Groundwork 2

In the previous article Groundwork 1  we looked at how to achieve forward down and stelling and bending at a halt.

In this article I would like to take this a step further and look at how we can teach our horse ‘stick’ cues and then start to get our horse to step forward and under with his inside hind leg.

However before we can do that we need to take a step back and look at the relationship we have with our horse. Fundamentally before I can begin to teach my horse anything I need to a) have a basis of “horsemanship” in place. By this I mean I must be able to communicate with my horse. I need my horse to WANT to listen to me and I need to be able to WATCH and LISTEN to my horse. Basically we need mutual respect and rapport. I need my horse to be able to follow me, to stop and to turn when I ask. I need my horse to want to be with me and not be frightened of either me or my stick AND my horse needs to have confidence and trust in me. I need my horse to understand that a touch means move over and to move away from pressure. It is impossible to teach a horse groundwork if we have yet to teach him social skills (don’t ignore me, don’t eat me, don’t run over me). If any of these issues are still problems for you (and your horse) STOP and sort these out first before trying anything else. If you are really struggling with problems like these, then ask for help from someone who can help you.

The second thing that we need; is to have an inner picture of what we are trying to achieve. We must know what we want, so we can explain what we want to the horse. This inner picture translates to intent and makes it much easier for our horse to follow our suggestions. If we approach the training with a “let’s try this and see what happens” manner our communication becomes muddled and we aren’t able to give the horse the direction he needs. Even more, if we can’t visualise and know what we are looking for, how will we know if we achieve it?

So the first thing we need is a stretch from our horse that is forward and down.   Obviously if we ask for the horse to stretch too far forward and down we run the risk of making our horse too heavy his forehand.  We need that lower neck to be soft and relaxed and the throat lash open so we can clearly see the wings of the atlas joint. Only when these are clearly evident can we think about asking for the lower jaw to turn in such a way that it goes under the wing and you then have a bend stretching from the atlas, all the way down through the spine to the inside hip. This is not an easy move however, and frequently our horse finds it difficult to offer correct stelling. We mustn’t use force under any circumstance – force will be met with brace and tension, which will defeat the entire object of the exercise. Stelling correctly effects the whole spine and we can see this when we can see the inside hip move forward. If you cannot get stelling straight away from the front end, don’t worry because as we start to influence the horse’s inside hip and leg we are able to create the stelling from behind!

Once we have forward down and stelling established to a greater or lesser extent we need to teach our horse 4 simple cues of the stick.

The first cue we teach is how to “stop and/or go backwards”. This is done by raising the stick across the front of the horse’s chest. From this cue our horse should stop and/or step backwards. If the horse doesn’t stop then you need to put rhythm into the stick and move the stick towards the horse’s chest in small movements. If this doesn’t work then tap the horse’s chest. . The moment your horse stops, takes a movement backwards. STOP & REWARD.

The second cue we need to teach is move “the shoulder across”. You will need to raise the stick and  move it in small movements towards the shoulder you wish to move. If your horse does not move his weight over actually tap the shoulder. The taps stay rhythmical but can increase in intensity. The moment the horse goes to move his weight or foot in the desired direction, STOP & REWARD. Repeat on the other side.

The next cue is “curve round my inside leg”. Tap your horse gently just where the girth goes. At the same time I ask your horse to lower his head and give you stelling. The moment he does STOP & REWARD. Repeat on the other side.

The final cue is to step forward with the inside hind. Tap your horse gently just behind the girth. Keep tapping until he moves the correct leg forward, even if it is just a freaction. STOP & REWARD. Repeat on the other side.

Once you have the cues established and can get a little relaxation in a forward down stance start walking backwards in a small circle (10m), you need to be just in front of your horse and a little to the inside of his shoulder, so you can ask him to “follow your belly button” with his chest. With your stick you can ask your horse to bend so that he gives you his chest and “follows your belly button” by gently touching just behind his front leg and then supporting the correct bend by softly closing your hand on the line and asking your horse to face towards your belly button.

If your horse starts to run past you ask him to slow down and/or stop and then move his shoulders across towards you.

Ask for his inside hind leg to step forward and under the “point of weight” by using your stick further backwards.  If you are new to working with your horse on the ground the terminology “point of weight” may be confusing – basically the point of weight  (sometimes known as point of mass, or point of gravity) is below the rib cage of the horse where the saddle (and rider) would sit. When we ask for the inside hind leg to step forward and under we are looking for the hoof to be placed anywhere between where the front leg has been and under the centre line of the barrel. Ideally we want it placed so that the inside hind leg lands under the girth between the 2 front legs. We do not want it to cross too far under the body so that it steps behind and outside the point of weight. As you start to get the inside hind leg forward and under the point of weight the inside hip will rotate forward and down causing a rotation of the spine which will stretch through the spine to give the correct placement of the head as well as shoulder freedom.
When you start you will find it easier to get the correct placement of the hind leg and bend on one side than other (usually the side the mane falls on to). It is our responsibility to work both sides so that each becomes as easy as each other. This way we are working towards “straightness and symmetry”.

Where we stand is really important. As I mentioned we need to be in front of our horse and a little to the side so that our outside shoulder is at a 45° angle to the horse. The rein (or line) needs to be in our outside hand and we need to hold the rein with an open hand near the centre ring of the cavesson. The balance of our rein (which should be neatly folded with equal loops) should be held, along with our stick in our inside hand.

Some horses find it really easy to step under the point of weight and do so naturally; others find it much harder and want to step outside the point of weight, either by stepping away from the body or too far beneath and across. Persist, ask for just a few steps and reward the slightest try. Don’t ask for too much at any time – it is hard work for your horse.

If your horse wants to rush through you – slow him down. Stop every time he goes to mow you down and ask him to step backwards. Make sure that you don’t pull on the rein to slow him down or stop him. Bring your stick in front of your body, so that it is between you and the horse and in front of his chest to effectively block him and slow him down. If needed, you can then use the stick to tap him on the chest.

As I have mentioned you need to work both sides equally to start off with. Initially you may wish to ask your horse to stop before changing rein and circling the other way but as you get better with your tools you should be able to change rein whilst moving, simply by switching the stick over and asking for your horse’s shoulders to move across and give you the new flexion. If you are really struggling on one side, change the ratio to 2:1 and do more circles on that side. Remember to stop and rest frequently and to reward the slightest try. Listen to your horse and don’t get angry if he can’t do want you want straight away. Realise that it is probably a CAN’T rather than a WON’T.

Some people find it easier to walk beside their horse rather than backwards and in front of him. I don’t believe that it matters which you do, but I find walking backwards seems to be more inviting for the horse and enables me to really see what the horse’s body is doing. Which ever way suits you and your horse is fine.

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