Think of it as a trip to the amusement park- with your horse.

I didn’t start out doing Natural Horsemanship. I started out before that phrase was invented.  Like a lot of us, I used voice commands while lunging and required good ground manners. I did the rest from my saddle; riding was my thing.

To tell the truth, the first time I saw a horse whisperer video years ago, it actually made me mad. I was less than open-minded on the topic. Besides, my horses all ground tied for ear-clipping and that should be good enough.

Add to that mix that certain riding disciplines don’t always get along with other riding disciplines (think high school cliques.)

Around this time I bought a weanling colt. It’s my tradition with new dogs or horses- to try some training technique that I haven’t done before. It is a way to have a clean slate experiment and it keeps me learning.

So yes, I admit it. The colt and I played games. But I am going to call it groundplay- communicating interactively back and forth, with body language and mutual respect, while on the ground. We had fun; the colt was so smart and after all, it is his native tongue. It was so spontaneous and rewarding connecting this way and groundplay dovetailed with everything I understood about classical dressage, so why not?

Ok, I’ll tell you why not- we got bored. I hear this all the time from riders who have scratched the surface of this kind of work. Answers by rote are always get old quick. But dressage taught me the value of more transitions for keeping a horse interested and honest, so we took it past intro level and got creative with the groundplay.

Then one day I was facing him, staring at his knee and thinking of what to do next, and he lifted that knee. It had to be a coincidence. I looked at his other knee, and he showed me that one, too. It was the same with the hind legs. He was way ahead and almost cueing me. I know horses like the smallest cue possible, but this was nuts. And once he was under-saddle, it only got better. Now I say it out loud: I train using a combination of Natural Horsemanship and Dressage.

The more I do groundplay with horses, old or young, rescue horses or dressage competitors, the more I see the value. The enthusiastic answer from the horse is the same, even for horses with challenging issues. It’s like paying a quarter and getting seventy-five cents back in change. Groundplay improves the quality of communication and that improves everything else. Work is happy time, whatever the riding discipline.

Have you been hearing about Horse Agility? There are videos online (here)- and this woman, Vanessa Bee, literally wrote the book (here). You might combine agility with dressage and become a liberty diva (here)! Horse agility works for people who love horses but don’t ride, or riders who want to improve their working relationship, or are maybe looking for some interesting cross training. Look out, Cavalia!

Does your horse need a hobby? Any horse can do it, age and size don’t matter. Agility engages the brain of an older horse and teaches focus for a young horse. Mules and donkeys, minis and draft horses, it’s very inclusive. And you start with a lead rope, you probably have one around the barn already!

There are competitions, with different levels- and even online video competitions. Or it could just be a fun Saturday at the horse amusement park.

I am not sure where this will go, but it’s time to play.  I have a couple of equine volunteers, the Dude Rancher is building us some obstacles, and the game is on!

Who’s in??

Anna, Infinity Farm.

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Comment by B. G. Hearns on March 19, 2012 at 4:16pm

Dang. This sounds like fun, but I can barely keep up with the training program I already have.

I have recently learned how to do groundwork properly and the result is my horse is no longer pushy and rude. It begins the minute I lean over the fence to give him a carrot: I just tilt my head and look at his hindquarters, and he yields his back end around and turns to face me. We haven't walked a staight line anywhere without practicing circles, turns on the haunches and forequarters, back and forth movements in weeks now.

He has gone from being pushy and rude to being quiet, respectful, and responsive to the lightest touch and his mounted work is much the same.

Now, I'm almost working at liberty, I groom and tack Oakley without tying up (of course, we are in the barn, so he can't get too far or do too much harm and isn't likely to freak at anything) and when I'm done with one side, I just stand and point and he changes sides for me. I get to be in charge, because he's moving his feet, not me running around fussing. On with the saddle and girth-strap, then he changes sides so I can adjust the other side.

I am a big fan of groundwork. Proper groundwork is really critical to getting a soft, supple, responsive horse. This sounds like a whole lot of fun to try in the future. Thanks.

Comment by Cyndi on March 16, 2012 at 5:00pm

I recently purchased Vanessas book, and hope to start doing something.  First, however, I need to get my barn owner's permission to set up some obstacles in the front paddock/pasture.  I think that even if the horses are on their own, it'd be fun for them to investigate safe obstacles, rather than just stand around bored  :o)

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