While groundwork is easy to overlook because it’s not as fun as being in the saddle, it’s one of the most important parts of basic horsemanship and can help you get out of a sticky situation.
I use this drill to help horses with trailering problems, horses who refuse obstacles, and even horses who simply like to move around when they’re asked to stand next to a mounting block. I also have my customers practice this exercise with their horses so they can learn personal space and boundaries when on the ground. It also teaches them how to better communicate with their horses.
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The pole helps me visualize where my horse’s feet are, and ensures I’m able to place them where I want, but use whatever you have available to you. I recommend using a long lead rope (around 12 feet). If you’re not comfortable swinging the end of your lead rope, use a whip or flag to help guide your horse’s body.
Do this exercise daily until your horse willingly goes backward, forward, and laterally, and places his feet exactly where you want them to go. Then check back in whenever you feel the need to.
I start by standing in front of my horse with some slack in my lead rope and all four feet behind the pole. I use constant pressure on the lead rope so she brings one foot forward and over the pole. After that foot comes forward, I put slack back in my rope. If there’s any hesitation going forward, and I can’t get the feet to move by pulling her forward, I reposition my body to the side and put her in a tight circle—just as you would to longe—and have her trot one rotation around me before repositioning her in front of the pole.
Once I can successfully ask for one foot to go over the pole, I work on asking for the other front foot. Ideally I should be able to almost stop my horse’s foot while it’s mid-air and place it where I want. I’ll work on bringing the front feet forward and sending them back behind the pole until I can successfully step both over the pole going forward and backward.
If my horse takes more steps forward than what I asked, I’ll bump the lead rope up and down until she responds to the pressure and steps back. I avoid bumping left to right because I use those cues to help her move laterally. If I can’t get my horse to back up from my original stance, I’ll step forward into her, causing her to step back and out of my personal space.
Cueing the hind feet is often trickier, and I find that a horse is more likely to try and run past me when I’m first asking to move a hind foot. If I sense my horse is going to run past me, I immediately bump her back on the lead rope and cause backward motion. Having a horse run past you can be safety hazard, so it’s important to stop that behavior before it happens. I’ll keep working on the back feet until I can successfully bring the hind feet forward and send them back behind the pole.
Next I ask my horse to move laterally over the pole. I want to keep the front feet in front of the pole, and the back feet behind it. If the middle of the pole doesn’t stay directly under her stomach, it tells me she’s stepping forward or backward instead of laterally. Since I’m asking her to move left, I position myself on her right side and move my hand to the left to guide her shoulder. If she doesn’t move, I’ll swing the end of my lead rope (or flag/whip) to create energy. If I have to, I’ll gently tap her shoulder or hip with the rope as a last resort to create movement.
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In this photo my horse is doing a great job of crossing her feet and staying balanced over the pole. Since I’m asking her to move to her right, I’m on her left side and have my lead hand guiding her shoulders. I’ll continue to create energy with my lead rope until my horse follows through with her hip.