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.

Last minute

It is rapidly becoming the last minute. I am down to last minute meetings, last minute socialising, last minute packing, last minute shopping, last minute panicking, etc etc.

Today has mostly been about last minute hair dye, as I realised it must be almost a year since my mother slapped henna (I use Caca Rouge from Lush, and have done so for over ten years) all over my head and I propped myself up for several hours while the mud did its miracle thing on my hair.

With what feels like several tonnes of goop and clingfilm on my head at the moment, my neck is rather sore. That may have something to do with the killer upper body workout that Mark the Magician made me do this morning. His trainers matched the walls of the gym today. I was rather impressed, but I don’t think it was intentional.

“Rather than mess about with more reps,” he said, as I sipped water in a recovery break between push presses, “how about we just build up this weight to about that of a saddle?” This man has paid close attention to my goals, and I love him for it.

If I can now push 60lbs over my head three times, without dying immediately, hopefully I can avoid the shame of flinging Cowboy’s saddle, forcefully and enthusiastically, into the side of my horse instead of over her back.

I’ve also ended up doing some last minute bonding with this little monster, who has spent the last nine months completely ignoring me.

She has finally realised that I will scratch her ears, rub her belly and bump heads with her at her every whim.

I’ll even feed her. I’m that kind of cat person.

Marmite

Marmite

I think she might be a little sad when I leave, if she even notices, of course.

MarmiteI’m not really going to miss her needle sharp claws being dug (with love) into my legs, arms, neck, feet, fingers, etc.

She can be a little over zealous with her affection.

She also likes to dribble on me when she’s really enjoying the bonding session. Then she likes to shake her head and spray the dribble all over me, and whatever it is I’ve been doing whilst petting her. Thanks, Marmite…

You love her or you hate her. Her name really is appropriate.

Progress report

Mark the Magician (the personal trainer) had casually mentioned in my first session with him that a person should really be able to deadlift their own body weight without too much trouble. That was the same day that I squeaked and groaned as I tried to deadlift 25kg, and protested, “That’s really quite heavy!”

He was gallant about it and didn’t laugh at me until a week later.

Today, I was lifting 50kg. It was tough, but up it went, for 6 reps. Then I did pull ups – pull ups! – for 6 reps (I’ll admit, they were assisted rather than my full body weight, but still). This whole process was repeated 5 times. I felt like Xena. Next time we do deadlifts, apparently we’re gunning for the full body weight equivalent. It’s exciting.

Now when I tense my glutes, there’s actually a slight curve to my butt, and there is something firm underneath the winter stores. This is very exciting. It’s been a long time since I had a butt worth mentioning.

The Last Hurrah

The end of my feeble, wasted, lazy existence is nigh.

On Monday morning, I slithered into my running lycras and went to meet Mark. Mark, a personal trainer, owns a little outfit in Oxford called StudioPT, and I have asked him to fix me.

I did my best to put him off working with me. “My fitness is terrible. I am a walking disaster. I am riddled with old injuries.” He was undeterred, and unfortunately I had to show up at his private gym and feign enthusiasm.

The studio is well equipped, bright and airy, and has a banging soundtrack. After a quick sit down to discuss my situation, Mark put me through my paces as an assessment session.

He is tall, lean, and oozes power. He demonstrated each exercise with little to no effort, and corrected my wavering form as I tried not to shake too obviously in the press ups. This was nothing like my usual visits to the gym.

Mark is going to whip my butt into shape, starting tomorrow morning. He says he has a plan. I’m slightly terrified.

I’m preparing the best way I can think of, with one last rebellion – sitting on the sofa watching the Food Network, eating a bacon sandwich, and binging on cake.

Inspiration

There are times in life when you look at somebody else for some inspiration. I’ve jumped on various bandwagons in my time, and each one had a different person that I pinned up as the driving inspiration. As life changes around me, and my ambitions become less glamorous, I am starting to see my bandwagons consolidating into one magnificent convoy.

I’ve always loved horses, and ridden since I was very little. My first pony was Sue, a tiny little grey Welsh pony who was the ripe old age of 18 when I inherited her from the rest of the family. She was quiet and solid and knew it all, and ferried me about while I learned how to sit quietly and still, how to balance, how to keep my heels down. Sue has gone to the great big pasture in the sky, I think she was 34 when she finally called it a day.

I borrowed a pony called Robin one summer, who was another well-aged old hand, and taught me to handle life with a bit more speed. Then the next year, I traded up to my sister’s horse, Domino. He was slightly younger (still 16), with a fiesty Arab spirit with which he stomped his Welsh Cob feet. He still knew everything, taught me everything, there wasn’t a single thing I could have done to shock him.

I’ve ridden hundreds of horses in my life, but one thing I’ve never done, or believed myself capable of doing, is training a young horse myself. I’ve always considered myself too inexperienced, or that a young horse would be too dangerous. That’s amusing, given how many riding schools here in England happily put me on their greenest horses week after week, and instructors would flippantly comment about how hardly any clients ride a particularly troublesome horse that I had enjoyed riding.

So, to the inspiration. Obviously, a big inspiration to me is Cowboy, who reassures me that I’d be a good horse trainer, if I only stopped believing I am a useless horsewoman. There are many other trainers and clinicians that I’ve watched and studied over the last two years, who have made me want to learn more and try it for myself.

Then I sat down and watched the video diary that Stacy Westfall has been releasing over the last few months. It shows the week by week progress of a young stud horse that she is training. She talks through everything calmly. She demonstrates what she’s doing, explains why. Some of it I don’t agree with, but a lot of it makes sense. What’s inspiring is seeing it look completely possible.

I hope to take on my own young horse in the near future, and build up the kind of bond that would open up a new world for me. It’ll be a world full of mistakes and struggles, no doubt, but the prospect excites me. I’m grateful for this kind of inspiration – the kind that makes ambitions look closer than they seemed before.

Measuring up

As part of my plan to transform myself from weakling to wonderwoman, I realised I needed a way to measure my progress. A month in America doing little else than eating and sitting about hasn’t been the best way to start, but on the other hand it gives me a clean break from one way of life and way forward into another.

I took some measurements, which I’m about to share with you here. Now, I’d like to clarify something: I’m by no means looking to lose weight. I don’t want to become smaller, or get a thigh gap, or see my clavicle. No thanks. What I want to is to be fit enough to run without heaving up a lung. I want to be strong enough to lift hay bales. I want to fill out my clothing with firm curves of a healthy, powerful body.

So, here goes. I would actually like a good few of these measurements to go up as I train.

  • Calves: 13 1/2″
  • Above-knee: 15 1/2″ on the right, 15 1/4″ on the left (remnant of injury and muscle wasting)
  • Mid-thigh: 18 1/4″ on the right, 18″ on the left.
  • Upper thigh: 21 1/4″ on both sides
  • Butt: 37″ (this definitely needs to go up)
  • Hips: 31″
  • Waist: 27 3/4″
  • Chest (bra-level): 30″ (the bra-fitting lady knew her stuff)
  • Chest (above boobs): 34″
  • Upper arms: 10″
  • Neck: 13″

There we go. I’d like my calves and thighs to tone up. By “tone”, I don’t mean get firmer, I mean get bigger. I want muscle. My butt needs shape and size, because right now it is flimsy and flat and doesn’t help me jump up in the saddle at all. My thighs need to grow, particularly the left which is still atrophied from injury in September. My arms need more muscle too. My upper body strength is non-existent.

I’ll attempt to remember to update these as I go. Today, I begin conditioning.

The first run

I went for a “run” today. I’m going to use that term loosely. Let’s remember that I haven’t run anywhere since last March. A long and complicated combination of sheer laziness, preoccupation with exams/studies/horse riding, injury, illness, travel, new injuries, more illness, more travel, and yet more illness meant that I didn’t really run in the last year.

Today’s effort was a start on a long road. I downloaded a “Couch to 5k” app on my phone, made sure I had some appropriate funky house to run to, and peeled myself into my running clothes. I laced on my trainers. Then I made myself look in the mirror. If I didn’t go and run now, I was just an idiot wearing running clothes in the house.

I strapped on my heart rate monitor and my GPS watch, items I purchased in a rash of enthusiasm a few years ago. I really only love them for the calorie burn calculation that they produce.

The first episode of this Couch to 5k programme was mostly walking. There were eight runs of one minute each. I don’t know what was more depressing: that the runs were only a minute long, or that I was wheezing and coughing my way to the end of each minute with barely another step left in me. I am horrifically unfit, to a degree that I don’t recall for many years. My dance fitness came on so gradually, I didn’t appreciate how in shape I was when I took up running the first time. This is a firm slap in the face. I need to put in work.

First run

Luckily, it was a beautiful day, and I only got chased by a dog once, so it was a nice outing. I also got to see frogs in the village pond, and I do love seeing frogs.

It's a little hard to tell but the filth pit that is the village pond is now stuffed with frogs and frogspawn. At last that solitary goldfish has some company! Spring is here!

By the time I got home, 32 minutes after I’d left, I had burned 240 calories, most likely through panic that I was about to die of heart failure. The lady on my app congratulated me heartily on completing the first session. I felt pretty pleased. The next run will be on Monday. Let’s hope it’s less gaspy and a bit more springy. I expect I will be stiff tomorrow. I’ll deal with that when it happens.

Back to the books

I’ve been back home in the UK for a couple of days now. I’m so jet-lagged, I could vomit. The weather was kind enough to be that glorious March sunshine that makes the rolling clouds look wonderful when I landed, but now it’s gone back to the dreary grey.

My month in Washington went far too quickly for me to understand. We lost several days, snowed in, and a good deal more time travelling up and down the state. I spent a small fortune.

I spoiled Cowboy on Valentine’s Day, buying him a leather splitter and a pattern for him to make his own spur straps. I know, I can hear you thinking it. He’s the luckiest man alive, with romantic gestures like that. His gift to me was driving me to Seattle more times than he’d care to mention, and with only minimal complaining.

Who says romance is dead?

Now that I’m home, it’s time to get on with boring tasks like doing the company accounts, realising I need to stop spending so much money on Cowboy, and hoping like heck that I can get the right paperwork together for the school in Seattle to accept me into their programme as of May. I don’t particularly want to have to wait until September.

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Although Cowboy said it was a good thing I was leaving for a bit, as Sunshine was getting kind of smart-arse about things and he needs some time to put her back to work. I didn’t think we looked too bad.

You are my Sunshine, my only Sunshine…

You make me happy…

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… When you’re not being a snarky knot-head, that is.

Sunshine has transformed in the months that I’ve been back home in the UK. I left Washington in the summer, leaving behind a plump, young, bratty horse with a canter that had a different leading leg with each stride. She was a teenager in her mindset – pushy, easily bored, and occasionally resentful of work. I left her in Cowboy’s big, capable, gentle hands and he set out to sculpt her into a better horse.

She looks different in one obvious way: her honey-coloured summer coat has been overgrown with her winter coat, which is long and shaggy, and lighter in colour. We don’t clip her, as she’s well-adapted to the cold weather and I want her to live as naturally as a horse as possible. She’s also slimmed down a lot.

The biggest change is in her attitude. She used to paw and fidget when tied up, and now she stands quietly and patiently. She used to throw her head or barge through me, and now she’s respectful of my space and minds her manners.

We’ve worked her a few times now, and took her to ranch sorting yesterday. We had some “discussions” to establish just who was in charge, and after that we’ve had some great rides. She really is turning into a solid horse.

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She still has quite the attitude, though.

Starting somewhere

You have to start somewhere, don’t you? Julie Andrews would suggest starting at the very beginning (that’s a very good place to start).

When I lay in bed this morning, wondering how on earth to summon the energy to just roll off the mattress and fall into the bathroom, I felt a bleak despair wash over me. I have spent a week looking at websites of personal trainers, and then feeling too cowardly to email or call them. I’ve looked at my wasting quadriceps and gluteals and felt ashamed and terrified by the thoroughly poor state of my fitness and strength.

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On my recent trip to London, I wandered around the Natural History Museum, and had to sit down next to an elderly couple after I walked up a shallow flight of stairs and felt dizzy, light-headed, breathless, my heart pounding. In the words of Nicki Minaj: You outta work… I know it’s tough. But enough is enough.

Thinking about it, I’ve been out of work(ing out) for months. I tore my plantar fascia last June, which healed up in time for me to go to America, where I tore up most of the soft tissue in the medial aspect of my knee. That healed up just in time for Christmas, when I was struck down with various germs that have kept me laid low for a few weeks.

Cowboy told me last night that Sunshine is fat and out of shape, and huffed and puffed her way through the entire ride last night, grumpy about how bad she felt. I think I understand what she’s going through.

Here I am: over-sugared, under-sweated and acutely aware of my body’s tendency towards premature ventricular contractions at bedtime. My PVC gets worse when I’m unfit, I’ve learned.

I forced myself up, and made a start. This start, in fact:

I pinned this to a Pinterest board months and months ago. I did it today, and felt instantly better. The best part is that you don’t sweat doing this workout, so I didn’t have to change into workout clothes and then shower and change back into normal clothes – the hassle puts me off more than the workout itself. Four minutes is doable, then straight back to whatever else needs to be done in the day.

I intend to pursue more thorough and longer duration workouts, as well as this four minute tabata training. There are plenty of hills around here for building bum muscle and quads strength, and for stamina training. I just need to get out into the cold and the wet and the mud and get to it.

Today was just a start, and starting is often the hardest bit.