Monday, 18 August 2014

1. The matter of Groundwork and why groundwork matters

 Groundwork exercises by Antoine de Pluvinel in L'instruction du roy en l'exercise de monter à cheval

Many people nowadays are convinced that groundwork is an obsolete and useless activity in the training of horses. They claim that a horse can be perfectly educated under the saddle. You probably expect me to falsify this claim entirely, but there is some truth in that very statement, since many riders have indeed trained their horses with little if any groundwork at all. This mere fact already proves their point. But surely, you might think, groundwork is conditional to training green horses, which have not seen, smelled or touched a saddle in their lives. Again reality proves the contrary. Practitioners of the Texas Cowboy method, for instance, took great pride in breaking a colt by mounting horses which were never saddled in their lives. A tradition that was glorified as an element of the Rodeos of the United States and which is still practiced today.
               Although these examples demonstrate that horses do not necessarily require groundwork, riders who never practiced groundwork do not prove that groundwork is obsolete, leave alone useless. In fact, the great horse masters throughout history as well as the traditional horsemanship practices indicate the very opposite. For centuries, groundwork was a far more elemental practice than it is today. Take Antoine de Pluvinel, the so-called founding father of dressage, for example. The training technique for which he is most renowned is the introduction of the pillars in groundwork to teach horses various high school exercises. A practice which still distinguishes classical riding schools such as the Spanish Riding School from others to this very day. The intensive use of groundwork was not restricted to Europe. Also in the vaquero traditions of the Americas, groundwork formed an elemental part of training, and this training did not end once the horse was started under the saddle. It even contributed to some of the most characteristic features of the so-called western riding, the round-pen. An interesting note is that the round pen actually outdates any form of vaquero practice, as Ann Hyland (Equus: The horse in the Roman world) indicated its use in Roman horsemanship practices. Recent archeological work conducted by Sandra L. Olsen went even further by the discovery of the remnants of  a round corral at Krasnyi Yar, belonging to the ancient Botai Culture ( This indicates that groundwork, at least in the form of round pen techniques, might be dating back to the earliest history of horse riding some 5600 years ago.
How much belief should we therefore attribute to the doubts uttered about the use and value of groundwork, if for centuries, if not millennia, it was considered an essential element within horse training? Should we take the word of these self-proclaimed authorities over that of the grand masters of the classical dressage? I do not think it to be wise. However, such expressions urge us to some reflections about the use and purpose of groundwork, as groundwork is often transformed into a purpose on itself or a stage for tricks and performances with horses (which, off course, can be a perfectly legitimate practice).
               Groundwork, at large, can be considered as any direct interaction between humans and horses, whereby the human remains on the ground (hence the term groundwork). In this view, groundwork also includes all forms of caretaking which involves a direct interaction with the horse. Although some may consider this to great a stretch of the term, it is, in fact, not a wrong view. A horse which subjects itself calmly to the cares of a vet or a farrier may often be the product of good groundwork. On the contrary, problems during caretaking can be remediated through groundwork. The interaction during caretaking is therefore a form of  ‘applied groundwork’ and the world will be happier place for vets and farriers if more people spent some attention in educating and preparing their horses for the necessary treatments.
               Thinking about the use of groundwork in terms of its applications, its practical uses in other words, should not be underestimated. Groundwork establishes a general framework of confidence, communication and respect for the horse, which can be applied in our daily interactions with horses, such as grooming, feeding, or transporting them. The ability to calmly and safely load a horse into a trailer is an application of groundwork often stressed by ‘natural horsemen’. Not without reason, since trailer loading is the cause of much frustration, not to speak of hazardous accidents, for humans and horses alike.
Although the practical use of groundwork should be considered reason enough to undertake some basic groundwork training, the reasons for doing groundwork go further and deeper than that. I identify four reasons why groundwork training should be considered an elemental, and in some cases far more efficient, part of educating horses and humans.
1.      Groundwork educates humans more efficiently. By exercising groundwork, humans learn a specific set of skills which allow them to deal with their horses when not in the saddle. However, groundwork is also relevant to increase the knowledge and level of skill important for riding horses.
-        Firstly, because humans, which acquire information primarily through visual means, can observe the horse in its entirety from the ground, where riding horses does not offer the human such means. In this way, humans learn more efficiently how their horses act mentally and physically. Furthermore, when applying techniques to deal with certain mental or physical issues of the horse (whose dynamics will often remain the same under the saddle), humans have a much clearer feedback as to the effects of their methods.
-        Secondly, some skills will applied on the ground, can be directly transferred to skills in the saddle. This is particularly true for actions with the lead rope or lunge rope. The sense of feel established through the lead rope or in the work with the double lunge, relates directly to the actions required with the reins in the saddle. The importance of this point cannot be overstated, as harsh hands are one of the major shortcomings of many riders.
-        Thirdly, groundwork provides a simpler, and therefore more efficient, learning environment for humans. Good riding does not only involve advanced skills such as an independent seat, rhythm, a balanced use of the aids (reins, feet, seat and whip), but also the combination of these skills, which constantly needs readjustment in relation to the mentality, position, form and action of the horse and the human. On the ground, on the other hand, matters are simpler, and humans are allowed to focus more on a particular aspect.

2.      Groundwork educates horses more efficiently. The major purpose of groundwork is to generally train and educate the horse on all the qualities we hope to advance. It is a misconception that groundwork limits itself to basic qualities such as relaxation or a basic form of communication. For instance, lateral bending exercises, such as ‘shoulder in’ or ‘travers’, can all be introduced on the ground. In classical dressage, advanced movements such as the piaffe or the jumps are always first learned on the ground, before they are applied under the saddle. Although groundwork can become a purpose on itself (a well-known and increasingly popular activity with horses is dressage in liberty), groundwork can have direct relationships to actions performed in the saddle. Actions and principles which are always learned with greater efficiency and refinement on the ground because of three reasons.
-        Firstly,  groundwork provides also horses with a better educational environment, simply because they do not have to deal with a human rider on their backs. Even the most perfect rider – and I do not presume there are many of them out there – the horse will be troubled by the extra weight he needs to carry around. This weight does not only constitute an extra burden, but also disturbs the natural balance of the horse. Consequently, when horses need to figure out new techniques, groundwork allows them to focus solely on those without being disturbed by a rider.
-        Secondly, we have more tools at our disposal when teaching horses. We can use our entire bodies and positioning to facilitate the horse in learning new techniques. Moreover, we can set-up situations with greater ease, so the horse has a better chance of figuring out what is required of him.
-        Thirdly, horses have a better view of us and of our body language. Although horses will not automatically understand our body language, they have an innate characteristic to focus on bodily language. Therefore, in the process of training, horses will not only respond to the tools and pressure we apply, but on our bodily expressions as well.

3.      Groundwork renders us an independent position. This point partially relates to the two previous points, as an independent position facilitates our learning by simplifying the learning situation, and facilitates the horse’s learning, since we can use our position to instruct the horse. However, an independent position is of paramount importance when dealing with the mental issues horses may be having. Movement, after all, plays an important role in equestrian behaviour. When riding, we reduce our ability to take advantage of the role of moving feet in horse behaviour, since we are moving along with the horse. Therefore, in the case of distrust or dominance, an independent position will have more profound effects than anything you can do in the saddle. When a horse is distrustful, the presence of a confident human is often a point of reliance and comfort. In the case of dominance, the effect of an independent position is even more profound, as dominance is often determined by the ability to move feet. Since we can remain stationary and drive the horse to movement, groundwork offers by far the best tools for dealing with dominance problems.

4.      Groundwork is safer. Although groundwork also contains risks, it almost always provides considerably more safety to humans than riding horses. Therefore groundwork is particularly important for green horses and problem horses, but also holds value as a general check-up before every ride. Once groundwork is well established in the relationship between the human and the horse, doing a groundwork check-up takes little or no extra time, since you need to lead your horse from the pasture or onto the training arena anyway. Furthermore, the check-up is probably a better way to warm-up the horse, since he has no burdens to carry.

Next to the practical purpose, these four arguments provide ample reasoning to justify and even necessitate groundwork in the training of all horses. Indeed, a horse can be effectively trained to certain levels without any groundwork, but it most certainly is not the most efficient or safest way to educate horses. Furthermore, groundwork allows us to achieve greater levels of refinement than  possible when riding the horse. However, this leaves one question still unanswered: Why do so many still insist that groundwork is a waste of time? The answer lies in three words: formalism, time and objectives.
The horse world has become an increasingly formalized world, especially in Europe. Historically, this is a relic from the times when horsemanship was mostly reduced to military practices (with its culmination in the nineteenth century). Since the army, because of organizational, tactical and disciplinary reasons, was characterized by rigid structuralization, this was also applied to the cavalry. When, in the first half of the twentieth century, horsemanship transformed out of these military practices into a sporting endeavour and, subsequently, a recreational practice, the formal character of the horse world was retained. Nonetheless, the traditional practices of horsemanship were themselves greatly altered during these times of modernization, often drifting away from the fundamental principles. These alterations were nonetheless incorporated in the formal structures of the horse world and often legitimated as interpretations of the traditional practices. However, when comparing the current practices, amongst it the lack of groundwork, with the traditional practices, either conserved in source material or preserved and continued in certain locations or institutions, the apparent discrepancy between the traditional and the conventional is hard to overlook.
               More important is the factor of time. Most horse people have the impression that groundwork takes up a considerable amount of time. Time that can therefore not be spent on riding. A logic which is actually true. Groundwork will take a good amount of time indeed. Nonetheless, this does not imply that groundwork takes away time from training under the saddle, rather the opposite is true, since groundwork, as demonstrated before, effectively trains a horse better and more efficient. Therefore, groundwork often results in horses who pick-up new techniques under the saddle in considerably less time and with considerably greater refinement. We are in fact dealing with a trade-off on a mid to long term scale. It is because this trade-off goes unnoticed on the short term, that this perception has arisen. Furthermore, some horse trainers often rush through the development of basic qualities, which will often be the focus of basic groundwork, denouncing it as irrelevant or too time consuming. Often the mental aspects of horse training are left unchecked and all attention goes to the physical training.  Although most horses can cope with this type of training, it rarely leads to perfection, and therefore cannot be considered an art. Rather, it results into a level of mediocre riding, which characterizes our contemporary horsemanship practices. It sometimes even results into mental stress and, in time, may evolve into severe behavioural problems of the horse. Finally, it should be noted that groundwork actually takes-up a less time than riding, since it is far less complex than the art of riding. In fact, most of the time will be spent in training the human the skills for doing groundwork, which to a large extent will also improve his skills in the saddle. This is for instance demonstrated by the amazing results of good horsemen, whether or not professed natural horsemen, who in a matter of a few sessions accomplish amazing changes within the horse.
               The third, and perhaps most important, factor lie with the objectives humans have with their horses. We set specific goals for ourselves and we hope to accomplish these goals as soon as possible. It is a mentality, characteristicly for our human nature, which often reaches its culmination in the sporting world (luckily, not all sportsmen and –women share this mentality). This thirst for objectives urges humans to become specific in what they do with horses and arouses a sentiment of resentment for anything not directly related to the specific goals. In other words, humans often place their own desires over the educational needs of their horses. The simple reality is that horses cannot be grinded down to a specific use or a particular discipline, but are living organisms which require a holistic approach. An approach that can only be efficient if it also entails groundwork. It is comparable to parenting children. I think most will agree that pushing children to achieve a particular goal, which the parent could not achieve for himself, is a condemnable practice, which – and righteously so – gives cause to great grievances. However, when it comes to horses, most seemed not to be disturbed by that very same logic and practice. 
Therefore, if we are rational and serious about educating our horses, leave alone elevating our horsemanship to the level of art, groundwork should be an elementary part in your work with horses. Hollow phrases or bold words denouncing the fundamental logic outlined in this post only mask the inadequacy of such horse owners and trainers, often indicating their lack of true horsemanship and/or their limited understanding of horse. You should not take my advice on this matter or even not the logic I developed here. Rather look at the accomplishments of current and former masters: de Pluvinel, Cavendish, de la Guerinère, Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, and many others.

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