Groundwork exercises for the Older Rider

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For The Older Rider

by Felicity Wischer Communicating with your horse through a series of aids/cues that are taught on the ground, and can then be used when handling or in the saddle, will help avoid conflict and mixed messages as you progress with your riding. If you are an older rider and have been out of the saddle for a while or are taking up riding for the first time, groundwork is an essential tool to learn for both you and your horse. For the rider it gives you the understanding of how to communicate with your horse, thus avoiding any conflict and mixed messages. For the horses, it gives them the opportunity to get used to using parts of their body and building fitness and suppleness in preparation for the work that will be required of them under saddle.

A quick search on the internet will reveal a lot of training systems and clinicians who demonstrate and teach groundwork practises. Even though there may appear to be many variations in the type of groundwork exercises used, the principles are much the same. It makes no difference what the discipline you are pursuing (dressage, reining, show jumping, pleasure riding etc) or what level you and your horse are at (complete beginner, experienced, competitor), the age of your horse or its experience.

There are only six directions your horse can go under saddle and on the ground. These are left, right, forwards, backwards, up or down. Continued

Groundwork...creates a horse that responds to your cues, when handled or ridden. February/March 2019 - Page 41

Groundwork Exercises continued...

We want to be able to train our horse to respond when it is cued to do each of these movements when asked and not have them decide to do the movements whenever they feel like it! Anyone who has been on top of a horse that is taking charge of direction will know how positively unnerving that is!

IF YOU DON’T TRAIN IT – YOU DON’T OWN IT! Never was a truer word spoken for both horses and handlers. If you have bought a highly educated horse but you don’t know how to ride to that level of education and you don’t put the work into learning which ‘buttons’ to press, then pretty soon the horse will not be the horse you thought you had bought. It is not the fault of the horse or the previous owner as horses are not preprogrammed machines but living beings that respond to the environment in which they find themselves. Some advertisements claim a horse is a ‘schoolmaster’, which has some appeal - particularly for the novice rider - as it sounds like the horse knows what it is doing and can teach you but I am yet to find a horse that will say “If you would just place your outside leg back a centimetre or so and stop hanging onto my mouth for balance I shall happily do that flying change for you. Yes, that’s right – well done, top of the class for you!” Similarly, if you bought a horse that is ‘tricky’ to get on a float then that is an issue with its previous training and something that you can rectify if you learn the basic principles of groundwork. The six principle groundwork exercises that you and your horse can learn and the foundation upon which you build your partnership with your horse are...

1-Give to the bit; 2-Go Forward; 3-Shoulder Control; 4-Hindquarter Control; 5-Stop; 6-Go Back. In this article we shall look at the first three. Before we begin, a word about safety. It is your responsibility to ensure that you keep you and your horse safe at all times. Your safety is top of the list. Your horse’s safety is important too. Make sure you use the best possible equipment at all times and work in a secure, safe environment. You may choose to wear a helmet, gloves and/or safety vest when working with your horse on the ground and the horse can have boots on if you feel it is appropriate. Do whatever it takes to make you feel safe and keep in mind that the time we spend with our horses is meant to be fun and something we look forward to doing – if you don’t feel safe you won’t be having fun so make yours and your horse’s safety and enjoyment paramount.

GIVE TO THE BIT Horses learn through the release of pressure. Pressure comes in all guises; voice, rein pressure, use of the leg/spur/whip. If you don’t release the pressure as soon as the horse gives you the correct response or even in the beginning the merest whisper towards the correct response, they won’t understand what it is you are wanting. You need to be very clear in your mind before you begin, what it is you are looking for. For example when we

are training ‘give to the bit’ we want the horse to immediately respond with a soft yield (give) to the rein when we pick it up and bring their nose towards their chest so that they have the beginning of learning how to travel in a frame. The head set, amount of bend and level of the poll is a personal choice that you can train depending on what you are wanting to do with your horse. For example, a western pleasure horse will travel in an entirely different frame than a dressage horse. No matter your discipline or sport you don’t want the horse to feel the rein pressure and become heavier and heavier and pull more and more on the reins – this ends up in a tug of war, which the horse will definitely win!

The handler’s hand is a little too high in this picture but the mare is soft and attentive.

With the bridle on your horse and the reins over its head, stand on the near side about half way down the neck and in front of the shoulder. Pick up the near rein with your left hand about 20 -25 cms from the bit, holding it like you would and in the direction it would go when you are mounted. Put a little bit of pressure on the rein and wait for the horse to soften or give to the pressure; as soon as you feel your horse softening release the pressure immediately. If you don’t release as soon as the horse gives to the bit it will search for other answers. At first your horse might put its head higher, lower, lean on the bit more or evade the pressure completely by opening its mouth and moving around. Remember in the beginning your horse does not know what it is you asking so be very clear in your mind before you begin what is the aim of the exercise and what is the answer you are looking for. People often wonder about how much pressure to use. You use the amount of pressure required to get the response you are wanting. Just like us some horses are more sensitive than others.There are also many who have been trained in such a way that they have never had a release from pressure. These horses learn to cope with that in various ways (learned helplessness, so called ‘hard mouths’ , dull and unresponsive to ride and handle; explosive and unpredictable behaviour; riders/trainers needing a harsher and harsher bit or spurs etc. and a plethora of other responses) Our aim is to be able to train our horse to respond in a calm and sensible manner to our cues with the least amount of pressure.

If you think of the amount of pressure you need to apply for the correct response being on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 is no pressure at all and 10 is the maximum pressure you are able to exert. But you don’t start at 10 because if you do and you do not get the

Groundwork...not only beneficial for older riders but a tool that will assist all riders. February/March 2019 - Page 42

response you are looking for where do you go from there? Start at 0.5 or 1, give your horse a little time to respond to what you are asking and what it is feeling before you go to a 1.5 or a 2. Some horses will give to the bit quickly when we pick up the rein and apply pressure. If you have one of those horses that is great – good for you and your horse! If you are not so fortunate then you need to really tune in your observation skills. You may only see a slight twitch of an ear towards the pressure, a shift of the eye back to the source of the pressure – this is your horse’s attempt to find the correct answer. So if you have a very shut down unresponsive horse, look for these cues and immediately release the pressure and praise the horse. Your horse will begin to make the connection and in very little time at all you will have it giving to the bit with the lightest of cues. Other horses may stick their head in the air, open their mouths, put their head lower, try to walk backwards to seek release from the pressure. This is where it is VERY IMPORTANT to remember what it is you are asking for and keep asking until you get the correct response and then release the pressure. If your horse is moving its head all over the place and opening its mouth, do not alter the rein length or position of your hand or the amount of pressure you have on the rein. Just wait calmly and then when the horse puts its head in the correct position and you feel it soften release the pressure immediately. If your horse walks backwards tap it forward with a long whip like a dressage whip on the hindquarters while maintaining the pressure on the rein until the horse gives/softens. Keep repeating the exercise at a halt on both sides then when this is well established you can ask your horse to move forward.

Give to the bit is the foundation for all aspects of riding and groundwork. It is also the start of teaching collection; by allowing the jaw and poll to soften, the horse can then use its neck correctly by developing a lovely deep, round bend coming out of the shoulder and withers whilst maintaining soft and forward momentum and rhythm when combined with the go forward cue.

GO FORWARD CUE The horse is gently flexed to the inside and paying attention to the handler. Note the inside ear. There should be no rotation of the poll in any of these exercises.

Stand on the left side of the horse facing forward positioning yourself about half way down the horse’s neck with the rein in the left hand. Using a dressage whip in the right hand ask the horse to move forward by firstly using a verbal cue like a cluck or kiss or say ‘walk on’ and if the horse does not respond to this lift the whip as the second cue, if there is still no response tap it on the hip (hindquarters). Horses learn patterns and so it will quickly learn the pattern of the cue to go forward. Opportunity one is for them to respond to the verbal cue, if they don’t respond to that, opportunity two is the raising of the whip; if they do not respond to that, opportunity three is the tap of the whip, which can increase in rhythm and intensity until the horse moves forward. When it does move off stop tapping and walk with it, picking up the rein and asking it to give to the bit - as you taught it in the previous lesson - as you are walking and this starts the horse learning how to carry itself in a frame as it moves. If the horse stops then ask again as before until it realises that it has to keep walking until it is told to do something different (halt, turn etc.). Practise this on both sides. Continued

Here the mare is turning her head and nose around too far to the handler. Note the rotation of the poll – this is not desirable. Be careful not to overbend the horse towards its shoulder as this will have the opposite effect to what you are trying to achieve – overbending whether laterally or vertically causes tension and lack of forward movement and will cause tension and tightness from the poll, down through the shoulders, back and into the hindquarters. It can also cause long term damage to the cervical vertebrae of your horse’s neck. There is no need to have your horse’s nose on its shoulder or on your knee when you are in the saddle.

The exercises on the ground are the basic cues for your under saddle work.

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Groundwork Exercises continued...

Verbal cues are great to teach on the ground as they can then be implemented when riding and training under saddle. Pretty soon your horse will be responding to the verbal cue and you won’t need to go to level 2 or 3 (raise of whip level 2/ tap of whip level 3).

Remember to always give your horse a little time to respond to what it is you are asking and don’t escalate up the pressure scale from 0-10 at a million miles per hour! Always, release the pressure and praise your horse when you get the slightest try.

SHOULDER CONTROL The handler is watching the inside front leg as she is walking towards the shoulder. The horse is gently flexed to the inside. Note how the inside front leg is crossing over the outside front leg as the horse moves its shoulder across. This is the aim of the exercise. The horse is in selfcarriage which is what we are wanting to achieve at all times.

STEP TOWARDS YOU Ask the horse to move forward with your go forward cue. Pick up your inside rein with your left hand looking for that softness and response you have established. When the horse moves forward lift the hand that is holding the rein away from the horse’s neck and open it out thereby asking your horse to step towards the direction of the rein with the inside front foot. It helps if you also take a forward and sideways step out in the direction you are wanting the horse to travel. Once again you may not get very much sideways movement but remember even the slightest give to your cue is an attempt by your horse and you should release the pressure and praise your horse immediately when you feel that give. Repeat this exercise on both sides.


Ask the horse to move forward with your go forward cue. Pick up your inside rein with your left hand, looking for that softness and response you have established in the ‘give to the bit’ exercise as the horse carries itself in a soft frame. When the horse moves forward lift the hand that is holding the rein towards the horse’s neck and walk towards your horse and forward. Imagine you are walking across the diagonal. At this stage of the learning process it is easier if the neck and head of your horse is softly bent towards you. You are wanting the inside front leg (the one closest to you) to move slightly away from you forward and to the side. At first you probably won’t get very much sideways movement but remember even the slightest give to your cue is an attempt by your horse and you should release the pressure and praise your horse immediately when you feel that give. Repeat this exercise on both sides.

Accacia Park Pina Colada - Carly Summerhill Supreme Palomino over 14H, Champion Ridden Palomino and Grand Champion Ridden.

As well as training the horse to move its inside front leg (and shoulders) forward and away from you, you also need to be able to move the inside front leg (and shoulders) forward and towards you. Start this part of the shoulder control exercise as before.

Horses are just like us and have a more dominant side to their body – one where they find things easier to do on one side than the other. They also have a different neurological structure in their brain than we do and are not very good at translating what they have learnt on the left rein, for example, to the right rein. These two points manifest themselves in that you will most likely find that when you change sides in these exercises, initially it is like your horse hasn’t learnt a thing from the other side. In actual fact they haven’t! You need to train both sides of your horse from scratch. Train their body and train their mind. So don’t get frustrated and think that your horse is being belligerent or difficult if what you have worked on and got to a reasonable level of understanding on the left side all but disappears when you go to the right side.

Lastly, try and challenge yourself to get better and better and lighter and lighter in your cues so that when you put it altogether under saddle you and your horse have a great understanding of what it is you are wanting and how to go about achieving it with the least amount of stress. All the groundwork exercises here and in the next article will assist you with your riding and your relationship with your horse. When a horse understands what it is you want and you are able to ask it with clear, consistent and reliable cues then the stress, anxiety and fear falls away and your partnership to working in harmony with one another begins to unfold. Good luck and happy ‘groundworking’ and we’ll add to this foundation in the next article with hindquarter control, stop and go back.

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Tootin Lil Lady - Janet King, Supreme Champion Cremello/Perlino over 14H, Supreme Champion Dilute Over 14H, Grand Champion Led Dilute.