Introduction to Groundwork, Leslie Desmond Style

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond

Published in the February 1997 issue of Stable Kids Magazine

Groundwork is an ancient art. It has been practiced for centuries in many parts of the world. Variations of the old ways are experiencing a revival in the popular "new" horsemanship, which relies on the mastery of groundwork skills as the cornerstone of its widespread appeal. The basics of groundwork help riders to understand the feel, timing and balance necessary for advanced mounted work in any discipline. Without these skills, your riding may become good, but it will never be great. If you ask the horse, he might tell you that the most successful trainers today are those who can educate horses to be truly at peace in the human's world.

Groundwork is a very important part of gaining your horse's trust and respect. It's a way of establishing communication with your horse. Groundwork also provides the perfect opportunity to establish some boundaries and guidelines in your relationship with your horse. It's the foundation for your communication with him when you are directing him from the saddle.

Young horse trainers need to know-and to do-the same things that older, more experienced trainers know and do. The first thing you need is a clear picture in your mind of what you want your horse to do before asking him to do it. Feel free to ask lots of questions and be sure you understand the answers before trying to implement something that is new to both of you. Look at photographs, books and videos as much as you can. This will help you collect visual images to work from. Remember to notice the little ways that your ground schooling will carry over to your mounted work. For example, a horse that is taught to drag you along on the lead rope, may also try to pull you along with the reins. Your horse's respect for the slightest pressure on the reins begins on the ground, with your properly applied "feel of" him through your halter and lead rope.


One horse will naturally follow another horse; he will also naturally follow you. This pony is leading with a lariat instead of a halter. Notice the slack in the rope and the willingness of the pony to follow the "feel" of the leader. (Leading in this manner should be done only with the supervision of an instructor or parent skilled in teaching this method).

A horse should not be allowed to rub his face on you or lean into you with his body when you reach for his head. Notice how this horse calmly yields away from Taj's touch, showing respect and keeping a safe distance.

Here, Burch was the leader across this small brook. He was safely across and off to one side when the horse followed across. Kaity is practicing her jumping, using her legs and NOT the reins for balance. She makes good use of the mane to steady herself as she learns to develop sensitive hands.

Whether you are on the ground or in the saddle, the goal is to get a more willing and accurate response from your horse's feet with less pressure from you. You need to present what you want in a way the horse can understand.

When he does, his responses will keep you safe through accurate foot placement and correct body alignment.

Think and plan-and don't believe that because you are young, or because you are not an "official" trainer, that you cannot train your horse. You train him each time you lead him, feed him, groom him and ride him.

To start, teach your horse to lead up freely without resistance. A horse that is taught to lead and follow willingly on a slack line is safe and enjoyable.

However, a horse taught to be dragged around on a tight lead rope or stud chain is likely to walk on you, or bump into you with his head or shoulder. Remember, the amount of pressure he gets used to as you lead him has a direct relation to the sort of mouth he'll develop in response to your hand on the reins.

As your horse learns to "follow your feel" on the lead rope, he will start walking as you start walking, he will trot when you speed up, he'll slow down when you slow down and stop when you stop - without bumping into you or passing you by.

A horse that can "follow your feel" on the lead rope will stand quietly until he is asked to move his feet. Lottie stopped Red at a distance. He is waiting patiently for her next request.