I’ve been thinking recently about the link between a horses behaviour on the ground and when being ridden.
Often I find that a horse who is difficult to work with in the saddle can be bolshy or tricky on the ground. A young horse I’m helping a friend with is quite dominant on the ground, trying to nip and push you around the stable, and in the saddle she is equally obstreperous, kicking out at the leg, bucking when asked to move forwards. So to solve the problem you need to work on both areas. So my friend is being very strict on the ground, ticking the mare off quickly, and ensuring she doesn’t overstep the boundaries set. This means that the mare is a little bit more amenable in the saddle as she hasn’t already gained the upper hand.
I’ve used this with a client of mine, who has a very clever pony. The pony isn’t nasty on the ground, or particularly dominant, but everything is done on her terms. So you tack her up after she’s walked around the stable upon spotting the saddle. She sidesteps as you adjust your stirrups. Although all of this can be seen as her being excited about being ridden, she’s actually controlling the situation and subsequently her handlers.
When being ridden, she throws everything at her rider in order to get the upper hand on the rhythm or direction. Obviously this creates a problem, and it was when I watched her being tacked up that it came to me.
That lesson I asked my rider to do a few in hand exercises with the pony. Make her stand until told to move off, and gradually increase the duration of the halt, and the control her rider had – initially she had to work hard holding the reins to maintain the halt, but gradually she reached a point where she would ask for halt and then drop the reins and the little mare waited patiently until patted and asked to walk on. It was obviously easier to mount with this bit of respect gained as the mare stayed stationary for as long as necessary.
Once mounted, we repeated the same exercise until the pony halted instantly and stayed still with the reins dropped for as long as necessary.
With these rules established the lesson got off to a great start because the mare was tuned in to her rider, and not challenging her leadership. When the halt is perfected you can do other exercises such as rein back from the ground, or walking into a box and leaving the mare there; anything that teaches the pony that she is to be submissive to her handle. Then of course this submission should be seen and become normal behaviour in the stable, when catching and leading, or on the lunge.
Working on the ground can take the argument out of a ride, and can also build confidence as the rider knows they’ve already got the upper hand.
Even when trotting or cantering, you have to try and convey your expectations to your horse with consistency and clear aids. Then they understand that this is normal behaviour and that any deviation will be reprimanded. Imagine trying to keep them inside your box, or parameters set. One toe out of line and they are pushed back in.
One mare I school likes to push the boundaries every time I ride, so we always begin with a little argument about standing still on the ground and once I’ve mounted,then the first few laps of the school are me generating the trot I expect, and her giving me a bit of backchat before finally knuckling down and working beautifully.
I thought about the expectations I have of any horse I’m with on the ground. I expect them to step backwards as I approach with feed buckets; they should stand immobile while I tack up and after if I have to adjust my hat or layers of clothing or while I put my gloves on. Then of course is the halting once I mount until I say so, and should I drop the reins in walk to give em a break, they should continue walking round the arena, again until I say otherwise. I think it’s these basic manners on the ground which help shape the way a horse behaves under saddle, and it equally highlights the importance of a rapport with a horse you are about to ride.