By Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Ground control precedes horse control. If a horse doesn't heed its handler on the ground, it is never going to listen when that person swings into the saddle. A lot of horse people mythunderstand ground work. They think it just means snapping on a lead rope and pushing or pulling a horse from the barn to the arena or from the stall to the crossties or hopefully into a trailer. One of the ways to make people think you're magic with horses is if you can control the horse from the ground constantly and consistently for the purpose you want.
Teaching your horse how to heed makes it possible to tell him not only what direction you want him to move but also how long to make his strides and how quick you want the strides to be. Heeding teaches the horse that when we apply a pressure, it has a meaning. The pressure is never an attack and the horse learns it will go away as soon as he moves way from it. Heeding takes all of the big, exciting individual episodes out of training. It makes training a step-by-step development of an understanding between you and the horse.
In the last two articles, we talked about how we start teaching our horses to heed by playing with them and why it's important to work the horse in a corridor of pressures or aids. When have the horse on a lead line and you get to the point where he stops consistently as soon as you turn in, start using your corridor of pressures to back him. In starting to back the horse, you have to be careful not to do anything off balance because that will signal the horse to turn. If you do anything too loud, he will become afraid.
Create a corridor with the wall on one side and you on the other. Stand facing toward the rear of the horse and hold your whip just in front of the horse's chest so you can touch either of the horse's shoulders easily. Whichever of his feet is the farthest forward, push gently on the corresponding shoulder with the whip handle until he picks the foot up. When the foot picks up, take the whip handle away immediately. When he sets it down, put the whip on the other shoulder and repeat the sequence.
Remember to take the pressure away as soon as the picks his foot up. That is because you want every pressure to have a meaning and we want the horse to understand that if he simply moves away from a pressure slowly, it will go away. Removing the pressure is his best reward. So you are teaching him to reward himself while doing what you ask. Remember to move your corresponding foot at the same time he moves his. Eventually you will be able to just face backward, walk toward him and he will back up in the sequence of steps your feet direct him to.
As your lessons progress, you want to teach the horse to heed from both his right and left sides. Practice transitions from halt to walk, walk to trot, halt to trot and all the reverses of all those. As the horse becomes better, you'll be able to remove one side of the corridor and work him in the middle of the arena without things falling apart. If they do, go back to the wall and repeat some of the basics. Don't get bossy. Accuracy comes from doing the same thing over and over, not louder and louder. The horse learns from repetition, not retribution.
In the heeding process, you can get a lot of refinement and accuracy in the horse's movements if you keep refining what you do to ask and then trusting it will work. Eventually, you don't need to do huge movements to get the message across. For example, once the horse understands the game is to stay by your shoulder, you don't need to turn your shoulders parallel to his body anymore to get the halt.
Similarly, when people start to train their horses to heed, they get to using their knees a lot. To be really accurate, however, you want to step forward rather than up. So you point with your toe rather than popping your knees as a signal to the horse to move. In time, all you will need to do to let the horse know that you are about to step forward is to lean one shoulder forward.
After time, heeding becomes an auto pilot system. The fact that you are calm will cause your horse to heed the fact that you are calm. As you change positions, it indicates a change in things and the horse will change with you. If your shoulders are lined up with the horse's shoulders, the horse will move with you anywhere. If you back, the horse will back with you. If you move forward the horse will walk forward with you. And if you stay on that line and go out and turn, the horse will turn around you. If you break the line between the shoulders and face the horse, the horse will stand because now you are not asking it to move. The habit will become so complete that there will never be any panic involved.
If you pay constant attention to your horse, the horse will pay constant attention to you. And if the horse is paying attention to you, it is not paying attention to anything else, since all horses have a one track mind. This gives you a kind of control that is not obvious but is complete.
Heeding takes all of the big, exciting individual episodes out of training. It makes training a step-by-step development of an understanding between you and the horse. It creates a horse-logical system you can use to lead the horse, longe him, put him on a trainer, stand him for the vet or farrier or even for a mare in the breeding shed.
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.