Does the groundwork we do with our horse really matter? You could ask me this question any day of the week and the answer would be a resounding Hell Yes!
So often I meet people and their horses and the biggest challenge they are faced with is not being able to ride or, when they do ride it’s stressful, full of conflict and often ends badly. When I ask them what it’s like dealing with their horse when they aren’t riding things are usually just as unpleasant.
If we look at this from an ethical or even scientific point of view we shouldn’t be starting horses until their growth plates have closed. For most breeds this is 5-6 years old and for some heavier or larger breeds this can be as much as 8 years old. Starting horses before their growth plates have closed is now being shown to be detrimental to their health and longevity as sound healthy horses.
Taking a biomechanical approach horses carry a larger percentage of their body weight on their forehand. They are naturally “downhill” as they are built to graze. So it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what’s going to happen when we add the weight of a rider. Add to that, the weight of a rider to a young, still growing and unbalanced horse.
Enter working from the ground!
Working from the ground, when done correctly, without any added weight to the horse and this means prior to starting under saddle, we can teach the horse everything he will need to know to be a sound, successful ridden horse. He can learn about transitions, flexion, bend, lifting the back, lateral movements, collection and most of all he can build the strength and suppleness needed to transfer his own weight to his hindquarter so that when the weight of the rider is added he is not falling forward and can support himself and his rider.
By taking the time to help our horses grow, slowly and mindfully we can ensure his physical soundness and believe it or not his mental and emotional soundness. The mental and emotional state of our horses is something that is seriously overlooked! Anyone who has a horse or two in their lives will tell you that they all have their own personality, likes, dislikes and emotions. So why when it comes to riding and ensuring our horses are physically, mentally and emotionally ready for the challenge do we put on our blinkers and ear plugs and ignore what’s standing right in front of us!?
Then there’s that strange but growing concept of creating a connection. As someone who used to think she had a great connection with her horses yet would struggle to get simple things done – not being able to catch one of my horses is something that comes to mind. And now as someone who understands what a connection is and how to create one I can tell you straight up that without this, my life with horses was just sucky! If you have a horse that is heavy in the halter, unresponsive or over reactive, forgets you’re there and bumps into you or stands on you, I would go so far as to say that when you’re riding that horse he’s heavy in the bridle, unresponsive or over reactive, spooks, trips and generally pays next to no attention to you.
Working from the ground isn’t exclusive to the young horse either. While taking the time to grow your young horse from the ground up will help him live a long and sound life, working from the ground with the mature horse has massive benefits. Horses that have been retired from riding due to injury can build strength, suppleness and fitness and enjoy a long happy sound life without being ridden. Additionally there are plenty of horses that have been labelled as unable to be ridden who have found their way back to riding through correct and slow ground work.
Sadly I see so many people going from clinic to clinic and trainer to trainer in an attempt to “fix” the issues they are facing when riding their horse. The only outcome I see from doing this are horses that are confused, diminished and shut down and owners who are given tips and tricks to band aid the symptom instead of knowledge for a life of success and fun. What saddens me even more is that we as humans are often so caught up in our own desire to ride, compete or achieve “our” goals that we forsake our horse. Riding them when they are clearly telling us they are not able to carry us or are ready to carry us. We ignore the little signs they give us, label them in order to make ourselves feel ok with carrying on, reprimand them for being “naughty” when all they are doing is using the one tool they have to express themselves… their body.
It is time to create change for horses. It is time to slow down, pay attention and genuinely listen, to really understand who our horse is and ask “Is he physically, mentally and emotionally ready”. If we can be really honest with ourselves when we ask this question we have taken the first step towards creating a successful, long lasting and healthy partnership.