“Is Groundwork really that important?”
I rode under a lady who was crazy as a loon, loved her to death, but she was a little batty. That being said, every now and then she would have a little golden nugget of wisdom to offer anytime I hit a snag in my riding. When I had issues with the lope, she told me to go back to the trot because, “Your lope is only as good as your trot, if your trot is shit, your lope will be too”. So, I went back to the trot and low and behold, it was pretty terrible. I leased a handsome buckskin quarter horse gelding, a grandson of Hollywood Dun It, that horse was one of the smoothest horses I’ve ever ridden. He was supposed to be a Reiner, but at two years of age he hurt his hock(s) and his career ended before it could even begin. That being said, he went on to be an all-around lesson horse, used for virtually everything, teaching many a child how to ride and be confident with themselves, and helping others to discover a love for horses that they didn’t know they had. He was the type of horse who, if you knew what you were doing, would make you look like a superstar, and if you didn’t know what you were doing, he’d make sure everyone within a hundred-mile radius knew that.
This particular trainer taught me to hold on with my legs at all times when riding, and if he ever took off, hold on even tighter and try to pull him to a stop, I could never figure out why he would A) go faster and (B) get pissy with his face. Looking back at half the things I did, it’s a wonder I didn’t get myself killed, but somehow, I survived and am here to type this out. I rode this horse three to four days a week, and it seemed like each week there was a different problem. It got to the point where I would show up to the barn with a defensive attitude, and the horse would come in from the pasture, with an equally as defensive an attitude. It seemed like each time we overcame an issue, a new one would arise, and I honestly was just getting tired of it and so was he. At some point I sent my then trainer a long text, outlining all the issues we’d been having, and telling her if this didn’t come to an end, I was just going to be done with horses as a whole. It had been going on for a few months and neither the horse and I were getting better, if anything we were getting worse and I didn’t know what to do. The trainer listened and then quietly offered one of her golden nuggets for me to chew on, “If there are holes in your riding that just keep getting bigger, then perhaps you should re-examine your ground-work, chances are there are holes there too.” My groundwork consisted of loping for 15 minutes to the left, and loping for 15 minutes to the right, then getting on. That was it, I didn’t do anything else because I didn’t know what else to do. So, my trainer introduced me to Parelli Natural Horsemanship, she said it would help the both of us to learn to trust each other, communicate and get along with one another. It took a few months, but we managed to complete the first two levels and I was working on the third level and completing that when I stopped riding this horse. The first level of Parelli is all exclusively ground-work, and all exercises to help you and your horse get on the same page and trust one another—once you reach the end there’s a test you take, and if you pass you move on to level 2—ground-work and work under saddle. Everything under-saddle is done without a bit, and there’s a test for that as well to move on to the next level. I was skeptical of Parelli at first, I had heard from many that it’s just a cheap gimmick that doesn’t work. While I don’t think Parelli works for every horse and situation, I don’t think it’s a gimmick and I do like to utilize it when working with certain horses, especially with horses that I’m having a hard time getting on the same page with. Some of the issues I was having with said horses included him taking the bit and taking off on several occasions, him up and deciding that we weren’t going back to the barn, but out to pasture, and taking the bit, throwing a buck and loping off back to his horsey friends, and just him generally being, in my mind, a jerk. These issues grew progressively worse until the trainer sentenced us to a month of ground-work. While I don’t think Parelli saves the relationship of every horse and rider and who uses it, or that it’s a life-changing method, I will say that it did help tremendously to mend the growing tears between this horse and myself, and we did get much better in the end.
Groundwork provides the necessary building blocks for both horse and rider to utilize under-saddle. Ground-work helps to build a stronger relationship for both horse and rider to trust one another more and get along with one another and be able to communicate better. If you can’t accomplish anything on the ground, if neither one of you are on the same page on the ground, you won’t be on the same page under-saddle, and you will have issues that’ll continue to grow and grow until finally they just explode, and someone gets hurt. Whether you choose to use Parelli, the Down Under method, Monty Robert’s method or the method your trainer teaches you, ground-work, in my opinion, is one the, if not the, most important part of your relationship or building your relationship with your horse. Another important factor to be considered is your attitude—a negative attitude and mindset can be a dangerous thing to have. A negative attitude and mind-set each and every-time you work with said horse will begin to break apart your riding and your relationship with your horse, and you will find that the horse also develops the same negative attitude.
Resistance and Resentment on the ground will mean resistance and resentment under-saddle. Fix your relationship and your attitude on the ground, then fix it under-saddle, your horse will thank you.