Smart riders do groundwork before getting in the saddle to make sure their horses are tuned in to them and using the thinking side of their brain. On average, during a routine training session, I’ll do 30 to 45 minutes of groundwork and then 45 minutes to an hour of riding. Once the horse is well trained and is being consistently worked with, you don’t necessarily need to do a lot of groundwork before you get on. In fact, at my ranch, if a horse has been through my entire method and is being ridden every day, we don’t do any groundwork at all. Instead, once every couple of weeks, we’ll spend a few minutes before a ride brushing up on it. But, when you change environments or circumstances, like riding a horse outside of the arena for the first time or taking him to an unfamiliar trail, it’s wise to spend a good half hour on groundwork, checking that he’s tuned in to you and not fresh and full of beans.
Whenever you plan to ride your horse outside, practice groundwork in that environment before getting in the saddle. While doing groundwork in the arena is certainly beneficial, taking your horse from an environment that he’s used to (like the arena) to riding him outside is putting him at an unfair advantage. He may have been using the thinking side of his brain in the arena, but as soon as you take him outside the first time, he’ll likely be reactive and curious about his surroundings rather than focused on you.
Practicing groundwork before getting in the saddle gives you and your horse a chance to tune in to one another.
When you first practice groundwork with your horse outside of the arena, expect him to be more energetic and pull on the halter and lead rope or mecate reins a little bit. With a wide open space to move in, the reactive side of your horse’s brain will kick in and the foundation you built in the arena will be put to the test. Just remember that the more you move his feet forwards, backwards, left and right and always reward the slightest try, the sooner he’ll tune in to you and relax.
Also, keep in mind that weather plays a huge role in a horse’s behavior. When the weatherman says that it’s going to be a cold, rainy and windy day, he might as well be saying, “Hey, if you own a horse, get ready to die.” Changes in weather can make your horse hypersensitive, and therefore more reactive.
On cold days, horses are friskier and have a lot more energy. They throw their heads up in the air and race around the pasture. Just after it rains, the temperature drops a little, and they love to gallop and kick up their heels. On windy days, horses are hypersensitive to noises, feelings and sights, and the wind carries sounds farther. Your horse might spook at a plastic bag flying through the air, leaves rustling on the ground or a dog barking a mile away.
Take the time to practice groundwork with your horse to ensure that he’s using the thinking side of his brain before you get in the saddle. If you don’t, you could very well be setting yourself up for failure. Remember, the more times you pick yourself up off the ground, the better your groundwork gets.
Before getting in the saddle, always flex the horse’s head and neck a few times on both sides with the bridle to make sure he’s soft and paying attention. If he’s stiff and resistant on the ground, he won’t be any better under saddle.
Just before getting in the saddle, always flex your horse on both sides of his body. You want to get rid of any stiffness on the ground before you get on his back.
When you’re ready to get in the saddle, play it safe by flexing the horse’s head halfway around to his side. This is a safety precaution so that if the horse takes off or bucks, you’ve already got his head bent around so the worst thing he can do is move in a tight circle. With the same hand you’re flexing with, grab some mane to give yourself something solid to hang onto as you step up in the saddle. Always step up (and step down) from the horse’s shoulder, especially with a reactive horse, in case he gets frightened and tries to kick you. Even if your horse is docile, this is just a good practice to follow for your safety.
As a safety precaution, the first several times I get on a horse outside the arena, I always flex his head to the side. That way, if he moved, he’d only be able to pivot in a small circle.
You could let your horse look straight ahead and keep him on a big, loose rein as you got in the saddle. Imagine what would happen if, as you were throwing your leg over the saddle, a deer came bounding out of the trees. At that moment, you’re in a very vulnerable position, and if your horse’s head isn’t flexed to the side, he can take off and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Even though you have no issues while mounting the horse in the arena, since you’ve got him in a new environment and he’s probably a little nervous, always practice safety first. You don’t need to bend his head around every time you mount him, but I would recommend doing it the first few training sessions you do with him outside the arena. If you always assume your horse is going to react and do something silly, you’ll stay safe. But the moment you let your guard down and assume he’s quiet, I guarantee you’ll get hurt.
Once you’re in the saddle, spend a few minutes flexing the horse’s head from side to side. This not only reminds the horse to be soft, but it’s also a great way to remind him that when you get in the saddle, it’s not his cue to immediately walk forward. Too many people swing up in the saddle and then send the horse down the trail. Because horses are great at anticipating us, pretty soon, as soon as you put your foot in the stirrup, he’s already walking off. Teach him to relax and wait by spending a few minutes flexing his head from side to side.
Then practice a few minutes of Bending at the Walk, where you ask the horse to walk forward in a small circle while bending around your inside leg and softening to your inside rein. This is a great “listen to me” exercise because you’re constantly checking in with the horse. Are you soft and supple and listening to my cues? Or are you heavy on the bit and have “forward, forward, forward” on your brain?
Right from the start, let the horse know that even though you’re in a new environment, you’re the leader and calling the shots. It’s reassuring to your horse because it gives him confidence knowing that he can expect you to lead him and keep him out of danger.
Once you’re confident you’ve got your horse soft and tuned in to you, you’re ready to begin your training session.
Photos by Darrell Dodds