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Ground training. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

March 1, 2020

Winter, the perfect time to regroup, reflect, and fill in the gaps in any training in preparation for the new season. Going back to ground work, especially when working in the cold, is a great way to 1) stay warm, 2) improve flexibility, 3) improve connection, 4) build strength, and 5) teach maneuvers to your horse so the horse understands what you are asking once you get back to riding.

Since you want to stay warm while working with your horse, when doing ground work you can wear your warmest boots without worrying about your feet getting caught in the stirrups. You can also wear a toque instead of your helmet. You could also wear a thin hat under your helmet if you want to add a little more safety to your handling. Bulky gloves are also not as much of an issue with ground work.

When starting ground work we always like to check in with the horse’s ability to bend left and right. This simple exercise can tell you if one side is harder to bend to than the other. Stand at your horse’s side, slightly behind the girth, facing forward. Hold the lead rope in your outside hand (left hand if on the horse’s left side). With your inside hand (hand closest to the horse) begin to rub in the girth area or slightly behind where the girth would sit, just where the ribs start to curl under the horse’s belly. You should find a small indentation, which is essentially a bunch of nerve endings. Also think of where your heel might rest against the horse. This is the natural axis of the horse.

Pic 1

Lisa is asking her mare to bend around. It is not necessary for the horse to bend completely around as this horse is. Lisa’s body is back behind the girth to allow the mare to bend around. Her pressing hand is just behind the girth.

If the horse moves away from the pressure, continue rubbing, but hold the lead to prevent the horse from going forward. If he turns, turn with him, keeping your belly button aligned with the middle of his chest. When the horse turns his head and looks in your direction, release the massaging pressure to show him that is what you want. Rub again to see if the horse turns to look at you and release when he does. Keep your body back with your core ‘off’ (have soft, slightly bent knees and slightly bend with your upper body, without dropping your chest and shoulders forward). This acts like a draw to allow the horse to bend around to you. If your core is “on” (belly sticking out) or your outside shoulder or hip goes forward, it may block the horse from turning as far. When the horse looks towards you he is bending in the rib cage and bending around the pressing hand. When mounted we can use our leg to press and the horse will bend around our pressing leg.

This simple exercise can begin to shape the horse and create more flexibility and suppleness. Being able to bend your horse in this way will also help you keep your horse’s attention when you are tacking up at your trailer or in the stall. If the horse bends away from you to look at something you can go to the bend spot and massage to get his attention back on you. When asking for the horse to bend around to you, your goal is to have the horse come around and hold the bend on his own for 10 seconds. Then you know he is comfortably there and is truly bending, the muscles on the outside of the bend are lengthening, and the muscles on the inside of the bend are contracting. It may take some time to build up to this time.

Once the horse is comfortably bending left and right you can walk you horse on a circle in-hand (see our previous article on in-hand leading in the March and April 2019 issues of SaddleUp). Using a dressage whip in your outside hand, you can touch the horse at the girth while you are walking to remind the horse to keep his bend on the circle. By keeping contact with the lead rope you will be guiding the horse where you want him to go (without pulling, but instead using consistent blocking contact to disallow any unwanted movement) and will also be able to feel as soon as he tries to look away. A tap to the girth should bring his attention back. If it doesn’t you can make your circle smaller and use the whip to push the hindquarters out of the circle slightly to bring the horse’s attention back to you. Your body will stay aligned with the horse (your shoulders aligned with his shoulders, your core aligned with the middle of his chest) and your inside hip (the one closest to the horse) will push toward the horse slightly to create the bend on the smaller circle.

Pic 2

Leading in-hand – horse is bending on the circle. Lisa’s hand is back under the throat, guiding the horse, along with her body turning on the circle.

Another exercise you can do in-hand is teaching your horse how to back up without pulling, which will also translate to under saddle work. For this exercise you will need a dressage whip. Stand your horse either along a fence line or an arena wall with your body next to the horse’s shoulders. Keeping your body facing forward with hips squarely over your feet, hold the leadline with contact, keeping your hand under the horse’s head. Using the dressage whip, tap lightly near the flank. This cue will push the horse forward into your blocking hand, which will not allow the horse to go forward. The wall blocks movement to the outside and your body blocks the other side. The only choice left is for the horse to step back. When he does, release tapping pressure immediately and praise. When you first start to tap the horse may push through your block. If he does, circle the horse back to the wall and ask for the halt again. After a few tries he will begin to get the idea. Just ask for one step at first, then you can add more as he gets more comfortable with it. To ask the horse to come forward again, move your hips to the outside to invite the horse into the open space. When the horse gets beside you bring your hips back to square to stop the horse again, or you can step in with the horse once he is beside you and go for a walk, before halting and trying again.

Pic 3

Lisa showing the position of the whip when asking the horse forward into the hand. Her hand will block the forward, then the horse will step back. This translates to riding the horse from back to front and teaches the half-halt – a shift back off the forehand.

Pic 4

As Lisa asks her horse to back up she keeps her hips square to the horse. The horse should not step past her block.

During all of these exercises the horse should remain level-headed. When the horse’s head lifts up above the withers the horse’s back will hollow and he will get more anxious. By keeping the head low to level the horse will get more endorphins and relax with the work.

Pic 5

A student is asking her horse to step forward from the backup by opening her hip and asking for forward with the whip. Note in this pic the horse is wearing a cavesson. When using the cavesson the hand closest to the horse is holding the whip and outside hand holds the lead (this gives a softer feel on the nose, more like an open rein, and the hand closest to the horse can press the shoulder away quicker if he steps into you. Having the whip closer to the body also helps with bend. Using a cavesson keeps the horse much more aligned. No more tilting heads!).
All these exercises can be done either with a halter, bridle, or cavesson.

By focusing on ground work a few days a week or even 15 minutes before your ride you can effectively change muscle patterns in the body that could lead to lameness and improve the horse’s frame of mind in preparation for work. A relaxed, supple body will be much more willing to do the work you require of your horse. Have fun with these exercises.

Photos by Rebecca Wieben, Dawn Stevens, and Lisa Wieben. Pictured Lisa Wieben and student Diane Luxen.

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles that appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis. The articles are a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz.

Lisa Wieben is a versatile and exceptional riding coach, balancing her skills as a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Equine Canada Western Competition Coach, and Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer. Currently specializing in Western and English Dressage, she trains youth, adult amateurs, and professionals as well as coaching a local 4H group at her facility near Bowden/Olds, AB. Through dressage and foundational training she helps riders of all disciplines create stronger partnerships with their horses. Also, as a Hanna Somatic Instructor and Practitioner in Training, Lisa works with riders, in class or privately, learning movement exercises that target specific muscle issues in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and overuse. Her approach, using Dressage, Centered Riding, Irwin Insights principles, and Somatics, all come together to develop a balanced rider and a balanced horse.

Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, mentorship programs, intensive horsemanship courses, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, as well as working student programs at Falling Star Ranch Academy of Foundational Horsemanship in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language, biomechanics, as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage.

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