Being mostly riding school-raised, I’ve had very little (read: no) involvement in the training or development of any horses or ponies. When I had a pony on loan, they were both at the stage at which it was acceptable to hop on, blast around the school for an hour (or trot around the roads for longer) and go home again. Which is probably why I came completely unstuck when I started sharing an ex-racehorse, who was altogether more complicated. It never occurred to me that it might be important to do more with an established horse (I appreciated the need to work more extensively with youngsters) than get on and ride it, so learning about ground work has been a game changer.
I still haven’t ever really lunged a horse (over the summer, I was asked to try lunging a couple of horses who needed extra work. It didn’t go well), but I have picked up some new skills this year which I’ve found incredibly useful, and in ways I didn’t expect to. I think that, when you spend enough time around horses, you learn to spot the difference between a horse who’s being silly (meaning: playful or frightened and trying to react only by running) and a horse who’s being silly (read: naughty or dangerous), but you don’t necessarily learn how to deal with either behaviour, other than entering into a futile tug of war (guess which of the two beings is going to win when one weighs a ton?) or becoming typically human-style noisy and aggressive.
I can’t remember when I was taught to lead a pony, but I clearly remember the how: strict, BHS-style “one hand holding the reins/rope off the floor – so that neither you nor the horse trips on it or gets it dirty – and the other under the horse’s chin – to control the horse”. What’s more mind-boggling is that it took me over 20 years to be shown how much of a fallacy that is. Laziness (and sometimes, necessity) had taught me to be far more relaxed leading horses: I’d naturally adopted a more one-handed approach, with the horse further away from me and both of us more relaxed, but it was only when I was introduced to natural horsemanship practices that I learned why this is not only better, but also safer. As a friend put it to me, by attaching yourself to the horse’s chin and going with him if he pulls his head away, you are putting yourself where the tree falls – you are in the firing line and honestly asking to be stepped on. The horse can’t see whatever is right under his nose – though he can smell and hear it – and he is likely to put his feet there. Trying to drag his nose back isn’t going to get you very far, so I’ve been re-trained to allow the horse to take responsibility for where he puts his feet (and his nose) as long as we go where I want to go. And being further away along that rope or set of reins means that, if the horse decides to be silly (or silly), you’re not in the way.
To take a step on, I’ve learned better how to deal with the silliness. Sometimes, they need reassurance – the horse needs for you to stop, be calm and be the one who lets them know it’s ok. On other occasions, they require a different kind of leadership – the kind which tells them that whatever you want is happening, and that they can choose to go about it the easy way or the hard way, but that either way, the result will be the same. So it’s only recently that I’ve become more confident when handling horses on the ground: previously, my mentality had been that you had to hang onto their chin or bail out, and that you were far more in control on their back than stood next to them.
But it’s not just about control, comfort and safety, it’s also about enjoyment. I’ve discovered what it’s like to work with a horse on the ground and build your relationship that way. When I returned from the US this autumn, I was asked to work with and ride a friend’s horse, who’s been “re-started” by a Parelli trainer. Almost two months on, I still haven’t actually ridden the horse yet, as I’ve only managed to go and work with him twice (he was away with the trainer when the original offer came in, and then with work and other commitments, his owner and I haven’t been able to meet close to as often as we’d have wanted). There isn’t an arena at the yard, which is putting paid to riding at the moment, but there’s also the fact that the horse isn’t really at the stage where riding is an option – when I was first introduced to him, he had a reputation for dumping his riders (flashback to a year ago when everything I rode bucked!) and he’s become quite nervous and unconfident. So we focused instead on building a relationship and getting to know each other.
I wasn’t sold on how much he would have remembered or changed when I didn’t see him for a month, and driving to the yard this week I was a little anxious, but things actually went really well. I remembered more than I thought I did about how to handle and spot certain parts of his behaviour. We worked well together, got the result we wanted, finished on a good note, and he went back to his friends for a think.
I didn’t think I’d ever be satisfied with a horsey session which didn’t involve riding, but I’ve proven myself wrong, because I’ve learned that if I put the work in now, I’ve got a far better chance of having some fun rides in the future. In some cases, patience is important, and will be rewarded.