How much time do you spend strengthening your relationship with your horse while on the ground? Many riders only think 'riding' when they think of communicating with their horse, however there are many other ways you can begin to not only create a stronger sense of trust but also to improve your horse's training.
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Groundwork is really exactly what it sounds like; working with your horse while being on the ground, rather than in the saddle. However it is often seen as something that is only relevant when applied to young horses or horses before they are backed. This is untrue.
Groundwork can be beneficial at any point in your horse's life. From a young, unstarted and nervous 2-year-old, to an older 20 plus senior
The benefits of working with your horse on the ground are far-reaching for both horse and rider. It helps to build trust and to establish certain 'personal space', which helps to build respect for you as your horse's leader. Working with your horse from the ground allows you to get to know what is 'normal' for your horse, both emotionally and physically. Groundwork will also help to begin desensitizing your horse.
Groundwork allows you to being instilling basic training principles that can be transferred across to training while in the saddle later
From a health perspective, different types of groundwork can help promote circulation, loosen or relax stiff or tense muscles and allow your horse to become used to you touching more sensitive areas of his body without fear or apprehension.
The other big benefit of groundwork is being able to work with your horse when riding is not possible. This can be for any number of reasons; time constraints, injury, weather or just to add something different to your horse's training plan or schedule. But groundwork can also be used with your training in the saddle. Before rides to help relax and warm specific areas of your horse up to prepare them for work and also after work.
In this particular blog post I want to focus on groundwork relating to touch. How you can begin incorporating massage, stroking and basic touch techniques into your training with your horse that will be enjoyable and educational for both of you.
So, before we go any further, it is important to note that in order to work with your horse, you will need to be in a safe and suitable environment. Very often when your horse is being massaged, he might become so relaxed that any sudden or different movements or noise can cause an unexpected reaction from him. This could potentially lead to accidents. It is also important to wear your helmet at all times when working near or around your horse. Once you have chosen a suitable location you can then begin working with your horse.
It may sound a little strange, but the attitude and energy you approach your horse with can play a big part in how your horse reacts to you and your touch. Keep your mind calm, free of stress and, just like when you ride, try to stay focused on the task at hand throughout the groundwork session.
Being relaxed and feeling confident and present is vitally important to the success of your work, whether it be on the ground or in the saddle, with your horse
Obviously the types of touches or work you can do with your horse will depend on the relationship you have with your horse. Nervous or anxious horses should be approached in a sensitive manner and only touched where they allow you to. The aim is to build trust, so forcing any particular connection or touching of a certain area will only serve to damage that fragile relationship, not strengthen it.
Your horse will let you know what he is happy with. Look for signals from him such as yawning or licking and chewing. This generally occurs when your horse is feeling relaxed and enjoying the proceedings. Pinning their ears, lots of anxious, tense movements or lifting the head or tail higher will rather tell you to leave well enough alone.
At any point if your horse becomes uncomfortable with what you are doing, go back to a place where they are happy and rather work there for a while. It may take a few sessions before you have built up enough trust to move on from there. Also keep in mind that, just like us, there may be days that your horse just does not want to be massaged or touched!
There are many different ways you can use your hands that will promote a different feeling in your horse's body. Again, the key is finding what your horse is comfortable with initially and then working on from there. I suggest beginning with just stroking the neck, shoulder and back area where the saddle would sit. Use your whole palms and fingers and rub in the direction the hair lies naturally
One of the easiest ways to promote a bond is to always have one hand on your horse. You can do this by making sure the hand finishing the one stroke remains on your horse until your other hand begins the next stroke. Think about the pressure you are applying as well. Start each stroke with a soft pressure and build to where you want, then finishing the stroke with a similar pressure to where you began.
Very often the amount of pressure will depend on your horse and the area you are working on, but most often horses enjoy something around what you would apply when using a rubber curry comb or similar. Too soft and it may tickle or annoy your horse, too hard and your horse may find it uncomfortable or even a little sore.
Once you have worked over the neck, shoulder and back area like this, you can begin experimenting with using your hands in different ways. One such way is using your hand to move the skin in small circles on a particular area. Simply lay your hand on your horse's coat and, applying a little more pressure with the sides of your palm and fingers, begin moving your hand in a small slow circle. Your hand will not move from the area, rather just move the skin around over the muscle underneath in that specific area.
Again, while you are doing this with your one hand, keep your other hand on your horse to help promote that feeling of connection between you
Finally, you can also begin to loosen out the neck and crest area by gently squeezing there with your hands. Just like it feels good for you to have your hair slightly and gently tugged or squeezed, it also is an enjoyable feeling for your horse. Start at the withers and work up towards the poll. only go as far as your horse is comfortable with and then begin working your way back towards the withers again.
Keep in mind that even though your horse might not enjoy you working near his ears or head initially, consistent calm work like this will encourage him to trust you. This will eventually lead to him allowing you to work around his head and ears in a safe manner
Taking the time to truly connect and work with your horse through groundwork will add a whole new dimension to both your training and your relationship with each other. I suggest starting today with your horse and see where it leads you both.