Confessions of a Timid Rider,  Horse Training

Groundwork Basics For Creating Confidence in the Horse and the Rider

Confession: I had never done any type of lunging or ground work until I owned my own horse.

In the English disciplines, ground work is relatively uncommon. Occasionally you may see someone lunging their horse for exercise, rehabilitation, or before getting on to ride. Once my lesson horse seemed quite spooky so my trainer lunged him before I got on. I received some tips on lunging and a lesson in the saddle, which I found very interesting. Still, I had no practical knowledge myself.

When Ferrous became mine, I was excited to do ground work. I began watching YouTube videos and reading how-to books for tips and tricks. Looking back I realize how forgiving my pony is because I was learning on the fly. It did create a way for me to communicate with him, figure out what worked and what didn’t, and improve my aids on the ground in the round pen and on the lunge line.

Not only did our two-way communication improve but it resulted in me trusting my pony more because I saw how he would react when spooked or frustrated. Now, there is little he can do that will surprise me and I’ve gained so much confidence in us as a team.

Professional Training

When Delight and I found each other again after a few years, he was in a bad place. He was shut down, tense, and would have bouts of galloping and bucking to work off steam in the paddock or arena. For the most part he was sweet but then would nip suddenly. One day while playing at Liberty in the arena, he turned and aggressively charged me.

Luckily for me, he didn’t intend to hurt me and I put him in his place without backing down. It was incredibly scary. He HAD learned to intimidate other humans. The behavior did not come out of thin air. It built over time. So I asked a professional Western horsemanship trainer to work with him at his barn. More importantly, she began teaching me too. It was incredibly eye-opening.

Quickly I realized that everything starts with how you retrieve your horse from the stall or paddock. I was letting him do a lot of the leading, which is fine for a pony like Ferrous, but for a horse that has dominant tendencies like Delight, he needed constant and subtle reminders to respect me and my space.

Photo by Jamie Baldanza @thismustanglife

A Few of the things I’ve Learned

  • Your horse must patiently wait to be haltered, stand at the gate until invited through, and stop walking when you stop walking.
  • Always work with a halter and lead in the beginning stages. Keep a connection and don’t allow freedom until it’s earned.
  • A rope halter and flag work wonders and are the only tools you need besides patience and calm.
  • Focus on your horse and expect them to focus on you.
  • If your horse is frustrated, it’s probably your fault. Make sure you are asking clearly and positively reinforcing the correct behavior.
  • Do EVERYTHING at the walk. When you master that, then you can ask for the trot.
  • Working on this has really improved my confidence handling Delight and Ferrous. While Ferrous doesn’t necessarily “need” this, I’ve been practicing with him and noticed a huge difference in our relationship and my responses to him both on the ground and in the saddle.
  • Energy In = Energy Out. This REALLY clicked with me. If I ask with a lot of energy, he’s going to respond with a lot of energy. When I breathe and relax, asking calmly, my horse responds in kind.
Ferrous and I work well together in a round pen but we started with a rope halter and lead rope.

My Lesson Notes

I took a lot of notes and here are some of them! Remember, I’m still learning but I’ve been practicing the below principles and seen a huge difference already.

  1. Check in first

Stand in front of horse. Lead rope hand on neutral position. Flag angled outward at shoulder, then scratch/ back and scratch/ hip and scratch when horse relaxes and doesn’t react to the flag.

Both sides. If horse moves or confused- reset. Do hindquarter yield and start over. The goal is to make it so the flag isn’t scary but just an extension of your hand.

2. Circle 

Stand in front and put hand out in direction horse should go. Horse head should follow. If does not walk off then use flag at shoulder to encourage with a fluid motion.

Reminder: energy in = energy out

If my horse is too slow I encourage with long flick of flag to hind end. If moving too fast, give them time to come down. If the horse does not slow to the walk, ask for the hindquarter yield and reset.

Horse should rate speed at walk until asked otherwise.

Move feet in a Hulu hoop but no more. Do not step back. Use the flag and step into the horse if you need space. The horse must always respect your bubble, not the other way around!

3. Hindquarter Yield

Take a little more contact of lead rope without pulling. Then, ask for head to turn in with lead rope and walk toward hindquarters until the hind legs cross. Don’t pull harshly or suddenly. Slow and steady, always. Yielding of the hindquarters teaching flexion, creates a hand brake, and eventually will help you to have an emergency break under saddle.

Reminder: lead rope hand controls head and shoulders, flag hand control hindquarters. 

4. Walking and Talking

Horse needs to be able to follow your lead with slack in the rope no matter what, both leading your horse from the left side and the right side. It is your horse’s job to stay with you. Use flag on your opposite side of the horse and behind to encourage. It should not be between you and your horse.

I have certainly found this exercise helpful when encountering a new situation with Ferrous or Delight. I always stand between the potential spooky object so my horse will move away from us and outside my personal bubble, rather than try to go through me to escape.

5. Backing

Your horse should never be in your personal space. If you want to snuggle, you should move into their space. A horse like Delight will take one step toward you and think he’s in charge. If he moves his feet at any time toward you, ask him to back up a step or two. This is great to do when removing from the paddock at the gate or when returning to the field, especially for those horses that like to run away when the halter is removed.

Please keep in mind these are Beginner 101 notes! I have a lot to learn but have been implementing these now for almost a year. Delight had his feet trimmed too short and was out of training for a few weeks. When I went to get him he was unfocused, calling out to his friends, and a little on the muscle. I went through all of these steps and after only a few minutes he was calm and focused on me. This gives me a lot of confidence that when it comes time to take him off property, I can keep him calm and focused even if he starts off nervous or spooky. More, because he is so sensitive he tells me when I am not clear or don’t have calm energy myself, and I am able to reset as well.

Finally, I intend to keep taking lessons in horsemanship with Delight and my trainer’s own horse to fine tune my aids. More, I’m so excited to have met Monty Roberts at his 2021 Movement, attended Shawna Karrash’s positive reinforcement demos at Equitana and so much more! I have a lot to learn but I am so excited to continue this horsemanship journey. I am communicating better with my horses and gaining in trust us both as a result.

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