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TRAINING WITH CHRIS AINSCOUGH

Continuing his exclusive training series on The CC, champion driver and top trainer Chris looks at techniques for working the driven horse or pony from the ground. Part 1 - June 2021

There are various ways of working horses from the ground, for a variety of purposes.

In my opinion, the main purposes of groundwork are:

  • During the initial educating or breaking process of the horse to harness.
  • As a way of further developing a horse’s training, the way of using his body and the way of going.
  • To add variety to a horse’s work schedule as well as being an option to do something productive with the horse if driving that day is not feasible for any reason.
  • A means of gently exercising the horse as a form of rehabilitation exercise.

However, I do not use groundwork as a form of ‘blowing off steam’.  If my horses are being worked in any form I expect concentration and cooperation so if my horses need to let off steam, then they are either turned out in the field or turned out in an arena.  The only exception to this would perhaps be taking a young or inexperienced horse to a new venue or competition environment. But I still wouldn’t plan on allowing it to act in an unruly manner on the lunge, for example, but I may use in-hand work, long reining or lunging as a method to enable a safer way of getting it settled, concentrating and listening to the aids before putting it to a carriage

Leading in a headcollar

It amazes me how many people neglect basic manners and handling; we can also learn so much from how a horse leads in a headcollar and lead rope.

For example, a client may arrive for a lesson and complain that the horse does not stand still whilst being ‘put to’.  It often transpires that the horse also doesn’t stand still whilst being groomed, tacked up or held and generally pushes them around, yet they are surprised that it doesn’t miraculously stand safely to be put to.

I like all horses to stand still when asked and that does not mean being anchored by a human – they should stand on their own legs in a calm and relaxed state and in their own space. To move off at walk, I give the same verbal command as I would whilst being driven or lunged. The horse should move off without the handler moving off first and dragging it along as if it needs dragging along in-hand the chances are it will be equally unresponsive in the carriage. If this is the case, lead him with a riding whip and if he does not respond to the verbal command the first time, repeat the command and tap him on his side or near his hindquarters – it’s not complicated.

Set in your mind where you want to go and stick to that line; do not be pushed or pulled about and remember to lead from level with the horse’s shoulder. If the horse leans on you then you can use your hip to nudge him to move away from you like a rider’s leg, or equally you can prod him with the butt end of the whip until he moves away.  The chances are if he leans on you whilst being led from the nearside then he is also likely to fall into the left. If the horse turns his neck towards you and pulls his body away from you, i.e. falling out through his outside shoulder, you can use your hand furthest away from the horse to guide his neck straight again.  Another tip to rectify this is to practise walking alongside a fence or wall so he cannot drift his body away from you.

Whilst leading a horse I expect the pace to be active but not hurried.  If the tempo of the hind legs slows down whilst being led in hand it will probably do the same in ‘work’.  Equally, if he rushes then he will do that whilst being driven. I am looking for a nice contact on the lead rope, a gentle connection that the horse steps forward into but not so much that I am being dragged along. When I want to stop, I give the verbal command I also use when driving and a small ‘on/off’ signal down the lead rope (an on/off is a momentary squeeze and then release of the hand) and this way the horse is learning from the ground to behave and react in a manner that I expect once I am lunging, long reining or driving him. If he does not listen or understand then I repeat the verbal command and give a bigger or slightly sharper on/off signal until I get the desired result.  It’s very easily achieved with consistent and firm but fair handling.  The challenge is getting the humans to be consistent! I would never expect to have to pull to stop or slow down, just as I would not once driving.

I lead all my horses from both sides.  To me it makes no sense to always lead from the left, because in work we want them to be equal on both reins. If you are on the left side of the horse then it will probably be in a slight left bend and if this is never done from the right, then you are setting up a habitual posture of always being in left bend.  From my teaching I have noticed just how many horses struggle to bend right and have a tendency to fall out on the left rein and of course this needs to be corrected whilst driving but it can be helped a lot from the ground.

So basically, when thinking about what sort of training can be done effectively from the ground, consider how you lead your horses.  From leading in-hand I expect to be able to move off, slow down and stop using the same commands as I would in the carriage with the horse being calmly responsive. I want the horse to stay nicely into the contact of the lead rope without pulling or being heavy in the hand.

Before lunging a horse, I also train the command to trot and then back to walk as I am looking for a calm transition where the horse uses his hindlegs to get himself into trot.  If he has to walk faster and get a longer striding walk before falling into trot, then I would want to address this in-hand before moving onto the lunge.

Training in-hand on a head collar and lead rope is also a great way of teaching the horse to be calm about being touched with the whip but to respond in an appropriate manner.  While leading, try touching the horse with the whip on his rib cage and train him to yield calmly in his ribs to the signal.  Similarly, using the whip on the hindquarters gently to ask for more energy in a calm manner.

Whether one of my own ponies or a client’s animal, I make sure all the above is firmly in place before moving on, whether it be part of the initial breaking of a horse or part of the ongoing training. Once all the above is in place then generally the next step would be progressing to lunging.

This shows a well fitted and comfortable lunge cavesson. The nose band is snug to prevent it from slipping. The middle strap is also snug to keep the cheek pieces out of the eyes and help keep it all in place. The top strap is looser to allow flexion through the gullett

Lunging

The equipment I always use for lunging is a leather lunge cavesson, a cotton lunge line, a lunge whip, gloves and a hard hat is recommended. Extra equipment I will probably use in time is a riding bridle with the nose band removed to fit under the cavesson, usually with a snaffle bit, a comfortable roller and side reins.

Remember lunging is just a progression from good leading so start the session by the leading the horse and checking that he is on the aids.  If the horse has never been lunged before then I would move about 2 feet away and see can we walk calmly a large circle staying gently at the end of the rein and asking for a halt with the voice and a gentle on/off down the lunge line. If the horse comes towards you point the whip towards his ribs to push him away and if needs be touch him gently.  He should already understand what this means from the leading work and not be fearful of the whip. Once I have established that I have control at this distance then I gradually push the horse further away from me using the whip until the horse is at an appropriate lunging distance whilst always maintaining control.  Once walking calmly on a larger circle then I would consider asking for trot.

As a rule, if the horse hasn’t been lunged incorrectly before and leads obediently from both sides then the progression to calm lunging is very easy.  He should understand the whip aid to push him out to a bigger circle, be comfortable staying at the end of the contact and already understand the voice aids to halt, walk and trot, as well as understanding that an on/off means slow down. If working at an appropriate tempo, level of energy and neither falling in nor out, then he should be able to walk and trot with a soft neck and back in what I would describe as a novice outline, taking his neck forward but not plunging onto his forehand. Once this is achieved then I would work on transitions.

The next step in lunging would be to put the bridle on under the cavesson and let the horse learn to carry the bit and be relaxed with it in his mouth.  During this phase I am assessing where the horse is naturally carrying his head and neck whilst working in his current state of balance. Once confident carrying the bit then I would think about adding side reins, but I would generally let the horse warm up with a walk and trot without side reins before attaching them. The side reins are never used to pull a horse’s head in or down, they are to be used at a length where they provide a gentle contact when the horse is trotting with his neck where he would if the side reins were not attached and to help keep the neck straight, the horse should seek the contact from the side reins forward.

As the work progresses and the horse is confidently seeking the contact and improving in strength and balance, when it is asked for a little more impulsion in the hindlegs without going faster or increasing the speed of the tempo, then he will naturally come a little rounder in his frame.  When this is the case then the side reins may need to be shortened a hole or two to still provide a gentle contact when working.  The side reins should always be set at an equal length and if the horse is bending correctly through his body, then there will be a sense of him stepping into the outside contact and the inside rein will be slightly looser/softer.

When appropriate we can ask for some lengthening and shortening of the stride on the lunge, work over poles and work in canter. Also, always be mindful of changing the rein regularly and working on as big a circle as you can to put as little stress on the joints as possible, working correctly on the lunge is quite hard work for horses, in particular young ones, so be careful not to work them for too long.

This work should be complimenting your driven sessions therefore use the same voice commands.  The whip aids should support your driven aids, for example directing the whip towards the rib cage asks for a little more inside bend, and the whip directed towards the hindquarters asks for more energy.  Do remember to work at an appropriate level of energy for the horse’s level of training.

I don’t use any other ‘training aids’ other than side reins attached at an appropriate unrestricting length. The horse should be capable of working in a soft novice outline without side reins and then they are only added to ask for slightly more advanced work. If the horse cannot trot around in a novice type outline without side reins, then it is not appropriate to add them – something is not right elsewhere in the training and side reins won’t fix that.

Lunging a young pony in just a cavesson. The pony is straight and in an appropriate rhythm and therefore in a soft, ‘novice’ outline. As she gets stronger through her hindquarters and back, she will gradually become more engaged and as a consequence she will become rounder and slowly develop into a more ‘advanced’ outline