Why ground work is essential to building a happy relationship with your horse

education Jul 27, 2017

By David Mellor 2017

Many people ask me how do I get my horse to relax? Or more specifically, my horse is more distracted by every bird, twig and leaf that moves, but I have to use spurs and a crop to get him to move. How can I change this?

Well my answer is you need to improve the connection from your horse to you. By this I mean somehow you want the horse to put as much effort into listening to you, or trying to work out what you want as he does watching all the other things in his world that is distracting him.

Imagine if you could harness that effort. Instead of your horse putting so much effort into watching and reacting to other things, imagine him trying that hard for you. That would be incredible.


So how do we do this? The answer. It all starts from the ground. Your horse has spent its entire life practicing and learning to respond from no-verbal communication. They are hard wired to watch body language, to notice every small motion of the lead horse. To respond instantly to any subtle change from that horse. We have all seen it in the paddock. The lead horse flicks an ear at a horse and immediately the horse is moving.

The herd actively puts effort into watching the lead horse, to keeping one part of their attention on where that horse is and what they are doing. Its part of their DNA.

So again why does it seem that we need sticks, flags and jumping up and down to get our horses to respond? We have established that our horse can respond from tiny cues, so it’s not that they don’t see us, so it must be something else. For me it will either be that my horse doesn’t understand what I am asking or everything else is more important/interesting then what I am saying.

So then going back and looking at what your connection is like with your horse starts to answer some of the questions of why we do ground work.


Working from the ground is generally easier and safer for most people. We remove the worry of falling off. By staying off their back we remove our own instability and stop interfering with the horses balance when they are learning.

People are generally more effective from the ground. I find students are much more confident to give a firm smack or touch with the stick when required from the ground, but have difficulty doing the same from the saddle.

This can be critical in developing the working relationship. Being bitten and kicked is part of the normal horse behaviour. Your horse is routinely kicked at and gives the kicks if they live in a paddock with other horses. It is the final response to asking another horse to do something. ASK, TELL, PROMISE.

A lot of the time horses will intentionally wait and see what will happen if they ignore a suggestion from another horse. Just watch your own horse interact with the herd. You can see the lead horse saying “move.” Your horse may deliberately wait and see if they mean it. The lead horse will then follow up with the insistence, the kick or bite. Generally that insistence happens very quickly. The follow up is immediate and they mean it.


This leads into the next part of the puzzle of trust. The herd trusts their leader. They get upset and worried when the lead horse leaves the paddock. They are all happier when the lead horse returns.

What’s the first thing that the lead horse does when they return? Push all the other horses around. Chase the young horse and deliberately get everyone else to watch and pay attention to them.

The other horses trust this horse because they mean what they say. The lead horse gets the other horses to yield from them. The other horses get out of their way. The lead horse is always moving forward not away.

They trust that horse when they say something. They believe that and respond immediately. They also believe that horse when something startles the herd. If the lead horse says it’s ok and goes back to eating, the herd responds to that body language. The other horses follow the suggestion and are tuned into that horse.


Now start to look how we interact with our own horses. Who is stepping away or doing the yielding? Do we follow our suggestions up with an insistence? Does our horse pay attention to what we want or where we are?

If not then we need to change this otherwise we are just butting heads with our horse. We want them to go and they want to stop. We say left they say right. We need to be the leader and they need to be comfortable and happy about taking the lead from us. Otherwise we will be in perpetual conflict. This conflict generally only gets worse at competitions and when something really upsets the horse.

Build the connection from the ground then transfer it to the saddle.

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