says Peter. Your horse should operate on a cushion of air between you and him, no matter if it’s on a halter rope, responding to your rein or your leg on his side.
I had an idea that the horse should not push or pull on you for quite some time. Even back in the day when I thought lunging or running the wind out of them in the round pen was good groundwork and solid horsemanship.
I wince a little now, remembering the running sweat, heaving sides when I’d run a horse til it had no option but to turn to me. Hard on them, mentally, and physically too. I didn’t cripple any on the spot but more luck than skill. I can only wonder and hope for the two and three year olds that had to experience all that stress on their delicate immature joints.
I send a coil down my lead line to the pretty mare hanging out on the other end. She raises her head, one bright eye on me, the other turned a little to the side thinking it might be better for her off to the right than here straight on with me. The coil pops her rope halter just a little and I get both eyes. Her head comes up, she doesn’t know what to do with her feet. She braces, a natural reaction when the feet are stuck.
I send a little more and she shifts her weight. I do nothing, letting her sort out what she’s going to make of our situation. She takes a step back then another and another. We get straight and I stop asking.
We are at the first of Kip Fladland’s winter series one day clinics he holds at the Chance Ridge Event Center in Elkhorn, NE. The mare belongs to a friend of mine.
Royal is home. He is sitting this one out as I am holding back my pennies to treat the pesky sarcoid on his girth area that has decided it wants to take off and grow. The one on the other side, point of his shoulder that I thought would be no issue is growing too. It’s time and hopefully, not past time to get this stuff taken care of.
Kip gets us set up doing the first steps of effective groundwork. I have plenty of faith that after lunch when we step up on our horses I will have a good sense of Missy and what I will find when I fill my stirrup.
He has us send the horse around us. We are looking for three components here. A good walk with life in it, the horse to be looking in the direction she’s traveling maintaining a proper arc in her body and that the feet are united. That means all four reaching equally. If the horse were traveling on a train track, the front would step evenly on each side of the track, the outside hind stays on track, the inside tracks to the inside or reaches a little deeper to maintain the arc.
You wouldn’t believe how difficult this is to achieve unless you have tried. The person has to be mindful of their position in relation to their horse, has to be aware of what all the parts of the horse’s body are doing, are the ribs pushing in? Is that why there’s a chiropractor defying crick in the horse’s neck causing a deep vee in the place of that pretty bend? You need to know where the feet are falling and how to time what you are doing to affect the foot you want to reach. Wait too long? You get a different foot and a different result. There’s nothing accidental about the energy you put into the rope, your body.
I am ALWAYS shocked at how clumsy and unhandy I am, how I am never as smooth and efficient at handling my tools as I think I am going to be. I know I am likely to be awkward with the flag, it’s a newer tool for me but one I am beginning to like as I understand more about it’s uses. But still, fumbling with the coils of my lead? Stepping backwards and getting my horse off balance by accidentally misdirecting a foot? Really?
Kip asks this one gal how often she rides her horse as she finds a little difficulty here and there with her mare. About twice a week, she allows. And, how much of that, asks Kip, do you begin by doing this kind of groundwork on your horse? Well not too often.
I think yep, me too. I don’t practice much and yet I wonder why I’m not as good as I think I should be. Here lies the main reason I have started the small lesson group at my new barn, it will get ME more disciplined in practicing this stuff that I KNOW to be so worthwhile!
The arena is quiet, we are concentrating hard. I am surrounded by people who want to do better for their horses, the music of good horsemanship talk is filling my ears.
Missy, the good looking 8 year old Quarab is showing herself a nice representative of one of my favorite crosses. Her refined head hangs on a small throatlatch and flows into a muscular athletic body. Her eyes shine with intelligence and her good attitude about all these strange new things is apparent for all to see.
We work on forward and back. The three basic ways to back a horse, how to roll the hindquarter over and change direction. The half circle exercise. Feel feel feel. Timing comes from feel. (Peter)
Halfway through the morning groundwork, I’ve touched her all over with the flag and am pretty confident there’s no hidden boogers. She was appropriately concerned when I brought the flag from ground to shoulder. After I’d let her see it on both sides, I let the flag sit on other side of her body so she could look at it that way. Soon enough, I will have a leg on each side and I want to give her an idea of how that’s going to feel.
You would not want to grab your flag or stick, string, whatever and run out and start doing this with your horse right now. You really want to know how they look when they are checked out good on both sides before you start offering to have them see things from that far side. Wearing a thousand pounds of horse as your hat is not to be recommended and is an easy mistake to make while you are figuring this stuff out.
She’s been saddled, ridden before and I know my friend would tell me if she thought there were any big worries in there. On the other hand, it’s my life I take into my hands when I step up on a horse, any horse green or not, and I check them out every way I know before I get on.
An older more experienced horse, that process might take 30 minutes or 30 seconds. The green ones, for me, take a little longer. The beauty of a clinic situation like this is we have an entire morning to find and fill holes so we know what’s going by the time we are sitting up top.
The saddle goes on with no issue. I am delighted with this horse. Last year another gal did me the honor of having me ride her mare in one of Kip’s and I fell in love with that one too. There’s nothing on this planet for me like making magic with a horse; seeing the faces change, the eyes and ears soften as the feet find out they always have a place to go when they learn to take a little direction.
After lunch I take Missy out in the arena, check her out again with the flag. She’s had a chance to stand, soak a little on the things we did and I want to see how she feels about all that. It goes fine. I feel justified in getting on.
I take care at the mounting block to bring her square, take my saddle horn and move it back and forth setting her feet. When I put my foot in the stirrup I am committed and I don’t mess around. I put my leg over and it’s cowgirl up. Might not have been the worst to have done some standing in the stirrups first, get her a little warmer to what was coming next.
The mare is concerned. I have her walk off and it’s that slightly hunched squatting over a bowling ball movement that let’s me know I need to have my wits about me.
We had a caution flag on the field rather than full out wreck and I let her move out into the arena with the other horses. I pick up a rein asking her to yield her hindquarter as we have done all morning. She’s sticky and I wait a moment, then gently bump with my inside calf, asking that hip to step over and under. We get it. Not smooth. Take a few steps forward, ask again.
I get what feels like decent-ish hip control on both sides and I am cussing myself that I didn’t pay better attention earlier. The horse always tells you in the groundwork what you will find in the saddle if you are savvy enough to know what you are seeing.
That’s the difference effective groundwork makes. The horse tells you where he’s at and if you have some of these tools, you can shape him up to be where you would like to be. You don’t have to be at the mercy of the horse that shows up.
A moment’s wonder at what the heck I am still doing riding green ones and I push the thought out of my head. I am here, we are going to do this. My friend is trusting me to help her horse, and the horse is trusting me too. I am not going to let either one of them down if I can help it.
The riding goes well. We move from stiff uncertainty to flowing around with everybody else. I don’t expect her to know things that Royal would and I ask smaller than I would on a horse with more riding. I let her ride out on a loose rein, loving that fine swinging walk she naturally brings to the party.
Eventually, I start picking up and asking for a soft feel. At first, my reach is met with a push back from her. She doesn’t understand what I want and why should she? As Missy works things out, her jaw softens to me. Her chin comes down and in. By day’s end, she can back up this way and carry it forward a step or two. She trusts that if she gives to me I am giving right back.
Kip did some really cool work with another lady’s Appaloosa mare, a big beefy girl that had learned to throw her weight around. In short order, he had the mare paying attention, moving her feet as he directed and ONLY as he directed.
Lots of good people have said within my hearing that any step your horse takes that you don’t ask it for is that horse taking over. No different than running away or bucking you off and a direct straight line path to those events somewhere on your horizon. I still let them do it.
Today I am sharpening up. We did a couple ground exercises new to me and when I could time it close, Missy would move exactly the foot I wanted and no others til I wanted them to.
We went back for that in the riding. It felt really good as this kind of thing always does. I have learned to seek and hunt it, much like a horse will when he finds a really good deal.
If you look up on a Saturday this winter, a weekend or two or three this year and you don’t know where I am, here’s where you will find me. I’ll be in an arena where good horsemanship is spoken in the company of my fellows searching for more and better ways to make the kind of magic I love best in a very magickal world.