Yes, there’s no better place between heaven and earth than on a horses back! Even though I am much more on the ground nowadays, there’s still nothing like a racy gallop in the early morning when the sun has just come up behind the Alps, the meadows are still dewy and the last mist whorls recede into the forest. Or one of these days when everything seems to go easy and smooth while practising those dressage moves in the arena and your horse is all gaits and movement.
I haven’t forgotten that feeling, I still understand it, but lately more and more horse owners are giving me the feeling what really wanted was a mountain bike, not a living, breathing, highly social animal.
Think about it. We keep horses in captivity that would walk 30 – 50 km per day in the wild. Every other day or so, we pull them out of their herd (hopefully not a tiny 3×3 m box) for an hour, clean them, saddle them, hop on, ride around, put them back… same procedure every time.
Wouldn’t a mountain bike do the job?
Here’s why I try to teach horse owners to vary their training:
First of all, it will hugely improve the relationship you have with your horse. To build trust, horses need a fair leader, good communication and body language – that’s rather difficult when you spent most of your time together in the one spot it can’t see: your horse’s back.
Secondly, that aforementioned back is a lot more sensitive than most riders are aware of. After only 15 minutes under saddle, a horse’s back becomes numb, like a foot gone dead from sitting awkwardly. Its vertebraes are compressed, blood circulation comes to a standstill – you are, after all, sitting on its spine!
Lastly, you will get much better training results compared to doing everything from the saddle. Be it teaching a new move, giving your horse courage to be saver on the trail or just see them in action from the ground.
These are the 6 steps I recommend doing regularly and definitely well before getting into the saddle of a new horse. Your horse will love you for leaving the saddle home every now and then!
Grooming your horse is a great way to build a strong bond between you. And by grooming I don’t necessarily mean the cleaning you do before you saddle them, it’s much more an act of friendship. Just take a moment as often as you can, to walk up to your horse and give it a friendly scratch with the tip of your fingers, if you have a sensitive horse, just give them a rub with the flat of your hand. Watch their eyes and ears to find out which ones are the good spots.
Scratching the withers or the top of the mane relaxes horses and releases calming endorphins. Horse buddies do it all the time, be a buddy!
I go for walks with all horses on a regular basis, even if it’s just a 15 minute detour before going to the arena to train. Just a few weeks ago, it was a real struggle for her owner and me to lead this young chestnut mare below. Cody would crowd you, be inattentive and frequently jump into you.
To practice leading, I keep a whip between the horse and me in my right hand. This helps define the space between us and keep her front shoulder away from me, with a flick of my wrist I can bring the whip in front of her chest to keep her from speeding up or overtaking me. Cody now lets herself be led relaxed and respectfully, and it improved her courage and confidence to walk by herself.
Mostly though I go for walks when my time is limited, it’s a great way to say, “let’s do something fun together”, and gets the juices flowing. And a little early morning walk or after a stressful day in the office, it really gets you back on the ground.
3. Hanging out / Feeding & Grazing
This one might be the easiest way to build a real relationship with your horse. Just be around without wanting anything from them every now and then. If your horse has the privilege to live in a free herd, you’ll likely already be spending some time with them after training to feed them – if not, try and make it a habit.
Just take your buddy out to a spot of yummy grass or put a chair into the paddock, you can even read a book. And I can already picture the huge grin on your face, when your horse lifts its head from the grass to walk over and check in on you, all by itself.
4. Liberty Work
Liberty work is spending time with your horse at liberty, meaning no tack, no strings attached. Start out doing this in an enclosed space, a paddock or arena.
When starting out with liberty training, don’t expect too much and take it easy. This is time for you and your horse to have fun together, at liberty.
Begin by walking together in different positions: partner/companion position, leading ahead, driving from behind (herding).
Then practice stops and starts, left and right turns, backing up…
When Wesley and I do liberty training and he decides to walk away, I let him.
I give him a few moments, then I call him – and wait. It mostly takes a little while for him to decide if he should turn around, I can watch him ponder the question: his ears are with me but he’s pretending he hadn’t heard me, until a few moments later he turns around and walks up to me to see what new idea I’ve come up with, a look of curiosity in his eyes you will only see at liberty.
Now in my books, this is the greatest compliment you can get from your four-legged buddy!
Correct lunging is an art and I will probably elaborate in more detail in a future post.
For now, all I’d like to say about correct lunging is forget all the tack: please do not use bits, side reins or other stuff that will just render the exercise void.
All you need is a lunge and a stable halter, or better yet a cavesson and ideally a dressage whip (forget about the long whips, you don’t need to reach your horse).
With lunging you can really practice your posture and body language and how it affects your horse.
From a training perspective it is also a great way to straighten your horse, yes – straightness does not come from trail riding in the same direction. Your horse should be able to move around the circle without “falling out of it” – ideally you have no tension on the lunge and its ear and eye are with you with an ever so slight bend in its body and neck around you.
Here’s a nice example of my friend Gaby and her Sandro:
What’s more, lunging is a great diagnostic tool as you can see your horse move freely and can observe rhythm, footfall, self-carriage and decide what you need to work on.
6. Ground Work
This one is especially important if you enjoy riding dressage, teaching “tricks” or are simply interested in improving your partner’s posture and musculoskeletal system.
Ground work means working with your horse from the ground, for this you can use a bridle, long reins, a halter or just a rope and ideally a dressage whip to elongate your arm reach. I use ground work whenever I teach a new move, say leg yielding, or want to improve something, like smoother walk-trot transitions.
With my old boy I do a lot of ground work as substitute for in-saddle training sessions to stretch and smooth his muscles and work on his flexibility, for example when it’s rather warm outside.
I firmly believe, if your horse can’t do (or does not understand) what you are asking from the ground, you have no business demanding it from the saddle.
I hope this post gave you some exciting new ideas to try out with your horse, go visit him/her and have some fun together! Happy to hear what you guys do!?