Section-2 Groundwork

About Groundwork:

 

The second layer of training is especially useful for horses with mild to moderate behavioral issues, young or un-ridden horses, physical rehabilitation and horses with a walk, trot, canter or gaiting that is poor or uncomfortable to ride. This work is also useful for novice and intermediate riders needing to improve feel and timing for better communication. The skills outlined directly simulate from the ground what both horse and rider will need to know under saddle. While the skills are simple and easy to learn, they can be quite challenging to achieve with consistent quality.

The real aspect of training in this course is learning how to achieve each skill with the horse consistently maintaining straightness, impulsion and engagement. The horse must overcome poor patterns of movement, genetic or conformational challenges and develop what might be very weak muscles needed to achieve each skill in true Self-Carriage. Some of the skills guide and support the horse to find Self-Carriage while others test the amount of Self-Carriage the horse can maintain without support. Both supportive and unsupported Groundwork skills are helpful for a ridden horse to operate in Self-Carriage.

Self-Carriage specifically means that the horse is balanced left/right to maintain straightness internally, balanced front/back to maintain impulsion at any speed and balanced up/down to maintain various degrees of engagement appropriate to the demands of work. A horse out of balance left/right will typically be high headed, have a “good” and “bad” side or may show recurring lameness on a specific leg. A horse out of balance front/back will typically be hard to slow or hard to go or may have uneven muscle development and muscular tension or soreness. A horse out of balance up/down will typically appear “downhill,” have trouble reaching performance goals and may show recurring joint, tendon and ligament problems. These patterns of imbalance are not due to the horse’s unchangeable conformation or breed traits. Lack of straightness, impulsion or engagement denote physical imbalance in any horse. Just like a human, athletic ability and graceful movement can only shine through when the body is functioning correctly. Mechanically correct use of anatomy is simply the most efficient and comfortable way to move – even despite various challenges. Horses that look ugly or move awkwardly are not efficient or comfortable.

Every horse has the potential to move well or move poorly depending on the training objective. Often the training objective is to achieve various tasks or performance maneuvers, hoping that athleticism, balance and good behavior are the resulting byproduct of “training”. The problem I have found with this approach is that horses are masters of compensation and are able to “do” lots of things while dramatically out of balance. This ability is entirely possible for a horse, even up to high levels of performance, with the unfortunate result of likely damaging the horse in the long-run. The inherent talents acquired through excellent breeding can be used up at an early age when all the horse’s energies are spent compensating for poor balance. Adrenaline or muscular strength will only carry so far as “balance substitutes” and have a long term effect of deteriorating the body with small, repetitive damage.

Training for correct, balanced movement as a priority improves a horse’s posture. Posture and conformation are two different things. Posture is changeable; conformation is not. Conformation is the body – the size, shape and density of the bones. Posture is how the body is used – where the body weight is distributed, how the joints are utilized and the muscular development supporting the bones. Developing Self-Carriage means first overcoming poor postural habits, then guiding the horse towards mechanically sound posture and finally weaning the horse off the support and into maintaining good posture without help. Groundwork allows this process of change without the weight of a rider as a factor. Allowing a horse to learn Self-Carriage or good posture and become proficient before adding a live weight (the rider) simply makes life easier on both horse and rider. The live weight of a rider will inherently challenge the horse’s balance, posture and ability to move in Self-Carriage. Good groundwork minimizes this challenge.


Theory Topics For Groundwork:

 

Why horses need help developing Self-Carriage or Balance in the Body

Nature intended for horses to be nomads. Traveling an average of 25 miles per day, wild horses move in search of food, water and safety and discover how to use their bodies efficiently in the process. In domestic environments, even those that try to simulate a natural environment, horses are fed and watered regularly. We take away a horse’s need to move efficiently, we genetically alter them through selective breeding and we add the un-natural weight of a rider. Groundwork is a way of simulating the amount of unfettered movement that nature intended. Humans can also act as “personal trainers” to help horses find efficiency and balance to an even greater degree than what may be discovered in the wild.

 


Understanding Optimal Balance in all three dimensions of the body

Bodies are three-dimensional with a lateral (left/right) plane, horizontal (front/back) plane and vertical (up/down) plane that intersect at a central Point of Balance. At rest or while grazing, the Point of Balance is midway between the horse’s nose and tail. The mass of the neck and head pull the horse’s weight onto the front legs while the hind legs rest. In motion, the Point of Balance has to shift up and back, midway between the legs. The long neck and heavy head are counter balanced by shifting more body weight to the hind legs. This is exactly what the hindquarters of a horse are designed to do. In order to balance, all three planes must symmetrically organize around the Point of Balance. Straightness (left/right) means the weight load is equalized between the left and right legs of the horse. Impulsion (front/back) means the thrust of forward motion is coming from the hindquarter muscles because the hind legs are steadily bearing more of the weight load. Engagement (up/down) means that greater than 50% of the body weight is being carried on the hind legs. All three planes can balance in a long or short frame.


How to recognize patterns of imbalance and compensation

The head and neck position of the horse is a direct reflection of how the weight is being distributed through the legs. Manipulating the position of the head and neck only achieves false collection because doing this rarely if ever affects the weight distribution through the legs. Learning to observe the horse’s chosen head and neck position as a transmitter of how the weight is being carried through the legs helps you develop your eye for balance and imbalance in the entire body. Balanced motion is also graceful and appears effortless. Labored, awkward, tense or hyper motion signals imbalance in a horse.

 

How to improve Balance or Self-Carriage using Groundwork

Each Groundwork Skill first develops clear communication through feel between you and the horse. The Learning Frame of Mind is carried forward into more complicated work and faster speeds. Each skill also addresses all three aspects of physical balance but the emphasis may be more on one than another. Some skills allow you to make rapid corrections in order to support the horse in changing its posture. Other skills reduce your involvement in the process so that the horse can discover aspects of balance on its own. Done correctly, the horse can learn through groundwork everything it needs to know to be ridden safely and successfully. Translating the groundwork to riding should make perfect sense to the horse so that the horse is not having to learn new skills under saddle – only how to do the same skills with the weight of a rider on its back.


 

Groundwork Skills:

 

2.1 Hand Walking

If a horse can still walk, a horse can heal. Hand walking is the least stressful exercise for a horse with tremendous benefits. This is a different skill from Leading (course 1) because it is much more specific. The horse learns leg aids, rein aids and how to synchronize with a rider through simulation. This skill also simulates a herd dynamic for bonding with the horse.

 

 


2.2 Lunging

This ancient groundwork exercise has taken  many forms and developed a bad reputation in some circles. In this version of lunging you learn how to “play the scales” of motion in order to improve impulsion in all speeds. It is used as a process of discovery, allowing relaxed “practice time” for forward motion to help the horse discover efficiency with minimal guidance.

 

 


2.3 Long Reins – Straight Lines

Another  ancient groundwork exercise that has become a lost art, long reins are one of the most direct simulations to riding that can be done on the ground. Introducing a horse to long reins is where this skill can go horribly wrong, so a surcingle or stirrups are eliminated entirely for the sake of safety. Putting the reins directly between you and the horse challenges and develops feel and timing to improve communication for riding. Communication and straightness can be developed to a very high degree while also exposing the horse to a variety of situations.

 


2.4 Free Work in the Round Pen

Working with a horse at liberty can be one of the strongest ways to develop a horse’s mind and connection with you. Done poorly, this kind of work becomes manipulative and destructive. Cultivating true “draw” is what makes the difference. This skill allows the horse to make choices so that draw and Self-Carriage are developed through discovery with minimal guidance from the person.


2.5 Long Reins – Circles

Taking straightness onto a circle allows the horse to work at faster speeds in the long reins and develops engagement. This groundwork skill is the most challenging to the horse’s balance. The horse must be balanced, strong and supple to maintain straightness on a circle at various speeds. This prepares the horse’s body to cope with the weight of a rider.

 

 

2.6 Saddle – Saddle Fit & Intro to Saddle

An ill-fitting saddle can be the source of many behavioral and physical issues. Learning how to properly fit a saddle is imperative for every rider. Resolving saddling issues or introducing a saddle to a horse for the first time are also covered in this skill.

 


2.7 Bridle – Bridle Fit, Use & Intro to Bridle

A simple snaffle bridle is all you will need for the entire program. This skill teaches the difference between snaffles and leveraged bits, how to properly fit a bit and bridle and how to resolve bridling issues or introduce a bit for the first time.

 


2.8 Balance Bands – Fit & Intro to Bands

These are used to simulate the feel of a rider for a young horse or help a horse balance by simulating an ideal rider. The Balance Bands are specifically made for this training program. The primary material is super stretchy elastic that acts as a guide without creating restriction or giving the horse something to lean on. They are used in conjunction with a saddle and snaffle bit as a last preparatory simulation for riding.

Equine Imbalance

...."Many problems (of the horse) can be caused by unbalanced patterns of tension in the body"........
....."Uneven tension will often result in uneven body use, difficulty carrying a saddle and rider, stiffness generally 'through the back' or the body as a whole, behavioural problems etc..... " Gavin Scofield D.O.
Founder of Equine Postural Training &
Official Osteopath for the British Endurance team

Acknowledgements

Photos Contributed by:
Jim McCleary - McCleary Photography
Christianne Gentile - True by Christianne
Sarah Wengernuk - Essence Photography

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