At some point in our relationship with our horse, we all face moments where we wish we could understand our horses better. One of the most important things I have learned throughout my career is to establish a clear line of communication with my horse. That seemed simple enough, but what I was missing in the training, was learning more about how the horse communicated to me.
In a herd setting, horses use their body language to “speak” to one another. From swishing their tails, pinning their ears, or quickly moving towards another horse to move them to a different place in the herd, these cues are the only way horses communicate to each other. By taking the time to pick up on those subtle cues, I was able to establish a better, more open line of communication with the horse. In a positive and safe way, I’ve developed a philosophy of horsemanship and created a checklist of groundwork exercises that I do with each and every horse.
A Tip to Get Started
Personally, I like to use a rope halter and lead line when working with horses for groundwork.
Ideally you should work in a safe environment, be it a round pen or a closed-off arena or outdoor ring.
Before you get to your work area, while walking your horse, try to identify some simple body language cues, for example their pace, if they are calling to their paddock buddies, head high, head low, ears pinned, bumping into you, or nipping at you. These are all indications of the level of understanding your horse has about your physical space, their own surroundings, and what they are trying to tell you.
For example: You’ve collected your horse, and while walking the horse, it blows past you. You need to understand why they did that. Was there something behind them that frightened them and you didn’t see it? Or maybe another horse was coming too close?
Slow down, assess, and take the time to become more aware of your own and your horse’s surroundings to understand why they reacted that way. If nothing has happened – no spooky bags on the ground, no other horse – we now have an excellent training opportunity to show the horse to be more respectful of each other’s physical space. If there was something such as a bag blowing on the ground, or another horse charging towards you, please understand and be respectful of your horse’s natural instincts to take flight, or have fright and fear. As in a herd situation, I need to establish that I want my space, and the horse needs to respect that.
Height, Sound and Volume
Here’s a training technique that I like to use. I call it “Height, Sound and Volume”.
While walking your horse, stop. Raise a hand in the air, in front of the horse’s face in the general area of the ear and eye, to cue the horse to stop and step back out of your space (HEIGHT). This gesture is to give the horse a clear indication of what you want. So make sure your arm is fully extended, and your hand is pointing in the direction you want the horse to go back. If the horse steps back from that gesture, then release the pressure and lower your arm.
If by raising your arm the horse doesn’t move, then increase the pressure by adding some “SOUND” by twirling the end of your lead line in front of the horse, while still holding your arm in place.
Note: The twirling of the lead line is only to make sound to help the horse move away from that pressure. When teaching this exercise in a clinic or training session, you will hear me say throughout that “contact is the last resort.”
If the arm in the air and the twirling lead line is still not enough, add more “VOLUME” by creating more sound with the twirling of the the lead line. Always start off with the twirling of the lead line slow and low; if you need to add more pressure, you add more VOLUME.
One of the key aspects of this exercise is to stand still – don’t move with the horse, try and stand steady. “Be the pillar of their existence.” This will help you and the horse understand the space between you.
This exercise is just one of many that I like to use to help the horse and their owners develop a healthy, more confident relationship. There are so many subtle cues that a horse will show you through their body language that we sometimes miss. We need to remember to slow down, and take the time to look for our equine partner’s portion of the conversation.