If the weather forecasters are right, we’re in for a cold winter, with lots of snow! Unless you are blessed with an indoor school, this can mean difficulties trying to ride our horses. However, there are plenty of things you can do to train your horse from the ground and in fact, sometimes it is a blessing in disguise to have to return to the basics! The first port of call for Your Horsemanship members should be to check out the archive of Groundwork Challenges; there is plenty of exercises in there to keep you occupied!
Although it is important not to overdo lunging and longlining if your horse isn’t used to this work, they can be excellent forms of exercise (for you, too!). Both give you the chance to work on rhythm and balance at different paces, and you can even enjoy hacking round lanes and fields in longlines. Using training aids such as the Pessoa, which encourages the horse to really use his back muscles and get their hind leg under them, can be beneficial, too.
One skill that I like to work on is close contact lunging, which legendary Australian horseman Steve Brady describes as, “the closest thing to actually riding a horse”. Steve spent some time with me in the UK a few years ago, and I really enjoyed learning this close contact work. It improved my training with a number of horses at the time, and at its best, can reproduce Grand Prix movements in hand. Within a couple of weeks, my little Stock Horse, Diesel, was producing as passable piaffe!
Close contact lunging starts by leading your horse in the bridle with your body in the same position it would be in when lunging but next to the horse instead of away from them. You will be facing your horse holding the rein nearest you with your little finger as close to the bit as possible. Your free hand should carry a dressage whip that can be used to produce energy, primarily forward. From this position you will also have the control to produce backwards and sideways, which are much more difficult to teach on a lunge.
Once you can comfortably move your horse forwards, backwards and sideways from both sides you can start to improve your horse’s way of going, and improve their collection and self carriage. This is done by gradually adding energy into your horse, which is contained by the bit rather then letting the horse travel forward. This contained energy will create elevation and is the start to training your horse for movements such as passage and piaffe. An exercise to try once this work is becoming established, is to ask your horse to trot on a small (5 to 10 metre) circle while you are walking.
Doing close contact work will improve your horse’s controls under saddle, making them lighter to the aids and more supple through the body. It is important to remember you can only teach a horse one thing at a time and it will take repetition to achieve a high level of understanding.
So next time the winter weather gets in the way of your riding, look upon it as a chance to develop different areas of your training; you’ll be surprised at how much improvement you can get from your horse by paying attention to your groundwork!