The importance of groundwork: lessons learned from a western horseman

Before I met Cowboy, I was the typical English riding school rider. I had owned my own pony and had been through the rigours of Pony Club stable management classes, and I had a solid understanding of maintaining a contact and kicking. Eventually, as I got older and found different instructors, my riding style became more subtle and refined, and rather more sensitive, but the basic principles remained: keep a contact with the horse’s mouth, and enclose the horse with the legs.

There were a few things that I always assumed were just mysteries of the equestrian world. Starting a horse was a misty and obscure process best left to somebody else and I would never know what went into it. Leading a horse required extreme vigilance for my own safety, because the horse might spook or ignore me or barge about. That was just how a horse would behave. I should also give horses a wide berth when walking around the hindquarters, to avoid being kicked. I never thought to question these things.

Then I met Cowboy. I watched, as he goes about his work on the ground, how his horses attend to his every move. They give him their whole attention for as long as he asks for it. He would just pick up a lead rope, lift the very end of it, and the horse would move, respectfully and quietly, where directed by this subtle cue. This groundwork goes into the very start of the horse’s training. As I understand it, if he doesn’t have complete control of the horse’s feet and body from the ground, he doesn’t move on to the saddle.

It was like seeing a magician rehearsing his tricks. This is knowledge that I’ve never had access to before, and it is happening in front of me every day.

I follow Horse & Hound magazine on Facebook, which is probably the leading publication in Britain for the equestrian community. I am shocked by the number of stories of people being killed in situations involving horses on the ground. The latest story that I saw this morning was about a lady who was killed while moving horses from one field to another with the help of a friend. Her friend didn’t see what happened. Another story earlier this year was a lady killed whilst clipping her horse. There was another headline, that I couldn’t read without paying, about fatal head injuries being just as likely on the ground as in the saddle.

I remember describing the clipping accident story to Cowboy. He was mystified as to why such a thing would happen. He found it hard to fathom why a well-trained horse would not behave quietly and respectfully on the ground. Having spent time immersed in his horse world, and having learned some new skills of my own, I find it hard to fathom too.

The answer is coming to me, having spent time in both horse worlds now. There is little to no information in British riding schools about how to handle a horse from the ground. At several riding schools where I have taken lessons, I’ve found the horses to be well-behaved from the saddle, and pushy and rude from the ground. Horses didn’t lead well, either rushing ahead with no concern about me, or dragging behind me. Some were rude about food, rushing to grab a mouthful of grass from the verge; another responded to being touched on a particular spot on his back by pinning his ears and kicking out. Nobody had any advice or strategy in place to deal with this problem. The solution was to simply not touch that horse on that part of his back, or to pull the greedy horse’s head out of the grass – all horse fans know how futile that battle is… I’ve encountered plenty of horses in Britain, and hardly any preventative information about bad behaviour from horses on the ground. The horses weren’t being taught that their actions were not appropriate, so it just continued.

Some aggressive behaviour can be attributed to pain, so I can’t pretend to have an answer to every situation, but I have heard people laugh about how pushy their horse is on the ground. “Oh, he just loves to race out to the field, he usually runs me over!” Making an excuse for dangerous behaviour, and accepting it as part and parcel of horsemanship, is not the way to deal with it. One comment in response to the lady killed while moving horses between fields described injuries such as “a kick or a squashed foot” as “part and parcel” of being around horses. This kind of disregard from a horse for a person on the ground would not be acceptable in my barn now. There is no part and parcel where kicking or running somebody over is concerned.

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If Sunshine isn’t mindful of where I am when I am on the ground around her, whether she is distracted by another horse, or by food, or simply being a brat, she gets a firm reminder that her job is to pay attention to me. The first reminder is quiet and subtle, usually just a little shake of the lead rope, or I’ll just say “Hey.” If she ignores that too, the follow up is a bigger gesture, such as raising the lead rope in my hand, and if that doesn’t get through to her, she gets a swift smack with the end of it. We rarely get to the smack these days. She knows where my personal space is, and she knows she is not supposed to be in it unless she is invited.

She usually does a wonderful job of being polite. She stays out of my personal space. She stops when I stop. She comes with me when I go again. She will slow down when I slow down, never mind how quickly everybody else is walking off without her. She has to be with me. If I have to get past her, she will move out of my way, moving her shoulders or her hips. She will wait in the trailer while I fuss with the dividers until I tell her she can get out. She will stand still without me holding her while I faff about with reins and my phone. She knows when to move, and she knows when not to move.

Cowboy taught her these things, and we continue to reinforce these things, because they make her safe. She has one job in life: be the safest horse we own. She will be taking care of our children one day, minding beginners, and educating unruly young colts in how to be polite. I continue to be amazed at how respectful and careful she is when I am around her. After years of bolshy ponies in Britain, her attentiveness is constantly surprising, and wonderful.

I would love it if Britain woke up to the fact that many horses are badly behaved, and that training and education methods need to change if we want to enjoy our animals without the threat of being mown down on the way to the field, or being kicked while clipping. Teach our young horsemen and women how to build respect with their horses. Teach our horses that they are not the boss, however big and strong they are. Equestrians, please educate yourselves. Study up on different methods – there is more to riding than a grackle noseband and a martingale, just as there is more to natural horsemanship than Pat Parelli. Accidents like the ones I have seen in recent months do not need to be, and should not be the norm.

Please consult with a reputable trainer if you have a horse with issues on the ground. Youtube videos are great educational tools, but do not replace the knowledge and experience of a trainer who can assess your horse in person.

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Friday Night Feeling

It’s Friday night! I’m on the sofa with the cat and Cowboy has gone out to play poker with the boys. Living the dream.

Earlier this week, I came down with a strange headache thing that meant I missed a day of school. This is very sad to me, because school is much more fun than it used to be when I was eleven.

I finally got our thank you notes for our wedding gifts in to the post and they are on their way to the lovely people who showered us with kindness several weeks ago.

Sir Richard found a new cubby hole today.Sir Richard is getting ridiculously big, and now when he sleeps on my chest in the mornings, it’s less adorable and more suffocating. I still can’t help being utterly besotted with him. I am powerless in the presence of his little face.

He continues to tear things up, climb on things he shouldn’t, and shove his paws under the bathroom door and cry every time I go for a wee.

Occasionally he pushes a toy mouse under the door and we play instead. We have that kind of relationship.

Today, Cowboy pestered me into riding Sunshine for the first time in over week. We’ve had a lot on our plate, and I hadn’t felt up to doing much in recent days. Sunshine has been out in the pasture with Beau, getting as much good grass as possible as the winter closes in.

Well, I brushed her off and saddled her today (ok, Cowboy threw the saddle for me… I’m puny…), and we went out to the round pen to see how we would do.

Bill Dorrance writes about feeling for the horse; true horsemanship comes through feel. I’ve been working hard to put aside my frustrations at my lacking horsemanship, and to leave behind my annoyance when I step into the barn. I’ve been focusing on putting out a good feeling whenever I am around Sunshine, and keeping in mind that she is my partner in this work.

We’ve worked on little things on the ground as I’ve brought her in and out from the pasture – she’s stopped being pushy and impatient and has begun to feel for me when I’m leading her. When I’m brushing her down, I try not to be brusque about it, but to feel for her response to the work and to give her the sense that I’m there to help. She has stopped dancing about while I’m grooming now. She watches me with one eye.

Today, the weather was cold and damp, and both of us were feeling a little stiff and sore. I made an effort to tack her up quietly and gently, and to invite her with me to the round pen. We both stretched out a little bit. We both heaved a sigh as if to say “Goodness, I am out of shape for this sort of thing.” That’s entirely true…

We stretched out, we moved, we got as loose as we could, and I thought all the time about how she felt. She felt stiff, tight, unfit, but willing enough. She did everything that I asked without a fight, but she couldn’t offer me the flexible, pretty thing. That was ok. I could feel her trying. I could feel her feeling for me.

I love it when a plan comes together. She and I are finally starting to get each other figured out.

“OK,” she said, dropping her head and trying to round, “I hear what you want. I’ll give it a shot. This is all I can manage today. Is that OK?”
It was more than OK. She and I have got ourselves into battles before. Finally we’re learning to talk to each other without yelling. We’re learning to meet in the middle.

It was possibly the best ride we’ve ever had together.

I’m going to go and throw hay at her now.

13 days in

I’ve been in the US for 13 days. I have finally got a US phone number, and waved a sad goodbye to the phone number that I have had since my very first phone, the trusty Nokia 5110 with the changeable covers…

I’ve cleaned all the things – most things more than once, and the dirt keeps coming. It doesn’t help that we have a juvenile feline who likes to shred anything he can get his adorable little paws on. We invested in a laser pointer in the last few days, just to keep him busy.

Cowboy and kitten ❤️Sometimes we can wear him out, just for a moment.

I’ve started to learn where everything lives in the supermarkets. I’ve learned that you can’t get anything for a good price without giving up your personal information and getting the store club card.

I have a pile of recycling in my kitchen and my shed because I haven’t yet deciphered the recycling system. It involves crates with very similar contents listed on them. How exactly do “scrap paper” and “newspaper” differ in any significant way? Why is there no crate for plastic? It is mystifying.

I have fed Cowboy some real food and he has repaid me with some manual labour, heavy lifting and getting up early to get the horses in while I snooze for another hour or two.

The horses have been a joyous challenge to me. Sunshine is teaching me about how to say “I mean it!” and our new addition, Beau, is teaching me about lightness. Sunshine has been so desensitised that you could do just about anything with her and she barely blinks, which is wonderful for keeping people safe, but it also means she needs a louder cue. Beau is so light and responsive to anything and everything that just thinking something seems to be enough for him.

His little quirk is that he has spent so much of his 4 years in the arena, he has no idea how to pick up his feet. So we spent some time teaching him the other night.

After a good ride on Sunshine this evening, I got to sit and watch the sunset, and look at Mount Baker, the moon, and these two figuring things out.It took him a few goes to catch on.

There is something magical about watching this little horse think something through for the first time. He tries so hard. He wants the right answer, and when he understands the question properly, he is ready for anything.

It was a beautiful evening, and it reminded me why I came here. Me, the cowboy, horses and the fresh air. I am so lucky.

Obligatory 2014 post

2014 is the Year of the Horse (so they tell me), which seems to me like a pretty good start. I actually started 2014 in the bathroom, picking at in-grown hairs on my legs, because I’m just that glamorous and exciting.

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I hear Sunshine has turned into a bit of a snarky biatch whilst she’s had some time off over the festive period, so Cowboy has gone back to ride her fat butt off and remind her not to be so uppity.

I spent a few hours yesterday with a notepad and a pen, and scribbled out two pages’ worth of things I wanted to achieve, acquire and investigate at some point in 2014. Some of them were urgent, and need to be done two weeks ago, including renewing my passport so I can go to the US in February, which is cutting it really rather fine indeed… Well done, Bee.

My two page list has been streamlined and formatted into a colourful Excel spreadsheet of a checklist, with headings like “URGENT”, “SH*T THAT NEEDS DOING” and “SOUL FOOD”. There are other, more boring and business-like headings for more boring things like my business.

“Soul food” is the biggest category. It’s a list of things that I want to experience, skills that I want to practise and improve, new things that I want to learn about. It includes conquering my fear of making bread, learning about how to keep chickens, finally learning how to use my camera in a more advanced way than just pointing it and pressing the button, and going back to do more horse archery.

As I enter 2014, jobless and living with my parents (again, the patient souls), with my partner in crime on the other side of the planet, and having given up something that I worked extremely hard for when I eventually admitted it wasn’t what I wanted, I put together this list of soul food in a bid to seek out happiness and success this year, without having to radically change my entire diet, appearance, wardrobe or daily habits.

Yes, I would like to develop gluteal muscle mass, I really would like to have an arse to fill out my jeans, so I will probably need to do something different there, but generally I just want to enhance what I am already very lucky to have in life.

Wishing all of you a successful, happy 2014. Spend time with your friends and family, give some things away, go outside and play in the rain. Be excellent to each other. Etc.