Why We Do Ground Work

NOTE: Katie and her mule, magic, were having some 'problems on the trail'. after a discussion about 'preparing to ride', she wrote me the following and I wanted to include it on my site.

Hi Ima Mary,

I just got done talking with you - thanks for your time again! It's nice to talk to you and I always feel better about things after I do.

Here's a statement we've all heard: "I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like".

I said this to my mother (an artist) once, and she really got mad. As she explained to me (at length), art appreciation is a function of education. As we learn more about art, we are apt to look at artwork differently, and to appreciate things that once wouldn't have merited a second glance.

I realize now, as I think about it, that the statement "I don't need to do groundwork with my horse, I really just want to trail ride", is a very similar kind of statement to the one about art. I have been guilty of this one too, but once again it reflects a lack of education and a lack of understanding about what elements are important in your relationship with your horse.

I always thought that "sacking out", for instance, was done to introduce a young (or spooky) horse to unfamiliar objects, to prepare it for being saddled, and to desensitize it to the types of things it might expect to encounter in life. Since my horse (and my mule) are neither young nor especially spooky, I didn't see any reason to go to the bother of sacking them out or of doing ground work generally. I always thought my animals had excellent ground manners, so why do ground work? I really just wanted to trail ride.

I am now learning that groundwork is an important part in the relationship between my animals and me, and that by working with them on the ground I can teach them to be light and supple; I can improve my own skills; and - most important I think - I can work on improving the bond of trust that they must have with me. This is where the sacking out (or the "friendly game", or whatever you may wish to call it) comes in.

I frequently go to the gym, to work out. I try to increase the intensity of the workouts, but it's a fine line between making myself stronger and pulling a muscle. I think developing trust is similar. You can only stretch it so far before you pull it, and at that point you have to heal up before you can try again. When I am presenting something unfamiliar - possibly scary - to my animals, I need to stretch their trust to just the right point - to the point where they perhaps are a bit nervous, but where they are still comfortable enough to stand still, and not to flee. If they move their feet it's my fault; I have stretched the trust too far. This, I find, is an art, and requires me to pay a lot of attention to the signals my horse or mule is sending back to me. They will let me know before they move their feet to get away from the object, if only I am observant enough to see it. If I am observant enough, I can back off a bit, which has the result of stretching their trust, hopefully strengthening it. The tricky part is not to look at them with concern while presenting the new object, but to act like it's no big deal - which makes it a bit harder to catch when they are getting ready to leave. But I am working on it!


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