Living in-relation with horses: foundations

When I hear ‘groundwork’, I hear two things simultaneously: work on the ground and foundational work, which together require a state of being grounded. From the moment we meet our horses we are doing groundwork in this double sense. Everything we do matters – how we greet our horses, lead them, groom them, will have implications for further work, on this particular day and in future situations. We will be establishing foundations. Most importantly, we want to establish a trustworthy connection, so that wherever we might be, in whatever circumstances, our horses will trust our leadership.

Here is a story that Corey tells of an experience that brought home to him the importance of establishing this trustworthy connection, in other words, as he puts it, ‘the importance of leaving a horse feeling good every time we have an encounter with them’. Before reading this account, you might like to look again at the post I did on Corey grooming his horse, Dorothy (see ‘stillness’).

Early in the morning, Suzi and I unloaded our horses in a grassy area towards the north end of the common. [Corey and Suzi are the herdspeople for the common.] Right there, were the 12 head of cows that we had to put in the yards, and the herd of 8 horses that live on the common were there also. They were all around us as we began saddling up at the float. Now this is where I was amazed. While I groomed Dorothy, put on her hoof boots and her saddle, she just stood there as if she was at home being saddled. Even though one of the horses, Drover, had his head and neck right over her and another one, Nulla, was very close by, Dorothy did nothing in particular – just being. She just stood there enjoying the grooming, occasionally looking around at them but with no ears back or expressions of discomfort.

As background to this situation, it’s worth noting that Drover was the most social horse in the herd. This was because his mother had been boss mare and had allowed him to mingle with all the other horses when he was a foal. Dorothy knew both Drover and Nulla because she’d been in the herd on the common in the past. We’d purchased her when she was about one and a half years old from the breeder. As she had had no handling, we kept her in the yards until she could be easily caught, and then she went out onto the common until she was ready to be started under saddle. Although she’d been in the herd, then, she’d actually never been one to allow other horses to be too close to her. So, this was a remarkable change – how she was with Drover and Nulla on this day.

Back to the grooming – I had a relaxed feeling, getting on with it, but always observing what was going on around us. Sometimes I would use the lead rope to move the loose horses away some, being careful not to make them flee. They watched me put the saddle on. Nulla moved off a little way with that, but Drover just stood right there, interested in proceedings. After saddling, I asked Dorothy to move around a bit, here and there, girthing up in-between. Then I hopped on. And she just stood there like she would at home, and I rubbed her on the neck and withers, with a loose rein – just being.

What became so interesting for me was that all the work with Dorothy at home, slow work, trying to help her relax with grooming and through all parts of saddling and mounting, it all worked a treat in a higher energy situation. She was great. It felt like she’d been in that situation many times before, but she never actually had been. And Dorothy is a strong-minded horse who can easily get braced. So, it’s that time spent early on, always helping horses let down when things are up, that makes all the difference.

We went on to move the cows towards the northern yards. Along the way, they were going right into the thick of the blackthorn scrub along the creek bed. At one point, they crossed the creek right at a place thick with scrub, so Dorothy and I had to double back to find some sort of clear, non-boggy access for crossing. After crossing, we caught up with the cows and started moving them along really nicely. There was plenty of movement but no running. In fact, the movement must have been good because one cow that had been left behind was now following Dorothy and me. Meanwhile, Suzi was riding along the road that runs parallel to the creek, ready to block the cows should they come out onto the road and double back or go up into a gully.

As it happened, the cows kept following the creek heading in the right direction, but the scrub got so thick in places that they were leaving a narrow tunnel-like pathway. So, I had to slip off Dorothy and lead her behind me, which is a great thing to be able to do with horses – it builds confidence. While she was behind me, I tried to lift and clear small branches that were too high for her and the horn of the saddle. In a couple of instances, the horn did catch on a branch which created a rush forward in her, but she never ran on top of me.

The important thing here was that after she rushed forward, I would stop and pat her really nicely on her forehead – we have established this many times before, so she really likes it. That way she was relaxed and feeling really good before we moved on. And it worked a treat because more and more she felt confident about being enclosed in thick scrub, and not rushing, and allowing me to direct her through the better ways to go.

It got so we were really working together while riding through that thick scrub, and she even started to help move branches with her head and neck. At one point, while following a cow, she twisted her head and neck to lift a 1 ½ inches thick branch, but I quietly stopped her, and we found another way to go, as she would have made it, but not me. It was a wonderful feeling, working together, doing a job together. Dorothy had done very little cow work before, and now here we were with the cows, all moving along without any bother.

Ann and Corey

With thanks to Andrew and Suzi

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