My 3 1/2 year old Mustang mare is incredibly smart and loves to figure out new tasks. We have worked on a lot of basic groundwork such as lunging with a line and free lunging, desensitizing, making sure she stands for fly spray, mounting, when tied, etc. I have also taken her for walks all over parts of the farm and different rooms in the barn to introduce her to new things.

She figures out what I want from her incredibly fast, and though I do touch base with her to make sure she still remembers (and still start every session with a few minutes of free lunging even if we aren't going to be riding) I can see her getting bored with something once she has figured it out. I'd like to keep work fun and interesting with her, but continue to work with her on the ground introducing her to new concepts and things. Any ideas of what we could do? We have access to an indoor arena, and outdoor unfenced, and a roundpen, as well as poles and cones.

Tags: ground work, horse sports, horse training

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Hi Anni, This is probably not going to be a very popular thing to say ,but here goes. Horses are no smarter, or dumber , than sheep !! People always say how dumb sheep are, yet you can train a sheep to do alot of things. It's not that your horse is incredibly smart, rather, has inherited and learned sensitivity . The differences between horses are accounted for by differences in the AMOUNT OF PRESSURE required to produce responses and that some aspects of training require more emphasis than others, these differences are not related to their intelligence, but that sensitivity that is mostly inherited. One of the problems with the belief that our horses are smarter than they actually are, is that we will , as is human nature, skip the boring bits. This is the main problems find with most of the horses that come to me for retraining, everyone starts with step one , they might even go through to step 4 or 5 , then they start to miss steps , or skim over a step. Imagine for a minute you're having a conversation on a mobile phone, but the signal is not very clear, so you only get every third word. You end up with an idea of what was said but not the complete picture. later on you might be asked , under pressure, say in a test, to recall the conversation. How good do you think you would be able to do it? Horse don't have a prefrontal cortex like we do , this allows us to reason, to consider, analyse or visualise stored memories and come up with a new response through insight. Something the horse just cannot do. The only reason I'm saying this is to give you an understanding of how your horse will learn the tasks you set it . When starting your horse think about reward based training, how little force can you use to control your horse? A great Australian trainer, Tom Roberts, asked " when you sit on a pin , why do you get off?" Most will reply that they get off because it hurts. He would say, " No ! You get off because it STOPS hurting when you do!" pressure from the riders legs and hands become the aids that form the basics of all responses. Pressure - release is the term used to describe how horses learn to find a release ( reward) from pressure , through a process of'trial and error' This is called operant conditioning . That is they try a series of responses until a response results in a release, and then they try to use that response for relief thereafter. pressure- release works because the pressure motivatesthe horse to give a response and the release of the pressure reinforcesthat the correct response was given when this is repeated,a habit has formed and training has occurred. So instead of thinking that the horse is"willing to please you", think more along the lines that he is giving the responses to please himself. The pressure must always begin with a light aid that progressively becomes stronger until the horse tries the correct response. Soon the reverse happens: the stronger aid transforms back to the light aid, think three phases, the light aid, the stronger aid, the release. This should form thebasis of yourtraining , it's a start point. Any exercises that you do, and there are a lot of books and videos to get them from, if you remember the principles of pressure- release you cannot go wrong. If any exercises don't look like they apply to these principles, DON'T USE THEM. I'm not that big a fan of free lunging, or playing " games" with horses. Lunging is useful providing it is combined with work in hand, this is really important because lunging without transitions does not train the basic responses- it just tiresthe horse and makes him fitter, which requires longer and longer sessions. It is very hard,if not imposable, to do immediate downward transitions to delete any tension. if you cannot do this it will lead to tenseness such as . running , rearing, or bucking becoming practised on the lunge and therefor into habits. Be careful about making work , as you say , interesting for her, sometimes this can be more about making it more interesting for you !! Remember, the horse does not have the reasoning capabilities that you do, far better for you to be a little bored than your horse confused. The horse always learns better if they are calm , the bast way to keep them calm , is to keep it simple, so the horse always goes "yes I know , I stop when she does this, I go when she does this, simple, calm. At your horses age all we really want them to do is 5 things, Stop, Go , Turn, Yield and Park. If you do a lot of this on the ground , then when you get on the horse will be calm to be ridden because the basics are learned. Hope this helps a bit Cheers Geoffrey
Geoffrey, you are right, horses do learn better when they are calm, and things are kept simple. But are you sure they aren't smarter than sheep?
I don't expect that everyone will agree, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that it's true. Most peoples perception of sheep is that they are pretty thick, but you can train a sheep to do any thing a horse can do . It's easier to get your head around it if you bring the sheep up to the level of the horse not the other way round. That's why simple works!!
Really great answer. That's one of the most clear statements on how to train a horse I have read.
Hi Geoffrey, thanks for your response. I do agree that it can be a dangerous thing when people start assigning their emotions to horses - ie, he didn't respond correctly because he's mad at me, etc - and, not having much experience with sheep since I'm a bit of a city girl, I can't really match that up to what I've learned from being around horses.

I do have to say that I think there is a time and a place for groundwork, though. For instance, I am the second person to have worked with my mare since she was caught by the BLM and put into a holding pen to be auctioned off. One of my main training goals with her has been to get her used to working with all sorts of people and to expose her to all sorts of things. In this respect, much of what I am calling groundwork is something that you would expect a 3 1/2 year old to have already been exposed to, but since she was 3 when she was brought out of the holding pens, she is still learning.

I also still strongly believe that free lunging has been an essential tool in her training. When I first got her, she was stubborn as a mule and had respect issues to the point when if I waved her off or asked her to back she would stiffen up and not move. My beginnings of free lunging with her were not even in a round pen, but press and release style distinctly working with the concept you describe - the absence of me pushing her away was her reward. When I free lunge her now I do not make her trot in circles for ten minutes - I do a check in, and wait until she is showing that her attention is focused on me, and then I reward her with a few pats and kind words before continuing on with the days' lesson. It is my firm belief that hammering in a concept with a young horse after they have achieved it will not help but hinder their training, and they will not understand that their behavior was what the trainer desired.

Basically, I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but I don't always follow your track. To my mind, I am not skipping the boring bits but rather varying our work together because I would still like to work with her on days when, for whatever reason, I am not going to ride her - for instance, right now I am getting my saddle adjusted, but would still like to spend time with her for the next couple of days beyond grooming her and turning her back out to the field.

As a note, she may not be smart in the human sense, but I do see varying degrees of intelligence between horses themselves. For instance, I have never seen another horse figure out how to untie and undo a quick release knot with their teeth quite as quickly as she did. ;)
You could look yoUTube to see some different things people use to play with their horses. I know there is lots of them under Pat Parelli videos) I have viewed them to get ideas to keep my horse from getting bored. When he gets bored, he will find ways to get naughty and mess up our rides.
Free lounging is absolutely great for gaining communication with our horses. I don't ever lounge to wear them out.
The first time my horse stopped on a dime from a fast trot when I had no lead line attached to him was so great & he looked excited too. If he could have spoken, I think he'd have said "It's about time you started doing something interesting with me.

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