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.

Life fusion

It has been Sunday today. OK, it is still Sunday for another five hours, but by tea time on a Sunday, the day has essentially reached its peak and the only thing left to do is have a big cup of tea, some sort of supper (maybe soup based), and watch a detective drama for two hours.

Today the sun was out, which was a glorious respite after what seemed like a month of rain. It was really only about three or four days, but when Cowboy is working outside all of the time, it can get a little wearing when it is so wet. I was ready to just hibernate until Spring.

This morning, however, the sun turned all of the cherry tree branches a lovely gold colour, and it wasn’t cold at all. The gigantic lake in the round pen was just a large puddle, and the brown mush outside the barn had firmed up reasonably well. I also found this video of Sergei Polunin dancing, and it made me giddy with glee. All in all, it was a good start to the day.

I had a sudden brainwave while I was frying eggs for Cowboy’s breakfast. Perhaps the Six Nations rugby matches would be on Youtube. At the very least, the highlights would be on there somewhere. A quick searched revealed that some kind soul had posted the entire Wales vs England game on Youtube. I dithered, unsure whether it was wise to get stuck in to such a British thing at this hour.

“You putting the Rugby on?” Cowboy asked.

“No!” I said, gaily rushing back to the eggs. He had caught me in the act of Britain-lusting. “Just looking.”

“Oh. Well, you should.” He sat down to breakfast. “And if we’re going to watch the rugby, you’d just as well make me a cup of tea to go with it.”

That is how the day kicked off (pun completely and unashamedly intended). We watched the whole match, and I did my best to explain the rules to him. Some of them might have been made up, but I think he believed me. He even thought it was the sort of game that he could really get into if he watched some more and learned some more about it. With the entire Six Nations coming up, I’m sure that can be arranged.

After breakfast, our neighbour stopped in and asked for our help. One of his cows had calved, and he needed us to tag the ear of the newborn for him. Armed with our muck boots, we went over to his farm, where I duly took hold of the tagging pliers, crawled under a barbed wire fence, and watched Cowboy grab the little one firmly by her legs and show me the spot in her ear. One good squeeze on the pliers, and my first hands-on activity relating to cattle was complete. Maybe one day I’ll be a real country girl! Ha… Ha ha ha… My cat is more country savvy than I am.

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Sir Richard, the gate keeper.

After a quick lunch (a coronation chicken sandwich, because that’s one of those odd British things that I didn’t realise I would miss so much, followed by the last handful of Smarties (British ones)), I saddled my horse and we learned about rope. She knows about rope already. I had no idea what to do with it.

“So, you know when you’re branding…” Cowboy started, trying to explain. I could only stare at him. He put his hand on my knee apologetically. “You don’t know at all, do you?”

“Nope! City girl.”

My education was swift and practical. Rope and reins in one hand, the other working to control my dallies on the saddle horn (teehee, if I say the right words, it sounds like I know what I’m talking about), Sunshine and I dragged the round pen with a mini harrow contraption. For just a moment, I didn’t feel like a completely useless dressage rider.

Part of it, as Cowboy pointed out when we were done, was that we were both focused on the task at hand. Pull the thing. Rather than fuss with my reins or micromanage her, I had to look back at the thing I was pulling, and just move Sunshine where she needed to be to pull the thing. She didn’t need to be perfect. For her, she probably didn’t know exactly what I was asking most of the time, but she also knew that we were pulling a thing, and so long as we were still pulling the thing, she was probably doing the right thing.

I felt her self-confidence coming through, as she patiently ignored the horse in training who was freaking out on the other side of the panels because he thought we were pulling a thing that would eat him. He freaked out three times. She ignored him and stuck to her job three times. She chose pulling the thing where it needed to be pulled over avoiding the puddle (because she’s a bit funny about water). When we had been warming up, she had deftly stepped around the water every time I had taken her to it, and I had decided not to make an issue about it because we had another job to do. As soon as the job was underway, the water wasn’t an issue for her either. I was so proud.

It was good work for both of us, and a good ride. Perhaps I could be a country girl after all…

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Ha. Ha ha. I still have a box full of stilettos and I can’t find it in my heart to get rid of them just in case I have a need for a pair.

Supper was Cowboy’s go-to meal, of fried cabbage and pasta with sausage. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s delicious. I’ll post the recipe one of these days.

The day has been a good combination of my lives: British, dancer, cowboy’s girlfriend, (aspiring) horsewoman.

And yes, I’m aware my horse is smothered in mud here. She’s a hog. What can I say?