For months, a good friend has suggested that I try adding groundwork to my routine with Candy. Her trainer (my friend next door) is a student of a natural horsemanship guru who works closely with my friend’s trainer. She swears adding groundwork to her horses’ training had an extremely positive effect.
I’ve always been skeptical about groundwork and natural horsemanship. For starters, the whole concept of communicating with horses in a “natural” way seems problematic. I’m not a horse. I lack some basic features that horses use to communicate with one another, like swiveling ears and a swishing tail. I’m put off by the gimmicky-sounding games and equipment, too. The natural horsemanship professionals I’ve met have also left me with a poor impression of the industry. They seem like snake oil salesman, promising a cure for every possible problem and targeting over-horsed, inexperienced amateurs.
I don’t have a problem with people practicing whatever they’d like, so long as they’re not hurting anyone. And the basic principle underlying all the training seemed sound: treat the horse with kindness and positive reinforcement. But I never drank the kool-aid. I don’t need a special stick or halter to train my horse fairly and effectively.
However, Candy’s continued insecurity and general anxiety led me to finally accept my friend’s offer of a joint groundwork lesson with my neighbor. Much like letting my yoga instructor practice reiki on Candy, I figured that spending an hour waving a stick at her couldn’t hurt.
We had our first lesson last week. I tried to keep my mind open, though I wanted to check out after hearing the ridiculous names given to some of the exercises/concepts (highlight: “the playpen of safety”). After swapping Candy’s leather halter for a rope halter with a 22′ long line attached and grabbing a carrot stick, we began with the most basic exercise: keeping Candy between one stick length away from me and the end of the line. Candy could do whatever she wanted within that area. She walked around me as if longeing. When she came too close, I picked my carrot stick up to waist height and gently swung it back and forth while turning toward her. If Candy didn’t move, she got bopped by the stick. If she moved, I dropped the stick and stood quietly. She caught on quickly and stayed out of my space.
Once Candy seemed to understand the concept of staying away from me, we progressed to walking back and forth across the arena in a straight line. I dragged the long line behind me (which made my inner Pony Clubber cringe) and swung the stick in an upward arc from side to side. While I walked and turned, Candy had to get out of my way and stay back from me while following. This was pretty easy for us; Candy stayed well back because she was nervous about the dragging line.
Our next exercise was “safe spot”, in which the horse is positioned directly behind the handler, at least one stick length away. To put the horse in the “safe spot”, the handler should halt with their back to the horse. If the horse continues walking, the handler should raise the stick from ground level parallel to the horse’s nose on whatever side the horse is approaching. When I stopped, Candy continued walking as if to go around me on my right. I lifted the stick parallel to the ground while she walked, and she abruptly began walking toward my left. I switched the stick to my left hand and lifted it. She ping-ponged back and forth for with increasing anxiety. When she finally stopped, I dropped the stick. We repeated the exercise a few more times, and Candy eventually began stopping earlier and more directly behind me.
We called it quits after that because it seemed like a positive place to end.
This week, Candy seemed to remember the exercises we’d learned last week. She was quiet and calm, and didn’t get into my space while standing or walking. She was less anxious about the “safe spot” exercise and positioned herself easily. We progressed to the next exercises in the basic series- backing up and reversing the direction we were standing. Backing up came easy, as Candy remembering getting bopped by the stick. Reversing direction also went fairly smoothly. Candy didn’t require much direction to find the “safe spot” after turning around.
Throughout our lesson yesterday, Candy stayed calm and interested without being worried. I was glad that she didn’t get concerned about the stick and the dragging line- while she’s still a little wary of both, she doesn’t seem panicked. I still label myself a natural horsemanship skeptic, but I can see the value of adding some unmounted, more relaxing work to our routine. I don’t think our under saddle work is challenging, but Candy’s lack of progress and anxious attitude tells a different story. I’m hopeful that adding groundwork give us some additional tools to work through our problems.
Have you used natural horsemanship techniques in your training? How do you feel about it?