walk off in the direction you indicate for as long as communicate that you need him to go that way. It's great for sending a horse through a gait ahead of you, or into a trailer, or across an obstacle. On an older "broke" horse this is great for making sure they are checked in and following your light feel. You shouldn't have to drag your horse around or ask him repeatedly.
2. Backing No matter what method you use (and there are LOTS) to teach your horse to back, the end goal is the same; quiet, calm backing, in correct frame with cadence and energy in a straight line or a circle. The purpose of teaching your horse these maneuvers on the ground first is that it makes it easier for him to understand in the saddle and you can better help him to establish proper frame and cadence from the ground before you ever get on his back. When a horse backs properly they move in a diagonal gait like a trot lifting their hind legs and stepping backwards without dragging their feet. This is the first place we can help teach a horse to round and collect through their entire body. If the method that you are using to teach a horse to back causes them to raise their head and rush backwards dragging their feet, I would recommend choosing a different technique. Most of those methods are the ones that require you to whack the horse on the nose or chest with the rope or stick and string and rush the horse backwards. Practice backing on the ground so your horse is in the exact same frame you would want them to back under saddle. I was amazed recently when I went to a big regional Morgan horse show how many of those horses couldn't back correctly. We saw world champion western pleasure horses that backed with a brace and drug their legs through the arena dirt. It ruins the entire picture of a light pleasurable horse to ride.
3. Lateral Flexion This is a hallmark of many natural horsemanship regimes and one that causes a lot of debate in the horse world between the practitioners of natural horsemanship and some of the fundamental traditionalists. Unfortunately, many people that are practicing this technique don't understand the true purpose of it and end up doing it incorrectly. Lateral flexion exists to teach feel. You are teaching your horse to follow your hand on the rein with the lightest possible cue. This is taught both in the halter and later in the bridle or bosal. If you pick up your horse's rein or lead rope and he snaps his head over to his rib cage before you can even close your fist on it you have taught your horse a trick, you have not taught lateral flexion. What you are after is for your horse to bring his head around slowly and correctly following the lightest feel. You should be able to pick up that lead rope and with the lightest touch bring your horse's head over 9.7 degrees and have him hold it there without jerking on your hand. Or bring his head around 87 degrees with the same response and stand quietly until you release it. Lateral flexion, to be proper, should result in your horse's head remaining vertical. If your horse just reaches his nose around and touches your stirrup, that is not true lateral flexion. Unfortunately, I didn't understand this when I taught Chico and Moony how to do lateral flexion. I was still following the principle of a million lateral flexions while your horse is standing still is a good thing. Therefore they will often, with the slightest rein pressure quickly flex around to my toe like they are doing a calisthenic exercise. I've about fixed this with Moony, but it's pretty deeply ingrained in Chico. You can bet Kit won't have this problem.
4. Breaking Over or Yielding the Hind Quarters This is another fundamental element of most natural horsemanship programs. It's often described as being similar to pushing in the clutch on your horse so that you gain control of his body. It is useful for stopping forward momentum and can be used to begin to teach a horse isolation of different parts of his body. Your goal is to cause the horse to step his hind end away from pressure while holding his front end still, effectively doing a turn on the forehand. If done properly the horse should step underneath himself, crossing in front of his other hind foot as he steps out and around with his hind end. This is another exercise where precision and placement of the feet is more important than the impulsion in the early stages. There are techniques taught out there that encourage the horse to move in a "snappy, hop-to-it" manner when you ask them to step over. If the horse is just jumping out of your way and isn't stepping correctly underneath themselves they aren't preparing for the more advanced maneuvers that we will be teaching under saddle. It's not that you can't do this maneuver with hustle, but it should first and foremost be done correctly, like backing softly and in frame. On an older horse that has some stiffness and bracing this will teach him to release his ribs and arc his frame as well. He can't cross those back legs over and step under himself if there is a brace through the rib cage and spine.
5. Bringing the Fore Quarters Through This is the opposite maneuver of breaking the hindquarters over and is eventually done paired with it. In this maneuver the horse steps his front end around his hind end moving his front leg across and in front of the other front leg. Obviously this is a useful maneuver because it starts the horse doing turn-arounds or spins which is important for any western horse. If you have a horse that is walking out of his turn around under saddle, bringing it back to basic groundwork can often correct that problem.
So here is what my basic ground work session might look like before I get on my horse. I ask my horse to lead by me a few steps around in a circle making sure he is light without dragging on the line and without me having to drive him forward from behind. There should be slack or "float" in that line the entire time. Then I pickup on the lead rope or mecate and break his hindquarters over, bring his forequarters across and ask him to lead by the other direction and repeat. If he does all of this light and responsive, I might stop him (by breaking his hindquarters over) and ask for a soft back, or maybe a turn around and viola, pre-flight check is complete and I get on. It took me about 2 minutes.
If there is a hole, brace, or jig anywhere in that pre-flight check it gives me the opportunity to fix it before I ever have a foot in the saddle. My horse isn't huffing and puffing, there has been no dust raised or increase in heart rate. It's just a little quiz. "Hello, Moonshine, are you with me and thinking?" and he responds, "Why, yes, I am, get in the saddle and let's go to work!"
Kit, my 2 year old, sometimes will need a little more. He'll bounce off at the end of the lead rope when I ask him to lead by causing me to break him over and send him the other way. Or maybe he is completely not paying attention and misses me asking him to lead by. Then I might get a little more momentum out of him just to say, "Hey, it's time to go to school, my friend!". And continue with him until he is thinking, and responding lightly and calmly.
There are many, many more exercises that are developed for ground work programs with your horse. A little research and you will find a whole slew of different things. Just remember when choosing what goes into your regiment that confidence, willingness and softness undersaddle are your ultimate goals.
Students of natural horsemanship will notice that I left desensitizing off my list of groundwork exercises. That wasn't a forgetful omission. Desensitizing is a very important topic and deserves some time all of it's own. It's incredibly important and often way overdone. We'll leave that for another time.
So, in summary, groundwork is an important piece of your horsemanship toolbox. Use it wisely. Too much groundwork is almost as bad as too little and you have to be careful not to get caught in that trap because it removes the relevance for the horse. If I was queen for a day, teaching basic groundwork principles would be part of the first year 4-H program and chained leads would no longer be seen or needed on the grounds of a 4-H show.