Training Mythunderstandings:
Heeding Groundwork: Class Review

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Let’s review the sequence of communication skills a baby green horse learns in a horse-logical “heeding” program. When he starts out, he doesn’t have any kind of vocabulary for working with humans. We slowly introduce him to horse-logical body language pressures that are relieved when his feet move in the indicated direction. We want him to pay close attention to whatever we are doing or, in colloquial English, to “pay heed.”

A baby green horse may come into the arena for the first time fretting about where his barn buddies are or spooking at everything or running and bucking just because it feels good to stretch his muscles. The first few days we may just want him to notice us as a friendly presence that just happens to be in there with him. Then we start breaking the new things we want to communicate with him about down into the smallest horse-logical steps we can.

With our horse along the wall or fence and ourselves out somewhere in the middle of the arena, we first get him to pay attention to the direction our body location suggests he move. Initially, we show the horse that we want him to move forward by following directly behind him to put pressure on his primary line of influence (the one running down his spine and as far out front and back as he feels it). As he begins to understand that we want him to move forward, we can move farther out toward the middle of the area and move him forward by walking with him somewhere behind his secondary line of influence (running at 90 degrees to the primary line at about his girth area). Gradually, we start moving our feet just a little before we create the forward pressures to shift his attention to what we were doing with our feet. Whenever he pays attention to us, we relax the pressure a little.

Eventually he becomes very comfortable and trusting in our presence. When we stop, and maybe back up slowly a step or two, he decides to turn and approach and see what we’re all about. Then we show him we’re friendly by scratching and grooming him the way another friendly horse would do. We do not slap on him heartily on the neck or vocalize about what a good boy he was or force our grooming attentions on him if he doesn’t want them. We just copy the activities and the feel he’d experience if he was in a friendly herd situation. When he wants to leave, we let him go and begin our following and directing pressures again.

We work him in both directions and, as he begins to pay more attention to what our feet are doing as well as the direction our body language indicates, we start modifying the stepping movements we make with our feet. We walk to suggest a walk, step our knees with a little animation to suggest a trot, and skip to suggest a canter.

When he consistently understands what we are showing him and gives it to us consistently when we ask for it, the day comes when we snap a lead rope to his halter when he comes up to us. Since you don’t control a horse by controlling its head, we just let the lead rope hang between ourselves and the horse in a nice, big loop. When the horse decides it’s time to leave, we just walk along with him.

What is different now is our position relative to the horse. We start using our body position in combination with the arena walls or fences and corners to help us create corridors of pressures to indicate the direction we wanted the horse to go forward or to stop or to turn. We face forward and move our feet to ask the horse to move his feet forward instead of putting pressure on his primary line from behind.

Instead of inviting him to join us in the arena to stop, we use the feeling of being blocked by a corner in the arena to show the horse that when we stop moving our feet, turn to face his head and put our primary line across his, we want him to stop. Or we might be facing his neck or his side in the early stages of learning while he’s still figuring things out.

When the horse is stepping along on the outside of the track and we are stepping along on the inside of it, we show him how to turn in the direction of travel by turning our own bodies in the direction we want to go as we reach a corner. As our primary line turns, the horse sees a new corridor to move into instead of feeling blocked by the corner.

Turning the horse away from us so that we are going in a new direction on the outside of the track involves turning our primary line (we do this with our eyes so our body language is clear) across the horse’s primary line. This is the same motion we’ve used to ask the horse to stop except that this time, our feet keep moving.

If the horse doesn’t immediately understand (and he probably won’t), we need to show him what we want by upsetting his balance just enough to make him feel like moving his feet in the new direction. One way is to just keep walking in the new direction so we crowd him gently. If that doesn’t work, we can move a hand up his neck until our fingers are pressing into the groove behind his jowl. Soften the finger pressure as soon as he shows the slightest try of turning his head and moving in the new direction. Eventually he starts paying more attention to our feet and body position and he figures out the difference between a stop and a turn to the outside.

To someone watching, it might have looked like we’ve gone from working with the horse somewhere out in the arena to “leading” the horse with a rope and halter from alongside. But we don’t direct the horse in any way using the lead rope. We are still showing the horse what direction we want him to go and at what speed we want him to go by using body language. Once the horse figures out the connection we are showing him between the feel our body language creates in him and the movement of his feet that removes that pressure and puts him back in his comfort zone, we can use our body language to ask the horse with the reasonable expectation that he will follow our lead. So we are leading the dance but not with a rope. One reason I like the word “heeding” is because it sounds like a combination of leading and heeling. A dog at heel may be wearing a leash but in no way is it being led by the leash. Heeding adds a component of “paying attention” to that.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

Thank you to all the wonderful staff at Meredith Manor! I am the assistant barn manager and head junior instructor at Concord Ridge Equestrian Center, a brand-new facility here in Southwest Michigan. I impress my bosses everyday with the knowledge I gained from my time at the manor! And I must say school was a breeze compared to my work load now! I'm very thankful to have been prepared for it and prepared correctly! Thanks once again :)
Rachel Cadle: 2010 Riding Master III Graduate