Ground Control

Many of us are isolated from our horses, due to yard lockdowns and self-isolation. Having a plan in place for when you are ready to return to the saddle is something that every horse owner needs to consider.

Our Sponsored dressage rider Amy Stovold is passionate about using groundwork as an essential part of her horses' training. In this feature, she talks to us about why groundwork is an important step back into training work.

"Whether your horse has been in full work or been turned away for the past few weeks during the lockdown, groundwork can be a great starting point to reconnect with your horse or a brilliant way to develop your training even further.

Basic manners and respect are started from the ground, so time spent handling your horse in and out of the stable and leading him in hand should be seen as an essential part of your basic training. We've all seen horses that don't respect their owner's personal space and those which use their strength and size to an advantage. This is dangerous for anyone leading or handling, so basic manners should always be a priority. Teaching your horse to primarily relax then to move back and away from you is imperative, and over the past seven years, I have been working with compassionate training that takes on the basic dressage principles of pressure release. This way of training on the ground is the same as in the saddle: as soon as the horse does what you have asked, you release the pressure, so that he or she is rewarded instantly.

The way I work on the ground is to use a verbal cue alongside feeding the horse with 1 pony nut. The verbal cue I use for reward is ‘tsk’. When I start teaching a horse the verbal cue, it becomes evident to the horse that when I 'release' the pressure and give the cue and he gets a reward, that he has done what I wanted. Using this unusual word and sound means that it is consistent every time. For example, when you say 'Good girl/boy', sometimes it might be a low tone or an excited high pitched noise, so using the ‘tsk’ sound is always the same for the horse.

Starting Off Small
This association with the cue and treat begins by asking the horse to lower his head. This is primarily teaching the horse to relax as when the head is lowered endorphins are released. I use a pressure halter and long lunge line and start off by asking the horse to lower his head. I'm not asking him to drop his head to the floor, nor would I ever 'pull his head' down. I just want to encourage the horse to lower his head even just a fraction. Any attempt is rewarded with a release of pressure a verbal cue and a nut. I offer this every time the horse shows even the tiniest try of lowering his head.

This exercise might seem trivial, but it's about the horse's focus on you and when the mind is relaxed, the body becomes relaxed. This basic exercise is one that anyone can try, and my horses absolutely love this method of training because it's all about reward, relaxation and positive reinforcement.

I would work on this basic exercise for some time before I integrate it into other areas of my horses' work. Once your horse understands what the cue means clearly, then you can move onto work in-hand in the school and then integrating into your ridden work.

I find this way of training is brilliant for all horses. Even with very hot horses. Once they understand in the split second that they show positive behaviour i.e., calm and listening to your aids. You reward them with your verbal cue and pressure release that the positive association is strengthened.  You may not want to stop and lean over and give a treat in those circumstances for safety reasons, but the association with the treat is still there. I've found this works so well with hot horses who can get into the 'zone' and be difficult to shift their focus back onto you as a rider. 

As you move onto more advanced work under saddle, you can use this technique to fine-tune more specifically your ridden work. For example, asking for more push on one hind leg or a quicker step in a foreleg in the piaffe and passage. The opportunities are endless from the basics of leading, handling and even loading and clipping.

I've trained all my horses with this technique and they adore it!  In fact, Bo, my top dressage horse loves our sessions so much that he often offers more advanced movements before we have even started our own session!

Whatever you choose to do with your horse once you get back down the yard, take your time and always put safety first and wear a riding hat, gloves, body protector and sturdy footwear. 

To find out more about Amy and future in-hand clinics, you can discover more on her Instagram