To train a horse, you must first establish a means of communication—a language—that allows you, as the rider, and your horse to converse freely back and forth. The vernacular is physical, verbal and intuitive, but it is a distinct dialect that has been developed through years of trial and error.
As with any language, there are basics—rudiments of grammar and structure that must be learned first. With these primary tools, only the most elementary communication is possible, but the tools are the foundation for the entire language.
When these tools are properly built upon, a graduate-school level of learning is reached. The final product is limited only by your horse’s physical abilities and your imagination.
“Pressure initiated by the trainer results in a correct response by the horse that is rewarded by the release of pressure by the trainer.”
The horse’s earliest survival depended on differentiation, or recognizing change, followed by a quick response. So we know that any kind of disturbance or outside pressure that interrupts a horse’s comfort zone is going to cause him to take some sort of action.
The most effective training method takes this into consideration, building on one simple principle that is constant from the first day of human-equine interaction. The principle: Pressure initiated by the trainer results in a correct response by the horse that is rewarded by the release of pressure by the trainer.
The pressure we’re talking about is the pressure that comes from any action we take around the horse and from any of the various aids we use to give the horse direction. We use these aids —our hands, our legs, our body positions and our voices—to carry on our sides of the conversation in this special language we’re creating.
If you learn a foreign language, you need a speaker to enunciate clearly and loudly. As you develop an “ear” for the unfamiliar sounds, understanding is more natural. You begin to hear and understand subtle nuances and inflections-even whispered words.
In the same way, the more we converse with the horse, the more subtle our cues become. Ultimately, the cue might be a squeeze of the calf of the leg or the slightest movement of one bridle rein, or an almost imperceptible shifting of the rider’s weight from one hipbone to another. Those cues can be invisible to a spectator but clearly understood by our horses. Why shout when we can whisper?
The Correct Response
Reaching that level of communication is entirely dependent on making the horse understand early that every cue is a request: “Please respond correctly to this pressure.”
In the beginning the horse doesn’t know what a correct response is. When he receives a cue, he just knows something feels different and he moves or reacts in some way. He might make several moves, but the rider continues the pressure until the horse makes the desired move.
As soon as the horse does what the rider wants, he immediately releases the pressure. This says to the horse, “That’s right, thanks.”
By starting with one simple cue and repeating it over and over, several things happen.
First, the horse recognizes the cue as an attempt to communicate. Then he begins to understand that one specific response to that cue gets him a reward—the release from pressure. The more quickly the horse gives a correct response, the more quickly he gets the reward, the release.
So, the basis of our communication follows this pattern:
- The rider cues the horse.
- That horse responds correctly.
- The rider removes the cue.
To be effective, the rider has to cue the horse exactly the same way every time. Likewise, when the horse responds in the desired manner, the rider must stop the cue immediately and give the release.
The horse learns that when he feels a cue from the rider, there is a response that causes the cue to stop. Gradually the horse begins to respond automatically to a softer and lesser cue than previously given, and his response becomes more and more fine-tuned and subtle than before. As the cues become increasingly more sophisticated and the required skills become more difficult than they are at first, the horse stays confident because he always has been able eventually to give the correct response and cause the pressure to be released.
Training by this method takes into account the horse’s mindset, instincts and natural reactions and replaces his natural tendencies with a stronger set of conditioned responses than he has initially.
Ultimately, we build the trust of the animal to the level that, even in insecure surroundings, he comes to rely on us for direction and security. Even when he is stressed, our familiar actions and cues reduce the stress. That is why a skilled trainer can take a green colt into a building with 5,000 spectators for the first time and expect him to perform. He knows he’s developed the trust and response to the point that those things are stronger than the horse’s fear of the unknown.
As the horse becomes more and more comfortable with giving those desired responses, the likelihood of his responses being interrupted by any sort of outside influence decreases substantially.
And that’s the key to showing a horse. The horse’s response to the rider becomes stronger than the horse’s response to his surroundings
Dick Pieper is internationally recognized as a horseman’s horseman and this iconic individual has influenced and developed the careers of riders and trainers for decades. After fifty plus years in the horse industry, his name has come to stand for a special brand of arena excellence that never compromised the welfare of the horse.
For more information go to dickpieper.com
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 8, Issue 12