If you haven’t figured it out by now, horses and humans don’t naturally think alike. That’s why, in order to be effective with our horsemanship, we need to learn how to get into the horse’s mind and communicate in ways that make sense to him.
“One of the most effective tools I use to help a horse learn is what I call “˜soaking’, explains horseman and clinician Chris Cox. “We’ve talked about how horses seek relief. What soaking does is allow the horse to be left alone and enjoy that relief for a brief time after he’s done a task or exercise correctly.”
You might think that praising and petting your horse after he “gets it” during a training session would be rewarding to him. But because the horse instinctively seeks relief from pressure, he will learn from soaking because he looks forward to the reward of being left alone. He can relax and absorb what he’s just done right. When a horse is relaxed, he will salivate and lick his lips. His head and neck should also be relaxed and not tense, so watch for these signs.
Let’s say you are teaching your horse to let you open a gate from the saddle by sidepassing up next to it. As the horse makes a serious effort to respond correctly to your cues, you can reinforce that he’s doing the right thing by letting him soak for a couple minutes. Then go back to working on the task at hand. Or perhaps you’re working on collection. As the horse shows that he is softening and giving when you ask, his reward is to soak for a brief time until you ask him for collection again.
A soaking session may last two minutes or a little bit longer, depending on the situation. The horse will tend to learn more from several short soaking sessions built into the training period than if he’s just allowed to soak once for a longer period of time.
“If you use soaking sessions throughout your training, you will find this has a much more positive effect than if you just pound the horse constantly with schooling,” says Cox. “You might get the horse to accept physically by continually pounding away at him, but not mentally. Without that mental acceptance, eventually he will start to resist and challenge you.”
When the horse is soaking, you aren’t asking him for anything. If you’re in the saddle, you have a loose rein and a centered, relaxed seat with your legs relaxed in the stirrups. If you are on the ground, your hands should be lowered and you should never have a tight hold on the lead rope. Whether you’re in the saddle or on the ground, your body language is not cueing the horse in any way.
Think of how pleasurable it is when you’re involved in a project to just get up from the desk and walk outside for a few minutes. Soaking is a similar reward for your horse. It tells him in a way he clearly understands, “You did good, buddy! Now just relax and take it easy for a minute. You’ve earned it.”
When you give a horse time to think without pressuring him, which is exactly what a soaking session does, he’ll start to learn more and perform better.
“We should always be teaching our horses in increments, building on what they already know,” Cox notes. “By adding soaking to your training sessions, you can teach a horse even more than you might expect.”
Up Close with Chris Cox Ranch-raised in Australia, Chris came to the United States in 1986 to make a career of working with horses. Years of working horseback on the ranch near Queensland gave Chris a healthy respect for the horse’s ability and intelligence, and helped him develop his own methods of individualized training.
Active in the cutting horse world as both a trainer and competitor, Chris has trained a variety of breeds for different disciplines. He travels the United States, Canada, South America and Australia appearing at expos, conducting clinics and horsemanship demonstrations. His “Come Ride the Journey’ tour takes him to cities across the U.S. each year. Chris offers week-long intensive horsemanship clinics at his Outback Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas.
Western Horseman recently released Ride the Journey, by Chris Cox with Cynthia McFarland, a 225-page, full color book that details Chris’ practical methods and training techniques. Packed with step-by-step exercises and color photos, the book will help you improve your horsemanship skills, no matter what discipline or breed you ride.
Visit www.chris-cox.com or call Chris Cox Horsemanship Company at 1-888-81-HORSE for information about the Ride the Journey book, upcoming course dates and appearances, equipment and training DVDs.