I’ve had several people ask me when they need to do groundwork before they ride and when they can just get on and I’ve found myself having a lot of difficulty answering this question. Although to most people’s eyes I often “just get on”, in my opinion that isn’t possible to do unless someone leads the horse to the mounting block for you and you swing a leg over.
So how do I define groundwork? I define groundwork as any interaction you have had with your horse that isn’t from on top of your horse’s back. This includes leading, grooming, saddling, and mounting. Of all of those activities, leading is by far the most important and the most often ignored.
When I choose to not send my horse around on a line or in the round pen before getting on it is because through leading the horse to the mounting block I have realized I don’t need to do any more work before mounting. If the horse is relaxed, focused, and attentive then there is no reason to do more work on the ground. Of course there are lots of exercises you may wish to incorporate into your work with the horse on the ground for a large variety of reasons, but if your horse is in a good mindset, these exercises are not necessary before mounting.
I’m sure at this point most of you are wondering how I know what mindset my horse is in from leading and how I would affect a change in him through leading. The answer to that is to throw away everything you probably know about leading your horse and start to treat leading with as much care and awareness as you would any of your other ground work.
When I lead a horse I am not only trying to get from point A to point B, I am also trying to get my horse in sync with me in a relaxed manner. Once I’ve established this connection with my horse everything becomes easier.
The Steps to Proper Leading
First off, when starting out you should always use a rope halter with an attached line (without a metal buckle) that is at least 10′ long. Anything shorter than this gives you very little time to react to changes in your horse. As both you and your horse become more skilled, you can transition to a shorter rope if you would like.
Next, ask you horse to stand (either with a vocal cue or your body language and intention). Eventually this should be done without a vocal cue.
Then, allow the line to slip through your hand as you walk away from your horse in the direction that you are planning to walk your horse. You want to keep walking until there are at least 5 feet between you and your horse. If at any point your horse starts to walk forward or tries to follow you you will have to ask your horse to move back to his original position and stand quietly. This could take some time to master.
Ask your horse to stop by turning to face your horse and lifting the hand that you are using to lead your horse. If this is not enough, gently shake the rope up and down so that it bumps him in the chin. Increase this pressure until your horse slows down and then hold the pressure until your horse halts.
If your horse moved forward, back your horse up a few steps. Do this by again lifting your leading hand, thinking about the horse’s feet stepping backward, and shaking the rope with increasing pressure until your horse begins looking for a solution. As soon as your horse tries to find the solution keep your pressure steady. Release when your horse thinks about stepping backward (the try). This will either be a step back or a shifting in weight. Repeat this until lifting your hand slightly gets a smooth step backward.
Once you have your horse standing approximately 5-10 feet behind you, take a step forward while thinking about your horse coming with you. If your horse doesn’t step off with you allow the rope to get taught as you keep walking forward. The pressure on your horse will gradually increase until he gives. As soon as your horse takes a step forward pause your step to give a big release and then continue walking. Repeat until your horse is walking with you.
If your horse quickly tries to catch up to you or is walking faster than, stop, turn around, ask your horse to stop, and back your horse up. Then, walk forward again. Every time your horse gets ahead of your pace (i.e. is closing the distance between the two of you) stop and back up your horse. Repeat until your horse is walking along with you. You can initially do this walking backwards if that makes it easier for you. Eventually you should learn to feel your horse creeping up to you by the weight of the line in your hand changing.
Once you have your horse walking the same pace as you, work on your horse slowing with you. When you slow your pace, your horse should slow his. If he doesn’t, stop him. Back him up if he is still thinking forward. This takes some practice. Eventually your horse should slow to a stop staying equidistant from you the entire time.
Now, work on your horse increasing speed with you. Begin walking faster and applying pressure to the line until your horse yields to the pressure. Over time your horse will learn to speed up with you and seamlessly transition between a slow walk to a fast walk or even trot.
While you are working on these exercises, begin to develop a feel of when your horse is tuned into you and when he is leaving you. When your horse’s mind starts to wander, ask him for something different to get his attention back (e.g. speed up, slow down, halt, turn). Eventually you will be able to get your horse’s full attention while walking him and you will gain a better understanding of where your horse is mentally. If your horse is behaving or “keeping it together” while you walk him, but is clearly still worried maybe you should try some other ground work exercises to help him settle. If he is relaxed, willing, and attentive then you can go ahead and move on to whatever you wanted to do that day.
Eventually all your work with your horse should essentially be different variations of the same thing and should all help your horse relax and focus. So stop being lazy and work on that leading!
If you have any questions or comments please feel free to leave them below. If there any other topics you would like me to address, let me know that too. I’ll be posting more articles and tips every Wednesday so check back soon.