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Groundwork. 

We have all heard about it, seen videos on the topic, and even practiced some groundwork exercises with our horses.

But we may also be missing a critical opportunity within our programs and that is “checking in” with our horses through groundwork. Here is an example: At Pine Ridge Dude Ranch, our “Cowboy Horsemanship” program promotes utilizing every opportunity—from feed and groom times to leading from the pasture—to round pen work to saddle time, to “check in” with our horses and create situations where the horse “checks in” with the human. By utilizing the “Pyramid of Pressure – Ask, Tell, Demand and Correct” and some foundation building groundwork exercises, we refresh the lines of communication and reestablish leadership every time we engage with our horses at “The Ranch.” Here are some of our favorite “checking in” exercises.

The Leading Exercise: When a Wrangler is leading the horse from the pasture, they use the “Leading Exercise” to get the horse thinking about the human and the safety zone around the human, which reduces crowding and improves confidence. This exercise promotes focus and communication as well as softness and respect by leading the horse from the front and maintaining a five foot safety zone. When the Wrangler stops, so does the horse. When the Wrangler moves, so does the horse. As the horse begins to respect the personal space of the Wrangler we add more to this foundation building exercise to keep it fun and interesting for the horse.

Backing With Steady Pressure: Asking the horse to back up by simply lifting the knot or clip, facing the direction of travel and using the “Pyramid of Pressure” helps the horse and human to refine their feel, timing and communication.  By utilizing “Ask, Tell, Demand, Correct” as a mode of increasing the energy of the request, the horse begins to understand what is being requested and offers up the maneuver willingly, which in turn gets the horse a release and lots of praise. This exercise helps to keep the Ranch horses soft in the bridle as well.

Yielding the Hindquarters with Touch: Asking the horse to move its hindquarters away laterally to a touch that simulates a leg cue, using the “Pyramid of Pressure”, helps keep the horse soft, engaged and responsive. By utilizing “Ask, Tell, Demand, Correct” as a mode of increasing the energy of the request, the horse begins to understand what is being requested and offers up the maneuver willingly, which in turn gets the horse a release and lots of praise. This exercise helps to keep the Ranch horses supple in their bodies as well as their minds.

Round Pen Work: The round pen is a great place to check in, especially when we are short on time or the weather limits the ability to ride. When in the round pen working through groundwork exercises, the Wrangler can better evaluate the “mood” of the horse, see indications of soreness, nervousness or a lack of focus that can be addressed safely and in a timely manner. By doing so, the horse feels more secure in the leadership provided by the human. Through observation and “listening” to the subtle cues the horse provides in these moments, the Wrangler can address concerns and adapt the goals for the day as they consider the horse’s needs.

By practicing a “checking in” approach to groundwork, the Wranglers at Pine Ridge Dude Ranch can improve their awareness of their equine partners, improve the subtly of their aids/cues, and be able to more quickly offer the release and leadership needed to achieve a soft feel and supple mind. This is a crucial practice during the Winter season when the ranch horses have more time off. It has also been essential to maintaining the ranch horses during this pandemic.

So the next time you work with your horse, take the opportunity to check in, listen up and adapt your goals for the session as you focus on improving your awareness and the “give and take” within the structure of the partnership you share. Investing in this type of approach mentally and emotionally with pay off in huge dividends in the days and week ahead! If you would like to learn more about “Cowboy Horsemanship” or the exercises highlighted above please reach out via email to michaelc@pineridgeduderanch.com and let’s get you “checking in” with your horses in a positive and productive way! 

Thanks for reading!

Michael Canfield
Published on 04-06-2020
Michael is the Staff Clinician and Assistant Director of Equine Programming at Pine Ridge Dude Ranch in Kerhonkson, NY. Michael is also the Founder of Lucky Star Horsemanship which offers a variety of services, from lessons to equine event organization, to the community. Michael has worked with humans and horses for over 15 years, helping them to establish a solid foundation of Communication, Confidence and Leadership.