crunchy hippy granola groundwork

My background in clicker training and positive reinforcement training of all kinds of animals (dogs, cats, macaques, giraffes, eland, elephants, horses, chimpanzees, zebras, tigers, gorillas… that’s basically the list) may make my dismissive attitude towards Natural Horsemanship (the type with the capital N and H) a little surprising.  Honestly, I don’t know a ton about Natural Horsemanship, and I would probably learn a lot from the philosophy if I gave it the old College Try.  But I’ve seen a few choices videos that don’t quite make sense, and my general inclination to avoid any one “doctrine” in training my horse (or doing anything) makes me shy away from the plan.

a curiously difficult species to clicker train

What I do like is the antecedent-behavior-consequence sequence that I can usually find in many other animal behavior modification programs.  Since I’ve recently been taking a more serious approach to ground work, this now plays an even larger portion in my interactions with Murray.  (Which is stupid, really, since behavior modification happens constantly, including under saddle. But it’s much easier to see, and evaluate, from the ground than the saddle.)

As with all things in horses/my life, I jumped in way too deep to start with and became frustrated that Murray couldn’t shoulder-in with me on the ground and wanted to run away from me or run in circle.  So (for once!) I stepped back, looked in to some really basic exercises, and committed to doing those until I could call them done.  Mostly I used Emma’s fabulous write-ups to give me a baseline for what I wanted to do.  There were a few behaviors I already knew that we needed to work on — standing while I touch all over his body and walk behind him, letting me approach the girth without running off, go forward, go back.  And then there was the whole “I want you to be able to step backwards over a pole” thing.  I somewhat-irrationally decided I needed my horse to be able to do this.  But it turns out it was a good thing anyway.

belly rubs and the subsequent rhino lip are an important part of groundwork games

Fortunately, Murray has gotten past the extinction burst of awful begging behaviors (including trying to and successfully biting me) that showed up when we first started playing this game, which makes it much more fun for me.  He’s also gotten “worse” at some of the behaviors we’ve been working on, specifically backing up.  Which is interesting.  But the important thing here is how you define “worse”.  Murray doesn’t respond as quickly to the back up cue, go as far, or move as fast as he used to when we first started playing this game.  But, he is much more relaxed when we do it, and processes a response to the cue to back up instead of just flying backwards whenever I stop.  So maybe this one is actually a win?

Troubleshooting Murray’s reluctance to back up over a pole was also fun, and I’m pretty pleased with how it’s panned out so far.  Once Murray knew that I had some intention of asking him to back over a pole, i.e. after the first time I asked him to perform this behavior, he had absolutely no interest in doing anything remotely akin to backing up over a pole.  He would walk really quickly over the pole, then immediately re-position his body so that there was no possible way I could reasonably get him to go backwards over that pole.

First, we worked on stopping and standing quietly with front and back legs on either side of the pole, and then positioned just in front of and behind the pole.  We progressed to stepping front feet only over a pole, and then finally getting hind feet, and then all four feet backwards over a pole.  Murray scared himself at one point, when he stepped on the pole, rolled it on to his own feet, then kicked it backwards with his front feet on to his hinds.  While funny at the time, it did make Murray’s confidence take a dive.

Hopefully, after a few more weeks, we’ll be able to back up over a couple of sequential poles.  Though that will require a little more careful footwork than Murray has so far demonstrated.  We’ll see.

The better part of all of this, is that Murray is taking me more seriously on the ground in general.  Obviously nobody would ever have been able to predict that developing better communication for essential and important groundwork behaviors would lead to better communication overall — NO, NOBODY EVER.

I don’t think Murray’s and my relationship has suffered tooooooo negatively from missing out on this relationship building through groundwork.  I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to take such a logical and reasonable approach to it when we first got together, though.  I was too impatient, even all wrapped up in my ideas of going slowly.  But now we both have a little more perspective, and Murray’s really learned now to learn, and we’re making progress.

This paid dividends when I took a little outing this week for another fitness hack (over an hour of walking, and two short gallops, 900m and 1300m respectively).  Murray didn’t want to get in the trailer again, which is par for the course post Twin.  I had put a flat leather halter on over the rope halter to tie him with inside the trailer, but the lead rope was still hooked up to the lead rope.  When Murray stopped at the open door of the trailer and said, thanks but no thanks and tried to run off backwards, I had a much better idea of how to handle it.  First, I didn’t let him get away with running off backwards (I actually grabbed on to the trailer with my hand not holding the lead rope so I’d have an anchor), which at least made him stop and reconsider the situation.  Then I pulled him over to the side and we had a little discussion of “yes, this means forward, and it means forward now!”.  On the second go it took him a moment to accept, but jumped right in after a little think.  On the way home, he jumped in first go.

I’ve stopped being amazed at the aspects of horsemanship that I still have to learn about.  The answer is simply: everything.

9 thoughts on “crunchy hippy granola groundwork”

  1. i love the part about murray ‘learning to learn.’ practicing all this stuff is pretty new to me too, and i mostly picked it up to make sure i didn’t get myself killed by that giant new unknown entity i brought home in the form of charlie murray.

    but it’s honestly been really incredible – for the reasons you state. figuring out how to get him mentally in a learning frame of mind, where he understands that i’m trying to tell him things and that he needs to figure it out, and also giving me a chance to learn how to clearly communicate with him… it’s just been so useful! and i think it’s a big part of what has helped us build up mutual trust (something i need badly bc of the whole ‘fraidy cat thing lol)


    1. I think this is going to be my favorite part of working with Junebug!! It’s so important and can be such a confidence builder and trust builder for horse and rider!!


  2. I think it’s a lot easier for us overachieving humans to learn how to teach from the ground. Horses learn constantly.

    It’s definitely been a fascinating step in my journey with Courage. Glad it’s working for you too!


  3. Okay, do you lunge in addition to ground work or when you’re focusing on ground work, it’s solely ground work? This is such a new avenue for me and I’m so glad you referenced the post from Emma. I need a workbook or something. I feel Amazon calling my name.

    One question with the ground pole – how does the horse know it’s there? Do you always walk forward over it first and then back over it? Just assuming that the horse reasons and remembers?


    1. I rarely don’t ride, unless I have time constraints, so it’s always ground work + something. For dressage rides I do ground work + lunge + ride, and for jumping rides it’s usually ground work + ride.

      Knowing my horse and how he (and some other animals) tend to learn, I’m not sure that he would get much out of a long groundwork session. He tends to get frustrated that the treat delivery schedule doesn’t get faster and faster, and then starts to offer bizarre behaviors that he thinks might get him something. So if I want to work with him for more than ten or fifteen minutes (for fitness or to practice other things), I really have to either lunge him or ride him. It might be different if I lived with him, then I could go out 3-4 times a day and do short groundwork sessions which would be pretty cool.

      I’m also trying to develop a dressage routine so that when we get to shows I can employ the routine and end up with a more relaxed horse who knows what the game plan is. So far it’s kinda working.

      With the ground poles, I always walk Murray over them forward before immediately stopping (within 1-2 steps of the pole, and asking him to go backward. For one, we’re not very good at backing up in general. so I’d never be able to back straight up to a pole and get what I wanted. And I definitely think he knows it’s there when I do it this way, as I’ll stop just after the pole (or sometime with fronts and hinds split over the pole).

      It’s really fascinating. I kinda wish I’d done more of this earlier, but oh well. At least we’re learning now!


  4. It’s never too late to learn new things! Reading this really makes me think I should do more groundwork with Cinna. I think her busy little brain would enjoy it, and it would definitely help strengthen our relationship. So much food for thought. I’m glad you’re seeing progress with Murray!


  5. So cool. I love shaping behaviors with dogs. My trainer always said, “use a behavior she is already offering and work from there to get what you want.” It makes sense. I struggle with the “be patient” part though. I want to go from A to C. Or skip A and get to F. Ugh. I need to work on my patience and the process and not necessarily the end result.


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