Six Groundwork Basics of Horse Training

Groundwork Basics - training your horse on the ground

Before taking a closer look at why groundwork basics are so important in creating and maintaining a sound horse owner relationship, let’s take a moment to see how the dictionary defines groundwork:

That which forms the foundation or support of anything; the basis; the essential or fundamental part; the first principleDryden

So how do you instill those groundwork basics, those good ground manners in your horse? By understanding how your horses mind works of course.

1.) Do You Understand Groundwork Basics? … Are You The Leader?

Horses are herd animals and are mentally wired to look up to the leader of the herd.

In a herd, which is the natural situation for a horse, there is a pecking order (order of dominance). The stallion and lead mare are the leaders.

Every other horse below them in the pecking order will look to these two to find out how to react in a given situation.

Groundwork Training - The Basics

If the leaders are calm, the others are calm, if the leaders are running for their lives, the rest of the herd is right behind them.

It’s the leaders job to keep an eye out for danger. In other words, the leaders signal to the rest of the herd what is dangerous and what is safe.

The herd has 100% faith in their leaders. They follow blindly. They do not think rationally or for themselves.

This behaviour makes a horse very easy to train.

You use this horse behaviour to your advantage when you’re training your horse, the leader of the herd needs to be you, and yes your horse’s herd can be just the two of you.

It is crucial that you become the leader in your herd, so your horse follows you. If you don’t your horse will naturally assume the leadership role and end up dragging you around.

In all your horse training you must demonstrate, through your tone of voice, your body language and your confidence, that you are the leader.

For example, you cannot expect a horse to walk calmly past a barking dog if you are frightened yourself.

If there are situations around your horse that scare you, you need to be inventive and work out how to avoid the situation without your horse seeing you as weak.

If your horse regularly barges into or charges you, you must avoid the trigger situation until you have established dominance in other situations.

Get outside help if you need to. A horse generally weighs 10 times more than a human, so don’t expect to out muscle your horse when it behaves badly.

And always remember, when groundwork training : 1. Be Repetitive; 2. Be Consistent; 3. Build Trust; 4. Be Fun

2.) Build repetition into your groundwork training :

It is not widely known that a horse can take around 60 iterations of a lesson to get it.

That’s right; you may have to repeat the exact same lesson 60 times before your horse understands what you are trying to teach.

Groundwork Training - The Basics

To put this in perspective, if you see your horse or train your horse, just once a week and teach the same lesson once each time, then it may take over a year for your horse to learn it.

Of course you may try the lesson more than once a session and you may see your horse more than once a week, but it takes time and patience to train a horse effectively.

The good news is that you can use groundwork basics to successfully train your horse to behave well in any situation.

This applies to all horses, whether they are young, old, previously poorly trained or have been neglected or abused.

You can teach your horse to lead, to tone down aggressive behaviour, to be calm or to get rid of other bad habits such as rearing, biting, and kicking using basic repetition.

But remember that horse training takes as long as it takes, 60 repetitions is just an average.

3.) Build consistency into your groundwork training :
Groundwork Basics - first train your horse on the ground

The groundwork basics teach you that being a leader also means having a zero tolerance policy towards your horse invading your personal space or disobeying your requests.

In the herd, the pecking order is often challenged. So, always stay vigilant as the herd pecking order is never set in stone. If you get slack, your horse will start to dominate you.

Be firm, consistent and persistent in applying the rules in your groundwork training.

You’re either training or de-training your horse every moment you’re with him. Remember the small stuff; it really does matter.

Your horse will test you in small ways to see how serious you are. If you don’t hold your ground over your space or do accept a tardy response to a request, you’re effectively eroding the respect he has for you.

You’re saying, "That’s ok, I don’t really mean stop when I say so"’. This gives your horse a green flag to try bigger and bigger misbehaviours.

For example, don’t let your horse kiss you. Not just for reasons of hygiene!

No, letting any horse nibble or kiss you is sending him down the slippery slope of developing a biting habit. After all, a bite is just a firm nibble isn’t it? And a biting problem is not one you want to be dealing with. Painful for you, and difficult to get rid of. In this case, no kisses, no nibbles, no bites, ever.

Be firm, be consistent and be persistent in applying the groundwork basics rules. Absolute CONSISTENCY is the key to fast and effective groundwork training.

4.) Build Trust into Your Relationship with your horse :

One of the biggest reasons horses lack good ground manners is the fact they don’t trust or respect the people who are handling them.

Groundwork - Build Trust

Trust and respect go hand in hand and once you have attained that, the rest of your groundwork training is so much easier.

As leader (when you earn respect), part of your job is to keep your horse safe.

That’s safe from his perspective, not yours.

You might think he’s perfectly safe in a trailer, but if he’s never been in one you’ll have to show him that you’re willing to go into one and that other horse’s agree it’s safe too.

Your job in establishing the groundwork basics, is to prove to your horse that no matter what goes on around him, he will not be harmed when you’re around; no matter where you take him.

  • Angry bullying won’t work.
  • Losing your temper won’t work.
  • Banging his teeth with the bit definitely won’t work
  • Slapping him unexpectedly on the rump won’t help
  • Making loud, sudden noises and impatient gestures won’t help either.

Simply let your horse know where you are and what you’re up to as much as possible.

Be calm, be considerate, be affectionate, be patient.

This is the only path that leads to your horse’s trust and without trust there’s no training. It’s an essential ingredient for a long and happy relationship.

5.) Be fun – build fun into your groundwork training :
Groundwork Training - Be Fun

No one, not even a horse, enjoys all work and no play.

Remember to make your lessons enjoyable. Your aim is to encourage your horse to look forward to being with you.

What your horse likes will be individual to your horse, but most horses have a place on their body they like having scratched or rubbed. This can be a reward for obedience.

Many horses will enjoy the mental stimulation of a lesson providing it doesn’t involve endless repetition.

More than half an hour on any one lesson at once is too much. 10 or 15 minutes is enough.

And horses like variety in their work, so trail ride one day, jump work the next, groundwork the next.

Mix it up and keep it interesting.

A bored horse is a moody horse, and anyone in a bad mood is likely to misbehave.

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6.) Provide Your Horse With Comfort :

Your horse enjoys living a comfortable life. That means, a life free from stress, free from irritants and definitely free from pain.

You can use your horse’s requirement for comfort in your groundwork training regime.

Basically, you are looking for non-painful but annoying or irritating things you can do to encourage your horse to do as you ask and to firmly establish the groundwork basics.

The key is then to remove that irritant immediately your horse does what you have asked it to do.

Stopping the annoying thing you are doing is your horse’s reward for doing as you asked. This is the most effective and yet gentle way of groundwork training and to teach your horse to do as you ask.

One example of irritant training is a technique called pressure and release.

A simple example of pressure and release:

  • If you wanted your horse to turn its head to the left, you would put your hand in the head collar strap and gently pull to the left just slightly. As soon as your horse begins to turn its head left, let go of the head collar, releasing the pressure, and praise your horse quietly.
  • If your horse were to pull to the right instead, you would continue to apply gentle pressure to the left until your horse complied, then release and praise again.

Through patient and consistent repetition, your horse will learn what you are asking. This is the pressure and release training method in a nutshell, and can be applied throughout the establishing of good groundwork basics and in all your horse’s groundwork training.

Remember this; Your horse is learning every time you are and being a good horse trainer is about the quality of the training,.. not the quantity.