Incorporating Classical Groundwork Into Your Training Practices – Part One

By Megan Brauch

About 10 years ago I found myself searching for more within the horse world and my realm of knowledge at the time. I was looking to improve the relationship I had with my horses. I had reached a plateau in my work and I felt my horses were not progressing. I knew that they were tense and unhappy in their work which saddened me and I honestly felt like I didn’t really know how to train horses at all. I began to search for other ways to train my horses in addition to the riding and lunging skills I had been brought up with as part of my dressage schooling. I was convinced work in hand and groundwork were a missing link in my education so I began looking for ways to learn more. At that time, I remember thinking that I really needed to learn these techniques, but I would much rather just get on and ride. I found it awkward and humbling at first. I had no idea what I was doing so I had to take on a beginners’s mindset and embrace the learning process. That was not and still is not always easy to do. These days I still have much to learn and my skills continue to develop and improve, but I love working my horses on the ground as much as I do under saddle. I have found this work has drastically improved my horses and myself on a few different levels.

Why Groundwork?

Groundwork is a term that we hear a lot these days in the horse world. There is definitely an increasing interest in groundwork, but it’s important to remember that there are different types of groundwork and in hand work or work in hand. For me, work in hand involves the use of reins either with the cavesson, the cavesson and a bit, or just a bit. This blog will not focus on work in hand, but instead the groundwork with a single line as its a better starting point for the education of both horse and human. There is not a right or wrong type of groundwork, but there are differences in the goals and approach to groundwork. In this post I will focus on what groundwork is to me and how I incorporate it into my training program. My primary influences on groundwork come from my time as a mastery student and an instructor in the Straightness Training® Program between 2013 and 2018 as well as my more recent studies in the Academic Art of Riding through online, book, and lessons with several of Bent Branderup’s trainers combined with my own practices of trial and error through the years. I’ve come to develop a bit of my own style that incorporates ideas from all these sources that I will introduce you to. 

All of the groundwork I do involves the use of a cavesson and a single line attached to the center ring. The cavesson is an important tool in the work because it allows for correct lateral flexion at the atlanto-occipital joint. By influencing the position of the skull without a bit you can more correctly shape and teach bend without causing tension and bracing in the jaw and for young horses you preserve the delicate tissue in the mouth until they are ready for a bit (if you choose to use one). Older horses that have learned to brace, hold, avoid the bit or tilt the head can be often be corrected with the use of a cavesson along with some time and patience teaching groundwork exercises. My goal is to teach the horses body awareness, spatial awareness in working with me on the ground, lateral bending and in turn the lateral exercises of dressage (shoulder-in, haunches-in, renvers, half pass, and pirouette) and to develop a solid foundation of trust between horse and human. I use a lot of positive reinforcement in my training to create motivation and improve communication and I strive to develop a relaxed and confident mental state.  The physical body of the horse will only benefit from the gymnastic work if the mind of the horse is in a healthy and relaxed state that is open to learning. This is easier to achieve on the ground first rather than on the horse’s back.

Photo 1: In the halt I am asking Renfrew for soft lateral flexion. Notice he’s in a forward down position, but his head is not so low that he is out of horizontal balance. There is vertical flexion as well but his nose always remains in front of the vertical. I am careful not to overland the neck, but it is important to be aware of correct positioning of the skull where the jawbone rotates underneath the skull. The ears stay almost level (or the inside ear a touch lower). Also notice that the the center of mass is not too much over the front legs. You can see how the front legs are vertically straight. As the horse become more supple and comfortable with this work, you will be able influence the whole spine, even at the halt and be able to see the inside hip come a little forward as the lateral bend goes from head all the way to the tail. I am also using the whip cue at the girth for bending in this photo. Photo by Katherine Nee

 

On the ground my body position along with my whip aids are used instead of my seat, leg, and rein aids that would be used in riding. A direct influence on the cavesson can also be used both to influence skull position and lateral flexion and also to teach the half halts that are given as the horse is guided towards more collection. However, keeping the hand soft and light is critical to this work. The horse must learn to carry herself in a balanced posture over time. You aren’t going to correct imbalances in the body by using a lot of hand. This is true on the ground and under saddle. By teaching the horse some basic aids from the ground, the transition for her to learn these under saddle is usually quite smooth even though the position for the handler or rider is quite different. By preparing the mind and body of the horse, the riding work typically comes along smoothly and with minimal stress to the horse. The back and muscles of the horse become much more prepared to handle the weight of the rider and since the horse has already learned all the lateral exercises she is able to do them much more easily and correctly in riding work.  

Parts 2 and 3 available for Equitopia members – not a member? Sign up here: Membership – Equitopia (equitopiacenter.com)

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Meg Brauch is the owner and trainer at Narnia Stables, an intimate boarding and training facility in northeast Connecticut. Meg is a 2000 Honors Graduate from the University of Connecticut with a BS in Equine Science.  She has been riding dressage since the age of 8 and has made riding and training a lifelong commitment.  She works with riders of all ages and skill levels to help each of them reach their personal goals. In addition to a career with horses Meg also spent 8 years teaching biology and genetics at RHAM High School in Hebron, CT from 2005-2013. 

Meg sought a classical approach to riding along with a method for developing and honing her skills in groundwork, lunging, work-in-hand, and liberty work. She pursued the Straightness Training® program where she became the first licensed instructor in the United States from 2016-2018, but then resigned at the end of 2018 and chose to continue her journey under a private label. She continues to develop and further her own education by learning from others that inspire her. Meg is currently training with licensed Bent Branderup trainers from Europe and she also follows and studies trainers from around the globe that put the well-being of the horse as the priority in their training principles.

Renfrew is a 9 year-old Hanoverian that belongs to Meg and was born at her home farm Narnia Stables. Imperador is a 6 year-old Lusitano that belongs to Jessica Liff and has been in training with Meg for 2 years. Meg uses cavessons handmade by John Ogle of Ogle Saddlery. Imperador is wearing an all leather cavesson and Renfrew is wearing a cavesson with a flexible chain nosepiece and soft leather covering. 

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