Use groundwork exercises to get your horse moving his body and using his mind.
Does your Paint Horse willingly flex and bend his body? If not, you need to assess why he’s unwilling to bend and create a plan to overcome his resistance. Is your horse a know-it-all veteran who isn’t enthusiastic about learning something new? Is he experiencing discomfort that’s exacerbated when he flexes? Does he understand what you’re asking? Is he being outright defiant? No matter the reason, teaching your horse to willingly bend different parts of his body is a vital skill for him to master. Bending increases your horse’s flexibility, tones muscles and helps boost his athletic ability, enabling him to perform better whether he’s turning barrels, jumping fences or wandering down the trail.
I prefer to introduce a horse to bending from the ground so he doesn’t have the additional burden of my weight while learning a new skill that requires athleticism and flexibility. Remember, groundwork is different than longeing; longeing only exercises a horse’s body, while quality groundwork exercises both body and mind.
To fully understand the concept of bending, think of your horse in sections: when looking from the side, the front half encompasses his head, neck and shoulders, and the back half includes his ribs and hips. Next, break his body down into four quarters: the left and right forequarters and the left and right hindquarters—you’ll need to acknowledge these quadrants when you change directions, for instance.
As you and your horse progress with the following “softening” exercises, you’ll start to notice that his head, neck, shoulders, ribs and hips move and flex independently from one another in response to your cues. When someone asks me to help soften a horse or increase his flexibility, I often envision a “cartoon” horse whose body is stuck in place because the “hinges” between his body parts are rusted and seized, offering no movement; this hinders his athletic potential. To help horses like this, I begin by loosening up those hinges with the following four exercises:
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2017 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.