Groundwork can be the key to improving your horse's manners and enhance his performance under the saddle.
Trainer Karen Whiston recommends you use a Dually halter and a 12 foot rope for in hand work. If you don't have a Dually a standard 'flat' headcollar is also fine. You should always wear a hard hat and gloves when doing in-hand work with your horse.
1. Backing up
It is very important horses learn to back up out of your space as soon as possible. Karen teaches rein-back in a small enclosure to prevent the horse from running away. She uses pressure and release to back up a horse using the 'snake shake' which is particularly useful for strong or lively horses. The 'snake shake' uses pulse pressure. Begin by lightly shaking the rope from side to side like a snake gliding across the floor. If the horse does not respond increase the pressure but be sure to stop shaking the rope the moment the horse starts moving backwards.
2. Parking the horse
Teaching a horse to 'park' or stand still will make life easier, and safer in his ridden work. Karen begins by walking forward and then asking the horse to halt by using a 'snake shake' described above. Once he has mastered this Karen takes it further by walking a few steps away on either side. If the horse moves from where he was originally 'parked' correct him by putting his feet back to their position.
3. Making a square
Position yourself level with the horse's head and ask him to move his shoulders one step away from you, by extending the arm nearest to the headcollar at shoulder height and pointing in the direction you want him to move. Spin the tail of the rope towards his shoulders and as he steps his forehand over walk forwards to stay with his head. Use clear intentions to move the horse and keep yourself level with his eye to prevent him from turning. When you get to a corner stop your feet to allow the horse to walk around the corner. The important thing here is to give the horse enough room to make the turn. Then, staying level with the horse's eye walk forwards in a straight line again. Do this in both directions to form a square. As the horse understands you should be able to use less rope pressure and more body energy.
4. Moving the feet
Ask the horse to stand and position yourself facing his shoulder. Keep the hand nearest the horse's head pressure free, ready to control any forward steps from the horse with the 'snake shake'. Spin the rope towards the quarters to encourage him to move his quarters sideways away from you. If he steps forwards, 'snake shake' but keep spinning the rope. It's a good idea to practise this move with the rope away from the horse first.
5. Zigzagging across the school
A really useful exercise to balance the horse's shoulders and help with straightness is making a zigzag. Karen positions herself in front but slightly to the right of the horse and gently spins the rope at his shoulder to ask him to take a few strides to the left. It's essential that you stay far enough in front of the horse that he can still see you. Then move over to his left side and ask him to move to the right.
Keep your groundwork sessions short but frequent for the best results Karen advises. Timing is key and remember to praise him when he gets it right.
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