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…

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