Everything we teach a horse is a learned response to pressure. A repetitive response to the same pressure will soon become a habit.
We give our students instructions through “aids” which consist of varying combinations of pressure, generally transmitted to the horse through our leg, seat, hand and or voice. The “aids” range from basic to more complex combinations of this pressure.
Many are extremely similar in the way we would describe or explain them, yet a well educated horse, can accurately interpret the most complex of these in a fraction of a second. So how does a horse know in the beginning, how to respond to an “aid”? Unfortunately he doesn’t come with a manual, describing each aid and its required response; it’s your role as his “teacher”, to “program” him with this information.
Programming the “aids” into your horse’s brain is similar to loading the “operating program” into your new computer. A computer is just an empty box, it can’t respond to any of your requests until it’s programmed to do so. The more information or software you load in, the more the computer is equipped to respond to your requests. Although this visual concept of programming is similar, unfortunately the method of loading the information, and the time that may take, is significantly different with a horse.
A horse has each individual “aid” and its “specific required response” loaded separately.
From the minute a foal is born he learns to read the “body language” of his mother, and the “reinforced messages” which follow. The body language sends an initial gentle but clear message, which is swiftly reinforced with a more effective pressure if not immediately responded to. His mother varies this pressure, in order to encourage or discourage the direction of the foal’s behaviour. It’s like playing the kids game, “warmer/colder”. We know that if the clue is “warmer”, we are heading in the right direction, and if it is “colder”, we are heading in the wrong direction. For teaching horses, we convert this information that leads or guides the student; from warmer/colder, to the increasing or decreasing of pressure. The principle is simple; but the success of your student relies totally on the quality and accuracy of your instructions.
The concept of increasing and decreasing pressure is the universal method, used by every trainer or “teacher”. Some may use different jargon and equipment, or present the pressure in a slightly different form, but the principle is the same. I often describe it this way;
“We make it easy for a horse to perform the way we want, and we it make hard for them when they make mistakes”.
I interpret a “mistake”, as anything my horse does incorrectly for his level of education.
As a teacher, if you’re not happy with your student’s results, it’s your job to tell him!
In the same way that we would teach a human, we teach a horse by repetitively correcting his mistakes.
When we begin to teach a horse to do something, he has no idea what you want; he only knows that you have applied a pressure which is annoying and uncomfortable.
In an attempt to remove this pressure, the horse starts offering responses from his “multiple choice answer list”. This is similar to scrolling through a menu on your
computer. You scroll through options until the option of your choice appears, at which point you take your finger off the button to select that option. Similarly, the horse runs through his list having no idea what you are looking for, only by you releasing the pressure as he offers the correct answer, will your student realise he’s on the right track.
All horses have the same extensive list of options, such as: walk, trot, bolt, canter on left leg, bite rider’s foot, run backwards, stamp the ground, lie down, rear up, stop, refuse to go, and on and on the list goes.
We may programme our horses to aids that seem logical to us, but to the horse it makes no difference. He doesn’t care where the aid comes from, as long as it’s consistent. If you had the patience, you could teach a horse to turn left by holding his right ear; as long as every time he turns left you let his ear go. Remember it’s just a response to a pressure. To teach a horse anything we follow the same basic principle.
We start by gently applying the pressure of a new aid. The aid is ultimately a unique statement from the rider’s seat leg and hands; it identifies and instructs the horse to perform specific tasks. For each aid to be recognised as a unique statement, it is important that the aid is both precise and consistent. As we apply the aid, the horse will start looking for a way out of the pressure. He will go through his multiple choice answers, and sooner or later he will make an obvious attempt in the right direction. As he does so, we relax the aid in recognition of his effort. Although it may not be perfect, you must encourage your student’s positive steps. We re-apply the aid; and reward as necessary, to provide accurate information that guides the student to the perfect answer.
Once the student has given a couple of good or “appropriate” responses to the new “aid”, I would leave it alone for a while. The word “appropriate” here is very important, as it relates to the horses level of education or experience, in this particular task. If you persist with the new aid too much in the short term, he may become frustrated and think he’s on the wrong track. If we can quit on a good note, just for a short break; your student will generally come back more confident with his response. We try to make it easy for him to perform the way we want!
Until the horse has shown that he understands the required response to our new “aid”, there is no point using a lot of pressure. We initially rely on patience, with slight increases in our pressure to encourage a positive outcome. There should be no emotion in giving an aid, it needs to be clear, accurate and consistent. It’s like me speaking to you in a foreign language, if you don’t understand the language, shouting won’t help. However once a horse has shown that he can respond “appropriately” to an aid, if he then chooses not to, we would reinforce the pressure to that aid, to demand an appropriate response.
I want to go through the example of programming a horse to canter on the left lead from the trot. Before we start there are a number of views on how we should apply our canter aid “statement”. Some would say our inside leg is the dominant leg, while others would say it’s the outside. We argue over whether the outside leg should be back, and if so, how far? There are all sorts of interpretations and opinions, and they could all be right. Remember it’s just a response to a pressure, and as long as you’re consistent with the aid,
your horse will identify it as “canter”. The only worthwhile issues I see here are; does the positioning of your “statement” help in balancing you and the horse? Will it continue to do that when we progress to multiple changes, and is it unique to the task at hand? However you programme the aid, your horse has a photographic memory for detail which allows him to separate and correctly interpret aids of a very similar nature.
Regardless of the task, if you set the horse up correctly you’re about 80% there; so in preparation for our canter we want a nice balanced trot, with an appropriate amount of flexion and bend to the left. Once you are both relaxed and balanced, gently apply the “aid”, and the student will go immediately to his multiple choice answers. At this stage he is just trotting, and knows nothing about cantering, so the first logical option is to speed up! This isn’t what you want, so we have to give the student information that will guide him in the right direction.
My instinctive response would be to maintain, or slightly increase the driving components of my aid. This will reinforce the fact that I want him to continue going forward, whilst I prevent him from speeding up with my hands. A very slight increase in speed would be ok in the short term, but we still have to make it clear; speeding up is not the answer we are looking for. With this new or additional information its likely our student will find his canter, but there are other options available which he may try now, or some time in the future. A common one is that he will kick up at the pressure of your leg, and it is easy to teach your student a bad habit here, by taking your leg off as he kicks up. As we don’t want to inadvertently select this option, it is important to maintain or even reinforce the pressure of the leg, to let the student know this is definitely the wrong answer. If your horse isn’t relaxed and balanced as you ask for the canter, you will often be offered the wrong lead. If this occurs, don’t accept the answer, set him up correctly and ask again. If he then canters too fast or too slow, simply correct his mistakes. Remember, he won’t know it’s wrong unless you tell him!
Remember our principle, “we make it easy for a horse to perform the way we want, and we make it hard for them when they make mistakes”. You’re the only one who knows what you asked the horse to do; if it’s not exactly what you want, tell your student.
If you are experienced, lucky, or you have a natural feel for setting up a young horse to respond to new aids, you will generally get the correct answer or a good step in the right direction quite quickly. If you’re too slow, or you simply miss that first opportunity to acknowledge your student is on the right track, you will make the job a lot harder than it needs to be. With the computer, if you remove your finger from the scroll button a fraction late, you select the wrong answer; and it’s the same with the horse. The problem being, your student doesn’t know its wrong, as far as he is concerned you have rewarded him for the answer he gave, and therefore it must be correct. Remember: the success of your student relies totally on the quality and accuracy of your instructions.
“whoever does the most homework wins”