Independent of one another, horses and humans are magnificent creatures capable of great things. Together, however, they make magic; they jump, they fly, they dance, and they take each other to places only a team of two could go. What makes the relationship special is a connection, and for U.S. show jumping athlete Sloane Coles, one of the tools she uses to make that connection is groundwork.
As the owner of Spring Ledge, based in The Plains, VA, Sloane grew up with an understanding of groundwork and an appreciation of a practice called Join-Up® from her father, John Coles, who is the Joint Master of the Orange County Hounds. “I am by no means a professional at working on the ground with horses, but I enjoy it and I see improvement that I don’t usually see otherwise,” she said.
According to Monty Roberts, a natural horsemanship clinician and celebrated author of The Man Who Listens To Horses, the moment when a horse decides it is better to be with a person than apart from them is called “Join-Up®.”
Last year, Sloane reread The Man Who Listens To Horses, a tool she has used throughout her career to guide the groundwork she does with her horses. Inspired by a chestnut mare that came through her program that she admits was beginning to frustrate her, she dusted off her copy and refreshed her appreciation for the process. “I worked with her on the ground, and it changed everything,” said Sloane.
Start on the Ground
Sloane maintains that anyone can learn groundwork to play with their horses, and any horse can benefit from its principles. For her, she was raised on the approaches of Roberts, Pat Parelli, and the professionals who worked under them. She also recalls watching her father play in a round pen with his own horses, seeing what he could accomplish before even throwing a leg over its back. Combining all of these experiences helped Sloane develop a method that works for her and the horses she trains, proving that there is no one way to help a horse through the use of groundwork.
Today, Sloane uses groundwork first to approach difficult mounts or create a stronger bond with new horses. Using a round pen, she works horses on a rope before progressing to letting them move loose – or, at liberty – in the pen. Horses wear just a halter, and Sloane uses a lunge-whip type stick. “First, I want to see if I can get them listening to me,” she explained. “Whenever you have a hiccup with a horse or a miscommunication, it is very beneficial to go back to the ground. Play with them a little on the rope, get them to turn, see what eye they work better off of, and get them to step away from you.
“You can do a lot of flatwork on the rope and even work them up to leg yielding,” continued Sloane.
Many trainers within sport horse circles balk at utilizing groundwork because of the unpredictability of a loose horse. Sloane is not one of them. She noted, “It depends on the quality of the footing, but some people are terrified of a horse that throws a few bucks during groundwork. I’m not. Just like lunging correctly, you have to train them to not spin away and start bucking.”
Sloane’s relationship with the horses she rides is one of the most important elements of her training process, and one that she considers important in the world of show jumping. “It develops good horsemanship to learn what horses are like on the ground,” she said. “None of the work is forceful in a dominant way, but more herd-animal based. When a horse joins up, it is similar to how horses in herds interact.”
In addition to building a two-way bond, Sloane is able to crack the code on many nuances of a horse’s movement and temperament on the ground. Whether a horse circling to the left doesn’t come through as well with its inside hind leg, or they are happier looking at you out of their right eye, you learn about their strengths and weaknesses by watching them work around you on the ground.
For Sloane, patience and focus are paramount when working with a horse on the ground. “In show jumping, we can get frustrated with our horses, and I think groundwork helps us to know a horse on a different level and create a bond with them where you realize how smart and willing to listen they are,” she said. “You have to use your aids very precisely and when you do, you are able to see them listening to you.
“You are communicating with them in a completely different way, and I think when you are riding them after that, you have more of an understanding of pressure and what they can handle,” continued Sloane. “For a hotter horse, it is a little mental therapy for them to understand a form of communication that is inherently theirs.”
Sloane recalls a horse that proved to be a difficult ride for her, and she was guarded about her expectations for his success on the ground. By working with the horse on the ground, it joined up with her in 15 minutes. Sloane remembers walking away from that session with a new appreciation for the horse and her ability to connect with him in a way that made sense to him.
Success From the Ground Up
When Sloane looks back on all the horses she has worked with on the ground, the list includes strong horses that she couldn’t control in the tack, difficult mares, geldings with short attention spans, and even a hunter that never seemed fully prepared for the show ring. “After a lot of work on the ground, I’m able to ride them in just a rope halter because I trained them from the ground to listen,” she said. “Overall, we as humans learn a different type of patience and communication by doing this groundwork with horses.”
When one of her client’s horses came to her as a very difficult, sensitive type in general, she immediately turned to the round pen. “She is very willing, but more of a flight horse,” said Sloane of MTF Saint Simeon, a 14-year-old Selle Français mare. “She never seemed to know what we wanted of her, and I felt that groundwork gave her a new outlet. She’s hot, and sometimes with hotter mares, it is not always good to be on their back for every training session. It was therapeutic for her to have her own space in the round pen.
“When I started with her, she was willing, but very confused,” continued Sloane. “I could just point, and she would change direction. Working with her in the rope halter helped the flatwork immensely. Before, you almost couldn’t flat her, but in a short time she was quiet and staying calm in transitions, which was what used to make her the most nervous.”
With her hunter, Sloane honed the tools she needed to develop a unique program, one that could be successful for horses of all types and disciplines. “I came up with a method for him that worked, and instead of lunging and getting him quiet, I worked with him in the round pen before going to the show,” she said. “That was our preparation for showing. It was a system that worked for him in order to keep him content mentally, and that transferred into his performance.”
While Sloane believes that groundwork is an effective tool for any horse, it is the time commitment that sometimes derails certain trainers but could prove to be extremely valuable. “It takes time,” she said. “When you have 15 to 20 in the barn it is difficult, but when you have one and the time to do it, the results are incredible. It is also fun!”
Educating fellow horsemen and women about groundwork is something that Sloane enjoys. She encourages everyone to watch groundwork videos, pick up a book on round pen exercises, or simply play with a horse on the rope. “It is important to create your own process, but seek out resources,” she said. “I promise that the first time anyone steps into the round pen with a horse, they will learn more about it than they ever thought possible and achieve a bond that is not found through any other method.”
Photos by Jump Media.