Groundwork - basics
The groundwork you practise with your horse is really the basis of your relationship together. What you can't achieve from the ground, you certainly won't be able to achieve in the saddle. So starting on the ground is not only necessary, but also a great way to have fun with your horse and to really get to know and trust each other. There is so much to groundwork that I won't be able to discuss the whole concept in just one page. So I just want to talk about some groundwork basics to make it an easier read. Before it changes into a complete book! :)
For starters the horse needs to learn to lead well. There is nothing more annoying, or dangerous for that matter, than a horse that doesn't pay any attention and who just does his own thing whilst being led! Or a horse that needs to be dragged forward to get some where. Or a horse that drags you around at the end of a lead wanting to get there sooner! These are all bad habbits that have creeped into the horse, usually at our own fault. If the horse doesn't know what proper leading means and he is not shown what proper leading is, than he just figures he's on the right track. If this is the case, then something needs to be done about it. And it doesn't matter how long he has been doing it this way, or how old he/she is. It's very easy to teach a horse how to lead well, and follow your feel.
To teach a horse to lead through feel, you need to try to pull at his head as little as possible. Yanking at his head is totally out of the question. He needs to trust your hands and feel. Your 'request' should be as small as possible. When he doesn't respond to this request, you can then always slowly build up on this tiny request. But as soon as he responds in the right direction, your release is the most important action to show him that he has made the correct response. This is his reward. You could start at the stand still, where the horse should be able to stand at peace on a loose lead. When you then liven up your body - think move - and start walking (continue the loose lead), most horses will feel this livening up and will automatically follow your feel to walk and stop. But these are things that sometimes need to be worked on, as sometimes a horse has learned to not respond to these feelings anymore, through experience. Sometimes as a person starts moving forward, the horse stays put, and you reach the end of the loose lead. As you reach the end you should try and keep an even weight on the lead, asking consistantly. If he still remains stuck to the ground you could slowly build up your pressure/weight on the lead - slowly but surely - and be patient. While you two are standing there with this tight line between the two of you, the horse at some point will become a bit agitated by this constant pressure and will look for a relief from it. He might try different manuevers, but you keep the pressure on the lead until he moves in the right direction - towards you. Even if it's only a slight lean forward, it's still a start and should be rewarded through release immediately. You build up from there, by releasing every time he moves a bit in your direction. Baby steps. Soon enough the horse will catch on to your request and you can then start practising leaving in different directions and making tight turns. Then before you know it the slack never even leaves the lead. This is where the feeling starts growing between you and your horse..
After a while you could be ready to practise at the trot. Your horse will be more attentive to your body movements now, and all you'll need to do is start jogging and the horse will follow that feel - all on a loose lead. And because you keep this loose lead, thus giving him some space to move, without yanking his head and such, he will trust you and find peace in following your movements. These are good times to teach him the verbal commands as well. You start jogging and say "jog!" (or trot). After a while the horse will catch on that "jog" means trot, because you are jogging while you say the word. When you go back to a walk and say "walk", he'll soon enough understand what that word means too. As long as you are consistant and clear, he will learn. These are all basics which will come in handy later while working freestyle in the round pen or on a long line.
Now it could happen that once in a while you might lose the horses attention and he becomes a bit pushy, or passes you by. When this happens I always ask him to take it "easy", to get his attention back. If he doesn't respond to that I slowly bring the slack out of the lead, until he slows down again, at which point I release the pressure immediately. If you time your release right this action will become less and less necessary, as the horse will know what's coming as soon as you say "easy" or pick up the lead and he will respond almost immediately. If he gets really pushy, you can also start swinging the end of the leadrope in front of his nose, or let him walk "into" your elbow, or ask him to walk a small circle around you - that's hard work, so he'll respond to that and next time stay put by your side instead of venturing out ahead again. But you also need to pay attention to your own body language; stay relaxed and make a deep sigh once in a while. This will relax you both. And above all, don't forget to reward him with a little scratch now and then, when he's behaving properly. The reward is so important for his soul! The horse is a very social and willing animal, but he needs positive feedback from us once in a while - what's otherwise the point of it all?
For more groundwork basics I really recommend Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond's book "True Horsemanship Through Feel". The best book on training I've read so far!!
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