Refining Ground Work with the Horse
Whenever I show up to work with a horse I go through a mental checklist assessing things such as:
- Where is the horse’s mind today?
- How is the horse looking/feeling in his postures, breathing, and movement?
- What was the feeling or energy he offered when greeting me in his pasture or stall?
- Does he seem mentally available as I ask to halter, lead, and stop at the gate?
Having not seen the horse or knowing their history, here is my initial take on this common scenario.
Improving your Equine Skill Set
Everything that we do in life requires different skill sets. Unfortunately, when it comes to horses, many folks approach it as an "I bought it, I should be able to do it." But the reality can turn out quite different.
One of the challenges for both pleasure and competitive riders is prioritizing the time and having the mental clarity to build their skill set when it comes to their horsemanship.
"Last time I tried to ___________ my horse __________ and I don't want that to happen again."
"What if my horse _______, then we won't be able to _______, so I better not ________ to cause an issue."
Information is a wonderful tool for advancing and improving your relationship with the horse. If for a moment we set aside the cliche "good" or "bad" categories when thinking about our experiences, and instead saw them as more information to make better-educated decisions in how we approach working with the horse in the future.
This youngster had arrived after a rough initial start then eventual rescue. There is a big moment when familiar things such as tack is presented and a horse has the opportunity to be near it, while loose, that they will display how they really feel about it. In this case, preparing to tack while she was loose, feeling confident and relaxed, was quite the progression from the horse that couldn't stand still and was fleeing constantly when I first met her. It isn't about her obediently standing, it is about her offering to present herself in a confident, quiet manner, trusting and trying.
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When the rider has the ability to use all of their aids (hands, seat, upper leg, lower leg, upper body, head) independently of one another.
i.e. If you move your left rein does your right lower leg grip the horse's side? If you rise up in the upward motion of the post in the trot, do you tighten your fingers on the reins? When you are trying to turn your horse with the rein and you lean with your upper body towards the direction you were attempting to turn.
A major challenge for folks creating independent aids is a general lack of body awareness in general.
Yes, they are sitting in the saddle. But how? Are their seat bones "plugged in?" Do they understand what part of their body conveys what communication towards their horse? Are they able to offer a variety of energy in their fingers, seat, and legs?
"Having tried several trainers, I was on the verge of replacing my gelding. He would become defensive and refuse to go forward, start spinning, backing, or bucking at the lope. Other trainers had tried to "ride the buck" out of him. This only made him more resentful and insecure. I tried everything, from chiropractic treatment, replacing his saddle pad, changing his feed and starting over on the ground. However, riding him into a lope was beyond my comfort level and he would buck going into the lope even on the ground. Sam not only had the patience to help me rebuild his confidence, but gave me tools to help him as well. Now I have a horse that is learning to trust again and thanks to Sam, when he gets stuck, I can help him through it. Sam's approach is very effective and I have learned so much from her. I look forward to continuing to work with her and my horse."
I always laugh when I see this cartoon by Polly Paintbrush.
The cartoon reminds me of a time many, many moons ago when I was competing on a super talented off the track Thoroughbred at a Training level combined training horse trials in New Mexico.
It was our first event together and the moment we left the start box, his brain had reverted to racehorse mode. We actually came to a complete halt twice, in the middle of our cross country test, and we STILL came in under the minimum allotted time. Of course back then, I was taught that bits gave you “control” and the more equipment you used, the better your “stop” was. At the end of the course I was immediately informed I needed a more severe bit.
At that time I was riding for my ego. Really. The equine experience almost hardly ever considered or focused on my horse; it was about my goals, my wants, my success, and my accomplishments. Even the sport of Three Day Eventing was considered the “crazy” group of riders, who almost all seemed set on challenging their horses into surviving a cross country course. I remember years later sitting with a three time Olympic Gold Medalist I worked under, and him telling me about the number of brutal crash-and-burns it required for him to get where he was at present day.
Although this wasn’t what I considered at the time to be “abuse,” I certainly never considered my horse’s brain or emotions. His tendons and hooves were far more important. If you saw me among the general populous of riders, you wouldn’t have noticed either greatness or dramatic “flaws.”
Yet now, in thinking back, and as we all know hindsight is 20/20, it shocks me as to what this horse put up with. Why on earth did he jump- eventually over obstacles the width of pickup trucks, try his heart out during every ride, save me (on numerous occasions) and not just quit on me?
I’ll never forget taking my first “real” Dressage lesson on him with a Dutch gal who was one of the first people to actually instruct me how to ride. She didn’t mention my horse’s brain or emotions, but she actually taught me in-the-moment aids and tools to communicate with my horse. Without realizing it, she was the catalyst in a chain of events that still affect me to this day. She also changed my bit to a much softer, less severe device and showed me that I could still “control” my horse.
The old days of cross country was all about the “go” and survival. Really. Anyone who doesn’t believe please take a moment and watch the 1976 Olympics in Bromont, Canada. Be ready to have your heart in your throat as you watch the following video of the cross country portion of the event.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31dlhFlgmbA
Fast forward to present day and I cannot tell you how often new clients contact me after things have “gone wrong.” That vague description can range from experiencing literally falling off the side of a cliff while clinging to their horse, or the horse displaying aggressive behavior that resulted in broken bones, concussions, etc. to just a general feeling of out-of-control-ness when the rider interacts with the horse.
I don’t know historically when, how and why westerner’s perception of horses transitioned and our belief that chaos is “normal” in our equine partner along with accepting ill manners, dangerous behavior, etc. Of course our perspective of our horse being our “pet” or “baby” sets the stage for those sorts of behaviors to evolve.
Nowadays people only have so much time with their horses leading to limited experience with horses. Instead of spending six hours a day with the horse, maybe one hour twice a week is spent. Even with the limited time, it still is an opportunity for people to learn and see more about their horse.
As the horse transitioned from a tool for our survival to a “pleasure” animal, our standard of what behaviors we would accept, tolerate, etc. has decreased. I would hate to guess at the number of people who became involved with horses for fun, and in reality after the romanticized perspective faded, how little fun they actually experienced, and yet they keep pursuing the sport.
As I’ve remarked before, those with no horse experience can often see “more” than those with years of lessons. Just as many humans unknowingly desensitize their horses (not in a positive manner) and teach the horse to become mentally resistant and eventually physically dangerous, humans teaching other humans can do the same thing to one another.
I experienced it myself, ignore the “instinct” of wanting things like brakes and steering while riding, instead, just focus on getting over the jump! Have you ever been around a horse person who uses the words, “Oh, he just does that…” Why?
I have heard stories ranging from people unloading their horse, so that they could back the horse trailer, then reloading the horse, to ones who had to put grain into one far corner of the pen in order to distract the horse so that they could quickly access the other side of the pen without being “attacked.” I’ve witnessed horses having to wear cages (literally) around their muzzle to not attack, I’ve been instructed while riding Grand Prix Dressage horses not to “let go” when I hacked a loop around the barn area in case the horse took off. I’ve watched people conditioned to crank their horse’s nose to their shoulder every time they mount, without ever considering WHY they were doing that; which usually is done in case the horse may take off. To me, the follow up question is then, “Why are you getting on a horse that you think may be ready to bolt?”
Things that have become “basics” in my mind such as my horse coming over and presenting himself to be caught, ground tying irrelevant of where we are, yielding and following any form of pressure, offering to line up to an object so that I could climb aboard, having 10 energies within each gait, being able to accept my “clumsiness” by bumping, banging, and dragging objects all around his body are just a few of the “starting” points for me.
A horse fussing when led, groomed, tacked, tied, during farrier care, while being mounted, when asked to halt in the middle of a ride, etc. is all unnecessary. And yet somehow the mentality of, “Oh they just do that,” has saturated the equestrian community. Horses are fantastic HUMAN TRAINERS. How many people have learned how to work around their horse?
Well I can’t tie him, so I just loop the rope in case he pulls back.
He doesn’t like the farrier so we sedate him.
He doesn’t/won’t stand still, so I let him graze while I _____________.
I get on him in the arena in case he decides to ______________.
He is a little hard to catch sometimes so I just shake the grain bucket/hide the halter behind my back/catch his buddy first.
You get the idea. Some of you may be laughing, but in reality it is quite scary how much is done with relatively out-of-control horses. In my perspective, horses can run away with you at the walk. Out of control does not mean that your horse is galloping at 35mph and you’re hanging off the side.
Let us put it into human terms. What is the one thing that will NEVER let us relax? Internal stress. It doesn’t matter what the stress is about, the source of where it is coming from, or how much of it we are experiencing. As long as it is present in our minds, our bodies act different and we can never truly find a “quiet” within ourselves, therefor never feeling a relaxed physical demeanor. The same goes for horses.
And when we humans are stressed how much patience do we have? How much physical strength/coordination/ability do we have compared to when we aren’t stress. How many people do you actually know that experience one stress free hour a day? A week? A month? And as a result our minds get foggy and overloaded and our bodies start to break down. The same goes for the horses.
Weaving, chewing, pawing, pacing, cribbing, wind sucking, fussiness, etc. are all indicators of stress. Ulcers, weight issues, etc. can be the physical tolls that stress can take on a horse. Ask yourself how many moments in a day (whether or not you are interacting with him) does your horse experience as “stress free” time?
Of course to do this, we must put value to our horse’s brains and emotions. So as many folks laugh when I say that I “want it boring,” I really mean it. “It” can be whatever you are asking of your horse; come to be caught, stand to be groomed, hold up for the person behind us on the trail, etc. Nothing I ask of my horse should look physically busy, chaotic, hurried, choppy, etc. If it does, I must pause and remind myself the physical behavior is a reflection of the brain and emotions; when my horse is feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside, he’ll show it with relaxed, but not mentally checked, physical behavior.
Often people think the halt is the act of physically not moving. But if you scanned hundreds of pictures or watched a warm up arena at an event of horses being asked to halt, you’d be surprised how many horses offer more of a physical “pause” but you can actually see how the horse’s weight is shifted in a manner ready to “leave” and that his brain is elsewhere, rather than seeing a physical and mental commitment to stop in one specific place.
The horse’s body follows his brain. Wherever his brain may be, his body will try to get to. So if I can get my horse’s brain to think right here, six inches ahead of us, and keep his brain there, I can “keep” his body from moving, WITHOUT having to “HANG ON” to the reins.
So from ground tying to mounting or halting during a ride, I don’t want to feel like I NEED to “control” my horse. I’d rather like to influence my horse’s brain and emotions. The more he tunes in to what I am asking, the softer his physical movement and responses will be. The softer and more mentally receptive he is to my influence, the less I have to physically do to “get him” to participate in what I want.
As the journey begins, student's perspectives start to change or evolve into appreciating less movement, but more quality in their rides. I can’t tell you how many times someone enthusiastically comments, “Wow, look how nice he is standing,” and for all they had previously wanted to accomplish with their horse, are now realizing the importance of the mental, emotional AND physical quiet that must take precedent, before the “exciting” movement is asked of their horse.
So, here is putting a bit more value in your next halt.
I find 95% of folks misuse a round pen, whether under the guise of "exercising," lunging or teaching the horse conditioned responses.
Let's use the example of learning to face the human and be caught. So many of the videos and real life scenarios I see of folks "working" the horse in the round pen, whether they are a professional or not, are incessantly "driving" the horse's movement with flags, whips, sticks, ropes, etc.
So as the human is continuously adding spatial pressure, even with the horse already usually moving at a high rate of speed- with rarely an acknowledgement of the horse's efforts and a release of pressure from the human- the horse learns, the only way to make the pressure go away is to stop, or quit fleeing. To me, this is a bullying tactic that only "works" because the horse is contained in a small area. What would happen if you were in a big pasture?
I remember riding for years and never having my coach(es) mention, look at, review any of the following... And these were top level trainers and clinicians.
The idea that the instructor is "just" the riding instructor is outdated and is a disservice to clients. "Students don't know what they don't know," as a client of mine once said.
So many folks don't realize how important ALL aspects of their interaction, health, equipment, etc. affects the partnership with their horse. It can be overwhelming to either the novice or experienced student as every horse will have a different set of needs.
One part is folks have become very "removed" from their relationship with horses. We just don't spend the time with them like we did 20 or 30 years ago.
Another aspect is horses are not the "same" as they once were... their genetics, their limited exposure to the "real world," and their lack of quality training sets them up for a very challenging life. And yet, if owners become educated, if we strive to address all the "pieces of the puzzle," we can achieve amazing partnerships with them.
Below are just some of the many aspects that I frequently have to cover:
From the basics of tack fitting (horse and human), safety issues, correct usage and the how's and why's of what they are using.
Dietary needs/issues displayed in the horse's physical and mental state.
Farrier care and physical affects it may be having on the horse.
Assessing pain and other physical issues in the horse displayed in his posture and movements.
Addressing dental issues, potential TMJ issues, neurological issues, etc.
Then I have to add in the "minor" part of working with the human student, their past, concerns, confidence levels, exposure, and potential physical limitations.
And then finally there is the horse, their mental, emotional and physical state, and assessing their initial education and potential "holes" that need to be filled in order for them to have a quality foundation.
So the next time something may seem as one "specific" issue, remember rarely is one unwanted behavior/response about the moment that it is appearing, rather it most likely is connected to a variety of factors.
A lot of my Q & A with clients is trying to get enough background, history, clues, etc. as I attempt to play detective on how best to work with a horse. And of course, the horse will offer the most honest responses as to his "story."
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