Ground work is effective because it establishes you as your horse’s leader, teaching him to trust and respect you. It also gets your horse to use the thinking side of his brain rather than the reactive side.
While ground work includes both sensitizing (where you train your horse to move away from pressure) and desensitizing (where you teach him to relax and accept pressure calmly) exercises, in this lesson, we’ll focus on desensitizing your horse.
Goal: To be able to throw the lead rope over and around any part of your horse’s body while he stands still and relaxes.
What this does: This technique will begin the process of making sure your horse doesn’t fear you or your tools. If he’s scared, he’ll always focus on the fear and not on the lesson you’re trying to teach him.
Step 1.Stand at your horse’s shoulder. Stand a 45 degree angle to the horse’s shoulder, an arm’s length away.Standing at a 45 degree angle is the safest place to be, because you’re too far forward to get kicked by a hind leg, and you’re too far to the side to be struck by a front leg. Always practice safety first.
Step 2. Position the lead rope. Hold the lead rope about a foot and a half from the snap, and keep your hand up in the air, level with your horse’s eye. This will stop him from running over the top of you if he gets pushy and disrespectful. It also allows you to bump his head toward you if he walks around you or turns his head away from you.
If the rope was any longer, it would give your horse the opportunity to turn and run, or kick you. Remember, two eyes are always better than two heels.
Step 3. Throw the lead rope. Using the Approach and Retreat Method, throw approximately two feet of the end of the lead rope over your horse’s withers and back, and immediately drag it back toward the ground. You’re looking for a starting point.
If your horse is really frightened, you might just start with a foot of rope. Or, you may just move your arm up and down with repetitive motion to get started until he stands still and relaxes.
Step 4. Retreat. When your horse relaxes, he’ll show one of five signs: licking his lips; cocking a hind leg; taking a deep breath; blinking his eyes; or lowering his head and neck.
When your horse keeps his feet still and shows a sign of relaxing, rub his withers and back with the hand that was throwing the rope as a sign of retreat.
If your horse doesn’t show one of those five signs, but he stands still for at least 15 seconds, he’s telling you that he’s no longer fearful, and you can go ahead and retreat and rub him with the rope.
Step 5. Repeat these steps. Repeat Steps 1 through 4, using repetitive movement. Rhythm is very important. You don’t want a pause in between every time your arm moves with the rope, especially if your horse’s feet are moving.
If your horse’s feet are moving and there’s a lapse in time of your arm moving up and down, this may teach him that he’s escaping the pressure by moving his feet. He needs to realize that the only way your arm and the rope will stop moving is when he stands still and relaxes.
Step 6. Throw more rope. When your horse is comfortable with two feet of the rope, start to throw three to four feet of rope over his back using the same procedure.
Step 7. Move to his hindquarters. Now start to throw the rope over your horse’s hindquarters and then his neck using the Approach and Retreat Method.
Always start with your horse’s topline (neck, withers, back, and hindquarters), because they’re the least sensitive areas on his body.
Step 8. Move to his legs. A lot of horses don’t like their legs being touched, especially young horses. Desensitizing with the rope will prepare your horse for leg handling.
To desensitize your horse’s legs, lengthen the rope, and swing your arm forward. When your arm straightens, stop moving it, and let the rope wrap around his legs.
Do this to your horse’s back and front legs using the Approach and Retreat Method. Note that to desensitize the front legs, you’ll have to take a couple steps back, still staying at a 45 degree angle.
Step 9. Throw the entire lead rope. Lots of horses don’t like things moving toward them quickly. The more you can throw things at your horse that are never going to hurt him, the quieter he’ll get. This teaches him not to use the reactive side of his brain and not to get scared when something happens quickly.
Pitch the entire lead rope over your horse’s withers and back. Start by getting the rope out behind you, and when you throw it, let it fly all the way out of your hand.
Step 10. Repeat on both sides. Repeat these steps on both sides of your horse’s body.Horses have two sides to their brains, the left and the right. Act like you’re training two separate horses. Make sure you’re very thorough with each side, and don’t be surprised if one side is spookier than the other.
Clinton Anderson grew up in Queensland, Australia, learning to ride as a teenager and training with many of his country’s top horsemen. In 1997, he relocated to the United States to perfect his Downunder Horsemanship program. Under Anderson’s guidance, horses learn to respect and respond to their handlers, developing willing partnerships. To learn more about Downunder Horsemanship, Clinton Anderson Walkabout Tours, and more, visit www.downunderhorsemanship.com.