Ground exercises have been a vital part of the TTEAM method from the beginning.
In Linda’s first book, An Introduction to the Tellington-Jones Equine Awareness Method published in 1985, Chapter Five is devoted to ground exercises. “The T.E.A.M. ground exercises accomplish the following:
- the horse’s confidence increases as he develops a greater awareness of his body;
- his coordination and movements improves; his sense of balance improves;
- he obeys without restraint, and develops self-control and patience;
- he becomes a keen observer, paying exact attention to detail;
- the basis for mutual respect and rapport between man and horse is established.”
Two facets make TTEAM ground exercises unique: the first is the use of the various pole and board configurations like the Labyrinth and the Star, to name two; and the second is the variety of ways to lead a horse. The same type of activities can be used with dogs in the Tellington TTouch Training.
In Getting in TTouch with Your Dog, Linda explains the TTouch Confidence Course: “We work with obstacles . . . to develop a dog’s willingness to focus and listen, to wait for our signals, and to overcome aggression or timidity” and to cooperate.
A TTEAM Playground For Higher Learning
by Robyn Hood, TTEAM & TTouch Instructor and Editor of TTEAM Connections Newsletter July-September, 2003 Pp. 22-28
At our Icelandic Horse Farm in Vernon, British Columbia, we incorporate the various pole and board configurations that we use for the ground exercises as well as the leading exercises into a TTEAM Playground for Higher Learning. On the inside of our 200-meter track, we have a large outdoor arena that allows us to leave the Playground always at the ready.
What do we call the groundwork we do with horses and dogs? Apt names are the TTEAM Playground for Higher Learning and the TTouch Confidence Course. We can also say that it is an “awareness course”, not only for the horses and/or dogs, but also very much for the humans. While trying to bring out the best in the animals and teach them to learn, the humans must be aware of all the ways to make learning enjoyable (even fun) and successful. So one main criteria of a TTEAM learning exercise is that it is always possible to “chunk” it down into smaller parts. The Playground or Confidence Course may look similar to trail classes for horses or agility trials for dogs, but the purpose and methodology are expanded.
Why do Groundwork in the Playground or in the Confidence Course?
- To have FUN which enhances learning!
- To focus and think, and this applies to 2-legged and 4-legged.
- To move slowly! When we move slowly, the nervous system pays more attention to what it is doing and different parts of the brain and different muscles are used.
- The results of learning in the playground or confidence course transfer into real-life situations.
- To allow an animal to explore non-habitual ways of moving.
- To increase coordination
- To increase self-confidence and self-control
- To improve balance and to experience that being in balance makes it easier to learn and to get the most out of activities
- To overcome fears by having a variety of ways to make the experiences succesfull
- To improve self-carriage (posture).
Movement increases proprioceptive input (awareness of where your body is in space). Proprioceptive input increases dopamine which is the nuero-transmitter that helps influence the emotional state. See footnote 3 on page 10. All these possibilities make important an understanding of the physical elements and of the techniques of the Playground for Higher Learning and of the TTouch Confidence Course.
Our most often used obstacle! Ideally we use 12’ poles, but when in need, be creative. I have used shorter rails, even 7’ or 8’ fence posts that can be put together to make a longer outside parameter with three inside turns. You can also use 2’x4”x8’(or 10-12’); PVC pipe weighted with sand or even rope.
The distance between the rails is usually four feet (the length of the wand, a handy measuring stick). However, if your horse has trouble staying within the boundary of poles, is nervous, or if you are riding through the Labyrinth, make the distance wider as was done in Photo 1 above.
Benefits: teaches obedience, coordination, flexibility, patience, self-control, focus and helps overcome the fear of poles.
Leading positions most often used: Elegant Elephant, Dancing Cobra, Dingo with Cuing the Camel or the Homing Pigeon.
We usually start the Labyrinth from the Elegant Elephant or Homing Pigeon. The idea of this obstacle is to stop and start before each turn. Be sure to stop the horse, before the end of the pole around which he will be turning, so that he can take a step forward before you ask for the turn.
Notice how your horse’s hindquarters follow his front end around the corners. Is it the same in both directions? If a horse has trouble bending correctly around a corner, use the Dingo the next time through and stroke him with the wand along his back as he steps around the corner.
- Using the half-walk (taking steps half the length of a normal walk) go through the labyrinth. This helps improve balance especially with horses that fall-in on corners when ridden, and it requires focus and concentration of both horse and handler.
- When your horse is very good at the labyrinth you can make it more narrow and ride through slowly
- Go across the labyrinth as walking or trotting poles. You have the choice of going straight over two or four poles or going diagonally across them.
- Use during ground driving and under saddle as well. When you are riding through the labyrinth be sure to turn through the center of your body and avoid leaning into a turn.
For Dogs – Benefits include teaching obedience, focus, self control, balance and confidence. We often start leading a dog in the Homing Pigeon. The materials used can be much lighter weight than those for the horses and you will adjust the length and width of the aisles. Getting in TTouch with Your Dog is a great reference for the Labyrinth and the other elements described here.
Zig Zagged Poles
Set six or eight poles in a shallow zig zag. This is easier than the labyrinth, especially when riding. The Zig Zag pattern is useful particularly in therapeutic riding programs because the riders can maintain their balance more easily in turns that are less abrupt than the turns of the Labyrinth, and the zig zag gives horse, rider and leader an interesting exercise that improves balance and focus.
Star (or Fan)
Raise one end of three to five poles on tire(s), a hay or straw bale, a milk crate or feed bucket, etc. The ends of the poles resting on the ground are usually placed about four feet apart. Adjust this distance as necessary so the horse can successfully negotiate the poles. You may need to make the distance wider, lower the poles at the raised end, or place every other pole flat on the ground in the beginning.
Benefits: improves flexibility and balance; teaches the horse to wait for a signal; useful with horses who are stiff in the canter or who stumble.
Leading positions: Most often use the Elegant Elephant (holding the lead 8–12 inches from the halter), but Grace of the Cheetah or Homing Pigeon can be very effective also. On occasion you may need to ask a horse to come forward using the Dingo and then switch to the Cheetah to avoid getting too far back.
- Start with the handler on the inside. Stop the horse in front of the first pole, ask the horse to wait while you step over one or two poles and then ask the horse to come forward and across. You may find the horse’s hindquarters swing out and he may even miss the last pole(s). If this is the case, be sure the horse is starting at the lowest end of the pole and that the angle of the turn is gradual. When asking the horse to come forward be sure and make the signal a smooth and light ask-and-release.
- Lead the horse through the Star with the handler on the outside of the poles.
Variations: Ground drive or ride through the Star. When riding, be sure to use a lighter seat and contact to encourage the horse to use his back. To help improve balance through corners, lay three to five poles in a fan shape around a corner with the inside ends about 9 feet apart. Ride or lunge at the walk, trot and canter over the poles. The distances and number of poles should be varied depending on the horse’s stride. See page 12 for other pictures.
For Dogs: Benefits: improves balance, awareness, focus and coordination. Variations: Short lengths of PVC pipe can be used instead of poles. Raise the ends on a tire, box or milk crate.
Poles raised at one end
A line of poles can be set up with either the same side or alternating ends raised and also with alternating poles on the ground and raised as in Photo 5.
The ends may be raised to heights ranging from 6–24 inches. You can use practically anything that will be safe and efficient – tires, jump standards, cavaletti, milk crates, buckets, bales, boxes. Start with the poles about four feet apart. Variations will include settings more narrow or wider and raised or lowered at the ends.
Benefits: improves balance; helps to free tight back, shoulder, hips; differentiates movement; helps with horses who stumble.
Leading positions: Long Elephant (8-12” from halter), Homing Pigeon or Cheetah. For variation use the Dingo to step forward then stop the horse, using Cuing the Camel, when his front feet are across one pole, so that the pole is between the front and hind legs.
For Dogs: Benefits – improves balance, confidence, gait, coordination, way of going.
Photo 5: Using a long Elephant (8-12” from halter), Linda leads the horse through the uneven poles. Notice that the handler is well ahead of the horse, allowing him to bring down his head to lengthen his back. If he were to hit the poles with his feet, the handler would stop outside the poles, stroke his legs and tap his hooves, bring his head up a little or exaggerate the height of her own step over the poles as Linda does here.
Poles raised at both ends (Calvetti)
Benefits: helps to free the shoulders and hips as well as the horse’s neck and back.Caution: When using the exercise with five cavaletti, set 12” or higher and close together, go through this exercise only 3–6 times in a session because it can be very tiring for the horse.
For Dogs: Initially, the cavaletti should be on the ground, rather than raised. They should be spaced so the dog can stand in the middle of the poles. PVC pipe, 2-3” thick, can be used instead of poles. Poles may be too high for small dogs. The cavaletti can be raised to about six inches for medium and large sized dogs. The poles do not have to be high to be beneficial.
Build a teeter-tooter from 2”x4”x10’s on top with a 2”x6”x10’ on edge as the frame; notch the frame in the middle for the pole. To prepare a horse to walk on and off the teeter-totter, first walk the horse over plywood, or the teeter-totter can be left off of the pole to serve as a low bridge or platform. See Photo 10.
Benefits: improves balance, establishes trust, teaches obedience, gives a horse a new experience, serves as a good preparation for trailering when the horse steps up onto hollow sounding wood.
Leading positions: Elegant Elephant; Dingo (used to encourage age the horse who is unsure or stuck) or Homing Pigeon.
Variations: the bridge (platform) can be raised onto 4”x 4”s or placed on tires to simulate a step-in trailer. When used as a bridge or platform, ask the horse to back off one step at a time. This is excellent preparation for trailering or with a horse who rushes off the trailer or who doesn’t want to back out of the trailer. If you don’t have access to plywood or a teeter-totter, you can use a large cardboard box cut open and laid on the ground.
When the horse willingly steps onto the teeter, ask him to wait for a moment before stepping forward. Be prepared should your horse startle when the teeter totters down the first time. Allow him to go forward rather than try to stop or turn him; keep a safe distance.
An advanced step would be to ride the horse on the teeter-totter. Follow the same steps as above. After the horse is comfortable walking along the teeter-totter, you can stop in the middle and teeter back and forth by shifting your weight forward and backward in the saddle.
For Dogs: A teeter-totter need not be as sturdy for dogs and, of course, can be more narrow. A 12″ to 24″ board, wide enough for the dog, can be laid on the ground and then raised at both ends as a walk-over. Some dogs are very nervous about walking the length of a board. If this is the case, start by walking the dog across the board and then lie poles on either side of the board to define the boundary. When using a board as a walk-over, have people act as spotters to prevent a dog from falling in case she should lose her balance.
Benefits: Increased confidence, balance, coordination, trust.
Photo 12: Robyn stays ahead of Shadow so that Robyn’s weight will make the teeter totter. In this way, Shadow will experience the rock of the board. After Shadow is comfortable with the movement, Robyn will be able stay on the ground and lead Shadow along the board so that Shadow’s weight will teeter the totter.
Flat Boards Lying on the Ground
1”x10”x10’ rough-cut boards work well as would 1”x8”s or even 1”x6”s. Lay the boards side by side to make a 4×10 foot bridge. The boards move slightly as the horse steps on them and this gives another type of experience. This is, also, an alternative if you don’t have a bridge or platform.
Benefits: This is a good preparation for trailering or stepping onto unstable surfaces such as bridges. This exercise improves confidence and self-control in the horse, too!
Leading positions: Elegant Elephant, Dingo, Homing Pigeon or Cheetah.
For Dogs: Walk across boards, or a collapsed wire kennel, flattened chicken wire, corrugated fiberglass, metal or any unusual surface. Always encourage the dog with your voice and stroking with the wand. Remember that wearing a body wrap helps instill confidence when the dog is nervous.
Benefits: Improves confidence, coordination; helps therapy or service dogs who may be required to walk on a variety of surfaces.
Photo 15: These barrels are set in a semi-circle about 3.5 feet apart with one barrel in the middle that the horse must bend around. If the horse is nervous, walk him straight between two barrels. When you use the Cheetah, the handler can stay on one side of the barrel and ask the horse to walk through the barrels alone.
Shown in a U-shape, barrels can be arranged in many patterns The horse can be lead, ridden through or backed around the barrels.
- Set up barrels, instead of cones, for the horse to zig zag or weave through.
- Make an alleyway, of two poles on four barrels, through which the horse can walk.
- Drape plastic over the poles (one of the steps in the plastic exercise).
Benefits: This exercise improves flexibility, confidence, selfcontrol and self-image; helps horses who are nervous about going through doors or gates, or who are nervous about things behind them; and it is another preparation for trailering.
Variations: With a horse who is nervous about going between things or through doors, set the barrels 8-10 feet apart. If a horse is afraid or hesitant to approach the barrels, place some grain, pieces of carrot or horse crunchies on top of the barrel and allow him to approach sideways to the barrel in order to eat off of the barrel.
Leading positions: Elegant Elephant, Cheetah or Homing Pigeon.
Tires can be set in a variety of configurations and walked across, through or between. It is not necessary for the horse to step into the tire to be successful. Caution should be taken about asking a horse to step into a tire. If he is wearing shoes, the heel could get caught on the inside of the tire and scare him badly.
Photos 17 to Photo 19: Faxi is led towards the “half-tire”. He is a bit hesitant so we place poles on either side of the tire. This makes a clearer “path” of where we want him to go. This is another example of making the exercise easier or “chunking” down.
Ken & Ro Jelbart of Victoria, Australia had a great idea. They took a large tractor tire and cut it in half (like a bagel). They took a large tractor tire and cut it in half (like a bagel). The tire looks like it is buried in the ground. It is large enough to step through and there are no edges for the horse to get caught on. We cut ours with a box cutter and a linoleum knife.
Benefits : Improves confidence in negotiating new situations and terrain, obedience and trust. When using the large half tire, use the Dingo to ask the horse to place his/her front feet in the tire and ask for a turn on the forehand or with the hind feet in the tire, ask for a turn on the haunches.
For Dogs: Tires can be used to walk over, between or through. You can also use a ladder lying flat to walk across.
Place a bit of food inside, or on the tires, if a dog is nervous about stepping through them. When first negotiating the tires it doesn’t matter if the dog jumps over them or even walks beside the tires. If a dog (or horse) gets from one side to the other, in his eyes, that is what we have asked. Encourage and stroke with the wand regardless of how he gets across and then do it again. You will be surprised at the improvement even if he did it “wrong” (in our eyes) the first time.
Benefits : improves confidence, balance, and focus.
Leading positions : Cheetah or Homing Pigeon
Photo 20: The horse is led up to the tires, and as long as the horse stands quietly, the handler can step to the other side of the tires. Notice the distance between handler and horse. Allow the horse to look at the tires and be careful to avoid having the horse step into the tire and possibly catch a shoe. The tires are set apart to allow the horse to step in between the tires. Be careful to stay on your own track as you ask the horse to come forward and be prepared, should he jump forward, to go with him.
Photo 21: The horse steps quietly over the tires. If a horse rushes over any of the obstacles, it is an indication to me that he is showing concern. This type of horse often has difficulty stopping and standing straight AFTER an obstacle. Using a Bodywrap or a Bodyrope helps connect a horse from back end to front end and helps with overcoming the fear of things behind.
Although I don’t keep plastic laid out in the Playground because of the wind, using plastic is a very versatile and useful exercise. Use the barrels or jump standards (photo 23) to make an alleyway of plastic; lay two sheets or tarps on the ground about six feet apart to start with and gradually move them together in a V; lead the horse under two wands (or pool noodles) crossed above his head and gradually lower it. You can then use a piece of plastic rolled up under which the horse walks.
Lead the horse under two wands (or pool noodles) crossed above his head and gradually lower the wands to stroke the horse’s back as he stands under the wands.
Benefits: Preparation for crossing water or unusual surfaces or trailering and for the starting gate for race horses; improves confidence and obedience; overcomes fear of things above the head such as when being mounted, the rider, doorways, trees etc.; overcomes fear of things behind.
Variations: Use pieces of old carpet as an obstacle. The color, design and texture gives another experience. Lead a horse under willow trees, under low branches or through bushes.
For Dogs: Plastic, or tarps, can be used the same way as for the horses. You may be able to start with the alleyway closer together or the plastic overhead lower.
Benefits : Improves confidence especially with dogs who are nervous or rushy going through doorways or small openings or have sweaty paws in new situations.
Alexandra Kurland showed me this configuration that she uses when longeing. This is an excellent configuration to use while leading from the ground as well as riding. It can be used to make a cloverleaf pattern to encourage straightness, flexibility and focus. And you can change the size and ask a horse to go between the two triangles.
You will be able to create more variation such as stepping out of the triangles to lunge a horse across two poles, turn and come across two more.
Cones can be used as focal points for both horse and rider or handler. You can slalom through the cones at the walk, trot or intermediate gait for gaited horses (with the Icelandics, we do it at the tolt as well). Vary the distance depending on your speed and horse’s suppleness.
Benefits: Improves flexibility, focus and balance; and keeps it more interesting for both horse and rider instead of simply riding a shallow serpentine. It not only helps to supple the horse. but helps keep ring work more focused and varied for both horse and rider. This exercise is very good for gaited horses who are pacey and unbalanced.
Variations: If you don’t have cones, you can use tires, barrels, mild crates, standards (with the cups) or pole-bending poles. You can make shallow or deeper turns, very the distance between the cones and walk, trot or do a middle gait through the cones.
The configuration of the Pickup sticks is set up like a slightly organized mess of sticks. You can use any length of pole. Lay them out to create different sized spaces for a horse or dog to step into and through. Be careful that the poles are not set too high and won’t roll into each other. Also, see Photo 28.
Benefits: Helps improve balance, focus, confidence and self-control. This pattern is especially good to slow down horses who rush.
Leading positions : Long Elephant, Cheetah or Homing Pigeon.
The “L” : Traditionally the L has been used in trail horse classes. The horses were expected to back through the L shape. It can be used leading the horse from the ground or while riding. It is one of our favorites to use with the free work.
Benefits: Teaches focus and obedience; and gives a parameter for backing up.
Variations : The “L” can be used to ask a horse to take one step over a pole, pause and then step back. Start first with a front foot and when the horse masters that, ask the same with a hind foot. Use the Dingo and Cuing the Camel for taking one step forward and back. This requires the handler to be very balanced, focused and clear in the timing.
If you have a horse who is very base narrow it can help to teach him to straddle a pole. How? TTEAM Instructor, Carol Lang sent these ideas to us in 1990.
Benefits : Improves balance, confidence and widens base of support.
Step 1: Arrange three ground poles about 18″ apart. In the Elegant Elephant, lead the horse toward the center pole, walk through and observe what the horse does. Usually he picks one or the other of the aisles and walks through. He might take one step on each side, but don’t ask anything. I think this step establishes the pattern of the exercise in the horse’s mind.
Note: If your horse has trouble widening his base of support you can walk beside him with one hand on the withers. As you walk, rock his withers so he either “tightrope” walks or is encouraged to take a wider step depending on the timing of your rocking.
We also do this exercise under saddle. Rock your weight in the stirrups from one side to the other as the horse’s foot is either just leaving the ground or just putting a foot down.
Points to remember about the Playground
You don’t have to use all of these exercises nor use them on a regular basis. You may, however, find that if you get “stuck” in training or want a change in routine for you and your horse going to the Playground will improve performance – mentally, emotionally and physically.
Having the TTEAM Bodywrap (see Photo 29) or Bodyrope on the horse as you are working through these obstacles can make these exercises easier for your horse. You may notice improved flexibility, better posture, less fear of things behind and greater confidence. And very likely these characteristics will carry over after the wrap or rope is taken off.
You may ask, “Why would you use such learning exercises except with a trail horse?” Each time we learn something new it makes it easier to learn the next thing. The same goes for our horses. If we use only repetition to teach a horse something, we are training rather educating the horse.
“Learning to learn” is what education is about as opposed to training for a specific task. Once trained to a specific task, a horse may be able to repeat his performance in a comfortable environment, but when taken away from home or in a new situation, he is often unable to perform in the same way. There are new sights, sounds, people, horses, etc. What we aim to do with the various exercises of the Playground is to expose a horse to a variety of situations in a safe environment that allows both horse and handler to learn to act instead of react. Even though the exercise may or may not seem to be related to a horse’s perceived problem, it is our experience that the problem usually resolves even without addressing it specifically.
An example of this is a gelding at one of our clinics. He was a little difficult to catch, and was very reluctant to go into the wash rack because he didn’t like being bathed. These behaviors had persisted for more than a year. At the clinic we never addressed the wash rack or water, but simply put him through the ground exercises and TTouch work that the participants were learning. He was handled by a variety of people. When he went home, his owner was a little disappointed that we had not specifically addressed his problems as she had defined them. Much to her surprise, the first time she took him to the wash rack, he walked in and stood quietly to be bathed. This phenomenon is consistently experienced by people who have used TTEAM and TTouch.
Other examples include horses who shy at plastic on the trail usually stop after a session or two of going through the exercises with plastic in the ring; dressage horses who are fine at home, but shy at a plastic covered judge’s stand or flowers around the outside of the ring; jumpers who hesitate at oxers over water or plastic tarps or new jumps.
All horses can benefit from these non-habitual exercises. They need not be repeated to maintain the benefits although on occasion a session using the Playground is great for a change or a refresher.
If you don’t feel as though you have “time” to do these exercises, here’s a suggestion. None of these activities have to take a long time and can be incorporated in daily grooming or walking to and from a pasture or on days when riding is not feasible. Set up one obstacle at a time between the pasture and the stable. When leading a horse in or out of the barn, you can occasionally use the exercise. This is especially helpful with a horse who rushes, is nervous or unfocused. You may also see subtle changes in horses who don’t really have any specific problems.
So what magic occurs with these exercises? Really none, except if you define MAGIC as More Awareness Gains Interspecies Communication.
Have fun with these exercises and please send us suggestions for obstacles you have found helpful!
Published in TTEAM Connections July-September, 2003 Pp. 22-28
- Page 49 An Introduction to the Tellington-Jones Equine Awareness Method. Linda Tellington-Jones with Ursula Bruns, Breakthrough Publications, 1985. ISBN 0-914327-18-6
- Page 92. Getting in TTouch with Your Dog – An Easy, Gentle Way to Better Health and Behavior. Linda Tellington-Jones with Gudrun Braun. Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2001. ISBN 1-872119-41-7
- Proprioceptors are sense organs that relay information about muscle position or tension or activity of joints and equilibrium. The proprioceptors are located throughout muscles, tendons, joints and mechanisms of the inner ear. Page 19. “Proprioception is the sensation from muscles, tendons and the vestibular system that enables the brain to determine movement and the position of the body and its parts in space.” Page 39. “Charles Sherrington beautifully described it as ‘our secret sense, our sixth sense’.” Page 42. Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, Carla Hannaford, Ph.D. Great Ocean Publishers, Arlington , Va. 1995.In Let’s Ride, Linda describes “a series of ground exercises to help your horse overcome his fears and trust you in all situations.” P. 76 She goes on to say that the TTEAM confidence course (or Playground for Higher Learning) is for basic training of green horses to become safe riding horses; for skittish and nervous horses; for preparing horses for trail riding and trailering. “The horse learns step-by-step to master threatening situations. He gains self-confidence, learns to listen to you and overcome his flight instinct. He will become safe, courageous and dependable.” Page 76 Let’s Ride With Linda Tellington-Jones: Fun and TTEAM work with your Horse or Pony. Linda Tellington-Jones with Andrea Pabel. Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1- 57076-085-3
TTEAM and TTouch Practitioner-2, Marnie Reeder commented how she and Dr. Thomas Beckett, DVM rely on the Playground for Higher Learning and the TTouch Confidence Course. “We use it so much for physical rehabilitation in our post-surgery care for both horses and dogs. And in our general practice for diagnosis of movement, to improve balance and in so many other ways. We also do puppy evaluation and therapy dog training and evaluation with elements of the TTouch Confidence Course. And with our TTouch in Austin group that meets weekly we find the course invaluable for puppy play/training and for changing the inappropriate behaviors of rescued and abandoned dogs.”
Published in TTEAM Connections, July-September, 2003 Pp. 22-28