Ground work. This term can mean so many different things to different people. To some, this means standing at the end of a lunge line while their horse mindlessly runs in circles, burning off excessive energy. To others, it’s time spent in a round pen establishing “dominance” over their horse. Still to others, it is the series of exercises both in a round pen and on the end of the rope that teaches the horse to both respect their person and gain confidence in themselves and their leader. Some people LOVE it (to the point where they do more ground work than actual riding) and some people think it’s poppy-cock and a waste of time.
Whatever your stance or past experience with ground work, there is something to be said for helping a horse work through its issues from the safety of your own two legs. When I was young, I will admit I did the minimum amount of ground work with any horse. This meant that I would take an unbroke horse and lunge it a requisite five times with a saddle and bit. When they were no longer thinking about bucking (or I had done enough lunging to make me antsy to get on), I would climb aboard. For the first few rides, I would do a quick (read: three minutes, tops) lunge session before hopping up. After more than five rides, that ground work was behind us. After all, the horse was broke, why would I need to do ground work?
If the horse was a fire-breathing dragon with a look in its eye akin to the devil, but saddle broke, I would just get on. Why would I need to lunge? I could ride out any shenanigans from said dragon. And that was my stand on ground work. I didn’t feel like spending my possible saddle time doing exercises that my horse already knew. This philosophy never caused me any problems and I never saw a need to change my view. That is, until my two current geldings came into my life.
I purchased Romeo as a weanling to be my Western Pleasure prospect. Although I had broken countless horses by this point in my life, this one was different. It was the first time I acquired a horse at such a young age (previous personal horses had been in the almost two year old range) and didn’t have a time limit. This meant I had nothing to do but ground work, for almost two whole years. I had that colt so respectful, confident, supple and attentive to me that when I stepped on him for his first ride, he was a complete dream. I said whoa from a canter and he planted his butt so far in the ground that I almost ended up on his shoulders. I put his first ride on him on a Monday and ride number four was at an Extreme Cowboy Competition that Saturday, where he got 6th out of 12. He completely trusted me, due to all our time on the ground. This opened my eyes to the possibilities available when you take your ground work to that next level. But, in typical impatient-me fashion, I rarely tuned it up.
Then came CB. He came home as an early two year old and was a royal pain in the you-know-what. He had a huge chip on his shoulder and enough attitude to make the sassiest mare on the property say “yes sir!”. He and I had many a discussion in the round pen and on the end of the line. One day, he finally, reluctantly, agreed to try things my way, for the most part. He learned lots of things on the ground and how to drive before finally being ridden as a three year old. At that time, he was horse #3 and I will admit, I may have slacked on some things, mainly his sacking out in various situations. No issues during his first few years, but as holes in training typically do, this skipped step reared its head in his competitive (aka NOW) days.
CB’s current competition path is that of an eventer and stadium jumper. He LOVES to jump, is scopey and very athletic. However, he lacks the ability to process new and scary situations (such as flower boxes, liverpools, brightly colored fillers and cross country jumps made to look like skunks) and possess the amazing athletic prowess to take off for a jump and slam back to the ground in the dirtiest of stops. This has translated to countless hours of me jumping, and getting thrown, into as many different types of jumps I could come up with. CB would get scared and he would mentally shut down, but keep moving his feet. He wouldn’t focus and wouldn’t listen to any of my cues or attempts to encourage him.
After hitting the dirt for the umpt-teenth time, I decided to take it back to the beginning and work on lunging him over “scary” things, instead of us (or just me) jumping them under saddle. This seemed to work for the couple of weeks I lunged him over jumps, mainly with flowers or a Liverpool. Once I felt like we had made progress, we went back to just riding. He quickly regressed back to his non-focused ways, running off with me at the mere sight of fake flower or wall.
Plan B. We started doing real ground work, daily. We did sending exercises, sacking out, yielding, join up. Some days, we did this for an hour and a half. On good days, twenty minutes, followed by a ride. He was asked to not only deal with new objects, but to yield and show his respect to me during the process. No more mindless jumping over them. And you know what? I started getting a partner. Previously, if something scared him (could even be his shadow), it took about twenty minutes to get him focused back on me. CB decided what was scary and the appropriate action to the stimuli, regardless of what happened to me in the process. He never once asked me what we should do in a situation because in his mind, he was out there for him and him alone.
After just a couple weeks of this work, we came up to a “new” jump while schooling and I could feel the tension in his body. But instead of taking off or stopping dead, he flicked an ear to me and asked me what to do. I put leg on and we jumped. I couldn’t have been prouder. Is my chicken of a horse now Braveheart? Absolutely not. But now, it takes me seconds to get him refocused, not tens of minutes. And the majority of the time, he at least gives me an ear when he’s nervous. I’ve also learned that no matter how calm and focused he seems at the start of a session, his ground work is essential. That little refresher course before I swing my leg over his back makes a huge difference. It lets him know that I’m the one who will lead us through our workout and that I’ll take care of him.
Some days, I’d much rather get straight to riding. Especially early show mornings when this ground work means 40 less minutes of sleep. But to have my horse trust me is worth the extra time.