What's it all about?
My philosophy is that the horses must be strong, supple and relaxed before we start riding them. This applies whether it is young untrained horses or older trained horses.
If the horse's topline is weak or the horse is very tense, then it becomes almost impossible to get anything sensible out of riding the horse.
The horse's topline must be strengthened
The horse's topline is strengthened through the work in hand and lunging, preferably in combination with as much free time as possible in the field. How long it will take to build the horse's topline will depend on how werak the horse is, to begin with.
Horses who have become accustomed to using themselves incorrectly, either because of a poorly fitted saddle or due to incorrect training, will take longer compared to untrained horses. One must be aware that it will also take longer to build muscle on an underweight horse.
Also, most horses are innate crooked. That is, we may be dealing with both natural and learned imbalances. Whatever the case, we must try as best we can to rectify these imbalances. If we do not do this, then it will, at some point, cause us problems in the ridden work. And in the worst case, we will suddenly have a horse that is lame.
We must, therefore, have the horse built up so that it gets a strong topline, we must have corrected its crookedness, we must have it relaxed, and we must have it prepared for the ridden work via the signals we use from the ground.
And how do we deal with that?
Roughly speaking, you can say that there are 3 things that need to happen - the horse must learn to walk straight, it must be able to stretch, and it must learn to follow the contact on the reins.
The training scale
You can't quite split these things apart. But if for the sake of convenience and to keep a system, we look at the training scale, then the first point is rhythm. That's why we start by looking at the crookedness of the horse and begin to correct these. These corrections will make the horse begin to move more uniformly with the legs.
The next step on the training scale is relaxation. Mental and physical relaxation typically occur as we get the first point improved.
The third point on the training scale is contact. To correct the first point - rhythm (crookedness) - we use some sort of connection, let's call it an "artificial contact". This is not the correct contact I associate with the training scale. On the other hand, it is a contact we need to have so that the horse does not just leave the arena.
This "artificial contact" is very light and in an upward direction. That is, the bit rests in the corner of the horse's mouth and not on the bars/tongue. This kind of contact will, at some point, cause the horse to chew on the bit. When that happens, the horse is suddenly ready to follow the connection and that is what I associate with real contact. Therefore we can now get the horse to follow the contact down into a stretch, if that's what we want - and it is at this point !! This only happens if the horse is mentally relaxed. But as you can see, things flow almost into each other.
Work in hand
I primarily use the work in hand for these purposes. However, the lunging will be better to use for young untrained horses. When lunging these horses, it is done in a cavesson (at first maybe only in halter), and the first part of the work in hand can also be done with a cavesson.
Starting a young horse is not difficult; it is much harder to start a horse that has bad habits or has bad experiences.
The lunge work is done with all horses that are not extremely crooked. If the horse moves very crookedly, then the lunging will be of no help. But otherwise the lunging will help the horse get used to bend on a circle, and we can work the horse in trot and canter as well.
I prefer not to use side reins or other auxiliary reins. I've tried side reins on my horses, but I don't see the purpose. It disturbs merely more than it benefits.
Preparing for the ridden work
The time we spend working the horse from the ground while building its topline must be used effectively. The horse must (in most cases) be prepared for riding. Therefore, it is imperative the signals and aids we use can be transferred to the ridden work.
When the horse relaxes, we can start working on the contact. Training the horse in seeking the correct contact on the bit is one of the things I value very highly. Both horse and rider must learn that a bit is a tool intended to create communication. Such communication can only be possible if both parties understand how to respond and use the bid. Here the horse learns to seek the contact down and forward or out and forward. The horse should realize this before we start riding it.
It is important that the horse is very well prepared for riding. If we talk about previously trained horses, all the old problems will come back as soon as we get up. The better we have done our work from the ground, the easier it will be to communicate with the horse when we sit on its back. Still, this is not always an easy process. It is a process that is the easiest the younger and unspoiled the horse is.
Another crucial thing when we start riding the horse is the rider's way of sitting. The rider must learn to sit still, relaxed, and in balance. We will not be able to sit perfectly as long as the horse is misaligned and not stable, but on the other hand, we can only help the horse find its balance if we at least try to sit as perfectly as possible, however without tensing up.
So my goal is to prepare the horses for the ridden work, by making them stronger and by helping them understand what it is we want of them. Also, through all this work from the ground, the rider should have been able to get a better understanding of how their horse works and how they can best assist and support it in the ridden work.