Tips for Helping Your Body Learn Body Language
Are you new to doing groundwork and thinking "I am such a klutz - I will never get the hang of this!" Well I am a founding member of the Klutz Klub.
Look at this photo of me and Ava when I was first learning how to do groundwork. It's embarrassing - she is running me over, I am facing the wrong way, I was constantly getting the rope tangled around my arms and legs.
“The ball is not going to go anywhere until we hit it.”
~ Nancy Lopez, pro golfer, winner of multiple championships.
So how the heck does hitting a golf ball compare to training and riding horses? Well, both require that just about every part of your body - head, shoulders, arms, hands, hips, feet - work smoothly together to achieve a specific result, and it can be frustrating when we don't get that result.
What Nancy is saying is that while we are swinging the club to hit the ball, we shouldn’t be thinking about what is going to happen to the ball AFTER we hit it. Is the ball going to land in the fairway, what about that sand trap, that pond? Will I lose the ball in the bushes, will the other players make fun of me?
An exercise in the saddle to help build trust in your horse.
This rider is holding the rein, but she is not steering or trying to control the horse other than to use her leg to keep her cantering.
Be truthful now - as a rider, do you sometimes feel the need to micromanage your horse? MUST he always go where you tell him to go? Must he NEVER go anywhere without your permission?
When you were learning to ride and your horse started to head to the gate or back to the barn, were you told, like I was, "Don't let him do that, don't let him get away with that. You can't let him win."
"There is no way that the horse will ever try to take advantage of you. He’s as honest and as truthful as anything you could ever work with. He has no ego that gets in his way. He has no pride that gets in his way. He doesn’t know what win or lose is." ~ Ray Hunt
"But somebody has to be the boss", we say. "Somebody has to tell the horse what to do, right?" Yes, but we can do it in a way that doesn't make us an adversary to our horse.
We can stop being afraid of what will happen if we just let go.
All you need for this exercise is a fenced in arena. Just drop your reins and let your horse go where he wants. Don't worry, you’re inside a fence, your horse is not going to take you galloping off over the horizon. If you can do this at the trot or canter, great, but if not then start at the walk. What happens next will be an opportunity to learn more about your horse.
If he goes to the gate, or to the side of the arena closest to his pasture buddies, he has “destination addiction,” also known as “gate sour,” “buddy sour,” “barn sour” or any other place he would rather be than with you, here and now, in the arena. Don't take it personally; he is instinctively looking for the safest place to be, and in the wild that place would be with other horses, in familiar territory.
Do you want to teach your horse to be buddy sour to your riding instructor in the middle of the arena? It's simple; every time your teacher wants you to bring your horse to her in the center and stop so she can talk to you, the two of you are teaching the horse that the center of the arena is a good place to stop and rest. So if you teach him that, then find him cutting the corners of the arena, it's because in effect you taught him to want to go to the center like a bee to a flower blossom.
Give up the notion that he is being willful or disobedient;
he is just being a horse.
If he avoids a certain spot or side of the arena because there is something scary there, like a monster-hiding hedge, or a horse-eating piece of farm equipment, then your horse is more influenced by his environment than he is by you, his rider. Not only is that not safe, it's not a very flattering position to find ourselves in.
So now that you have learned if, or where, your horse wants to be physically and mentally instead of with you, and you understand he is not being deliberately disobedient, how DO you get him to go where you want him to go?
The late, great Ray Hunt taught us “Cause the wrong thing to be difficult, and the right thing to be easy.” So if you are dealing with a gate issue, make the gate the difficult place by trotting your horse in circles when he goes there. Put pressure on by flapping your legs and keep it on until your horse starts to look for another answer rather than the gate: when he starts to spiral out farther, wait until he is facing away from the gate and let go, let him go where he wants. If he trots back to the gate, repeat until he wants to leave again.
If your horse is attracted to another horse, or the instructor in the center of the arena, keep leg on and have him keep trotting around his love interest until he begins to think maybe that's not the most fun place to be.
Your horse is looking for an answer - set it up so he can find it. Let it be HIS choice to start to move away from the place he's attracted to.
It’s important to remember you are not punishing the horse for going to the gate, you only need to apply enough pressure to keep him moving, and when he finally thinks to himself "Maybe this gate isn't the greatest place to be after all," and goes to a place in the arena that is NOT the gate, let him stop and rest there; in fact, if you have been riding for awhile, that might be a good place to stop for the day and get off.
And think about this - if you always get off by the gate, where is your horse always going to want to go?
If your horse is avoiding a spot in the arena because it is scary for some reason, give up the notion that you have to “show him who’s boss” and MAKE him go there. Horses are prey animals and in the wild, fear is what keeps them safe from predators. This is when it's important to have empathy for our horses, to understand that they are acting in a way they think is keeping them alive.
Trot your horse wherever he wants to go, putting pressure on with your legs when he goes away from the scary spot, and releasing pressure when he goes towards it. Resist the almost overpowering urge to steer your horse. Trust him! Hold on to the saddle with one hand if he is "ducking and diving." Keep trotting, he is looking for an answer, let him find it. When he finally goes to a spot in the arena he hasn’t been to yet – let him stop and rest. Just hang out with him there, or get off if it's time to end your session.
If your horse can walk, trot and canter on a loose rein, without you steering him, cruising all around the arena with no “sticky spots,” congratulations! He is at peace with both you and his environment, and that is thanks to you.
Revised Sept 2017
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