There’s a training center in Vienna, Austria, where the famous Lipizzaner stallions are trained. Students (the human ones) who join the academy must complete four years of groundwork training before they ever mount a horse.
What’s ground work? It’s the first thing you teach a horse and, in the case of the Vienna academy, the first thing you teach a rider. Ground work helps you to establish a working relationship with a horse before you ride him. Exercises are usually conducted with a lead rope and halter on the horse and some form of whip that you use not to hit the horse but to communicate your intention. Regardless of how much your horse is trained, ground work is always important, because you’re always leading him, tying him and teaching him to trust you.
Where I ride, there are commercial tomato farms lined with long and large sheets of plastic to keep out rodents. My horse, Coco, tends to view these as extremely hostile “horse eating” sheets of plastic, especially if they ripple in the wind. On our rides, we have also encountered horse-eating tractors, horse-eating birds, horse-eating breezes and horse-eating loud noises. We’re always running into terrifying new things, so it’s important that she trust me that really, that squirrel will not eat her. By the way, she has no fear of the packs of coyotes who run through her corral every night.
Coco has terrible ground manners and she came that way. We inherited her from a neighbor who moved out of the area and couldn’t take her with him. He had owned her mother as well, until she died several months before Coco became ours. Coco and her mom lived together on an 18-acre property dotted with avocado and citrus trees. Imagine mother and daughter horses strolling under oaks, next to ponds and waterfalls and around huge pens of goats, donkeys, pigs and peacocks. That was basically her “ground work” training. Meaning, she had almost no direction except to not walk into the trees. When I went to get her and take her “home” to our house, I had to catch her, and her previous owner had to teach me how to do it.
That was just the beginning. Coco has a habit of crowding, scooching up next to me to feel safer when I’m leading her, like I’m her mama and I can protect her. Sometimes she also would crowd me to establish that she’s in charge. Either way, it’s no fun having a 1,200-pound animal push you around. If they’re not taught good “ground manners,” horses resort to these types of behaviors, and it can be hard to stay calm when a horse is pushing itself on you.
That’s where Spire comes in. One day, when I was doing ground work with Coco, she backed up so quickly and defiantly that she landed on her butt. She rose quickly but so did my tension. My Spire buzzed, reminding me to take a deep breath before resuming our training session. The same thing happened later, while I was grooming her (not usually a very stressful activity for either horse or rider). I took a step back, took a few deep breaths and relaxed. The whole point of Spire is to make us more mindful, and it did. I wondered why my tension went up during grooming at that moment. So I examined the situation and tried something else, tying Coco up in an area that we both like under an enormous oak tree. We both feel more relaxed there. And the Spire breathing exercises have me counting my breaths in sets of four (inhaling for four, exhaling for four), no matter where I am.
Last week Coco and I had the best session. We started under the tree; I took my time and took several deep breaths, and so did she. This was just the grooming part. By the end of the grooming she had all but passed out, she was so relaxed. I was so relaxed and enjoying the process that I ended up trimming her mane and braiding her tail too. I then saddled her up and we had a great ride that day. Neither horse-eating tomato plants and plastic sheets nor loud noises could disturb the sheer enjoyment we had during a relaxed ride.