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We Are Flying Solo

January 30, 2011

Back To Basics

I was hard at work last night, whining about how I couldn't ride my horse and throwing myself about the house in true adult fashion.  Lifeshighway had the audacity (the nerve!) to break into said whining fit and suggest just doing something fun with Solo on the ground so at least I wouldn't just be staring at him with sad puppy eyes.

She is a very smart friend.

Add to that it was 60 degrees and sunny; it was simply not possible to stay in the house and pout, so I rolled over to the farm and decided to blow the dust off our groundwork, something I'd not done for probably two years.

Ground exercises are so very simple, yet they can be vital underpinnings to not only our relationship with our horses, but our ability to handle them safely. But in their very simplicity lies the ease with which we neglect them. I believe it is vital that every horse we own should have these basic cues thoughtfully installed for two reasons: (1) It allows us to control their body movements from the ground. (2) It helps to establish our role as a leader in our horses' mind. (3 - ok, I thought of another one) It lets our horses engage their minds through communication in a language they understand: pressure/release and body language.

Here is what I consider the basics:

-Yield the hindquarters to pressure behind the girth area on both sides. This includes a proper cross-over step with the hind legs.

-Step back from pressure either on the bridge of the nose or the chest.

-Lower the head from pressure on the poll.

-Walk in a circle around me in both directions, maintaining the motion unprompted until I say whoa.

-Lead quietly next to me. Stop when I stop. Back up when I back up. Wait patiently when we are standing still.

It's not rocket science. I use a rope halter from our good friends at Sunset Halters (Solo is even on their photo page in his halter/bridle they made for him!), a 10' lead rope, and a dressage whip. Solo models his custom halter, below. And as a side note, these halters are fantastic; it still looks as great as it did five years ago and you can wash it in your washing machine! They never fade, stretch, or break.

This picture is so old, Solo has a mane!

I use the butt of the dressage whip to give pressure cues on the chest and rib cage. I use my fingers for pressure on the poll or nose. I use body language to control the whoa and backing up at a distance. And I ALWAYS maintain a relaxed, calm, patient demeanor so that Solo is at ease too.

It usually works like this:

I hold the lead rope in one hand and standing next to Solo's left shoulder, I ask him to yield his hindquarters to right using the butt of my whip against his ribs. I use the lightest pressure possible, only increasing if he does not respond and releasing as soon as he does. I repeat three times. I have no idea why three. It feels good. I repeat standing on his right side.

I place the fingers of one hand on the bridge of his nose and ask him to back four or five steps. I then put three fingers on his poll and ask him to lower his head.

Next, I ask him to walk three circles around me in each direction. I just like three, ok. After three circles, I lean slightly to one side, fix my eyes on his hip and ask him to swing around and face me squarely at the halt. Eyes are powerful, so he does.

I walk up, pat him, then tie the lead rope around his neck, so he is now at liberty. I walk off, he follows with his nose at my elbow. We circle and loop at the walk, turning both directions, some big loops, some smaller. Then I stop. He stops. I take four deliberate steps backwards. So does he. I have not touched him since tying up the lead. I start forwards again and now I trot. He trots. I stop and back up quickly and he does the same.

Now, I turn and face him straight on and raise my arms above my head, square my chest and ask him to back up two steps. He does and I lower my arms and relax. I count to ten, then move into him and rub his forehead, he licks and chews and we are done. Maybe fifteen minutes has elapsed.

He is now re-tuned into my body and my energy, he is attentive to me and when I untie the lead from his neck, he follows me quietly back to the barn. Even though it's been a while, he remembers his exercises well and I am satisfied.

So, fellow horse-folks, how are your basics? Rusty? Polished to a spit-shine? Not yet installed?  Can you complete each task on the list?  Do you have other favourites that you insist your horses know?  Do share!


  1. Our circling is poop :( He only circles if I keep asking. I do everything else though that you work on. I use just a regular leather halter and lead and a dressage whip. Another thing I work on is backing up by waving my hand/ finger in the ah-ah-ah motion. We had it down a few years ago when Yanks was a wee li'el bebe, but we are pretty rusty on everything.

  2. Nina's excellent ground manners (this was the only thing I could do with her for a long time) went winging off into neverneverland a couple of weeks ago for reasons unknown. Re-installing them caused tears and temper tantrums on both ends of the lead, but she is now back to her regular well behaved self and we are both putting the whole ugly episode behind us.

  3. Now you can teach him to pivot on his inside hind foot like we do in showmanship. :)

    Similar to your rib pressure to get him to move his hindquarters, Junior has been taught the word "over" for moving his hind away. I resorted to this while having to tack up on a single tie in the stall, coming back with my arms full of saddle and finding he'd blocked my way. I was just reading an article the other day on how horses actually understand verbal commands much more clearly than they understand physical sensations. But it didn't seem like a very scientific article. No control group.

  4. With Lucy, she can't even trot or be ridden, so groundwork is the majority of what we do. When we practice, I usually first turn her loose in the roundpen (note this is indoors) and let her re-familiarize herself with the area before making her do anything. I only do this with her and I only do it because she's always been awfully spooky and nervous. When she is finished, I - with her wearing a rope halter w/knots on the nose and a rope lead - stretch her neck to either side and her front & back legs. Then, we go through the basics of showmanship. This means walking on, squaring up, pivoting, backing, lowering her head, having her mouth opened, her back/whithers and ears/face
    touched (she is "touchy" in these areas). Once she's got
    her mind and body tuned back into work mode, I remove both halter and lead and go through it all again, without touching her at all unless there's an emergency. I almost never use a whip during this part but I always have one leaning against the gate, close at hand. Once we've worked through everything, I attach the rope halter and we work on something new. We always end or sessions with a free-lunge at the walk and with her "joining-up" with me. She is one of the 5 horses I've trained or am training to do this. :)

  5. Excellent! Sounds like there are lots of well-trained ponies out there!

    SP, I'm not sure I have the patience to teach all the showmanship stuff, that stuff is hard! Of course, if I can't ride, it may move a lot higher on the agenda...

    Barbara, I am glad to hear that Nina gave in after the tears. Boy do I know that feeling with Mr. RedHead!

    GE, you bring up a great point about using that time for desensitization too. I did for Solo and his longe whip phobia. We used the ground work exercises, plus some clicker help, so the sight of the longe whip no longer inspires trembling fear.

  6. Bailey-none. Brat. worked on it for a year, and she will walk at liberty with me, and most of the time trot quietly, though sometimes only after roughly 6 bucks. brat.
    Rascal-after 13yrs, we are decent, but DO NOT drop the line, or put it around his neck. Except for the day you don't try, then they are fine. Lines are evil horsey eating snakeys. *sigh*
    Ta'ceyewi- his biggest obstacle is poll pressure, but he is learning quickly, and we are well on the way to some proper ground driving. His second birthday is Feb. 26, so maybe by then we will do a very basic obstacle course.
    Sunset halters are lovely. I love the new bitless bridles, I can't wait to get one!

  7. Well, one MUST keep an eye on horse-eating snakeys. You never know when they will strike!

  8. Ooooooh.

    Thanks for the sunset recommend. I've been looking for a good rope halter. They're mysteriously hard to come by.

  9. Oh man do I need some help in the realm of ground manners. Steady of course has fantastic ground manners and it as if he is a mind reader. Benefit of an ex-racer. Now my daughters horse...he is absolutely gastly and an embarassment. His last owners were generally good people and treated him well but they did him no service by allowing him to walk ALL over them. Now we are paying that price. I have worked with him some and he has improved but there are still times that he completly ignores the fact that I am leading him and just bulldozes his way through. Grrr...I need to spend more time on it and plan to come spring. I love this horse but he needs this problem fixed. I am thinking of getting him a rope halter cause I though that would be a good tool for the challange. Any suggestions on which brand or type?

  10. Amy, definitely check out the Sunset Halters link that is in the post. I will honestly swear these are the best on the market. Karen (the owner) is a forum friend of mine from way back and is truly a wonderful person. She and her husband make the halters with the absolute best quality of rope and customize to any colours you want. There are lots of different styles -- if you need lots of "bite" to get a horse to pay attention (which it sounds like your daughter's horse needs), I recommend the 5 mm rope with nose knots.

    I would not even bother ordering the rope halters from catalogs -- they stretch and fade horribly and are crap!

  11. Oh, and Amy, if you have a horse barging through you, I'd always carry a dressage whip. Not because you need to beat them all the time, but if a horse runs through me, I'm going to give them a smack or two on the chest and back them up IMMEDIATELY. Then make them stand still, backed up off of you. If they try to creep, back again. Until they stand and wait for your cue.

  12. I like to have my horses know how to back, stay off of me, and respect my "bubble". Yes, there are times when I'd like them to be closer to me and my horses usually know how to do that. It's a mixture of body language and weeks - if not months or years - of good, consistent training. It sure does take a lot to train a horse, especially if its going to be shown.

    But like some of the others said... if groundwork is the only thing you CAN do, then your horse will be really well trained on the ground I guess.:)

    Anyone else have horses who are too lame to be ridden or worked hard?

  13. GE, does your horse have a permanent injury or is she rehabbing? Have you taught her how to drive?

  14. I had a tough time getting a ride in last week. I hauled to an indoor arena Thursday night, only to be turned away because ropers had taken over the arena. I was very discouraged. Then I managed to get off work early enough on Friday to haul Misty to a facility where I could use their round pen. Sun was setting fast, so no time to ride. But there was time for 15 minutes of ground work and it felt good to get some ground work/round pen work done. It is always a useful and productive thing to do.

    I'm sorry Solo isn't feeling well.

  15. Solo says thank you for your well-wishes. And we are very glad you got to salvage your trip and at least do SOMEthing!!

  16. Eventer79 - Lucy has had a very, very bad past with abuse, neglect and has very poor feet. She has big cracks in the back but her fronts are getting loads better and look almost 100% normal. Her worst foot is the front left, where she had a huge abscess back in the summer and was on stall rest for a long time. She's currently supposedly rehabbing but we're doubtful she'll ever be rideable again.

    We're working on the whole ground-driving thing. She's very attentive to where people are. Usually if I hook up everything and try and ground drive her, she won't let me get past her flank. When I try to walk behind her when she's tied or just standing, she'll back her butt against a wall or turn it so I can't walk behind her. It's a struggle to even brush her tail because of this... don't know why. But we're working on it I guess.

  17. Awwww, GE, that poor thing.

    You know (and maybe you have tried this), I saw a video one time from a woman who works with abused horses and very wild mustangs. She took a brush and tied it to a stick so it was an extended "hand" so she could reach tricky areas without having to walk to a horse's threat zone. Then she would gradually work on moving up the stick as they relaxed. Maybe that would help with brushing her tail bits?

  18. Haven't head of that or tried it. I might have to. We've tried a lot - and the fact that she's moody (not just mare moody, extra mare moody) doesn't help too much. She has lots of problems but no matter what, she's my baby!

  19. Well, good for you for giving her the chances she never had. Mental scars are the hardest ones to deal with.

  20. Thanks and sorry I am not sure how I missed the link..duh. I am going to try the whip thing.