Training Success Comes When We Control a Horse’s Feet
By Evan Bonner
Most horsemen today know the importance of training a horse through quality groundwork. But I think it’s important to have a deeper understanding of why groundwork prepares a horse to be ridden.
With every horse I plan to ride, I first check them out on the ground. Working the horse on the ground reveals if there is any trouble in the horse before I get on. If the horse is pulling on me, crowding me, if they are tight or tense, if they are inaccurate with their movements, if their movements are about self-preservation, or even if it’s just not good work, I’m not going to get on the horse and neither should you. I am going to make sure my horse is operating well on a lead rope on the ground before I ride, and I will explain why here.
Groundwork is not something you do because you are too scared to get on. It has a lot more to do with whether you are going to be successful or not when you get on their back. If things are operating well on the ground, you can have pretty high expectations when you get on their back. I’m not interested in just taking a horse for a ride and surviving. I want to improve the horse, building the relationship with them that I have begun on the lead rope.
Whether you’re riding the horse or working them on the ground, your true success or failure comes from your ability to make the horse feel a certain way inside and help them be balanced on their feet. Groundwork has nothing to do with lunging a horse in mindless circles to wear it out, nor does it have anything to do with desensitizing a horse until he or she is numb and dull. It’s all about getting the horse’s mind hooked onto a particular pattern and helping them turn their feet loose to you and take direction.
That’s all there is to it. If you cannot do this on the ground, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will not be able to get it done on their back.
Always first and foremost… it’s about the feet! Regardless of what you do with the horse, if they’re comfortable placing their feet, the tension, the tightness, the fear, all go away. Even if you get a horse that’s very green or fearful and you do something that’s going to scare them, you’ve got to be able to shut the feet down, which are hooked to the rest of the horse.
Once you have the feet, you need to be able to hook the horse’s mind on a job, and the horse needs to take responsibility for whatever job you give them. Regardless of what you want your horse to do, once you learn how to get the horse’s mind on a particular task and then help the horse understand how to be balanced through it in their feet mechanically, you’ve got them. It’s that simple.
When you learn to create pressure and release in time for certain things in the feet, the horse will start to recognize that. They are smart animals; we are often the ones that struggle. Once you understand the pattern in the feet, they feel safe and comfortable and then the mind starts to turn loose to you. The next piece is to get the horse’s mind to follow you. When you create pressure, they recognize it and know what to do. That’s how things work with the horse. There’s no need for lunging in mindless circles, or endless desensitizing.
As I’ve learned more and more about groundwork over the years, I’ve realized how incredibly deep the subject is. A person’s groundwork can never be too good. It’s just as much of a refinement process as anything else you do with the horse.
As with anything, whether it’s brushing your teeth or tying your shoes, the foundational things you have in your life need to be refined over time. For example, what kind of feel are you going to use when your brush your teeth? What kind of thought are you going to put into toothpaste? Groundwork is no different. Understand that it’s not what you do, but the way you do it and with what kind of feel, and how you make the horse feel while you do it. Once you start to get an understanding of these things, I promise you that it will all carry over to your riding, taking it to another level.
Evan Bonner grew up in Port Orchard, Washington. He lived around horses all of his life. As a teenager he became serious in chasing horsemanship, and after high school he began helping people with their horses and starting colts. He continued learning the philosophy of true horsemanship.
He has been mentored by many great horsemen in his life, including Buck Brannaman, Peter Campbell, and Dennis Reis. Evan teaches the techniques of proper riding and operating a horse, but he also teaches the concept of learning to work through feel. Evan believes that the secret to horsemanship is getting the horse to prefer to be with you than any other place – whether you’re on the ground or on their back. He and his wife reside at their training facility in Port Orchard, Washington where Evan trains horses and conducts clinics year-round.