Brock Griffith Horsemanship The Carolinas Equestrian

With winter fast approaching, many horse owners don’t have the luxury of an indoor with lights. Riders often find themselves wondering what to do besides grooming and basic care.

The best alternative is working on good, efficient groundwork. Groundwork not only helps us to keep our horses physically fit, but mentally healthy as well. If we groom and ride, repeating the same steps day in and day out, our horses can become complacent, bored, and anticipatory. Through groundwork exercises we can develop a much deeper connection and understanding, as well as sensitizing and desensitizing, and establishing leadership. We want to be careful to add a proper balance of both. If we do too much desensitizing, our horses don’t have a care in the world and become lazy. If we do too much sensitizing, they are alert and too hot.

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If you can come up with 15 minutes to spare a few times each week, you can work on your groundwork, and relationship, with your horse.

Here’s are two groundwork exercises if your arena is too wet ... the sending exercise and lunging exercise. When most people think of lunging, they think of a long line with a horse on the end, going in circles in both directions. Instead, work your horse in a properly fitted training rope halter and 14' lead. Practice the sending exercise by sending your horse out and away from you. Work on the upwards transitions, voice commands and downwards transitions, using your energy as needed. If your horse is ignoring you, get those feet moving. If your horse goes blasting around, use less of a cue and less energy. While you work on the sending exercise, add in yielding of the hindquarters and lots of direction changes. Direction changes are key to keeping your horse engaged and preventing them from becoming complacent. 15 minutes of lunging in both directions - walk, trot and canter - with several disengagements and direction changes is enough exercise for the horse and teaches them to better pay attention to you as a leader in your herd of two.

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Groundwork is also a great way to establish a relationship with your horse with you taking the leader role. Horses in the wild feed off leadership, knowing that the herd boss has everything under control. They are designed to follow a leader, but often in a domestic setting, they don’t have a leader present, so they start to take care of themselves. This presents a rude, sometimes dangerous, horse that treats the human as just something attached to a lead rope that is annoying them. The rule of thumb is whoever moves their feet first loses. Instead of dealing with a horse with his mind is on everything else and his body all over you - let's flip that to a horse that has his mind and eyes on you, body off you. Teaching the horse to be respectful on the ground is the way to establish a better foundation that will carry into your riding work.

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After you have established the sending exercise with walk, trot, center, yielding hindquarters and changing directions, we can mix this up even more. Take a simple 8x10 tarp, throw it flat on the ground and kick some dirt over the edges to hold it. Work on sending your horse over the tarp. Once they will cross it, have them do it a few times each direction, moving the feet as you see fit. After the horse can cross the tarp, ask them to stop the forward motion and stop on the tarp with 2 or 4 feet. After you have accomplished this you can ball the tarp up and use it to desensitize the back, neck, legs and face of the horse. If the horse is worried or moves away, keep your lead short and continue to flop and pet with the tarp until the feet stand still. The moment the feet stop moving, take away the tarp and pressure. Keep trying until you eventually find when you pull out that tarp, the horse doesn't react or move. We want to make it clear that when they give us the right answer, we take all pressure away and give a huge reward. Horses learn from the release of pressure, not pressure itself. Wherever the moment we release, that is what they will remember. Good timing and feel are key in working with horses. We are constantly training our horses. When we catch and halter them in the field or stall, how we do that is training them. How we allow them to behave in cross ties for grooming or the farrier is training them. How we allow them to perform under saddle is training them.

Having a great horse goes beyond their performance. Set up some rules and expectations and have your horse follow them. Your horse will be much happier, less anxious and less likely to get into trouble knowing he has a leader. Whether you event, do western dressage or team rope, every horse can benefit greatly from a good groundwork program that includes moving the feet and desensitizing to different objects and areas. The winter offers the perfect time to accomplish things on the ground that may at other times be ignored. If your horse is bad at trailer loading, misbehaves in cross ties, walks all over you when leading - these are all issues that a proper groundwork program can, and will, fix.

Photos courtesy of Brock Griffith Horsemanship