Setting Good Ground Rules
Part 1 – Introduction
This is Part 1 of a series of articles about training the horse in-hand. The AEBC has recently published “Academic Horse Training” by Andrew and Manuela McLean which covers all the aspects of this effective, evidence based system.
Ground work is an essential part of the horse’s training, we lead it to and from the paddock every day and we want to make sure he leads obediently, stays by our side, parks without moving while we brush him, rug or un-rug him, handle his feet etc. We also need to teach the horse to move forwards, backwards and side to side so we can move him around while we work around him. Teaching the horse to stop makes it easier to habituate him to all the different things he will have to deal with, from equipment and rugs to having a rider on his back, because the stop deletes any quickening or flight responses and speeds up the habituation process.
When to start…
Depending on the situation, with young foals, I like to do some basic handling and leading early, especially if the mare is going to be bred again while the foal is at foot. Ideally also, we would have worked the mare in hand before the foal was born, because the foal will to some extent learn from its mum, so we need to make sure she is used to standing calmly and follows the instructions of her handler. This being the case, we would bring the mare into a confined area and have a helper stand her in a safe position while we work on habituating the foal to human contact. We do this by placing a hand around the wither area and removing it when the foal stands still. Doing this reinforces the standing still behaviour and we will work quietly this way and gradually progress from the hand contact to the feel of the equipment first around the neck and shoulder, then towards the head until we can put on the halter. Starting early is the ideal, but there are cases where we don’t get the chance to work with the foal until near weaning time. In any case the habituation process would be very similar.
It is always a good idea to start in a stable or a small yard say 4-6 metres diametre with safe footing and fencing, then progress on to an arena before going on to more open spaces. If possible you should choose a quiet location where there aren’t too many distractions.
I prefer to train the foals and young naive horses with a normal webbing halter. I feel that when young ones are learning everything from scratch there is no need to use a rope halter or anything more severe because they don’t understand pressure and how to respond. You should however train using something stronger like a rope halter or a bit if it is part of the equipment you will use for competing for example, or to re-train a horse. With the young ones, we introduce the bit at around 18months. This process is partly habituation but they also need to learn how to respond to the bit pressure. I like to use a straight mouthed rubber coated stallion bit for various reasons, one is that a straight mouthpiece is easier to slip into their mouth, the other is the rubber coating is less harsh against the teeth than a metal mouthpiece.
For a lead rope I prefer a lightweight nylon braided one (like the one pictured top right). I find cotton leadropes too stretchy, the stretch makes the pressure/release less clear, and the yatching type ropes are too heavy and make it harder for the horse to feel a release clearly.
You will also need a long (dressage) whip, and one which is stiff enough so you it will clearly stop tapping when you do. It also has a more obvious contact when you place it against the horse’s body during the habituation process.
You should always wear gloves, a safety helmet and boots for training in hand.
The basic training goals…
At the most basic level, during the first training sessions we teach the horse to ‘go’, ‘stop’, ‘step back’, and ‘park’. Which one we train first depends on the horse. In the case of a foal we normally start from a standstill, so we can target training single forward steps from each front leg. Young horses tend to take one maybe two steps and stop of their own accord, which is great because we can do more repetitions of ‘go’ and keep the lesson simple. In the case of re-training we may not be able to train just ‘go’ or just ‘stop’, we may need to work on both. We may need to start training stop first, for example if the horse is ‘pushy’, or if he is what people call ‘lazy’, we might start with ‘go’.
Training ‘stop’ is most important because it deletes any quickening and flight responses. The muscles a horse uses to stop, slow down and step back are the same. The step back in fact is a deeper response to the stop, so training horses to step backwards to a light pressure on the noseband or the bit actually improves their stop. The step back is in itself very useful to correct any unwanted movements, and this also ties in with the ‘park’ response where we teach the horse to stand still until we ask him to move with the leadrope. He must not move even if we walk away. ‘Park’ can be used many times and it also teaches the horse to stand in the float, in the barriers, tie up areas, it is a very useful tool, and if the horse understands stop and step back, park is easy to train.
It is important to keep the training sessions short, especially with young horses, and it seems that the most effective way is to work in sets of between 3 and 5 repetitions with a break between each set, aiming to finish each task with 3 consecutive, correct or improved responses. Young foals should be trained for very short periods.
You may notice that at the start of the training the horse is distracted and tense but you should notice that as he begins to understand the lesson and respond to lighter aids, he also starts to show signs of relaxation, he may chew, lick his lips, snort, shake or lower his head. These are all signs that you are making progress.