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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

What are the basics?

There is a general consensus that it is a good thing to “do groundwork” and get “the basics” right. But what are “the basics”? I find that means very different things to different people. So I’ll tell you what it means for me.

For the sake of this post lets assume the management practices are suitable for the horse, meaning they’re getting adequate friends, freedom and forage. Lets also assume the horse is free from pain and other relevant stressors so they are in a trainable state and able to learn.

The first thing I want to be able to do is have the horse stand quietly and relaxed with me with their head in the centre of their body. Not nuzzling me, not sniffing the floor, not staring off into the distance or fidgeting around. This is the start, and people are often surprised by how difficult their horse finds this. For horses that find standing still challenging, we start really small and allow them to move off again after 5 seconds of calm until they’re finding that easy.

I used to insist, use a lot of pressure and make them stay there until they’d completely given in, I don’t work like this anymore for several reasons. Firstly, I find when you start making the questions easy, the horse doesn’t have to go through as much stress to get it “right” and will start to feel more relaxed about the training going forward. Secondly when we use a lot of aversive pressure to make a horse do something it creates brace, tension and very quickly leads to a shut down horse who is compliant but doesn’t feel able to express their feelings.

If the only reason a horse is doing something is because you’ve made it scary and horrible to not do it, how do you think he’s going to feel about you? This isn’t the relationship I want with any horse now I understand what is really going on. My way of training can be a lot slower, but its worth it to me to preserve the relationship in the long run. What’s the rush?

Calm, consistent, easy sessions are always better than one huge session where the horse goes through a lot of stress. You absolutely don’t need to cause a breakdown to get a breakthrough, if the horse is having a breakdown you pushed too far. I want a horse who feels comfortable around me, not a hyper-vigilant one worrying about making a wrong move.

The next part is walking, most people think their horse leads well until we get specific about it. There is so much to train in the walk. We start with walking nice straight lines and stopping straight. I like horses to lead with their eye in line with my shoulder as this translates well to keeping them straight when I’m working them out on a line later. There is nothing wrong with leading from the shoulder or having them behind you, this is just my personal preference so I can influence that straightness.

You can practice taking one step and then stopping and having your horse do the same, once you have this down everything else becomes so much easier and your horse will start to understand where you want them to be. When we have a good walk and a good stop we can then start to play with gears in the walk, speeding up and slowing down whilst maintaining straightness and not getting ahead of you.

To summarise my basics are:

🐴 Standing still and relaxed with a neutral head position (by this I mean their head in the centre of their body, not looking either side)

🐴 Walking and stopping at your shoulder without getting ahead or behind you and without you having to pull

🐴 Being able to slow down and speed up the walk without losing the positioning

All of this on both sides

In my experience if we start moving onto more complex movements such as lateral work when we don’t have all of this, we’re not going to get the benefit we would like either physically or mentally. We cannot influence posture with any control if we don’t first find softness in these basics. I have filmed a few videos showing these things that I’ll edit and post soon. Have a go with your horse and see if you find any holes in your basics. 🐴

Photo of my horse Dan standing quietly with his head centred while I babble away at the camera

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