by Ron Meredith
Why Good Training Starts on the Ground
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
When some students first arrive here at Meredith Manor they don't see the point of the ground work we call "heeding." Moving their horses around on the ground doesn't seem very exciting. They're impatient to get in the saddle and start riding. They might jabber something about "respect" or herd hierarchy or some other mumbo jumbo if I pushed them to come up with a reason why the ground work was important. But they really don't see much connection between how they, say, lead their horse from the barn to the arena and how they ask that horse to canter.
The horse experiences everything you do when you're with him as a positive or negative feeling. Positive feelings or experiences are non-stressful and keep the horse relaxed. Negative experiences are stressful, raise the horse's excitement level and make the horse tense. A horse must be relaxed before he can pay attention and learn. The horse that's tense is just looking for a way to get out of Dodge. And if he can't find one, he'll either blow or he'll shut down, depending on his inclination. There's no learning in going on with either one.
So we use our ground work to start building a base of positive feelings in the horse. We want the horse to start trusting that being around us is a positive experience. In order for that trust to develop in the horse, the students have to develop habits of concentration and consistency. The ground work helps them do that. And those habits of concentration and consistency carry over directly to their under saddle work.
Concentration means you start working with the horse from the moment you greet him in his stall until the moment you put him away. It means you have to pay attention to the horse at every moment if you want him to pay attention to you at every moment. You watch him and make a little fuss of some sort to bring his attention back to you as soon as his attention wanders.
Consistency means whenever you apply a pressure (some people prefer the word "aids" but I think that's a mythunderstood word that doesn't take all the mental and physical pressures we actually use into account), you always do it in a way that allows the horse to get rid of that pressure by moving in the right direction. Another way to say this is that your pressure creates a feeling in the horse and if he takes the shape you want him to take, the pressure goes away. Every time the horse responds and takes the shape you want, either the pressure goes away either because his own movement removes it and he rewards himself or because you as the trainer remove the pressure to reward him.
Directing every stride the horse takes naturally follows from concentrating on the horse and consistently applying communication pressures. When you learn to direct every stride the horse takes on the ground it's no big, dramatic change when you start him under saddle to direct every stride he takes. When both of you are concentrating on each other, the horse learns to expect that as soon as he takes a stride, you're going to be telling him what shape you want him to take with the next stride and the next and the next.
In heeding on the ground, many of the pressures or "aids" students use to communicate with their horses involve the positioning of their primary and secondary lines of influence relative to the horse's primary and secondary lines. Their position relative to his creates a physical or mental pressure which creates the feeling of the shape they want the horse to take. That might be to walk or trot or turn or halt or stand or whatever. And it might be while they're standing alongside the horse or he's at liberty in an arena or he's out on the end of a longe line. The horse learns to pay attention to the handler's body language as his clue to what his next stride should be.
When students start working the horse under saddle, they are still using body language only now the horse can't see the handler. He can only feel the student's body language and the shape it suggests. The student is still concentrating on the horse and every stride. The student is still being consistent so that when his or her body language in the saddle creates a feeling in the horse and the horse takes the appropriate shape, the pressure goes away. The horse's understanding of what the student wants under saddle is only one bite away from what he already understood when the student was handling him from on the ground. The horse doesn't have to start all over trying to understand how to get rid of a pressure.
If you concentrate on the horse and are consistent in whatever you ask, show or tell him, the horse's trust and confidence will just naturally follow. If you aren't concentrating or consistent, you'll be giving the horse mixed signals. He won't know what to trust or not trust and his "learning" will be erratic, if he learns at all. The smart ones will just start to ignore you and the nervous ones will just get more high strung.
That's why all training starts on the ground whether your training a horse or a horse trainer.