How Groundwork Relates to Riding

Written by Mindy Bower

Editor’s Note: In the series that ran in several issues Mindy Bower discussed how groundwork relates to riding. This first piece is an overview of basic concepts and maneuvers. In the articles that followed, Mindy discussed specific trouble areas in specific horses and how these related to how the horse operates under saddle. She will then offered suggestions on how to improve these areas.

Doing Your Homework
I worked quite a while with a horse named The Kid. I had done a lot of work with him with the rope and he was pretty quiet and gentle. His owner took him home, and one day when she was riding, she stepped off without taking her foot out of the stirrup. Now, The Kid saw this person lying on the ground next to him, and he just stood there until her foot came out. Now, I had never gotten him used to dragging people, but the other work that I did with him taught him to stand quietly and not be worried about new things. Instead of her getting kicked in the face or drug off, she just got up, dusted herself off and went on about her day.

I can’t imagine not having your horse good on the ground before you get on. Horses are so dangerous, why wouldn’t you want your horse to fill in for you when you make a mistake? Not all horses can be gentle for everyone, but you can take the average horse and make him into a horse that would take care of you if you made a mistake.

There is no way that you could expose your horse to everything in the whole world that might scare them. It would take your whole life. So, better to have the horse capable of filling in so that when he does get exposed to new things, he knows how to keep it together and he doesn’t just fall apart at the simplest thing.

The way to do that is to build up layers of trust or confidence in the horse so that he knows what to expect from the human. If he has many layers of confidence, then he knows that he can survive, and the horse is very adaptable to that.

When you are on the ground, you have the ability to safely expose the horse to different situations and help him understand what might happen and what an acceptable response is. You can use your rope, flag, a dog or whatever. These few things can help him learn to respond and keep his cool. Once he learns what an acceptable response is, such as untracking his hindquarters or standing quietly, then that response is most likely to come up first instead of the response that you don’t want.

Of course, I’ve come across my fair share of horses that didn’t get that time to gain confidence at the beginning and instead they learned that humans were not to be trusted. You can get that response just as easy out of a horse, where he doesn’t ever want to trust a human again.

Living Life With a Brace
We had these two horses from Montana for quite a while. They had been ridden quite a bit, and had been exposed to quite a lot. These horses were both so afraid of people on the ground that everything in their lives was done with a brace. Everything you did, you had to watch out, making sure that you had enough room to get away from them and that you weren’t going to put them in a situation where they could hurt you, because they would do anything to protect themselves.

We started to unravel them with groundwork. They were so afraid, you couldn’t catch them. They were touchy to groom and difficult to saddle. The problem was insidious; they couldn’t do anything without feeling afraid.

When you were on their back, it felt like you could ride them, but you couldn’t get out of trouble if you needed to. You knew that as long as everything was sort of going along okay, things were survivable. But you knew that if you really had to depend on them, there was absolutely nothing there.

The slightest thing would set them off. You could be just riding along and move your hand a little too quickly and the one horse would bolt. The other horse, his hindquarters were so locked up that when you tried to bend him to the left, he would just be completely rigid in his body, which maybe isn’t a big deal until you need to get out of trouble, or turn around in a tight space.

They were really a mess, and they still are a mess. You can’t come from behind if you have really overexposed a horse and he’s learned to be afraid. You can’t go back and make him as good as he could have been.

You can fill in the potholes, the places where his education was lacking, but the potholes are still weaker than the rest of the road when they are filled in, and they are the places most likely to erode under pressure.

It’s better to start out making sure that you are right, that you lay a good foundation of communication between you and your horse through good groundwork. Then, when things fall apart, you always have a strong base that you can go back to and reaffirm the things that you have already established in your horse.
Learning the alphabet

Say you were going to try to teach a child to read a book. You would not just sit down, open the book and expect the child to be able to read. That would be ridiculous.

You would start by teaching the child the alphabet, how to recognize the letters and to understand that they stand for something. Then you would have to teach him how to put the letter together to make words. Then the child has some sort of reference point, something to go back to. When he encounters a tough word, he can go back to the letters and work out what the word is.

It is the same concept with groundwork. You have to give the horse a point of reference so that he can understand what you are asking him to do. You are building a common language. He can already do everything that you are asking him to do. You are teaching him how to respond to what you are asking, showing him when and how to do what you ask.

I don’t understand how anyone can ride without having proper groundwork principles established. I’m sure that there is someone out there who can just get on a horse and get everything together without having that communication established first, but I sure can’t.

Basic Concepts
There should be a lot of variety in the groundwork, and you just have to do what works for you. What I am looking for is for the horse not only to respect the pressure of the halter, but to also totally hook on to what I am doing. I wouldn’t ever want the groundwork to feel mechanical. I want the horse to feel of me on the end of the rope and to be sort of looking for what I want him to do.

When I’m working a horse around me in a circle, I want to be able to lead him past me in either direction. I want him to be able to take even steps around the circle. I want to be able to have his hind end take bigger steps to the outside of the circle when I ask, and then I want the front end to step across in front of me. This also means that I have to be able to shift the horse’s weight from front to back.

Imagine a set of train tracks that run around you in a circle. To start, I want my horse reaching evenly around the circle, following the tracks. Then, when I ask, I want to be able to swing the hindquarters to the outside of the train tracks and step bigger with his hind end. His inside hind leg should be reaching outside the imaginary track so that it is stepping in the path of the outside front leg.

I like to see a horse and a person move in and out of these two positions, reaching evenly and then reaching the hindquarters more. While they are doing this, I really make sure that the horse’s front legs don’t step to the inside of the track. They stay out in their original spacing.

When this is working well, I will ask for the hindquarters to step completely off the track and then have the horse stop. At this point his weight should be over his outside hind leg, so then I will ask him to step across in the new direction. I will be sure and ask for at least 180 degrees in the turn. Then I’ll work on the same things in the other direction.

I like to see if I can have the horse moving around me on the track, and then see if I can take the horse’s head around by sliding my hand down the rope and stepping into the horse’s rib cage and bending the horse until he stops.

I will also work on backing both from the pressure of the halter and from the feel of my hand over the bridge of his nose.

No Idea That it Even Exists
If you don’t have a foundation, where do you go when things go wrong?

People who are riding their horses around who are afraid and who can’t communicate with them, they are totally ignorant. And that’s why most people get hurt because they are ignorant, not because they are trying to get hurt or to put their horse in a bad situation. If they knew that they could set up a path of communication with their horse and use terms that he could understand, then they would change the way that they interact with their horse.

Not very many people have to make a living off of horses anymore. So they are not in a position to have to make things work out. Their livelihood is not dependent upon them being able to ride or drive a particular horse. It’s total recreation, so pure horsemanship is not as readily available.

So many people don’t understand horse behavior. The human uses human terms to describe the horse, and that has nothing to do with how the horse lives his life. He can only live like a horse. He can’t think like a human. When the human says, “He is malicious, or he bucked me off out of the clear blue,” there is no way that the horse thinks that way. He responds to what is happening. In order to stay out of trouble, you have to be able to understand how the horse thinks.

You don’t need to teach a horse English, you just need to learn how the horse responds and reacts and then you need to figure out what it is that makes the horse respond and react. And then you need to be consistent, that’s the main thing. If you are not consistent, then the horse never figures out what you are asking, and that’s why he might end up bucking, kicking, biting, striking, leaping and lunging.

Incredibly Deep
As I learn more and more about groundwork, I am constantly realizing how incredibly deep the subject is and that it can never be too good. I know that the clearer you can get things on the ground, then when you go to ride, the things you ask will be that much clearer to the horse.

For example, when I first learned groundwork, I was completely possessed with the hindquarters. And certainly, the hindquarters are where everything begins and you must have control over them, but as time went on, I seemed to get more horses that I needed to go further with. I soon realized that I was not transmitting what was happening in the hindquarters to the front quarters. So I realized that if you didn’t have the hindquarters, then the front was no good, and the better you got the hindquarters, the better the front quarters got. But you could not leave the front quarters out; you had to be able to transmit the life to the front quarters.

This was just another layer of understanding to me. I saw that the important piece of getting the hindquarters was the preparation: getting the horse prepared to move his hindquarters and to shift his weight, because in the end, that’s where you are headed with more advanced horsemanship.

I feel like I’m at the very beginning of my understanding of the groundwork. If you have just a basic understanding of the groundwork, you can get by, but if you really want to further your horsemanship and further your communication with your horse, then you have to dig deeper and uncover all the layers. I have a great respect for how much there is to learn. It’s just an endless subject.

And it is hard work. It’s not my favorite part because while it can be fun and interesting, it boils down to work, and it takes a lot of dedication. But when it pays off, it feels really good.

We took two colts to a small branding not too long ago. They had never roped anything alive, but we had swung a rope on them, drug logs, open and closed gates, and they could move around at the walk, trot and canter. We only had 10 head to rope, but they went into the pen their very first time and were totally quiet, not the least bit nervous.

That’s having your horse ready so that you have your preparation so good the job seems simplistic.

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.1

Buck Brannaman Groundwork Set

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