Tuesday, January 6, 2009

So Let's Talk about Ground Work....What Is It and When to Start!

I started off on the thing with ground work because I was already planning a series of posts on the subject. Richard uses a LOT of ground work in pretty much everything he does with a horse. He thinks it's easier to teach a horse something new on the ground without weight, before expecting the horse to accomplish it with the added weight of that rider in the saddle. It has been interesting watching his progression.

Before I get going on Richard's ground work , I want to say there are lots of types of ground work. To some ground work is teaching a horse how to lead, clip, bathe, load...that sort of thing. To some it is to run a horse around in the round pen and teach them to "hook on" to the handler. Still others are very immersed in clicker trainer or Parelli's games or whatever the hot horse whisperer is promoting. Some think it means working a horse in the long lines. Some think ground work is a combination of these things. There are a lot of ways to teach a horse many things from the ground......any and ALL of those can be referred to as ground work.

I start ground work with my foals the day they are born (with few exceptions). I figure the sooner they know they are to respect my space, pay attention to me when I am in their presence and that biting, striking and kicking are not allowed, the better off they will be as horses. Part of that thinking for me is if I bring them into this world of humans, I need to provide them with the skills to live with humans so that the horse and the humans are ALL safe.

That ground work starts off with wearing a halter and includes giving to pressure, dropping their heads when asked, moving away when I walk into their space, backing, turning on the forehand and the haunches, picking up their feet and not putting them down until asked, running a rasp over those feet, clipping, bathing and, of course, leading and loading. I'm not sure if I've missed anything but that's pretty much what I want from my foals by the time we have our annual open house at summer's end.

By the time we do our presentations my foals have the skills to be handled by strangers and still get through crowds of people and even deal with cars or trucks as they travel to the ring without hurting themselves or others. The foals can handle being turned loose in front of that crowd and they know how to be caught and even after all that excitement they can travel safely back to their stalls without incident.

That doesn't mean my young horses are perfect at all of these things. They are horses and need to be reminded, some more often than others. But the basics are there and I find that they pick things up when reminded very easily and are less stressed. But that's just me.

Many breeders don't handle their foals until they are ready to ride. Other's handle them but don't teach them any ground manners.Since a horse is learning about our expectations from its first interactions with humans (whether we realize it or not) these horses already have an idea that the behavior they've been doing all along is OK.

When those horses are taken to a trainer to be broke to ride the trainer may do some or all (depending on that particular horse's experience) of the ground work I mentioned I do early. They will do that to teach the horse to be safe in the training environment. Teaching horses our new expectations is more difficult because the horse already has it's patterns of behavior. That can be difficult for the horse and more stressful for the horse.

Some people might think that's not a big deal. Because it's what most horses go through, it's normal and it's OK. However, some trainers believe the earlier you begin teaching the horse, not only is it better for the horse, it actually can make training a horse under saddle easier.

I know that my friend, Tracey, working with her mustangs would easily be able to tell you the huge differences that are there between the wild mustangs and the desensitized horses born in captivity. Because of the way these horses have been rounded up and the process before she ever gets her hands on one, they have heightened flight responses to humans. That must be overcome before any other training can even begin.

Yet my friend, and sometimes mentor, Harvey Jacobs would tell you he would much rather work with a wild mustang than a spoiled horse breed in captivity and not taught any "people" skills. Undoing the behaviors of spoiled horses is difficult and can be dangerous. The older the horse, the more dangerous the task. Starting foals off with good ground rules from the start makes things safer for the horses and their people.

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  1. I would have to agree with your friend Tracey. The ranch that JB came off of keeps their horses in an untouched state. Being able to now compare training a horse that is gentled versus an completely untouched horse raised in a wild envirnoment, I would say the untouched horse is my preferred choice. I have taken horses in for training on various occasions and I alwasy find it more challenging dealing with undoing than starting with a blank slate,and of course don't even get me started on training the owner!!!

  2. Oh good! I'm glad you are going to do a series on this.

  3. To me it goes both ways. It all depends on the horse. As foals I try to teach 'manners' but sometimes the horse is better off left alone until weaning, then they're more interested in people and more interested in learning.

    Older horses that have no manners are a pain. I'd much rather deal with an older mannerless horse or a wild mustang than a horse that has been beaten.

    Some horses here gets lots of ground work, others just don't need it. One in particular, you show her something one time and she has it down pat. Another, well it seems like I repeat the same thing day after day, month after month, and he never picks it up.

    It really depends on the horse. :)

  4. I love the topic and the various opinions. I've raised my hand in favor of lots of ground work.

  5. Those spoiled horses you're talking about ARE taught behaviors. Bad behaviors. When a horse bites you and you don't tell him that this is wrong, he learns that it is ok. We're always teaching our horses... whether we want to be or not.

    I agree with Harvey, though. I'd much rather deal with my mustang who knows nothing about humans than a spoiled horse who thinks he is the boss of me and can bite me and push me around.

  6. Funny you should mention heightened flight response today...

    But yes, I love getting them older and wiser. Rare is it a mustang will try to walk on you (with the exception of little Quiet Storm, but she was different from the get go, wasn't she?)

    If you're starting your own horse for yourself, it's easy enough to live with the bad habits you've given it. Kind of like your children, eh? But those who think ground training means spoiling and don't bother with manners...thems the ones that drive me nuts!

    Hot Horse Whisperer...heh...love that!

  7. We've always thought that all horses should be taught manners, regardless of whether they are young or old. We do a lot of ground work in the beginning with a new horse. None of our horses are spoiled, there is no biting, kicking, pulling etc... yet we've always trained them calmly and without harsh corrections, just patience and persistence. Some learn quicker than others as you know. I think when they have the basics taught on the ground, it is much easier to teach them from the saddle.

  8. how fortutious.. since my trainer 's been a huge advocate of lunging gazi.. ground work prior to my mounting... having done some endurance on the "little man".. i'd never really done it before... Wish it was the magic bullet for the spooks tho :) Can't wait to read the series.

    Film at 11 ? :)
    gp in montana

  9. I totally agree with you, spoiled horses are rotten!! And I too would rather have an untouched unbroke, clean slate, to work with.

    Great post!!