A Good Grounding

Part 11: Rules of Engagement

The eight exercises discussed in the preceding sections of this article (Give to the Bit, Back Up, Keep Your Distance, Yield the Hindquarters, Yield the Forequarters, Sending, Longeing, and Quick-Turn Longeing) are all sensitizing exercises, teaching your horse to attend closely to you and to respond to your instructions instantly. Through their exercise you gain the ability to move his feet, head, and fore- and hindquarters whenever and wherever you want, and this establishes you as the Boss Horse.

In contrast, the remaining exercises to be discussed in the next five sections — Sacking-Out, Lead Rope, Stick and String, Flags, and Tarps — are desensitizing exercises, designed to teach a horse to remain calm when things are moving around, under, and over him. These exercises will teach him that he can trust you, that you are not going to hurt him, and that he has nothing to fear from you, your tools, or anything you expose him to. Due to the nature of these exercises it is important for us to begin with some ground rules, to ensure your safety and that of your horse, and to promote a healthy, constructive learning experience.

  • Recognize your limits, and your horse's, and stay within them. A few horses will respond with an unusual degree of distress when first exposed to these exercises (perhaps due to a bad experience in the past you don't know about), and some people just aren't comfortable holding onto a rope with even a moderately anxious horse on the other end, much less one that is rearing and snorting. If either of these describe you and your horse, and any of these exercises are taking you outside of your comfort zone, then stop. Seek help from a more experienced friend, or from a professional. Your horse can't learn anything good from these exercises if you are nervous or frightened.
  • Never do these exercises with your horse tied up. If he gets worried about what you are doing, he needs to be able to move his feet.
  • These exercises should be done in a controlled environment. A round pen, arena, or fenced paddock are all suitable if they are level and provide safe footing.
  • You will be using passive body language while doing these exercises. Keep your midline turned slightly away from you horse, relax, and stand with one hip cocked ('hipshot'). Do not stare at your horse directly, use your peripheral vision instead. When you move, keep your feet low to the ground and move gently. Keep the energy level in your body low. This is very important, because this body language encourages your horse to relax and stay still because you, the boss-horse, are relaxed and still, even though the objects you are employing in these exercises are often saying 'run away'.
  • When you touch your horse with the objects used in these exercises, always start on his top line — his back, withers and neck – then move on to his rump, legs, belly, and head. You begin with his top line because he is least sensitive there. Use caution when approaching his hind legs with an object — a kick from these can kill. Always stand to the horse's side, never behind him. When in doubt, introduce an object to the legs by tying it to the end of the training stick so that you can keep your distance.
  • Use 'approach-and-retreat': bring the object as close to your horse as you can without causing him to panic. Hold it there, keeping the pressure constant, and move with him until he holds his feet still and relaxes. Then immediately remove the object and praise him. If after 30 seconds of holding still you see no signs of relaxation, take the pressure away anyway.
  • In these exercises you will be looking for relaxation in your horse. The signs of relaxation include: lowering the head, licking and chewing, cocking a hip, a big sigh, and blinking.

Move with your horse when he tries to move away from a training object (this is one of the exceptional circumstances in which you don't lose points by moving your feet during training). Keep his nose tipped toward you by gently tugging on the lead rope (use a short bumping action). With his head tipped toward you he will be reduced to backing in a circle if he tries to avoid the object.