In the world of horses I’ve seen some riders spend lots and lots of time exercising or doing work with their horses on the ground before getting in the saddle, I’ve also seen riders get on and go, come what may.
There are a lot of different ways that you can do ground work and there are a lot different outcomes you can be searching for as part of this work. Personally the goal of my pre-ride work is about mental connection. I’m fortunate to have been in a partnership with Tucker for over 10 years. I’ve learned to quickly read how “with me” he is, just by paying attention to some typical interactions. Our “groundwork” doesn’t really look like groundwork at all. It looks more like steps that any rider takes before they are able to get on their horse.
However each step is specific and I’m looking for a certain quality of response from my horse. If it is missing, I know that I have some additional work to do and that work may look less like the typical “tacking” process and be tailored to whatever component he has shown me is missing as part of our pre-flight check. However, if all checks show a green light, then I throw a leg over and go.
I’m writing this list from the perspective of Tucker, but really it is the same process for all of the horses. Mainly I have expectations of certain responsibilities that I need my horses to maintain in each of these steps. If they cannot or will not uphold their end, I know I have some work to do. Here is my list of what I do and what I pay attention to in each step of the process:
Catching: Everyone has to physically get their hands on their horse before anything else can happen. This is the first place that I start to assess what state of mind Tucker is in. As I head out to pasture, when does he become aware of me and what is his reaction to my being there. Is he interested, is he waiting at the gate before I get there, does he run away, ignore me, look at me with interest but holds back on approaching, is my arrival a big game of chase. His first response to me showing up is a huge indicator to how our last interaction went and how receptive he is going to be in our next one. I never walk up to and halter my horses. It is their job to come to me. I’ve learned that a horse willing to leave their herd, grass, hay, pasture for me, is the absolute first step that I need to happen before I can feel good about getting on.
Haltering: Just like I don’t approach my horses, I also don’t halter them. Once they’ve come to me and I’ve spent some time scratching the itchy spots, I present the nose hole of the halter to them. I present it close to their head but several inches from it actually being on. It is their job to stick their nose through and also their job to keep their heads nice and low as I buckle it up. If they cannot offer this step I know they are not committed to yielding their freedom to me. If they cannot yield to something as simple as haltering, how can they yield to me on their back.
Leading: The next check I pay attention to is how does my horse come into the barn with me. I lead my horses with intention. I’m looking for willingness to come with me. I also designate a position the horse should “put” me in. Sometimes with their head right at my shoulder, sometimes they should be a couple feet behind, sometimes I want to be at their shoulder or sometimes at the rider position. Each time we walk into the barn, I vary the side I lead from and I vary the position I want them to keep me in. It is their job to figure out where that sweet spot is. If they walk too fast or too slow and I find myself out of the designate sweet spot, it is their responsibility to figure out how to adjust themselves to get me back to where I want to be. As I am bringing them in from pasture I change the pace at which I walk, this causes them to pay full attention to me, otherwise I will come out of that sweet spot and they will have to do something to get me there again.
Picking Out Their Feet: I ask for a foot. I lightly tap the inside of their leg and they should pick up their foot and offer it to me. I don’t believe I should have to extend any muscle energy as part of actually getting the hoof off the ground. Once they have given it to me, they should allow me to have it until I give it back. No pulling it away, no tensing it up or moving it around. When I’m done they should wait until I place their hoof back on the ground before moving it on their own. If Tucker plants his hoof, nibbles on me while I’m picking his foot or tries to take his foot away before I’m done, this is a really good indication that he is not ready to yield to my ideas and we have some work to do. With Tucker this step shows me if he is ready to give up the leadership.
Girthing: For Tucker this step will usually reveal if there is some nervous tension we need to work through. Their main responsibility for this step is to stand calm. If there is fidgeting, tail swishing, ear pinning or head turning, something else is going on. Sometimes it might be about the saddling process itself and sometimes it might be about something else but if there are not full green lights here, we have some exploration to do.
Mounting: When I mount, I try to use some sort of block or elevated surface. Now there is a lot of debate about the safety of mounting blocks and I think there is some merit to the arguments. However, I’ve decided that it is gentler to my horses’ backs and an indicator of their mental state to go ahead and use them. When I bring them to a block, I purposely do not stand them parallel to it. I don’t set them up in a position where all I have to do is get on. I place them in the vicinity and then they must wait to be asked and then I see if they are willing to line themselves up and come get me. Are they still while I mount? Are they skeptical about getting in position or downright refusing. Do they say, hey go ahead get on, let’s get this party started. If they are not willing partners in this, if they are giving feedback that they are not ready for this step then it is important for me to break down and figure out why. A horse that does not willingly let you get on, is a horse that I personally don’t want to be on.
Those are my six checks. If I don’t take the time to pay attention to these six things and make sure that my horses are comfortable and accepting of each, I’m pretty much guaranteed that we will have sticky spots somewhere in our ride. They are not a hard fast rule, all things may check out and we still might have some things to work out under saddle, but if I can get my horse mentally committed and with me on these few steps, I feel pretty safe about getting up there.