TRUE TRAINING 65 - Groundwork on the Move

Oct 01, 2022 by Janet Jones

In Post 64, I introduced the basics of teaching True to stand still and respect human spatial boundaries on a halter and lead. Once he understood those foundations, we moved on to the details.


True learned quickly to walk at a location just behind my right hand when it is extended parallel to my right shoulder. The correct position changes depending on discipline. In natural horsemanship, horses are usually taught to remain well behind their human leaders, sometimes directly behind them. I avoid that because of the risk that a horse might shy forward and accidentally smack the handler in the back. Positioning the horse just behind but to the outside of your right shoulder blade is safer. (In other words, the horse will be behind your right hand, which is extended outward from your right shoulder.) Eventing jogs occur with the handler running next to the horse’s left shoulder. Hunter jogs typically require handlers to remain next to the upper left portion of the horse’s neck.


Whatever your discipline is, teach your horse a consistent position. True and I practice that position at halt, walk, trot, and reverse. The horse has to pay close attention to the handler—that’s one of the goals of groundwork—to see when her feet start and stop moving and which direction she is headed. The horse’s job is then to remain with the handler at any speed, in whichever position she was taught.


Remember to hold your lead rope roughly 2 feet from the horse’s halter, but with slack in the rope. We touch the horse’s halter (by bumping the rope) only when correcting his position. The rest of the time, it is his job to position himself appropriately.


I begin this part of groundwork at a walk, leading the horse. Halt quickly. The first time, the horse will probably wander out in front of his position, not realizing that you were going to stop. Bump him back into position with the halter. After a few tries, True stops when I stop—no vocal commands or touches to the lead rope are needed. He is paying attention to my body movements.


Next, we try that maneuver at a trot. Trot forward, halt quickly. Back the horse into position with a few halter bumps if needed. Some horses need encouragement to trot forward—if so, you might need a helper who can stand at a safe distance behind the horse and raise his arms or cluck to help the horse understand what is expected. You can also have your horse observe an equine buddy who knows the ropes. Soon, the helper won’t be needed.


If you work alone, you can use a whip as an extension of your arm. It can be a longe whip, a dressage whip, a hollow slightly flexible tube, or the less flexible part of a “stick-and-string.” It doesn’t matter which—this tool is only used to touch the horse’s hindquarters in places that your arm will not reach. It is never to be used to punish the horse or inflict pain.


With this method, hold the lead in your right hand while walking forward with the stick or whip in your left hand. When you begin to jog forward, your horse should begin to trot. If he doesn’t, you continue jogging (almost in place if necessary) and looking forward, but you also reach behind yourself with the whip and tap the horse’s left hip or hind leg. This should move him forward.


OK, there’s always the horse who still won’t comply. In this case, I take a training step backward. Put this horse in a round pen or on a longe line and teach him the verbal command to “trot.” You can use the position of your body, your arms, and a longe whip if necessary to associate the word “trot” with the movement into that gait. Praise when he responds correctly! Work on this for a few days, then try the groundwork trot again, using your verbal command at first.


To back a horse in this sequence, begin at the halt. Turn so that your body is facing backward and the left side of the horse’s face is next to your left arm. Bump the halter back as you walk toward the horse’s shoulder. He should move back. If your horse is stubborn on this—True often is—tap a whip or stick across his chest as you bump the halter back. When your horse learns to back with you facing him, turn to the front and teach him to back while you walk backward.


Again, I must clarify: whips or sticks are ONLY used as extensions of your body. Because horses are big, human arms cannot reach every spot, so we have to use tools. The whip or stick is never to be used as an agent of punishment or harm. Punishment is the least effective method of teaching any lesson, and it creates a host of new problems in its wake.


When your horse remains in his spatial position while he walks, trots, halts, and backs, leaving you free inside your human bubble, you’re ready to begin the next step. This involves teaching the horse about spatial boundaries and obedience in more detail.


Place your horse in a standstill. Now begin to move to different locations around his body. You will need to lengthen the lead rope at times but it should remain in your hand and in a slack position no matter where you are. With True, I move one step to the right side of his neck, and he wants to come with me. I bump him back into position with the halter and say “whoa.” There’s no shouting or sharp bumping—he’s learning!—everything needs to be gentle, calm, easy. When the horse returns to the correct positon, I praise and stroke. Too often, we tell our horses what they’re doing wrong, but we never tell them what they’ve done right!


Each time I take a step in any direction, True’s job is to remain still. His head and neck can move, but not his feet. With this exercise, soon you will be able to adopt any position within 10 feet of your horse while he remains in place.


Why do I bother with all this? First, it teaches horses to pay attention to their humans. That’s a lesson that is critical to all training. Your horse can’t learn anything on the ground or in the saddle if he’s not paying attention to you. Second, it teaches horses that humans have boundaries. They cannot be stepped on or bumped into. They deserve respect and require space. That lesson is critical to your safety. Third, groundwork increases the horse-and-human bond. It teaches the horse to trust in you for guidance, whether you are riding her or on the ground beside her.


Attention, spatial obedience, bonding: Three very important basics for a young horse to learn.


Next time we’ll work on moving horses’ shoulders and hips from the ground, an excellent precursor to lateral work in the saddle. Keep practicing!