Ground Work

What training tips do you have for working with a horse that hasn’t been ridden in four years?

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Q: Dear Dr. McDonnell, I am a 12-year-old girl who recently got a 14-year-old Quarter Horse. She is a doll, but there is just one little problem — she hasn’t been ridden in about four years. We are hiring some-one to come and work with her, but I was just wondering if you know of any good training tips for me to use with her during my spare time. Your advice is greatly appreciated! —Sierra

A: Depending upon her temperament, there is likely a lot you can do with your horse “on the ground” while you are waiting for help to get her back under saddle. One option would be to start doing some exercises by just leading her around or in a round pen, or working on a longe line. Much will depend on the facilities, your level of experience, and the help and guidance available. It’s good to choose exercises that will establish clear and simple communication between the two of you. That can include getting her to move at various gaits and to stop on voice or visual signal command. This will help to establish your communication skills and get her used to paying attention to you and following the basic commands.

Tack shops and the Internet should have lots of books, tapes, and other resources available for you and your parents or trainer to review. One of my favorites for young equestrians is a little book by Linda Tellington-Jones and Andrea Pabel called Let’s Ride! It has a lot of suggestions for fun and worthwhile activities aimed at building a good working relationship between you and your horse, even before you get on. You can get it at State Line Tack stores, or

I also think it’s fun to teach your horse some tricks. You’ll be surprised how every horse can learn them, and it will teach you the basics of how horses learn–both good and bad habits. The On Target Training (Clicker) method is a recently commercialized system for training horses to do all sorts of things, using classic behavior modification methods in animal training. There are fun tricks and practical behaviors to teach your horse that can be done in a stall or paddock. Again, these are good methods for general horsemanship and good for any horse-human relationship. Most importantly, they show you how horses learn, then you can take it from there for the rest of your equestrian career

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Written by:

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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