It can be difficult to find time to ride during the winter, when the temperatures drop and the roads aren’t great. Even those of us who enjoy a hectic show season during the summer sometimes lack motivation in the winter to work, work, work. Instead of constantly battling with myself, I try to embrace these feelings by going back to basics and slowing down during the winter. I don’t stop riding, but I focus more on groundwork and flatwork, both of which are key to success in the saddle and over fences.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really know very much about groundwork. I have a background in being around horses and competing in showmanship, but that’s about it. Sure, I’ve lunged a horse before, but I’ve never been taught how to lunge. Maybe this part of horsemanship comes naturally to some riders, but I am not a natural. So a few weeks ago when the temperatures were quite chilly I took the opportunity to schedule a groundwork lesson with my trainer. We went over equine groundwork basics and I thought I’d share what I learned.
A lot of groundwork goes back to respect in the sense that your horse must respect you as the alpha of his herd. What does this really mean though? First, you have to learn to understand your horse, who communicates with you through body language. Watch his eyes — where are they looking? Are they focused on the task at hand, or looking at the other end of the arena? Watch his ears — especially the inside ear. Is it focused forward or on you? Second, you need to understand what you are telling your horse with your body. Backing away from him when he crowds your space shows submission and playfulness — both of which are probably not what you want to tell him.
The next step is to understand how your body (and any extension thereof, like a lunge whip) moves your horse. First, let’s talk about your body position. The smaller and calmer you are, the slower your horse will go. So if you crouch or hunch a little bit and stand still or back up, your horse will slow down or stop. If you stand straight, with your arms held high and walk quickly toward your horse, he will speed up. The same goes for your lunge whip. If you hold it behind you, with the end pointed down, it is in its least threatening position and your horse might mostly ignore its presence. Every movement from there increases its energy — holding it down, but in front of you; parallel to the ground; or up in the air.
Even if you know the basics of how to communicate through body language with your horse, you’re still lacking control. This part you’ll need to practice, but here are some tips to get you going.
- To go forward, you need to point energy towards your horse’s hindquarters. You can do this by walking towards his hind end and raising your whip up — add more energy as needed by raising your whip higher or walking faster.
- Maybe now your horse is diving in towards you [like Miles does] and you want to push him out. First, don’t back up! It’s tough, but you’ve got to stand your ground. The girth area controls sideways movement, so point your whip there to push your horse away from you. If he doesn’t respect that, don’t be afraid to ask more strongly by touching him with the whip or flicking it softly against his side.
- Next, maybe you want to make your circle larger or go to the other end of the ring. Start by walking towards his hindquarters to push him in the direction you want to go. When you’re ready for him to turn, stand still.
- Time to stop and reverse! Stopping is the thing that Miles struggled with most, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t go well the first few times. Start by slowing down to a walk using the body language techniques discussed above (lowering your whip, standing still/backing up and even hunching). You ask your horse to stop by getting in front of his eye, so move in that direction. If he doesn’t stop, raise your hand (making yourself larger). If he still doesn’t respond, don’t be afraid to pull on the lunge line a little bit.
- Now let’s try reversing. If you’re able, you can ask your horse to come to you but Miles wouldn’t do this. It’s important to note that your horse should not come closer to you unless you ask. Gather up your lunge line and walk slowly toward your horse, until you are about two horse lengths away. Switch your whip to your other hand and hold it out and away from you, while simultaneously pulling gently with your lunge line as an “opening rein.” Encourage your horse to turn by moving the whip closer to his shoulder. Whatever you do, do not back away — hold your ground! Keep at it until your horse is turned 180 degrees. If he tries to walk toward you, stop him by holding up your hand (the one with the lunge line, not the whip!)
Where Do I Start?
I found it helpful to work on these basic groundwork maneuvers with a halter and long lead rope before trying it on the lunge line. I used a rope halter, 12′-14′ rope lead [#1 above] and a short stick with a flag at the end [#2 above]. It’s important to make sure that your horse isn’t afraid of the training flag before you begin and you should always use training aids with care and opt for smaller, lighter touches first. Once you’re settled in, I worked on moving forward at the walk, controlling where my horse went and reversing all on the shorter line before I switched to a nylon halter, lunge line and lunge whip.
How much groundwork do you do with your horse on a regular basis?