Back in the days when I was training and showing hunters, we didn’t do much ground work with our horses. Lunging was for “getting the bucks out” or taking the edge off before riding. Round pens were for cowboys and cowgirls. Either way, my perspective was that ground work involved chasing the horse around in endless circles for some predetermined length of time. I didn’t enjoy doing it and I don’t think my horses enjoyed it either. It was probably a good thing that I didn’t do much of it back then.
But, my perspective about ground work has changed over the past several years. Now, I know that ground work is much more than lunging or round penning. It is an integral part of working with horses in all levels of their training. Ground work includes everything we do with horses while we are standing on the ground. Leading, grooming, feeding, tacking up – even going out to the paddock or field to get the horse – it’s all ground work. And, it’s all training. And, it’s probably the most important part of training. Certainly, it’s the most important part of building a relationship with a horse.
“Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it”. ~ Marian Anderson
How you approach a horse sets the tone for everything else you will do with him. It determines how the horse feels about you. Are you a threat or not? If you are not a threat, will you keep me safe or make me more vulnerable? Can I relax because you are looking out for me or do I have stay alert for possible dangers? These questions represent your horse’s perspective of being with you.
If you want to establish a positive bond – a real connection – with a horse, then as soon as you meet him, you should be really looking for how he feels. How does he approach you? Does he ignore you altogether, push into your space or seem worried about you coming into his space? The horse is looking at you with the same questions. Taking into consideration the horse’s perspective of your interaction, never make assumptions or take it for granted that just because he is a horse and you’re a human, it’s OK for you to (fill in the blank) with him. It’s not OK for you to assume to walk up and pat him. It’s not OK for you to assume that when you ask him to move that he will say ‘yes’ without question. It’s not OK for you to assume that he understands what you’re asking or that he is physically and mentally able to comply with your requests.
To understand the horse’s perspective, you must be willing to listen – to really listen – without having assumptions, preconceptions, and judgements. Check your ego at the barn door or the paddock gate. Then check in with your horse.
“The saddest part about being human is not paying attention. Presence is the gift of life.” ~ Stephen Levine
Listening to your horse requires observing and being aware of the subtleties of his body language, muscle tension and focus. Everything a horse does has meaning. He communicates through his behaviour – he has no other option. If you notice that your horse is anxious, distracted or stressed in any way, you can help him feel calm, relaxed and safe in your company through positive, meaningful ground work. Ignoring or becoming frustrated or stressed about his behaviour while rushing to get him groomed and tacked up for your ride, will do nothing to help him feel good about the experience or about being with you. Nor will it put him in the best frame of mind for being ridden.
Even if your horse is well behaved, you may feel like you don’t really have the type of bond or connection with him that you would like to have. Considering things from your horse’s perspective can help you understand why this might be. The horse’s main priority is his safety and security. Unless he is with someone (horse or human) who he knows is looking out for him, he will be vigilantly on alert for potential danger. He can’t help it. He is hard-wired to do this.
Ground work is the place to start building an understanding of any horse’s perspective – to develop true empathy for the horse. You can both safely get to know each other and establish a positive relationship – the bond you both want – when you start from the ground.
What Your Horse Wants You to Know:
• I need to know who you are. Introduce yourself and greet me politely.
• Be clear about what you want me to do or to learn.
• Understand that I won’t forget a bad experience. You can replace the memory with positive experiences.
• I need to learn new things in small parts so I can understand what you want me to do.
• I need time to think and process information.
• Keep my lessons short and don’t make me do the same thing over and over. Recognize when I try.
• Respect my nature. Despite my size and power, I feel vulnerable.
• Pay attention to my mental and physical needs. I can’t learn or perform well if I am sick, injured, hungry, in pain or anxious
• Treat me with kindness and respect.
“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving.” ~ Dale CarnegieIf you would like to help spread the word about a better way to work with horses, please share this blog with 5 friends, send a Tweet or post on your Facebook page. The horses thank you. You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you include my credit information: Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com). I would also appreciate it if you’d send me a copy for my media files. Anne Gage Confident Horsemanship www.annegage.com www.facebook.com/ConfidentHorsemanshp www.twitter.com/AnneGage