Training Mythunderstandings:
Ground Work Goals

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

There are lots of people out there chasing their horses around in round pens and rectangular pens and on the ends of longe lines without understanding exactly why they are doing whatever it is they’re doing or how it is eventually going to relate to their riding.

There’s one bunch that buys into the dominance and submission school of training. They think ground work is about chasing their horse till he submits some way and then drilling compliance into him. When the horse does whatever they tell him to do on the ground, they think he’s going to do whatever they tell him once they’re in the saddle because they’re the boss, the herd leader.

There’s another bunch that is actually a little afraid of their horses. They think if they do lots and lots of ground work it will build their confidence up. They hope that if they can get the horse to hook on or join up or climb in their lap whenever they want that somehow eventually that will translate into feeling safe on his back.

These folks have bought into the idea that if they can control the horse’s body, they can control the horse’s mind. Actually, it’s the other way around. If you learn to control the horse’s mind, then his body just naturally follows along. The best way to control a horse’s mind is by developing a non-predatory, non-threatening communication system built of methodically applied, horse-logical pressures that create a feel in the horse of a shape you want him to take.

People learning ground work usually start out wanting to know the “how to” of it. They’re into perfecting techniques and they want to know exactly what the right steps are to follow and all that, just like a recipe. They see ground work as a mechanical process that every horse is going to go through the same way. Horses, on the other hand, could care less about steps and recipes and techniques. What they are interested in is how any interaction with the human makes them feel. Horses have a huge capacity for remembering the emotional feeling that a particular set of circumstances created.

So good ground work is about controlling the horse’s mind through creating a positive emotional experience. You want to become the place the horse feels the most comfortable, not because you’ve finally stopped pressuring him and are going to let him rest, but because you are the most rhythmic and relaxed and non-threatening thing in his environment and that makes him feel really safe.

When you start working with a horse, you want to develop a communication system that’s understandable to both of you. Working on the ground is a good, safe place for both people and horses to develop their mutual communication skills and establish the rules for their interaction before they try the in the saddle stuff. The learning isn’t one-sided. There are communication skills both the rider and the horse have to learn if their saddle work is going to be successful:

  • You want to learn to show the horse any new thing in a horse-logical way. That means that anything you show the horse is just one tiny, baby step away from something he already knows.
  • You want to learn to show the horse what you want by using pressures that create a feel of the “shape” you want him to take and the direction you want him to move.
  • You want to learn to apply the least degree of pressure that shows the horse what you want without startling him or raising the excitement level.
  • You need to give the horse time to process the meaning of any pressure and the chance to respond correctly.
  • The horse needs to learn to trust that you are consistent and predictable.
  • The horse needs to learn to trust that you are never going to apply any kind of pressure or degree of a pressure that is startling or exciting.
  • The horse needs to learn to trust that you will never apply a pressure he cannot relieve by doing something that is just one step away from whatever he already understands.
  • The horse needs to learn to trust that you’ll give him time to figure it before any pressure increases or changes.

The mental foundation you want to lay in your beginning ground work is that you are the nicest, safest place to be in the universe. Once you’ve got and can hold the horse’s mind, you start communicating with him using tiny pressures that create the feel of a shape you want him to take. As you do your “intermediate ground work”, you gradually begin to build a vocabulary of pressure-related shapes. Your horse’s feeling that you’re a safe place to be combined with his basic vocabulary of shapes will become your bridge from ground work to saddle work. Then you’ll continue to build the horse’s vocabulary of pressure-related shapes when you get in the saddle until he’s able to play whatever game you want to play.

I can describe the basic steps involved in ground work with a horse but I can’t tell you exactly how to apply them to your individual horse and circumstances. There is no simple way to describe to a beginner the feel old timers have developed for what to do around a horse any more than it’s possible to make someone an accomplished rider in ten easy lessons. To learn to ride well, you have to do a lot of riding. To learn how to do good ground work, you have to do a lot of ground work. There are a lot of clinicians going around the country doing weekend clinics trying to help people short circuit this learning process. They pick horses to work with that they know they can be successful with in one or two days. The tough cases that are going to need weeks or months to fix get rejected. So lots of folks go home scratching their heads and wondering why they can’t do at home with Thunder what looked so easy when the clinician did it with Bambi.

When people go home and try out this pressure-and-release stuff on their own horses, they make mistakes. Some of them give up trying because their confidence plummets or they’re afraid they’re going to ruin their horse forever or whatever. If the horse makes a mistake, you don’t give up on him and say he’s hopeless. You just approach the situation a little differently next time and try again. Your horse won’t give up on you if you make a mistake, either. Keep the learning goals in your head, try to analyze what didn’t work about whatever pressure you chose to apply, then change it, modify it, or decide to repeat it.

Whenever things aren’t working out, just remember to go back to rhythm and relaxation. That’s the basis of it all. Get your own breathing under control to help you relax and the horse will pick up on that. Then you can move your own body in a non-threatening, rhythmic way and ask the horse to get rhythmic again, too. Now you can ask again for whatever it was you were asking for when things fell apart.

If the horse makes mistakes, don’t be hard on him. Just show him again. If you make a mistake, don’t be too hard on yourself. Learn from the horse’s feedback and just try again. It takes a lot of work to become a “natural” horse person.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I think I am the happiest person ever. I landed my dream job as a lesson barn coordinator in the barn I grew up in! Thanks for everything Meredith Manor! You always have and always will have a huge piece of my heart.
Gia Guidera: 1996 Riding Master Graduate