After day one of our intensive ground handling clinic this weekend with Trevor Carter and the HSUS Forever Foundation, we might have been a little sunburnt, but we were certainly ready for more experiences and learning opportunities to improve our horsemanship skills. If you haven't read my first blog yet, be sure to check it out before you dig into this one!
If day one was focused on teaching the handlers how to use pressure and time our releases, day two built upon what we learned and went into the realm of teaching horses how to yield to pressure in a calm and focused manner. Trevor really emphasized that the goal was to teach each horse to use his/her brain during exercises, and seek comfort by staying with the handler both physically and mentally.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, all horse training, whether from the ground or the saddle, is based upon varying levels of pressure and release. We use pressure to indicate that we desire some type of change in the behavior of the horse, and levels of release to help them discover the answer to the question. Pressure is never used to punish, and horses should eventually understand the construct of the training system. We don't penalize the incorrect choice, but we do make it easiest to choose the correct path.
Exercises in Long Lining
We did a big group exercise of maneuvering the front end and the hind end while leading our horses in the arena on the first day. With the knowledge of how to easily manipulate the body parts of the horse, we went into long lining, or ground driving.
While long lining doesn't exactly and directly relate to how the horse goes under saddle, it does further your ability to control their feet, and get a good feel of their mouth. For the horses, this is another example of how to respond and yield to pressure, and use their brains in a methodical way without panicking.
We were asked to "ride" our horses in a small circle, and use our inside and outside rein as we would under saddle. The inside rein is for bending the horse and directional cues, and the outside rein is for slowing them down, or even bringing them back. I was able to move Yahaira's shoulders, hind end, change her direction, and eventually back her in a serpentine pattern. Teaching the horse to yield backward is a great exercise in trust and freedom in their body. It's very hard to back up if you're tense and resisting!
Flank Ropes & Leg Ropes
I was not familiar with the use of flank ropes or leg ropes, as I come from an English riding background where we aren't taught how to properly employ them in our regular training. A Western perspective focuses a lot more on the handling of the horse before you get in the saddle, and using flank ropes and leg ropes is part of the discovery process.
Basically, a long yacht rope with a metal loop is slung loosely around the ribcage of the horse, and initially you only let it hang where the girth would go. Leading the horse with a long line attached to a rope halter, you let them acclimate to the pressure of the rope in a relatively comfortable placement, and introduce them to the pressure. You pull and tighten the flank rope when you want them to stop or slow down, teaching them once again that pressure does not mean panic or flight, but rather a decrease in motion.
Once the horse is happy with this, you can slowly move it back towards the more sensitive area of the flank, and slowly increase and decrease your pressure when asking the horse to speed up or slow down. As you might imagine, some of the tightened ropes in this area caused some drama! However, in the end, even the most touchy horses relaxed and realized that the rope was not a threat, and that they could halt when it was tightened.
This exercise is an extension of what we've been teaching the horses all along: to respond to pressure and unfamiliar sensations with clear thought and slower moving body parts. It is also a great way to resolve an issue with bucking or panic under saddle. When you are riding, if you have an explosive bucking horse, they can decrease the pressure by dumping the rider, but within this exercise they have to decrease the pressure by responding in the correct way, and resolve the issue in their mind by solving the riddle properly.
We did the same sort of exercise with a leg rope, attached to a hind leg. This was a soft rope with no ring, but easily tightened and loosened, attached around the pastern of a hind leg. One handler held the head of the horse (outside of the round pen), while the other stood well behind the horse and asked him/her to yield the leg to the pressure, and let it be picked up and pulled backwards.
This, of course, was easier said than done. I was personally surprised by the power exerted by a relatively small horse out of one hind leg! After much kicking, however, the horses relented and relaxed, allowing the leg rope to manipulate the hind leg, and even allowing the handler to back the horse up using just the rope.
If you have young horses (or not so young horses!) that are touchy about the hind feet, this is a good way to teach them to learn about yielding to pressure, and a safe way to stay out of the kick zone. Before embarking on the foot- and flank-rope exercises, please make sure to enlist the guidance of an experienced professional! Your farrier will thank you!
To finish off the clinic, we all practiced trailer loading with our horses, and even did a team trailer loading relay race! The exercises we practiced are incredibly effective, but also hard to express in words, so I hope to show you how we achieved our success in a video soon.
Overall, attending a ground handling clinic was not something I would have imagined to be so enlightening when I was going into it, but I was pleasantly surprised. I can honestly say that I highly recommend the experience to anybody with any skill level.
There are so many things that you can accomplish with your horses without even getting in the saddle, and your relationship will be better for it. If you have the opportunity to push your comfort level and step into the world of horsemanship in this realm, I encourage you to take it with both hands! ~Kate