In the last issue, we talked about the importance of simplifying our cues. Most people seriously over-exaggerate signals to their horses, and make their cues much more complicated than they have to be. As a general rule, the more complicated a system is, the harder it is to understand and use, and the more can go wrong. Fortunately, horses don’t need, want, or respond particularly well to complex cues.
Clear, uncomplicated cues are easier to understand, more effective to use, more efficient to teach, safer to work with, and build a better foundation as we refine performance. After all, most of us got involved with our horses to have fun.
There are no “magic button cues” that trigger immediate and automatic responses in an untrained horse. While he is learning, every horse has moments when he’s unsure of what you want. This is true of any training, no matter what the discipline. If you keep concentrating on exactly what movement you want your horse to do and are consistent with the signal you give, your horse will experiment until he produces a correct response. You then immediately release the cue, praise him, give the cue again, eventually get the same reaction, and then offer praise again. Repeated many times, this produces a reliable cue that gets a consistent response.
Sameness of Cues
If someone else is riding your horse, does this rider have to give exactly the same cue in exactly the same place at exactly the same angle and with exactly the same amount of pressure as you do to elicit the same results from your horse? No. That’s not physically possible. No one can precisely duplicate someone else’s hand, seat, or leg position even if he spends years trying. While two people may think they are giving the same cue, even identical twins will have differences in how they actually deliver those signals.
One of the great fun facts of life is that people come in an infinite variety of heights, weights, and shapes. Each of you moves differently and reacts differently. Some of you have short, round legs. Others have long, thin ones. Some have long thighs and short lower legs. Others are the opposite. The same is true of people’s heads, shoulders, torsos, arms, wrists, and fingers-all of which influence how you deliver a cue to your horse.
We also have different, and sometimes very inaccurate, ideas of what our bodies are actually doing at any given time. Follow these directions: Move your head 15 degrees to the left while moving your shoulders 2 degrees to the left, then lift your left hand up 5 degrees above your elbow. Next, have someone else follow the same directions. Unless you had a third person carefully monitoring both of your bodies with a protractor borrowed from your grandad’s old math class, your concept of 15, 2, and 5 degrees is going to be different from your friend’s. Your bodies will not end up at precisely the same angles.
Now consider that one person’s idea of 2 ounces of pressure may be someone else’s 4 ounces or a pound-and-a-half, and add the wrinkle that your horses are different as well. Because no two horses have exactly the same conformation, your leg will rest in a slightly different position on one horse than it does on another. Your hand will be at a slightly different spot in relation to the length and neck shape of one horse as compared to another.
A Matter of Interpretation
Very, very fortunately, your horse does not need you to be someone else. He will respond to your unique signal quite well. He will also become very good at interpreting different meanings from what may seem to you to be one signal.
For instance, your hands should always be soft and easy on the reins, but your horse does not care which direction those reins pull. This is a cue you teach him to respond to, but it actually doesn’t matter if it’s up, down, or sideways. Yet you use the exact same hand position and pull on the reins to move a spot on his tail to the side as you do to lower a spot on his ear. If you only want the spot on his tail to move, how does the ear spot know you’re not talking to it this time?
Quite simply, the answer is this: As you think differently, you are different. This is not a mystic, New Age, self-help sound byte. It just means that your horse is sensitive enough to pick up on differences that you don’t consciously notice.
Horses are supremely observant ex-perts on reading body language. They are very aware of subtle changes in your posture and movements when you work with them on the ground. Horses are also so physically sensitive that they will react to the weight of a fly on any part of their skin. When you’re in the saddle, your body is constantly making shifts of weight and balance that you’re probably not even aware of. Those changes are, however, obvious to the one packing you around-even through the layers of saddle leather and pads.
Try this experiment: Sit on the edge of a chair more or less as if you were on your horse. Hold your hand as if you were holding the reins a few inches in front of your navel. Look straight ahead at an object. Now look toward 2 o’clock. Feel the subtle changes in your knees, seat, and shoulders? Now look at 10 o’clock and think about backing “your horse” toward 5 o’clock. Different changes.
Your horse picks up on all these tiny movements to a degree that most people do not even comprehend. This is the reason your seat needs to stay secure and out of the horse’s way. For your horse, you’re very much like a heavy backpack that is poorly strapped down so it shifts all over the place with every movement he makes. Most of the time, you’re shifting that weight to the very spot that makes it harder for him to do the exercise you’re asking for.
Using the Right Tools
We’ve talked about the reins being the steering wheel, our legs as the gas pedal, and the importance of our seat sitting squarely in the middle of the saddle, not trying to control speed or direction. This sounds pretty simple-and it is-but it is both natural and easy for us to mix up these tools when we ride. It takes practice and self-awareness to realize when we are using our reins to try to speed up or our legs to turn.
It’s normal to pull harder or more urgently on the reins when your horse isn’t turning fast enough or stopping fast enough, but doing this just deadens the horse to rein pressure. He becomes less responsive to the cue or heavier on the bit. You only need to use the reins to slightly hint to the horse which direction you want him to go while you squeeze evenly with both legs, telling the horse’s feet you want them to move.
Your legs are the gas pedal that controls the speed of the horse’s feet. You wouldn’t push forward on the steering wheel if the car were not going fast enough. That’s the wrong tool. The same thing happens when you use the reins to increase speed in any direction. If you want the horse’s feet (or the car’s wheels) to go faster-even in reverse-then you need to use the gas pedal by squeezing evenly with both legs.
Here’s another exercise to show how important it is to squeeze evenly with both legs, no matter what direction you want your horse to go. The first part you do with your horse, the second part with a friend.
Stand on the ground next to the side of your horse and touch his side by the stirrup. You may have to poke rather than touch, but eventually his head will turn toward you and his side will move away as he bends the middle of his body to avoid the pressure. If you poke him hard enough, he will flinch even before you touch him
next time. These are natural reactions, but it’s not the way you want him to act, look, or bend when you’re on his back. You don’t want him to flinch when you touch him and you do want him to look and bend in the direction he’s going.
Now do the same thing with another person. If you poke your friend in the left side to get him to move to the right, he will look to the left, bend his ribcage to the left, and begin to flinch if you try it a second time-just like the horse.
Next, stand behind the person and have him look at where you want him to go. If you apply even pressure to both sides, he’ll move in the direction you indicate, will continue to look where you ask him to look, will not flex his ribcage and will not flinch.
When you’re on your horse, your reins can give him a heads-up hint about where he is to look and move, but your legs are what tell his feet to go there. Your seat is in the middle of the saddle, letting your horse balance you. Sitting as quietly as you can, you’re still moving more than enough for the horse to figure out what he has to do.
Simple is Best
Straightforward as they are, simplifying your cues takes work and concentration. There’s no reason to beat yourself up or to quit trying because you think you’ll never be perfect or that it will take too long to become perfect. Remember that the best you can be is just better than you were yesterday. You’re not perfect and neither is your riding and training. Improvement comes quickly. Perfection never comes.
But if you start changing today, you only need to improve one percent a day to have improved 100% in 100 days! I’ll bet your improvement will really be much faster than one percent per day, and so will your horse’s development.