From the Ground Up: Rethinking the Relationship With Your Horse

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“Running scared” is how I overheard a cowboy once characterize jumper horses. He criticized the discipline for forceful training, resulting in fearful horses that perform only out of stress, rather than a willing consent. I would have rolled my eyes at the western horseman who clearly spoke from a different riding universe, ignorant of our sophisticated industry, but I’d just witnessed him communicating with a horse in a manner I previously thought impossible.

The clinic demonstration began in a tight round pen shared by the cowboy and a tough, borderline dangerous, young mare. She matched the expression of a naively confident adolescent—slightly intimidating but obviously foolish. Her tense owner stood next to me, holding her breath, desperate for a breakthrough in her horse’s willingness to be handled. She watched with hope while I watched with the same arrogant skepticism the young mare displayed.

His first move looked ridiculous, as he obnoxiously flapped an orange flag attached to a dressage whip in order to encourage the mare to move around him. To my eyes, the interaction appeared chaotic—a frenzy of flapping, waving, and rapid trotting without aim. I couldn’t comprehend what he was accomplishing.

However, the chaos clarified with the cowboy’s calm narration. Through announcing the purpose of each small step and predicting every move she’d make next, I realized the chaos was more of a synchronized dance than a mess of motion. Every beat was a cue or a response. The partners moved deliberately, but the cowboy led the dance.

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Randomly and suddenly (at least to my untrained eye), he set the flag down and leaned casually against the round pen fence. The mare fixed her eyes on him, but he kept his gaze low.

“I’m going to give her a minute to decide to come to me,” he explained. The hyper-focused arena crowd kept silent, as if something important were about to happen. Everyone was still. Several minutes passed but the mare’s stare never broke, and the cowboy didn’t move an inch nor lose his impressively secure patience.

The cowboy’s willingness to wait was commendable, but I was more impressed by the horse’s intellectual stamina. She stood thinking for several minutes, revealing an attention span I didn’t know horses were capable of. Maybe I wasn’t aware because I’d never allowed a horse indefinite, uninterrupted time to contemplate.

Moments of doubt speckled the anticipatory few minutes when I wondered if the mare would simply lose her train of thought or forget what they were in the middle of. She had every right to dismiss the game they’d just played and return to her usual hazardous self. Yet, to my astonishment, she made the decision to walk up to him, head low and body relaxed. Her owner sobbed with relief while I stood dumbfounded. The cowboy appeared unfazed even as the mare proceeded to follow him around the round pen like his loyal old dog.

What did I just witness? It seemed that an authentic relationship developed between a man and horse within a matter of only a few minutes. Not only was the connection established quickly, but the essence of their bond was of organic willingness. The mare was granted the opportunity to choose him, and her choice was free from the threat of punishment or manipulation of cheap bribery. By some miracle, she genuinely preferred his presence to the liberty of independence. Before I saw it for myself, I believed this kind of relationship to be a Hollywood fantasy!

The strength of the western rider’s horsemanship exposed the weaknesses I’d been blind to within the hunter/jumper industry I call home. Although harsh, perhaps the cowboy had a valid point—many of our horses were running scared. Now slightly self-conscious, I wondered how genuinely willing our jumper horses were to work with us. Would they choose us if given the option?

A typical day for a hunter jumper rider consists of pulling a horse out of its stall, grooming, tacking and then riding. This formula is our norm. It may be functional and successful to a certain extent, but we’re skipping our homework. While we’re admirably meticulous about the details of our horses’ care—from their feet to feed, coat to tack, comfort to fitness—we unwittingly overlook the foundation for building a true partnership with our horses: groundwork.

A horse that doesn’t respect you on the ground can’t suddenly respect you once you climb aboard his back. Groundwork is your opportunity to communicate to your horse that you are the leader before sitting in the disadvantaged and vulnerable position in the saddle. Taking this step seriously allows you to address a vast majority of non-lameness related behavioral problems that would otherwise manifest during riding. Unfortunately, we tend to ignore this fundamental part of the human-horse connection, enabling unnecessary conflict under saddle.

Thus, your goal on the ground should be to establish and maintain the role of “lead horse.” This can be accomplished through actual groundwork exercises, but should be integrated into every interaction you have on the ground. We all know the decisions we make in the saddle influence our horse for better or worse, but the same applies to time on the ground. There’s never an instance when your horse isn’t questioning your authority.

Many loving horse owners cringe at the idea of “control.” They view the insistence of dominance as oppressive or cruel. Others assume incessant correction will discourage their horses from wanting to spend time with them. However, establishing respect isn’t harsh or annoying to a horse. Herd order is a dynamic all horses deeply understand and long for. In fact, “a lack of leadership makes horses uncomfortable,” natural horsemanship expert, Clinton Anderson, insists. Horses are not offended by a lead human. Rather, they’re encouraged and motivated to be brave.

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While spoiling our horses with treats and affection is tempting as a means to bribe their devotion, a horse will absolutely prefer you if he views you as dominant. To a horse, a leader means safety. For a prey animal, safety is the top motivation and ultimate priority. Thus, a push-over-human will be insufficient to provide him security. He will be devoted to you once he recognizes your competence, fairness, and assertiveness as his guardian.

This was evident when the tough grey mare chose the cowboy. She wasn’t motivated by harsh pressure, fear, treats, or nagging. Instead, he established respect simply by dictating where her feet would go. He convinced her to follow his lead with just a basic groundwork exercise. It wasn’t a miracle, a Hollywood fantasy, or some kind of gimmick. This phenomenon was just the result of plain and simple understanding of horse behavior.

For an industry never willing to cut corners, why do we ignore crucial aspects of horse behavior and avoid attention to groundwork? Maybe we’re too conventional and unwilling to stray from the routine we’ve adapted to. We prefer tradition, and don’t often integrate training methods from other disciplines. 

Perhaps it’s time to adapt. Adding groundwork to your program could change everything for the better. We could load our horses onto the trailer without hesitation. No more whips to get a reluctant horse through his fear or rebellion. Assertive bits would no longer be necessary for your horse to respect your aids. Lunging would not be the solution to make a horse focused; he won’t have to be worn out in order to listen to you, saving your time and his tendons. We could venture into new territory without stressing over our horse’s emotional response to a new place. He could trust you in every scenario. 

If you wish for your horse to choose you, then show him you’re worthy of his respect. “A respectful horse is a willing horse,” Clinton Anderson adds. He will want you as a partner and will follow you through fire if he believes in you, but he won’t believe in you until you’ve built a foundation of respect from the ground up.

Elyse writes with a passion to inspire and inform the equestrian community. After two decades of riding and competing on the hunter-jumper circuit, she now focuses on transforming her love for horses and the equestrian community into words. Most of her time is spent caring for her two kids, riding whenever possible, and writing. Follow her on Instagram @equestrianwriting to learn more.