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Slow Down in December With Ground Work

With the holiday crunch, limited daylight and a hundred extra responsibilities piling on our shoulders, our riding time might be a little rushed. Melanie O’Neill shares some basic ground work exercises to help us all slow down this season.

Move over No-Stirrup November, it’s Ground Work December.

So I just made that up, it doesn’t even alliterate and I don’t have a hashtag, but our horses need this; we need this. Holidays are approaching and everyone is rushing around, but we need to slow down. We are all tight on time, so keep it simple. No extra equipment needed, no riding time lost, just your regular tack and a dressage whip. Let’s use groundwork to improve your under saddle time.

Groom and tack up as usual, then head to the ring.  Do you usually go right to the mounting block? Don’t; force yourself to walk in hand one lap in each direction. I’ll wait. Done? Let’s replay your walk. Were you present during your walkabout? You know, new age present, the Zen thing, mindfulness, in the moment. Being aware of your body and thought processes. For instance, where was your horse in relation to your body? What cues did you use? Did he look at anything? What did you talk about? How fast did you go? You weren’t texting, WERE YOU?!

I shouldn’t criticize. You made it twice around the ring, in hand, despite the smirks and eye rolls from the other riders. You demonstrated patience and your horse is a little looser, more relaxed and warmer for it. He doesn’t have a clue what just happened but he’s cool with it.

Now let’s do a little groundwork with purpose. Try to use cues that you would use when riding – that means not letting him follow your body. Walk next to your horse, in front of the shoulder, behind his head. I like to bridge the reins so I can use reins independently or together like from the saddle. Now walk on. Don’t just start walking yourself; use the walk-on rein cue. Push your rein hand forward to increase poll pressure*, but keep your body still. He should take the first step. If encouragement is needed, use the whip to tap his side just where your heel would be.

Here are a few exercises that you can use depending on what your horse needs.

  • Check the whoa. While walking along, ask for a halt. The cue is rein hand back towards chest, then you stop walking.  If he completely blows through the whoa, try again. It may be not listening or just not understanding. You can use the whip to touch his chest or legs to help him get the idea.  If he is not listening, ask for a step or two back. Over time perfect the halt, just like you would do under saddle, until it is prompt and square.

Asking for the halt. Photo by Jonathan Platt.

  • Play with the tempo. This will help horses that are too fast or too slow. Increase the speed at the walk with the walk-on cue and walk faster yourself; tap with the whip if needed.  Slow the walk with a light whoa cue and walk more slowly.  Change the speed a few times around the arena.
  • Turning inside and outside.  To make a turn, a horse puts his front leg in the direction of movement, so to turn right his first move in that direction is to step with the right front leg. With an inside turn he turns toward or around you. For an inside turn, bring your rein hand toward you. Give him room to make the step with the inside front. This is usually the easier turn in hand. For an outside turn, move your hand away from you. If your arms are short or your horse is wide, you can use the added cue of pointing the butt of the whip at his nose, or more correctly, touch his outside shoulder. By using both reins in the turn you are successfully using the outside rein in the turn.

Turning out, with the butt of the whip pointed at his nose. Photo by Jonathan Platt.

  • The Park (stand). All horses need to be able to stand quietly. It is best taught from the ground first. This will help horses that don’t stand for mounting or wiggle in the cross-ties, and possibly with standing in the trailer. You need a cue that you don’t use for anything else. Maybe jiggle the reins or touch on the nose; this one is up to you. I like to start with the verbal “stand”. From the halt with a longer rein, step away from your horse. Does he follow you? Gently correct by repositioning him; he thinks he did the right thing. You can correct one foot moving by touching it with the whip until it goes back in position. It’s easy to correct front end, but the back end wigglers are more difficult. Use a wall or fence so you only have to worry about one side. As he gets it you can walk around, rub his hind end, move a mounting block and my favorite, skip around. You will find the hardest one for him to hold is if you stand next to his head and just walk forward. You have to undo a lot of programming that says “follow me.”

Practicing the stand. Photo by Jonathan Platt.

  • Move away from the whip. This is a simple test that can be a game if it is used gently with maybe a few cookies included.  Use a longer rein and work and from the halt. If you touch the whip to his flank, he should step away to the side. If he doesn’t get it, bring his head toward you and then you get your step away. You can use this on the chest to ask him to back up or move a single foot. With help and care, you can use it from behind to get a step forward – that helps with trailer loading.
  • Get rid of the Bogeyman – Is your ring haunted? Are there deep dark corners hiding evil things like jump standards, muck buckets or dusty play balls? On your walk about, make sure you check out these places and have cookies magically appear.  Bonus cookies for touching evil objects on cue. Can also be used for scary doorways. Don’t be surprised if when you are riding, your horse suddenly volunteers to go there.

These are the basics; expand on these as you like. Remember: use clear communication through purposeful cues. This is new to you both, so it will take some practice to learn and execute cues. These exercises will help with your timing of under saddle aids. Use verbal cues if you like, but be consistent. The dressage whip is a precision tool; use just a touch or tap. Have fun, be mindful and feel free to discuss the day’s events with your horse – he’s a really good listener.

*Of course you can’t pull forward when riding, but it is a cue. It is better than moving off your body because you don’t always want him to follow you around. Also, the whip reinforces your leg aids**.

** Which brings up a matter of semantics. I tend to use “cue” for groundwork and “aids” for under saddle, but they are the same thing: a signal or means of communication.

Go riding!

Melanie O’Neill is an event and dressage rider from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She organizes dressage shows at Bucks County Horse Park and works at a veterinary clinic. She operates her own business for riding lessons and training as well as equine massage, fecal testing and nutrition consultations. She is married with three sons.

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