Today’s Peregrine Story: #6 Ground Work Redefined

Peregrine in hand cropped

1993: Peregrine setting up for haunches-in.

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  In 1993 when I went out to the barn with my pockets full of treats, I had no idea the journey that first step was going to take me on.  I wasn’t thinking about writing books, making videos, traveling to clinics and conferences, sharing clicker training on the internet with people from around the planet.  I just wanted a way to keep Peregrine entertained while he was laid up with foot abscesses.

As he began to recover, I used the clicker to reshape some of the many things I had taught him over the years.  Clicker training had landed in a good place.  I had a lot in my tool box to play with.  In 1993 if you said ground work to most people, that meant one and only one thing – lunging.  It’s no wonder when I started to write about using clicker training to improve ground work so many people ran in the opposite direction.  It wasn’t just the treats that they didn’t like, it was lunging.  Rarely did you see it done well, with a real understanding of a horse’s balance.  It was used to “get the bucks out”.  In my area the norm for lunging was horses racing around, out of balance, being jerked on, often in side reins.  It was at best mindless.  At it’s worse, it was a physically exhausting battle between horse and handler, repeated daily before the rider dared to get on.

I was learning something very different.  For starters I had raised both Peregrine and his mother.  Ground work for me meant so much more than lunging.  It meant all the early handling and socialization.  It meant teaching horses to pick up their feet for cleaning, to stand well for grooming and saddling and all the other basic handling you take for granted when you’ve only had older horses.  It meant going for walks together to learn about the world.  Peregrine’s mother had spinal cord damage – the result of a handling accident that occurred shortly before she became mine.  So for her ground work meant even more.  It meant literally reteaching her how to walk without falling.

Early on in my horse training experience I was able to spend time with some very skilled horsemen. They didn’t mess around with the kind of small steps I teach today through clicker training. They went straight to the big stuff. Most of the time they were successful because they had the skills to get into a fight with a horse and win. But occasionally things would turn into a train wreck.

I remember one such occasion where a trainer was trying to “sort out” a mustang. This was a powerfully built draft type horse. He’d already come to grief with several other trainers, and now this man was trying out his skills. The mustang came within a hair’s breath of kicking his head in.

I was watching this as a very young and very inexperienced horse owner. My takeaway message was I didn’t want to get into a fight with a horse. Apart from the fact that it was just too dangerous, even then I knew it didn’t create the kind of relationship that I wanted.
I also knew that I didn’t have the skills or the strength to guarantee that I would win. If you can’t guarantee a victory in the big battle – don’t start it in the first place.

I concentrated instead on the little victories. I was boarding at the time in a hunter jumper barn. I saw horses who had never been jumped before being sent over enormous fences. Most of the time they were athletic enough to make it over, but sometimes they would simply crash through the fence or refuse to jump altogether. The horses that stopped or tried to run out past the jump were all treated in the same way. They were punished. They learned fast that no matter how scared they were about jumping, the only safe route for them was straight over the fence.

I was finding a different way.  My own, beloved horse – Peregrine’s mother – had neurological damage. Never mind jumping.  Stepping over the raised sill of her stall was a daily challenge. She couldn’t go over a ground pole without panicking, but she could step over a line drawn in the dirt.  So that’s where we began.  Stepping over that line was a first step on a journey that has carried me many places.

It has brought me here to this morning where I am thinking back over the thirty years I have had with the foal that she gave me.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine. You are much beloved.

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