Ground work is smart work when it comes to horses. One thing my horses are is well-behaved on the ground! I get compliments on it often from folks who handle them at the farm. They don't need chains. They don't need gadgets to handle them. They have been taught consistently and repeatedly to respect humans and their space.
Respectful horse manners is my pet peeve! No walking behind me, on me, past me, pushing me! My horses halt with one word. They back when I turn around to face them, if I move an arm a certain way, if I jiggle the lead, or say "Back up."! They drop their head with me saying "Head Down" or with a slight downward pull of the lead rope. They automatically turn to face me when I lead them in a pasture to turn them out. They stop on a dime when I do. It's a safety thing...it's a respect thing! This doesn't mean they don't spook or get scared, and act like a horse....but it does mean I can break through their natural "flight instinct" and get back their focus and attention in a pinch! Super important because they are after all 1000+lb dragons- when fired up!
I can move herd of 10 + horses that I've established a rapport with off a gate by use of body language, a raise of an arm, a look, and sure, use of voice if needed, because they understand my communication to them in a language they understand. Because I speak their language, they respect me.
I am seeing a need to teach more youth- especially in the hunter jumper realm- more about the fundamentals of "speaking horse" through the use of ground manners and body language! Heck, I see cases at our boarding farm now of many well-trained riding horses need work in this area-especially when I have to lead them in and out. I am amazed at how many walk on me, right behind me...won't get out of my space, push past me, won't back....try to run out the gate.., their sheer size makes this extremely dangerous because they don't have any respect for people space. I don't trust that like my own horses, should they spook, that there is enough solid ground training in them for them to even consider my presence to spook around me at very least...not on top or over me.
Ground-work training in your horse should teach respect for personal space and boundaries and it should be consistently instilled in horses through positive reinforcement of good, repeated, behaviors on the ground. No exception! Common misconceptions about groundwork from hunter folks are: That ground work is boring- understanding horse behavior is essential to safety and corners shouldn't be cut here. What about longeing...that's groundwork, right? In a circle, to get the energy out, right? Actually, it's to assess the horses mental state that day, to see how their moving, and to do mental run-down with them to see how well they are focusing on you before you ride. Are you able to get your horse's attention and keep it?
Ask yourself this: Do you need to be in the right frame of mind to ride your horse? If you are frazzled, nervous, impatient, tired, short-tempered, in a bad mood, angry, anxious, relaxed, happy, content, focused, confident....does that affect your riding ability? Well, same for your horse, Ground work lets you assess where your pony's mind is at before you hit the saddle and take your chances. Ground work does not have to be longeing. It may be just be a few quick few exercises leading the horse to focus attention on you. To see how willing they are to pay attention to your cues and to get them to move their feet. If they aren't listening, you know you are good to up the ante and either do some more intense ground work or throw that leg over for a ride. Maybe riding is not a good idea that day based on the lack of attention your horse gives you EXAMPLE: a windy day, lots of activity going on outside the arena, butterflies, invisible monsters, and "creative thinking".
And horse peeps...btw, it is always okay to not ride and only work your horse on the ground! That is okay! That is good training!
Maybe you only ride 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes based on your horse's attention span fitness,, training level, age, or attitude? Maybe all you do is walk halt transitions. Maybe walk-trot....work your horse where their head is. Where is their mental state? Are you paying attention to that, or are you just running through a routine around and around a circle of walk-trot-canter because that is what YOU think your horse is supposed to do?
NEVER get in the saddle any day with expectations...meet your horse where they are and work them from where they are that day! Not yesterday...not tomorrow! Pushing too far, too fast creates big problems fast that are long lasting and harder to fix once created!
Start on the ground. If your horse can't canter a circle on the ground without shooting flames behind him/her then why on God's green earth would you think they'd be any different with you on their back? Think...use common sense...try and put yourself where your horse is! Would you be pissed off going around and around in a circle over and over with a bitting-rig forcing your head-down and having to use a hind-end that is not strong enough for that type of continuous, strenuous work in a circle? You'd likely blow a gasket too at some point too and try and run away from that! People with the best of intentions can create ticking time bombs in horses with a misunderstanding of horse behavior, ground-work do's and do not's- which is why I think all horse owners should be willing to focus as much willingness to their education of horses on the ground, as in the saddle. When in doubt...the old adage less is more is true to heart with that of a horse!
My lesson students should expect a new ramp up on this soon. It's time to return to roots and start training you how to speak better horse! Off to price some additional round-pen panels too. In the meantime, read this awesome article for a great breakdown of why groundwork is the bomb and very best tool for better riding too.
Click here for an awesome article with more information