Groundwork can be extremely beneficial to both inexperienced and seasoned horses. What I like the most is that it really gives you the ability to analyze the horse’s movement much differently than when you would while on their backs. You can produce work for the horse that is mentally stimulating, while at the same time improving their training, and I feel that anything that can be done on the horse can be done from the ground.
When training horses, I will use groundwork to introduce the aids and the principles of moving forward or away from pressure before I ever climb on their back. By the time I get on, I would like the horse to know how to go, steer and stop. To accomplish this, I do a lot of work in-hand, long-lining, and lungeing. In my mind, there should be nothing foreign other than the introduction of the rider by the time I sit in the saddle for the first time.
In terms of tuning up the aids or fighting boredom, there are things that can be done from the ground that save the horse from always weight-bearing. Using long-lining can reinforce or fine-tune things like steering aids and half-halts, and in turn the manner in which the horse responds can be trained without even being on their back. Long-lining does require experience and while it is quite easy once you know how to do it, without the proper guidance and instruction it can be dangerous for those unfamiliar with the exercise. (Watch for an in-depth article on long-lining with Hyde in 2016.)
Groundwork provides an excellent way to mix up the exercises and prevent boredom. I will use it often to spook-proof a horse, and by long-lining over tarps I can help desensitize the horse while building trust and communication between horse and handler. It can also be used as a problem-solving technique for a horse that is perhaps a bit arena sour, or to problem-solve with the ones that get spooky about being ridden at one end of the arena.
If I simply have the horse in-hand, from the beginning I expect it to move forward when I move forward, not lagging behind or dragging me. I like the horse to watch me and be alert to my movements, even on the ground.
Even the simplest groundwork is valuable to building the relationship and connection between horse and rider. Anytime you can break up the work and give them something that’s a different kind of stimulus (because the arena does get boring), it’s beneficial if it’s done with purpose.