“A bad day with your horse is still better than a good day doing most anything else”~ Kip Fladland
During a heat wave in early June, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day clinic focusing on groundwork and foundational horsemanship with Kip Fladland at Linden Woods Farm in Durham, New Hampshire. I first heard about the clinic during the depths of our New England winter and decided it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get my rising 6-year-old Connemara/Thoroughbred cross, DRF Isabela, off farm for an educational outing.
As the owner/trainer of two younger horses (Izzy and her stablemate, the 4-year-old Morgan mare Spring Hollow Or Noir), I have been increasingly interested in understanding how effective groundwork can play a role in giving green horses a solid foundation. I think what most attracts me to these techniques is seeing how horses properly trained through effective groundwork tend to be sensitive yet sane, confident and connected to their handler, yet also respectful of boundaries. The training becomes almost a series of puzzles for the horse to solve, and it engages them as a partner rather than forcing submission.
Note that I said “properly trained”; when it comes to groundwork, most of the time what I actually see are (middle-aged) women with their rope halters waving around their arms ineffectually while their horses proceed to walk all over them. I am sure this behavior is not these owners’ intended outcome, but they as of yet lack the finesse, feel or practice to get the timing right with their body language, with the end result being a confused and slightly feral horse.
Lest you think I am being unnecessarily harsh toward middle-aged women and their rope halters, I now resemble that remark. Izzy’s rope halter arrived in the mail only about ten days before the clinic and my “flag” was made from an old dressage whip whose lash had broken off, a faded blue bandana, and a rubber band that came with my asparagus. And when I began trying to use said flag at the clinic to effect certain responses from my horse, while also maintaining particular body positioning, it felt like learning a new dance with the instructions coming in an unfamiliar language. I frequently felt awkward, overconfident, briefly successful, then full of questions.
Since returning home, I have continued to practice the techniques I learned over these three days. I am confident that I have forgotten more than I remember, despite my notes and application in practice. However, I do feel that playing with some of these basic techniques has resulted in positive changes, particularly with my young horses.
With the pandemic curtailing our travel plans last year, I looked forward to taking Izzy out in public and start exposing her to the world beyond Cold Moon Farm at this clinic. As it goes with horses, circumstances dictated that I needed to bring my veteran halfbred Connemara, JEF Anna Rose, for day one, but Izzy was able to make the trip for days two and three.
Here are a few of my top take-aways from this experience:
- Controlled flag handling is key. Learning to handle the flag effectively is probably one of the most important pieces in terms of communicating your intent and desire to the horse. The flag can be used to direct them forward, turn them and encourage more activity from the hindquarters, but it can also be used to reassure them and give them confidence. The horse has to become what I would call “positively de-sensitized” to the flag, much like they do with dressage wands or longe whips. In other words, your horse should respond to the flag, but not fear it.
On day one, I had no further finished explaining that Anna tended to be rather dull and non-responsive to aids when she reacted to the flag as though I chased her with a flaming arrow. Kip watched as she spun around and around in an effort to get away from the flag’s presence near her haunches with a rather dry comment: “And you say you ride this one?”. I laughed and replied that if Anna were half as electric under saddle as she was toward that flag, we might have gotten a little further in our dressage work. By the end of the session, she tolerated the flag on her, near her and touching her pretty much anywhere.
On day two, a new horse joined our group who was rather impressively reactive to the flag. Leslie Ann McGowan, trainer at Double A Equestrians and a long time student of Kip’s, stepped in to handle the horse. Despite the horse’s honest fear and confusion, Leslie Ann remained calm and simply consistently exposed him to the flag until he started to settle. Throughout the clinic, horses had occasional big responses to the aids, or misunderstandings of the aids, to which Kip replied at one point, “She’s not a teacup and you aren’t gonna break her.” As with humans, sometimes for the horse to learn, they must make mistakes and express frustration and confusion before understanding what is expected of them. As trainers, we can’t be afraid of these messy moments if we hope to help our horse learn.
The flag is held like a tennis racket, and there are four ways to change the flag from one hand to the other, each of which will achieve an increasing degree of engagement in the hocks. When your flag changes hands, the horse usually is also changing direction. One important note is that you should never switch the flag on the ground through the blind spot in front of the horse’s nose. If you do this, the movement can scare them and some horses will strike with their forelegs.
The position of your opposite arm combines with the flag to direct the horse. If using the flag to send the horse forward, the hand should be in a leading position. If rubbing the horse with the flag to reassure them, your opposite hand should drop toward your thigh.
- Reward the try but also don’t wait for perfection before you ask for more.
Whatever you are asking the horse to do: move away, turn, yield in the poll, etc., it is important to recognize the smallest effort by releasing the pressure as soon as you sense the horse is yielding to what you have asked. One of the most common ways that trainers go wrong is they hold too long, or expect too much, and the horse begins to resist rather than try.
At the same time, if we wait for every piece to be perfect before moving on, we will never get anywhere at all. As with most training, we must accept the try, and a result that is a little bit better than before, rather than nitpick doggedly until the horse is perfect.
One of our first tasks was to ask our horses to step out and away from us, leading with their outside foreleg. Kip called this “opening”; if you are “opening” to the left, the horse’s right fore will step out and the horse tracks left. To initiate the movement, we raised our hands toward the horse’s head and neck and without contact (at first), applied pressure to ask the horse to move. At first, in response, horses may raise their head, step into the handler, back up, move forward, or simply not move at all. The handler must hold her ground and not back up; the horse must learn to move out of the handler’s space. Through all of those little mistakes from the horse (‘do you want me to go this way? Or this way? How about this?) the handler must remain calm, clear in her mind of what she is looking for, and ready to release as soon as the hoof moved out.
Our next task was to open the forehand and then, using the flag, send the horse out on a small circle around us. We were to keep the horse actively moving, slightly bent to the inside through their body and with the legs moving “united”; Kip describes this as when the left legs are on the same track as each other and the right legs on their own matching track. The flag can be used to create the energy, encourage the horse to step away, or to reassure them; if the horse has become too desensitized to it, the handler will need to use the flag assertively to once again elicit a positive response. Once the horse marched several circles united and with correct bend, we asked them to halt by stepping toward the hindquarter and raising the lead diagonally toward the withers. The horse’s hindquarters should step out (crossing over with inside hind) and their neck bend in. Kip called this “disengaging” the hind quarter, though he doesn’t love that term.
In doing some of these movements, I was struck (not for the first time) by how much overlap there is between some of these concepts and the fundamentals of dressage. My former coach, Verne Batchelder, had a movement he called “the circle of submission”, in which the rider actively executed a volte and asked the horse to step the hindquarters out for several strides while maintaining the inside bend and position of the neck. However you say it–asking the horse to yield their hips, engage their hocks, move their feet—ultimately requires that the horse be willing to allow their bodies to be manipulated and their toplines to begin to relax and stretch. It is simple biomechanics; a horse cannot reach further under his body with the hind legs if his back is tight.
Kip taught a mounted session in the afternoons; I was able to make it back to observe a few hours of day two’s lesson. He emphasized that all of the flag exercises he does on the ground, he also does while mounted. Though I didn’t get to see much of how he incorporates the flag into mounted work, he mentioned that at the end of day one, he backed a leggy 2-year-old warmblood that was in our group; by the end of that first ride (which was a very low stress experience, from what I was told), he was riding with the flag.
- I should ask my horses to back more often and with more intention.
Kip introduced several ways of asking the horse to back in hand which can then be translated to work under saddle. The most basic option requires the horse to back to the end of the lead rope from a rather light flick of the line; we also played with asking the horse to back with poll flexion off of noseband pressure from the halter (from each side) as well as backing on a straight line off a short shank (also from each side). This last form of backing can easily be added onto a yield of the haunches.
In later sessions, we also learned how to add neck flexion in time with the lift of the foreleg on the outside, which caused the horse to back onto an arc. We later played with backing parallel to the wall, then timing a flick of the flag with the “about to step” movement of any individual limb. This causes the horse to balance back and then push forward with more power. With four distinct limbs to focus on, there is plenty to practice.
On days two and three, when Izzy was with me, we also played with backing under saddle. Until that day, I had never asked Izzy to back even a single step with me on board, and Kip wanted us to start with five steps on a soft feel, then add a bend in the horse’s neck and back on a quarter turn! I can’t say we were the most successful pair in the ring, but thinking about our work on the ground helped with the intention under saddle. When Izzy expressed confusion, Kip had me break down the movement so it became one step back, one step bend.
One of Kip’s overall themes was to never waste an opportunity to move your horse’s feet with intention. This could be as simple as opening the forehand or yielding the haunches, or as elaborate as walking on a straight line of your choosing with the horse walking half circles in each direction in front of you.
Despite three, three hour long sessions and the opportunity to audit two hours of a second group’s mounted lesson, I know that this clinic has only allowed me to scratch the surface of a skill set that Kip says has taken him twenty-five years of hard work to earn. Since the clinic, I have been playing with these tools fairly consistently with both Izzy and Nori, and in general most of the movements are starting to feel easier and better coordinated on my end. However, I do find myself wondering what I am doing wrong—because I am certain I have already forgotten about some important detail related to timing, posture or position—but I think Kip might say that it is better to try a little than not at all. You certainly don’t get any better at new skills by just daydreaming about them.
And in terms of my initial and main motivation—to take Izzy off farm for a positive outing—this clinic was a great success. She trailered on her own like a veteran, and upon arrival did nothing sassier than a few nervous whinnies. There were so many firsts for her—first time being ridden off farm, first time being ridden in a group, first time being ridden in an indoor, first time seeing mirrors—and I think in any other setting I would have been even more nervous than she was. But by the time we had finished an hour and a half of ground work each day, getting on board for the second half of each set was basically a non-event. Izzy came home from the clinic more confident and more mature than she went into it—which means the experience was a success, even if I still need more practice on the timing with my flag or position of my body when opening the forehand.
Kip Fladland grew up in Montana and worked on several cattle ranches before meeting legendary horseman Buck Brannaman. Inspired by Brannaman’s teachings, Fladland began working for him in 1996 and traveled with him for five years. Since 2004, he has conducted his own clinics across the country as well as started/re-started thousands of horses for clients. I found Fladland to be patient, firm, clear and consistent—exactly the type of temperament necessary for success with horses, or let’s be honest, people in general. To learn more, visit his website: https://www.kipfladlandhorsemanship.com/
As always, gracious thanks to our clinic organizers, Karen Bishop and Leslie Ann McGowan of Linden Woods Farm. Thank you for continuing to bring top caliber clinicians to our area and for welcoming the local community to your lovely facility so that we all can expand our education.