When You Don’t Have Time for Groundwork
Nobody needs to remind a horse lover that riding time is precious. With our hectic schedules, every minute spent in the saddle is close to sacred.
With this in mind, many horse owners consider working with their horse on the ground unnecessary if the horse is already trained. Yet groundwork tasks can add a valuable dimension to the relationship between horse and human, and actually improve your horsemanship skills. They can also keep you safe.
Read your Horse
In the Eight Parelli Principles of Horsemanship, Principle #2 is "Make no assumptions."
"Just because you had a good ride yesterday doesn’t mean things will go the same today," says Pat Parelli. "Horses are living things and they are reactive to environmental changes. Your horse might be spookier today because it’s windy, or he doesn’t want to leave his best friend, or he didn’t like what you did yesterday. Things like this will affect his attitude towards you making him seem less agreeable or more distracted, even downright panicky. Taking just a few minutes to see what side of the corral your horse woke up on is an important horseman’s habit."
This teaches you to read your horse, to notice and address the smallest things instead of waiting until they are a full blown problem. It also improves your relationship with your horse because he starts to see that you care about getting calm, connected and responsive before forking your leg over him and riding off to do what you want to do.
"Horses are like aircraft," notes Linda Parelli, Pat’s wife and teaching partner. "To ensure a safe flight you need to do a ground check to make sure everything is operating safely before you take off."
Most people have no idea that their horse is "tuned out" or unwilling to be ridden. If they did, they could deal with these issues on the ground instead of trying to fix the problem in the saddle.
The Parelli’s teach students to put the relationship with their horse first. By putting the horse/human relationship ahead of performance, the goal is to establish leadership based on trust, communication and cooperation. There’s a very practical reason for this.
"If your horse does not accept you as leader, he’s likely to be flighty and scared, or pushy and disobedient," Linda explains. "All this can be fixed on the ground where you can read your horse’s expression and intent, and he can read yours. Once your horse relaxes and becomes more cooperative the ride will be more enjoyable — and safer — for you both."
You should make no assumptions before getting on a horse, even if someone else tells you, "Go ahead, he’s fine." A horse is not a machine, he’s a living, breathing, thinking and emotional animal, Pat points out.
"He’s a natural follower looking for a leader," adds Linda. "In the true spirit of loving horses, we would never get on a horse that has not first accepted us on the ground; it just doesn’t feel right."
Don’t Call It "Work"
Everything you do on the ground, including your pre-ride checklist, shouldn’t necessarily be considered "groundWORK".
"We don’t like the word ‘work,’ and neither do horses," says Linda. "We play with horses to get them interested in interacting with us and following our lead. The pre-ride checklist is like a pre-flight check, so this can be as short or long as necessary to get your horse in tune with you before you climb aboard. It can be anything from a couple of minutes to an hour or more with an exceptionally difficult horse or situation. The point is, don’t get on until it’s right on the ground."
Two other ways the Parellis play with horses on the ground are on a line and at liberty. This type of play has a different purpose than the pre-ride checklist. These tasks are all about teaching your horse to become calmer, smarter, braver and more athletic by introducing him to various obstacles and asking for an ever advancing series of maneuvers. These range from change of direction to transitions, flying changes, spins, stops, and collected maneuvers like the passage, piaffe and pirouette.
There’s no way to recommend a specific amount of time that should be dedicated to working with your horse on the ground. This totally depends on the horse. The more challenging and "green" he is, the longer your ground preparation needs to be. If your goal is to get your horse "rideable," then you’ll want to play with him until he’s calm, trusting, motivated and obedient.
There are several areas where you can incorporate preparation on the ground into your routine to enhance your relationship, without spending a great deal of time. Let’s look at some of them:
Catching Your Horse
If your horse doesn’t approach you, whether he’s in a stall, corral, or 10-acre pasture, that’s not a good sign.
"Many people have horses that are hard to catch and they blame that on the horse," notes Pat. "If your human friend turned or ran away from you when you approached, would you call them ‘hard to catch,’ or would you be concerned about the relationship?"
Because the horse-human relationship is largely misunderstood, horses get the blame for just about everything.
"A horse that truly likes you, trusts you, wants to be with you will prick up his ears and come right up to you as if to say ‘pick me!’ That’s a great reflection on you and how you honor, teach and treat your horse," Pat says. "You need to learn how to attract your horse rather than trap him to be caught. Just working on this will change a lot, even the riding experience."
Grooming & Handling
You shouldn’t have to cross-tie your horse for grooming to keep him from wanting to leave, but too often we take a business-like approach to grooming. The next time you bring up your horse, think about how you can make this time a pleasant experience for him instead of just getting the dirt off and making him look good.
True, some days you have more time than others. When you have extra minutes, put them to good use and look at your grooming sessions as a way to build the relationship. The time you spend with your horse should make him feel calmer and soothed.
Every horse has an itchy spot or two. Take the time to find them! Work on things like teaching your horse to lower his head. Pick up his feet, lift his tail, handle his ears. Done the right way, these little things will develop your leadership role in small, yet significant, ways.
Many horses hate to be saddled because their experiences have been unpleasant, beginning with the first time they were saddled. Change this by using a different tactic.
"Use the approach and retreat method to build confidence," says Pat. "Saddle and unsaddle several times until your horse relaxes, and then cinch up. Or put the saddle on and wait until he relaxes before cinching/girthing up. If you take some time with saddling, your horse will improve. Even biting and kicking will disappear because your horse will feel considered instead of forced."
"When a biter turns to nip when we’re snugging up the girth or cinch, we often give them a carrot," says Linda. "It blows their mind! Pretty soon that negative feeling they have about the whole saddling experience turns into a pleasant one."
Instead of just untacking your horse and putting him up, don’t call it quits when you pull off the saddle.
"Take your horse for a roll in the sand or a swim in the pond. Give him a massage, take him grazing," Linda suggests. "Those cooling off times are often the best times for getting closer to your horse."
Look for ways to finish your session on a great note every time in ways your horse will appreciate. Taking that little bit of extra time with him will pay off in volumes the next time you take him for a ride.
The Parelli Program teaches that horses aren’t just for riding. You can play with them on the ground and riding, with a line, without a line, without contact and with contact. All of these activities make for a well-rounded relationship and add more diversity and fun to the time you spend together.
The Parelli Program, founded in 1981 by lifelong horseman and teacher Pat Parelli, combines in-depth equine psychology and common sense communication techniques into the ultimate recipe for horse and rider success. The Parelli method allows horse owners at all levels of experience to achieve success without force, partnership without dominance and harmony without coercion. Pat and wife Linda are on a mission to make the world a better place for horses and humans, working to inspire, empower and educate through natural horsemanship. Their award-winning educational TV series can be seen on cable and satellite in the USA and UK.