Mops hasn’t had much handling the last month (life and working with other horses!), so as an experiment, photographer Shannon Daly came along a few afternoons back to document if all those hundreds of groundwork hours in 2014 were going to show payback. It was, gloriously, Alberta springtime at its most encouraging – sunshine heating up, shadows of green beginning to fuzz in wind-burnt fields, a drift of wind whispering through the horses’ coats almost on a shine beneath those thousands of shedding winter hairs.
Politeness and horse etiquette demands first a greeting to The Best (horse vision sharpens as they lower their heads down and out), then over to Mops. These last years I go with the philosophy of learning the horses’ language, not them having to adapt to a human’s. That way, my take is that they don’t have to try and second guess what this human wants, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not and then being told off – a pure negative – for being in the ‘wrong’.
Most horses are a bit thrilled – ‘Oh, you talk our language!’ There’s the odd one who’s come from a philosophy of dominance, of having to be respectful, obedient to a human. Their mind doesn’t get the why, but they’ve learnt it doesn’t pay not to obey, so they do. Their minds shut down. Almost autistic in a way, often fear or anger buried in deep, they ‘cue’ in to rope shakes and twirls. Ever watched a horse’s tail twirl – anger being expressed, right? – so if you do the same with a rope, particularly above waist level, my guess is they’re reading the human is more than annoyed).
My take, mind!
So, here are a couple of sequences, running left to right. Humans tend to like gazing into horses’ eyes, straight up to the head – honestly, how predatory can you get?! So, into the shoulder, with my core energy not ‘beaming’ straight into the horse (which will move a tweaky or high sensitive horse away from you and truly maddening when you’re trying to get on!).
Then attaching a line, deliberately dropped on the ground in a safe place, to get horses used to ropes and lines and gear being in different places. I work from either the left or right side. With Mops in the early days the left-hand side was the very devil, he’d worked out that humans came on that side and made-him-yield-to-pressure with the rope-to-halter deal. After one five-hour ending-at-midnight deal I promised him I would never do pressure, and he’d always have to want to do what I had in mind. This casual hand to the halter clip took probably two months of touch, let go, don’t pull, touch, reward, stroke, touch, half the time never clipping on anything at all.
Phew! It’s paid off – around comes the head, still that ear locked onto me. He’s a little high headed, but the bend is the real deal, he’s giving me space and also a nod of acceptance, right, I’m listening, what do you have in mind then?
Then, here’s trust with the fourth photograph. There’s no pressure on the line, he’s chosen to come right around, lovely neck bend. This is the suppleness you want before you start driving on long lines, or riding youngsters. Reading through Ulrike Thiel’s ‘Ridden, Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View,’ she has a dismounted rider balancing a four-foot pole (hollow plastic works, cheap too) mid-point on the palm of their hand, and going through figure eights and changes of direction. She likens it to a young horse, still developing topline muscles, having to adapt to carrying a rider through turns and circles, and how off balance it must feel (and even a very fit experienced rider is never going to be in the right place all the time, drat!). Then try this pole number trotting – oh my! Movements get abrupt, harder trying to balance on knees and ankles, breathing tightening up too!
Eventually, thank goodness, balance is learned, and the dance truly begins between the two partners. And, why groundwork – and work-in-hand (as with classical dressage) – begins to achieve ‘flow’ from the very beginning.
Another little diagram she includes are two people, one behind the other, one with hands on the first person’s waist, both trotting forward together, synchronized in motion. See if you can try this! – it’s not quite ‘Strictly Ballroom’ dancing, but it may give you an idea of how a horse thinks of your efforts when you’re first starting to work together, on the ground and/or ridden.
Then, here’s a second left-to-right sequence. he fascia overtop muscles along the ribcage can be tight when a rider’s on board, when that saddle and the rider’s weight eases into the shoulder (‘scapula’ bone) coming back on the stride. Imagine what that must feel like to a youngster or work-stiffened horse, or one with a badly fitting saddle! And, I’ve found after thousands of hours of free-working horses through my own body language, asking for bend around me, that if you get that bend ‘release’, you automatically get poll relaxation and a more relaxed jaw, crossing and chewing (end of headache, thank goodness, I hear them exclaiming) – as you can see from a very simple up-and-down rub along Mops’ front rib area.
As a track and field Olympic trainer once told me, “A tense athlete is never going to be a good athlete.” Aware, great, tense, no…… and, hope you find these ideas helpful!