I have written a lot recently about how we can use groundwork to help correct our horse’s asymmetry. Gymnastic exercises done in hand or on line help strengthen the horse so he can carry us, the rider, without detriment to his body. This is something that any horse benefits from, especially those that for some reason have difficulties under saddle. These difficulties could include falling on the forehand, poor top line, difficulty in stepping under with a hind leg, over bending at the base of the neck or falling in or out on circles.
However before we can start gymnastising our horse with the appropriate exercises, we need to have some basic leading skills in place. There are numerous ways you can work with your horse on the ground: these include walking backwards in front of the horse, walking forwards by the shoulder of the horse, walking behind the horse, using one rein or two or on the lunge. Probably the simplest way for the human to start is at the shoulder of the horse. But we need to have some basic skills and communication with the horse in place to do this properly. You cannot work on your horse’s body if you have to drag your horse along by his lead rope or are in danger of being towed behind him at high speed.
You won’t need any fancy equipment to try these exercises, although a French link cavesson or rope cavesson are ideal. If you don’t have a cavesson you can use your usual head collar or rope halter. You will also need a short lunging line or lead line (10 to 12 ft), or a rein with a clip at one end. Finally you will need a dressage or schooling whip (4ft or so) or a natural horsemanship stick.
Exercise One – Leading your horse from his shoulder
This simple exercise is fundamental to any work you wish to do. Can you walk with your horse, shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the horse? Place yourself by your horse’s shoulder with the rein or line in the hand further from the horse and your stick and the tail of your line in your hand that is closer to his shoulder. Don’t wrap the rein around your hand, and carry the tail of the line in loops. Be careful that you don’t drop the tail of the rein so it trails behind you, as it could get caught around either your legs or those of your horse. The hand that holds the rein should be loosely closed with a slight loop in the line between your hand and the horse. Now start walking. In the beginning you may need the support of a fence to stop the horse falling out. You need to be able to walk together and stop together. Walking together does not mean that you walk away and drag the horse along by pulling on the rein, it means that you both take the first step together, at the same time. You must clearly demonstrate in your body that you want to move forward, so bring your point of weight forward and lean slightly in the direction that you want to go. If your horse doesn’t walk off with you, slow down, and use the whip to tickle your horse on his belly. Walk a couple of strides and then prepare to stop. Don’t stop too abruptly. Prepare for the halt by using a gentle half halt with the rein when the front leg closest to you touches down. Then the next time the leg touches down, offer another little half halt, exhale, sink down a little in your knees, tuck your tail bone under and lean your upper body slightly backwards. If the horse does not want to stop, bring the whip in front of the horse and then if necessary use the whip (to tap) on the horse’s chest. Don’t pull on the rein. It is important to remember that the rein does not regulate the horse’s speed and a half halt is about rebalancing! Once you can start and stop easily from one shoulder, repeat the exercise at the other shoulder. It can be surprisingly difficult to do this from the right.
Exercise Two – Turns
Once you can start and stop on a single track along the fence, you can leave the outside track and start working on the various patterns that will help with the gymnastising of your horse. However before you can begin to do circles, figure 8s and serpentines you need to be able to turn your horse to the left and right whilst still leading from the shoulder. Initially you need be extra clear about your intentions in the turns. So, assuming you are leading from the left and want to go to the left, turn your body clearly to the left so that you are turning away from your horse and allowing room for your horse to turn. Weight your left leg a little more and turn – hopefully together. If you want to go to the right, turn your body towards your horse, lift the rein towards the horses head and your whip hand towards his shoulder. Weight your right leg a little more and if necessary bring your whip up and forwards towards the horse’s head to help get the turn.
Once you can turn easily, you can start more complex patterns. Begin with a 10m circle on the left rein. Circles (when done correctly) are very good for balancing the horse and softening the inner side of the horse by stretching the muscles on the outside of the horse. Your horse should be on the outside of the circle with you walking a slightly smaller circle. If possible try timing your footfall to your horse’s front legs – left leg, left fore, right leg, right fore. Find a tempo in which you can both work and walk in a relaxed fashion and when you are happy with the circle to the left, stop. Change sides and try a circle to the right. Try and be as precise as possible with your circle. I would suggest that you measure your circle carefully and put out markers at 12 ‘o’ clock, 3 ‘o’ clock, 6 ‘o’ clock and 9 ‘o’ clock so that your circle is accurate and doesn’t inadvertently become an egg. This way you will be able to tell if your horse starts to drift out on one rein (that will be towards his stiff side). Once your circles are firmly established you can try spiraling in and out. To spiral in, weight your inside leg a little more and turn your shoulders slightly in, to spiral out, weight your outside leg a little more and turn your shoulders slightly out.
Reward often. Show appreciation and tell your horse he is doing well. Focus on using your body language to move the horse where you want.
Start together – lean slightly forwards.
Stop together – exhale, sink down in your knees, tuck your tail and lean slightly backwards.
The whip regulates the speed if your body language is not enough. Increase the speed by using the whip where your lower leg would be if you were riding. Decrease the speed by showing the whip in front of the horse or on the chest.
Do not hang on each other. Respect the personal space of each other.
All new movements are unfamiliar and strange to the horse at first. He therefore needs time to understand what it is you want him to do and how to do the movement. You may have to stop frequently and give the horse a chance to process the last steps and to prepare for the next ones.
These exercises are just the start – as you continue you will refine your body language and speed up the reactions of the horse. You will be able to transfer your own relaxation and softness to the horse. Then you can start dancing together.