Clinton Anderson's Groundwork for Under-Saddle Success

Clinton Anderson explains how and why groundwork works, from the editors of Horse & Rider magazine.

In the July ’09 issue of Horse & Rider, Clinton Anderson and his student Renee Humphries demonstrate how to desensitize your horse to your ground-training tools. That segment is the first in a series of basic groundwork exercises designed to increase your horse’s respectfulness and make him a pleasure to handle.

To learn more from Clinton Anderson, download a FREE guide?Clinton Anderson’s Ground Work: Tried and True Horse Training Methods.??

Here, Clinton gives a refresher course on exactly why groundwork is so effective, plus offers key tips for getting the most out of every groundwork session.

Yin and Yang
Groundwork centers on the two fundamental forms of horse training: sensitizing and desensitizing. To sensitize your horse, you teach him to move away from pressure. For example, he learns to step forward, “away” from the halter’s pressure on his poll, or to step away from the “pressure” of your upheld hands. (Anything that moves or creates motion has energy coming off it; I consider that energy to be “pressure.”)

To desensitize your horse, teach him to relax and accept pressure. Here, Clinton desensitizes a horse to the vibration of a pair of clippers. |

To desensitize your horse, you teach him to relax and accept pressure. For example, he learns to stand calmly when you swing a rope near him, and not to spook at fly spray, clippers or other “scary” things. When sensitizing, you apply pressure and release it the instant your horse responds, then try again.

When desensitizing, you apply pressure and keep it “on” until your horse stops moving his feet and relaxes–lowers his head, licks his lips, cocks a hind leg, takes a big breath, or blinks his eyes. Then you remove the pressure for a moment as a reward, before resuming. This approach-and-retreat strategy helps build his confidence quickly.

Obviously, you can’t sensitize and desensitize at the same time. But if you’re clear and consistent, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your horse will come to understand and benefit from both kinds of training.

Why Bother?
Don’t “have time” for all this? Actually, it’s exactly because you want every moment you spend with your horse to be pleasurable and productive that you need this all-important tool. Groundwork is your trump card, because it…

  • …sets you up as leader. Just as the boss mare of a herd directs the movements of all the other horses (usually with just a look), you establish leadership over your horse when you control the movement of his feet. You’re saying, in horse-speak, that he must respect and obey you as his leader.
  • …enhances trust. Once you gain a horse’s respect, trust automatically follows. Groundwork also improves your skill and finesse in communicating with your horse, which further boosts that bond of trust. Your horse comes to know precisely what to expect from you, to understand your body language, and to realize you’ll always be patient, clear, and fair with him.
  • …makes your horse think. A horse’s brain has two sections–one for thinking, and the other for controlling reactions. The thinking part is small. The reacting part is big. By controlling your horse’s feet going forward, backward, and from side to side, you’re activating the thinking part of his brain (because he’s got to think about how and where his feet are moving). A reactive horse is anxious. A thinking horse is able to calm down, relax, and follow your guidance.
  • …works off excess energy. Because groundwork is work, it helps to dissipate your horse’s pent-up energy. This, in turn, increases relaxation and prepares your horse to be obedient and responsive under saddle. Even if he’s been turned out around the clock, the time you spend working him from the ground enables you to get a read on how he’s feeling, mentally and physically, on any given day. On some days, you may feel he needs a little more groundwork before you mount up; on other days, a little less.

The bonus of groundwork, of course, is that it safely teaches your horse how to start, steer and stop on request–all things he’ll need to do under saddle. So it greatly increases your chances of a successful ride, plus gives you a tool for correcting any resistances you run into during training.

Success Tips
Here’s what you need to be most successful in your groundwork.

  • Balance. Make your from-the-ground training sessions a combination of sensitizing (getting your horse to soften, yield and give) and desensitizing (teaching your horse to relax, stand still and trust you). If you only sensitize, your horse will learn to move at your request, but he may become jumpy. If you only desensitize, your horse will be calm, but he may become dull and resistant.
  • Rhythm. Horses know and appreciate rhythm. It’s part of every gait, and even a horse swatting flies out in the pasture will move his tail with rhythm. So be rhythmic in the motions you use during groundwork. For example, when you’re asking your horse to move away from pressure, establish a steady rhythm with your cues (say, the swinging of a rope or training stick), then maintain that rhythm until your horse responds. If he resists, keep the rhythm constant while you gradually increase the pressure (for example, bring the stick closer, or tug harder on the line), until you get the response you’re after. Do not speed up your rhythm or in any way inflict pain to get a response; be patient.
  • Timing. Horses associate a reward or a correction with the last thing they were doing immediately before the reward or correction. For example, the instant your horse gives to pressure, you must reward him by completely removing the pressure (pitching slack in the lead rope, stopping the swing of the training stick, etc.). If you miss that point and instead reward when he’s begun resisting again, then you’re actually rewarding him for doing the wrong thing. This is a great way to confuse and frustrate him. Be precise, instead.
  • Consistency. Everyone knows children learn best with consistent repetition; well, horses do, too. And the more consistent you are, the faster your horse will learn. Apply your cues the same way each time you use them–avoid “shades of gray.” Also, establish a consistent work schedule, ideally making use of consecutive days wherever possible, to speed your horse’s progress.
  • The right tools. For most groundwork, use a rope halter with a 14-foot lead. I prefer my own halters, which have extra knots on the noseband for improved responsiveness, but any of the stiffer rope halters will do. If you don’t have a training stick, use a dressage whip.

To sum up, I believe groundwork is so important that you never get to the point where you no longer need it. Gordon McKinley, one of the great trainers I worked with in Australia, said it best when he told me the more times you pick yourself up off the ground, the better your groundwork is going to get. In other words, do the groundwork, and your problems in the saddle will be greatly reduced.

Clinton Anderson hosts “Downunder Horsemanship,” a popular weekly training program on RFD-TV, from his facility in Stephenville, Texas. He also travels around the country, presenting horsemanship clinics and headlining at horse expos.

This article originally appeared as “Getting Grounded” in the November 2008 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.