Tuesday, March 21, 2017

21st March, 2017 Thoroughly Grounded

The groundwork that I do with a horse is intended just to set up a few little rules that make life easier for the horse and the handler and enable both to relax, and just 'be' together. There is nothing overly complicated or designed to do anything other than that, i.e. it is not about exercising the horse, making the horse ultra responsive, or supple. Asking these few questions may give me an idea of whether a horse is stiff or troubled.

Here is the continuation from my general notes about training:

Sometimes groundwork can appear to be irrelevant to training, especially when you are dealing with a ridden problem. However, a lot of ridden problems stem from a misunderstanding about signals and body language, lack of consistency and most of all, a lack of trust and leadership. All of the groundwork exercises I use, simple as they may be are excellent for building up a relationship based on trust and leadership.
Horses control each other and establish the herd order by moving each other around – sometimes quite quickly; sometimes very subtly. In the same way, if we move our horse around that makes us the leader but if the horse is moving us around then it is the leader. Most horses don’t want to be the leader – it’s a very hard job involving responsibility for the security and direction of the herd. In the wild it means the difference between life and death. As a horse’s leader you need to control his speed, direction and destination. Once you are the leader your horse can afford to relax.

Some horsemanship techniques take the accuracy of the groundwork exercises to the nth degree. I do think it’s important to remember that the aim of the groundwork exercises here is to establish leadership rather than to become an end in themselves and endless repetition of groundwork games can lead to boredom, frustration and a horse that switches off or escalates its behaviour.  I prefer to be a passive leader (a good friend) rather than an alpha mare or a dominant leader in order to get a horse to want to follow me anywhere and will only use the groundwork exercises where I need to establish or re-establish my leadership. The rest just gets incorporated into my every day work with the horse and becomes an instinctive way of working with horses. Again, my aim is to be using body language rather than a system of cues.

I do full Join-Up from time to time with horses but quite often they are already pretty joined-up or the facilities are simply not available. I have found that the groundwork exercises can be just as effective if done well. There are some horses where Join-Up is not appropriate – those that are not sound, are known to be very aggressive, bottle fed horses and untouched horses particularly semi-ferals. I might for instance Join-Up for a horse that has learned to switch off to anything but cues or a horse with persistent catching issues. Join-Up cannot cure a horse of all his issues but can be a useful tool in opening up communication and building a bond with the horse.

It is sensible to do all of the groundwork exercises from both sides of the horse as they don’t transfer much information from one side to the other and can be more worried about something happening on one side than the other. The main reason why we tend to do everything on the left of a horse is because of the sword. Most of our horsemanship comes from the military and the sword tended to be carried in the right hand and withdrawn from the left. Everyone was right handed in the military whether they liked it or not.  It was important not to stab your horse when drawing your sword so he was kept on your right.

Whilst I do not prescribe to the view that there is always a strict hierarchy in a herd, I do believe that there is always a hierarchy in any given moment of time or set of circumstances which may alter as horses are added or taken away, or a new set of circumstances arises. That hierarchy may even be circular at times.