Training Mythunderstandings:
Groundwork: From Basics to Games

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Horse-logical heeding involves showing the horse new things that are only one step, or two at most, away from what he already understands. When we first start groundwork with a baby green horse, the primary goal of the horse’s early lessons is not mastering a specific set of skills. Our primary goal is to develop a feeling of trust and camaraderie with the horse. We do this by always maintaining a feeling of rhythm and relaxation and by making sure that each new thing we show him and would like him to understand is horse-logically as close as possible to something he already knows.

As we introduce the horse to each new bite of information, heeding takes him through three levels of understanding:

  1. We start to show him what we want by doing the same thing he’s doing. We mirror whatever he’s doing, whether that’s walking or trotting or stopping or whatever, while putting just enough pressure on him to keep him doing it. Then we take the pressure away and invite him to relax. Gradually, he starts making an association between the movement we’re showing him and a particular shape and feel in his own body.
  2. To test whether he understands what we’re showing him, we are going to ask him to do it by doing it first. If he follows our lead, he understands. If not, we repeat Step 1. If he understands what we are asking and responds correctly to our communication, we use lots of repetitions to gradually shorten his response time.
  3. Once we are sure that he understands what we are asking, we can tell him to do it.
  4. If he does not respond after we are sure he completely understands our request, we can now enforce our request with a little stronger or little different pressure. An important thing to remember is that we never, never, never enforce a request as a “punishment.” We never enforce in a way that elevates the excitement level because that messes up the program. We lose the feeling of camaraderie and trust. We lose the concepts of rhythm and relaxation that are the foundation of anything you are trying to teach your horse.

Whether he’s working loose on the fence or wall while we’re out somewhere in an arena or whether we’re walking alongside him, we gradually show the horse that our body position indicates what direction to move and our feet (the activity level in our body) show him what speed to go.

Once the horse has reached the third level of understanding, we can start mixing things up and playing with our horse. Our main goal continues to be developing trust by keeping everything rhythmic, relaxed, and horse logical. But now we can start playing with our horse. As we play games and work patterns together, we will continue learning how to focus on one another with 100 percent attention.

On any given day, you might decide that you are going to work on mental games that stimulate the horse’s mind, on physical games that will condition his muscles, or things that do both. When your horse is working loose in the arena, you can mix up changes of direction and gait transitions in all kinds of ways. You can add some cavalletti or jumps.

One day when you are working alongside your horse with a lead, you start letting the lead rope out a little more as you move farther out away from him. As the distance between you increases, you continue using the body language the horse already understands to work him on a circle. You’ve just taught your horse to longe without snapping whips at him or chasing him. Before you even introduced a longe line, you knew you could already stop him or ask him to trot or canter because he was already doing those things in relation to your body position and foot movements when he was loose in the arena.

Once the horse understands that the game is following the lead of your body language, you can really start playing with all of this. You can get the horse to free jump logs, go through a little maze of poles, or whatever other game you want to make up. Heeding makes it a cinch to introduce distractions into the horse’s environment and “spookproof” him. That’s because he’s paying attention and following your lead. And because you’re paying attention to him and being careful to introduce the distractions in a way that never startles him or raises his excitement level.

You can use heeding to teach your horse to walk right into a trailer or to trot the pattern at his kür inspection like a champion. The trust it builds up between you is going to carry over when you start your under saddle work with the horse. And you’ll continue then, as you have already, to introduce new things just one small bite at a time, just one small step away from what he already knows. Trust built on a foundation of rhythm and relaxation will continue to be the basis of everything you do with your horse.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I love the Meredith Manor program. It's given me so much in terms of skill and confidence, it's incredible!
Katie O'Toole: 2007 Riding Master VI Graduate