Putting Movement Together (Part II)

Horse trainer and clinician Emily Johnson shares groundwork training for first time horse owners.

Why Horses Are Better Than Cars:
1) They greet you at the gate.
2) Their sweet breath is far better than car exhaust.
3) There’s no such thing as locking your keys inside a horse (phew!).
4) Being creative and playful with your horse will not bring on blue and red flashing lights.
5) They can travel sideways with the greatest of ease (show me a car that can cross its tires with such elegance and finesse).

In the first part of this series, I compared parts of the horse’s body to components of our car in order to better understand how to direct movement in the horse. Click Here to read Putting Movement Together (Part I). This week you will learn how to do some fun and fancy maneuvers with your horse.

By now you know enough theory, terminology and fundamental skills necessary to begin playing with your horse with purpose and creativity (don’t panic – I will offer you some creative ideas before we are through).

Working with your horse through fundamental groundwork is really about building a respect that is mutual. We need to respect the horse and their prey animal needs and instinct, so that they may have trust in us, and we need them to allow us to influence their movement, so that we may remain safe.

Once you have the fundamentals down (and that doesn’t happen overnight – it takes time and practice to earn positive feedback from your horse consistently), a whole new world opens up.

When we are able to offer our horses purpose, playfulness and creativity through our groundwork we ignite their spirit, intelligence and natural exuberance.

Any upper level maneuvers done with a horse are nothing more than the combination of some basic skills: backward and forward, move your forehand, move your hindquarters (sensitization), and stand still and relax (desensitization). While the groundwork exercises you will learn from here on out will feel more complex (we will go back to the basics for awhile once we embark on riding), I encourage you to keep an eye out for the fundamentals.

This next level of horsemanship is really about building rapport and furthering emotional trust with your horse.

As you progress, you will be asking your horse to do more challenging things, so it’s important that you act like a partner so your horse can put his trust in you. If at any point in these exercises your horse appears to lose his confidence, slow down. Offer patience and kindness as your horse tries to work out what you are asking of him. This does not mean we chuck our 4 C’s of Horsemanship out the window, but rather than as we practice being clear, committed, consistent and congruent, we never act like a predator. Predators are notorious for making others do things – do not make your horse do anything, rather set it up so that he wants (and is able) to do what you are asking.

Go Over, Go Between, Go Through
Goal: To have your horse confidently travel over, between, or through confining spaces.

Instructions: This exercise is identical to the Half Circles exercise from Part I just with you and your horse in reversed positions. Practice this first against a length of fence before moving onto other obstacles.

Stand facing the fence with about 10 feet between yourself and the fence (this leaves a passage for the horse). Back your horse up an adequate distance so that they leave without infringing of your space. Using the point – lift – tag sequence from last week to send your horse between yourself and the fence. Once they have passed through, ask them to disengage and allow them to come to you. Repeat this sequence until your horse is able to coolly and comfortably travel between you and the fence.

After a handful of successful passes you may take one step forward, asking your horse to pass between an eight foot, then six foot and ultimately, a four foot space.

Some horses may see the narrow space and be resistant to going through it, or may rush through. Remember that a prey animal is programmed to avoid confining spaces and have recognize that this is really an exercise of trust.

If your horse cannot move forward through the space, simply back them up a few steps and try your send again. Repeat this process of back up and send, back up and send, until your horse gains the confidence to go through (what you are doing is using a method of approach and retreat, which can be great for building a horse’s confidence). Your horse may only be able to muster a step or two toward the narrow gap at first. This is fine – your horse is making an attempt to do what you are asking. Offer your horse a patient persistence pretty soon he’ll find the courage.

If your horse rushes through the space, do not disengage him on the other side (as this would be a release and we don’t want to release when the horse is in a panicky state – whatever the horse is doing or feeling at the moment they receive a release is what they learn). Instead send him back through until he can go through with a little more emotional collectedness. To change direction, simply bring your hands together so that you can change tools to the opposite hand. This will give you a new “leading” hand (the hand with the lead rope) and a new “driving” hand (the hand with the stick). In this position you can send the horse in the other direction.

Again, be kind and patient, but do not release until the horse has offered some kind of effort or shown some sign of improvement.

Remember, the release is what tells the horse they did the right thing, so we do not want to give a release when the horse is doing nothing, or is doing the wrong thing. But you should offer a release of pressure when you horse tries – even if it is only a little try. Have your eye out for the slightest effort and reward it. This will enhance your horse’s trust in you and cause him to try even harder.

Once you and your horse are comfortable working along a length of fence, get creative. It is becoming increasingly popular for horse operations to have an obstacle course on the property. If your facility has one, then you are in luck. If not, don’t fret-just look around, and you will find many things with which to engage your horse.

Send your horse between some barrels. If you don’t have barrels, set up a chair or two or a stack of tires, or a muck bucket that you can send your horse between.

Send your horse over a pole or a log. If you don’t have a pole or log, set up a length of sticks, or stretch a lead rope out on the ground that your horse can travel over.

Send your horse over a bridge. If you don’t have a bridge, find a piece of flat wood (a few feet by a few feet at least) to lie on the ground and have your horse walk over.

Once you open your mind to the possibilities, I think you will be amazed what you can find in your own backyard. Just be sure that whatever obstacle you set up could not harm your horse. Watch out for nails, sharp edges, etc.

Once your horse understands how to travel in full circles around you (see Putting Movement Together (Part I)), then send them out on a circle asking them to cross over the log, piece of wood, etc.

Or see if you can back your horse over the pole or the lead rope on the ground. All your doing is putting some purpose and creativity to your fundamental exercises.

Be sure to measure your progress by both your and your horse’s small successes. If you only derive pleasure from the end product, you may both end up feeling like failures in the process. Remember, horsemanship is a journey.

Goal: To have your horse travel sideways along a fence.
Instructions: Stand sideways next to a fence, so that you are looking down a length of the fence. Stick your “leading” hand (hand with the lead rope) directly out in front of you and your “driving” hand (the hand with the stick) straight out to your side. In this position your arms should be in the shape of a capital “L (hint: the correct position will strongly resemble a police officer directing traffic) Your job is to remain right next to the fence and march forward with determination. It is important that when you walk forward you really go somewhere. If you lack commitment to walking forward your horse will have no incentive to move sideways. March ladies!

It really does not matter where your horse is when you begin this exercise, as long as they are somewhere out in front of you (not behind you). Once you are in position against the fence with your arms in their “L” shape, begin marching forward along the length of the fence, moving both arms up and down slightly. This movement will encourage your horse to get out in front of you in a position where they are perpendicular to the fence. It is important that you walk as if you are really going somewhere. Do not just march in place, as your horse will not feel any “energetic push” from this. Horses move away from pressure, so we need to set it up so that they feel some energetic pressure from which to move away (in this case, sideways) from.

Once they are standing perpendicular to the fence, it is important to have an awareness of their feet. We want both their front and back feet to cross over. In doing so, the horse’s body will be traveling sideways.

We are using a fence at this stage to keep the horse from walking forward. Down the road you will learn to ask for sideways without a fence.

Let me help you understand what your arms are saying to the horse in this “L” position. The hand sticking straight out toward the nose (your leading hand) is telling the horse to “detach” his nose from you. That hand should put on enough pressure to encourage your horse to stand sideways (not straight on) to you – this is what I mean by detach.

The energy coming from your driving hand (the hand holding the stick out to the side) is encouraging movement in the horse by putting energetic pressure behind the driveline. While this usually causes forward movement, we have strategically placed the fence, so that forward is not an option. And because you are blocking their other side, the horse sees moving sideways as the next logical option. (Isn’t it good to know that there really is rhyme and reason in this after all?)

Your horse will give you all the feedback you need, if you know how to listen. If, when you march and wave, your horse does not budge, he is telling you that your communication needs work. Turn your body’s energy up until the horse moves out of your space sideways.

If, when you march and wave, your horse’s head shoots in the air and he tries to run off, he is telling you that you are scaring the daylights out of him and that you need to turn your energy down some.

With my students, I use the analogy of a volume knob to access how much energy is needed. Think of the radio in your car. Thankfully, it has more than just two settings – off and blaring. The joy of a volume knob is that it allows you to turn it a little up at times and a little down at others. Think of yourself as a volume control when working with your horse. Use whatever volume the situation merits for success.

I am a big believer in quality rather than quantity. So when you are teaching this to your horse, reward him for just one or two nice sideways steps. Small successes lead to bigger successes. He has to be able to do one or two with confidence, before he can do three or four with confidence. Ten strides that are motivated from fear are worthless in my mind. Remember, this is a relationship of trust, respect and understanding – not fear and force.

Go Sideways, Then Go Between
: To have your horse travel sideways along a fence and then pass between you and the fence.
Instructions: You will make your friends “ooo” and “ahh” when they see you combine these two exercises with the greatest of ease.

Ask your horse to go sideways down a length of fence. In doing so, your feet will be energetically walking forward (volume up) and you will be standing near the fence. Once you have gotten a few good sideways steps, slow your body energy down (volume down) and begin walking backwards and slightly away from the fence. This is going to create a passage between yourself and the fence, which you can then send your horse through. Once your horse has passed through, disengage him and celebrate a job well done.

As with anything in life, a solid grasp on the fundamentals is an essential part of moving on to higher endeavors. And with most things, practicing the fundamentals, while necessary, tends to lack the luster and fun that the end result brings forth.

Because of that, you have earned a well-deserved “congratulations” for sticking it through the many fundamentals of horsemanship we have covered.

We will be taking a hiatus from groundwork for a while to begin riding in partnership (hip hip hooray!) I want to be clear that groundwork and riding do not have an either/or relationship with one another. I always, always, always recommend doing groundwork before getting in the saddle. It is the groundwork that gets the relationship right each day, so that you may be safe and successful when in the saddle. See you in the saddle next week!

About the author: Emily Johnson, owner of Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training, LLC, located in Broomfield, Colorado, is an accomplished horse professional with a passion for bringing horses and humans together through credible and approachable instruction.

Emily studied Equine Science at Colorado State University before spending the following years traveling, mentoring under many accomplished trainers nationwide, as she developed her own natural horsemanship style. Her training methods utilize a direct approach the horse naturally understands, which she combines with her knowledge of human learning to create the most effective environment for both.

Emily specializes in areas that include young or troubled horses, as well as horsemanship that emphasize the mind and behavior of the horse. Her instruction reflects her passion for equipping both horses and humans for success on their journey toward partnership. She may be contacted at [email protected].