Groundwork: the Why

“In-hand work is an integral part of my training, one that I use with every horse, from green to Grand Prix, as it prepares and eases them into the demands of ridden work.” says Manolo Mendez, founding member and the first Head Rider of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez. A man who’s skill and understanding with groundwork as well as his dressage riding I greatly admire.
I learned a lot about working with horses on the ground by watching Manolo’s videos of his in-hand work: observing his posture, his timing to the horses’ footfalls, his awareness of their balance, his understanding of each individual’s conformation and restrictions.

And I learned what groundwork is all about and why it is so important: it keeps our horses healthy!

Two and a half years ago, I unloaded an old, skinny and unfit ex-retiree off a trailer. Wesley was 23 at the time and had spent the past three years on an open meadow doing absolutely nothing all day.

June ’14 – straight off the trailer.

The last time I had ridden my mum’s star jumper was at my goodbye tournament ten years earlier. Back then he was a mighty horse with a broad chest and strong hind-legs, always preferring to take obstacles one stride early, easily making up in strength to pass without failure. We won that last competition. What a glorious memory that now was!

And our start into “active retiree” training wasn’t off to an easy start, as he got himself a leg injury a few days later in the course of finding his place in the new herd. So what to do? We spent the following six weeks walking through the forest together every day. Its a forest with nice soft paths and steep hills – perfect training ground.
Turns out, that injury was probably what made us start his re-training at exactly the pace we should have: slow, very slow. This gave us the time to get to know each other again, it gave him the time to get used to his new environment and his newly re-obtained purpose in life, and it gave me the time to read and learn and think about how to get him fit again.
It also gave his body time to fill up a little and re-adjust his metabolism to working life.

After six weeks of walking together we had both achieved a minimal fitness level, Wesley’s injury had healed and I switched to focusing on his stamina and started with some light cardio-training on the lunge. I had read about routines that help to grow muscle mass as well as conditioning the rehabilitation candidate’s heart and lungs. After about two weeks, I alternated the lunging training with some short trail rides.

Over the following year of more and more trail rides and our regular lunging sessions, I incorporated more in-hand training as I wanted to help him with straightness and flexibility. So I started reading and researching on the internet what kid of exercises would improve his stiffness and what to watch out for when working horses on the ground.

At this stage he was getting noticeably fitter, but was still rather thin and not very well-muscled.

About a year after that old horse had walked off the trailer, I began riding him in the arena again practising dressage exercises that would improve his overall fitness, flexibility and strength. Mind you, that meant very long warm-ups walking and trotting and very short intervals of actual exercises – also, only once a week.

Building up a horse’s health and fitness, be it one that you just bought, one who’s life’s training is just starting altogether or a rehab case; it doesn’t happen overnight.

For me it was getting a second chance with a horse, who happened to have crossed its zenith years ago, that brought me to study groundwork.

I now incorporate it in most of my riding lessons and and with some of my clients its often groundwork-only for weeks or months as we are starting their young horses or rehabilitating one that hadn’t been well.

Last week I had the good fortune of giving a two-day course on “gymnasticising groundwork and correct lunge training” to four leisure riders who I am all very proud of for wanting to improve their skills working from the ground and on the lunge for the benefits of their horses.

Those four ladies have owned their horses for one to two years.
Except for one youngster, they had all passed the 15 year mark and had been working horses in a trail riding business before.

The three middle-aged ladies and their wonderful owners.

All four horses are a bit on the chubby side, ok – to be frank, they are too fat.
The three little mares are all more or less struggling with weak backs, wrong postures and stiffness – probably also as a result of years of carrying mostly beginners over cross-country trails, never having been trained properly and (before their new owners) also hadn’t received the right medical and hoof care.

Some observations on posture, starring Sue (on four legs) and Tina:

More on posture, but also impulsion and balance:

In this sequence it’s clearly visible how delicate the balance between aids is in order to support your horse exactly when and how it needs it, without abrupt stops and starts. Mind you, Tina is not working with her own horse here. It takes time to get to know each other and even more time to get your timing right.

On day two of our course, we focused on training the horses on the lunge line and what to look out for. First, we started out each horse as if they were a green youngster never to have seen a lunge line or walked on a circle before (with a helper guiding the horse):

As Maren concentrates on maintaining a triangle between her aids and the horse and squaring herself, Tina helps Sunny with the idea of circling Maren by simply being there with her. Important: handler = active, helper = passive!

We then went on to watch out for correct rhythm of the horse’s beats: 4 in walk, 2 in trot, 3 in gallop – this is were lunging is a very useful diagnosis tool.
Most importantly though, we were watching out for correct posture and how to influence the way the horses carry themselves, where and how to use the whip and why a long neck stretching into contact is so important. Here you can see Sunny picking herself up quite visibly, coming out of her shoulders, stepping under a bit more and stretching that short little neck while maintaining a beautiful bent – relaxed and forward:

While Sunny is doing a wonderful job, even as her owner leaves her to it by herself, Maren could be a little bit more relaxed in her arms – those outstretched upper arms will give her pains! She has a lovely square but forward stance though and is keeping the horse between her whip and lunge with an open chest. Your body language is so important here!

I think  I might have mentioned it once or twice, but I will again: groundwork is vital to your  horses health and well-being! No matter if all you do is trail-riding.
I recently made the experience myself of how weak a fully ridden horse in its prime can be: Kaitsu is a beautiful, charming 7year old gelding, he’s been under saddle for at least 3 years. Some while ago I started training him, my goal being to teach him some dressage and improve his own body use under saddle.
This little horsey cost me some nerves, as working with him almost always ended in me not exactly looking like a great horse trainer at all. I caught myself actually lying in bed at night thinking of how to fix the problems I had with him: Why would he shut down, often all of a sudden? Why was he first very willing to come along, start work, be mounted, then abruptly change his mind about it and even start bucking a little? Why would he not move one leg sometimes – me waving the whip behind his butt? Was this a concrete horse?

Turns out, being half-asleep while pondering such questions doesn’t get you anywhere. So, the next day I asked my friend and Kaitsu’s owner to come watch while I worked with him on the ground. My initial intention was to show him how to strengthen Kaitsu’s back muscles and what exercises would help with that as well as improving balance. At this point it was clear that I’m not going to get anywhere near actual dressage work anytime soon with this stubborn young lad.

During that hour I spent with the gelding and his owner in the arena, the coin dropped. I understood why I hadn’t been successful at working with this horse, or – more specifically – why it had gone south after a while. Every single time.
Kaitsu was simply not fit enough for what I was asking him to perform!

He might be in his prime, look strong and move lovely when free – but: this horse was only ridden on the trail and that very much forward as he is by nature a rather calm, slow and phlegmatic horse personality.

This way of riding led to Kaitsu carrying all of the rider’s and most of his own weight on his front legs when ridden – his appearance changed dramatically when mounted – gone was the square, well-balanced young horse. His being very forward and “downhill” as riders say, led to a short neck, extremely hollowed out back and trailing hindlegs that took on almost no weight at all.

And here I come, and ask him to carry himself balanced and with much more weight on his hindlegs, asking him to constantly lift his back and stretch his neck. Those back-muscles were not used to this kind of work – and I had assumed this was a fit young horse with good base training out on the trail, and so I started out with 45 – 60min sessions – big mistake!

Mostly ground-work to build up muscle and conformation for me to eventually sit on and no more than 10 – 15 minutes of ridden work is more like what the little guy can handle at his current state of training, and that he does with the motivation and curiosity of the young.

I’m glad I figured out the mystery of Kaitsu’s uncharacteristic “disobedience” and am very much looking forward to slowly, very slowly building him up to show a great travers, master the canter pirouette – and who knows, maybe even the piaffe one day?
(Hey! We all get to dream…)

I brought an old, retired, ex-athlete back to strength and fitness with ground-work and patience: he’s now full of life again and loves to storm off on the gallop straights, just because he can – and it makes me laugh every time he does it, happy to see him healthy.

If you start working on the ground now, with regular practice you’ll both get fitter and you might be able to add a few year’s to your buddy’s life – fitter, happier years!


Next time: the “How” of Groundwork with exercises and pointers…

Do you ride with your horse? Or against it?

It’s been quite a while I thought yesterday morning when the alarm rang a few hours too early on a bank holiday…

Too many cups of coffee later and in the car on my way to my student’s barn I realised, it had been 10 years!
10 years since I last sat foot on tournament grounds (not counting attendance as a mere spectator).

I must admit, accompanying my student to her first tournament made me quite a bit giddy, despite the early hour.
Her mare, Butterfly, had had her mane plated and tucked up and she was being groomed to a shine, her blows visible in the crisp morning air as she felt her owner’s anticipation.

The polished-up contenders warming up together.

There’s something festive about tournaments: the uniformed riders in white breeches and dark jackets, shiny boots and slightly nervous smiles as they’re making their first rounds on the grounds, horses whinnying from their trailers and coaches and mums running about making sure their competitors have all their equipment and are on time for their tests.

I had spent a big part of my life in this setting, during the season we’d compete every weekend at some venue or another, so I was in quite a nostalgic mood.

The memory train came to an abrupt halt the minute I walked into the warm-up arena, and my dreamy smile was wiped away. There it was, the thing I missed least about my time as a competition rider:
Humans putting their desires to win, to look good, to be admired above their horses welfare. What I saw in this warm-up pen was young girls and grown women shouting insults at their horses, whipping noisily, spurring every step, and brutalising their mouths.
I pictured the scene in my mind with horses that could scream, it was very loud indeed!

See, this was one of these tournaments where competitive rider careers begin, an entry-level test only event. In this pen there where probably quite a few first-timers, not unlike my own student. The very first time they ride “for something” – and it’s already there, the ambition that often kills all cooperation and harmony between horse and human.

This is not riding!

One lady stuck out to me immediately, she was riding a young, seemingly hot Haflinger gelding.

Let me rephrase – she wasn’t riding, she was straight-forward brutalising that poor horse.

Her hands would move 20 centimetres easily, pulling at an already completely rolled-up neck, while – as “good” Rollkur requires – leaning back heavily, pushing on his loins while spiking him with her spurs. For good measure he would get to feel her long whip every other stride or so.
And boy, did he still try to defend himself! Tail swishing, half-bucks, kicking. Whenever he did get his neck free, he’d toss it from side to side with wide, terrified eyes.
Surely in a few years, he’ll shut down and just give up and let her wreck his body.

Looking around in horror, trying to find a face with the same disgusted expression as mine at this sight, I realised just why it’s so hard to end this particular animal cruelty. There wasn’t any!
No, the worst part of this was that people would look on in admiration, commenting on how well he’s going and if she wouldn’t take part outside the competition today, she’d surely win. I don’t know the particular judge that day, but sadly, they might have been right. From entry level to FEI tests, this kind of “riding” gets rewarded repeatedly.

If those people obviously couldn’t see this horse screaming, couldn’t they at least see that he wasn’t “going well” at all? He was tight, his leg movements forced and jagged, his back didn’t swing at all, he carried all of his weight on his forehand, the list goes on and on… hadn’t they at least heard about the sacred rule of dressage never to ride a horse with its nose behind the vertical? Did they need a ruler to see?

wp-1475596972573.jpgSure, we’re still working on stepping under and gaining contact, but the left horse is happy and trusts her owner. What would the right one say about his?

Looking around the arena again, seeing very few pairs in harmony or at least attempting to achieve harmony together – again, an entry-level test niveau, I’m not expecting to see perfect transitions, flying changes and beautiful travers – I saw mostly young girls using their voices and whips harshly, kicking their disconnected, tied-down horses forward and pulling at reins, I realised that this lady and her poor Haflinger are local stars because she has developed enough seat, routine and biceps power to force a horse into frame.

Her riding had gone completely off track somewhere close to where these girls where with theirs today.  And once the side-reigns come off their horses, I can only pray that they accept their fate and go the hard way of actually learning how to ride. Accept the fact, that they won’t look great yet, that dressage is a long way to go and that they decide to go on this journey together with their horses, not against them.
What I wish these girls (and maybe also that lady) the most, is role models that show them what beautiful dressage looks like and what a relaxed, strong and happy horse feels like.
I hope on their way, they find real partnership with their horses and have lots of fun improving their seats, trying to get the contact right or learning more demanding movements together.

That’s what they’re worth when you stop competing… a picture my mum send me a while ago, we used to compete together.

Because after having been there, shouting at my disobedient pony back in the day, and ten years as a competition rider – with the luck of having had fantastic role models and incredible partners under saddle, I have only fully realised what it means to ride “together” with your horse in the years after, when my riding life got quieter, muddier and more focused, far away from white breeches.

Now my partner is 25, still quite fit but not immortal – I sometimes wish I would have gotten there earlier.

This is why it makes me all the happier to see how my protegee student and her mare mastered the three tests at their first tournament together. Despite of nerves, they showed a very harmonious, if not perfect, dressage test in the morning.
They would have won the following style jumping competition with the highest mark, if it hadn’t been for one little misunderstanding, and ended up winning the last time jumping test together.

No whipping, no spurring, no side reigns – just trying. Together.

I walked off the tournament grounds a bit taller than I had walked in, very proud of the two for showing what all riding, be it competing or not, is about: riding together to the best of your abilities!