Were you stunned by Robert Redford as he portrayed a "horse whisperer", taking a wild, scared horse and turning him into a gentle mount again? Did you drop popcorn out of your mouth when Buck Brannaman got bit on his head by a stallion as you watched "Buck" on Netflix? You're not alone! The world is being exposed more and more to the ideas of groundwork training, or Natural Horsemanship. And its increasing popularity is due to the fact that it actually works!
Horses are prey animals. They react like prey animals should react, with a herd mentality and an instinct for survival. They follow the "herd boss" and do what he/she says. But what if you were to take the herd boss's place as a human? What would happen?
What would happen is that you would have a super-connected, respectful and trusting horse. These are the results of groundwork. I have seen it work time and time again with ponies and horses both old and young, tame and wild, of all the varying breeds, types, and personalities.
I won't get into the how of groundwork in this post, but I will get into the why - why I think every equestrian program, especially lesson programs, can benefit from groundwork. Here are the top 5 reasons:
#1: Groundwork makes for a deep bond between horse and rider. When a horse truly respects and trusts a human, it is a beautiful thing. This type of connection can be achieved through groundwork. I've seen students and horses that I never thought could work together form a friendship and connection and go on to do amazing things, all because of groundwork. Groundwork can turn a horse that is indifferent, disinterested, or even opposed to being around you into a puppy dog that runs up to you from the pasture and follows you around. Most riders I know want their horse to be attached to them, and the best way to go about that is groundwork.
#2: Groundwork makes for confident riders and students. I have seen students who love horses but are afraid of them. They show it by shying away if the horse brings their head toward them, jumping back when the horse stomps their feet, etc. The best remedy for these types of apprehensions is teaching groundwork to students. With groundwork, they learn the body language of the horse so they know when the horse will or won't potentially hurt them. Students become more confident around the horse on the ground, which translates to more confidence under saddle.
#3: Groundwork makes for respectful horses. If you're running a lesson program, it is extremely bad for business to have your lesson horses bowling over students or dragging them 100 yards to eat a patch of grass. Believe me, I've seen it before, even in my own barn! Additionally, horses will be more respectful to students under saddle if they have consistent groundwork training . You will see less bad behavior from your lesson horses if you do groundwork with them, and less bad behavior equals more learning from students not having to worry about naughty ponies.
#4: Groundwork makes for confident horses. I have never seen anything work better for scared, insecure or timid horses than groundwork. Horses derive their self-confidence from their leaders, and when we as a human become their leader, the results are spectacular. Some people become frustrated because horses can't think logically like humans. "Why are you afraid of a plastic bag? That's dumb!" But horses just don't think like we do. To them, that bag is a threat to their life. But if they develop confidence and trust in us, then our logic and reasoning will translate to them as "You don't have to be afraid of that plastic bag, because I'm not". I have seen a horse that was literally afraid of his own shadow take confidence from his rider because of groundwork and now he is unstoppable. We used to have to ask everyone to close their umbrellas when he went into the ring at our shows! Now, he even jumps the scariest of cross-country jumps without a second look.
#5: Groundwork makes for safe horses and a safe environment. From a business aspect, nothing looks worse than a barn with a lot of falls, accidents, and badly behaved horses. Not to mention that it takes the fun out of equestrian sports! Because groundwork makes horses more confident and respectful, it makes horses more safe. Because groundwork makes students more confident and savvy with handling horses and riding, it makes students and clients more safe. I can say without a doubt that because we do groundwork at our barn, we have had less falls and injuries. I have only had two falls/injuries this entire year with more than 20 students and over 12 horses. Who wouldn't want that?
I hope this post will inspire you to try groundwork with your horse or program. There are immense rewards to be had, and every horse can benefit from it. Especially with bad weather headed our way, groundwork can easily take the place of riding when conditions are bad or you're just too cold to ride!