Each time a new horse arrives for training, we begin with the basics. It doesn’t matter whether they have previous riding experience or not– we have a specific ‘checklist’ that we go through before ever climbing aboard. Forrest, an 8-year old Standardbred gelding, is no exception.
Although Forrest had already been started under saddle following his harness racing career, we still start with groundwork. Knowing Forrest’s racing history, we’re also keeping in mind how different this all is from what he had previously experienced. Harness racers have been trained to stay straight through their bodies, with heads high, trotting as fast as possible. Now, we are asking Forrest to soften and bend through his body, stretch forward and down through his topline, and go steadily in his gaits. It’s a huge change, and we love using groundwork to show Forrest new ways to move his feet and body around before adding a rider.
When beginning groundwork with a horse, we are looking for them to move their feet and body in a soft, fluid way. We’re also taking the opportunity to explain to them about personal space for the human, if they aren’t up on that idea yet. Essentially, we want them to move quietly next to us on a loose line, no matter what we do: stop, jog off, turn left, turn right. They should be able to do this whether we lead them on our right side (as is most common) OR on our left (often harder for horse and human). If a horse is able to stay with us without pushing into our ‘personal bubble,’ then we know they are both attentive and soft through their bodies, as they have to be ready to ‘yield’ their front or hind end at a moment’s notice. Once these basics are established, we can add in more pieces such as having the horse step sideways–a great way to introduce the concept of lateral movement.
In addition to laying this foundation with Forrest, we are checking out other skills we want to make sure he knows, like tying, standing quietly for all aspects of daily care, lungeing, and connecting with a handler during roundpen work. We’ve also added in obstacles such as the tarp, hanging noodles, and a noisy drag, which are a nice way to see how he’ll react to new challenges. Thus far, Forrest has taken everything right in stride. He is a quick learner, and has proven to be confident and sensible. Forrest has already shown a lot of nice looseness and relaxation through his body, and we look forward to the next steps in his training.