From the Ground Up

Ground work. This term can mean so many different things to different people. To some, this means standing at the end of a lunge line while their horse mindlessly runs in circles, burning off excessive energy. To others, it’s time spent in a round pen establishing “dominance” over their horse. Still to others, it is the series of exercises both in a round pen and on the end of the rope that teaches the horse to both respect their person and gain confidence in themselves and their leader. Some people LOVE it (to the point where they do more ground work than actual riding) and some people think it’s poppy-cock and a waste of time.

Whatever your stance or past experience with ground work, there is something to be said for helping a horse work through its issues from the safety of your own two legs. When I was young, I will admit I did the minimum amount of ground work with any horse. This meant that I would take an unbroke horse and lunge it a requisite five times with a saddle and bit. When they were no longer thinking about bucking (or I had done enough lunging to make me antsy to get on), I would climb aboard. For the first few rides, I would do a quick (read: three minutes, tops) lunge session before hopping up. After more than five rides, that ground work was behind us. After all, the horse was broke, why would I need to do ground work?

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My first plan with CB:  Lunging over objects deemed scary, such as flower boxes.

 

If the horse was a fire-breathing dragon with a look in its eye akin to the devil, but saddle broke, I would just get on. Why would I need to lunge? I could ride out any shenanigans from said dragon. And that was my stand on ground work. I didn’t feel like spending my possible saddle time doing exercises that my horse already knew. This philosophy never caused me any problems and I never saw a need to change my view. That is, until my two current geldings came into my life.

I purchased Romeo as a weanling to be my Western Pleasure prospect. Although I had broken countless horses by this point in my life, this one was different. It was the first time I acquired a horse at such a young age (previous personal horses had been in the almost two year old range) and didn’t have a time limit. This meant I had nothing to do but ground work, for almost two whole years. I had that colt so respectful, confident, supple and attentive to me that when I stepped on him for his first ride, he was a complete dream. I said whoa from a canter and he planted his butt so far in the ground that I almost ended up on his shoulders. I put his first ride on him on a Monday and ride number four was at an Extreme Cowboy Competition that Saturday, where he got 6th out of 12. He completely trusted me, due to all our time on the ground. This opened my eyes to the possibilities available when you take your ground work to that next level. But, in typical impatient-me fashion, I rarely tuned it up.

Then came CB. He came home as an early two year old and was a royal pain in the you-know-what. He had a huge chip on his shoulder and enough attitude to make the sassiest mare on the property say “yes sir!”. He and I had many a discussion in the round pen and on the end of the line. One day, he finally, reluctantly, agreed to try things my way, for the most part. He learned lots of things on the ground and how to drive before finally being ridden as a three year old. At that time, he was horse #3 and I will admit, I may have slacked on some things, mainly his sacking out in various situations. No issues during his first few years, but as holes in training typically do, this skipped step reared its head in his competitive (aka NOW) days.

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Doing desensitizing work is just as important as the various maneuvers I ask him to do.

CB’s current competition path is that of an eventer and stadium jumper. He LOVES to jump, is scopey and very athletic. However, he lacks the ability to process new and scary situations (such as flower boxes, liverpools, brightly colored fillers and cross country jumps made to look like skunks) and possess the amazing athletic prowess to take off for a jump and slam back to the ground in the dirtiest of stops. This has translated to countless hours of me jumping, and getting thrown, into as many different types of jumps I could come up with. CB would get scared and he would mentally shut down, but keep moving his feet. He wouldn’t focus and wouldn’t listen to any of my cues or attempts to encourage him.

 

After hitting the dirt for the umpt-teenth time, I decided to take it back to the beginning and work on lunging him over “scary” things, instead of us (or just me) jumping them under saddle. This seemed to work for the couple of weeks I lunged him over jumps, mainly with flowers or a Liverpool. Once I felt like we had made progress, we went back to just riding. He quickly regressed back to his non-focused ways, running off with me at the mere sight of fake flower or wall.

Plan B. We started doing real ground work, daily. We did sending exercises, sacking out, yielding, join up. Some days, we did this for an hour and a half. On good days, twenty minutes, followed by a ride. He was asked to not only deal with new objects, but to yield and show his respect to me during the process. No more mindless jumping over them. And you know what? I started getting a partner. Previously, if something scared him (could even be his shadow), it took about twenty minutes to get him focused back on me. CB decided what was scary and the appropriate action to the stimuli, regardless of what happened to me in the process. He never once asked me what we should do in a situation because in his mind, he was out there for him and him alone.

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CB now gets worked on the ground before every competition and jump schooling session, in order to get us on the same page and him tuned in to me.

After just a couple weeks of this work, we came up to a “new” jump while schooling and I could feel the tension in his body. But instead of taking off or stopping dead, he flicked an ear to me and asked me what to do. I put leg on and we jumped. I couldn’t have been prouder. Is my chicken of a horse now Braveheart? Absolutely not. But now, it takes me seconds to get him refocused, not tens of minutes. And the majority of the time, he at least gives me an ear when he’s nervous. I’ve also learned that no matter how calm and focused he seems at the start of a session, his ground work is essential. That little refresher course before I swing my leg over his back makes a huge difference. It lets him know that I’m the one who will lead us through our workout and that I’ll take care of him.

 

Some days, I’d much rather get straight to riding. Especially early show mornings when this ground work means 40 less minutes of sleep. But to have my horse trust me is worth the extra time.

 

 

Weather…Or Not?

Well, it sure is spring time here in Kansas.  For the average Kansan, this means battling the volatile weather that we are so well known for.  Add on to that the beginning of the horse show season and you have a recipe for some crazy and long days.

Recently, due to my desire to keep my horses prepped and on schedule, no matter the cost, I got a new respect for Mother Nature.  I have lived in Kansas full time since 2009 (came out for college in 2007) and have seen my fair share of thunderstorms.  I happened to be out of town during the tornado of 2008 that skipped right through my hometown of Manhattan.  Like the majority of Kansans, unless there was a tornado spotted close by, I didn’t much worry about the wind, rain and hail swirling around.

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Hail in the driveway, typical of Kansas thunderstorms.

My blasé attitude towards severe weather got a reality check one evening.  I was finishing up my third ride on a Sunday evening when it started raining fairly hard.  I swore under my breath slightly as I flipped off the indoor arena lights and started putting my tack away.  Although our indoor and main barn are attached, I opt to have my horses in the smaller detached barn.  This means that I was fixing to get wet.  Luckily, CB is my tough horse and has no issues with running in the rain, unlike Romeo who is convinced he melts with a single drop.

One of the stable-hands, Jesus, was coming around to close up the barns and I shouted out over the pinging of the steel roof that I’d be done in one minute.  He ran for the small barn and left the big doors open for me.  CB and I hoofed it at a run all the way to the shelter of our barn, just as the hail starting coming down.  After putting CB up in his stall, I went to the front of the barn to chat with Jesus for a moment.  At this point, the hail was coming down with more frequency and attempting to go outside without protection would be out of the question.  Not once did it occur to me to check the radar to see what this storm would amass to.  Instead, I was excited to get home, as I was finished earlier than normal for a Sunday.  I grabbed a tote lid while Jesus grabbed a muck bucket and we made a run for it, (him, the barn; me, my car) laughing the whole way.  I jumped in my little sports car and hightailed it out of there.

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Hail I gathered from directly outside the barn.

I come up over the hill of the road and my cell service kicks back on (we have no service at the barn).  I got a text from my boyfriend that he is in the tornado shelter with the dogs.  My first thought was that he was being excessive in going to the shelter, so I called him.  He informed me the tornado sirens were going off at home (about five miles south of where I was) and we were under a tornado warning.  I get off the phone yet continue to drive down the dirt roads, between fields, headed towards home and the sirens.  At this point, I have the radio on and come to find out that there are wall clouds directly north of my barn.  I keep driving.  I look to my left and see a line of over 50 beef cows and calves lined up on a hill, side by side, tails to the wind.  Being an agriculture girl, seeing THAT put me in panic mode.  The cattle were preparing for the worst.  I flipped a 180 right there and starting booking it back to the barn, just as the hail increased to the size of quarters (and eventually, ping-pong balls).

 

 

The rain was coming down so hard that I couldn’t see anything.  Thank goodness I know those roads.  I blindly flew back to the barn, fishtailing around the corners and sliding into the driveway.  I parked as close as I could get to the barn doors and flew inside.  The horses were in a panic and it was so loud (steel roof plus hail!) I couldn’t hear myself scream.  I threw hay to everyone (my three, plus four horses belonging to my friends) and went stall to stall, calming each horse down.  I tuned the barn radio in to a local station, just in time to hear that the worse of the storm was directly overhead.  I peeked out the doors and could see rotational clouds over the horizon.  The thought went through my head that if this is my night to go, at least I’m with my horses.  I unlatched the stall doors in case I needed to fling open the barn and get the horses out.

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“A River Runs Through It”

Thankfully, those drastic measures weren’t necessary.  I did, however, end up playing plumber for the better part of a half hour.  The flash flooding reached the barn and I kept a constant path going from one end, out the other, to try to prevent stalls from flooding.  The hay stall became a goopy lake and the aisle had a river running through.  But I managed to keep the horses dry, for the most part.  I was stuck down there for over an hour, no cell phone service or landline to let my family know I was alright.  To say I had some panic to qualm would be an understatement.  That night was my scariest encounter with nature (until a recent schooling horse trial, keep an eye out for that post!) and it opened up my eyes to how quickly things can go bad.

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Preparations made during storm #2

With that in mind, when the weather forecasted a more severe storm cell two days later, preparations were made.  Each of the seven horses in our barn got phone numbers braided into manes or tails.  The barn got barricaded with sand bags to prevent flooding.  And my friends and family had a constant contact stream going, to make sure everyone was safe.  Although the sirens went off, the storm wasn’t as severe as the first one.  But now, in my opinion, better safe than sorry.

 

I used to be one of those who would brush off the warnings and predictions of bad weather to come.  Lesson learned, I now have a plan in place for such emergencies.  I intend to order permanent tags with contact information to attach to the horses in the future.  And I am looking into getting body spray paint, to paint phone numbers on hooves or rumps.  Do not take Mother Nature for granted; whether your area is prone to tornados, hurricanes, wild fires or blizzards, know what steps you would take to ensure your horses (and you!) are safe.  You can’t predict when it might strike, but you can be ready when it does.

 

Learning From The Past

I recently made a comment on Facebook about looking back on your life and wondering what you were thinking.  I had been reflecting on a past relationship and with hindsight being 20/20, I just could not understand why I had pursued that.  But one of my friends made a comment that really got me thinking.  She brought up all the stupid things she did that put herself in danger when she was young and she said she couldn’t believe she survived some of the things she did.  Well, I am 100% guilty on that charge, yet with me, 99% of those stupid things were done horseback.

I was one of the lucky girls.  I was born into the horse world.  I wouldn’t say into a horse household, but instead to a mother who couldn’t imagine life without an equine.  She rode her horse Rebel, a 1984 Morgan gelding, until she was eight and a half months pregnant with me.  The only reason she stopped riding was she was too large to mount unassisted and my father refused to enable what he deemed an unsafe activity for a heavily pregnant woman.  She was back out at the stables a few days after giving birth and brought me along when I was two weeks old (again, against my father’s wishes).  Rebel lowered his head and snuffled me in my car seat…and I was hooked.  There was no turning back for me.

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My mother and I with her Morgan gelding, Rebel.

 

Horses were in my blood, no denying that.  I was a difficult child and I would throw tantrums, crying the entire 20 minutes to the barn; but as soon as I was on the back of that horse, I was perfectly content.  I was riding unassisted by the time I was 18 months old.  To help me develop a seat, my mom would make me ride bareback, eyes closed with my arms out to the side.  This made me learn at a young age to feel the horse and to understand what their body is doing.

When I was five, I began competing at the Connecticut Gymkhana Association (C.G.A.).  It was there that I met my first horse friend, a six year old named Tanya, who through the years became not only my closest horse friend, but my best friend in general.  We were the only two small children in the club at first, but that didn’t stop us.  We competed against the adults and loved every moment of it.  Me, on my baby sitter 15.1 hand Morgan, and her on an often devilish pony named Grey.  She later graduated to a Quarter Horse named Shorty and Rebel decided I was competent enough to gallop.  That was when the real fun, and trouble, began.

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Me on Rebel and Tanya on Grey, sometime in the 90s at a C.G.A. show

 

 

Between classes, you could find the two of us racing in the fields, playing tag, swapping horses, doing pickups and drop offs, swimming down rivers.  Whatever we could think of that was adrenaline filled and horseback.  We would be on the back of those horses from 8 am to 5 pm or longer, only getting off to eat or use the restroom.  Heaven knows why those two geldings put up with our shenanigans, but I am forever grateful for them.  I know they are galloping around in the big pasture in the sky together keeping an eye on their little girls.

When we got a little older and expanded into jumping, there wasn’t an obstacle Tanya and I didn’t convert to a jump.  Snowbanks, front yard fences, cars, flatbed trucks, bike racks, bleachers, picnic tables… If it had a flat and relatively clear landing and takeoff point, it was fair game.  We would ride our horses everywhere – down main Street and then tie them to dumpsters to go get pizza.  We never batted an eye at a steep hilll or drop into a river.  If we pointed our mount there, that’s where we would go.  I know for a fact that some of those trails I wouldn’t dream of setting hoof on now.

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Tanya and I on Shorty, playing around between classes.

 

I could go on and on about the fun and crazy things we did.  I’m glad we did them, because it made us who we are today as people and equestrians.  However, I wish I had been kinder to my horses in the process.  Goodness knows those long days using them as chairs and transportation at a show probably caused more than one sore back.  Now, I step off my horse the instant they are done with a class.  I rarely even ride back to the trailer.  We used to have trotting races on pavement.  It occurs to me all that trauma might be the cause of my mare’s chronic arthritis in her fetlocks.  Our horses were loved and well taken care of.  But we rode them, hard.  And we put them, and ourselves, in many a sticky situation.  We were lucky in having good, solid minded horses that we trusted and bailed us out, most of the time.  It so easily could have gone wrong.

I guess what I’m getting at here is there is a line that needs to be followed.  Go out and have fun like those crazy, horse obsessed kids, but keep the comfort of your horse in mind too.  If you work them hard, hose them off, rub them down, liniment them and pamper them for their job well done.  And do not purposefully put them in a situation that could hurt them or yourself.  Riding is a dangerous enough sport, you don’t need to directly assist in those statistics.

So the next time you find yourself in a huge meadow, walk a path and check your footing… Then gallop like the wind!  (Just don’t forget that cool off after.)

Forging Ahead

 

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My three horses and the inspiration for this blog.  Sweetie (left), Romeo (top right) and CB.

 

This shouldn’t be so difficult, right? I’ve created this blog to do my second favorite thing in life, talk about horses!  So why am I so terrified to do this?

Well, for starters, I have never been a social media fanatic. As for blogs, the closest thing (beside old-fashioned horse SIM games online in the 90s and early 00s) I have gotten to them was a post or two on MySpace over ten years ago.  So this is unchartered territory.  But more to the point, I’m scared of failing.  Scared that I’m going to put my time, effort, heart and soul into this and no one will care!  I don’t want to put myself out there for everyone just to fall on my face.

And then here’s that connection back to the blood and guts of this blog: horses.

Every time I swing my leg over my horse, there is that notion in the back of my mind: failure.  Failure to achieve my goals for that session, failure to ride to the best of my ability, failure to perfect a movement or a transition, failure to hit my striding or set my horse up for the best take off point.  Then in the bigger picture, failure to get and keep my horses fit, failure to have them prepared for competition, failure to provide everything they need in life.  When you add an audience, I don’t know about you, but I feel those pressures build even more.

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Don’t let your fear (in this case, fear of a refusal for me and fear of ditches for my horse) stop you from trying.

Yet, as I tell one of my close friends every time I see fear overcome her in the saddle, if you focus on the negatives instead of the possibilities, you’ll never give yourself the chance to do it right! I generally am good about that in my equestrian pursuits.  So in taking my own advice, I’m pushing the thought of failure back in order to clear the road for all the potential.

 

In creating this blog, I’m hoping to be able to connect to others in the horse world on a whole new level. Being an adult amateur on her own (no trainer, no show barn, etc.), I am limited on my interactions with other similar horse people.  That is, besides a few close friends and awesome “show parents” I wouldn’t trade the world for!  It can be a hard and isolating journey, competing self-trained horses as an amateur adult.  I want to be that connection for other people.  To show that there are others traveling that road and be a resource, support and companion.

This will be a place to talk about training techniques, fitness/competition schedules, keeping up with horses while working full time, cross-training, management and

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Enjoying a nice warm-up trot while discussing schooling goals.  When you don’t have a trainer, fellow riders can be great resources.

everything and anything horse related! My angle is that I am from a very diverse equestrian background with three different “Western” type breeds heavily immersed (recently!) in the English disciplines (Eventing, Hunter & Jumper).

 

With my first few posts, I’ll introduce myself more in depth along with the wonderful equines in my life. Each has their own special background, talents, quirks and paths.  And I love them all for it.  After that, the sky is the limit for content on here.  So if there is a topic you would like covered, please speak up!  I’d love some comments on here, or you can find me on Twitter @OrdinaryHorses, Instagram (OrdinaryHorses) or www.facebook.com/ExtraOrdinaryHorses . I’ll be trying my best to stay active on all of these platforms, so the more help I can get from you, the better!

And as far as that fear is concerned… Remember that you can’t succeed if you don’t try!