The Groundwork Debate — Is it hype or should I buy my horse some toys?

Groundwork is one of those subjects that horse people have really differing opinions about.

Some believe groundwork is the key to everything.

Others think it’s a bunch of hype and that it serves no purpose at all. I’ve heard all the arguments on both sides of this coin many times.

After riding hundreds of different horses and spending hours and hours (and hours) in the saddle, I guess I fall somewhere in the middle.

I mean, I don’t have a bunch of horse toys and big plastic balls laying around that I use to play fetch with my horses every day (DISCLAIMER!! – Not saying that is BAD, it’s just that I don’t actually do it. I only play fetch with my cat).

BUT there are some groundwork exercise that are absolutely ESSENTIAL and serve a HUGE purpose that will affect everything else you do with your horse down the road.

When I worked for a big cattle outfit in Oregon, they put a horse in my string that had bucked quite a few good cowboys off.

So I knew I had to figure out pretty quick how to get along with this guy.

He’d be okay for a bit, but then would just blow up out of the blue and you never saw it coming.

One day it hit me that maybe doing some fence work with him would help.

So I’d climb up on a fence and work with him until he’d come up underneath my knees and ‘give me his back’.

Turns out that someone being ABOVE him is what was freaking him out.

So after he got okay with that, he ended up being the most reliable and solid horse that I rode there.

Through the years, I have found that there are many horses with the same issue.

They see someone above them more as a predator than a friend.

So doing this ONE groundwork exercise can make all the difference in the world.

(This video is part of the Groundwork Series on Horse.TV. Click here to get a free 7 day trial to Horse.TV and watch the entire series!)

Another vitally important groundwork exercise, and the very first thing I do at all my clinics, is to make sure your horse respects your personal space.

Your horse should only come into your personal space when YOU ask him to.

When you are leading him, and you stop, he should stop.

If he doesn’t, you need to get that fixed right away by shaking the lead, using a flag, raising your arms — something to cause him to understand this concept.

This is one groundwork exercise that definitely translates in a positive way into many other areas of your relationship and communication with your horse.

Also, a groundwork exercise that I would never neglect is roping the feet.

If your horse ever gets his foot tangled up in a rope, a fence, or a vine, and this causes sheer panic, a wreck will surely follow.

If he has learned to be okay with a rope pulling on his foot, and he does get tangled up, chances are that he will calmly either get his foot free or wait for your help without a fight.

Though I am fully convinced that it is confidence, not over-desensitizing, that makes a horse safe to ride, there are a few desensitizing exercises that I include in my essential groundwork.

Basically getting them okay with a blanket, saddle, tarp, clippers, water hose, and anything else that may, at first, seem like a scary monster.

This is always done the same way — through the timing of pressure and release.

It usually doesn’t take very long for that scary monster to become a non-issue.


Carson James
Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship. For the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. He was often in situations where he either had to figure out how to help the horse understand, or it could easily turn into a life or death situation. Carson now travels the country putting on training clinics teaching people the fundamentals of Horsemanship. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.