Lead By Example
Simple tasks can provide the most valuable groundwork lessons for your horse. Learn how Tammy Pate makes the most of leading, grooming, saddling and bridling her horses.
If you are a longtime horse owner, you probably have a pre-ride routine. In ritualistic fashion, you walk to the pasture with halter, lead rope and grain bucket in tote. You catch your horse, lead him to the barn and tie him to the hitching post. You brush off the mud and dust, plop on a pad and saddle, and bridle him. Now you’re ready to work.
Your work started the moment you walked into the pasture, when your horse formed his initial impression of you.
Last month, in the first of four articles in this series on “intuitive horsemanship,” you learned that you start training your horse—and any others around him—from the moment you step into his environment. Depending on your approach, you could be teaching horses to recognize and respect you from the ground, or to disregard your presence and leave.
This is all a part of my philosophy, based on ancient yoga principles, of being aware of your inner and outer worlds, and bringing the two together in harmony. When you’re in tune with yourself, your horse and nature, your intentions will be focused. In other words, you’ll be mentally and physically present in the moment, and recognize that each situation is an opportunity to build on your horse’s training and refine his responsiveness, which transfers to what you do in the saddle.
This sometimes means you must change your plans and spend more time working with your horse on the ground, rather than in the saddle. However, groundwork doesn’t have to be thoughtless movement around a round pen. You’re doing groundwork from the time you go to catch your horse.
In this article, we’ll pick up where we left off in the last installment, on the ground with your horse haltered, ready to lead him back to the barn to groom and saddle. These simple tasks, if done correctly and with cognizance, are effective groundwork exercises in preparation for riding.
First, however, take a moment to relax, breathe deeply, focus on the present, and forget everything that’s bothering you. Also, set an affirmation for this lesson. As I explained in the last article, an affirmation helps create positive thoughts that increase your confidence, focus your intentions, and empower you physically and emotionally to achieve your goal.
Once your horse is haltered, pay attention to how you hold the lead rope. You want to grasp the rope firmly in your hands, but never gripping it. Gripping creates a current of tension that radiates up the rope to your horse.
No matter what you do with a horse, you must capture his mind before you can ask for movement. If your horse is asleep, grazing or looking at something other than you, before you lead him, gain his attention by gently bumping the lead rope, bringing his head toward you, snapping your fingers or delivering some other low-pressure cue to attract his attention.
If you were to walk forward without his attention, the rope would jerk the halter when you reach the end of the rope, startling your horse and probably causing him to pull back.
This simple mistake happens often and people don’t think anything about it, but they’re actually encouraging resistance in their horses.
When you lead your horse, you want him to respond more to your body position, breath and energy than to lead-rope pressure. This will keep him responsive to light rein pressure when you’re riding. Standing relaxed with energy in your body, take a deep breath, increase your energy and bump the halter rope to the left or right if necessary, signaling your horse to think about moving forward and releasing the weight from one front foot, which enables him to strike off smoothly. To move his left foot, move his head to the right with your lead rope, and vice versa.
As your horse strikes off, allow a little rope to slide through your hand, easing any pressure. Keep your energy up, however, so he continues to move in response to your body language.
You should encourage your horses to want to be with you, but occasionally, if a horse pushes the boundaries, you might have to remind him to respect your space. If you’re a timid handler, this can be difficult. But be aware of what your horse is doing, think ahead, and find the confidence and energy to say, “Enough is enough.”
For example, if you sense your horse’s energy is increasing and he’s moving too close for comfort, turn toward your horse and raise your hand to him, signaling him to stop. Then position him at a safe distance and start to lead him again. If he continues to be pushy, flip a coil down your rope and say, “Enough.” It may take awhile, but he’ll eventually learn his boundaries and to gauge his distance.
To stop your horse, exhale, slow your energy and apply rope pressure if necessary. Encourage your horse to respond more to your energy and body movement by practicing striking off and stopping often, relying less on rope pressure.
Horsemanship involves finding the edge of your and your horse’s comfort zones, pushing that limit, then backing off before you “jump off the cliff,” or lose confidence. As you challenge yourself and your horse, your confidence and teamwork will grow.
I like to think of this concept like a pendulum; using your energy and breath, you push and push boundaries until you reach the limit. Then you swing back to your comfort zone, exhaling and slowing your energy. The feeling should be smooth, never jerky.
To feel this pendulum, while softening your horse to subtle cues, try my teeter-totter exercise. Place your hand on the lead rope where it attaches to the halter. This is the only time I advise holding this high on the lead rope, because it applies pressure to the halter. Point your thumb down on the rope, aiming it toward your horse’s hind feet. Apply very light backward bumping pressure on the rope, encouraging your horse to yield to the pressure and flex at the poll so his nose is perpendicular to the ground.
Inhale and increase your energy, encouraging your horse to shift his weight backward. The moment you feel the slightest shift and see him start to shift his weight off a front foot, exhale, slow your energy, and bring him back into the starting position. Repeat this exercise with the intention of just using your energy, breath and body to get your horse to shift his weight rearward. This is a very subtle movement; you want to feel your horse rock backward, but not take a step.
Grooming and Saddling with Intent
I encourage you to groom and saddle your horse untied, while keeping his focus on you. Doing so takes discipline from both horse and handler, but it also challenges you to be aware of your horse’s every movement and to hold his attention. Furthermore, it’s more comfortable and safer than if your horse were tied. If your horse is tied and falls asleep, and you startle him with the saddle, he could spook and pull back, creating a bad habit.
Start this sequence with your horse in a square position, just to practice positioning your horse’s feet. When grooming, place the lead rope loosely over your forearm. Relax, breathe normally and talk to your horse, focusing on his position and movement. Use rope pressure as necessary to encourage him to keep his attention on you at all times, gradually working around your horse and having him stay hooked on in response to your energy. If he becomes distracted or starts to move away, pick up the lead rope and move him back into position.
With consistent practice, your intent and energy—not pressure and verbal cues—will be enough to keep him hooked on.
As I mentioned in last month’s article, a horse can sense when you’re not organized and will take advantage of the situation. That’s why it’s important that before you saddle your horse your cinches are organized and tied up so they don’t become tangled. Place the pad forward on your horse’s back and slide it with the grain of the hair into position, making sure the edges are even. Raise the saddle and gently lower it onto your horse’s back in one smooth movement. Throwing a saddle on a horse doesn’t promote a positive impression or riding experience.
Secure all of your cinches, starting with the front cinch, moving to the rear cinch and the breast collar. As a safety measure, check for any twisted leather, broken straps or loose attachments, and adjust accordingly.
While you groom or saddle your horse, notice if he shifts his weight and lightens a foot. This indicates he’s about to walk off. If he does this, touch his shoulder or pick up your lead rope, and place his foot back in a square position. You don’t necessarily have to lead the horse in a circle to reposition him. Sometimes it just takes gently pressing on his shoulder or applying light lead-rope pressure. If you’re not aware of your horse’s body language and he steps away when you put on the saddle, your saddle will probably fall off and spook him.
Noticing these subtleties on the ground and taking time to refine the right response is the key to developing respectful communication between you and your horse. Master the maneuvers in this article and next month you’ll be ready to ride.
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. Next month, Pate explains how to correctly mount your horse and put him to work under saddle.