Alright, I will admit it. I haven't always practiced what I am about to preach in this blog post. When I look back at my time in the saddle, I can assure you that one or two incidents could have been prevented or avoided by being more ritualistic about pre-ride groundwork. I want to be clear, however, that there are many thousand ride horses out there that need no such ritual before riding off. I am suggesting that if you are riding young (or generally unproven) horses or your twice-a-year trail or hunting horse, it is probably wise to do some focused groundwork before mounting up.
If you are asking yourself why this may be important, I will offer four of the strongest reasons to perform pre-ride groundwork on many horses-
- Looking for problems with tack/saddle.
- Presentation of physical ailments.
- The horses attitude for that particular day.
- Creating a focus on YOU. (More on this in a bit).
I don't know about you, but I would much rather spot any issues before climbing aboard a coiled up and sporty feeling three year old on a cool fall day and taking off across the countryside. Did anyone happen to notice a reason that I did not cite as a reason to perform groundwork? That's right folks, the old lore about running your horse in circles to tire him out doesn't hold up in most peoples reality. Many humans will get tired of doing this long before the horse is even thinking about being tired. Do you really think that an animal that can carry you right up the mountain for ten miles is going to tire from trotting a handful of lazy ass circles? I doubt it. When the horse does settle in from performing groundwork maneuvers, what is actually happening is that the horse has become relaxed, focused, and do I dare say, submissive or subordinate (not tired) which is part of the point. This is what it takes to create a focus on you rather than anything else going on in the setting, and it is better to get him focused before climbing aboard.
Back to those lazy ass circles I was referencing earlier. While letting your horse pick his own rate and direction may make you feel like you are doing something productive, and may in fact help any tack or physical problems show up, this is entirely missing the last two points on our list. A very wise horseman once told me "Most horses are great until you ask them to do something". I have found this to hold up generally. A bad attitude may not show up while you let your horse trot around in 4 lazy ass circles with no direction changes or guidance by the handler. Now is the time to create your presence and leadership. Turn the horse up a little bit, do a lot of direction and gait changes. Be a present, focused, and dynamic part of your groundwork routine and I assure you that your horse will subsequently become present, focused, and dynamic as well. It is a rarity that I will mount up without asking the horse for a lope (or canter) in each direction for a period of time. This is when the bucking or fit will typically show up if there is in fact going to be one, and guess why? Because you are now asking him for something more, as the aforementioned quote suggested. Also remember, I am talking about younger or the not-often ridden horse. The 6 or 7 year old with near a thousand rides, although maybe still young in years, likely does not need the same pre-ride work as a younger, less experienced horse or that of a horse that doesn't get ridden or handled regularly.
Have some energy, and your horse will likely have some as well.
For the younger horse, consistent pre-ride groundwork offers a routine to the horse. Horses generally appreciate having a bit of a routine, especially when they are being introduced to so many new things in their early working years. I believe that by doing the same groundwork routine when taking a youngster to new places can help settle them. It reminds them that even in a new place, things between horse and rider are and should be exactly the same. This can be done at a new arena or most trailheads and just about anywhere else that you may find yourself with your horse. It is my belief that this little bit of routine can help the horse settle into his new surroundings. As stated previously, it helps to remind the horse that we are doing the same things we always do, we are just doing them somewhere else.
These are some of the more relevant reasons to perform pre-ride groundwork. If you haven't noticed, I am a proponent of this type of routine. It is much, much better to pick up on any issues or problems before you are on the horses back. If you need specific tips or groundwork routines, the internet is full of videos and content related to such routines. The purpose of the post is simply to offer a few reasons to make quality groundwork a consistent part of the routine. Remember to be dynamic, present, and purposeful, and your horse will likely offer the same back to you. Safe travels friends!