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What is Groundwork?
Groundwork with your horse can be as basic as leading your horse from the stable to the field to “dressage in-hand”. At its very simplest, it is being able to move your horse politely and safely from A to B and at its finest it is performing the “Airs above the Ground”. Working on-line or in-hand is a great introduction to classical dressage, where exercises and movements are used to help our horse become stronger, happier, and healthier.
The term Groundwork encompasses working with one line (or lead), with a pair of reins (in-hand), lunging, long-reining and liberty work. One can incorporate obstacles (such as those used in Working Equitation, Le Trec and Horse Agility), train classical movements such as shoulder-in, travers, half pass, pirouettes, school halt, piaffe and passage or if space is limited or the weather inclement, just work on subtle shifts of weight.
One can choose to work (or play) with your horse on the ground for a plethora of reasons; sometimes these are purely physical reasons, such as your horse it too young to be ridden, needs re-hab, is being re-started, or is just too old or physically unable to be ridden. Sometimes the reasons are more esoteric. Whatever your reason, spending time with your horse on the ground can help increase both his (and your own) confidence and fitness, not to mention build trust and improve your communication.
Despite differences between horses and humans, we both have autonomic nervous systems, which control the largely involuntary reactions of our organs, muscles etc. The two main nervous processes that control these actions are the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
Relaxation is where it all starts and is the cornerstone for everything. Because horses are flight animals, their nervous systems are hard-wired for alertness and action. The sympathetic nervous system is the reactive nervous system, which results in a raised head and tight back (flight or fight). The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite. When your horse is relaxed he can lower his head and release tension in his back and neck. The parasympathetic nervous system enables your horse to learn, (like humans, horses struggle to learn when they are frightened or tense) whilst a long and low frame enables him to swing his back and engage his hind legs.
Once the horse is relaxed we need to be able to walk and stop together, either from walking backwards in front of the horse, or by walking by his shoulder. Walking together is not dragging your horse, or being dragged by him, but walking together in harmony. Synchronicity is the key.
When we can walk and stop together, we can look at the mobilization of the jaw, or correct stelling and bending.
Teaching your horse to release his jaw and stretch down is an important step in groundwork and essential for fully mobilizing the spine, but this can only be achieved when we have a relaxed and confident horse. Stelling is actually the placement of the head in relation to the first neck vertebra, whilst ‘bending’ is the softening of the ribs, the flip of the mane to the inside and the inside hip moving forward, so the horse ‘feels’ and ‘looks’ as if he is evenly bent from head to tail, in a balanced way. Once we have stelling and bending we can start to shape our horse and do exercises and patterns to improve his posture and health. These include circles, reinback, shoulder-fore, shoulder in, haunches in, haunches out and half pass.
Once we are comfortable with our various patterns in walk on-line, we can advance to working with two reins in-hand and introduce trot and even canter. From now on, it is a question of having fun, constantly advancing and improving ourselves as handlers and our horse’s health and physical well being. We can introduce liberty, start on School Work, Piaffe, Passage and Levade!