Stephanie and Happy
Something that’s evident to most when they first meet me is that I’m quite tall—6 feet. That translates to a long femur, and my off-track Thoroughbred Happy is a 15.3-16-hand, short-coupled horse. So, I need a saddle that accommodates my long thigh but doesn’t end up placing my weight behind Happy’s 18th thoracic vertebra, where the last rib meets the spine. Happy prefers I ride with a closed hip angle, so I do all my riding in a jump saddle (no dressage saddle has worked yet for us). It took us four years to find and settle on a saddle that truly fit him and that works for me. I recognize I walk a fine line with our dimensions, and he’s a sensitive, demonstrative guy, so I’m mindful of building and keeping his core strength.

One of the ways I do this is through groundwork to strengthen his back—work I haven’t really enjoyed until earlier this year, when I reached out to a friend who does learning-theory-based clicker training with a focus on positive reinforcement. I did a few lessons with her, with my goal being to further strengthen Happy’s core and improve our relationship on the ground (he can be a little pushy at the stall door and anytime there’s grass afoot).

A few of the exercises Kara taught me built on mobility exercises we’d already done—carrot stretches, for instance—but we added a target, which she suggested I fashion out of a dressage whip and a few inches of a foam pool noodle at its end. Happy learned quickly to touch the target, getting a well-timed click and delivery of a treat. For lateral stretches I can reach the target over his back to the opposite side from which I’m standing, and he’ll touch the target there, too.

He’s displayed some odd spookiness in the crossties this year, so Kara taught me to work with Happy on standing on a small piece of yoga mat as a “home base” where good things happen. She explained this is also a good tool for helping reluctant trailer loaders, so I’m happy to have this in my arsenal if I need it. Happy also used to be impatient in the crossties, pawing when he wanted something or got bored. With positive reinforcement—clicking and rewarding when he stood quietly for increasing periods—we’ve solved that problem, for the most part.

To address his stall-door pushiness, I worked with Happy on backing away from the door when I enter the stall (clicking when he readily moved away with a light touch, which in learning theory is considered negative reinforcement) and parlayed this into teaching him how to do core-engaging “crunches” while standing. Kara had me start with his hind end close to the stall wall, then we asked him to back up a step or two. In doing so he’d lift his sacroiliac area as he tucked his bum and lightly bumped it against the wall. He seemed to think the goal was the wall-bump at first, and it was entertaining to watch his eager repetition of this movement. But when I stood him in front of shorter objects (a jump, for instance) and gave the “lift” cue, he began reliably lifting his back—sometimes ever so slightly–without the aid of the wall.

Other ways I’ve worked on engaging and strengthening his core are by stopping him while going up and down hills and walking over a pole lengthwise, while he straddles it with the right and left limbs. With the latter exercise he is great with his front legs, but we’re still working on his hinds. I’ve also worked on using the target to cue him to take bigger walk steps, lifting his forearm and knee higher to touch the target—kind of like a Spanish walk. This is something I’d like to work on and master. Kara’s little gelding does this dramatic walk well, and I’d like to see what Happy can do.

All in all, Happy seems to enjoy groundwork, and it gives us something else to do on days I won’t be riding and besides longe line work. I also intend to work on my long-lining—my own coordination with this is an issue, as I always feel like someone’s going to get tangled in a rope (usually me). And on my veterinarian’s recommendation, I’m borrowing a longeing system to help Happy engage his hind end as we longe.

With these efforts our progress isn’t evident with the usual barometers; we’re not perfecting a dressage movement or raising the jumps. But Happy’s core is getting stronger, our communication on the ground (and likely in the saddle, as a result) is improving, and these groundwork sessions have given me great quality time with my horse … which for me is what horse ownership is all about.

Have you tried incorporating clicker training into your horse training?