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Respect Begins on the Ground

Mel Harms-Grossman explains groundwork principles to develop a safe partnership with your horse.

Mel Harms-Grossman and the AQHA stallion Codys San Drift, practicing set-up for a halter class. Photo courtesy of Mel Harms-Grossman.

Mel Harms-Grossman and the AQHA stallion Codys San Drift, practicing set-up for a halter class. Photo courtesy of Mel Harms-Grossman.

From Mel:

Issues Might Require More Than A Tissue.

Whenever horses are bought in for training, I have a list of questions to ask the owner. Of course the list of questions entail the standard: age, color, height, feed amount, breed and value. Additionally I like to know some particulars about what the owner wants to do with the horse after training, general attitude, perceived reason for training, previous training and any behavior issues they feel are strange about the horse or have dealt with previously.

Generally, younger horses tend to have less training and potentially fewer issues if they’ve been handled correctly in the past. Older horses tend to be wiser in the ways of the world and can be very respectful or have knowledge of saying “no” to requests or have gotten by with saying “no” in the past.  In the mind of the horse getting by with saying “no” to requested tasks makes him the leader of the partnership and is a win or reward situation for the horse. It often leads to what people describe as the problem horse.

Horses can present problem issues due to:

  1. Mental unpreparedness (fear) or aggressiveness (disrespect) leading to anxiety.
  2. Physical unpreparedness including lack of condition & pain.

Upon arrival, each horse is evaluated first on the ground. One would be surprised at exactly how much information a good evaluator can obtain from a groundwork session. I use what the horse tells me in the groundwork session to formulate the plan of action for their training at the farm. I also use this knowledge, along with how the horse progresses in the plan, to determine what the owner needs to learn to maintain his or her horse.

Many issues we see in training horses are mental, due to lack of respect and fear, which both lead to anxiety. Whatever the cause for the issue, we can work at fixing it by providing leadership to the horse and therefore earning and giving back respect. I find that a respectful relationship between horse and handler where the handler is clearly the leader makes for the best partnership.

Some owners have difficulty with the thought of leadership leading to a partnership. Think about a law firm. It consists of many or few lawyers working in conjunction for a unified goal. In the law firm there is a managing partner. That managing partner is responsible for the “leadership” of that firm. It doesn’t mean he or she can’t be kind, or beats up on his or her partners, or doesn’t listen to his or her partners. It does mean that he or she ideally is the one the other partners look to in time of crisis. He or she has the respect of the other partners, applies discipline when necessary and has final say on the important decisions that influence the productivity of that law firm.

When one looks at leadership from this objective manner, our role as “leader” of the partnership becomes much more weighted with responsibility and clear. This is why leadership during issues may require more than a tissue. It most likely will require some thought, action and backbone.

Mel and yearling AQHA stallion MVQ Jacksan preparing for a show. Photo courtesy of Mel Harms-Grossman.

Mel and yearling AQHA stallion MVQ Jacksan preparing for a show. Photo courtesy of Mel Harms-Grossman.

Obtaining leadership and building respect begins on the ground! I’ve personally found that if the horse cannot successfully and respectfully complete the basic task on the ground, it will not be able to do so with a rider. To build leadership and respect on the ground, I like my horses to be able to complete the following:

  • Walk forward on a loose line at the same speed as the handler.
  • Stop accurately.
  • Back up with impulsion and with no resistance (straight and curved lines).
  • Disengage the hindquarters.
  • Pivot both directions on the hindquarters (roll back or turn on haunches).
  • Lightly give the face/head side to side with halter and rope.
  • Move around me on a short or long line comfortably at all gaits.
  • Round pen work (accept new objects).
  • Latch on/join up/follow/pay super attention to handler.

My job as the leader is to reward the horse for trying to complete these tasks. At first they might get a reward for leaning the correct direction. If we reward correctly, it makes the horse WANT to work with us. By the same token, if we reward incorrectly, we can actually cause disrespect and anxiety in the horse. As the horse begins to make progress, we have to delay the reward to build leadership, build respect and ultimately yield progress. The horse at some point has to do more to earn the reward or the horse will become stagnant. We also have to recognize as leaders when the horse is being disrespectful and use appropriate discipline to rebuild respect. All of this must be done with control of our own emotions.

Trainer Paul Austin and Oldenburg mare WL Bourbon Street working on the ground before training in the saddle. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Kahn.

Trainer Paul Austin and Oldenburg mare WL Bourbon Street working on the ground before training in the saddle. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Kahn.

Below are some examples of the horse acting disrespectfully. Consider a display of one or more of these behaviors an opportunity to recognize and fix a larger issue. There are a few behaviors (which I will note) that are completely disrespectful and extremely unsafe and must be dealt with swiftly. If you feel you cannot deal with the noted behaviors swiftly, please find a professional to assist you immediately. The longer the truly unsafe behaviors continue, the more difficult they will be to deal with. That being said, many of the smaller issues will also lead to the larger issues if leadership and respect are not demonstrated and obtained.

ANNOYING, WITH POTENTIAL TO ESCALATE TO UNSAFE

  • Dancing or inability to stand still or relax.
  • Failure to back up off a signal or out of the space of the handler. Failure to move forward with pressure.
  • Using the head or body to direct where the handler can stand or what tasks they can perform.
  • Refusing to move near on or over objects. (Reasonable if they are truly scared of the object, but leadership must be applied to move past this issue.)
  • Pawing

UNSAFE

  • Walking into, over, on top of or running past the handler.
  • Moving opposite of the intended pressure the handler is applying.
  • Turning the hip to the handler (not facing) or using the shoulder to run into the handler.
  • Elevated head position for extended period of time / lack of attention of the handler.
  • Anxious or aggressive (ears back or ears pinned, mouth open) expression.
  • Pawing

EXTREMELY UNSAFE

  • Striking
  • Bucking
  • Biting / nipping / mouthy
  • Rearing up
  • Kicking

The behaviors that are noted as “extremely unsafe” are avoidance responses and very disrespectful. The issues can be lessened and or eliminated in most cases once the handler provides leadership and gains respect of the horse. Prior to fixing the “extremely unsafe,” the unsafe and other disrespectful behaviors will be worked through and therefore fixed as well.

In some cases, extremely unsafe behavior is exhibited when the horse has a physical issue, is in pain or has a medical problem. Most often when the problem is pain (medically) related, the horse will have a quicker change in attitude. Many horsemen and women fail to recognize the small disrespect issues that lead to the large unsafe issues. These small issues will build over time and the horse will often get worse. Of course, if the horse is having a pain issue, that pain will need to be addressed so we might eliminate it before working on the mental side of the horse.

After we get the horse working in a respectful manner, it is just as important to work with the owner/handler to teach the following groundwork skills: (1) Safety (2) Leadership (3) Appropriate reward (4) Recognition of disrespect from the horse (5) How to work through the issue rather than avoid the issue.

Building all of these skills take time and practice. However, mastering these items on the ground will only lead to more productive time under saddle and a better partnership in the long run. Don’t forget providing leadership gains respect and begins a lifetime partnership. It all starts on the ground!

Maddie, a Paint Mare, is starting her work over obstacles. Photo courtesy of Mel Harms-Grossman.

For over 10 years Melissa (Mel) Harms-Grossman has successfully trained horses for show at halter, reining, barrels, poles, ranch reining, trail, western pleasure and more recently ranch horse pleasure and western dressage. She enjoys starting colts, providing continuing education for started horses, finishing show horses & working to build confidence in trail horses. One of her most proud accomplishments is helping clients attain show goals of exhibiting at AQHA and FQHR World Shows. Mel trains horses at her own SunRunner Ranch in Buffalo, Minnesota.

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