This is what happened to me last year: I led the frisian and one of his buddies through the village to the pasture. The frisian wasn‘t too keen on it and dragging along, the other one excited to finally get access to gras. Still, he looked right and left along the way hoping for some snacks. He was walking freshly next to me on a loose rope but within seconds he turned away from me and dragged me along some steps to an apple tree and some rotten fruits on the ground. 

Not only was I surprised, I was helpless. And that was not only because I hadn‘t been attentive. It was also because of the gear. The horse going for the apples wears a nice webhalter, with the parts over his neck and nose comfortably cushioned with some fleece. Additionally, the rope - that matches the color perfectly - is around 6 feet long and out of cotton. It stretches a lot - especially if the horse pulls hard enough (which he did aiming for the apples). I actually had bought the same rope (because of the color) but I don't use it anymore because it is useless.

being with horses, equipment, rope halter, education
Halter tree. Photo: Nadja
The problem with equipment made of soft broad fabric that seems to be very horse friendly at first glance: It takes options out of your hands. Even if I‘d push with all my strength, stem all my bodyweight against the fluffy halter and even if I shake the cuddly rope till my shoulders hurt: The horse won‘t be overly impressed as there is not a lot impact on it. 

If the horse wore a rope halter, the outcome would be different: The ropes are thin and make leaning against it not a particular comfortable endeavour. The lead rope is heavier and doesn‘t stretch which allows me to deliver a very precise feel. If the horse chasing the apples would have worn a rope halter, it wouldn‘t have stopped him from pulling. But I would have been able to convince him quickly that this wasn‘t his best idea of the day. Not by pulling or yanking, just by holding against the pressure. 

This is one of the if not the big advantage of a rope halter: When the horse stops pulling against it, the pressure on his head diminishes. The halter makes the wrong thing hard - going into pressure - and the right thing easy - yielding to pressure. A normal web halter makes it easier for the horse to pull against it and it doesn‘t offer an adequate release if the horse behaves as it is per se quite heavy and clumsy. 
I‘ve learned that this is why the rope halter is a perfect tool for horsemanship - it sort of empodies its philosophy. 

Sometimes it‘s our equipment that gives us trouble training our horses: That‘s the case when it makes a behavior that we don‘t want easy for the horse. 
Of course, you can still use fluffy halters and cuddly ropes. I personally use them when the horse has learnt not to pull against pressure and is good to lead. 

Have you experienced something similar?

PS: In this video Warwick Schiller explains how a rope halter is supposed to sit and how you tie it. 

Sometimes I become so overly focussed on a goal that I cannot appreciate the small steps anymore that lead to it. I loose my sense of gratitude. Fortunately, there are days when I am more aware of the blessings that surround me - and that are reason enough to make one smile even though the horse might not have achieved the flying lead change or brought home the ribbon from the show. 
This is why this post is about the small moments that can lighten our day and make us happy. 

- My project horse doesn't like to move very much. So for me, it's always something special when he offers something on his own initiative. We had him jumping over some small obstacles with his pasture buddy. Not only was he investigating the jump when we were still building it, he also ran some extra laps and jumped very focussed. 

- Also, I just love to watch how he sorts his legs (he jumps very economically) and how effortlessly he changes leads.

Being with horses, blog, happiness
Rolling definitely makes the horse happy. Photo: Nadja

- Sometimes, I work with the lariat. It has a better feel to it than the floppy lunge line and it is nice to have for bigger distances. I sent the gelding on a circle using quite some energy - he jumped out, tossing his head, bucking and kicking and he caught his hind leg in the lariat. When that had happened the last time, he got scared and ran backwards to get rid of the pressure (which build up on the halter on his head). This time, he stopped, yielded his hind end to the outside and looked at me. I took that as a question for help on his part - and I truly like that. That he turns to me when he is unsure (although he took off few moments before).   

- Well, I don't know if you can relate to that, but I am happy when I see the gelding roll in the dirt like he was 5 years old - and not 4 times that age. 

- As he is a rather independent horse (and not too enthusiastic about humans) I am always happy when he comes to greet me on the pasture. Or sometimes, when I am talking with somebody, he walks over and just stands there relaxing next to us and choosing our nearness. 

- When I come to the gelding, I usually stretch out my hand and offer him to sniff it. It's a ritual, like saying hello. Sometimes, when I lead him somewhere and he becomes distracted or even a bit tense, I also offer him my hand. Often he will lower his head and touch it - it refocusses him and it relaxes him almost immediately. 

- I also love it when we pause together and he rests his forehand on my knee or leg. He does not seek contact very often. 

Do you also appreciate these small moments of bliss? 
I have to confess: I don‘t always have a plan when I come to the arena with the horse. Sometimes it isn‘t even decided whether I ride or work from the ground. Usually, I prepare for riding from the ground  - and if something‘s wrong or I feel that the time is right to teach something new or to improve something old, I will do that and forget about riding. My plan evolves being with the horse. The same often happens with communication. 

A few weeks ago I wanted to do groundwork and use some poles that were already set up from previous lessons. 
The gelding knows a variety of exercises you can do from ground, and so it can be a challenge not to ask for the same maneuver for the hundredst of time and bore him to death but change the task and make it more interesting. 

groundwork, being with horses blog, conversations
You can do a lot with just 4 poles.
Image: Nadja

The poles were layed out as an L and this is what we did with them:
  • I was standing some feet away from him and asked him to yield his forehand for quarter of a circle. From this new position I sent him forwards or backwards. 
  • I sent him through the poles and played around with his speed: walk inside of the L, trot coming around it, walk again entering it. Or trot inside it and canter outside. Or trot outside and coming to a halt inside.  
I really liked the session because he was fully engaged mentally. He connected the different gaits to the L and he reacted faster and faster. I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to not only exercising the horse‘s body but also his mind. The conversation about the poles achieved the latter: The gelding responded immediately and precisely and I could lessen my cues more and more. 

How precisely can you influence your horse‘s feet?

Something similar I experienced with the frisian few weeks ago: Groundwork is no end in itself. But a test how clearly your message is understood by the horse. Can you direct his feet precisely standing several feet away from him? Can you deliver a feel for the speed and the direction you want - with your body and the rope ? 
The frisian for example was worried about sidepassing with a pole under his belly. He wanted to cross it in huge steps. Also, he wasn‘t sure of being able to move forehand and hindend seperately. So I shortend the rope and asked him step by step to move over. I tried to help him understand that he was capable of sorting his legs and there was no need to rush. 
Working on the details, when precision is necessary, reveals the quality of our foundation. In our case it showed me that I still needed to work on separating front and hind clearly. 

groundwork, being with horses blog, conversations
It doesn't get any simpler. Image: Nadja
With the frisian, the set up of the poles was as simple as it gets: just two parallel to each other building a lane
I was standing some feet away and tried not to leave my spot. 
I asked him to sidepass behind the pole furthest away from me.
Also, I tried to send him to the outside of the faraway pole, between the poles and between me and the nearest pole by using rope and energy and not the stick. My aim was to deliver a feel for direction and space where I wanted him to be.  
We also worked on coming to a halt from all gaits in different positions: behind, between or in front of the inner pole. Plus backing up.  

I find that we can use simple layouts and poles to have quite complex conversations with our horses.

Do you like groundwork? What to you usually work on?