Desensitisation or deafening the horse to the aids of the rider is one of the biggest issues I come across, with it occurring in all disciplines and at all levels. This is a common problem where horses are exposed to more and more pressure from our aids, in an effort to achieve or maintain appropriate levels of response. The reality is however, that although the pressure of the aid increases in both intensity and consistency, the response from the horse decreases, to the point where we often receive nothing but resistance.
Horses do their best work when they are corrected for their mistakes and then left alone; allowing them to perform without resistance.
Our aim is to get excellent responses, to small, discrete instructions. These instructions or “aids” are generally transmitted to the horse through varying combinations and amounts of pressure, via the rider’s seat, leg and hand. We expect an immediate response to these “aids”, like turning on a light, its instant, you don’t expect to flick the switch several times before the light comes on.
To get a horse moving freely without obvious resistance to our aids, we need three essential steps to take place in every aid or instruction that we give.
- Accurate or aids from the rider.
- Appropriate responses from your student. (the horse)
- Reward student immediately
I say pressure works on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most or greatest, amount of pressure available. The scale of 1-10 is relative to the experience of both horse and rider. For example, 10 amounts for an experienced horse who chooses to ignore you, would be far greater than for a green horse looking for a correct answer. I always initiate my aids with “one” amount of pressure. If that initial aid is not appropriately responded to, then I immediately reinforce that initial aid with “ten” amounts. The term “appropriately” is very important, as you must have realistic expectations for your response, and the expected response from a beginner, would be less than that of an experienced horse. Once the horse has shown us that he is capable of producing a certain level of response, we would not accept anything less than that in the future. From then on, an appropriate response to that aid will be as good, or better than our previous best, or “benchmark”! This is how we set our expectations.
Horses are unbelievably sensitive to small amounts of pressure. The fact they may not respond to your “one” amount of pressure initially, doesn’t mean they can’t feel your aid. It simply means that they either don’t understand that message; OR and more likely, they choose to ignore you! It’s similar to asking a child to clean their room. Just because it doesn’t happen when you first ask, doesn’t mean that the child didn’t hear, or doesn’t understand you! More likely, they know you will ask several more times before you start to get serious, making threats that you both know won’t get carried out. The child knows through past experience, that you find it easier to give in; than go through the possible confrontation of, insisting on and holding out for , the correct response.
This scenario is very common, and relates to the problem of “desensitising” horses to our aids. We have given a clear instruction, but not received an appropriate response. Even worse, we have actually rewarded our student for a poor result, by giving in, to avoid a confrontation. As the teacher, what sort of response do you think we will get, the next time we give the same instruction ??
Unfortunately this is typical of the way we give our horse instructions. Whether it be asking him to slow down, stop, move off our inside or outside leg, produce a transition up or down, it doesn’t matter what it is, we tend to not recognise, or choose to ignore, poor responses to these aids; allowing the student to proceed thinking he’s going OK. He’s not, and it’s your job to tell him!
We consistently see riders giving numerous, very obvious aids or instructions to their horse, and accepting little or no response in return. Before you know it the horse has got you pushing and pulling, harder and more often than before. Soon you find that you are constantly, niggling, pushing and pulling the horse, and still little or no response.
Similarly if we always ask a horse to go forwards with 4 amounts of pressure, then he will never recognize 1–3. By repeating this several times, you will teach the horse that you don’t really expect him to move until your aid reaches 4 amounts of pressure. He is being desensitised to pressure, you have taught your student to ignore 1-3 amounts and soon it will be more.
To guarantee appropriate responses, without resistance, we have to keep things simple and consistent.
If we are asking a horse to move forward, we would only ask once, and only with one amount of pressure. For this we don’t need to see your leg move, a horse can feel a slight toning of your muscles, so programme him to listen for that, rather than the normal 3 or 4 amounts of pressure from a flapping leg or foot. Remember we only ask once, don’t get conned into asking again unless you want to program your student not to walk forward until he has been asked many times. Initially you may have to re-enforce your original request, in order to get an appropriate response and for this we will use 10 amounts of pressure. ( remember the pressure is relevant to the experience of both horse and rider )
You may have to repeat your re-enforced aid, increasing it as necessary until the horse responds appropriately; at which time you will immediately reduce the pressure back to contact . A “contact” is an amount of pressure set by you, it is the only amount of pressure that we intentionally “desensitise” our horses to. I want my horses to accept a very light contact, it’s that fine line between a “loose rein” and “one” amount of pressure that we have to be able to identify. I would describe it as, “a standby amount of pressure” that is always present whilst a horse is working correctly. Whilst schooling or performing with a horse we maintain a contact with our hands, seat and leg. The contact becomes pressure each time it is necessary to send information to our horse.
Repeat the process of asking with 1 amount and re-enforcing with 10, several times in close succession, the horse will begin to go forward when you first ask.
Horses aren’t stupid, if they find that by responding appropriately to aids of 1 amount, they can avoid those of 10, they will listen very carefully to your instructions.
Remember, “horses don’t respond because of your re-enforced pressure; they respond to avoid it”.
The consistency of your results relies on the consistency of your application.
The secret is just that, “consistency” and not negotiating with your student. If he walks you leave him alone, if he doesn’t …don’t keep asking, “make him to go”!
The same principle applies to slowing or stopping a horse. We desensitize horses to the pressure of our hands by constantly asking them to respond to messages from our hands, but getting no response. It is just the same as the aid to go forward, the horse has you gradually doing more work, for less, or no response. The answer is the same: ask with one amount of pressure, re-enforce the aid if necessary until you receive an appropriate response, then reward immediately.
As much as it is important to correct your horse’s mistakes, we don’t prevent them from happening in the first place; rather we correct them when they occur. Like you and I, horses learn from making mistakes and then being corrected for them. Let him find out what happens when he makes a mistake.
For example: we don’t stop the horse from speeding up by constantly holding him. You will gradually be holding more and more. Soon you will be pulling hard on his mouth for no response and he will be going just as fast, if not faster. If he speeds up without your instruction, immediately slow him back down, then reward him, by reducing the “pressure” of your aid back to a “contact”. If he speeds up again you will repeat your correction, over and over if necessary. Your student will soon realise that it is much easier to stay at your speed, rather than be repeatedly corrected for speeding up.
The common question here is: “how much pressure will I use”?
The only answer is: “as much as it takes”
You must get your expected response and then maintain a “contact” not “pressure”.
Correcting mistakes that are already habitual, will take plenty of patience and consistency.
Things to remember:
You are the teacher, therefore if you’re not happy with your student’s results, you must tell him!
Be honest with him, as he is relying on you to correct his mistakes, in order to learn.
Only ask once (“one amount”) then make it happen (“ten amounts”).
Do not negotiate on the results, there is no “nearly or sort of did it”. If you accept it this time, he is entitled to think it’s correct and therefore ok for next time.
If it’s not good enough, do it again until it is!
Have realistic expectations in the first place, allowing your student to learn through a series of progressive building blocks, with each block being well established before moving on to the next one.
The things that will defeat you are:
- lack of consistency
- not actually getting the response you were looking for
- not rewarding the horse correctly
Whoever does the most homework wins!