Ground control precedes horse control. Before you snap the lead rope onto a horse’s halter, you and the horse need to start communicating in a meaningful, horse-logical way.
The reason for that is because lead ropes don’t lead horses or control horses. You’re in trouble right from the start if you expect a little bitty rope, or even a rope with some kind of chain at the business end, to control a horse. You have to lead a horse using a communication system that clearly tells the horse you are the lead mare he can trust and that clearly tells him the speed, the direction, and the shape you want the horse to move.
At Meredith Manor we don’t teach students to move horses by pushing and pulling them at the end of a lead rope. Instead, we teach them a ground communication and control system we call “heeding.” I came up with that name because I needed a word that wasn’t so common that people assumed they knew what I meant as soon as I said it. Heed is an old-fashioned word that means “pay attention.” Whenever you’re working with a horse, you should be paying attention to the horse and the horse should be paying attention to you. When heeding involves leading and it’s done right, it looks like the horse is heeling like a well-trained dog. So you can think of heeding as a combination of leading and heeling if that helps you picture it.
We start by bringing the horse into a small indoor arena. This confines the horse in way that is understandable him. Starting inside four solid walls minimizes distractions and makes it easier to get the horse’s attention, especially in the beginning lessons.
You start by turning the horse loose and letting it trot, run, and play. He is completely free to go anywhere he wants to in the confined area. Horses tend to play by practicing their various means of defense. They run and escape. They kick out at imaginary predators. And its first time in the arena, the horse is going to want to check everything out.
In the beginning, you do not direct where the horse goes, you just follow it around. Imagine a line from the horse’s shoulder out to where you are. If you walk a little behind that line, you are pushing the horse, putting very gentle pressure on it to ask it to keep moving.
In following the horse, never put a loud pressure on the animal. You don’t hurry the horse or chase him or “attack” him in any way. You only push the horse whatever little bit is needed to keep him moving. If you stay relaxed and calm, that relays the message, “I’m here but I’m not hunting.” When people get to chasing, they tend to get too aggressive.
Your objective is to keep the horse’s attention on you without making any loud moves. So before something else gets his attention, you want to make just a little bit bigger move to get his attention back to you–jiggle a whip, raise a hand, or walk in a little closer or a little farther back from that shoulder line. If the horse gets his head down and starts eating grass or whatever, you’re going to have to be loud with your actions to get his attention back. You’ll startle him, he’ll run from your “attack,” and it will take longer for him to trust you.
When the horse is through playing and checking everything out, he will stop and look at you which is his way of asking if you’re ready to quit playing. If he wants to come over to check you out, allow him. You just stand still and wait. When he gets to you, do NOT immediately reach out to catch him. To a horse, anything sudden or unusual is dangerous so moving your hands is an attack, especially moving your hands toward his head. This sequence of events might happen the first time you turn the horse loose or it might take several “play” sessions before he gets to this stage of trust.
Staying relaxed and calm, turn sideways and stand alongside the horse’s front legs with your belt buckle toward his shoulder. Now you can reach the horse’s chest to scratch without moving your hand very far. Grooming is a common language of respect and comfort among horses. They don’t do any grooming when they are afraid and if you groom in a calm way they will feel there is nothing to be afraid of.
Keep your shoulders parallel to the horse’s body as you scratch and groom. If you can find a place where the horse really likes being scratched, you have his attention on you. You want to captivate the horse, keep him heeding everything you do. After you’re through grooming and scratching in these first lessons, just bring him back to his stall.
Repeating this play lesson using consistent moves establishes two concepts that become logical to the horse. When you face the same way as the horse with an imaginary line through both sets of shoulders, it indicates a direction for forward motion. When you turn parallel to the horse, it indicates stop and stand.
Once the horse understands these two concepts, you can turn from facing his shoulder to facing with him in the same direction and encourage him to walk forward with you. Because the horse heeds, now you can lead. You do this by making an obvious move with your feet, maybe rustling a whip behind you and leaving things wide open in front. You will gradually build on and refine these concepts to lead the horse forward, turn him, back him, and ask him to stop and stand whenever and wherever you want. That includes his stall, an aisle, a trailer, the breeding shed, or the show ring.
Heeding is step-by-step communication using horse-logical pressures to control the speed, direction, and shape of the horse’s activity.
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Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith has refined his “horse logical” methods for communicating with equines for over 30 years as president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.