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In The Country Magazine
woman working with beautiful young horse
In The Country Lifestyle

Back to basics – building trust

During this time, we hear how the NHS and emergency services are under huge pressure to provide and care for those in need. There is no doubt that our sport – horse riding – comes with risk. Whilst here in the UK, there are no restrictions on riding, currently as there is in other countries I am told, it doesn’t take a lot of us to fall off or injure ourselves whilst riding to put added undue strain on the already stressed health services.

Now, whilst I am in no way ‘instructing’ anyone to stop riding during this time, I am suggesting that perhaps we reduce the amount that we do ride, with the advice being to essentially assess our own situations, do we need to ride, is it an unnecessary risk? Whatever your opinion, reducing the amount we ride or perhaps what we do when we do ride (for instance, maybe you’ll choose not to jump until this pandemic is over?), how about, instead we take things back to basics with increased ground work.

For those professional riders with competition horses, admittedly this may not be a realistic suggestion, this article is aimed more so at those of us who keep horses because we choose to embrace that inner ‘pony-mad little girl’ we once were and still are – just maybe not quite so little.

I know, that I can manage with not riding quite as much in the coming weeks. Simba nor I, need to follow a regimented exercise routine, especially not in the current global crisis. I respect and accept the fact we all need to make sacrifices where we can and by me minimising the risk I pose to the emergency services in choosing to focus on groundwork, then even in a minute way, I am helping to reduce the pressure our health workers are under. Could you?

Take them for a walk in hand, find the nicest spot of lush green grass on the yard/farm and just sit/stand with them as they graze a while. As a little girl, I’d sit in the field with my pony and read or do my homework. After a while, she’d always come over and sniff me, curious as to what I was doing.

woman working with beautiful young spanish horse

So what could you do to take your horse or pony back to basics and focus on building up trust and manners with groundwork?

Before you get going, you’ll need a few things;

  • Ideally a rope halter, but let’s be honest not everyone has one, so your normal headcollar will do just fine
  • A lunge whip – NEVER use this to hit the horse, but to point it or wave it to aid the horse’s direction
  • A level arena or enclosed grass field (you could even create a round pen in your field using electric fencing)

*Disclaimer: I am no expert, these are just a few exercises I do with my horse, which we enjoy and find beneficial.

Join up

One of my favourite bonding methods with a horse and also one of the most rewarding too. This is a great process to kick things off as it allows you to determine you’re the leader of your mini-herd dynamic. By ‘joining up’ with you, your horse is accepting this and is showing you respect and ultimately offering his/her friendship.

I did this when I first bought Simba home, unbroken and relatively un-handled. Until recently, when we were unable to turnout for over a month, I hadn’t practiced this with him and so, decided one afternoon after he’d been particularly grumpy and sulky about being stuck in, that we’d give it a go again. I was amazed at how responsive he was and how willing he was to join up with me.

In the round pen or arena, unclip your horse from the rope and using your lunge whip, encourage him to move away from you (without touching him with it). Once he begins to move away, ask him to trot or wave the whip, allow him to move off in the direction he chooses initially and once he is moving off – likely you’ll find he’ll do a few laps – ask him to change direction by blocking his path. Repeat this a few times until he begins to tire and lower his head. If he stops, he’ll likely not face you square on initially, allow him a short breather and then send him off again – asserting your leadership calmly and in a non-aggressive/threatening way. Body language is key when it comes to horses, keep your eyes on him at all times.

I find talking to Simba throughout is a positive thing. Once you’ve successfully asked him to change direction several times, lower the whip, your hands, your eyes. Turn your back on him and stand several feet away from him. If you have been successful in your join-up he will walk towards you and ‘join’ you. At this point, I give him a nice stroke on his forehead, gently stroking over his eyes, ears, muzzle and then turn and walk off, he will follow. Success you’ve joined up. He has accepted you as the herd leader.

Teach your horse to back-up away from pressure

This is another exercise I do with Simba and one which our physio suggested we do to help with his over all suppleness but in particular his Stringhault.

This is an exercise you can do practically anywhere, on the yard when it’s quiet, in the school, in the fields (when they’re dry). With your horse facing forward and standing square, you’ll stand in-front of them but not directly as so they can’t see you clearly, it is also advised you stand around 4ft in front of them, they are less likely to back up much naturally and so they may resist a little at first. With a slack rope attached to his headcollar, I am not a huge fan of the ‘rope shaking method’ and so I used my schooling whip in the beginning.

Be sure you’ve got your horses attention before you ask for him to back-up. Reduce the slack in the rope, and using the whip, point it towards the centre of your horse’s chest, saying back-up. Some may instinctively step backward at this point, if they don’t you can gently tap the stick between their legs to encourage them to step back. As soon as the horse does so, immediately release the pressure on the rope and stop tapping the whip.

If you’d prefer not to use a whip, you can stand a little closer to your horse and gently apply pressure with the palm of your hand on their shoulder, encouraging them to step back and asking them to back-up as you do. Again once they do so, immediately release any pressure and praise them.

It is tempting to reward with treats but I’d strongly advise you don’t. Horses (just like many other animals) will begin to associate the behaviour being taught with a tasty reward and so will perform what is being asked in hope of a treat rather than because they are listening and submitting to what you’ve asked.

You can practice this daily, maybe aim for 5, 10, 20 steps as you progress. But always praise your horse once they do what you’ve asked, even if it is baby steps at first. As your horse begins to learn and feel comfortable with what you’re asking, after a while you can lessen the pressure whilst still verbally asking him to back-up, until you apply no pressure at all and simply ask and he listens.

Teach your horse to step side-ways, away from pressure

Teaching your horse or pony things like this and to move back are not only great for building up a bond with your horse but are also essential tools to having a well-mannered horse, who will move-away from you whilst you’re grooming or moving around them in the stable or field. To back-up out of your personal space as you walk into their stable or field with feed etc. Learning these things on the ground make it much easier for a horse to learn under saddle, moving sideways, away from your leg is essential when ridden for example.

Standing beside your horse, with a slack rope, gently using your finger tips apply pressure to the horse’s side where your legs would normally squeeze for the command. Again whilst doing so, you might choose to ask ‘over’ verbally to encourage the horse to act on the command and the pressure. If your horse is new to this, it may take a few attempts for them to fully understand what you ask, so it is important to praise any movement away from the pressure, no matter how small in the beginning. Once your horse fully understands what you’re asking, he should move sideways, away from the pressure, crossing foot over foot. Teach your horse this movement on one side to begin with and once he understands it fully, move to teaching it from the other side but be patient, he or she may not fully understand what you’re asking from the other side to begin with, it may not be as simple to them as it is to you.

Well, there’s three ground-work exercises for you to get cracking with. I think I am going to attempt to teach Simba a trick in the coming weeks. Can your horses or ponies do any tricks?

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