As someone who hangs her shingle out and calls herself a horse trainer, I feel it is my responsibility when a horse comes in for training to address the whole horse. Most clients have a goal in mind; they want their horse to stop tucking tail and running in the canter, they want their horse to come back after time off, they want their horse to progress further in Dressage or with Dressage basics, or simply to start their horse under saddle. Regardless of these goals (or previous training) I start every single horse the same and that is with ground work. In general, I like to spend the first month month teaching new training horses my communication method, called Heeding. This starts, on day one, in their stall.
I have a halter and lead rope on the horse for safety and place the horse along a wall. I take my time grooming starting with the curry comb. Head to toes, nose to tail, I inspect the horse’s legs, body condition, her attitude towards the pressures, clean udders (or poke around in sheaths). Once this is done, I move her to an opposite wall where I can curry in the exact same way on the other side. Next is the hard brush, moving her from wall to wall as I go. Then I pick feet and brush her face and tail. By now, the horse has already told me a great deal. If she is sensitive, bossy, impatient, lazy, or just content to ignore my existence. From grooming I move on to very basic heeding right there in the stall. I am teaching her the alphabet, so to speak. I am at your shoulder, you are at my shoulder. When I place a foot forward you place a foot forward and walk with me. This is the letter A. As in Apple. When I take a deep and loud breath out and turn my body to block yours we both stop. This is B. As in Boy.
It seems so simple. It seems so basic. Why would I take any horse that an owner has said is already going at Training level and just spend the first day grooming? Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way most people tend to exaggerate the extent of their horses’ skills (as well their own riding abilities). I stopped getting right on horses that people claimed just need a tune up or can do this or that and are just so sweet and fabulous. Even if that is the case, there are always gaps in their training foundation, without which I have no hope of moving forward. Let’s face it, if they had a solid foundation they wouldn’t have come to me. So again, I feel it is my job to tear that house down and pour a new concrete slab to rebuild on.
From the simple start and stop (on both sides of the horse in the stall) I then ask for small turning in circles and turning away. The “turn aways” tend to be the real tattle tale. Asking a horse to move out of your space, cross their inside front leg over the over even for one step will let me know who is a bossy britches and who is a willing partner. I will stay in the stall and work with the horse as long as it takes for them to respond calmly, even if it is just that one step and I see a processing response (licking and chewing are a dead giveaway that the horse is beginning to understand what I’m asking). A few of those positive responses and lots of neck scratches later, I remove the halter and lead and leave their space only to start the same process over again the next day and the next until I can easily move them about the stall.
I get asked why I don’t do this in the arena? To me, the arena is not an ideal place to keep a new horse’s attention and keep them close to me. The stall provides four walls and very little to interrupt our communication. Not only am I teaching them what my body language means but I’m also developing their attention span. I have to know when I have taxed their minds enough with the ability to focus on me for twenty minutes or when I can insist that they pay attention to me for twenty more. One might ask, why not get a round pen? What is supposed to happen between the stall and the round pen? Do I forgo the work I’m trying to accomplish and let them bully me or drag me or walk twenty feet behind me to the round pen? What happens if I have reached the limit of her attention span in the round pen? How can I expect a horse to heed with me back to their stall if she are mentally done with this “simple” work? I take my time and start our work in the stall. My amazing team heeds the training horses out to the pasture and back again so now the horse is understanding we all expect the same basic behavior and this consistency helps the respect and learning on the ground flourish. Not to mention, it makes my job easier! From here I can heed to the ring and move them around as much as I can. Turn basic heeding into heeding at a distance (longeing) and so on.
I cannot tell you how many times heeding at horse shows has calmed not only my horses, but me as well. When the time comes and the horses load up and haul to a new place, chances are that they are going to be a little fresh when they step off. After settling in their stall, I take them back out and heed all over the show grounds. This was a habit instilled in me by my trainers at Meredith Manor. At the first show Dressage show I attended, I watched Nancy Sterrett heed her young horse Wilbur around. That was when I realized how powerful heeding can be. To this day, even though I feel that we practically know each other’s souls, I heed William when we arrive at new places. Walk, halt, back, turn away, turn in, some leg yields in hand, transitions of walk-trot-walk in hand. When he starts to lick and chew next to me, I can release an easy breath as well. He is telling me he is relaxed and comfortable with this environment and I feel steady to get on.
Last year, I took some youngsters to their first show and not only were they a little nervous, but I was as well. There was a ton of stuff for them to look at at this particular show grounds and I had the delight of riding them for the owners. Owner One took her horse and began to heed him around the ring where we would be riding, the warm up ring and other areas we might be traveling. Owner Two heeded for a few moments, got bored and stood with her horse in hand chatting up some other AA’s. Whilst Owner One’s horse began licking and chewing and blowing out tension, Owner Two’s horse began to paw, jig in place and hold her head up high in alert. Owner Two was getting frustrated when she couldn’t get the horse to simply stand still while she talked. Knowing that I was going to have to ride this nervous unattended energy, I sent a team member to offer to take her off Owner Two’s hands and heed her around. Thankfully, the horse relaxed in the calm and routine nature of the heeding and I felt comfortable getting on. Both horses went on to win their classes and I couldn’t have been more proud.
The biggest drawback (and sometimes disappointment to me) is that most clients think it is terribly boring. Boring to watch and even more so to practice. I don’t have cross ties in my training barn for a reason. I want my staff, myself and my clients to have to pay attention to their horses in the stalls. I want them to focus on how the horse is behaving that day or how they feel about being put on a wall to groom. Do they keep trying to move off? Are you listening and looking for the subtle hints like one leg moving forward? Are you taking the time, every time, to put that leg back where you wanted it? Or are you letting them walk all around the stall and ignore you? Chances are when you get to the mounting block they will do the same thing because hey, it worked before! That really seems to boggle people's minds. I constantly hear how great it would be to have a wash rack, and while I agree I also see the missed opportunities that having one would create. Think of the skills you are developing here. Catch the subtle body language signals from the horse you are trying to bathe or groom and soon your horses will stand for you as they do for me. We don’t put horses in cross ties for the farrier, the chiropractor or the PhysioTherapist either. The handler must heed them to keep our amazing professionals safe and I do not take that lightly.
That’s it. There is no ancient Mongolian secret. There is no “whispering” involved. It’s hard and mentally exhausting but simply put it is just paying attention (HEED, get it?). I have to take the time to develop my horse’s ability to focus on me and work with me. It builds trust and a bond with each horse that prove invaluable. The sage of Heeding, Ron Meredith, always said if you understand heeding, a horse will walk through fire with you. I haven’t tested that one yet, but they have walked into trailers, over tarps, liverpools, passed flapping signs, water trucks, trash cans, and other scary monsters with me. And it all started in the stall.