Why Groundwork Is So Important

By Tim Hayes
Courtesy of Equine Journal 
The Spanish Riding School in Vienna Austria is considered by most to be the finest school of riding and horsemanship in the world. To become a member, learn classical dressage and master the art of training the great white Lipizzaners is for many the highest honor a human can achieve in the world of the horse.  Whether or not one agrees with this statement is not significant. Knowing that before any student is permitted to ride they must complete four years of groundwork ; is however, most definitely significant!

The purpose of all our equine teaching, starting, training, breaking or whatever term is used, is to have the horse respond in a positive non-resistant way to all human requests. The most sought after is riding. It can also be the most challenging. As a predator, a human sitting on the back of a prey animal horse is not only unnatural it is one of the most terrifying request we teach him to willing accept. We must teach our horses to learn how to tolerate every domestic thing we bring into their lives whether it’s horse trailers, saddles, blankets, bits, crowds, motorcycles etc.
Natural Horsemanship teaches us that before a horse can learn anything new he has three primary needs that must be satisfied – safety, comfort and leadership. First he must feel 100% safe. In his world this means: he’s not going to be eaten. His second need is to feel comfortable: mentally, emotionally and physically. He doesn’t want to mentally worry about why the pick-up truck with hay is driving by him without stopping. He doesn’t want to feel anxious because some of his barn buddies are walking by him and he feels left out. And he can’t be experiencing any physical discomfort like a sore back or foot, which would shift his attention from us to his pain.
Once his first two primary needs of safety and comfort are met, the horse becomes totally attentive and in fact eager to participate in achieving the third primary need of his species; choosing a leader. Equine leadership is established by challenges of physical dominance. Horses would call it horseplay. Humans call it groundwork. For either horse or human, the method of determining this hierarchy of leadership is to physically challenge another horse with dominant body language that sends a message which translates as: “I bet I can make you move your feet”. In “horseland” whomever controls the movement of another’s feet is the winner of the challenge and therefore the leader or the “better horse”. This is what makes groundwork so important. It is only when our horse trusts and respects us as his leader that he is able to learn and willingly follow our guidance and requests without resistance.
One of the most wonderful qualities of the horse, which humans also benefit from, is his innate desire to get along and fit in with others. But in order to fit in he must first know where he stands in the “pecking” order with his herd mates…is he the leader or the follower? When we initiate groundwork that replicates the body language of equine physical dominance and by so doing show our horse that we can control his movement without fear, force, or pain he naturally and willingly accepts us as his leader.
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