By Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Heeding is an attitude you have whenever you're around your horse as much as it is a technique for communicating with him on the ground. You start heeding your horse from the first moment you connect with him whether that's walking down the barn aisle to his stall or out in a field to catch him. You maintain that attitude all the while you're grooming, while you're tacking him up, and while you're working him, whether you work him on the ground or under saddle. And it's not over til it's over. You maintain the attitude while you tack his tack off, cool him out, groom him again and put him away.
Students here at Meredith Manor learn techniques for heeding in their Training I class to give them a method for consistently and clearly communicating with their horses on the ground. But because heeding is an attitude as well as a set of techniques, it is ultimately going to apply to every interaction they will have with their horses. When students tell me they don't see how heeding has any relation to their riding, I know they haven't really figured out the big picture yet.
I like the word "heeding" because it takes a bunch of concepts like leading and heeling and paying attention and rolls them all up together. It's not a word people hear very often so it makes them stop and think about what it means. There are several things they need think about if they want to develop the attitude of heeding:
* Be with your horse now, now, and now. When you're with your horse, be with him every moment, every step. You have to put your total attention and focus on the horse if you want him to put his on you. You can't be grooming him and singing along with the radio or leading him and thinking about tomorrow's exam or riding him while you're focused on the way he blew his leads yesterday. You have to be with your horse now, at this moment. Not thinking about the last moment or the one that's coming. You have to be with him stride by stride by stride whether you're leading him or riding him. When you're working with your horse, you always give him your total attention now and now and now.
* Be the dominant partner without being predatory. You need the horse's respect in order to be safe around him and to get his attention so you can train him to play whatever game it is you want to play. You have to show the horse that you are the alpha mare in your partnership and ask for his respect by being assertive and putting pressure on the horse. But you never want to use a pressure that surprises the horse or startles him or makes him "spang." When you do that, you become a predator, something to be afraid of. You never want the horse to be afraid of you. You want him to think of being with you as a comfortable, safe place to be.
* Show the horse what you want one bite at a time. When students come into Training I, I point out to them that if I asked them to swallow a big ball of string, they would find that pretty gross. But if I take that same ball of string and feed it to them a half inch or even a quarter of an inch at a time, they could eventually swallow that whole ball of string without too much fuss. It's the same with the horse. It's our job to break the game we want to play with the horse down into the smallest bites of string we can, then to feed those to him just one at a time. No forcing, no over facing, no fuss.
* Be horse logical when you show and ask the horse to do something. When you want the horse to learn something new, first you have to show him what you want, then you can ask for it. You show and ask the horse by methodically applying a horse-logical pressure or corridor of pressures that creates a feeling in the horse of the shape you want him to take. A horse-logical pressure is just a baby step away from something the horse already knows and it goes away when he does what you are showing or asking him to do. The horse stays calm and the reward of releasing the pressure teaches him what you want.
* Be fair when you tell the horse to do something or enforce that request. A corridor of horse-logical pressures creates a feeling in the horse of a shape that you want him to take. Once the horse understands what shape the corridor of pressures is asking him to take, you can start telling him what to do. Telling means that, within the context of what he's already doing, just starting to create the corridor becomes enough to communicate the new shape you want to the horse to take. It's not fair to tell a horse to take a shape and expect that he will do it until you are sure he knows what you're asking. But once you are sure he knows, you can enforce your corridor of pressures to remind him if he gets sloppy or contrary or lazy with stronger aids or a crop or a spur. That's fair as long as your enforcement does not startle or surprise him.
Heeding becomes a mindset that applies whether you're working with your horse on the ground or sitting on his back or sitting behind him in a wagon. You do it in your horse's stall, in an arena, in a field, on the trail, up and down your driveway, in and out of a horse trailer, or in the barn aisle when you're grooming or the farrier's there or the vet's come.
As groundwork, heeding involves some basic techniques but those techniques always have to be tempered by both the temperament and experience of the horse and the temperament and the experience of the trainer. Anybody can read a book or watch a video and pick up a few techniques. It's the attitude of heeding that helps you adapt those techniques to the individual horse and the individual situation.
If you think getting a special halter or rope or stick or pen will make you more successful at training your horse, go right ahead and get them. Those things help some people with their technique but they aren't essential to the attitude. The great thing about an attitude is that it's light and portable. You can just carry it with you wherever you go.
Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith has refined his "horse logical" methods for communicating with equines over 30 years as president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre (Route 1, Box 66, Waverly, WV 26184; 1-304-679-3128; http://www.meredithmanor.com), an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.