I enjoy the show ring and have been telling people for a long time that every horse should be a showmanship horse. The showmanship class is where horsemen show off their skills of how well they can handle their horse on the ground. The most amazing part about the horses in this class is they are trained to move when the handler says move, stop and stand when the handler says to and put any single one of their four feet wherever their handler asks them to. Even if I never plan on showing a horse in showmanship I put them through showmanship training for the control.
This training doesn’t just start by taking your horse and teaching them to trot around with you and stop when you stop and set up all nice and pretty. It starts by getting control of each of their feet independently. To get this control you have to have control of the front end independently of the hind end and vice versa.
Remember earlier when I said that part of the job of the alpha is telling a horse where to go, you are now going to become their alpha. Most horses will easily accept this, but may at first be hesitant to move because they are unsure of your leadership. A few horses will resist this training and may kick out at you, strike at you, push you around or just flat out leave dragging you behind. If you find yourself in this situation I strongly suggest you get professional help.
Let’s get started!
To get started with your groundwork you are going to need a well fitting halter, a 12-14’ lead preferably with a leather popper on the end or a regular lead with a training (stock) stick or a 3’ long whip or crop.
It is easier to start the training with the haunches or hind end of your horse. Let’s start on the left side of the horse, so hold your lead in your left hand facing towards their tail and standing about at their flank (the back end of the belly just before their hind leg) but leaving room between you and the horse for you to step towards your horse. You don’t want to be holding the lead tightly, but you don’t want it so loose that if your horse walks away from you it takes you more than a few seconds to get the rope taught and pull your horse back toward you. You want to be able to respond to your horse with in a split second.
You will inhale as a pre-signal that you will be asking your horse to move. The pre-signal is important because it is the same language that the alpha in the herd will use. Follow that with a move signal by stepping toward your horse accompanied with a clucking sound or any other sound you use to get your horse to move. If your horse does not move with these cues add the end of your rope or your training stick and tap their haunches. If they still do not move you will follow with a “bite” from the rope or stick. Don’t forget our lesson in Groundwork: Learning the language about the importance of this “bite”.
The idea is to get your horse to move his hind end away from you while keeping his front end “planted” or still as he circles around his left front leg. If your horse moves forward rather than steps away from you pull the rope toward you to stop your horse from moving forward and then ask again. You want to make sure that you have slack in your rope as you ask your horse to move its hind end away from you because you want your horse to learn to move without being “held” in place. This is their responsibility in this relationship, to do their job and not move any more or less than what is asked of them.
We are not looking for perfection in these first workouts but effort.
Once you get them taking a step away from you on the left side we’ll move over to the right side. I want to pause here quickly and state that we are not looking for perfection in these first work outs because we are establishing language, expectations and work ethic. We want to reward effort in these first few lessons and we can build from there. Your horse may not take an actual correct step but even just shifting weight away from you is worth a reward. It lets your horse know they are moving in the right direction. Once they figure out what it is you want the rest is easy so it’s important not to drill them on these exercises. When working with horse, less is always more.
Many horses will struggle more with the right side than the left because working from the left side of the horse is traditional and many people do not work the right side. I will work the right side as much or sometimes more than the left. Again repeat everything we did on the left, hold the rope in your right hand this time, stand towards the flank facing the tail and pre-signal your horse with an inhale and step towards them. If they don’t move swing your rope toward their hip as a warning and if they don’t move bite them. If you are using a training stick or a whip a warning is a lift of it and a swipe towards and maybe touching them with it, but a bite is a pretty good whack with the rope, stick or whip.
You may be confused at this point as to what we are working towards exactly. We are working towards getting your horse to step their hind end away from you when asked while pivoting on their front foot (left front for working the left side and right front for working the right side). The horse should step up under itself crossing the hind leg closest to you in front of the one furthest from you. This is key because the horse will be developing balance and muscle for more challenging movements in the future.
Horses have a harder time stepping their shoulder over than their haunches.
Moving the front end is much more challenging than the haunches. Horses have a harder time steping their shoulder over than their haunches due to the fact that a horse carries 60% of their weight on their front end. Because of this it takes much more conscious effort for the horse to pick up their shoulder and step over while transferring the weight to their haunches. This is important though for teaching your horse collection and self carriage. This all begins right here with this simple exercise on the ground.
To ask your horse to move their shoulder you are going to stand at their head facing them. Don’t get in front of their muzzle or behind their ear. Give the pre-signal again of an inhale and then step toward your horse. While working on the left you should be holding the lead in your left hand with the tail of your training rope or your stick or whip in your right. If your horse does not move away as you step toward them give them warning as we did with the hip only now directed toward the shoulder. If they ignore your warning then move on to a bite. Repeat on the right side as we did with the hip.
“A man’s heart plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps.” Proverbs 9:16
Just as we have free will to do and go where we please so does a horse…or do they? When working in partnership with our horse they can think what they want, plan what they want, but when we have our relationship in the right place with our horse we will determine every foot fall.
Think of it this way, you’re going down the trail and there is a tree down, it’s small enough for your horse to step over but it is going to take some effort on your horse’s part. They see a way around the fallen tree that is easier for them to walk, but the branches are too low for a rider to safely clear. Your horse thinks, “Let’s go the easier way” but the easier way is not the safer way for the both of you so you direct your horse over the fallen tree, it’s hard, but you both get through it. We go through life the same way and when we have a good relationship with the Lord He will direct our steps, it is not always easier, but it is always for His glory.