From the Ground Up

Done properly, groundwork can include work at liberty or on a longe line.

Photo: iStock

Safe and smart groundwork can help build the foundation for a confident, well-behaved horse

Groundwork just isn’t my thing. I’ve grown up loving horses, but I’ve loved being on them, not necessarily standing in front of them. Like many people, I’ve had this idea that horses are supposed to be ridden. So why spend all this time on the ground with them? 

Yet if I take a look back, I see that I was spending a lot of time on the ground with my horses. Grooming, washing, and braiding them. Moving their hindquarters over so I could shovel poop around them. Feeding them hay, grain, and endless carrots. Leading them over the bridge in my backyard because Dad wouldn’t let me ride over it. Hugging them tight for a good cry over some boy. And most of all, playing hide and seek with them, again and again and again, around the paddock trees. 

I admit, this is where the real relationships grew. This is where the connections were made that continued up in the saddle later. 

While we might love to ride, it’s critical to remember that our horses are also attentive, sensitive learners on the ground. Equitation scientists, veterinarians, and trainers agree: Here lies the foundation for strong relationships, safe habits, and good learning. Let’s look at how and why groundwork works, when done skillfully and responsibly, with the horse’s nature and welfare in mind.

Communicating and Connecting

Horses are creatures with exceptional vision. Their large, broadly placed eyes and innate ability to pick up discrete signals are fundamental to their relationships and communication, says Robin Foster, PhD, Cert. AAB, IAABC, a certified horse behavior consultant and research professor at the University of Puget Sound and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. 

“They want to see us, to make eye contact with us,” she says. “We can’t get that sitting behind their heads up on their backs where they can rarely focus on us.”

In fact, anytime we’re with our horses, they’re watching us. Whether we mean to or not, we’re communicating with them, and they’re reading our movements, says Lesley Hawson, BSc, BVSc, DVM, PhD (Equitation Science), an animal biomechanical medicine practitioner and lecturer at Charles Sturt University, in Australia. 

With good communication on the ground, we can “connect” with the horse—have a sort of body-language dialogue in which we understand each other.

This article continues in the November 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue including this in-depth feature on how smart and safe groundwork can help build the foundation for a confident, well-behaved horse.

Already a magazine subscriber? Digital subscribers can access their November issue here. Domestic print subscribers who have not received their copy should email

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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