Would you like your horse to be lighter, more confident, and respectful of your space?
I am, was, and always will be a horse addict! I started riding at age 10 and have been hooked ever since. Let's just say it's been over 40 years (won't say how many over 40, but you get the idea) and it is still my passion! Way back when, it was just jump on and go out for a hack. We didn't think about where our horse's feet were, or if we were getting out of the horse's way, were we helping him be comfortable while we rode? These were all things I learned after about 20 years of riding. I could trot, canter, and gallop with the best of them. That didn't mean I was riding to help my horse, or make him lighter.
Natural Horsemanship was getting very popular, and I was hearing what a difference it would make in what happens between you and your horse, once you understand how to get the feel. What is feel? Well that's the hard part, it's very difficult to describe to someone. I have read many books by Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Buck Brannaman; I kept reading you have to get the feel. All well and good, but how do I get it? You need to get out there with your horse and just do it, that's the only way to figure it out. Suddenly you will get a quick response, a lift of the foot, suppleness through his rib cage, disengaging of the hind end, with the lightest pressure, there it is, the feel. Getting out there and doing ground work will not only make a difference in the way your horse moves, it will also change his mindset — if done correctly! Once you show your horse that you can make him move his feet where, when and at what speed you request, you will become the leader. This is very important in the horse world. He who moves his feet first loses. But you shouldn't do the ground work and make him afraid of you. He needs to do it because you have taught him it is the right thing to do. Of course your horse will move out of fear, but he will not be calm when he leaves. I want my horse as calm, confident, and responsive as he can be when he moves out. This will make him a safer horse to ride no matter where we are.
So what does this have to do with the horse's lightness, confidence and space? Everything! When you work your horse from the ground you can use a flag, which will help keep a scared horse further from you, and you can still correct him without fear of being kicked or run over. This teaches him to stay out of your space, and teaches him to see you as the leader, because you are controlling his feet! When you take over as the leader, the horse learns to look to you for help. If you are confident each time you introduce new things to him, and he has a good experience, he learns that you keep him safe. He learns to trust that whatever you ask him to do will end well and you build his confidence. The more you do the groundwork, the lighter and more responsive your horse will become. Getting your horse to move from the slightest pressure, to back up by just lifting your lead, that is the feel. All Clinicians have their own lingo to describe feel. To me it means lightness; you learn to use the slightest amount of pressure, (lightness) but as much as it takes, to get the job done. For example, if I pick up my lead (lightness) and ask my horse to back, if he doesn't move, I will pop him in the chest with the lead (as much pressure as it takes to get the job done). Ask him again and watch the difference. You don't want to beg your horse, you will never get lightness. He needs to learn to move with the lightest pressure (feel). After a while your horse will learn to move without any pressure at all. What do I mean by that? When you achieve respect and space, all you will have to do is move and your horse will be with you (no pressure at all). When you move your feet your horse will move with you, turn, stop, and do it at the speed you do. You can back him up or step him over just by pointing a finger.
A good way to see if you have your horse's respect is to tack him up while you loosely hold his lead, or ground tie him. Does he stand quietly, or are you constantly grabbing his halter and putting him back where he needs to be. If he is always moving around, he does not care that you are there and that you are doing something with him. He would rather be out with his buddies, or grazing. This is a good indication your horse could use some groundwork to earn your respect.
Get out there and do some groundwork! Pretty soon your horse will be a joy to be around; he will respect you, stay out of your space and become a more confident horse.
Donna Mori is a clinic instructor and Natural Horsemanship trainer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .