One foot in front of the other and arms, relaxed at your side, naturally swing. You perhaps assumed I’d be talking about horse walking rather than human walking! Walking with your horse (equine groundwork) would appear to be an easy task yet often it is the hardest exercise to perfect. Under scrutiny humans may walk with unnatural tensions which mislead and confuse a horse. Sometimes our intent is unclear and very often we appear not to have our minds on the job; this is an alien concept to a horse. Whether we intend to ride our horses or just hang around with them basic equine groundwork is essential.
Who is equine groundwork for?
Should we walk with our horses and shouldn’t we be riding them? There are those still be to be convinced by the benefits of equine ground work. Within equestrianism there is a gap in education as far as ground handling is concerned and horses will quickly learn to bridge that gap for themselves.
Guesswork or clear direction?
Horses are incredibly good at spotting signals and it’s easy to unknowingly train a horse. Reading body language, words and other predictors of events enables fast learning for horses. Many of us are completely unaware that we are communicating in this way and give off constant information in fairly random sequences. Horses will try to decipher these communications and so it’s hardly surprising that they can be confused. Watching a horse/human team I can be confused so no wonder the horse might at times indicate they haven’t a clue what you want (often erroneously misread as the horse being ‘slow’ or ‘naughty’).
Dominate or submit?
Word is filtering through that domination, along with force, has no place in training any living being. Language such as ‘showing the horse who is boss or he will not respect you’ and the misguided observations it was based on have been fully refuted. Developing a common language between humans and horses has to be based on proven, evidence based methods and not on fear or prejudice. The aim is to create a partnership where the frailties of the human can be supported by the horse and vice versa; we both bring strengths and it makes sense to be supportive rather than antagonistic. Learning together creates a strong bond and will ultimately lead to harmony through greater clarity and understanding.
The winding path
Simple steps to create a partnership will not be in a straight line- that is guaranteed. Nor will improvement occur in easy increments. There may be some steps that follow a sequence that makes sense from the start but it is more likely that they won’t. When you look back at the winding path once walked it is easy to spot places where fewer steps might have been possible. Experience teaches us not to miss the simple lessons as all else sits upon them- they are the foundations. If you want to save time then spend time in preparation. Riding begins (and continues) with groundwork.
Many of us dither; I’ve dithered. Fear of failing can immobilise us. Feeling isolated can hinder progress- being the only person with a horse that ‘needs’ training when everyone else is out there doing it. Let me share the fact that I have never visited a new student that didn’t need help- we are all on the winding path and none of us has, or will, reach the end (or should feel the need to).
A plan is essential but more important is the will to get out and do things. In trying we work towards success even if we sometimes stumble along the way. The process of writing a plan is, in itself, a way to focus on the outcome before working backwards to fill in the gaps. Impossibly big steps won’t help and will probably cause more dithering; think small steps and then make them smaller still!
Do it for me!
It’s easy to give non-specific training advice and this is a marketing tool used extensively. Relax, Breathe, Harmonise, Trust, Connect, Communication, Confidence. All good words (and there are many more) that are part of any solution but with no path to pin them to what help are they? You read them and associate with them but what do they mean in practical terms? Your plan needs your input to guide you along your winding path.
Do you have a vision for future time spent with your equine partner? This is the only time to think big as later you will begin to unpick every element of the dream until a simple set of steps appears. It might be to walk miles browsing the hedgerows or a ride on the beach. Some simple dressage moves or popping a log in the forest. It’s your dream- you frame it.
Still looking for clues
I can see you still dithering or worse still rushing out of the door to start without laying the foundations. Write your plan! What was your dream? What are the first 100 steps and what are the underpinning behaviours you will need to build a strong foundation? Write them, say them, imagine them happening and absorb them until they feel part of you. If they don’t feel as if they are yours there will be more dithering or stumbling on the path. Consider the ‘simple’ example above of being able to sit in a field with your horse unattached via a rope or rein yet focussed on you. This is a great groundwork exercise that will lead to a similar valuable one when ridden.
What are the steps to take?
Once clearly framed you, the trainer, can begin to put the steps in place.
Some of the BIG steps might be:
- Walk together
- Stop together
- Sit and chill when together
These might break down into:
- Touch/scratch acceptability
- Clean and safe hand feeding
- Understanding acceptable distance (for both of you)
- Soft acceptance of a head piece
and clear cues for:
- stopping movement
- ‘it’s OK we’re chilling’
- ‘is there something you’d like to do?’
- ‘session’s over’
It’s possible to pare down these steps further. If we take the soft acceptance of a headpiece, perhaps a headcollar, as an example then this will break down further still:
- Soft and tension free when headcollar is produced in many different environments (in itself a lot of steps)
- Interest in the headcollar when it is held towards them, sniff or touch behaviours need to be previously on cue!
- Shape the touch behaviour gradually into inserting nose into headcollar
- Shape the nose remaining softly in whilst the rest of the headcollar is fastened.
- All of these steps in different settings, tension free with soft face and body language.
Yet more steps can be created depending on the point at which you started. I hope that you are beginning to see just how complex simple behaviours are and that if you don’t communicate specifically then your horse will pick up your unintended cues and build their own equine/human language and ways of acting around you.