From the ground up

I paid a second visit to my new equine friends this weekend and had a fantastic time.  The horses and their owner continue to blow me away, and have opened my eyes and mind to a way I’d really like to move forward and work potentially for the rest of my career.  Which is a really big thing, but now that I’ve seen how this works and how effective it is, I don’t think I can turn my back on it.

Di – my former customer, current friend and mentor – and I are on the same page when it comes to a lot of things.  After our session early last week when I watched her ground work one of her mares and then rode one of the other horses, I got in touch with my Summer Boss, who I know is keen to practice natural horsemanship with the horses at camp.  I told her about the opportunity I’d been presented with and asked her what she’d like to know, so that I can hopefully spend some time preparing to work with the horses in the US over the summer.

With my main question in mind, I arrived at the yard on Saturday and started to learn.  Once we’d tacked up, Di told me that she wanted to have a play in the school with the horses before we rode, which I was really enthusiastic about.  I was keen to observe more as well as having a chance to “play” myself.  Although I was nervous about “doing it wrong”, I listened to a few tips and got to work.

Di spent some time showing me some key things, explaining that due to my experience with horses in general, some of what she would tell me would be common sense.  She began with reminding me that anything you do with a horse is asking them to move away from you.  I realised that, like many riders, I’ve been taught that in the most limited of ways: that in the saddle, you’re doing that to make the horse stop, go or turn; in the stable, you’re doing it for convenience or safety – such as when you want the horse to move their quarters over.  As I watched, I saw that by building up a relationship and a greater understanding of how each other communicates, this allows horse and human to be more harmonious – it doesn’t have to be about a bullying shoulder and full-body slam of human into hindquarters to get a heavy horse to swing around.  Instead, I observed as Di got her horse to move backwards in a straight line by either waving her hands in front of him, pushing really very gently on his nose, or waggling a rope under his head.  It was absolutely incredible to me.

I took more in: the fact that your mindset and attitude matters; your clarity in the questions you’re asking, your reasoning behind doing things.  At one point, when the horse flatly refused the request, rather than getting more aggressive, Di thought about what she was doing, stepped back, re-focused herself and got what she wanted on the second attempt.  It’s okay to fail at this, I realised, because it’s not about right and wrong, it’s about understanding.

I took the rope and gave it all a try myself.  I worked with one of the ideas which I had already been familiar with – the fact that if you’re moving the horse is moving, and that he stops when you stop.  This is great when working in circles: the idea is that if you stop turning and looking at the horse’s shoulder, the horse should stop straight away.  And he did.  I had a go at putting pressure on his nose to make him move backwards.  He did that too.

My favourite moment was when I decided to have a go at what Di referred to as making shapes: using the two ground poles in the arena like a parking space, I asked the horse to stand between them.  He halted straight away when I asked him to, and then I waved the rope in the way I knew he’d understand to make him go backwards.  And when I stopped waving, he stopped moving.  I asked him to come to me and he did.  No arguments, no fuss.  And this horse is about 17hh, and has the body of a traditionally well-built hunter.  I’ve had bigger fights with horses of every shape and size in order to get them anywhere near where I want them to, nevermind asking them to go backwards, which is something that horses aren’t typically fond of.

Feeling very pleased with how my first ever stab at ground work had gone, I mounted up and off we went on our hack.  As I’ve explained previously, I can get a bit nervous riding on the roads, but I felt confident in my horse and comfortable riding out with his owner and another horse – even though our companion horse is only rising five.  Part way round the ride, I decided I’d describe my mount as a metronome: he wasn’t being lazy, but he was being perfectly steady (apart from the few times he tried to bite the mare – he was flirting, because she’s just coming out of season) and moving along at a nice pace, but never once giving me reason to worry.

It was a comfortable ride, and I was surprised at how little I thought of being out and about in a halter rather than a bridle.  It did mean I had to put my leg and seat on pretty firmly whenever he decided to try and give any enticing hedges a trim, but I think it’s better for all concerned that asking for a positive forward movement be the tactic rather than hauling a horse’s head away from the distraction.

Back at the yard, the ridden horses got untacked and put out in the field to enjoy the rest of the sunny day.  Our next challenge was ground work with a 17hh mare who’s (hopefully) recovering from a tendon injury.  I stuck to observing this time, watching horse and owner move around together.  The best moment during this session was when the mare volunteered a few strides of trot – this hadn’t been requested of her, but she was clearly willing enough to do it, something which Di took as a sign that she might have taken another step in her recovery and that she may come sound.

The final project of the day was another horse on the injury list – a 17hh gelding who was bred for dressage (by which I mean very well bred for dressage) but hated it.  His owners responded with all kinds of brute force training methods, the horse continued to refuse and, ultimately, now hates being under an English saddle – I may have struck upon a good idea to try and help with that though, which we’re hoping to put into practice soon.  We took the horse to the arena and began to play with him.  He had a roll, even though he was on a rope and looked to be enjoying himself.

I spent most of the time watching, and trying to figure out from his expression and body language how he was feeling.  Di suggested that he was somewhere in the neighbourhood of anxious, and I expanded on that by saying that I thought he might be uncertain: he looked to me like he wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but that he was more frightened that he wouldn’t like and enjoy whatever we were going to ask of him, as a learned behaviour from his former life.  However, by the end of the session, he’d visibly changed his mood and was much happier.  I had a go at the same exercise I’d done with the other horse, making him move out of my space, and managed it after a couple of tries – this horse is far less experienced with natural horsemanship than the others, so it was great for me to see the different levels that the horses are at.

Once Mr Hoof Abcess had cantered excitedly up the field to flirt across the fence with Ms Tendon, it was time for me to go home.  The good news is that I learned a huge amount which will be useful not just this summer, but for the rest of my horsey life.  And that I’ll be going back to play again next weekend…

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