Using the Target to Change Your Horse’s Balance

Rowan used to be very head high, tight in the back and toss her head a lot in movement. I used the target to teach her to stretch and lengthen through her spine and now we’re beginning to use it to teach her to change her balance to a more collected position, too.

When working on gymnastic groundwork exercises to build strength, suppleness and body awareness in horses, the target is a simple and effective way to explain to the horse how you’d like them to move. It can be used to teach lateral movements and balance work.

In this video, you can see how Rowan already knows to stretch down and lengthen towards the target. I always begin with working on long, relaxed movement with horses to make sure that they’re soft both physically and emotionally. This can take some weeks if the horse is particularly tense or tight when you start.

Once the horse is relaxed and can lengthen through their spine and stride, you can begin to shape more collected movement. This is simply teaching the horse to take more weight on their hindquarters and lift and lighten through the shoulders. Teaching this has several benefits:
> It strengthens your horse’s abdominals and hindquarters to stabilise his joints and prepare him to carry a rider soundly
> It teaches your horse how to rebalance if he falls onto his forehand and can be used as a half-halt
> It can be used to teach your horse to balance when going downhill, preventing rushing and pulling
> It’s the very beginnings of collected movement

In this video, Rowan is just learning to change her balance in this way by following the target. Although the target creates the movement, it is the click which tells her when she’s in the right position. As she changes her balance, I can feel her poise change beside me and her footsteps become softer and quieter. She feels like she’s in her own balance with energy next to me – that’s when I click.

When you’re beginning this exercise, I recommend “benefit of the doubt clicks”. It’s hard to know if your horse is doing it exactly right, but don’t worry – if you even think you felt something, reward it and it will get more obvious over time. The important thing is that both you and your horse feel successful and enjoy working through the puzzle together, so look for moments where you think you saw or felt something happen – it probably did!

In this way, I’m using the target to create the movement but it’s not all about touching the target. As Rowan progresses, we’ll fade the target and shift the cue onto both rope and voice so that I can ask for it when doing in-hand work, liberty training, long-reining or riding.

This work is all covered in step-by-step detail in the Gymnastic Groundwork Home Study Course in the CT Club.


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10 thoughts on “Using the Target to Change Your Horse’s Balance”

  1. I’m so excited to be joining you in Spain for this Hannah and Angelica, it’s going to be the highlight of my year 🙂

    Bambi is quite like Rowan, her tendency is to be high-headed and heavy on the forehand and her default is to get anxious, lose her balance and rush (especially downhill!). She loves the target and is happy to follow it already so I’m going to practise some of this before April.

    Lucas is more complicated, he has done some good gymnastic work previously and he is much more body aware than Bambi in many ways, but he’s more tricky to clicker train because we’ve had big issues with over-arousal and frustration in the past. He’s getting much better, slowly, but I have to be careful not to trigger old stuff and lose the calmness.

    In particular, I find it difficult to get him following a target softly. I’ve been really picky about him touching it softly and not attacking it like something from Jaws (!) but he gets annoyed and frustrated if I take the target away from him in movement. He can now follow the target smoothly into a neck bend, and we can do a small circle to the left (but not yet to the right!) but if I try to do more than a few steps of walk before clicking he lunges for the target and tries to bite it. Can you offer any tips to help him with this?

    I’ve tried clicking him when he “locks on” rather than when he actually touches it, and he does get that but when I try to build duration in movement he either gets cross or stops trying and invents his own entertainment instead. I’m not sure whether to try breaking it down more so that I’m asking for only a few steps before clicking, or whether to do the opposite and encourage him to move further and wait for him to relax. He does tend to get tense if we do too much at a standstill or if I do lots of clicking and treating in rapid succession. He’s at his most relaxed when we’re out for walks and I just do a very occasional click for responding softly to a request, but if I take the target with me on a walk it’s a bit like walking a crocodile!

  2. Thanks Hannah, love this blog! It’s something I’ll definitely gonna work towards in the future, for now I’m a bit where Jan is, with a horse that sees the target as something that must be eatable or at least something to attack 😉 He is improving with it, so I hope if I can keep it all soft and reward the right moments it’s gonna work out fine.

  3. Oh I so wish I could come for both courses! The gymnastic groundwork would be so beneficial to both Sylvan, a rather heavy footed Dales, and Brio who is lighter, but has front foot soundness issues so would benefit from better balance. Unfortunately I’m already committed to another course in Spain, and can’t take time for both. Maybe next time….

  4. I am just about to try some gymnastic groundwork with Diesel in an attempt to teach him to balance his body better and I would love to teach him some lateral work. He is built vey like Rowan and is heavy on his forehand. It would be great to come to Spain but, alas, as I am at the back end of the world, it’s too far. I’m hoping that a gymnastic groundwork course will be out this year from CT.
    Have fun in Spain everyone.

    1. Really Nich, are you really coming to Spain too? Ooh how exciting 😀 !!!

      We can compare notes between your grey Dales and my dun half Dales 😀

  5. Can’t wait to see you guys in Spain looking at this stuff! And, yes, Jillian, there will be a gymnastic groundwork course up online this year, too!

    As to the chasing the target question. I actually met Jan in person this weekend at a conference which was lovely and we discussed it there. However, here are my tips for everyone:

    > Try having a specific ‘follow’ target. If your horse is used to touching something and then you ask him just to follow it, it can be a little confusing and frustrating for some horses who try and rush to touch it and wonder why you keep moving it out of their way. To overcome this, you can have a different target which your horse learns to follow, so instead of clicking him to touch it, instead click as he’s moving towards it so that this is the behaviour he understands for this target right from the start. That clarity can help some horses soften when following a target.

    > I’ve found that some horses find the ball on the end of the target stick quite exciting, especially in movement and making it less obvious can work well to help their relaxation levels. So, try just using a plain stick as a target instead. When you’re asking a horse to follow a target, the target can be this big thing bobbing around in front of them that they’re trying to watch and touch. By making it less obvious with just a stick to follow or a much smaller end on the target, I’ve found that it can help some horses a lot.

    > If you’ve worked on building relaxation following a target in a variety of ways and your horse is still tense with it, you can do all this work without a target at all as there are plenty of ways to teach every behaviour. For in-hand work, you can simply use your body and hand positions to shape your horse’s movement. For example, let’s say you want to get a longer, walk – you caan bring your focus down, lengthen your stride, hold your hands lower either on the rope or as a hand-target and breathe long, slow breaths. As your horse drops his head and lengthens his stride, reward him. As you ask for more collection, lift your focus and upper body slightly, engage your abs and ‘sit’ a little, shorten and lift your stride and lift your hands. Your horse will follow you balance and you can begin to reward moves in this direction.
    I usually use all of these techniques along with the target, which is the clearest way to explain it, but relaxation is more important than anything, so if your horse is getting tense with the target you can simply use your body and hand positions to help your horse change and find his balance.

    Hope that helps a bit and I promise I’m busy editing videos as fast as I can 🙂

  6. Thanks Hannah, it was lovely to meet you this weekend and to chat about this topic (in the Ladies!!). It’s really useful to have your thoughts written down and I’ll look forward to playing with these ideas next weekend.

    And super excited to be coming to Spain 🙂

  7. Aha, this is a problem I have with Buffy, who rushes to get in front of me when I try to get her to walk with me. Will try a new target, and look forward to discussing further. Looking forward to meeting you IRL Jan and comparing Bambi and Sylvan.

  8. Pingback: Wat is targettraining? - Kennisbank - Positief Paard

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