Safe and smart groundwork can help build the foundation for a confident, well-behaved horse.
Humane, science-based training is founded on educating our horses, not by “breaking” them. By educating them on the ground, we’re instilling good learning-theory basics that can improve performance and safety under the saddle. We’re also teaching the horse that he can learn.
“Good groundwork stimulates the horse’s brain to increase its problem-solving abilities,” Hawson says. “This is the ‘learning-how-to-learn’ response.”
Booth says groundwork is foundation training at its best for the untrained horse. When done correctly, horses learn simple cues that build upon one another to be more complex. And it teaches them that paying attention to us and listening to our cues can lead to less confusion and conflict.
Once you’ve established good groundwork, you can always return to these fundamental building blocks—whether to go back to the basics when more complex movements start going wrong or to calm an overexcited horse. “The essential groundwork exercises offer a good way to lower a horse’s arousal (alertness) level,” leading to increased performance and safety, Hawson says. People who’ve truly mastered groundwork can start with horses as young as a year old, Booth says. These youngsters can learn to lead, stop, pick up their feet, load on a trailer, and get touched or sprayed all over. But unskilled trainers would do better to pass on this task, as our mistakes can cause lifelong confusion.
“We can easily ruin a horse with training errors when they’re babies,” he warns. “It’s a critical learning period for them, and if they learn something we don’t want them to—such as conflict behavior that frees them from being touched—during this period, it’s a lot harder to get rid of later.”
Horses are creatures with exceptional vision. Their large, broadly placed eyes and innate ability to pick up discrete signals are fundamental to their relationships and communication.