Adding groundwork to the routine

For months, a good friend has suggested that I try adding groundwork to my routine with Candy. Her trainer (my friend next door) is a student of a natural horsemanship guru who works closely with my friend’s trainer. She swears adding groundwork to her horses’ training had an extremely positive effect.

I’ve always been skeptical about groundwork and natural horsemanship. For starters, the whole concept of communicating with horses in a “natural” way seems problematic. I’m not a horse. I lack some basic features that horses use to communicate with one another, like swiveling ears and a swishing tail. I’m put off by the gimmicky-sounding games and equipment, too. The natural horsemanship professionals I’ve met have also left me with a poor impression of the industry. They seem like snake oil salesman, promising a cure for every possible problem and targeting over-horsed, inexperienced amateurs.

I don’t have a problem with people practicing whatever they’d like, so long as they’re not hurting anyone. And the basic principle underlying all the training seemed sound: treat the horse with kindness and positive reinforcement. But I never drank the kool-aid. I don’t need a special stick or halter to train my horse fairly and effectively.

However, Candy’s continued insecurity and general anxiety led me to finally accept my friend’s offer of a joint groundwork lesson with my neighbor. Much like letting my yoga instructor practice reiki on Candy, I figured that spending an hour waving a stick at her couldn’t hurt.

We had our first lesson last week. I tried to keep my mind open, though I wanted to check out after hearing the ridiculous names given to some of the exercises/concepts (highlight: “the playpen of safety”). After swapping Candy’s leather halter for a rope halter with a 22′ long line attached and grabbing a carrot stick, we began with the most basic exercise: keeping Candy between one stick length away from me and the end of the line. Candy could do whatever she wanted within that area. She walked around me as if longeing. When she came too close, I picked my carrot stick up to waist height and gently swung it back and forth while turning toward her.  If Candy didn’t move, she got bopped by the stick. If she moved, I dropped the stick and stood quietly. She caught on quickly and stayed out of my space.

Once Candy seemed to understand the concept of staying away from me, we progressed to walking back and forth across the arena in a straight line. I dragged the long line behind me (which made my inner Pony Clubber cringe) and swung the stick in an upward arc from side to side. While I walked and turned, Candy had to get out of my way and stay back from me while following. This was pretty easy for us; Candy stayed well back because she was nervous about the dragging line.

Our next exercise was “safe spot”, in which the horse is positioned directly behind the handler, at least one stick length away. To put the horse in the “safe spot”, the handler should halt with their back to the horse. If the horse continues walking, the handler should raise the stick from ground level parallel to the horse’s nose on whatever side the horse is approaching. When I stopped, Candy continued walking as if to go around me on my right. I lifted the stick parallel to the ground while she walked, and she abruptly began walking toward my left. I switched the stick to my left hand and lifted it. She ping-ponged back and forth for with increasing anxiety. When she finally stopped, I dropped the stick. We repeated the exercise a few more times, and Candy eventually began stopping earlier and more directly behind me.

We called it quits after that because it seemed like a positive place to end.

This week, Candy seemed to remember the exercises we’d learned last week. She was quiet and calm, and didn’t get into my space while standing or walking. She was less anxious about the “safe spot” exercise and positioned herself easily. We progressed to the next exercises in the basic series- backing up and reversing the direction we were standing. Backing up came easy, as Candy remembering getting bopped by the stick. Reversing direction also went fairly smoothly. Candy didn’t require much direction to find the “safe spot” after turning around.

Throughout our lesson yesterday, Candy stayed calm and interested without being worried. I was glad that she didn’t get concerned about the stick and the dragging line- while she’s still a little wary of both, she doesn’t seem panicked. I still label myself a natural horsemanship skeptic, but I can see the value of adding some unmounted, more relaxing work to our routine. I don’t think our under saddle work is challenging, but Candy’s lack of progress and anxious attitude tells a different story. I’m hopeful that adding groundwork give us some additional tools to work through our problems.

Have you used natural horsemanship techniques in your training? How do you feel about it?

Author: Stephanie

Equestrian, amateur cook, people person.

18 thoughts on “Adding groundwork to the routine”

  1. I was also a skeptic until I tried it. My pony went from being a genuine guy but spooky and fearful of most everything, to being reserve AA champion for my local dressage show Circuit. I used the TRT Method by Tristan Tucker in the online modules. The TRT Method is a little different because it really works on changing the horse’s fear response more than anything else, but it is NH based and actually covers a lot of the NH basics when going through the modules. It is like having a different horse. So much less fearful and able to calm himself. So much less worried in general. Worked great with my other two horses as well. Big fan.

    1. That’s great to hear! I’ve heard of the TRT Method (or maybe I just saw ads for it on Facebook?), but didn’t realize it was NH based. It’s awesome that you and your horses have had a good experience with it!

  2. I’m a big fan of ground work although I think you slap the Natural Horsemanship label on it and things can get a little weird. Good basics are good basics though.

    1. I agree! I attended a Clinton Anderson clinic several years ago for work, and I was surprised that his technique wasn’t anything new or revolutionary. It was just basic concepts repackaged in a big, flashy way. I thought the level of fervor he produced among attendees was bizarre; I wanted to ask all of them if they’d ever like…read a horsemanship book he didn’t write or something.

  3. I’m a skeptic of “natural horsemanship” too. I do think some of it works when it’s done right. I think a lot of trainers do ground work without the label of natural horsemanship and it’s just called training. I did volunteer for a rescue for years that did natural horsemanship and it worked really well. Again, it was a lot of the basics, just with a carrot stick and some different names for the exercises. I liked it a lot at the time, but I think the idea has gone down a weird path with some trainers.

    1. Yes! Regular trainers do ground work, call it training, and people don’t think twice about it. Some guy invents a bunch of really weird names and starts selling special halters, and all of a sudden he’s got groupies and is selling out clinics.

  4. I’m not into the true natural horsemanship stuff out there… But I do think ground work can be REALLY helpful with young or nervous horses. I don’t have a carrot stick, but I have a dressage whip that works nicely for a similar job. My horses all know to walk behind me, stop when I stop, back if I back. My old horse Jasper knew a few more things, but I’ve gotten a little lazy. I still practice with Jamp since he has a tendency to be nervous. It does help get his focus on me and off whatever he’s afraid of, but it doesn’t fully fix it.

    1. I hope that Candy will eventually get to the point where she’s able to stop fixating on whatever is making her afraid or anxious. I don’t think ground work will totally fix her problems, but maybe some combination of ground work + reiki + riding + calming supplements + beatings will lol

  5. I have noticed many people sort of ‘drink the cool-aid’ of believing natural horsemanship is some weird useless thing which bothered me and made me want to check it out because, well I don’t like being told what not to do. Once I studied the details and practiced a few techniques it turns out to be just good old basic horse handling safety that has been really helpful for me and all of my horses. I have trained a few horses from scratch and the ground work was a wonderful base to develop a relationship and language for future work. It made taking a young one off property to new places easier because I had so much ground control in place to keep a nervous horse under control. So, I am glad I checked it out and have added it to all my regular more traditional routines in horse training.

  6. I don’t always care for the NH title, but my trainer actually does a lot of groundwork lessons with some of her other students who aren’t interested in competing. They always have a great time, do lots of obstacle courses and all of their horses are rock steady trail horses, I think in large part due to those lessons. They do them a lot more in winter when we’re stuck in the indoor as a way of mixing things up. At the end of the day, I figure I like good ground manners and whatever title they come under doesn’t really matter as much as that they exist.

  7. I’m with you on the not wanting to buy specific and oddly named tack and gear that many of the NH trainers peddle, but I do believe in good groundwork. I’ve gotten much lazier about it as an adult and now that I own the world’s laziest and klutziest OTTB I think I need to get back to it.

  8. How timely! I was just thinking that Candy has a similar temperament to my OTTB, Arya, and I’ve been going back to ground work to try and build some confidence and trust between us, as she definitely doesn’t trust me and would rather shove me out of her way and handle her own self (aka bolting).

    I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum – snake oily professionals and overhorsed ammies who never ride their horses because they’re too busy shaking sticks and “tap-slap-whap”-ing (I am pretty sure one of the professionals had that as a bumper sticker on her car). I had a natural horsemanship “pro” get on my mare, Bailey, and while it was educational, it was also really awkward because the pro was clearly too scared to canter her under saddle and tried to play it off as “she’s not balanced or able to take contact” which did not win any points with me, as her primary trainer.

    TL:DR: I think there are good basics hidden under the kitch, and am trying to find those basics without buying into carrot sticks or special magikal halters that are TOTALLY different from other rope halters. It’s been cool to watch my OTTB mare learn to watch me so far, and in our last session I was able to turn and send her in whatever direction I wanted by just pointing, which made me feel very empowered in controlling her feet. She’s a big girl who throws herself around when upset, so it’s nice to feel like I am installing the tools to keep both of us safe.

  9. NH to me is just a brand. Good horsemanship is good horsemanship and you don’t need their expensive branded equipment to teach the horse super basic stuff (like staying away from you or halting when you halt). I think its great you came to it with an open mind. We had a NH trainer at my old barn (actually she’s probably still there) no one in her program progressed! Neither did the horses and that Trainer was hurt more than anyone else in that whole facility.

  10. I think groundwork can be really helpful in learning to read and communicate with horses… which is what we all want to do! I’m not naturally good with horses, so even the basics that some people just seem to intuitively know, I don’t get. Learning some groundwork has helped me in that regard.

  11. Count me in the camp of an NH skeptic… I think good ground manners are important, so I teach those. I am not totally sure all the high level “games” really help some horses. If you weren’t able to read when Candy got anxious and you didn’t know a good place to stop, it could be just as dangerous and detrimental as bad training in the saddle, which I think happens more times than most people would like to admit.

Leave a Reply