Ground Training for a Better Ride

Bridge the gap between confidence on the ground and confidence in the saddle. 

Groundwork and saddle work don’t often correlate in many riders’ minds. But, how your horse responds to you on the ground directly relates to that day’s ride. When I’m on the ground with a horse, I aim for them to feel for me, to truly connect. If I take the time to warm my horse up on the ground, I want it to be directly tied to the feel and connection I want while riding. When I mount, I look for that same feeling. I don’t want to be taken for a ride; I aim to take my horse for a ride. 

Ground training is about creating a meaningful connection with your horse. This ensures that the exercises on the ground translate directly to a responsive and engaged ride. By focusing on this connection, every moment spent with your horse becomes an opportunity to develop a deeper partnership. Whether you’re in the saddle or working from the ground.

Don’t be a passive rider, even if your horse isn’t cued into you. Taking a leadership role when you’re in the saddle is the key to connecting with your horse. Photo by Angie Field

Connect Mindfully

Ground training can connect to the ride first and foremost through how your horse sees you and responds to you, physically and mentally. I often imagine, when I’m with a horse in hand as I go through a warm-up routine, what would these movements be like to ride. 

For example, When I step into a horse’s space, I want that horse to bend around me. If he does, that shows he’s conscious of me, my space, and how to respond to that movement. A positive reaction shows my horse is not only engaging physically, but he’s also thinking about me and listening to me. 

Beginning a ride by connecting physically and mentally becomes a habit for a horse. Think of this warm-up routine like sand in an hourglass, always moving sand. One side is toward connection and listening, and one side is disconnected from me, where my horse is instead connected to the herd, the barn, and his prey instincts. 

Watch for Signs

Some days, I don’t have time to saddle and ride, but working 10-to-15 minutes on the ground helps accomplish tasks and goals with my horse. Even if you only have a few minutes and can’t fit in a ride that day, you can still have a great ride from the ground.

Accomplishing connection is as simple as engaging with the mind and body. And understanding what to look for to have a positive workout.

The Mind: Is the eye, ear, and mind connected to me? Will he look back? The ear and eye are connected, so you can see where your horse’s attention is based on where that radar antenna ear is. If you can’t get the mind (the attention) and you can’t get the body, you may be taken for a ride you don’t want.

The Body: Can I get my horse to move his shoulders and ribs to bend around me?

Start Small

When you know what to watch for, you can begin with a simple exercise like walking in a circle and asking your horse to move away from you. He may speed up, lock up and back up, or simply just ignore you. Be firm without getting mad. And use a stick or rope to aim your intention at the ribs and drive your horse to move over. Keep control of the nose so you can stay out of the kick zone. Your goal is that when you move into your horse’s space, he moves over, bends around you, and focuses his eye, ear, and mind on you. You need to get to the point where your horse can maintain at least six laps each way, holding focus on you.

Groundwork before you get in the saddle can help you gain confidence in the saddle by establishing a connection on the ground. Photo by Robin Duncan

 Back in the Saddle

The connection you have with your horse and how he responded on the ground directly transfers to the response you need to look for when you’re in the saddle. You can do the same exercise of walking a circle, but instead of your horse moving away from your body, he’s moving away from rein or leg pressure. 

You can start this at a walk and a slow trot in an arena. Once you’re comfortable in that environment, you can take those lessons outside where the environment tests your teaching and connection. You want the eye, ear, and mind to come back to you just like you did on the ground. It’s okay if your horse looks away, as long as he checks back and reengages. 

[Read: Establish Connection Through the Lead Rope]

Start slow, and don’t get taken for a ride. Become a leader on the ground and when mounted.

And remember it’s a learning process for both you and your horse. Horses that have shared space with humans for years but haven’t connected can take weeks of training to start to be able to hold attention on a rider and easily come back if their attention wanders.

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