The academic groundwork is an absolutely amazing tool, helping you to connect with your horse on a new level. But even more, you can
stretch, teach, exercise, straighten and build up your horse from the ground.
Nevertheless, going out on weekend clinics I see two major misunderstandings in between horse and human. On is about the speed, and one about the private space of each party. As a result, groundwork is ending in a push and pull movement. Both, horse and human are irritated, the pony is biting, pushig or super slow and unresponding. The human is pulling on the horses head, pushing the horse into a direction and standing in the horses way all the time. Shortly: It's not fun anymore.
Introducing some bodywork, I will start to share some ideas of how I am solving this challange with my ponies and students.
Bodywork is a never ending journey that is super exiting. I am happy to share more over time, but let's start with some super simple stuff that already makes a huge difference.
Ponies are horses that are loved ;-)
These 3 leading positions I like to teach as a basic bodywork before I start to focus on bending and as a basic to my groundwork.
- Leading position
- Groundwork position
- Lunging position
On the pictures, I do use a Caveson. On this level, equipment is
totally secondary. You can use a halter, a neck ring or nothing.
A piece of equipment I do like bringing is a whip though.
Maybe you already found out that the academic rider does love the whip. Well, my reason for it is that my arm simply gets so much longer when I lengthen it with a 1,20-1,40 thin wooden stick. Imagine you are learning a new language – you might not be able from the start to get all fine nuances immediately. My lengthened arm therefore can help, touch, show things I am at the start unable to express only by body language.
For this very first exercise, I can use the whip to point in behind for stengthening the go, or to "block" the pony in front to enhance the stop signal from your body at the start.
Groundwork is like a couple dance. If you like to have the fine tuning, get the rough outline first. Spoken even more clearly: As long as a couple cannot walk with each other, and understand body signals, I cannot see a point in using a caveson and trying to influence the horses spine and core stability.
Let's start dancing.
Normally, this should be the easiest position to start with - and still you'll find out that teaching your horse to be led and controlled only by your point of weight deep in your stomach will require extreme focus, body awareness and self-discipline from YOU.
Sometimes, you will have a horse that considers it difficult to follow on so fine aids for a long time. They get a bit uneasy, and suddenly you find out the horse does not follow at all anymore. Consider that your horse, but most likely the human too, must learn keeping focus. Reaching you partner mentally is THE crucial thing to do. Cooperation in between you shall be an ongoing conversation of two souls, and go beyond a simple installed “push and play” idea. Keep that in mind, even if you are teaching a simple reaction, you never stop listening.
I like to teach my pony to stop and start, and to follow my body if I am changing speed. Now, at this level, it is just a game in between two bodies communicating. But imagine your education goes on, and you want to collect. If you haven’t taught your horse body language and reacting on the point of weight, the only choice you have is to pull on the headpiece.
During the process, your goal should be to have at least one-meter distance in between the horse and the human. Did you watch Dirty Dancing (if not, catch up with it 😉)? Learning how to dance is about learning to first control your own body and space, to understand the outline of your space and to respect the other partners space. If you want to dance close, this is crucial. Later on, when groundwork or handwork proceeds, you might want to do it in canter. Than it might be pretty nice if you do not have to canter yourself but give your horse the space to do it. In reverse, it might be pretty nice if your horse doesn’t land after a canter jump on your toes. Your choice though how much you appreciate your feed.
TIP: If this is your first time, it is a very good idea to ask friends to be your “pony”. It will give you incredible feedback about yourself, and quite often you’ll not only find out that your horse behaves the same as your human horse, but that your intention is not expressed by your body. A common trap is the body following your hand, but we need it in reverse: the hand following the point of weight.
Changing position towards groundwork, it might be easiest to stop your horse, to walk in front and start again. With time, you should take the challenge of doing it fluently though. It’s incredible useful during the later education to switch easily positions if you need to help your horse understanding a certain exercise or to help balance.
If you aren’t Superman or have less body control than a professional trained ballet dance, you will have trouble walking backwards in front of your horse on a circle line. My tip is again: keep distance. Most horses will feel disturbed if you come to close to their head, especially when unbalanced. Biting, gnawing on reins, shaking the head are a few of multiple signs that you are standing in your ponies’ private space. In groundwork, it’s a trade-off: because you are close to the horse, you can influence extremely sensitive, school your hand and learn to see body patterns. But you are as well standing in your horses’ way and block it. Finding a work speed where both feel mutually fine is crucial. Beeing able to move simultaneously even more. Did you ever attend dancing lessons? In both, Salsa and Ballroom dance, it is common that you start learning new patterns without touching your partner, then just touching the tip of the hand and come closer with experience. Let’s use the same idea here. Start with a meter in between horse and human. When stop, start, slower and faster is easy – it’s time to get closer. Getting in trouble there and catching yourself to drag the ponies head? Get space again.
I like adding the lunging position as quick as possible as a counterpart to groundwork, so too much groundwork is not withholding
the horse and killing the natural forward. On the other hand, it is difficult to teach from a distance. It’s a little bit a trade off where you have to focus on – maybe just for a while – to be
efficient and understood. If you carefully taught the first leading exercises, increasing the distance to lunging shouldn’t be a problem. Take care though to not stand too much in front of your
horse. Your body is a physical block in your horse’s eyes. It will stop, turn, run backwards or forward for avoiding the pressure. Each time you go close to a wall or a corner you will feel the
pain of a bad body position there. As a basic position, I usually recommend to be somewhere around the withers.
Same here – teach your horse to stop, start, get slower and faster on your body signals, and use your whole body to do it. As a result, you will get a calm and easy to control horse even in the more energetic gates. At the same time, you lay the foundation for advanced lunging later on.
keep it simple stupid
Find out what position your horse feels most comfortable with – and start from here. There’s no rule that you have to develop this little dance in a certain “order”, or that there is a better and
a worse way of doing it. The best way is always the one that suits your pony.
My horses are my greatest teachers. When Mio was a youngster, he had the most expressiveness in character and interesting ways of learning. It took me quite some time to figure out how to get access to his mind. Just doing the groundwork thing, driving the inside hindleg forward, was just no option at all with him, if I did not want to create a mouth failure even before he ever touched a bit. Doing bodywork was my main access to him, and he was grateful for it. That was a language he could understand. So, just walking with your horse in different positions is extremely boring – for both of you. Developing the art of listening and talking to each other at the same time is highly intense.
Enjoy the Journey !
As an inspiration to end with, I'd like to share a youngster movie of Mio with you. Here you see a quite intense conversation in between us.